Out of the “Box”: Reflecting on Culinary Diversity in MasterChef Australia
As a foreword, dear reader: this is an unpacking and reflection of several themes that have arisen throughout the 2018 season and the continuation of an important conversation.
The tenth season of MasterChef Australia really has been a rollercoaster of emotions: from the joyous and rapturous applause at the beginning, to the doldrums towards the end before inevitably picking back up at the Grand Final. However, the most important observation from this season was the active suppression of the contestants’ growth and exploration beyond their comfort zone, skillset, and knowledge base. Before we dive into the events that led me to write this, let’s go back to the very beginning of the season.
Hot and Cold, with a sprinkling of diversity
In the season premiere, we get a montage from previous winners, and there are a few things you can take away from it. The nine winners come from a variety of different backgrounds and lived experiences, and looking at specific aspects like gender and cultural background, six are women: Julie Goodwin, Kate Bracks, Emma Dean, Billie McKay, Elena Duggan, and Diana Chan from Seasons 1, 3, 5, 7, 8, and 9, respectively; and two who can trace their cultural roots to South-East Asia: Adam Liaw from Season 2, who has a mixed Malaysian-Singaporean and Eurasian background, and Diana, who has a Peranakan heritage. There isn’t much in terms of cultural diversity when it comes to winners, and there was probably a vision of this year’s winner by the production team, but let’s look past that for now.
The makeup of the Top 24 is probably the most diverse group of contestants I’ve seen on MasterChef Australia. We’ve got (in order of appearance in the opening credits):
· Jenny Lam, who was eliminated at Beer Manor with an off-balance dish
· Ben Borsht, who, from Top 10 onwards couldn’t believe how far he’d come
· Chloe Carroll, whose skills include noodles and mincing, sometimes together
· Tim Talam, aka ‘Meat Bae’ and fellow Filipino
· Denise Valdez, world traveller with a drifting accent
· Sashi Cheliah, The ‘Roti Pak’ or ‘Roti Uncle’ of this series, Singaporean rep, double Immunity Pin holder, and 2018 MasterChef winner!
· Genene Dwyer, who wasn’t able to recreate the “Lemon Meringue Pie”
· Samira Damirova, resident bread maker and the closest we’ll get to having Eurovision
· Loki Madireddi, trickster Norse god who will now be known for being eliminated whilst holding onto an Immunity Pin
· Gina Ottaway, nonna and gatekeeper to the pasta vault
· Lisa Diep, who got INTO THE CHOPPER, and also was the last contestant to have been eliminated before the Second Chance Cook-Off
· Khanh Ong, self-appointed meme queen and mushroom lover
· Brendan Pang, Mauritian-Australian with Chinese heritage (how’s THAT for a combo), social worker and unabashedly MY favourite person from this season
· Kristen Sheffield, wonderfully skilled at desserts
· Reece Hignell, who may have ruined a friendship over a duck
· Jess Liemantara, who is 19 (which I didn’t know until the end of the season)!
· Brett McGrath, who I think was the first one eliminated?
· Michelle Walsh, whose prawn burger very nearly killed the judges
· Adele Elliott, Southern Fried Chicken enthusiast
· Metter Chin, who reminds me of those hawker centre uncles, and proud Hakka man
· Sarah Clare, carrot lover and apparently has the ability create multiples of herself
· Jo Kendray, aka “Mamma Jo” with an adept use of her own GIFs on Twitter
· Aldo Ortado, as food show fan podcast The Washing Up put it, “We thought he was with Gina,” and should get his own show (c’mon, SBS)
· Hoda Kobeissi, the Empress of the Euphrates, Goddess of the Gulf, teacher to Nigella Lawson, and aiming to support underprivileged families in making healthy food on a budget
Overall, there are quite a number of people from non-Anglo/non-European cultures like Azerbaijan, Mexico, and Mauritius, those from the LGBTQIA+ community, along with a greater range of ages represented. So far, so good, MasterChef. So far.
