Fremantle Media Australia, 2009–
Last November I found it difficult to do much more than listlessly watch Youtube videos, partly because my bad kidney was flaring up pretty severely and partly because on Election Day the winning ballots looked like this:
Before the election I had once pulled up a Gordon Ramsay video recipe—gnocchi with peas and parmesan, if you’re keeping score—and Youtube therefore decided that I might be interested in an episode of a cooking competition called Masterchef, which Ramsay hosts. I watched it, but I didn’t much care for it. There were three judges, which according to the American Idol formula means that one of them will be the nice one, one will be the asshole, and one will be the level‐headed one maintaining the balance between the other two. The problem is that Gordon Ramsay’s schtick is to taste a plate of food and shout, “What the fuck is this shit, you fucking donkey?”—but since he’s the primary host, he was slotted as the center guy. The producers brought in someone even more assholish to be the asshole judge, a dour bald guy with a penchant for sneering at the dishes and scraping them into the trash before the teary eyes of the contestants. I was going so say that it made the show joyless, but it’s more than that: it seemed like the premise was “Cook food in an abusive household! Win $250,000, all of which you will have to spend on therapy!” As it turned out, though, even had I been inclined to watch the next episode, I couldn’t: copyright issues meant that only a handful of Masterchef episodes were up on Youtube. What were available, and what Youtube served me up next, were the most recent two seasons of Masterchef Canada. So I watched a couple of episodes of that. The judges were much more polite. (Well, there were two polite judges and one loud, flamboyant judge with blue hair and a thick Hong Kong accent. But even he was friendly enough.) I also took a liking to one of the third‐season contestants, Mary: she was cheerful and winsome, with big green glasses and a Molly Mockery haircut, and on top of all that was a vegetarian — and now that I’ve seen several hundred Australian and Canadian Masterchef contestants come and go, she remains the only vegetarian I’ve seen make it out of the qualifying rounds. I figured I would stick with Masterchef Canada until Mary got the boot, and then switch to cat videos or something. But Mary won the damn thing! I wound up watching the entire season! Then I watched season two. At which point I could post this to Facebook:
But then for some reason instead of jumping back again and watching season one, I thought I’d try a different country. Pretty much on a whim I typed in “masterchef australia” to see whether there was such a thing. It turned out that there was. The first result to come up was the season three premiere, and since season three of Masterchef Canada had treated me pretty well, I decided to start there on the Australian version. It soon became clear that this show was a bigger deal than its Canadian counterpart: fifty contestants instead of twelve, cooking in a UNESCO World Heritage Site instead of in a little TV studio, with helicopters dropping off ingredients… and yet somehow it wasn’t until several episodes in that I did some poking around and discovered that the format of the show was equally gargantuan. Each season of Masterchef Canada was 15 episodes long, and I plowed through two seasons in five days. The season of Masterchef Australia I had just embarked upon consisted of 86 installments. Eighty‐six! Many of them running for well over an hour! And then it wasn’t until several episodes after that discovery that I did some more poking around and learned that the American version, the Canadian version, and 48 other editions of the program owe their existence to Masterchef Australia. The British version came first, and has done well enough to run off and on, mostly on, since 1990. But what spawned the dozens of copycats was when Australia’s Network Ten launched its local adaptation in 2009 and struck gold. The show was a massive success. One of the prizes offered in the first season was a cookbook publishing deal; that prize went to winner Julie Goodwin, who became the bestselling Australian author of 2010. Season two was an even bigger phenomenon than season one: when contestants lost unexpectedly it was headline news, and the finale became the single most watched program other than sporting events in the history of Australian television. Some contestants landed their own cooking shows. Others became tabloid fodder, their love lives dissected by millions of strangers for weeks on end. Ratings are no longer quite so high now that eight seasons have aired; it looks like last year Masterchef Australia came in fourth (again, excluding sporting events), and the network has scaled the show back accordingly. But that means that the most recent season consisted of a mere sixty‐three episodes. (The upcoming season of Masterchef Canada? Twelve.)
I have way too many notes to be able to shape them into a coherent article in a reasonable amount of time, so I’m just going to bang this out minutiae‐style and we’ll see how it goes. My time starts now!
- Again, I watched Masterchef Canada before I switched
over to the Australian version, so let me start by describing the format
of the Canadian version.
People send in audition tapes, and forty of them are selected to come
audition in person.
Each of these forty contestants cooks her signature dish for the judges,
and fourteen are selected to advance to the main competition.
There are four phases to the competition.
The first phase is the mystery box.
Mystery boxes usually contain an odd assortment of ingredients; one box
contained ground beef, arctic char, pickerel, littleneck clams, red
potatoes, brussels sprouts, summer squash, carrots, tomatoes, blueberries,
wild rice, green lentils, wine, and rum.
Using at least one of those ingredients, plus a pantry of staples (flour,
milk, eggs, that sort of thing), contestants compete to see who can create
the most delicious dish.
The winner gets to select the core ingredient for the second phase of the
competition: the invention test.
Say it’s pork.
Contestants have to come up with a dish that not only includes that
ingredient but makes it the “hero of the dish”, with the help
of a much more expansive pantry.
Various restrictions might be imposed: contestants might be required to
cook Mexican food, or the pantry might only contain foods whose names
begin with vowels.
Time limits are always quite tight—an hour, perhaps.
The cook whose dish is judged to be the worst is sent home.
End of episode!
The next episode consists of phases three and four. Phase three is an off‐site team challenge. The two winners of the invention test are the captains, and after each one has chosen the members of her team, the two teams might each be given a stall at a farmers’ market and $500 to spend buying ingredients from the vendors to turn into complete dishes, with victory awarded to the team that makes the most profit. Or perhaps they have to make hors d’oeuvres at a fashion show, and the guests cast ballots to determine the winning team. The losers then enter phase four, the pressure test. No creativity required, for once: in the pressure test, contestants must do the best rendition they can of the dish presented to them. Once again, the worst dish sends its maker home. Put it all together, and here’s the arithmetic: two episodes winnowing the contestants down to fourteen, plus thirteen episodes in which one person goes home at the end, equals the fifteen episodes I mentioned above. The math for the Australian version is rather different.
One of the things that most fascinated me about Masterchef Australia was the way the producers constantly tinkered with the format, trying out new types of segments to add interest, and ditching old segments that weren’t working. It was a sort of optimization puzzle playing out at the same time as the cooking competitions. In the early seasons, about which I’ll have a lot more to say in a bit, you never really had any earthly idea what you might get in a given episode. But things have settled down in the past three seasons, so while there’s still a fair bit of variation from week to week, a typical sequence goes something like this. Again, it starts with a mystery box: contestants make the best dish they can out of an odd assortment of ingredients, and the judges taste a few they like the looks of. (The fact that the judges only sample three or five dishes means that the cutaways are basically a cavalcade of attractive women breathlessly exclaiming about how much they want to be tasted. “I’ve only been tasted twice, so I’m dying to be tasted again! It’s not fair—Sarah gets tasted every week!”) The judges then declare a winner, who gets to set the parameters of the invention test. But at the end of the invention test, no one is sent home. The three contestants judged to have made the best dishes are selected as winners; the three (or, often, four) whose dishes are tactfully deemed the “least impressive” are sent to a pressure test. The pressure test is an episode unto itself, and at the end of it, someone is sent home. Episode three of the week is the immunity challenge, in which the three winners compete to have the chance to square off against a professional chef. The prize for victory, which is rare, is an immunity pin, which allows the recipient to save herself from the elimination round of her choice. The fourth episode of the week is a team challenge, which also gobbles up the entire hour (or more!). The fifth episode sees the members of the losing team compete in an elimination, often in multiple rounds, at the end of which someone goes home. And then there’s a sixth episode, the master class, in which the contestants can finally relax and learn new cooking techniques from the judges and a variety of guest chefs. So, with a number of episodes at the beginning of the season to set the year’s cast of 24 competitors, followed by nine weeks as a daily rather than weekly show just to whittle that group down to six finalists, plus various twists like eliminated contestants cooking their way back in and theme weeks with only one elimination, you can see how the Australian version of the show looks like the Mahabharata compared to the other national editions, which are more like haikus.
- Because commuting back and forth between Perth and Sydney six days
a week would be a bit of an ask, contestants are sequestered for the
duration of their stay in the competition: no phone, no Internet, no
going for a walk.
From what I’ve read, not every country’s version of the
show does this, and those that do tend to sequester contestants in a
But Masterchef Australia puts the contestants up in a
sprawling vacation home.
When all 24 are still in the running,
they’re crammed in there Tetris‐style, but by the end
it’s just a handful of souls rattling around.
In the Canadian edition we never see any of this, but on Masterchef
Australia it’s part of the show: we see the contestants wake
up and put on their makeup and work out in the home gym and make some
breakfast before being chauffeured to the studio.
I love the bits at the house—I wish there were more.
In interviews contestants have said that, being in a competition against
a bunch of amazing cooks and with a quarter of a million dollars on the
line, they spend all their time studying: the house is packed with
cookbooks, and prerecorded cooking shows are constantly playing on the
TV (except for the one hour a week when they watch Game of
There have been references to contestants messing up an element of a
dish (e.g., choux pastry)
during a televised segment and then practicing it at home, off camera,
eight or ten or twelve times until they get it right.
That might be interesting to see!
- Some contestants can’t handle the sequester.
In season one, one dropped out saying that he missed his wife too
much, and in season two, two dropped out saying that they couldn’t
stand to be away from their kids.
In the most recent season, another mother of young children had a minor
breakdown and spent a whole day “cooking for her
kids”—and you know those moms whose idea of cooking for
kids involves “hiding vegetables” in other foods and adorning
them with silly faces made out of sauce?
She was one of those.
It turns out that chefs with three Michelin stars don’t like that.
- As noted, the first season of Masterchef Australia I
watched was season three, after the most egregious errors in the original
concept had been corrected.
So it was very interesting to go back to season one and discover just how
misconceived some of the original parameters were.
