Monday, May 02, 2011

tuning out

This post was originally published in May 2009. I've just polished it off and filed it under:

Why I'm not watching MasterChef

I’ve been more than lukewarm about the latest hyped reality television show – MasterChef. I love food, like cooking but I’ve known enough chefs to get an inkling of just how tough being an actual chef really is. Hospitality has nightmare working hours, inhospitable conditions and should carry a health warning for both body and soul. Boudain’s , Kitchen Confidential wasn’t a piece of fiction. Yet despite this brave soul’s brave all to 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 (as did Jamie Oliver’s) 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 wannabes bashing herbs into submission. Food is sexy, so by extension are those linked to it. Even oversized, cravat wearing food critics. 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 well they cook.

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 dirty of 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 nutrition 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.

* 2011 update: A couple of seasons into the Masterchef phenomena we are yet to see any contestant in the final cut to hack a traditional apprenticeship. Two notables from the first season have by-passed the basics and on gone straight to opening a restaurant, though don’t seem to handle criticism well. Injera has an update on what some of the MC alumni are doing now.

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Anonymous Food Ally said...

I get sick of food bloggers pissing on about health and food.
Nearly all know bugger all about the issues and even the so-called experts have varying views.
is this a health blog or a food blog?
Butter is far better for you than margarine and you need a bit of fat in the spuds to add texture.
To your own taste but steaming spuds is crap.
So is MasterChef.

12:27 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Totally agree that butter is better, rather it's the quantities that are jaw droppingly stupendous. But hey, the title of this blog says it all :)

2:46 pm  
Anonymous Relishment (Rory Hart) said...

Simply cannot deal with reality tv in any of its forms. I have had several people I should audition and I ask them why? I certainly don't want fame and I love cooking as a hobby but don't want to turn it into a job. The hours are long, the competition is fierce and the pay is crap. I have the upmost respect for those who can take the proverbial and literal heat in the kitchen.

Better I stay at my keyboard making a good living and making elaborate meals for dear friends in my plentiful spare time.

11:29 pm  
Blogger Nettles said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7:50 pm  
Blogger Nettles said...

yep - have to agree with the AOF on this one, although I am a bit sheltered and haven't seen an episode of the aforementioned, um, chef thing.

And, as AOF has said above, (deep sigh) it's not the butter - great food stuff, but the quantities that are potentially problematic. I mean, do you want potatoes with all that butter? Each to their own, sure, but gawd...

'Food Ally', (note inverted commas, and sorry you've been so wounded by the connection between health and good food, as though they're mutually exclusive), if you'd read this blog a bit more closely you'd see its focus is on damned fine food that also often just happens to support good health. And a more complex understanding of good health than your superficial take on that. AOF has more dignity than I, and is possibly not as irritated by your, "Food Ally".

Didn't notice butter being maligned here, but if that's what "Food Ally" chooses to see...Also when has margarine been mentioned? (bi-product of Satan's arse that it is).

With "food allies" like this, *passes margarine*.

8:08 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Thanks Nettles. I'm trying to learn to pick my battles:)
PS "bi-product of Satan's arse" LOL, I'm guessing there's some good EBM for that :)

2:28 pm  
Anonymous Food Ally said...

Sorry, you are nettled, er Nettles.
I don't follow this blog closely but based my response solely on the item in question.
That's pretty fair.
What gets me is how food writing has also often become health writing.
Whether it's butter, olive oil, carbs, protein, fat, ``healthy grains'', omega 3,6,9 or whatever.
Just write about the grub and how delicious/atrocious it is.
That's all.

5:40 pm  
Blogger FoodieFi said...

I love this post. Masterchef has as much to do with food as Trainspotting does about public transport :)

4:03 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Thanks Fi.

4:16 pm  

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