Over the first few weeks there seems to be a few consistent things that happen: Gina loves her pasta, Loki and Sashi sit fairly comfortably in cooking Indian food, with Jess, Reece, and Kirsten all doing mostly desserts. As the competition continues to move forward, one would expect people to continue to take risks by experimenting with other cuisines they may not be familiar with or prove themselves to the judges by displaying the growth and refinement in their skillset. This year, however, it appears that for one reason or another that safety would be the overarching theme, and one I feel was detrimental to the viewing experience. Some challenges stick out for me due to the stark contrasts between allowing someone to cook a dish that is supposed to be a generalised representation of an area and actively keeping a contestant within their cultural “box” for the sake of perpetuating a narrative of expertise, thereby hindering their growth as a well-rounded cook. So let’s open the great big box that is culture!
The Food Diaspora
Food is something that can cross borders, and ultimately bring people together. It’s more than just a method of sustaining life; food can also tell a story of a country’s cultural history, which may consist of mutual exchanges, colonial oppression, the yearning of independence, and resilience. It can also tell the story of one’s own personal experience with cultures, either by reconnecting with their own or discovering another culture and gaining the knowledge and history behind the food and recreating them for their own personal enjoyment or to share and impart their experience to friends and family. There’s also another story: one of adaptability, where migrants who want to cook the dishes from their home country but are unable to do so because of the lack of access to specific ingredients, or alternatively want to share food from their home country but have to amend them to satisfy the taste preferences of the consumer. The latter is one many might know from first-hand experience or it may be stirring up memories from years ago where the only Asian takeaway shop or shopping centre food court buffet in the area served dishes that vaguely resembled those from their home country, like lemon chicken, sweet and sour pork, chop suey, Singapore noodles, butter chicken/chicken tikka masala, beef and black bean sauce, Mongolian beef/lamb, and the phenomenon that is fried rice. They’re very iconic dishes that were made for the average consumer because it was a less shocking of an introduction to the nuances of their home country’s cuisine. Save for those who were in a position to travel to other places like India, Singapore, Indonesia, China, or Japan, these were the ‘touchstones’ for many Australians.
Fast forward to today, take a walk around many capital cities in Australia and not only will you see the classic fare, but you’ll find Korean places serving up yukgaejang or Korean fried chicken (which in my opinion is far better to the Kentucky kind) and beer, Sichuan eateries and their malatang, or Filipino restaurants with their boodle fight experiences and lechon. Go out a little further and you’ll find Asian cafes open until the late hours serving matcha or taro lattes, shaved ice desserts, and waffles, and Malaysian and Singaporean hideaways with their laksa, chicken rice, and nasi lemak. In regional areas, the exposure to different cuisines comes through with community meetups, church potlucks, or birthday parties. These new and emerging ‘touchstones’ give Australians a greater insight into how diverse the community is. Now back to MasterChef.
The Man, The “Box”, and The Identity Crisis
The real trigger events that sparked my Twitter rant about this idea of the “box” came soon after Royal “Week” (with Brendan having left a second time but also having his departure SPOILED by the pre-ad promos). In the Mystery Box challenge in which the contestants had to plate up three identical dishes, Sashi served the judges banana leaf-steamed barramundi with a ginger and coriander salsa. By looks alone, one would’ve seen a difference in how he’s plated this dish. For one thing, it’s not a curry, and it looks like Sashi’s trying to refine his plating skills. But the judges wanted it to be served in the banana leaf because it “was Sashi.” And as has been portrayed by the show, Sashi is the ‘Flavour King’, known for doing curries that pack punches, and a very rustic plating style. What George said to Sashi really did strike me as dismissive of his efforts to improve his plating skills and to meet the brief of each plate needing to be identical. And as much as the viewing audience would like to believe otherwise, there would be a chance that the judges wouldn’t have liked the banana leaf being on the plate had Sashi served it. That being said, all of the judges enjoyed the flavours of the dish without the banana leaf. The next challenge of the night saw the contestants required to use salt, pepper, or oil as a main cooking component of their dish, with Gary providing a quick history lesson on the history of chilli and how pepper was mostly used in many Asian cuisines. He is then perplexed when Sashi then tells him that he will make a chilli oil. Maybe Gary forgot that the use of chilli in Asian food has been around for at least 400 years, thanks to trade, and he just left out an order of magnitude? We’ll never really know.