For starters: in season one, after a team challenge, everyone on the
losing team voted someone off.
The host—for in the first season, and only in the
first season, there was an actual host in addition to the three
judges—even suggested that contestants might want to vote
off the strongest cooks, to clear the field for themselves.
This is obviously inimical to the goal of identifying the best amateur
cook in Australia.
That the show was originally intended to revolve around a combination of
cooking and social engineering was clear from the way the editors built
storylines around conflict within the house.
The friendship among three contestants in their early twenties was cast
as an in‐game “alliance” called “the kiddie
mafia”, and other contestants were filmed grumbling about how
annoying those kids were.
It was clear that “these people are all living on top of each other
and getting on each other’s nerves” was intended to be a
running theme, and a big part of the reason the house was made part of
The producers also tried to jumpstart some rivalries during the cooking
segments, having the judges ask contestants to weigh in on the appearance
of each other’s dishes and suchlike.
But this all turned out to be an exercise in tugging the program in a
direction it just didn’t want to go.
The contestants didn’t turn on each other out of
claustrophobia—in most seasons, they became a surrogate
Even in the first season, as the weeks went on, the contestants complained
more and more vociferously about how much it sucked to have to vote out
someone they cared for.
So from season two on, the producers have been increasingly committed to
the principle that Masterchef Australia is a cooking show,
not a social engineering show, and when you are eliminated it’s
because you cooked the worst, not because you made the wrong friends.
- I say “increasingly” because this shift didn’t
happen all at once.
Even after voting each other off the show was, thankfully, a thing of the
past, for a few additional seasons contestants could be eliminated from
the competition without making a bad dish: they might fail to identify
enough ingredients in a particular cake, for instance, or give the wrong
name of an herb (or, as the Australians say, “a herb”).
And the social engineering aspect of the show persisted for a while in
an attenuated form, as for at least a couple of additional seasons the
members of a losing team were sometimes asked to deliberate amongst
themselves and decide which two of of their number would go into a
But both of those elements are now completely gone.
In fact, I would argue that these days the elimination of the social
aspect of the competition may have gone too far!
Contestants never pick their own teams anymore: one of the judges will
either divide the crowd of contestants in half, or go
“one‐two‐one‐two”, or have them draw
I guess someone decided that selecting captains and having them choose
up sides was cruel to the people who got chosen last, and that could no
longer be borne.
(The judges were never remotely as cruel as the judges on the American
Masterchef, but in the first few seasons, the woman who
cooked the calamitous preschool dish would have been scolded or snarked
In season eight?
It was a lot of gentle talk that “we love how much your heart is
with your kids, but you need to decide whether you want to be
And I certainly can’t fault the producers for trying to minimize
But seeing who would choose whom for a team challenge was always
I miss it.
- Another huge mistake in season one: defeating a celebrity chef
automatically advanced a contestant to the final week.
Sounds good, right?
But think about it.
Here you’ve got these people who’ve given up their jobs,
left their families, in multiple cases even put their honeymoons on
hold for the chance to be on this TV show.
When they lose an elimination round, their punishment is that they are
removed from the TV show.
And in season one, two of the contestants did outscore a celebrity chef,
and their reward was… to be removed from the TV show!
While waiting for finals week to roll around, they missed the exposure
of being on TV, missed all the exciting field trips to cook in exotic
locales, missed most of the master classes to learn new techniques, and
missed the daily competitions to keep their
Masterchef‐specific skills sharp.
So it’s no surprise that when the final week began, the two people
who’d skipped ahead to that point were the first two
It was interesting to see that it took a disaster of that magnitude for
the producers to come up with the idea of awarding an immunity pin
- The immunity challenges are where the producers’ constant
tweaking of the show has been most on display.
Initially the rules were simple: whoever won the invention test
got to face off against a celebrity chef.
The chef brought in one of her signature dishes, had the contestant taste
it, gave the contestant a recipe, and the judges retired to the back
room while the contestant and the chef each made a rendition of the
The judges then allocated up to ten points apiece for each dish, not
knowing who made which.
On the rare occasions that the chef failed to outscore the contestant, the
contestant won an immunity pin.
But in season four, the winner of the invention test faced off against a
trio of chefs, and was able to call two fellow contestants down from the
balcony to help out—thus putting the spotlight in the
immunity episodes on more than one contestant.
It went to show how far the show had come from season one’s abortive
attempts to encourage skullduggery: even though the helpers were actually
hurting their own cause by giving a competitor an advantage, there was no
thought of deliberately cooking a bad dish to keep the immunity pin out of
They helped because they’d become close friends.
Each team made three courses of their own devising using a core ingredient
of the guest chef’s choice, and instead of giving a score, the
judges declared a victor of each course; if the contestants won more
courses, the captain received a pin.
In season five—the bad season, as future items will
illustrate further—there weren’t many immunity
challenges and they were all in hinky formats (e.g., select ingredients
in the dark).
Then in season six came the new format: three winners of the
invention test were declared each cycle, and all three advanced to the
first round of the immunity challenge, at which point they would
compete in a mini‐challenge before the winner of the
mini‐challenge faced the celebrity chef.
Rather than choosing a single core ingredient and having access to a full
pantry, in this new format the chef chose between two copious but limited
benches of ingredients, and it was back to points scored on a single
In season seven, the contestant who won the first round picked which set
of ingredients to share with the celebrity chef.
In season eight, the celebrity chef had to hide in a closet while the
first‐round winner got a head start on the second round.
So much tinkering!
And I haven’t even mentioned all the season‐long mentors
and guest judges and whatnot who’ve been shuttled in and out as
the producers have played around with the format.
- Not only did letting three contestants rather than just one into the
immunity challenge keep an entire episode’s spotlight off one
person, it also meant that the chance at immunity no longer came down to
a single judgment call in the invention test.
Which brings me to another twist in the first season that looks like a
crazy error of judgment in retrospect: once the field had been narrowed
down to seven, the three judges just decided of their own volition to
bring three eliminated contestants of their choice back into the
competition—one of whom came very close to winning the
whole thing at the end.
I understand the panic that let to this decision: a lot of the strongest
contestants had been sent home, some for reasons such as
“misidentified farro as barley”, and it therefore looked like
the big prize might go to someone who the producers, the judges, and the
audience all knew was far from the best amateur cook in Australia.
At the same time, to retroactively turn three arbitrarily selected
contestants’ eliminations into prizes—after all, in
season one skipping weeks of competition was the reward for winning
the celebrity chef challenges!—was not particularly fair to
those who had survived into the top seven.
In season two, the eliminated contestants at least had to cook their way
back in, but the contestants who thought they’d made the top seven
were understandably irked when three people they’d defeated were
let back in.
This move was so unpopular that in seasons three and four, this element of
the show was scrapped.
Single elimination, no do‐overs (except in the case when one
contestant was discovered to have cheated).
In seasons five through eight, however, the producers have settled on a
compromise: around the time the field has been whittled down to the top
ten or so, the eliminated contestants cook off against each other for a
chance to return, and one is let back in.
In seasons six and eight, I was very happy to see a couple of my favorite
contestants return, so I’m not going to complain.
But it does seem like it might be fairer to just make this a double
- Of course, that raises the question of whether fairness is the
I’ve written in the past about how sports leagues tend to put a
thumb on the scale to prevent the trophies from going to the best
Consider the NCAA basketball tournament.
Teams play for several months to demonstrate how good they are over a
sample size of 30+ games… and then whether
they advance in the tournament is determined by a sample size of one
The whole point of playoffs is to lower that sample size, let volatility
play a bigger role in determining the results, and increase the likelihood
And yes, it’s exciting when George Mason knocks off UConn or
Northern Iowa shocks Kansas.
But it does mean that you frequently have something like the
20th‐best team in the country cutting down
the nets at the end.
And on Masterchef Australia, there have been seasons when
the frontrunner was knocked out before her time.
In season four, Mindy was a heavy favorite, but a single slip near the
end, when the safety nets had been removed, left her in fourth.
Even more shockingly, in season two, Marion was pretty much universally
considered the best cook, but she ended up in an elimination due to her
teammates’ missteps, and a close judgment call about a satay sauce
sent her home in ninth place.
Reported nine.com.au, “the country lit up with cries of horrified
Of course, the real prize in Masterchef is the career
opportunities it provides, and Marion is now a big TV star in Australia
and makes millions from her line of Asian food kits.
So there have been worse injustices.
- Among those worse injustices would be “pretty much anything
involving real life rather than a TV show”.
I spent a lot of the previous item talking about sports.
I do not currently follow sports.
Every so often I make an effort to give them up, and at the moment it has
been the better part of a year since the last time I went to the ESPN
Watching sports is a mechanism to elicit feelings of elation and
despondency in response to competitions that, unlike wars or elections,
have no practical effect on the lives of the spectators.
Not liking to be upset over something that doesn’t matter is one of
the reasons I keep giving up sports.
And yet many times while watching Masterchef Australia I
found myself thinking that, yeah, this is just a sports substitute.
When one of my favorite contestants would squeak out an unlikely victory,
I would cheer and applaud alone in my apartment like an idiot.
When one of my favorite contestants lost, I would mope about it.
I.e., I would mope about an episode of a TV show, that had first aired
years earlier, on a continent on the other side of the largest ocean in
- Another reason I keep giving up sports is that I hate the extent to
which the outcome of a game is in the hands of the referees.
One of the magic tricks that Masterchef Australia pulls off
is the way the judges somehow make their decisions come off as fairly
objective even in cases when they couldn’t ever really be.
Things like “this pork is raw” are indisputable, but the
judges have a knack for making arbitrary decisions sound like the
inevitable results of a formula:
- “Bruce, your sauce was too salty, and Sheila, your dish just
didn’t have enough sauce, but Matilda, even though your sauce
tasted the best, it had no discernible orange flavor, and this was
supposed to be duck à l’orange, so we’re sorry, but
you’re going home.”
