MasterChef Australia and the reality of reality TV

I have been watching MasterChef Australia for some time. One part of me is drawn to the idea of watching ordinary dishes turned into something so remarkable simply through the art of plating. Another part of me enjoys the competitive tasks and people’s creativity.

It’s hard to not like a show where ordinary people are given a platform to show their cooking, their learning journey and in recent seasons, a deliberate elevation of migrants’ cooking.

At the same time, I have always felt uneased by the show’s glorification of food when 957 million people across 93 countries do not have enough to eat.

The elitism in cooking is another aspect of MasterChef Australia that I find lacking a place in the real world.

A deconstructed lamington in MasterChef is appraised for its maker’s ingenuity when there is balanced flavour, appropriately contrasting texture, and aesthetically looking like a lamington. Yet, there is never any consideration about the actual concept of deconstruction – pulling apart components of a whole to be able to appreciate the whole’s individual elements – each element is an important part of an ecological system which is the whole.

Coconut, cocoa, wheat, sugar are all ingredients of a lamington and deconstructing a lamington is about recognising the need for each of those elements to sustain as a “natural” part of the food system.

Deconstruction is about looking for transformation of an unsustainable food system not merely to look for alternative ways to achieve the same purpose of consumption, the latter is what a MasterChef deconstruction focuses on.

MasterChef Australia, as with all reality TV, is about entertainment, and rating is the key driver for its production to pull in advertising revenue. The concept of MasterChef Australia is more than just cooking and competition. There is a focus on storytelling, with contestants as characters who journey through MasterChef. The stories show how these characters grow, overcome struggles, make sacrifices to follow and achieve their dream. The central idea is that you can achieve anything if you believe in yourself. This is the story of Australia’s dream, the working class, with aspirations of the middle class.

The ultimate experience of MasterChef Australia centres on competitive tasks to “meet a brief” and differentiate individuals. We are sold the idea of hard work, resilience, and being best of the best. This too is paradoxical. There is competition against one another to survive and competition with oneself to find one’s individual identity in cooking. The show is edited to show friendship, solidarity, bonding although the context is survival of the fittest.

While contestants are given the platform to showcase their talent and learn something in the process, their performances are commodified. So is food and home-cooking.

“You are as good as your last cook”.

Under such conditions, emotions become the lever of MasterChef Australia. Emotions are evoked by the contestants, the judges, and the audience who are drawn into each of these competitive tasks. It’s the show’s ability to capture emotions and demand audience to engage with such emotions that provides it with a winning formula.

Until it goes too far.

In the latest round of elimination in the currently aired 13th season of MasterChef Australia, when one of the contestants put his hand up and said: “I can’t cook.” Three simple words that were a shocking declaration in a MasterChef kitchen.

Prior to this, the audience was given snippets of the contestant’s apprehension about going through another round of cooking:

“This competition is so hard.”

“If I have to go through the second round of cooking, then I don’t think I can – I don’t think I have another dish in me.”

The storyline continued with the focus on the contestant’s state of mind. One of the judges had a one-on-one chat recanting the accolade or reassurance so frequently said to those when they are about or after being eliminated.

“Are you sure, mate? You have done so much to get here. You have achieved so much.”

The contestant replied: “Yes, I am sure. I have nothing left. I think I will be better once I see my wife and family.”

It was heartbreaking to watch, and every bit worthy of the drama promised through the show’s trawler with the caption “Emotional Departure”.

To what extent does a show that aim to promote cooking and developing oneself in the journey of cooking create the conditions that render a person to a state of “I have no dish left inside me”, and then telling a story about his mental health as if it is something of his own becoming?

The simplification of mental health as a social issue to create a story line is sad and immoral. MasterChef Australia’s putting forward a story of individual struggles and translated it to the victimisation of the contestant may be unintended, but it highlights the potential harmful consequences of entertainment consumption if left unquestioned and unaccounted.

Just like the lack of recognition about deconstruction, it does little to shine light on mental health and its derivation from contextual factors. The story as portrayed by MasterChef Australia misses its own role in generating the conditions where people feel judged by their performance against others and feeling incapacitated to do what they actually love doing.

The “individual” narratives that MasterChef Australia sell as stories of aspirations seem unacknowledged of the potential harm that individualism and performative characteristics in a commodified world can bring.

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