Australian food television connoisseur and disappointment addict Eleanor Robertson journeys through cyber space and time to watch and recap TV3’s competitive cooking show, Masterchef New Zealand each week.
Eating is a very sensual activity. At the best of times you’re putting something warm and moist into your mouth with a group of people you love, and collectively delighting in the pleasure and care of well prepared food.
At the worst of times you’re on a television set with a gaggle of blindfolded victims, presenting your open mouth like a baby bird. A well-paid ringleader uses a spoon to place mysterious substances on your tongue, which you must identify correctly or risk punishment. Thousands of people watch you in their own homes, judging both your performance in the task itself and how compliant you are with the unspoken rules of the charade. Ultimately, someone will receive a new car.
This is how episode nine starts, with the contestants asked to blindly trust the gormless beneficence of a man who thinks personalised hats are appropriate indoor attire. They must identify a small amount of soft substance, a puree or sauce, paired with a crunchy element, like chicken skin or crumble topping. They could be submitting to taste crude oil with cicada shells. We just don’t know.
Those who get both right are allowed into the pantry first, where they must gather ingredients for the first of two dishes, one savoury and one sweet, both emphasising textural contrast.
“I’ll just do a sweep and feed you a bit of everything,” jokes Al as Ben steps up to the tasting table. Even though Ben is still offside with me for attempting to sabotage Lily a couple of episodes ago, he doesn’t deserve to be on the receiving end of such a sick threat. Al’s depravity knows no limit. Everything under the hat must be considered the tragic product of our society, and should induce us to think hard about the processes by which we determine merit.
The episode is overlong and boring, flecked with only two kinds of events that pique my interest: times when contestants’ personalities are briefly permitted to shine through, and times when something awkward or gross happens.
I can see why the ratings are tanking, because anyone looking for exceptional cooking, well-structured reality TV theatre, or charismatic judges will be sorely disappointed. In terms of audience that leaves people who like having the TV on in the background while they do the ironing, and people like me who are interested in the bargain basement products of our culture the same way a doctor is interested in her patient’s body temperature: as diagnosis.
I’ll briefly mention the charming moments: Hayley’s first-round tart is so structurally unsound that if it were a building it would be razed for safety reasons, so she deconstructs it and tries to jazz up two blobs of brown slop with some hastily applied microherbs. A+ for effort.
Glenda, who has been scolded for sloppy plating one too many times, solemnly apologising to the judges for serving them ‘pub grub’. Pull yourself together Glenda, don’t let these clowns psych you out.
Asked what she’s making in the second round, Gemma replies, “Charred salmon on wasabi mash with FUCK I forgot the cucumbers.”
Leo makes an amazing corn-studded mousse dessert in the first round, followed by flawless pork belly in the second.
“Mate. MATE,” says Josh as he puts the mousse in his mouth. Leo looks chuffed, either because he’s done well or because Josh’s limited vocabulary is funny.
“All Leo does in the house is eat and sleep. I don’t know how he does it,” says Sarah after Leo is declared the winner of the day. At just 19, she seems to be on the cusp of realising the advantages you can gain from simply chilling the fuck out once in a while.
And there’s Lily, who makes profiterole swans filled with tropical cream. As always, they’re perfect and incredibly weird. The judges are impressed, but I don’t think they realise that Lily is the only contestant with both technical proficiency and creativity. Sure, many of her ideas are bizarre, but isn’t that exactly what you want in an aspiring chef? End this farce and give Lily the crown; she will usher in a new age of cuisine, ruling over the Kiwi food scene with alien genius and a rainbow palette of shimmery eyeshadow.
Oh, and Jemima gets kicked out because every second dish she cooks ends up looking and tasting like hospital food. Don’t give up your day job mate.
A Mystery Box!!! Everyone likes a Mystery Box, even me, The Professional Disliker. They’re like adult lucky dips, except you don’t get to move on to the jams and preserves stand afterwards. A good Mystery Box forces the cooks to improvise, and we, the slobbering audience, are often treated to the sight of a rare ingredient or two. I’ll never forget the Mystery Box that alerted me to the existence of finger limes, nature’s best citrus fruit.
The contestants’ Mystery Boxes come in one of three sizes.
“Maybe there’s a quail in there,” says Sarah, excitedly narrating the possibilities of her small Mystery Box. I hope there’s a quail in there too, a live one that Sarah can adopt as a pet and nurture somewhere far away.
BZZZZZT. Sorry Sarah, it’s a portable smoker. The other two box sizes contain gas-powered whipped cream canisters and mini blowtorches.
At this moment I’d like to offer myself up as a creative consultant to whichever production team makes Masterchef New Zealand. You guys are evidently running the joint on the smell of an oily rag, but that is no excuse for the boring challenges this show puts up week after week. Three commonly-used kitchen tools? Where’s your imagination? Is your favourite colour beige? Do you listen to Red Hot Chilli Peppers while you read Kate Middleton outfit blogs? Does your puppy-mill-sourced purebred enjoy it when you make him pose for Instagram shots in your oversized sunglasses? Mother of God.
So the challenge is to use the tool properly in the preparation of any dish they like. They’ve got a whole hour to learn how to use this tool if they don’t already know. Scientists have taught chimps to use novel tools in less time than that.
Hayley, who plans to make a scallop dish with canister-aerated buerre blanc, is hassled early on by Al.
“Where’s the crunch,” he whines.
“I guess I could put a crumb on it,” says Hayley.
Yeah, you could put a crumb on it, Hayley. It’s Masterchef NZ, there’s only one rule: when in doubt, add a crumb. Don’t think too hard; just crisp something up, sprinkle it on top, and say it’s for “textural contrast”. Clip your toenails and pound the excess in a mortar and pestle for a minute, it’s the same thing.
Lily is killing it again, of course.
“They’re magical,” she says, referring to her cream canister. When we next cut back to her she’s casually crafting golden sugar spirals by wrapping warm caramel threads around the end of a wooden spoon. Goddamn.
Tim’s hands are shaking like he’s performing surgery on himself during the plating-up phase.
“I’m used to it by now,” he mutters, sounding like nothing less than a prisoner of war.
During the tasting both Hayley and Tim, who were given the cream canisters, fail to demonstrate proper use of their tools, despite the generous time limit and Homo sapiens’ singular and incredible ability to adapt to the demands of our environment.
“Hope I don’t splatter it all over the place!” says Hayley, before splattering her buerre blanc all over the place.
Tim’s canister is even more lewd, producing a small puddle of creamy mushroom broth that, I’m sorry to say, looks exactly like semen. The rest of his dish is good, but it’s hard to see how the judges will forgive him for serving them a plate full of jizz.
Lily nails her maple banana mousse, squirting out perfect clouds like we all knew she would.
The real surprise is Sarah, who uses her blowtorch to burn the crumb under her steak to ash for no discernable reason. She, Hayley and Tim are all in the bottom three, and the judges kick her out instead of Tim because they’re playing chicken with me to see what it will take for me to swear off this televised clusterfuck for good. I immediately Google Sarah to find out if she’s still alive. She is.
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Bad news, you litter of scoundrels: I’m being paid to watch this terrible program and I’ll be back next week to surveil you anew.
Masterchef NZ airs Sunday 7pm and Mondays 7.30pm on TV3
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