- “Sheila, your sauce was decent, but there wasn’t enough of
it. Matilda, your sauce was delicious, but it didn’t showcase
the orange the way it was supposed to. But at the end of the day,
flavor is the most important thing, so you two are safe; Bruce, your sauce
was too salty, and it ruined the dish, so you’re going home.”
- “Matilda, your sauce could have used a lot more orange, and Bruce, your sauce could have used a lot less salt. But at least you both offered us something to tie the dish together. Sheila, your sauce was almost nonexistent, and for that reason, we’re sorry to say you’re going home.”
- “Bruce, your sauce was too salty, and Sheila, your dish just didn’t have enough sauce, but Matilda, even though your sauce tasted the best, it had no discernible orange flavor, and this was supposed to be duck à l’orange, so we’re sorry, but you’re going home.”
- And speaking of the judges, I suppose that I should finally actually
talk about them—the three constants on the show as contestants
have come and gone and rules have done the same.
So constant are they that eight years have passed and they even stand in
the same places most of the time.
On the left is chef Gary Mehigan.
He’s the dad.
Usually he’s the friendly dad, sometimes he’s the stern dad,
but that’s his role.
On the right is food critic Matt Preston, an affably pretentious
He’s this big guy who bears a striking resemblance to Fred
Flintstone and invariably wears a
with matching pocket square, usually in tandem with an equally garish
In the middle is George Calombaris, another chef—and the
one native Australian in the group, as Matt and Gary are both from
George is a little bald fireplug of a guy who’s the bloke of the
group, with his broad accent and clichéd tough‐love speeches,
and simultaneously its leading exponent of froufrou modern cuisine,
delivering paeans to the value of “negative space” and
carefully moving microherbs around the plate with tweezers.
I can’t say that I ever fired up an episode in order to watch the
judges, but they’re a jovial crew with a chemistry that the North
American judging panels lacked, and they made the Australian show feel
like home to me.
- Of course, Australia is not home to me.
points out, it’s not too far off compared to a country like
Consider this climate analogy map of Australia I found:
There’s a whole lot of California on there, especially in the places where people live. I remember that when an Australian friend came to visit back in the ifMUD days, he remarked that his fifteen‐hour plane ride had taken him from a place that was warm and dry and full of gum trees to a place that was warm and dry and full of gum trees. Which isn’t to say that there are no differences. For instance, looking at the map above it’s kind of hard to miss that the climatic belts are upside down. In season eight, when one team had to cook using only ingredients from “the north”, that meant the tropics—they were given bananas and dragonfruit and coconuts and things. Whereas the table of ingredients from “the south” included pears and blackberries and kale and other cool‐weather produce from Australia’s lone cool‐weather state, Tasmania. I was surprised to find that it didn’t take me any time to internalize this. But I guess it makes sense. I don’t do well with narrative driving directions—I need a map. Like, I actually need to be able to visualize where I am on the earth’s surface in order to get from Point A to Point B, and while in transit I use the sun to orient myself. So, watching this show, I sort of mentally placed myself where the camera was, and so it was only natural for north to be the hot direction, because I could feel that that was where the sun was!
- On the other hand, the way the seasons are flipped around was
something I never got used to.
I think the fact that this is a food show made it particularly hard,
because a lot of what I eat carries a date stamp.
The last week of May means Earliglo nectarines; the second week of June
is when the Index cherries run out; dry‐farmed Early Girl tomatoes
show up in mid‐August; there are still a few last plums left in
the third week of October, even though I don’t like plums; and who
cares about December and January and February?
That’s when you go to Trader Joe’s because all you can get at
the farmers’ markets are parsnips.
For a long time the Romans didn’t even bother to divide winter into
months, because from an agricultural standpoint there was no difference
between one winter day and the next.
So it’s weird to hear the months named after goddesses and emperors
dismissed as the unimportant months when you might as well stay in and
make a chocolate dessert because nothing’s growing, and to see the
afterthought months be the ones with a bunch of dates circled in
(And apparently I’m not the only one who finds this a difficult
adjustment—I had to shake my head when I played
and discovered that it had the Southern Hemisphere suffering from
snowstorms in February.)
- One of the weirdest effects of the seasons being flipped around is
that when contestants have to cook to a Christmas theme, as has happened
in multiple seasons, they’ve been pulled in two very different
Like the U.S., Australia began as a British colony, but the first
fleetload of prisoners didn’t arrive at Botany Bay until the U.S.
was already independent.
Australia remained a dependency of Britain into the
20th century, and
in some respects it still isn’t fully independent: it has the Union
Jack on its flag and the Queen of England on its money.
It also has a huge population of British ex‐pats (Gary Mehigan and
Matt Preston among them).
So embedded in Australia’s cultural DNA is the idea that Christmas
means dried fruits and peppermint and warming spices.
But geography says that it’s scorching hot out—my one
trip to Australia lasted from a December 20
to a December 26, and you could basically
jump up and high‐five the sun.
“You don’t want a hot dessert at Christmas—you
want something nice and cold!” one competitor explained.
And so they ended up making things like ice cream and pavlovas with
fresh berries and kiwi fruit, and got dinged for omitting the brandy and
- I didn’t know what a pavlova was before I watched
Masterchef Australia, but I learned very
quickly—apparently in Australia it is the archetypal
dessert, like chocolate chip cookies in the U.S.
(A pavlova turns out to be a sort of cake made of two textures of
meringue, topped with fruit.)
Which raises the question of what constitutes Australian food.
Actually, it was always oddly uncanny for me when a team on
Masterchef Australia would be tasked with cooking
“American food”—a label I tend to use to mean
“it isn’t anything in particular”.
What would the contestants find distinctive about it?
Apparently in Australia “American food” signifies what those
of us who live here would call “Southern food”: grits,
cornbread, fried everything, desserts explicitly designed to be served to
Elvis Presley in 1977.
Whereas to me eating in the U.S. is an exercise not in regionalism but in
Eating a pizza margherita on Monday, a honey‐curry burrito on
Tuesday, avocado tempura sushi on Wednesday, navratan korma on Thursday,
and a veggie burger with zucchini fries on Friday is what defines
“American food” to me.
And much the same seems to be true down under: Masterchef
Australia is about cooking a wide variety of cuisines in cities
where Yelp’s lists of different types of restaurants run into the
- That said, I did find that Australian cuisine had a few quirks such
that from the food alone I could tell that I was not watching the
We can start with the shared British heritage I mentioned above.
While it’s irrelevant to my life, I recognize that in Middle America
it remains the case for a lot of people that a standard meal consists of
“meat and potatoes”, whether that’s a fast‐food
hamburger and fries, or a pot roast and mashed potatoes at home.
The Australian version is “meat and three veg”—all
the dads of the rural contestants claimed that was their standard
The difference is not in the two extra vegetables, but in the meat.
As the examples that I tossed out above without too much thought suggest,
to me the default meat in America is beef.
I guess chicken is actually eaten slightly more these days, and I suppose
pork is up there too, strange as it seems to me—even before I
became a vegetarian, I never dug on swine.
In Australia, though, it’s all about the lamb.
Per capita lamb consumption is well over twenty times higher in
Australia than in the U.S.
And if it is not the default meat among the general populace, it certainly
seemed to be on this show.
- Perhaps even more distinctive?
If lamb is Masterchef Australia’s answer to beef, then
its answer to chicken is… prawns.
Remember on Buffy when Anya talked about a world of nothing
Masterchef Australia was basically beamed in from
And on those rare occasions that the contestants take a break from cooking
up a mess of prawns, they switch to lobster.
Or marron, a type of crustacean found in Western Australia.
Or yabbies, a type of crustacean found in eastern Australia.
Or scampi, which sounds like a preparation of shrimp but which in
Australia refers to yet another type of crustacean.
Or Balmain bugs, which are not insects but, you guessed it,
Go to Australia and your crustacean needs will be met is I guess what I
am saying here.
Spiky underwater monsters with big pinchy claws: they’re
what’s for dinner.
- For the first five seasons of Masterchef Australia,
the last half dozen or so contestants were sent on an overseas trip.
In season one it was to Hong Kong; in season two, London and Paris; in
season three, New York City; in season four, Italy; in season five,
In seasons six and seven, there were no overseas trips, which to me was a
huge bummer—I always thought it was nice that while only one
contestant could win, those who made the top five or the top eight or
whatever the threshold was that season could at least say they went on a
The overseas trip was finally brought back in season eight, when the
contestants went to… California!
There they were, the Masterchef Australia class of
2016, cooking in the shadow of the Golden Gate
Bridge, while I was probably tutoring a few blocks away.
And what did they cook, having come all this way to sample the bounty of a
whole different continent?
Lamb and prawns.
- So where does Vegemite figure in?
It makes a handful of appearances, but the contestants seem to acknowledge
it as “our national weird thing” rather than “a
perfectly normal and delicious food”.
The judges frequently refer to dishes contestants have cooked as
“Vegemitey”, but it is never a compliment.
Similarly, kangaroo is part of the show’s rotation of meats, but
generally in the context of spotlighting native ingredients alongside
saltbush and macadamia nuts, not in the sense of something one would eat
on a regular basis.
Apparently it’s extremely low in fat and therefore quite hard to
- Otherwise, yeah, Australian food seems to be marked by diversity much
as the “American food” I described above.
I guess I could tweak that to say “coastal, urban American
food”, but as over sixty percent of Australians live in one of
five coastal cities,
the difference is academic.
That said, Australia is in a completely different part of the world and
therefore has a different mix from the U.S., and some of those differences
Probably the biggest one that jumped out at me: Australia doesn’t
Most of the contestants were familiar with Mexican food, and one or two
even specialized in it, but taquerias are a “one or two per
neighborhood” thing, not “one or two per street corner”
the way I’m used to.
Australians also don’t pick up a familiarity with the Spanish
language the way Americans do.
So while they could cook food from Spanish‐speaking
countries, what they could not do is pronounce any of it.
