Absent the big budgets and bigger meltdowns of its major network cousins, Matthew McAuley reckons Aotearoa’s most low-key cooking competition might just be its best.
For most people across most periods of human history, the rituals of preparing, eating and sharing food have meant more than the simple sustenance provided. Cooking allows us to communicate our histories and share our wisdoms, a cultural artifact not untouched by class or caste, but more universal than most.
Given the general competitive awfulness of the world circa-2016, it makes sense that contemporary food-based entertainment is less focused on the communal aspects of cuisine. We’re more interested in berating people until they tearfully admit their total personal failure because they put the deconstructed trifle in the industrial blast chiller too late, and now the 14th course of Post-Modern Christmas Dinner is completely fucked.
Existing in a form nominally similar, but in a practical sense immeasurably different, Māori Television’s Marae Kai Masters is the antithesis that My Kitchen Rules, Masterchef and their countless progenies have long deserved. Recklessly subverting the trends of its genre, it’s the absolute rarest of cooking shows: one that encourages and rewards excellence, while never losing sight of what it’s celebrating.
Hosted by the never-not-smouldering Te Kohe Tuhaka with assistance from chef Robert Oliver – known best for his efforts as a champion of South Pacific indigenous cuisines – the difference in intention and method is obvious from the introductions. Rather than the usual mix of insufferably cheerful wholefood-hawking go-getters and ego-heavy jerks who think owning ‘Modernist Cuisine’ and a pair of bad eyeglasses makes you Heston Blumenthal 2: Blu Fast Blu Furious, the personalities featured on MKM tend much more subdued and a lot more likeable.
With the show’s teams of two sourced from wharekai around the country, ranging from hard-case kuia and banter-heavy married couples to slightly more softly spoken younger pairs, the most striking takeaway is that you could probably enjoy sharing a meal with pretty much everyone.
And you’d eat pretty well too. Marae Kai Masters is based on the so-simple-it’s-criminal-that-no-other-show-thinks-it’s-worthwhile idea that food is about collaboration and celebration.
With each episode, a handful of teams (from a crop of 12 in total) are given the challenge of updating Māori cuisine. There’s often a set traditional component like tītī or rewana paraoa, and occasionally a set cooking implement like the hangi–lite UFO cooker, but the brief is generally pretty wide. All that’s absolutely demanded is that each dish offers a true representation of its chefs’ rohe.
Given that focus, and considering the name of the show, it’s probably not that surprising that the teams involved aren’t competing just for their own personal glory. Rather than the standard reward of a cookbook deal/unpaid internship at My Food Bag/six-month loan of a 2011 Hyundai Elantra with Al Brown’s face screen-printed on the sides, the show’s prizes include a commercial-sized oven, a first-aid kit and one third of a mortgage deposit in catering supplies vouchers.
Technically, these are all things you could store in a semi-rural garage, or use to ensure your home kitchen never runs out of 500-metre cling film rolls, but are prizes far more focused on the needs of the communities from which these competitors hail.
With such enticing and potentially uplifting returns on the line, these teams go very hundy indeed. The lack of hard-and-fast rules around prep and ingredients can occasionally see this create interesting issues – like a team who were so eyes-on-the-prize that they brought almost all of their ingredients pre-cooked and portioned in zip-lock bags. Thankfully, the nature of the show and its cast of cooks is such that no one really gets too mad about anything.
It’s a heartwarming watch for sure, but the true beauty of Marae Kai Masters is in its steadfast realness. Though there’s no doubt producers remain on hand to knead out moments of drama, at no point is it ever trapped by on-screen competitors who care way too much about the on-screen part.
When a team dishes up late, their rivals convene to discuss consequences and decide to let it slide. When a well-liked pair from a less-than-wealthy marae head home early, they are farewelled with a touching waiata. It’s not even the first time that the teams have spontaneously broken into en-masse song in that episode.
Maybe most crucially to the show’s overall success, even the judges act like normal humans. Although they won’t hesitate to slam sub-par kai, there’s a persistent tendency towards kindness and a generosity in their critique. They clearly understand that they’re judging amateur chefs, and it’s never forgotten that the show’s predicated not on restaurant presentation, but marae-style food made especially excellent.
Marae Kai Masters is exactly the palate-cleanser that its genre needs. It’s a food show that remembers why people cook, and it’s a competition focused on achievement rather than one-upmanship. It’s on Wednesdays on Māori TV and on-demand on their website. If you like food but also appreciate human kindness, you really owe it to yourself.
Marae Kai Masters airs Wednesdays at 8.30pm on Maori TV