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.
Marco Pierre White is a complex and regrettable phenomenon produced entirely by food television. White has been crafting his telly persona for years, making cooks shake and cry and shout “YES MARCO” and accept treatment unfit for prisoners of war – just because he’s good at making dinner.
“Why are you smiling?” he demands, minutes into the prep for this week’s classic three-course restaurant team challenge.
“Because you intimidate me,” says Glenda.
“I do not have the ability to intimidate anybody,” snaps Marco. “They do that to themselves.”
On the most technical reading, he’s right: she could walk away. But for those of us with moral imaginations that extend beyond justifying our own cruelty – it’s a weak, grasping excuse. Is hitting someone okay because technically, it’s their own nervous system causing the pain? Is filling someone’s house with gas okay because it’s their own lungs doing the breathing? Is manipulating someone’s emotions okay because it’s their mind causing them to have an unpleasant reaction?
Of course not. Answering accusations that you’re causing someone distress in this manner speaks to an underlying refusal to participate properly in the relationship between self and other, a refusal to recognise yourself as being ultimately responsible for the impact of your behaviour. It’s a toxic solipsism that you often hear from people who behave as though the whole world, and everyone in it, should be subject to their will.
Glenda’s honest answer to Marco ruffles him slightly, because it implicates him in her discomfort. He cannot bear to engage with the thoughts or feelings of his victims for too long. Considering another person’s needs as he considers his own, engaging in empathetic exchange, would naturally lead him to the conclusion that Glenda didn’t deserve to be humiliated, and that he had therefore done something wrong.
Egos like Marco’s, large and fragile like a Fabergé ostrich egg, cannot withstand this kind of criticism either from their owners or anyone else. Thus Marco is forced to assign responsibility for his actions to Glenda, a preposterous repudiation that requires him to deny the possibility of healthy social relations. This moment, more than any of the other instances of him bullying and dominating the contestants, reveals the core deficit of his personality.
Of course it doesn’t end there: Leo is so distracted by Marco’s abuse that he cuts a chunk out of his finger. Gemma, struggling with her team’s sauce, is monstered by Marco and forced to throw out her efforts – he makes a replacement sauce.
“My reputation is on the line,” he says. “If you lose, I lose.”
That he might be present to form part of a larger whole, or serve the contestants through mentoring, hasn’t occurred to him. Sure, they pick up some of his formidable kitchen skills while being blasted, but that’s not really why he’s there.
When Lily offers him a quick salute to signal she’s heard and understood him, he takes offence immediately.
“That was facetious,” he snarls. It wasn’t, of course – he overreacts because he’s broken inside. The idea that anyone would dare challenge him is like a knife in his chest. He enters caged lion mode at the slightest provocation, furiously protecting his gossamer-thin sense of self.
That TV audiences are presented with this kind of dysfunction as entertainment is unsettling. Masterchef NZ isn’t like Real Housewives or Dance Moms or Wife Swap, where the spectacle of outrageous behaviour is the product, and on this basis you’re expected to treat it as a micro-world with its own set of bizarre rules. People on Masterchef aren’t rude or mean as a matter of course: the show inhabits the same social space, in this sense, as we do.
Having White stomp around tearing strips off people legitimises his behaviour, and the narratives that support it: oh, he’s allowed to be gruff because he’s so talented. Oh, he’s a legend, that makes it okay for him to flay an underling alive and use their skin to thicken up the gravy they’ve made too runny.
This episode’s challenge plays second fiddle to the Pierre White Victimisation Process, so much so that nobody is eliminated at the end because they’ve all suffered enough already. I wish Masterchef would stop putting this guy on TV, I really do. Or at least wheel him out on a trolley in one of those Hannibal masks so he doesn’t rip anyone’s tongue out of their head with his teeth.
The promo for this episode mentioned a huge surprise, which I expected to be dishonest hype for some dumb new challenge. To my actual surprise, it was Ben withdrawing from the competition. He’s the second contestant this season to attempt a self-ejection, something I’ve never seen on any other Masterchef show. Congratulations Ben, hopefully your mates will refer to you as ‘The Masterchef Quitter’ for the rest of your life, up to and including your wedding day; birth of your children; and your arrest for military desertion when New Zealand is invaded by Australia and you can’t hack the pressure. Moving on.
Compared to Masterchef Australia, Kiwi Masterchef is perhaps even more brazen about its product tie-ins. This is not a simple achievement: the Aussie version features brands in a strong supporting role, stopping just short of forcing the judges to give partial credit to contestants who answer questions with ‘Pepsi!’
The first thing I noticed was The Breeze logo on the clock, which I now know is a radio station. Thanks, Masterchef, for inserting that knowledge into my mind. It’s now taking up valuable memory real estate that I could’ve used to remember where I put my fucking keys. The second huge promotion is the repetition of prizes at the start of every episode: the contestants will win a blah blah stove, this brand of car, this brand of kitchen equipment, etc. And: a job with former contestant Nadia Lim’s business My Food Bag, a grocery and recipe delivery service that sounds like something you strap to a horse’s face to give it a quick feed after a long ride.
Lim is the star of this episode, setting a challenge based on the types of Food Bag her company offers: one appropriate for families with small children, one for families with bigger kids, and one for urban wanker couples who have a preferred variety of quinoa. (Disclosure: my boyfriend and I are customers of a competitor grocery delivery service for urban wankers, and my favourite kind of quinoa is black because I haven’t quite outgrown my teenage goth phase.)
Each contestant is given a bag with one of either pork and apple, venison and plum, or chicken and tarragon. They have one hour to cook a dish that they’d expect to see in the Food Bag: it has to be simple, so busy mums across the country can whip it up with one hand while they trim their husband’s ear hair with the other.
“My philosophy is nude food,” says Lim. Unfortunately this turns out to have nothing to do with nudity. It’s the same respect-the-ingredients wholefood bullshit that everyone says these days. Just once I want to hear a food philosophy based on a marginal view, like “eating fruit is a sin against God” or “all food should be ground into a homogenous paste and eaten with a rusty trowel”.
This is an easy challenge. Two defined ingredients, a clear brief, ample time. As soon as I heard it, I knew most of them were going to fuck it up. I wasn’t wrong.
Gemma and Hayley do the best, Gemma with a goodlooking pork dish involving apple and cabbage slaw, and Hayley with a perfectly cooked fillet of venison atop a pile of stewed red cabbage and sauteed broad beans.
Tim’s chicken roulade looks like he made it using a Play-Doh press and Josh says it “feels vegan”, which is the most creative feedback he’s provided on the show so far. Richard the butcher has a catastrophic day, presenting an undercooked venison log with curdled potato gratin and a pointless kale leaf. It actually looks like a butcher shop window, complete with raw meat and random green garnish. Lily overcooks her venison, and despite her dish being by far the best-looking, she’s sent home.
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“I’m very upset, but I will still pursue my food dreams,” she says.
Now that she’s been eliminated, the last remaining shreds of affection I had for this show are gone. Roll me down a hillside into a shallow ditch, I don’t care any more. Tune in next week for a recap that’s just 1200 words of demented rage written in a combination of Wingdings and the smiling poop emoji.
Masterchef NZ airs Sunday 7pm and Mondays 7.30pm on TV3
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