For a Spanish challenge they were likely to try to make
“pay‐ELL‐uh”; when Argentina was the country of
the day, that meant “em‐puh‐NYAH‐duhz”;
and asked to make Mexican food, they might whip up some
“TACK‐ohz” by wrapping a few
“JAL‐uh‐PENN‐nohz” in some
Nor was Spanish the only language to get this kind of
treatment—you don’t want to know what the contestants
did to the phrase “Grand Marnier”.
- So Australia doesn’t border Mexico.
Its land mass doesn’t border anything, but its territorial waters
do abut those of Indonesia, a country with over ten times Australia’s
population and three‐quarters of its GDP.
A couple of Masterchef Australia’s most famous alumni
can claim at least some Indonesian ancestry, but many, many more
contestants have hailed from Malaysia—specifically,
they’ve been Orang Cina, the Chinese Malaysians who make up most of
the Malaysian diaspora.
I guess it’s because Malaysia and Australia are both in the
Does that make migration easier?
Seeing all these Malaysian‐Australians made an exclamation point
appear above my head, because while my father was born in India, he grew
up in Malaysia and, apparently, lived in Australia for a few months
before deciding to move to the U.S. instead.
- Moving northward lands us in Thailand and Vietnam, and these
countries seem to be the ones that most fill the role of Australia’s
There were a lot of white contestants who specialized in Southeast Asian
food, and even more who talked about having spent weeks or months bumming
around Southeast Asia after college.
And everyone was expected to be familiar with how to make a massaman curry
or a spring roll.
- One group of contestants generally have not had this familiarity, and
have had a limited repertoire overall: those of Indian extraction.
The Indian‐Australian contestants have pretty much only cooked
Give them an apple, a parsnip, and a lobster, and you’re getting
And apparently these curries have been phenomenal!
In season four George said that Dalvinder’s cashew lamb curry was
“the best curry I’ve ever eaten in my life”, and in
season eight Marco Pierre White fell all over himself praising
Nidhi’s pepper chicken with parathas.
But Dalvinder came in 19th, and Nidhi came in
Because eventually you have to make something like a Greek salad.
(Rishikesh from season five was the exception that proves the rule.)
- The contestants of East Asian extraction have not shared this
limitation; while they’ve tended to make East Asian food more often
than the white contestants, most of them have shown equal facility with
What nearly all the East Asian contestants have had in common has been the
same reason for coming on the show: “I just want my parents to be
proud of me!
They think I’m a disgrace to the family because I want to be a chef
instead of an engineer, and maybe if I win this competition they will
despise me some tiny fraction less!”
This also made an exclamation point appear above my head, because the
message that no matter how much you accomplish, you will always be a
I thought that was just my dad!
Like, I was familiar with the “Why only A? Why not
A‐plus?” stereotype of the Asian parent, but I was never
actually pushed to do better (possibly because I actually did always have
the A‐plus), so I never thought of my father as falling into that
What I didn’t realize until listening to these contestants give
their interviews was that a recurring theme of my own upbringing (that my
interests were contemptible and my achievements were worthless) seems to
span a whole continent.
- I’ve referred to “white” Australians a few times
now, but that word can be used to indicate very different commixtures of
A white Canadian is ten times as likely to be of French ancestry as
a white American is, and twelve times as likely to be of Ukrainian
Australia’s population is drawn much more heavily from the British
Isles than that of the U.S., and a white Australian is about
2.4 times as likely to be of
“Anglo‐Celtic” origin as a white American
is—and 0.2 times as likely to be of
The most common European ancestry in Australia outside the British Isles
is Italian, followed by Greek—and while white Australians
are barely over half as likely to be of Italian ancestry as white
Americans are, they are three times as likely to be Greek.
There have been lots of Greek contestants on Masterchef
Australia, particularly Greek Cypriots—again,
perhaps because Cyprus and Australia are both part of the
George Calombaris is of Greek Cypriot ancestry himself.
English, Italian, and Greek are the three most commonly spoken languages
in Australia—yes, Greek is still ahead of both Cantonese and
In season five, when contestants were supposed to make fast food, the
three archetypal items they were tasked to create were a hamburger, fried
chicken… and souvlaki, whatever that is.
- So how about “black” Australians?
That term is used to refer to two very different groups: people from
sub‐Saharan Africa, who tend to be very recent arrivals, and
members of Aboriginal groups, who are more distantly related to
Africans than Europeans are.
Only one indigenous Australian has made it into the show, a Torres
Strait Islander in season one; no one indigenous to the mainland has made
it past the qualifying rounds.
Africa has been represented on the show by one white South African and one
half‐Egyptian, half‐Korean contestant.
So I guess that would actually be the thing that would jump out at most
American viewers of Masterchef Australia—no
black people—but how many American Masterchef
cohorts include Somali immigrants or Navajos?
And of course how unusual the absence of black people seems depends on
where you’re from; I’m from California, and as mentioned,
it was the lack of Latino influence that was most conspicuous to
Maybe someone from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula would be struck by
the paucity of Finns.
- Which brings us to another difference between the U.S. and Australia:
the U.S. is very much a collection of regions.
Long Island City, New York, is basically in a different country from
Grand Island, Nebraska.
Huntington, West Virginia, is basically in a different country from
Huntington Beach, California.
The mix of people is different, the culture is different, the politics
are different… and people certainly speak differently:
the girl who kicked off my first New York City SAT class by announcing
that “Beefaw we stawt Oy needa make a cawwwl so’s
Oy kin foin out when chee‐uh‐leeding practice is
duh‐maa‐ruh” made it very clear that I
wasn’t in Washington state anymore.
Obviously Australia is not entirely monolithic—life in
Fitzroy, Australia’s Williamsburg, stuffed to the gills with
preposterously bearded hipsters, is very different from life in the
80% indigenous town of Fitzroy Crossing, a
3000‐mile drive away in the Kimberley,
where temperatures reach 118°F.
But from what I’ve read, there’s no such thing as an
“Adelaide accent” or a “Brisbane accent” or a
“Canberra accent”, and watching Masterchef
Australia, I couldn’t tell where people were from
based on the way they spoke.
With one exception.
Before watching this show, I couldn’t really tell the difference
between an Australian and a New Zealand accent, but by the time I got to
season six, the one Kiwi in the group sounded like a space alien to
“If we put feush in this deush it’ll be reutch and
- Australia isn’t the only country where accents remain virtually
indistinguishable over a wide geographical area.
People from Seattle sound nothing like people from Texarkana, but neither
do they sound like people from Vancouver… while people from
Vancouver do sound like people from Toronto.
I was always struck by that: the way that up in the Northwest the voices
on the radio sound totally different depending on whether they’re
broadcasting from ten miles north of the border or ten miles south of it,
while the 2000+ miles between Vancouver and
Toronto make no effective difference.
At least, not within the same class stratum.
I once went on a road trip with a Canadian from an affluent background,
and was struck by how, when some working‐class folks struck up a
conversation with him, his voice automatically became a lot more
sing‐songy and he reflexively ended every sentence with the
stereotypical “eh?”—even though they were
working‐class Americans he was talking to.
And from what I’ve read, the same sort of thing is true for
Australia: that the chief distinctions are among broad, general, and
cultivated accents, such that socioeconomics play a much more important
role than geography.
And that observation seems borne out by the show.
I couldn’t tell who was from Sydney and who was from Perth just
from the diphthongs they used, but I sure could tell who worked at a law
firm and who worked at a fish market.
- What all Australian accents have in common is that they’re
Take the word “labor”—in a broad Australian
accent that might come out as “LIE‐bah”, and in a
cultivated one as “LAY‐buh”, but nowhere on the
continent will it come out as “LAY‐burr”.
I have to say, listening to hundreds of hours of non‐rhotic
speech was kind of a stressor!
Not as much of a stressor as having to listen to a Great Lakes
accent—I recently had to shut off a video I was watching
for work because if I had to hear the speaker explain how to approach
a reading comp “p‐yeah‐ssage” one more time I
was going to start biting myself—but enough of one that
in season seven I glommed onto Scottish Fiona as one of my favorite
contestants just because her accent, while nothing remotely like what
I was used to, was at the very least chock full of R’s.
Ditto for Canadian Theresa in season eight.
- Of course, non‐rhotic though it may be, the Australian accent
is not without its charms.
I could listen to Australian women recite adverbs all day.
Something about that “‐ly” at the end, how the L comes
from way back in the throat instead of up at the alveolar ridge, and so
the sound of the Y rolls like an ocean wave from the soft palate forward
to where the bright vowels live.
- But there’s more to a speech pattern than diphthongs and
Here are some words and phrases that I heard hundreds of times on
Masterchef Australia that I did not know were characteristic
of Australian speech before watching this show:
- How you going?
The equivalent to the American “How’s it going?”—because in Australia it doesn’t go, you do. There is a slightly more elaborate version of this—and this wasn’t a one‐off, I heard it a lot—which is “How are you traveling?”. I don’t want to read too much into what is almost certainly an instance of language meandering fairly randomly, but it is kind of interesting how the American phrasing suggests that life is something that happens to you while the Australian one suggests that you make your own journey through life.
- over the moon
I’ve heard this phrase outside of Australian television, but only 0.1% as often as I’ve heard it on Australian television. If Australians are happy about something, it appears they have only two choices in expressing it: they can say that they are over the moon, or they can say that they are—
…and that’s it. An Australian is never happy, never pleased, never satisfied, never delighted or ecstatic or joyful. Only rapt. Always, always rapt. (Or over the moon, as noted.) Now, excitement is slightly different from happiness, and so it gets another adjective. Excited Australians are—
…which I have to admit I thought of as California slang. But if it ever was, then boy howdy have the Australians ever made it their own.
Now, sometimes things don’t work out. Sometimes you’re so un‐rapt and un‐stoked that you feel like you’ll never be over the moon again. In which case you can fairly be said to be—
…another one of those words I’ve heard outside of Australian television, but less often in my entire pre‐Masterchef life than in one season of the show.
