Television

Shows like MasterChef have little to do with food, but instead reveal how we’ve become gluttons for meaning.

By Helen Razer.

Food shows overcook reality

A scene from the reality show MasterChef.
Credit: Courtesy of Network Ten

When chef Jean Bowring first broadcast from the Melbourne studios of HSV-7 in 1957, the central purpose of a TV cook was to show women how to tart up cheap meat. If there was any undeclared cultural function of the home economics of early food TV, it was no more sinister than the promotion of good wives and the Gas and Fuel Corporation. Food television, which has now moved from daytime to prime time, still sells us the good news about corporations; Wesfarmers pours millions into branding its Coles supermarkets on MasterChef Australia. But now, it produces so much more than casseroles.

Food TV is about a good deal more than simply watching what we eat. It’s a means by which we reheat ideology that is past its “best before” date.

Our first TV cook taught us how to disguise the flavour of offal. On the last days of this year’s MasterChef, the scientistic superstar Heston Blumenthal showed us it was possible to disguise food completely. He told finalists, “Our challenge today is deception.”

Since its emergence in 2009, MasterChef has deceived its viewers. It does this in some fairly evident ways: its apparent endorsement of seasonal, local and sustainable produce and its actual endorsement of a supermarket chain; its glamorous elevation of the backbreaking reality of professional cooking that gives a worker just enough time to wash off the stench of fryer oil between cruel split shifts. And then, of course, there’s the duplicitous pornography of Zumbo’s V8 vanilla cake or Peter Gilmore’s guava snow egg. Viewers are even less likely to make Blumenthal’s “soil” from olives at home than they are to try the advanced reverse cowgirl position they saw on RedTube in their bedrooms. MasterChef  is an inventory of things that don’t exist in the real world, including major supermarkets that support food security and chef apprenticeships that can be fast-tracked outside TAFE.

But it’s not just these deceptions, of the sort we can also find in the genuinely rubbish My Kitchen Rules and in “reality” television more generally, that make contemporary food television so peculiar. The chief deception is that these programs are about food at all. 

Blumenthal, who is famous for taking a perfectly decent game hen and making it look like a rejected Pixar character that exudes gin mist from its back-end and requires the diner to listen to a soundscape on an iPod to understand the “irony” of a dish, took the survivors of finals week through a “deception” challenge. They were asked to make their food look like something that it wasn’t. The guy who claimed victory did so by serving a plate of something that looked like an expired campfire; apparently, it was inspired by the story of his father’s difficult life. Another contestant had not tried hard enough to make her plum look like something other than a plum. This act of simple representation led to her disqualification. In MasterChef, one cannot simply signify. One must create meaning.

When you look at the food simulacra that are the stock in trade of molecular gastronomy, and feature so heavily on programs such as MasterChef, you begin to suspect that Ferran Adrià might have opened El Bulli after a bad crash course in French postmodern thought. This trend of culinary deception, which has persisted for nearly 20 years, owes less to Baudrillard than it does, perhaps, to the deception of mothers who turn plates of fruit into smiley faces to confuse their children into eating. It is too tempting not to see the transformation of substance into a simulacrum as a model for the way cooking shows now function. 

MasterChef has as much to do with actual cooking as Heston’s dirt has to do with olives. What it creates is not dishes but surplus meaning. We see contestants asked to present themselves “on a plate”, and they are required to invent a narrative to accompany their sous-vide eggs to explain, I don’t know, their struggle with IVF. To anyone forced to study Derrida at university, this is a shocking reification of the troubling axiom, “There is nothing outside the text.” Which is to say, any object can be said to be a text and so signify anything in an endless chain of meaning that has no starting point. 

There is a good argument to be made that ours is an age of compulsive interpretation. When contestants on reality TV can be said to represent themselves “on a plate”, or where Matt Preston can call a dish “witty” or “clever”, you know there’s something peculiar going on. We can see this in the broader culture, too. Everything is meaningful, from Ian Thorpe’s “coming out” to the picture of Lara Bingle naked in the shower. And everything has power to create dangerous meaning. Never have we seen the view that everything is meaningful so stupidly declared as when Bill Henson exhibited at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in 2008. Columnist Miranda Devine was the first of many to say that these chiaroscuro pictures would result in the “sexing up of our children”.

This claim is as absurd and as arbitrary as saying that food can speak of its author. But they say it on MasterChef, on My Kitchen Rules and on the well-intentioned but dreadful The Cook and the Chef. Even on what is certainly the worst of all Australian cooking programs, Good Chef Bad Chef. Here on network daytime, we meet a classical Italian chef who likes to use too much cheese and a tedious woman who believes that superfoods are our salvation. Their constant bickering about how much cream to put on something is intended to “represent” moderation in eating, just as most of every season of MasterChef  is intended to represent the possibility of upward mobility for people who couldn’t be arsed doing a chef’s apprenticeship. Everything is meaningful. There is an oversupply of meaning in everything they cook and everything on TV. 

If we say often enough that an interview with a swimmer can stop youth suicide, or beautiful pictures can cause child abuse, or that a croquembouche can represent hope, we begin to believe it. 

It should be said, there was a decent era in cooking TV. Early Nigella represented nothing more harmful than the intersection of sex with food and her “domestic goddess” cooking had the added bonus of actually being fairly easy to replicate. Before he became the simultaneous champion of supermarket savings and children, Jamie Oliver was also quite good in his relatively non-toxic business of making the production of hollandaise seem manly. But the simple fetish of these early prime-time cooking shows has been eclipsed by the bitter ideology as seen on MasterChef.

What television now cooks up is the fiction that everything is meaningful; that immersion in a nitrogen bath or in a glorious moment of hope can transform us. It turns cooks into oracles and poets and food into an alphabet of infinite complexity. And it tells us that a snow egg can transport us from the everyday.

Welcome to the Dessert of the Real.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 9, 2014 as "Overcooking reality". Subscribe here.

Helen Razer
is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.