Now in its tenth year, finally British viewers have the chance to see this turbocharged version of the reality mainstay that blends culinary skills with compassion
The Bake Off contestants might have been revealed today but, Masterchef Australia, currently celebrating its tenth year running, is one the most beautiful culinary show on TV. It not only stands out among food shows – although even just as a masterclass in diverse cuisines it ranks pretty highly – but for sheer entertainment and emotional bangs per buck, it delivers as well as any box set series. Which is fortunate, as it requires quite an investment from you. Each season is something like 65 hours, and that’s before you factor in the time you’ve spent googling current and former contestants and their progress in life because you’re so invested in it.
Australia was the first country to turbocharge the Masterchef format. Over seven months of filming, 24 finalists are hothoused, living together, cooking together every day, and facing challenges up to and including replicating Michelin-starred dishes, that are purpose made to push them over the edge. There are times when it feels like you’re watching some sort of shamanic initiation, as keen amateurs are broken down to the point of dissolution of ego, only to be rebuilt as superhuman cooks. And it reaps rewards: it has consistently been one of the most-watched shows on Australian TV, and not just its winners but more and more of the finalists each season instantly become part of the Australian culinary establishment.
This supersized format has been franchised all over the world, but the Australian version remains the best by a country mile thanks to two things: its geniality, and the food culture. Now, obviously, one should be under no illusions about television production, and Masterchef Australia is laden with casting and editing decisions that are as ruthlessly designed to press all your buttons without mercy as anything in any other reality TV show. Sometimes it’s absolutely transparent when the manipulations are taking place, and if contestants are missing their children, or have a noble job that they’ve left to be on the show, or have had a life-threatening illness, it’ll all be milked.
But somehow, underlying all this, there’s an unmistakeable Aussie camaraderie, a give-a-bloke-a-fair go attitude among the contestants and judges that pulls the rug out from the cynical viewer again and again. And actually, you don’t get that much back story. Most of the emotional tug is from the relationships and the growing personalities that you see developing in front of you on screen, episode by episode.
The judges hold it all together perfectly. In fact, two of them are English-born, but both Gary Mehigan and Matt Preston are thoroughly naturalised. Mehigan and the third judge George Calombaris are both respected chefs, while Preston is Australia’s top restaurant critic.
Purely in televisual terms, they are dynamite: the tiny, shaven headed Calombaris, the beefy and genial Mehigan and the archly avuncular man-mountain Preston play off one another constantly, and they are hands-on: Calombaris and Mehigan both running the kitchens during service challenges. None are soppy – for all the heartstring-tugging, there is never any illusion about the brutal nature of the catering business – but they are engaged, and Calombaris in particular creates great moments when his pugnacious exterior gives way to Yoda-like wisdom at moments of great crisis for contestants.
But all of this would just be theatre if it weren’t for the substance of the show – the cooking. And that is where its Australianness comes into its own, because what we see is not the inward-looking, protectionist country of Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott, but an immigrant nation, a part of the Asia-Pacific region, where people’s stories are told through food.
This season’s stars include a burly, bear-like Indian-Singaporean prison officer, a fearsomely high-camp Vietnamese EDM DJ born in a refugee camp, an almost impossibly lovable young Mauritian boxer, an effervescent Italian nonna, and on it goes. And through them you can learn more about the multiple strands and fusions of cuisine that run through that whole corner of the globe. There are guest spots too, from Nigella Lawson, Heston Blumenthal, Gordon Ramsay, Prince Charles – and some of them are fun – but they pale in comparison to the real reasons for watching Masterchef Australia, the real reasons you will laugh, cry and salivate: the people, their lives, and their food.
Masterchef Australia starts 29 August at 5:30pm
This article was originally sourced from here.