- under the pump
Australian for “under pressure”. Apparently authorities do not agree on what “the pump” is that stressed Australians are under, but the Australians themselves certainly seem to find the presence of that overhead pump weighing heavily upon them, given the frequency with which they mention it.
- stuff up
You might be under the pump because you stuffed something up. I don’t think you’re allowed to say you fucked something up on Masterchef Australia, but I’m pretty sure you can say you screwed something up or messed something up, and no one ever does. So it does seem like “stuffing up” is what people actually say and not just a family‐friendly euphemism.
- head down bum up
The stance you must assume when under the pump. I think the idea is that in this stance you are focused solely on the task at hand and are shutting out all outside distractions. This was by far the most common formulation of this phrase, but once or twice a cruder contestant would say “head down arse up”, while those who steered clear of any sort of profanity preferred the formulation “head down tail up”.
- get a wriggle on
Australian for “get a move on”, another thing you must do to get out from under the pump. It’s interesting how someone can come up with a more colorful version of a set phrase and then watch it completely supplant the original phrase and become a cliché in its own right.
- a red hot go
In the U.S. we do talk about “giving it a go”, though we much more frequently talk about “giving it a shot”, as I supposed is to be expected in a country with eleven times Australia’s rate of gun deaths per capita. In any case, Australians never give it a cold go, or even a lukewarm go—the go is always red hot.
- outside the square
Australian for “outside the box”, suggesting that down under, people do their thinking in two dimensions instead of three. Edwin Abbott sheds a happy tear.
- back myself
To redouble one’s efforts to proceed with a plan, even in the face of doubts and criticism from others. Those critics just don’t understand that I’m thinking outside the square!
- in with a chance
Pretty straightforward: this one just means to have a chance. Gary thought that I would stuff up my dish and that I should come up with a new idea, and I was gutted, but I decided to back myself, and it turned out so well I’m over the moon. This is for an immunity pin, and I think I’m in with a chance!
- get stuck in
To begin a task and very quickly get immersed in it. Sometimes said of cooking—you can’t spend twenty minutes reading the recipe, you’ve got to get stuck in—but said more often of eating. Enough talking, boys! This looks delicious—let’s get stuck in!
- pointy end of the competition
The way virtually every goddamn one of these people referred to the phase when few contestants are left.
- good on ya, mate
Australian for good job, congrats, nice work, etc. Though that last American equivalent brings us to this:
Tasty. In Australia, or at least on Masterchef Australia, the word “nice” is used to praise, not to damn with faint praise. And as long as we’re here, a few more items specific to food:
Unpleasantly thick, though I guess I would find a lot of “claggy” dishes pleasantly thick. Risotto is Masterchef Australia’s notorious “death dish”—people who make risotto very frequently find themselves off the show in short order—and in large part this is because the contestants’ risotto is deemed “claggy”. But when Marco Pierre White gave a master class in how to make risotto, I used his technique, discovered that it worked perfectly and my risotto had exactly the texture he described, and… I didn’t like it! It was too thin and I hated how the grains of rice were all separate. Gimme a nice claggy bowl of risotto so I can get stuck in!
To use a blender on. My blender whips, chops, mixes, and purees; all Australian blenders blitz.
Appetizer. I am generally pretty loyal to the usage I imprinted on, but I will cheerfully concede that, etymologically, of course the entrée should be the first course, and the fact that in the U.S. it has somehow come to mean the main course is an abomination.
Chicken. I read that “chook” means specifically a chicken that has been prepared for cooking, but that doesn’t seem to be accurate; on the show people used “chook” to refer to living chickens as well.
Nougat. All right, I guess we’re getting back into pronunciation, since I assume the Australians spell noo‐GAH as “nougat”. But they don’t say “nougat”. They say “noo‐GAH”.
- dim sim
Not dim sum! In Australia drunk driving is called “drink‐driving”, so when I heard “dim sim” I somehow assumed the same process was at work and it was just the Australian rendering of “dim sum”. But it’s totally different: a dim sim is a Chinese‐inspired dumpling developed in Australia.
Saucepan. This reminds me of Chandler explaining to Phoebe that “Spider‐Man” isn’t like Goldman or Silverman because he’s not, like, Phil Spiderman—he’s a Spider‐…MAN. C’mon, Australians, it’s not, like, Phil Saucep’n—it’s a sauce…PAN.
Shallot. Or scallion. You might be thinking, “Wait, what? Shallots and scallions are two completely different foods! That’s like saying that the word ‘lemon’ could also mean a tangerine!” That is because you are more sensible than whoever decided the Australian names for alliums.
Rutabaga. Calling a rutabaga a “swede” initially seemed bizarre to me, but on second thought I guess I’ve eaten my fair share of danishes.
Bell pepper. But the Australian word for eggplant is “eggplant”, not “aubergine”, and the Australian word for zucchini is “zucchini”, not “courgette”!
Cilantro. People keep asking me whether watching so much Australian TV has influenced my own accent at all. When I was in Australia, I did automatically end up speaking halfway between my normal accent and an Australian one—I think that’s a pretty common reflex. But Masterchef Australia had no effect, because I didn’t talk back to the screen. Or, rather, it had almost no effect. I have to admit that I actually do think of cilantro as “coriander” now.
Here are some random ones:
Drumming up business. That looks like Afrikaans to me but apparently its origin is unknown.
Electricians. Reasonable enough, I guess.
A hug. Yeah, in Australia “cuddle” can be a noun. And it does seem to just be a regular hug. To me cuddling is very different from hugging. There are different kinds of hugs, from the awkward “okay, we’re doing this now I guess” lean forward and back tap before going into the restaurant, to the much more meaningful wrapping of arms around each other and squeezing tight. But those are both vertical. Cuddling is not. Cuddling is a sharing of life force through full‐scale body contact over an extended period of time. It’s not necessarily sexual at all—it can be clothed, it can be with your kids—but it is intimate. Except in Australia, where apparently a cuddle is just a hug.
- third time lucky, lucky last
Maybe these superstitions are common outside Australia, but I’d never heard them before. (Not in those words, at least; as one reader pointed out, in the U.S. we do of course have “third time’s the charm”.)
- [adjective] as
I can think of quite a few similes that have become clichés: blind as a bat, clear as a bell, mad as a hatter, high as a kite, etc., etc. And then a few words have come to function as all‐purpose simile vehicles. “Hell” is one of them: he’s rich as hell, she’s funny as hell, and the ever‐popular “it’s cold as hell out here!”. “Fuck” has come to be used in this manner so often—that movie is scary as fuck, I’m tired as fuck right now—that the Tumblr kiddies abbreviate it down to “af”: “that selfie is cute af and i’m serious af about that”. (I had to go back and edit that to take out the capital letters so it would look more authentically Tumblr‐y.) Anyway, the Australians have gone another way—they just leave the vehicle out of the simile altogether. I know, that seems crazy as! But it makes coming up with similes easy as!
There is one complete simile the contestants used all the time, and while it doesn’t strike me as particularly Australian, I heard it so many times that I have to mention it:
- watching it like a hawk
They never watched anything carefully, or kept a close eye on anything—they always, always watched it “like a hawk”. And here are some other phrases that I have now heard from Australians more often than from Americans:
- comfort zone
Inside your own personal square.
- I’m freaking out!
Some people can’t handle being under the pump.
- Generation Y
In the U.S. we stopped using this term shortly after it was coined, when it was replaced by “Millennials” (the same way “Generation X” replaced “Baby Busters”). This seems not to have happened in Australia. I don’t remember even hearing the word “Millennials” on Masterchef Australia. It was always “Generation Y”.
- How you going?
- In the U.S. and Canada, small children are boys and girls, and then
in their tweens the boys start to be called “guys” while the
girls stay girls well into legal adulthood.
And so Elizabeth and I had many exchanges that went like this:
“I saw a cute girl today!”
“As in six and adorable, or as in twenty‐two and hot?”
Then at some unspecified point “girl” is abruptly considered demeaning and even in informal contexts you have to use “woman”, while a guy remains a guy forever. Suboptimal. But Australia has come up with a solution to this lack of parity! Unless the way people talk on Masterchef Australia is totally unrepresentative, the solution is this: boys remain boys forever. Girls remain girls forever. It seems like cutesy schtick—because, yes, in the U.S., an eighty‐year‐old might meet up with “the girls” for bridge or with “the boys” for poker, and that is cutesy schtick—but I eventually gathered that in Australia it is not schtick. They actually do just use “girl” to mean “female human of any age” and “boy” to mean “male human of any age”. And “guy” seems to mean “human of any sex”! It was completely commonplace for a female team captain to turn to her two female lieutenants and ask, “Okay, guys, what should our entrée be?” I also noticed that it was quite rare for someone to use a gender‐specific word like “wife” or “husband” or “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”—it was pretty much always “partner”. I’ve never liked that term. To me it defaults to “business partner”, not “romantic partner”. But I guess Nicholson Baker has already covered this territory, so I’ll move on.
- And what we’ll move on to is names.
I talked about this in a minutiae article a while back, but here it is
The winner of season two was a guy named Adam Liaw, whose food did not
look like my sort of thing, but who is smart and funny and seems like a
swell guy, and who was therefore one of my favorite contestants that
We have the same first name.
One thing about the name Adam is that it does not lend itself to
It’s not just that it’s short—a lot of names
with standard diminutives are also just a stressed syllable followed by
an unstressed syllable, yet people still feel compelled to chop off the
latter or replace it with an ee sound: Daniel→Dan/Danny,
But I can attest, based on years of interest in onomastics and decades
of being named Adam, that when your name is Adam, people call you
It turns out that the British and Australians have latched onto a fad of
abbreviating everyone's name with a zz sound—Gary becomes
“Gazz”, Harry becomes “Hazz”, etc.—and
to my astonishment, there was a contestant who took to referring to Adam
Liaw as “Azz”.
- As for Laura, the eighteen‐year‐old Italian cooking
prodigy who made it all the way to the grand finale in season six?
