03/12/2012

Masterchef is the best reality show on tv!

Masterchef: The Professionals is the best reality show currently on TV
There are lots of cookery programmes in which there is a mood of bonhomie, of food being a pleasure. There is only one with the dramatic flair that can rival drama. Masterchef has three incarnations; one for the public to compete in, one for celebrities and the currently running version for professionals. What all three share is an atmosphere of highly charged, brightly lit and barely controlled panic amongst the contestants. In Masterchef:The Professionals, about to hit its semi final stage this week the atmosphere is heightened to a properly sharpened kitchen knife edge.
Neither of them would admit to eating the pie

 It makes for fantastic viewing of course because cookery was never like this before the series was re-jigged several years back. It used to be a cosier Sunday show hosted by Lloyd Grossman. Then it was turned into a white knuckle ride into edible territory unfamiliar to all but those who frequent fine dining establishments. Most of us had never even hear of fine dining till Masterchef but we soon discovered it is the point at which art and food meet. The results of the meeting can be a messy collision or they can be a plate of food that looks almost too good to eat.
 
One of the proponents of this is Michel Roux Jr, who sounds as if he’ll be French but whose favourite phrase this year is “bang on”. He may have learned this from co host Gregg Wallace, a geezer (there is no other word) who adores puddings. As judges they have to sample portions of everyone’s efforts; Wallace is such a trooper he also does the other shows as well. Roux is more selective, in fact he has his sous chef Monica Galetti standing in on the earlier rounds where the aim is to achieve a high enough standard to “cook for Michel”. Monica has the eye of a hawk and a range of facial expressions that if you saw them out of context you’d interpret as having suddenly seen a multiple car pile up. When a sea urchin is wrongly opened or a sauce overcooked she turns to Gregg as if to say “hand me a knife, I want to fillet this contestant now”. The flipside is when someone does a great plate, the two exchange such a look of delight you’d think they were cooing over a new born baby. It is as much the judge’s reactions as the cooking that makes the series so watchable because as they say in the public series “cooking doesn’t get any tougher than this.”

In fact we don’t see an enormous amount of actual cooking. The dishes are described- and we do watch Michel conjure up something unpronounceable- but generally it’s all about the nerves, the pressure and how an hour zips past in about 5 minutes of screen time. Perfectly competent chefs fall to pieces; some visibly shaking, others making elementary mistakes, perhaps distracted by the swooping cameras or imagining the climactic music that heralds their every cut, dice or stir. Michel’s entrance always comes at the climax of a stirring piece of music that was probably written to accompany a battle sequence at the end of a film. It’s hard to imagine him entering a room in any other fashion; it would be disappointing to learn that the contestants themselves probably don’t even hear any music at all.
TV plays lots of tricks and you’ll find yourself trying to discern what this show must be like in real life. For example, how do they keep all the food warm when the judges have to assess and sample as many as 12 dishes one after the other? Does everyone really cook simultaneously or are they staggered? Do Gregg and Michel starve themselves before each show? Do the food critics- whom the semi finalists get to cook for- ever cook their own food? Where do the other contestants go when each one walks out of the kitchen into the empty rest room? How is it that all the chef’s whites fit?

Perhaps the best thing is how well edited the programme is. Reality TV can be sloppy or just boring –especially `real time` shows- but Masterchef; The Professionals is chopped as finely and precisely as food would be in La Gavroche. The same presentation standards the judges demand of the contestants are those which the programme’s makers also aspire to. The producers allow just a sliver of emotion to show through- like those swirls of sauce you get on the side of a well presented plate- but then matters move on. Each time a contestant leaves the accompanying music suggests they have just become bereaved. For the rest it’s one of those stadium anthems. Nobody gets extra screen time and the judging is generally clear. The public have no say which is how it should be; after all what do we know about pear tatin or the difference is between a jus and a reduction?

The only disappointing aspect is that we don’t get to taste any of the food but with expressive
judges like these we hardly need to. Watch Gregg’s reaction to a pudding or Michel’s enjoyment of a petit something or other and you know how good it tastes. What could be over efficient television is a beautifully blended mixture. It may seem overblown at first but once you are sucked in it all slots into place making MTP the best reality show on TV and you don’t need to know a lot about food to enjoy it. Who will win this year? I wouldn’t hazard a guess because one pasta palaver or tragic terrine can change everything.



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