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17 April 2020

Why are we still hooked on MasterChef?

Thirty years after its debut, and more formulaic than ever, MasterChef is still a cut above the rest.

By Emily Bootle

By the fifth series of Love Island, contestants came to the villa seemingly ready-made for influencing careers. Anna Vakili already had over 40,000 followers on Instagram when the season began; Molly Mae Hague over 150,000. Trajectories of past contestants have created a groove: it is now no secret that a spot in the villa is more a promise of a fast fashion sponsorship deal than it is true love.

On MasterChef, now in its 16th UK season and three decades on from debut in 1990, entry standards have been similarly inflated. Amateur cooks present restaurant-quality food from the start, with no official training. But MasterChef never yields brand-partnered mega-Instagrammers or overnight celebrity. The most notable achievement is perhaps that of 2005 winner, Thomasina Miers, who went on to launch the restaurant chain Wahaca; other past winners run supper clubs and restaurants and write recipe books.

On the show they are not prized for their personal brand but purely for their cooking skills: technique, flavour and presentation. There are no X Factor theatrics, just one plate of food after another, each trying to improve on the last. During the 2019 final, there was an outcry on social media that there was too much fluff and no cooking at the beginning of the episode. Since 2014, MasterChef has been filmed in an East London warehouse, practical and industrial; its coveted signature aprons are stiff, starchy and austere (though the laminated name badges have been upgraded in recent years). The show has the hierarchical, no-nonsense atmosphere of a professional kitchen. Stringing things out unnecessarily is simply not MasterChef’s style.

So how, despite the lack of sob stories or lifestyle porn to seduce viewers, has MasterChef endured three decades? How has its name become affectionate shorthand for an artfully arranged plate of home cooking? Its premise – to find Britain’s best budding cooks and give them a taste of professional chef-dom – has changed very little since the Nineties, but where others have fallen by the wayside, Masterchef leads: why is it still the best, and most relevant, cooking show on TV?

This streamlined formula has served it well. MasterChef debuted in 1990 on the BBC, presented by Loyd Grossman. Three contestants cooked a three-course meal each week; one would be crowned Master Chef. After a brief hiatus between 2001 and 2005, it returned as MasterChef Goes Large, fronted by current host John Torode, then the head chef at Smiths of Smithfields in Chelsea, and Gregg Wallace, who was, at the time, Torode’s veg supplier. (In Gilmore Girls terms, Wallace was the Jackson to Torode’s Sookie.)

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Since then, MasterChef has broadened into a globally franchised behemoth, with international versions in 60 countries as well as spin-offs Junior MasterChef, Celebrity MasterChef and MasterChef: The Professionals. Standards have been driven up, and the variety of food has changed to reflect a multicultural landscape. This week, the launch of the 12th season of MasterChef Australia achieved a five-year ratings high with 1.1 million viewers. As Adam Liaw put it in The Guardian, “The programmers could have hardly asked for a more perfect alignment of stars. A captive audience of an entire nation driven indoors by the coronavirus, spending more time in the kitchen than ever before while craving familiarity, positivity and good old-fashioned comfort.”

The final of the UK’s 16th season airs tonight. In this season we have witnessed the show in its purest form: an ode to dedication and practice; a TV kaleidoscope for all the senses; a puree-sieving, tuile-shaping, gel-setting, sous-vide-swilling, beef-resting, pea-shoot-sprinkling, fish-skin-crisping delight. We see cookery showcased as both a craft and an art, as home cooks hone their skills to a professional standard. Though often belittled as a midweek trash watch, the show is a bettter education than any home economics class: every element on every plate is carefully dissected by the judges, the viewer’s culinary knowledge swelling episode after episode.

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MasterChef is not humourless, but it is inherently serious — and part of its success is that it does not undermine itself by being ironic or self-referential. The Great British Bake-Off, at a glance, seems similar in format. It attempts to prove the domesticity of home baking worthy of a TV show by elevating it with drama and pathos, but falls at the first hurdle: with its tent, bunting and tongue-in-cheek puns, the show constantly acknowledges its own tweeness. But MasterChef, a hyper-masculine world of chrome surfaces and blow torches, is sincerely self-aggrandising.

Self-confidence means MasterChef does not have to resort to gimmicks. In this season, the show’s first ever “plant-based” challenge was introduced in the quarter finals by the critic William Sitwell –but it felt like an appropriate update to reflect our changing food culture. There are moments of self-awareness. The chocolate fondant is a MasterChef  “curse”, and contestants attempting it are heeded with solemn warnings. Jane attempts a passionfruit and white chocolate cheesecake in the heats, and John knowingly requests a “buttery biscuit base, please”, referencing a viral clip of an earlier episode. 