Well, the fad above dictated that she would come to be
“Lozz”, but apparently that wasn’t considered diminutive
enough for a giggly youngling like Laura.
So “Lozz” became “Lozzle”.
And then “Flozzle”.
And, on at least one occasion, “Lozzledog”.
- The very first change the producers ever made couldn’t wait
until season two—it was instituted a few episodes into the
To wit: they stopped using the contestants’ full names, and the
captions never revealed them again.
After that, if a season had multiple contestants with the same name, it
was time to break out the nicknames.
Season four had two Julias; one was presented to the audience as
Season five had three Daniels; one was dubbed “Dan”, one
“Daniel”, and one “Kelty”— his
surname, but in this case the “Daniel” part was never
Until I read the Wikipedia article on that season, I figured his name
was Kelty Anderson or something.
- One of the things I most like about Masterchef Australia,
which does not seem to be part of other national editions, is that each
season starts with a sea of anonymous faces, which start to become
slightly recognizable as the field of 24
takes shape—oh, she’s the one who cut the french fries
the fastest, and he’s the one who nearly cut another finger off
every five minutes—and then one day the episode arrives that
premieres the opening credits.
Twenty‐four names accompanied by little representative vignettes to
give a hint of each contestant’s personality and cooking specialty,
scored to the Masterchef Australia theme song by Katy
Here’s season four:
- One of the reasons season five was the bad season is that it was the
one season they didn’t do this—they went straight to
the final 22 without letting us see any of the
The opening credits were a sort of skit rather than a montage, which
wasn’t necessarily a bad idea, but it was a skit full of people
we’d never seen before.
- Apparently Katy Perry’s Masterchef Australia
theme song was quite popular, such that I found all sorts of bands and
solo musicians doing cover versions of it, or at least of parts of
My favorite by a wide margin was a drum cover by a Venezuelan musician
named Karla Soto—these fills elevate the song by orders of
Check it out:
- The music during the show is not particularly
varied—it’s the exact same score, episode after
episode, year after year.
It is also extremely heavy‐handed at times—it’s
kind of ridiculous how one of the judges will say, “Your plating
was a disaster—” (horror‐movie sting!) “—but
your balance of flavors was the best of the round!” (abrupt
transition to happy tinkly piano music).
But repetitive as it may get, the music is fairly good.
Like, the “only three minutes left until time runs out, isn’t
it stirring” theme actually is pretty stirring.
- But back to something I mentioned a couple of items ago: that season
five was the bad season in part because all the winnowing took place off
It looks to me like part of the reason for that was that ratings had been
falling—it turns out that when you’re the most popular
television program in the history of your country, your ratings do tend
to come back to earth a bit after a couple of years—and the
producers decided that a more volatile mix of personalities was called
Since the winnowing process selected for cooking talent rather than for
the potential to cause reality‐show drama, out it went, and the
22 people who were selected included a much
greater proportion of abrasive and annoying personalities than
I didn’t really like anyone that season, and lots of the contestants
were hard to take:
- Clarissa: So inconsiderate that I have to assume she has some
sort of clinically diagnosable psychological deficit.
Stole Faiza’s bench just because she felt it suited her better than
Sang loudly and annoyingly while other competitors were trying to
Demanded that everyone talk her through all her attempts to cook something,
step by step by excruciating step.
- Samira: Cited Barbie as her role model; said that while she
liked cooking, her real passions were shoes and handbags.
- Nicky: Decided that being captain of a team meant standing
around awkwardly shouting supposedly motivational slogans at people but
not doing any actual cooking himself.
It’s not the sloth that irked me.
It was the motivational slogans.
- Noelene: Grouchy, stubborn, specialized in offal
- Michael: His role in the skit sums him up—he steals another person’s lamb chop and then makes a hideous chortling troll face to celebrate his triumph
- Clarissa: So inconsiderate that I have to assume she has some sort of clinically diagnosable psychological deficit. Stole Faiza’s bench just because she felt it suited her better than her own. Sang loudly and annoyingly while other competitors were trying to concentrate. Demanded that everyone talk her through all her attempts to cook something, step by step by excruciating step.
- Other seasons featured the occasional bad apple, but for the most
part they showcased the extent to which season five was the felt beard
version of Masterchef Australia.
The closest in tone to season five was season one, back when the reality
show tropes hadn’t been pared back yet.
There was no small amount of contrived conflict, but of the season’s
“villains”, the only actual bad guy was Aaron, who was
the first season’s molecular gastronomy zealot and went on to make
headlines for embezzling millions of dollars from the mining finance
company he founded and spending the money on breast implants and
jewelry for his sexual partners.
(I’ve seen some of the breast implants on Instagram and it’s
safe to say that Aaron’s penchant for unnaturally perfect spheres
went beyond molecular gastronomy.
Another of the season’s “villains” was Kate, a.k.a. Kittykat, a law student with roots in Goa who brought a lot of juvenile drama to the show: she was the girl in the “kiddie mafia” I mentioned above, and became unpopular because of that, and when she unexpectedly survived an elimination and the other contestants seemed chagrined that she had returned to the house, she had a breakdown. “Nobody wants me here! People I thought were my friends didn’t even get up—like, people I thought were my friends are actually disappointed that I haven’t been eliminated. I want my mom!” The crying did not make her more popular in the house. But my heart went out to her! Poor Kittykat! (It has been pointed out to me many times by many people that I am an extraordinarily easy mark for crying girls.) This eventually led to one of the most remarkable twists in all eight seasons of the show: remember, in season one contestants voted each other off, and when one vote came down to a 3-3 tie between Kate and a rather annoying contestant named Sandra who was largely responsible for the team’s loss, Kate held the tiebreaker—and, sobbing, she voted to eliminate herself. OﾛO, as the kids say.
Justine was initially pretty anonymous and was, if anything, framed as an anti‐Kate—she was another early twentysomething, though not a member of the “kiddie mafia”, and seemed embarrassed that Kittykat’s drama was making “Generation Y” look bad. But she survived long enough to carve out an identity for herself as competent and mature beyond her years, a specialist in French cuisine who the visiting chefs tabbed as the only contestant in her group likely to become a serious chef after the show was over. She didn’t; instead she became a successful TV personality with her own long‐running cooking show, Everyday Gourmet.
If I had to pick one more favorite from the first season’s qualifiers, I guess I’d go with Tom; I don’t recall his food being the sort of thing I would seek out to eat, but I liked his cerebral demeanor. Who I’d really want to pick, though, is Sarah; she didn’t make it out of the top 50, but was the only vegetarian to make it even that far in eight seasons. Mary on Masterchef Canada had to cook meat, but didn’t have to taste it; Sarah, by contrast, found herself in a taste test, staring into a gigantic pot of bolognese sauce, and cried and cried. But based on sight and knowledge alone, she filled out her list, and wound up becoming the very last contestant to make it to the next round! It was awesome to see her beaming as she ran over to join the winners. But this was season one, and the judges chose the qualifiers at their own discretion, and Sarah didn’t make that cut—largely, I suspect, to prevent another episode full of tears over mandatory meat.
- Season two:
I’ve already talked about Marion, whose
food was so good that when she was eliminated it was front‐page
news all over Australia, and about eventual winner Adam, whose
tweets are so good that Buzzfeed
compiles them; I also kind of liked Claire,
the buttoned‐down lawyer who never raised her voice above a murmur
that made all of her interview segments seems like ASMR videos.
Seriously, she was such a low talker that I was surprised that she never
talked Gary into wearing a puffy shirt.
Apparently she had a nightmare experience, as the tabloids tore into
her private life, a bizarre thing for me to learn—bizarre
to think that ASMR Claire somehow caused a furor, but equally
bizarre to think that apparently a lot of people watched this show
primarily as an adjunct to the gossip columns.
My other favorite from this season was Non‐Scottish Fiona, an elementary school teacher who went on the show in the hopes that it would strengthen her application to be certified as a Kitchen Garden Foundation instructor. She appeared on the show, won a couple of contests (including the pizza challenge!), lost on a misjudged wine pairing of all things, did indeed land the job she wanted teaching little kids how to grow vegetables and make tasty meals out of them, and turned down the opportunity to return to the competition since she’d already achieved her goal. I always rooted for the teachers, and I thought that the fact that Fiona was satisfied with her achievement was great. She also was one of the few contestants whose food looked like the sort of thing I would like to eat—I have quite a few of her recipes bookmarked for future reference. And that is why I cheered for Non‐Scottish Fiona.
- Season three:
Even though this was the first season I watched, this group didn’t
actually do much for me.
Initially I rooted for Kumar, a gentle, diminutive, elderly fellow
from Sri Lanka who turned out to be a very talented artist, and then
once Kumar was eliminated, I switched my allegiance to Ellie, a
smiley lass whose real name was Elspeth.
This was the season they went really big—flying to New
York to cater a function for the United Nations, then jetting back to
Australia to cook for the Dalai Lama—and the first season
when they brought in all the finalists’ family members.
It was also Exhibit A in how much outside knowledge or the lack
thereof colors the experience of the show.
It wasn’t until long after I had cheered for Non‐Kittykat
Kate over Michael in the final that I learned that, whoops, Kate was a
fundamentalist Christian who had raised some eyebrows in the Australian
press for grumbling that people shouldn’t call the Dalai Lama
“Your Holiness” because “Jesus is the only one that is
I retroactively uncheer.
- Season four:
The last season in Sydney—too bad, because while I would
probably prefer to live in Melbourne than in Sydney, I did like the Sydney
setting more somehow—and lots of likeable contestants this
Pint‐sized, middle‐aged Asian mom Audra, normally so
serious, taking a running leap at über‐competent Mindy
and wrapping her arms and legs around her after Mindy won her
immunity pin; the dueling dessert queens, cheerleadery Kylie and
Viking princess Julia; from the top 50,
Dom; and I bet you thought I was going to say lisping youngling Emma,
right, because of all the crying?
Nah, Emma cried too much even for me.
Every episode, the crying.
