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What MasterChef teaches us about food and the food industry

After recent lacklustre ratings MasterChef is back with a bang – so what’s the secret? MasterChef/Network Ten

The MasterChef juggernaut of old appears to have roared back to life with its seventh season debut earlier this month delivering an audience share win for Network Ten for that Tuesday night.

After recent lacklustre ratings – the result of misjudged gimmicks like 2013’s “boys versus girls” controversy, and a brand fatigued by too many spin-offs – MasterChef: The Professionals, Junior MasterChef and MasterChef All-Stars — the franchise’s record-breaking days looked all but over.

But just when the jewel in Network Ten’s crown seemed dull and tarnished, the seventh iteration of show is back on form, enjoying viewership around the 1 million mark, ahead of reality rivals Reno Rumble on Nine and House Rules on Seven.

The producers tell us this is because of a “back to basics” approach in which there’s less interest in conflict between contestants or their tales of personal hardship and more in their food and cooking.

As a result, we have seen some of the most visually impressive dishes ever presented on MasterChef, such as Marcus’ Golden Egg audition dish, and Reynold’s Forbidden Fruit dessert.

But while this renewed focus on the food has almost certainly saved an ailing franchise, the fact that it has been so popular is a reflection of the increasing sophistication in the culinary desires of Australians — desires that have been in no small part created by MasterChef’s extraordinary influence.

MasterChef has had a notable impact on the eating, cooking and shopping habits of Australians.

It has encouraged us to try new ingredients and new techniques and to buy more kitchen gadgets.

Techniques such as sous vide, tempering chocolate, quenelling and making ice cream have entered the culinary repertoire of “ordinary” cooks thanks to the MasterChef effect.

Three-hatted chefs such as Shannon Bennett and Matt Moran – people who once would have been recognisable only to an elite group of customers who could afford to eat at their (very expensive) restaurants – are now household names thanks to the show.

Isabelle de Solier has described the skills and cultural knowledge that audiences learn from television shows like MasterChef, as “culinary cultural capital” – the ability to read and understand the cultural codes surrounding food.

Rather than simply teaching us how to cook, MasterChef teaches us about a food culture that was previously untouchable without a great deal of economic and cultural capital. And it is making that cultural capital more accessible for the wider population.

Research of one of your current authors (Katherine) conducted in 2013 showed how MasterChef had become a vehicle for ordinary people to discover new chefs and restaurants. For example, people travel to Adriano Zumbo’s shop after seeing him on MasterChef in order to try his macarons and see “what everyone’s talking about”.

This year’s MasterChef contestants, with their restaurant-style plating and their knowledge of high-end restaurant chefs, are much like the people Katherine discovered in her research.

Such contestants have not simply been “discovered” by MasterChef: they are a product of it.

Their views on the desirability of a career in the food industry are in many cases a result of the show’s glamorous representation of chefs and the restaurant business, the realities of which are frequently not as they appear on TV.

Unlike rival cooking shows like My Kitchen Rules, where a food industry career is not necessarily a goal of contestants, contestants on MasterChef must come with the “dream” of working with food.

In a PR exercise for an industry with a shocking reputation for long hours, low pay, sexism, and high rates of alcoholism and substance abuse, MasterChef offers both contestants and audiences a view of the food industry in which the prospect of a culinary career is positioned as an enticing dream, rather than a difficult pathway.

Contestants such as Reynold and Kha persist with their “food dream” despite the wishes of their families. Reynold’s family, who own Sydney patisserie Artplate, “didn’t want their youngest son to pursue a career in the industry, knowing it can be tough”.

And Kha, despite being recently eliminated from the competition, has secured his “dream job” at a Melbourne restaurant.

So while MasterChef might teach us a lot about food and food trends, it also glosses over some of the harsher realities of the industry that produces this food. The unsociable work hours, the bullying, the heat – this is not part of the culinary cultural capital that we learn from MasterChef.

MasterChef offers contestants and viewers a taste of the cooking techniques and presentation style of the restaurant industry, and presents these to us in ways that make them seem both aspirational and desirable.

This has given MasterChef the ratings boost it so desperately needed, but it has done this without engaging with the realities of the industry that the show is essentially promoting.

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