Like many reality TV fans, I get caught up in the drama of competitive shows such as MasterChef Australia and more recently, Adriano Zumbo’s Just Desserts. Audiences are given plenty of time over the course of each series to pick a favourite contestant.
We learn about their personal lives, their desire to succeed or how food is linked to memories of cherished family members. We become invested in our favourites and cry with them when they are eliminated or suffer emotional setbacks.
A favourite trope of these shows is the underdog contestant: amateur cooks who are self-taught, sometimes working as low-paid restaurant waitstaff. There’s an implication that regular, ordinary people of all cultural backgrounds (the great Australian “battlers”) can become contestants and pursue their dreams. All that’s required is hard work, determination and a love of food.
Shouldn’t these opportunities for battlers (aka working-class people) to participate in high-end food culture be celebrated? After all, why can’t working-class people become foodies?
Many working-class people have great cooks in their families. Cooks who can make delicious, nutritious meals with ingredients that are beaten, whipped, creamed and ground by hand. Haven’t MasterChef and Just Desserts introduced local audiences to the world of bavarois, espuma and mille-feuille? Surely this is a way to accumulate cultural capital via the television?
As someone with a working-class background (who still identifies as working class despite my position as an academic), I am fascinated and somewhat disturbed by MasterChef and Just Desserts. I like to see working-class people on television.
I am impressed by people who seek an education (regardless of the field). Working-class communities have always had autodidacts who find ways to learn. Chefs have come from working-class families.
But what kind of world is on display in these shows, and how does the average working-class person fit into it? I’d suggest that generally they don’t. Cooking shows only create an illusion of inclusivity (in terms of class). The majority of working-class viewers will not have access to the world represented in the shows.
This world requires the economic capital to buy expensive ingredients, to dine in fancy restaurants, to go on food tours around the country and overseas. Then, there’s pricey equipment to purchase.
There would be few working-class households with access to top-of-the-range blenders, ice-cream makers and pressure cookers, let alone liquid nitrogen and industrial blast chillers.
Time is needed to prepare elaborate meals and indulgent desserts. Autodidacts aside, cultural capital is required to know how to choose wine, or understand the techniques that come from French cuisine and pâtisserie. While the average punter might now know what a confit quail leg is, how many working-class Australians eat quail on a regular basis?
There are other issues with what goes on behind the scenes. Who cleans up once the cameras stop rolling? Do the contestants do the dishes? Mop the floors? Tidy up the kitchens and empty the garbage? There must be an army of cleaners – what are they paid, and what sort of working conditions do they have?
Where do the ingredients come from, and are the workers who harvest and process them being paid properly? Do MasterChef and Just Desserts insist that all elements of their supply chain are operated ethically?
Workers at a Coles distribution centre in Victoria were striking recently over pay and conditions. Coles is a sponsor of MasterChef and their ads featured heavily during the breaks but is the audience aware of the lack of job security at their food depots?
Just Desserts uses an old industrial building and a faux factory design for their set – are industrial issues a consideration for the producers?
Ultimately, the contestants hope to open their own restaurants and cafes, or join famous kitchens and work as professional chefs. The shows provide an opportunity to bypass the usual route to becoming a chef, which normally involves training and low-paid apprenticeships for a number of years. A trainee chef will need capital to pay for their education and to acquire the necessary equipment.
For a young working-class person from a low-income family this involves financial risk with no guarantee of success. Starting a business, such as a restaurant, requires large amounts of financial capital. Are young working-class viewers more likely to end up cleaning the set of Just Desserts than owning their own patisserie?
Shows such as MasterChef and Just Desserts create an illusion of equality. Anyone can be a top celebrity chef, or at least learn how to cook like one. But the whole premise of these shows, and the concept of the celebrity chef, is built on inequality.
Despite the possibility that a working-class contestant might actually win, the majority of working-class viewers will continue to be the ones growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, delivering and selling the products to be turned into 92-step dishes that are out of financial reach for aspirational working-class viewers.