But holy shit, the way she bonded with Ben, with just bottomless
hero‐worship of her anointed “big brother”, only to be
pitted against him in a one‐on‐one elimination after
they both failed a cake identification challenge… and Kylie
crying, and big bald Wade crying, and Ben trying to give a noble
speech about deciding to quit with Amina shouting “don’t do
it!” and Emma wailing and sobbing,
and normally breezy jokester Beau earnestly volunteering to take
Emma’s place, and Tregan muttering about “jumpers left
right and center here”—that is some gripping
Season four also featured my favorite contestant of the show’s entire run to date: ALICE, the grinning goofball of a schoolteacher with the giant glasses and all‐world people skills. Her cooking was hit‐or‐miss, but whenever there was a team challenge with a front‐of‐house role, Alice’s team would win by a landslide because she would charm the daylights out of every customer (so it wasn’t just me!). Need someone to go spruiking? Send Alice, and she would not only round up more customers but would recruit some over from the other side. It got to the point that Matt Preston could praise the members of the opposing team at length, and then still send them into an elimination, explaining, “There was really one big negative for the blue team, and that was simply that you had no Alice.” It also got to the point that whenever it looked like Alice was on the verge of being eliminated herself I would start to get weepy.
And she found herself in that position pretty often, since, as noted, she wasn’t the best cook. She was the best cook on one particular day, though, beating Mindy (!) after deliberately giving up her first‐round advantage (!!) and securing an immunity pin. Now, I have frequently been annoyed by the way contestants have deployed their immunity pins during the seven seasons that they have been in play. I am the furthest thing from a risk‐taker, but if you’re in a one‐in‐twelve elimination, isn’t it better to play the percentages and save your pin until a one‐in‐three elimination later on? Yet every contestant with a pin has played it at the first opportunity—every contestant, that is, except Alice. But Alice kept refusing to play the pin even in those small, risky eliminations when she “should” have turned it in! She said she wanted to show her students that winning isn’t worth it if it means stepping on other people to do it, and insisted that she would hold on to the pin until a round when playing it wouldn’t put another contestant at risk. I was sure this would backfire one of these times, but Alice kept squeaking through by the barest margins, finally turning in her pin at an everybody‐in elimination at (all together now) “the pointy end of the competition”. She didn’t win—she and Viking Princess Julia were robbed when the judges were somehow insufficiently impressed by their awesome sugar box to send them through to finals week, meaning that Alice had to cook on family day, and lost. (Sniff.) But, again, there’s more to the show than just the prize, and Alice has done well for herself. She became a children’s show host!
- After season five was panned as the bad season, the producers
went back to basics in season six: fewer episodes, no overseas trip,
no family day, and an renewed focus on good cooking in place of season
five’s emphasis on disasters.
The judges kept marveling at how much better the season six gang was
than any previous group of contestants, saying that they were cooking
food in week two that the other cohorts couldn’t manage until
It was a good group!
The early favorite was Sarah, a model—not, like,
someone with four pictures on Model Mayhem, but who was actually
signed to an agency and walked runways for Gucci and looked like a
beautiful alien cat.
She initially seemed like she might have made the cut because,
“Ooh, a model! That’ll boost ratings!”, but she
kept winning challenges and seemed to be season six’s answer
But, like Marion, she made a couple of mistakes at the wrong time
and ended up finishing ninth.
I also came to like Emelia, the only Masterchef
alumna with a Girl Geek Academy profile.
She held a one‐year reign as creator of the best desserts in
Masterchef history until Reynold came along.
She also had the sort of backstory that you see on NBC’s
Olympic coverage, in that when she was fourteen she was hit by a
damn car that shattered pretty much every large bone in her
Apparently a lot of viewers hissed her for being smug, but what seemed to
them like overconfidence turned out to be the sort of “fake it till
you make it” bravado that she had had to summon the last time she
had a monumental task ahead of her, when she learned that it would take
her a year to learn to walk again.
But ultimately the contestant I found myself pulling for above the others in season six was Laura, a.k.a. Lozzledog. I did so in part for the same reason I cheered for Sarah—just as it was unexpected and fun that the fashion model would turn out to have serious cooking talent, it was unexpected and fun that the 18‐year‐old who said “Oh my gawd!” and “Eeee!” every five seconds would turn out to be one of the most acclaimed cooks in the show’s entire run. She beat Donovan Cooke in an immunity challenge! And the kind of food she made is right up my alley. Rustic Italian? That’s already what I cook for myself like 75% of the time, and I was intensely curious what Lozzledog’s was like after watching Marco Pierre White and Matt Preston and the others fawn all over it. I plan to work my way through the Lozzledog cookbook as soon as it arrives on my doorstep, though I might have to make some adjustments given that the Toolangi Delight potatoes she recommends for gnocchi are only available in Australia. But even though I doubt I could have a conversation with her—I would awkwardly say hello and then go talk to Emelia—I did like Lozzledog as a person as well as for her delicious‐looking pasta and vegetables. I liked how she bonded with everyone: how she and fellow 18‐year‐old Georgia were holding hands within minutes after they met at auditions; how Tracy used the power apron she had won to save her from an elimination: “Right from the start I always had my personal agenda of keeping the ones that I really love safe,” Tracy said, and “I think my maternal instincts kicked in, and it’s no reflection of how I see you as cooks, but I’m going to choose Laura,” hugging her the whole way up to the balcony; and how after she and Brent advanced to the grand finale, I thought the episode was over, but then came a cut to a hidden camera outside the studio and joyous shrieks from Laura as Brent hoisted her up and spun her around and around. Very happiness. Many heartwarming. (On the other hand, as much as Laura seemed to enjoy the ride, I have to think that Emelia enjoyed her present from Brent a little more: $50,000.)
- Incidentally, one change made for season five that wasn’t
corrected for season six: one of the big moments in every elimination
episode for the first four seasons had been when the contestants not
involved in the elimination sat around back at the house, waiting to see
who would be coming home, and then they’d hear the elevator start to
move, and they’d all perk up and wait for the door to slide open,
and then cut to the big entrance of the survivor(s) and then back to the
other contestants’ shock, relief, delight, etc.
In the Melbourne seasons this got tossed, and I guess I can see
why—it was pretty much always the same.
And the same goes for following the eliminated contestant home to be
greeted by a huge gathering of friends and family—not only
were those scenes pretty much always the same, but I imagine that sending
camera crews out to Cairns and Hobart got expensive after a while.
But I do miss them—especially the revelations of who got
Now the other contestants learn right away and it’s less
- Season seven:
There were lots of contestants I would have been happy to see win.
Early on I leaned towards Anna just because she has five
degrees from three universities and that is just mental, no pun
Eventually I pulled for Billie because she clearly deserved to
win—her food was consistently judged to be among the
strongest, and under pressure she was probably the calmest contestant
in any season.
But I would have been happy to see Ashleigh win, or Sara, or
even Matthew or Non‐Teenage Georgia.
Really, just about anyone other than John would do.
He was the worst.
He was already the worst before the fateful relay challenge, but that
really put him in the Masterchef annals.
So the idea is that the team members cook one at a time, fifteen
minutes each, unable to see what the ones before them have done, with
each newly arrived team member receiving 45
seconds of verbal instructions.
So Jarrod, a.k.a. Captain Caveman, opts for a mussel and coconut
He hands it over to Scottish Fiona, who delights me by saying things
like “perrrrson” and “forrrrty‐five”,
but proves her allegiance to her new homeland by declaring herself
“happy as” with Captain Caveman’s choice of
The Captain, watching on closed‐circuit TV, is stoked about how well
Scottish Fiona is executing the next steps of the cook, and all seems
right in the world.
Scottish Fiona gives him the instructions, then is ushered into the back
room where she is swept up into a Captain Cave‐Cuddle.
And John… decides to transform the dish into a fuckin’
“white chocolate velouté” with five hundred
And puts on his “DEAL WITH IT” sunglasses on when Marco
Pierre White tries to intervene.
And then explains the dish to Amy by sputtering random nouns at her
for forrrrty‐five seconds, so that poor Amy has to spend her
fifteen minutes as an ambulatory shrug emoticon.
And Non‐Teenage Georgia, holding down the anchor position,
hyperventilates for ten minutes over the fact that the other competitors
have nearly complete restaurant‐quality dishes waiting for them and
she has a couple of pans of unidentifiable shit—and then,
murmuring “Oh my God, swear words, so many swear words”,
makes a decent scallop ceviche with prawns in five minutes while
John did that!
John made her cry!
And then John wasn’t even the one who got eliminated after the
relay—Captain Caveman was!
I mean, Aaron from season one is a criminal, and Mat from season three was
kicked off for cheating, so I guess John is not actually the worst,
but that said, John is the worst.
Before moving on, I should mention that Reynold, despite coming in fourth, was the breakout star of this season, receiving a score of 30 out of 30 for one of his desserts, receiving even greater praise for some unscored ones, and going on to open one of the hottest restaurants in Sydney. That meant that while Kylie had once come back as an assistant to Darren Purchese, Reynold became the first alumnus to return as a celebrity chef in his own right.
- That happened in season eight, another season in which I had no
At least, I didn’t until there was about half an hour left in the
The finale pitted underdog Elena against the clear favorite, Matt
with the Weird Earrings.
Matt was ahead by three points after the first two rounds.
Then, out came Heston Blumenthal.
