What's cooking down under?

Telly talk

What's cooking down under?

That big red clock licks away time as if it were icing on cake. As it looms overhead, 24 contestants bend over their cooking stations, hurriedly whipping up sweets and savouries.

At the far end of the line are the three expectant faces of judges who have become a weeknight staple — Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris and Matt Preston. They’re scoping out the dishes that are still in creation, adding to the tension and adrenaline by jumping in at the most inopportune of moments to ask the contestants how they’re doing, and finally, at the heightened moment of scatter-brained panic and momentary doom — burnt hands and suchlike — the judges count down in salivating glee, as trembling hands struggle to plate dishes to artsy perfection.

Every night, Star World lures a good chunk of its English-viewing audience to sit down and watch amateur chefs, in Masterchef Australia, dish out food that, until now, we’ve only ever ordered out of a restaurant menu. Over the last three seasons, two of which have aired on Indian television, the quality of the food that’s being doled out under pressure has only gotten better, the difficulty levels and cooking techniques increasingly complex, not to mention an assortment of machines and fancy cooking cutlery that manage to keep many of the dishes we see well out of our cooking grasp.

But this time, it’s all about “keeping it simple,” or so I read in a Sydney paper that spoke to the judges prior to the show’s release down under. A large part of the criticism that was aimed at the show’s previous season, which had Kate Bracks as its winner, was that the food wasn’t typically the sort that the viewer could replicate at home. Hence, the fourth season promised better food; food that would connect with the viewers.

But this is a competition after all, and so we have modern takes on Peach Melba, held hostage in the most intricate of white chocolate cages, foraging trips to the Morning Peninsula, where some contestants return without vital ingredients, and improvise spectacularly, Chai ice creams that eventually settle for being crème anglaise, and Melting Moments that dissolve instantly in all of its airy, buttery goodness, and steal first place.

There are all the typical features that make up the Masterchef competition — Mystery Boxes, Invention Tests, Immunity Challenges, Team Challenges, Pressure Tests and Eliminations — and there’s the motley bunch of talented cooks culled out from an excruciating round of auditions, where aspiring contestants wheeled in their trolleys, one after the other, and presented their case, and food, before the judges.

This time around, the Immunity Challenge — where the amateur is pitted against a professional — has the contender choosing two from the remaining contestants who hover around the balcony, to help in preparing the dishes.

While the professional team gets the advantage of choosing the core ingredient, they also have the disadvantage of a shorter time frame, within which they have to cook three dishes: starter, main course and dessert. Each member is responsible for a course; therefore, victory or loss rests, more often than not, on one dish, on one teammate. No pressure, really.

While this new format does offer an increased chance for the amateur contestant to avail of an immunity pin, where it seemingly falters is when the dish prepared by the contender of the immunity pin fails to get any favour, and the other two teammates’ dishes win the challenge for the contender.

Take the case of Mindy, for example, who triumphed in her second attempt at an Immunity Challenge, all thanks to her chosen teammates, Audra and Amina. But all the same, this is exactly why Masterchef Australia differs from the rest in terms of good quality reality TV — the animosity and acrimony that seeps through most other reality shows is dialled down or forgotten for the sake of good-natured competition.

Some clear favourites have stood out from the beginning; to name a few from the 15 left over, there’s Singaporean Audra, who seems to be a lucky charm of sorts in team challenges, loveable Amina, whose mixed Korean and Egyptian heritage allows her to throw up some tasty morsels, 30-year-old physiotherapist Mindy, cushioned from any forthcoming falls, thanks to her immunity pin, roller derby girl Tregan, who has got competition and food sewn into her spirit, 30-year-old teacher Ben, who, just the other day, offered to sacrifice his spot in the competition to let teary-eyed Emma go on to the next round, and Andy of course, who shone early on for his calm and collected leadership, and team-player attitude. Although this season has wrapped up in Australia, and the winner announced, you can still root for your favourite by tuning in every weekday night at nine, on Star World.

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