Sunday, May 10, 2009

putting reality back into television and the truth about mash

I’ve been more than lukewarm about the latest hyped reality television show – Masterchef. I love food, like cooking but have known enough chefs to get an inkling of just how tough being an actual chef really is. Hospitality has nightmare working hours and conditions. Commercial kitchens are uncomfortable and at times dangerous places, just look at the scarred hands and arms of those who work there. As for the lifestyle of your average chef, ”Kitchen Confidential” wasn’t a piece of fiction. Yet many brave souls follow their passion, get paid ridiculously low wages and sign up for apprenticeships to become chefs. Good on them.

Celebrity chefs/cooks are not a new phenomena. Graham Kerr, “The Galloping Gourmet”, first started broadcasting in 1959 and no one can forget Julia Childs. Both were more television personalities who cooked rather than classically apprenticed, restaurant chefs. Kerr’s parents owned hotels and his first job was in management rather than the kitchen. Childs took herself off to Le Cordon Bleu to study and started teaching cooking classes. So perhaps considering the lineage of television “chefs”, it is not so crazy to turn a home cook into an overnight media sensation, with a little training in technique and a lot of PR.

Celebrity chefs are an extension of the “food porn” industry, complete with glossy cookbooks, Nigella pouts and Oliver’s home ware. Food is sexy and so therefore are those linked to it (though cravat wearing food critics may be pushing it a bit, a woman that unattractive, chunky and with such bad taste in clothes would never have got the gig). Reality television is the home of the overnight sensation, so our current obsession with food and watching Ms Average getting all teary on telly is an obvious hit. However when it comes to those who actually go into the industry the old fashioned way, the reality is most chefs don’t even get a guest spot on Ready, Steady, Cook, no matter how skilled they are.

Masterchef will not turn these home cooks into chefs. There’s not enough graft or training to do that. I doubt if any in the top 20 (or more than a handful of the 7,000 hopefuls who auditioned for the show) would be prepared to swap a future in the law, their current established career or at the age of 40-something actually choose to step onto the bottom rung of the commercial kitchen hierarchy. What attracts people to the gig is fame and fortune, book signings and the odd gig demonstrating a dish. Will any end up in a restaurant kitchen and if they do could they stick it out? I find it very doubtful.

My food nazi moment for the week was the episode that was actually of interest to anyone who has a passion for cooking, rather than the soapy storyline the series is trying to spin. This week featured an actual masterclass, a down to earth; here is how you make restaurant food demonstration. Four simple dishes - some lamb (a great basic intro for carnivores), mash, eggy bread (fantastic loved that one) and a simple though creamy chocolate mousse. For me this was the standout of the whole series. In fact can we cut the hype, jettison the star making, drop the amateur dramatics and just have Gary and George do some simple cooking demos - no cravat wearing critics need apply.

But the genius of adding lemon zest to French toast aside, the health abiding person in me loved the reality-check moment when Gary made mash (or pomme puree, if you prefer). Just watching the skinny, food loving female contestants faces when he threw in the stick of butter was fantastic. Yes this is what restaurant food is all about. Bourdain didn’t just dish the dirt on the secret life of kitchen staff but he drove home the message to readers that the amount of butter in traditional chef-cuisine is literally heart stopping and don’t forget – never order the fish on a Monday!

But back to the heart stopping pomme puree. The spud cooking technique was brilliant – whole jacked potatoes cooked at 160c for 2 hours, baked on a bed of sea salt to draw out the moisture. But wait here comes the butter. The demo showed Gary throwing in 100gms per spud, with an extra dollop for luck plus some whole milk for good measure.

In nutritional terms that worked out to over 720 calories/3000 kilojoules of 80% fat butter, in each modest serve of mash – over a third of your daily food requirements in the side dish alone. Nowhere on this site have you seen the dreaded word “kilojoule” before. It is a cold hard technical term, not sexy and definitely not part of the vernacular of food porn. But “reality” television in its truest sense has driven me to it.

So the take home message. If you have any respect for your health – skip the mash. Go for a steamed potato, even by comparison a scant handful of chips doesn’t look so bad.

But most of all, stick to being a cook, just use a modest splash of fat in your mash at home. Even if this won’t bring the dreamed of book deal you hanker for, you might live long enough to achieve a whole lot more.

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Blogger Maggie said...

My mother used to make mash for us as kids, with milk and a little butter. I remember it being so terrible. All lumpy and watery, yuk.

It wasn't until I moved to the big smoke, and started working in fine dining restaurants, where funnily enough mash featured prominently in staff meals.

I KNOW butter is bad. But in a fine dining European style restaurant I can't help myself. My opinion on mash, do it right, or don't do it at all!

Even if I have to pull a few extra hours at the gym, mash, I love thee so.

3:39 pm  
Blogger Wendy said...

It's funny. I agree with most of what you say about Masterchef entirely yet it's the only cooking show I occasionally watch on TV. I get a kick out of predicting what the presenters comments on each dish are going to be!

Like the sound of the masterclass episode. Don't think they've done that in the UK version. Can't get over the amount of butter in that mash though! I love a good dollop of butter and creme fraiche in my occasionally eaten mash but 100g per potato????

5:16 pm  
Blogger Johanna said...

A friend of mine who worked in a pub kitchen has told me that the reason food tastes better when you eat out is all the butter, cream and salt! Probably just as well that Vegetarian meals rarely come with mash when I eat out.

I missed that masterchef episode unfortunately but have seen some and all the unnecessary and exploitative drama annoys me

9:51 am  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

The episode is hyperlinked to the channel 10 catch up archive for Australian readers who wish to see it.

10:00 am  
Anonymous gen said...

I really enjoyed reading your post, it had me grinning all the way through! Well written!!

3:56 pm  

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