I’ve seen people complain that the season came down to a Heston Blumenthal dish. They have a point. I mean, it always annoyed me when the judges slammed a contestant’s dish for being “dated”—like, oh, that symmetrical plating is so ’80s, and that “stack” is so ’90s. Like, what, food somehow stops being delicious when it’s no longer “on trend”? Fuck that. And especially fuck it given the way that, as much as the judges scoff at yesterday’s ephemeral trends, they lap up today’s. Like Heston Blumenthal’s “deceptive food” isn’t going to be risibly dated in about five minutes? “It looks like a banana, but it’s actually a veal cutlet!” Insert golf clap here. So, yeah, to set aside the “cook tasty food” element of the competition and switch to a “follow this 91‐step recipe to make a fake egg out of mandarin fluid, coconut panna cotta, and a chocolate shell” format may not be the best way to settle on a winner. But as the cook unfolded over the final hour, Matt repeatedly found himself in trouble. And Elena kept helping him. Like, when the spray bottle for Matt’s chocolate molds malfunctioned, Elena ran over and gave him hers. More crucially, when Matt needed to apply liquid nitrogen to his finished dessert, Elena abandoned her own dessert with the final seconds ticking down in order to run over to Matt and walk him through the liquid nitrogen process step by step. Reminder: $250,000 prize at stake! Ten seconds left! And Elena is helping her competitor instead of putting the finishing touches on her own dish! And yes, I know that the producers cut the sequence specifically so that I would be pleading, “Come on, time and space! Elena is a goddamn hero! She has to have won! Let there be some shred of fairness to the universe!” But, still, the fact remains that Elena did do that. Unless it comes out that this show is secretly scripted, Elena actually is the goddamn hero she was portrayed as. 62.8 episodes of not caring who won, and then suddenly Elena winning was very important to me.
And then Matt’s egg spontaneously split apart because he had skipped one of the sealing steps, and on the one hand, hooray for justice, but on the other, oh no, that poor dude.
Anyway, Elena did win after that, and announced that she might try getting a restaurant job in San Francisco. Of course, that was before the lizard people got elected and Donald Trump had a tantrum at Malcolm Turnbull. So who knows, there may be a travel ban in the works.
- All right, looks like I’m well past
15,000 words at this point.
Time to wrap up, and like a class, we’ll finish with some evals.
- What don’t I like about Masterchef
Well, for one thing, the injuries!
Seriously, people—please, please stop using mandolines
without the guards!
I got so freaked out about all the mandoline injuries that I bought a
pair of those poly‐silica protective gloves—I don’t
even have a mandoline, but I did once put a vegetable peeler all the way
through a fingernail and I don't want to do that again.
- For another, it is disappointing that so few contestants exhibit any
ability to do simple math (or, in Australia, “maths”).
A lot of team challenges went kablooey for one team or another
because no one on the team could figure out how many panna cottas to
make or potatoes to peel.
“Seventy guests and five scallops per plate, so I’ll make,
uh, a hundred and fifty scallops!”
“Two hundred grams times a hundred people… that’s
two kilos, right?”
- I also don’t like the way the judges constantly announce
George in particular seems weirdly insistent on keeping the audience
abreast of his mouth’s saliva quotient.
I was reminded of the first SAT training I ran after I moved back to
California—I was struck by how every woman in that group,
rather than saying something like “Back in a few minutes”
or “Time for a restroom break” or some such would instead
announce to all and sundry, “I’m going to go pee
I don’t want to hear that!
- One of the most impressive things about the show is how it manages to
wring real suspense out of the most minor details of cooking a meal:
“Great Scott! Was that too much lemon? What will the judges say
about all the lemon?”
“Look, look! The door of the blast chiller ISN’T FULLY
CLOSED! Will the sorbet set in time?”
But a lot of the time the drama doesn’t arise organically, but
instead comes from one of the judges telling a contestant that he
doesn’t like the way a dish is turning out.
Either it rattles the cook, which is kind of unfair—or it
gives the cook a chance to fix a major mistake, which is kind of unfair
to the contestants who didn’t make major mistakes in the first
I get, and like, the fact that the Australian version of the show is
the one that focuses on fostering good cooking rather than poking fun at
bad cooking, and that George, Matt, and Gary are mentors every bit as much
as they are judges, but still, it does sometimes feel like a basketball
referee telling a player, “Hey, wait!
Are you sure you want to inbound to that guy?”
- But obviously these negatives can’t have been all that bad
considering that I did watch 562 episodes of
So, on to the positives.
First of all, the show is interesting.
There’s been enough variety in the challenges that I’ve always
been eager to see what might be thrown at the contestants next.
And things keep happening that I haven’t seen before!
Which is something I heard the KNBR announcers say a lot back when I
used to listen to a lot of Giants baseball on the radio while driving
hither and yon—on the one hand, baseball is very samey,
but on the other, on any given day at the ballpark there’s a good
chance you’ll see something that has never happened in a
century‐plus of professional play.
So, for instance, in season six, after Tracy won the power apron and
assigned core ingredients to all the other contestants, she assigned a
giant eel to Renae—who turned out to be phobic about
eels and had a full‐on panic attack the moment she saw it.
She was shivering and crying and whimpering “I’m so
scared” until Papa Cole came over and prepped the eel for
Which brings me to a more important reason:
- When people have asked me what I liked about Masterchef Australia, my cheeky standard answer has been, “I like the camaraderie and the crying.” And that does pretty much sum it up! I mean, look at all the anecdotes I’ve recounted, and count up how many focus on hugs and sisterhood and altruism and how many focus on tears. Just look at that last one with the eel! Crying? Check, as Renae had terrified tears streaming down her face. Camaraderie? Check again, as Papa Cole jumped in to help without a thought about how it might affect his own cook (and in fact he wound up in the next day’s elimination while Renae wound up making one of the dishes of the day). So what does it say about me that I spent my winter watching Australians sobbing over chicken roulades? Was I displacing my own feelings about having the country I live in taken over by lizard people? Maybe. Or maybe it’s more general than that. Back when I was living in a single‐serving dystopia rather than a nationwide one, my therapist speculated that my emotionally impoverished upbringing had left me drawn to strong feelings but too inhibited to seek out experiences that would produce them, so once my personal life got too comfortable, I sabotaged it in order to stir up a bunch of horrible drama that would allow me to feel something, anything. I don’t know how much I buy that theory, but I have to admit that getting hooked on Masterchef Australia does seem to be a data point in its favor. I got really annoyed when contestants would fake‐emote, like acting overly surprised upon opening a mystery box—“Gasp! My goodness, everything in this box is purple! You scamps, you’ve done it again!” But the unfeigned displays of glee, of despair, of compassion, of relief, of heartbreak, were indeed the main thing I tuned in for. That is, while I really enjoy cooking, and don’t think I could watch a reality show about people seeking venture capital or singing in styles I don’t like, what most appealed to me about Masterchef Australia was not the cooking but the reality‐show trappings. I remember that Jennifer was a faithful viewer of Survivor when it first came out, and when I asked why, her reply was, “I like watching yuppies genuinely suffering.” I kind of get that now! The only thing I’d add is that, while I did like the crying, I think what made it internally acceptable for me to like the crying was that all those big emotions were over small stakes. Watching a real person cry because her kid has just been run over by a bus is ghoulish, but watching someone cry because his soufflé collapsed? That’s entertainment! And yes, there is the $250,000 to consider, but failing to win something isn’t the same as losing anything. No one in the audience won $250,000 either, but none of us were crying! Well, I was. But never mind me.
And I think I’ll end the minutiae list there and conclude with this thought. We are said to be living in a golden age of TV, as movie theaters have become dominated by special‐effects franchises and serious artists have moved to the small screen, where they have orders of magnitude more running time to develop characters and spin out story arcs. But most TV is still prolefeed like this. And while as of this writing the Obamacare repeal effort seems to be sputtering, I have been expecting and still do expect the ACA to be hobbled in some way, meaning that I will have to pay a lot more for health insurance. I also recently had to replace my car (yeah, the Aluminum Lung finally gave up the aluminum ghost) so I’ve got a whole new set of payments to make. Put it all together, and I’ve had to take on a lot more hours at work. And when I get home from teaching my classes at 11 p.m., I am not really capable of too much more in the way of intellectual exertion. Putting on Masterchef Australia and watching it while I make my own dinner has been my way to wind down and enjoy a simulacrum of companionship. Which is pretty much the idea behind post‐WWII American capitalism, right? Keep most people working long enough hours that they’re too exhausted to resist the system that keeps them working those sorts of hours. I remember that after George W. Bush won the 2004 election, Laura Kipnis wrote this:
The United States ranks 14th out of 15 industrialized countries in per capita education spending. If we have an electorate incapable of thinking rationally about its own interests, who confuse politicians with old movie heroes, don’t know much about history, and lap up […] lies […] even after they’ve been repeatedly exposed as lies by the media, this might have something to do with never having been educated in the fundamental skills of critical thinking. (Note that Bush’s much touted No Child Left Behind initiative, favoring rote learning and standardized testing, is the formula for an even more intellectually pacified and credulous electorate.)
But corporate America doesn’t require an educated or critical citizenry. Quite the contrary. What it requires is a passive work force narrowly trained to perform specific occupations for decreasing wages, who will then overconsume lavishly in their leisure hours. It all works out rather well: Job dissatisfaction is placated by an endless succession of consumer crap (creating new jobs—though probably overseas—making more crap); intellectual boredom is assuaged by a steady diet of media crap (thanks to media deregulation); and any remaining critical stirrings are mollified by supersize portions of tasteless crappy food (thanks to an unregulated food industry). The result: a stupefied, overstuffed citizenry glued to pricey entertainment centers, whose national hobby is ridiculing Europeans for wanting shorter work weeks […]
My “pricey entertainment center” is a decade‐old computer monitor, but I certainly recognized the “stupefied” part. The overstuffed part? Well, I do my best to avoid tasteless crappy food, but once I get hold of Lozzledog’s cookbook I imagine I'll be making supersize portions of tasty Italo‐Australian cuisine. But, like, in writing this article I have rewatched a lot of Masterchef Australia episodes, and just a moment ago I heard Jules from season four tell George and Gary the same thing that almost every contestant says: “This reason I’m here is ’cause I want to change my life—I want to do something that I’m passionate about and that I really want to do.” And I certainly recognize that part too. Which is why I’ve finally started taking some steps to move into a different kind of teaching. It would be nice to spend less time demonstrating how to find the areas of triangles and more time doing some tiny part to foster an educated, critical citizenry that won’t vote for lizard people.