The next episode sees the contestants attempt to reimagine a TV dinner, with Sashi cooking against Khanh redoing fish and chips, and Chloe against Jess tasked with making a roast beef dinner. And this is the point where I flip tables, specifically at the lack of a reaction to Chloe’s approach to the challenge. Put it simply, Chloe decides that halfway through the challenge that her original concept will not work and instead attempts to pull from her knowledge bank and create a “South-East Asian” version of the dish. The fundamental problem with this categorisation is the vastly different flavour profiles that are preferred by each South-East Asian country and region within each country: the traditional spices and Anglo-Dutch influences of Malay and Indonesian cooking, the salt-sour of Thai, the fresh herbs and French techniques that bring life to Vietnamese cooking, the reimagined Spanish dishes from the Philippines, and every combination in between. Not all of these flavours work well together, yet for some reason Chloe decides that the term “South-East Asian” is good enough to convince the judges, and (un)surprisingly, it won them over (insert eye-roll here). Why is this problematic, you might ask? Well, apart from the broad categorisation, this particular scene can be interpreted as ‘White people are best able to adapt foreign foods or flavours and use it to suit them as they please’. To me, this was a prime example of that. Why is she able to use that and get praise when at the same time, people who have grown up in that culture get constantly ribbed and seemingly put down? Is this a reflection of the Eurocentric leanings of the MasterChef Australia judges themselves?
Flash forward to Finals Week, where we see Ben, Jess, and Sashi cooking on a boat for Danielle Alvarez, Ross Lusted, Jock Zonfrillo, and Lennox Hastie, supposedly the four best chefs in Australia. Throughout the challenge, it is explicitly mentioned that Ross has spent a lot of time in Singapore, and is aptly named the “Chicken Rice Expert” by the others. When it comes to the judging of Sashi’s dish, however, there appears to be a bit of inconsistency. Whilst praising the flavour, they all appear to think that the dish presented by Sashi is a little too minimalist, or as Danielle puts it, “fancy.”
I think the true disconnect is that whilst they may have their own thoughts about what they think Chicken Rice is meant to be (and believe me, the live-tweeters had thoughts about their thoughts), they seemed to forget that they’re filming for MasterChef Australia, a show that has come to develop such a name for itself locally and abroad. As such, there’s a certain level of class that’s come to be associated with it; why is it that this season in particular had so many domes, smears, and splatters? To critique a dish that was presented as being for high concept dining by coming in with a perception of it being ‘cheap’ not only misses the entire point of the challenge but also perpetuates the perceived lower value associated with Asian (in particular, South-East Asian) cooking that has been around in countries like the US and Australia for a long time.
Would you like some tea?
Food tells a story. Not only is it sustenance, but it can tell a story of migration or acculturation, of experimentation or struggles, of pragmatism or simplicity. Put another way, food tells you a lot about the people who cooked it. A lot of people who cook good love doing it because it gives them a chance to tell their story or because they see joy from the people they cook for. I’m sure a lot of chefs do the same. However, based on what happened in this past season of MasterChef Australia, I can’t say for certain that the judges continue to embody this. Whether it’s because they’ve become complacent and picky (how many times have the hinted at crispy skin) or for narrative reasons, production have cut it this way, something’s amiss. I’d like to say, “I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed,” but I’m genuinely frustrated. Whilst genuine visible diversity has been increasing on the show, it seems that from a culinary perspective, it’s lagged behind in bringing in culturally diverse judges that champion their community’s food and raise it to a similar level of praise that is accorded to Italian and French cooking.
So what now? Honestly, I’m not sure if I’ll be watching the 2019 season. I think that whilst MasterChef Australia has indeed changed the landscape of how many Australians eat, there are significant issues in the way that the narrative has been constructed that still don’t quite sit right with me. I mean, that’s why it’s called ‘Structured Reality Television’; there’s still a structure. More concerning is the perceived notion that praise is preferentially given to those who ‘discover’ cultures rather than those who have a lived experience of it. If the contestants are able to be authentic to themselves and not just use certain flavours because they went on holiday and loved the food but because they want to genuinely tell a story, that would be great. Better yet, I’d like to see contestants of colour be given praise for showing the audience what food from their homeland is and how it can be served in a both refined and authentic. Why? Because that shows that the “box” has been lifted. As much as I’d like for this to be the case this season, I hold little hope for it to happen. Prove me wrong, Ten.