Cooking Reality Shows: Changing the Face of Gastronomy?

This month we are publishing Gastronomy, Tourism and the Media by Warwick Frost, Jennifer Laing, Gary Best, Kim Williams, Paul Strickland and Clare Lade. In this post, Jennifer discusses the rise of reality TV cooking shows and how they have influenced people’s interest in food and cooking.

Gastronomy, Tourism and the MediaOne of the important trends that informs our new book, Gastronomy, Tourism and the Media, is the rise of the TV cooking competition. Once upon a time, amateur cooks competed to make the best jam/jelly or sponge cake at the local agricultural show or fair, and success consisted of a blue ribbon and the warm glow that comes when one’s culinary skill is appreciated beyond the family circle. These days, it’s a little more complicated, and potentially much more lucrative. The Australian version of Masterchef, a franchise which has spread around the world, is a good case study to illustrate this changing landscape of gastronomy in an age of instant celebrity and social media. I admit to having had a fascination with this show since it first graced Australian television in 2009, and I am not the only one with this obsession, nor is it confined to Australia. I recently attended a conference in France and over dinner met an academic and his wife from Quebec in Canada who were also fans of the series. So what is the secret of its longevity?

Masterchef Australia is unusual for a reality show in that the competitors are mostly nice to each other, and those who aren’t are derided on social media. It also appears to change some people’s lives in a momentous way, with former contestants going on to open their own restaurant, work for the best chefs around the globe or publish their own cookbook. These are mostly people with serious ambitions connected to gastronomy and in a type of Cinderella fantasy, we applaud when their dreams really do come true. Apart from the prize money, some individuals, like Poh Ling Yeow or Adam Liaw, now have their own cooking television shows, often a type of travelogue, while others such as Julie Goodwin, write about cooking in the popular press. The three judges, chefs Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris and food critic Matt Preston, are there to inspire, encourage and mentor the contestants and draw out the personal narratives that lead us to care about these people. There is a great pleasure to be had in seeing these amateur cooks develop their skills and create spectacular and inventive dishes, which draw high praise from celebrity guest judges such as Nigella Lawson, Rick Stein, Marco Pierre White and Heston Blumenthal.

The latter is an integral part of the recipe that makes Masterchef Australia so popular. The viewer gets to know these celebrity judges and see how they work in the kitchen, but also hear about how they started in gastronomy and witness their excitement at seeing something new or clever devised by a talented amateur. There is a regular masterclass segment which involves the celebrity chef sharing techniques and tips for improving various dishes. Marco Pierre White is exacting in his standards, but also warm with praise when it is deserved, and tells us his stories of overcoming adversity during his career and the importance of endurance and passion if a chef is to succeed. These celebrity chefs present a very human face, somehow different from that shown during their own television series when they are the star of the show. This makes them even more fascinating as public figures and inspires some of us to visit their restaurants, to taste the outcome of this knowledge, skill and zeal, presided over by a chef who we know is at the top of their game. It was part of the appeal for me of eating at the Rick Stein at Bannisters restaurant in coastal New South Wales last year.

The show also has a powerful influence over gastronomic trends. One year a few contestants made chocolate fondant pudding and I was amused at the number of times this dish formed part of menus of numerous restaurants that I visited in Australia and the UK. Which came first is debatable, but there appears to be a flow-on effect from the television series. Children at school now talk about ‘plating up’ and are familiar with the latest kitchen gadgetry, such as a smoking gun, sous-vide machine or blast chiller. There is a greater choice of fruit and vegetables at our supermarkets, driven in part by the array of produce that Masterchef Australia showcases through its various challenges. I draw the line however at the latest craze that the show presents – incorporating meat as an element of a dessert. Panchetta crumb with my panna cotta? No celebrity chef can make me swallow that…

Associate Professor Jennifer Laing, La Trobe University, Australia

For more information about this book please see our website or contact Jennifer at the address above.

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