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MasterChef - a dash of free market, with a pinch of salt

Unrestrained girth … sorry, mirth: MasterChef judges are tough but fair.

In the 1980s Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko arguably became a neoliberal pin-up when he uttered the phrase: “Greed…is good. Greed works.”

Fast forward to 2011 and there appears to be another creed: “Cream is good”.

Instead of unrestrained growth, there is unrestrained girth. And rather than the boardroom, the setting is the kitchen.

It’s Masterchef.

On the face of it, it may be hard to see the connection between neoliberalism and one of the most successful shows on Australian television.

But delving deeper, both share some interesting common tenets - such as an emphasis on growth, individualism and upward mobility.

While the format of the show is like other ‘transformation’ television shows, MasterChef differs in that contestants have ambitions to become successful chefs in their own right and mix it with the celebrity judges.

This is despite the majority of contestants (23 of the 24 contestants in last year’s series) who are already in successful middle class careers such as teaching, law and IT, as well as artistic professionals in areas like museums and opera.

The judges are revered for being celebrities, personalities, and experts. At times, when a guest judge appears, there are almost orgasmic noises, as the contestants realise they are mixing it with world-renowned chefs.

Unlike that other popular ‘transformation’ television show, The Biggest Loser, where the contestants ‘confess’ to their sins of losing control of their bodies, in MasterChef there is little or no discussion about meals being low-calorie or low-fat.

MasterChef contestants are portrayed as being “in control”; in control of the cooking process and in control of their bodies.

Weight does not seem to be a problem for the middle class cook even though the food they prepare is not prepared with weight loss in mind.

MasterChef has been labeled as ‘gentler’ than other transformation television programs and the three usual judges, all male – George, Matt, and Garry – rarely raise their voices, or condemn contestants for failing to “plate up” in the expected manner. (Although there is very little room for criticism in MasterChef.)

The gendered element should also not be lost. While they often act as mentors and console tearful contestants – and men are much as women – the masculinity implicit in the restaurant is ever present.

Even it is an ‘absence’ in the form of the swearing, yelling, hyper-masculine behaviour that is present in Gordon Ramsay’s cooking shows.

The question remains; what is about these mainly middle class professionals jobs that are so repugnant that they want to change to a career that is at best precarious and at worst, a well-trodden road to extreme stress and substance abuse?

Middle class occupations have been at the forefront of major changes, which might explain this apparent growing distaste for the professions.

Over the past two decades there has been a general increase in the level of bureaucratic reporting, compliance and auditing required and this has reduced the level of autonomy of middle class occupations and the frustration levels.

Neoliberal philosophies have now penetrated the workplace and impact on individuals by stressing that there is no longer a job or life.

Rather, your organisation or your industry might disappear by going out of business or simply go abroad.

The middle class professional needs to be constantly updating their skills and qualifications, to be networking, updating their CVs, and ‘moving forward’, wherever that may take them.

Like MasterChef, the middle class professional, needs to be striving for ‘excellence’ in a technical sense, but also needs to develop what is called ‘emotional intelligence".

Being aware of how one’s sense of ‘self’ comes across to other colleagues, being a team player, being able to take criticism without taking it personally, being able to be self-critical of their own work, are all traits which are now being rewarded.

These traits are played out in the episodes of MasterChef.

In this current series, some contestants were penalised because they shared some cooking duties.

A night or two later, some contestants were rewarded because they went to the pantry, took some ingredients and began cooking food; they were rewarded with extra time.

In the end, the emotional intelligence of knowing when it is appropriate to take the initiative or not seems rather ad hoc.

And that may be the important point. The expert chef on MasterChef is beyond criticism; whatever ‘he’ says is the last word.

The neoliberal manager would give their kitchen sink to get the unrequited dedication from their subordinates.

Maybe MasterChef might be able to deliver what trade unions and professional associations these days are not able to deliver because of years of neoliberal policies; the promise of a better life.

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