Cooking from the heart

Telly review

Cooking from the heart

There’s something about pretty food on a plate that gets everyone excited. Why, it even makes up for a good chunk of the Instagram photo database. And we, it can be safe to assume, have the MasterChef series to thank for that; for that sudden love for restaurant level of complexity and perfection in food; for that insistence on balance of flavour and texture, and how it all comes together like a painting on a plate.

At first it was MasterChef Australia with its three-month competition, and now, we have the American version, run on a much tighter pace and timeframe.

But I don’t want to talk about what’s cooking. We’ve seen enough of these shows, that now, it ceases to be a surprise every time home cooks — everyday cooks — make even the standard mac-and-cheese look devastatingly complex with their relentless innovation. And I mean that in a good way. MasterChef, Australia, US or any other country for that matter, has become our staple — the comfort food for our tele-hungry eyes, which, after a long hard day’s work, craves for some colour, taste and cut-throat competition.

But here’s a surprise I didn’t see coming. And I’m pretty sure she couldn’t too, although not quite in the same way. Christine Ha became the finalist of MasterChef USA season 3. In the season’s finale, which will be aired on Star World on June 3, Ha will be seen competing head to head with seven-foot-tall contestant Josh Marks, to win the title of America’s best home cook, and a $250,000 grand prize. Ha is a 33-year-old Texan graduate student. And she’s visually challenged. Yes, blind.

Ha made it to the season finale by working with what she knew best — Asian cuisine. And while some might comment that she didn’t dare to experiment as much as the rest, or preferred playing it safe, the fact remains that she is playing to win. This approach might have very well been the reason why she was able to surpass the 20-odd contestants on the show, who, in their quest to be MasterChef, tried too hard to be the kind of chefs they thought the show wanted them to be, and in the process, might not have played to their strengths.

Meanwhile, Marks is a US Army contract specialist from Mississippi, who was eliminated from the competition during a pressure test and later re-entered the show following a cook-off. And boy, did he come back to win.

And thus, in the final showdown, finalists Ha and Marks will have to “cook the meal of their life.” At first sight, Ha’s rustic dishes — a refreshing Thai papaya salad, a melt-in-your-mouth braised pork belly, and coconut lime sorbet — hardly seemed like competition to that of Marks’s complex courses, which included the likes of a lobster, a four-season rack of lamb that had judge Joe Bastianich craving for more, and a bacon pecan pie with homemade ice cream. Her simple approach to the finale task, even had Ramsay noting, “We’re not in Vietnam. We’re not at home. You’re in the final of MasterChef.” And Bastianich pointed out: “Are we here to mow down dishes or have cooks to show us finesse?”

It may very well be that Ha’s presence was more for the ratings, but what Ha’s participation brings back to primary focus is the fact that in a play-off between Mom and Michelin, mom’s cooking can give a tough fight. Which then brings us to the question: who, or what, defines a Master chef?

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