I’ve never been a cooking show person. Their rise in popularity over the last few years has been monumental – Masterchef and My Kitchen Rules are some of the most highly rated TV shows in Australia, and their judges are household names. It’s mainly the lack of time to sit down and watch the five new Masterchef episodes that churn out weekly that turns me off. And the fact that I get way too frustrated with the contestants, and just want to shout “but I could do that!” (mostly, anyway). But there is something else, too.
They turn the necessity of cooking into an artificial, contrived competition – removing the enjoyment and replacing it with stress, staged emotional conflict between contestants and booming reality TV theme songs. I read recently that during Masterchef, the entire pressurised tasting segment really involves cold plates of food, completed hours earlier and refrigerated while the judges go off to eat lunch first. Apparently if you have time, you make two of your dish – so the judges can try one during filming while it is still fresh. I get that this is probably unavoidable with the nature of TV schedules etc etc…but doesn’t it make those exaggerated judge reactions, swallowing down mouthfuls of tepid food, seem a little bit fake? I’m not 100% against it. It has launched the successful careers of many now (with Nadia Lim being a prime example), and it’s entertaining – it’s just not my thing.
Enter Chef’s Table, the Netflix documentary style series documenting the rise of professional chefs in high-end restaurants worldwide. It’s the raw challenges – the 15, 16, 17 hour days, the lack of a life outside of the kitchen, the questioning of “is this even worth it?”, the bleeding fingers and extreme pressure to succeed – set against a backdrop of elegant visuals and artistic camera work. Though more focussed on the individual chef than the food, it is another case of living vicariously through the screen. We can imagine visiting that $300 per head restaurant and watch the behind-the-scenes footage of the kitchen plating ethereal dishes. Yes, it’s inspiring. Yes, it’s beautiful. Yes, I find it fascinating as a person fully interested in every aspect of the industry and its players. Yes, I’m sure I will end up watching the remaining episodes. But it’s not how 99.999% of the world cooks or eats.
This morning I listened to a Food52 podcast interview with Nigella Lawson. For her it is about love, and food, and relatability. It’s a change from the elaborate, complicated world of professional chefs and cooking competitions – as she says, “it’s not performance art cooking”. She discusses the rhythm of the kitchen, the playfulness of changing up ingredients, the simplicity of a recipe made so many times it almost runs in your veins. But she acknowledges that “you don’t always feel like cooking”, and that it isn’t always enjoyable – which is a particularly human approach. She is a home cook, an eater. It’s the language of somebody who loves food, but doesn’t always have time to follow recipes, and knows food well enough to take the fridge contents and make something of it – a skill I am trying to work on….