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AnalysisApril 29, 2015

Masterchef NZ: Perfecting the Lost Art of Public Mastication

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After gorging himself on a strict diet of food television and cooking reality shows, Finlay Macdonald examines the skills required to be the perfect public eater. 

The announcement last week that “celebrity chef” Al Brown would be one of the judges on TV3’s forthcoming “reboot” of the familiar Masterchef format was big news for gob-watchers like me. Soon we will be able to compare Al’s face-stuffing moves with his fellow and former judges, as well as with acknowledged leaders in the field from overseas.

It’s a rare skill, and certainly not everyone has it. I’m talking about the ability to stick a loaded fork or spoon into your mouth, chew expertly but decorously, and instantly mutter something insightful about what just slid down your gullet – without actually dribbling down your chin, or spraying the camera lens like some poor old thing in a rest home.

The prizes go to the contestants, of course, but there really should be a medal for public mastication. It is one of the least natural things to do, eat while being watched. Not quite as private as the other end of the digestive process, true, but an oddly personal thing nonetheless. We eat together, often in public spaces, but we don’t stare, and we certainly don’t want to be stared at.

I’m a devotee of food TV (some of which is indeed on Food TV), and you’d be surprised how little actual eating there is on the normal cooking shows. The likes of Jamie Oliver, Rick Stein and Gordon Ramsay do sample their creations, yes. But there’s also a blink-and-you-miss-it theatricality to it that seems to tacitly admit the messy human business of feeding one’s face is not the main attraction.

Reality TV, on the other hand, inverts the natural order. Bad karaoke performers are praised for their originality, the tedium of building and renovating is hyper-edited to resemble something more interesting than paint drying, and people have to eat food, on camera, in close up and even sometimes in slow motion set to suspenseful music.

The suspense, such as it is, lies in the manufactured doubt around the quality or edibility of each dish – not in the potential for cutlery malfunction, the embarrassing near miss of the mouth (we’ve all done it), or the explosive rejection of a mouthful that is too hot or disgusting to swallow.

Is there an out-take reel of Masterchef bloopers? Have the judges ever just gagged or projectiled after tasting something particularly foul? I’d watch that – they could run it over the end credits, maybe, although the sponsors probably don’t want their brands associated with too much regurgitation or Hell’s Kitchen-level hate speech.

Notwithstanding the absence of what we might call Mr Creosote Moments, Masterchef is very often a master class in stunt eating. The gold standard is set by the Australian franchise, in which judges Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris and Matt Preston have refined the art of the archly contemplative slurp and suck.

Mehigan does the best impression of a human taste bud, pensive and inscrutable. Calombaris (who always performs his pieces to camera bouncing on the balls of his feet) relishes a greedier, finger-licking look. The cravatted and check-suited Preston – perhaps befitting the writer and critic of the trio – is the real show pony, nuzzling into each figurative nose-bag with a kind of aristocratic nonchalance, his eyes drifting skywards as he ponders the silkiness of the caramel or the lack of a little more nutmeg.

In the era of the 24-hour news cycle, it’s probably time politicians began taking lessons from the likes of these three professional gutsers. One of the inevitable hazards of the campaign trail is the heartland photo op with a pie or a cheese roll or a Bluff oyster. That can be the undoing of the untrained esophagus. It’s all very well making the right noises come out of your mouth, but putting something into it is also fraught with risk.

The “business breakfast” can be a particularly cruel forum. Very recently John Key was filmed at such an event – an over-lit conference room in some anonymous hotel – struggling to get an unobliging piece of stringy bacon into his mouth, using the familiar spaghetti hoovering technique we all sometimes use  – just not with a news camera zoomed in on our hapless chops.

George Calombaris might have just dropped the fork and gone for the fingers, while Preston would probably have recommended more attention to the initial cutting action on the plate. Either way, it was a case study in how not to eat for public consumption.

Bacon has also been implicated in the live eating embarrassment of Labour leader Ed Milliand during the current British election campaign. Milliband looks weird at the best of times, but with a wedge of bread and pig meat clamped in his jaws he took it to the next level. In the words of the Guardian correspondent, “That one image raised a brutal question: could you imagine this man, the one with the expression like the ketamine has just kicked in, running the country?”

The guy who really is running the country, David Cameron, clearly has some foreknowledge of the perils of public dining, and so opted to eat a hot dog very carefully with a knife and fork. This avoided dripping ketchup or squirting mustard, but “he still managed to look a bit of a knob.”

As the Guardian argued, the freeze frame is actually crueler than the moving image, and there is some logic to this. We see people eating all the time, but we can’t press pause, so the ungainly arrangement of teeth and gums and noses and lips and chins and saliva and sauce… well, we can gloss over it. Capture the moment, however, and the all-too-human mess is there for all to witness.

Maybe this is why the Queen is rumoured to have never been captured eating on camera. A former primetime TV presenter tells me she always refused any request to be filmed eating. Just take a look at the various online sites and pages devoted to this strangely popular topic and you’ll have to agree this is a sensible precaution. The images of German Chancellor Angela Merkel making mincemeat of a bit of bratwurst or Australian PM Tony Abbott deep throating some kind of kebab on a stick are the only proof you’ll ever need that the business of eating on camera should never be left to amateurs.

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