But conceptually, it is almost always reaching into the real world rather than back on itself, reflecting a changing culture and viewers’ preferences. It does not break the fourth wall. Gregg and John are familiar faces but they are judges, not presenters, and never speak to camera. The closest we come to an in-joke is the voice of India Fisher, which functions as an omniscient narrator and describes every dish in the same slow, considered tone – “Emily has served oven-baked beans in a gloopy tomato and sugar jus on grilled slices of bread, with a cheddar cheese reduction, and a self-pity crumb,” we hear her say, in our minds – but she is more sat-nav than character host, never quipping like Ian Stirling of Love Island or Dave Lamb of Come Dine With Me.

It is the atmosphere of studied seriousness that keeps us invested in the results: we agree that the cooking is important, so we care about more than just the contestants. Each component of a plate is conceived with care and judged with scrutiny. In the semi-final, Claire is understandably distraught when she mistakenly dilutes the flavour of her celeriac. In the heats, broths attempted in just 90 minutes are tragically bland. There is pathos in an incomplete or poorly executed dish that resonates far beyond the disappointed chef. The audience is tortured by every deflated raviolo and overcooked duck breast.

The rationale for the success and failure of any given dish is constantly spelt out for us. MasterChef gets progressively harder for the contestants over the course of the competition, and also begins to assume more knowledge on the part of the viewer as it educates us. By the semi-finals, we understand what a well-cooked loin of venison looks like, the correct texture of a beurre-blanc, and when a scallop has begun to caramelise — because every minute of the preceding rounds is saturated with description and explanation.

Have we not witnessed a hundred racks of lamb with insufficiently rendered fat; a thousand ornate dishes that overwhelm the palate with “too much going on”; an infinite number of fillets of beef that simply “need more cooking”? Criticising contestants’ complex, beautifully presented offerings while tucking in to a plate of potato smileys and ketchup makes perfect sense: we are not taught how to cook ourselves, but we are taught a lot about how others should be cooking.

At the heart of the prodigious YouTube hit “MasterChef Synaesthesia” in 2011 were the words “buttery biscuit base”: a pleasingly rhythmic quote from Gregg Wallace remixed into a parody EDM track. Aside from the obvious pun — that “bass”, not just “base”, could be buttery and biscuity – the track provided an insight into how Wallace and Torode discuss food on MasterChef. When it reaches its musical climax in a string of descriptors — “Crunchy, greasy, jammy, spongy, gooey, nutty, rubbery, greasy, slimy, toasty, sticky, hard” – it captures the essence of the show.

Every element on the plate is ascribed an adjective and we come as close as possible to tasting the dish through the screen: the puree is smooth or gritty, the meat is tender or dry, the “spicing” is hot or fragrant. Sauces are salty, rich, tangy; puddings light, delicate, sandy. We are told there’s a whack of vanilla or kick of “chilli heat”. We recognise and predict all these descriptions as they come: there are only so many ways you can describe meat, sauce and vegetative texture. 

Repeating the words over and over, “MasterChef Synaesthesia” satirised the show’s repetitive, generic language. “You’ve got sharp lime in that posset, I love that. I like the creamy sweetness of the white chocolate as well,” says Gregg of finalist Thomas’s pina colada-inspired invention test. Of course the lime is sharp. Of course the white chocolate is creamy and sweet. And of course Gregg, the man with the world’s sweetest tooth, loves it. These words come together in our minds as flavours should in our mouths and we nod knowingly, conceding that Thomas’s dessert was a resounding success.

Enhancing our understanding of process and flavours also dispels any sense of foodie pretentiousness. We rarely doubt the credibility of a foam, crumb or shard on the plate, because it’s clear that as well as technical prowess, the simple pleasure of good flavour is deeply rooted in MasterChef‘s ethos. In an interview on Good Morning Britain earlier this year, John Torode commented that the show is a success because food is something we can all relate to and understand. On Chatty Man in 2018, Gregg Wallace similarly remarked that he has “never liked this term ‘food-lover’” – because food is something we all love. When a particularly cheffy idea rears its head without an immediately clear reason – such as this year’s contestant Marla’s surprising penchant for raspberry dust – it is called out. In a post on his Instagram after winning a place in the finals, contestant Thomas wrote that he achieved what he set out to: “Taste, texture, flavours, and ultimately just something tasty to scoff.”

The philosophy of MasterChef could be expressed as a Venn diagram: technique, flavours, seasoning, presentation, innovation. Each dish sits at a certain point on the Venn diagram. We all know that the best dishes will hit the bullseye, right in the centre. And, thanks to years of watching the show, we all know when they have done so.

John Torode once said that learning to cook was like practising the piano: you have to do the same thing over and over again. Thirty years on, by performing over and over again, MasterChef has practised and perfected its own form. We watch and learn. We eat while we judge. We know when the base is buttery and biscuity; when flavours combine like yin and yang; and when for a moment, in the MasterChef world, all is in perfect balance.