In the 1990s Masterchef was a rather campy TV cookery competition hosted by a presenter who was perhaps uniquely skilled in torturing vowels as he spoke – American Loyd Grossman. It occasionally passed the time on boring Sunday afternoons, but was hardly compulsive viewing. Then in 2005 the format was radically changed and now versions of the show have spread across the civilised world and America.
One key requirement of the new format is two judges, one bald, one with hair, and both very shouty.
Masterchef UK judges
Masterchef Australia Judges
New Zealand got it a bit wrong with three judges, all of whom have hair – they’re still shouty, though.
Masterchef New Zealand judges
America surpassed itself with three judges, including the obligatory baldy, and the shoutiest judge of the lot: Gordon Ramsay.
Masterchef USA judges
Perhaps the weakest version of the show is the American one. The contestants seem to be chosen more for their back stories than their cooking ability or passion for food.
Also quite poor is the British version. Some of the competitors surpass the judges in their knowledge about food, so the judges can't fairly judge or critique.
The New Zealand version is better, but by far the most gripping is the Australian version. In fact, I can hardly believe I've watched 86 episodes over the last 3 months and been kept glued to the screen. (The show is on six days a week at prime time in Australia, but is filmed over 8 months, so is very gruelling for the contestants, separated from their families, including young children, and loved ones.)
The judges are both top-knotch professional chefs, and every Friday edition is a masterclass in which the chefs show how some of the dishes made by the amateurs could have been done much better; no case of the pupils surpassing the masters here.
The contestants do rather seem to have been selected as a selection of stereotypes: there's the blond surfer dude, a plump Irish guy, a ditzy blond, a middle aged housewife, an elderly Sri Lankan, a young man with scary tattoos, a well-padded girl with maquillage and dress sense from the 1950s, a hippy chick (called “Sun”), a gay Asian man, and so on. Seeing them almost every night on TV you feel you get to know them as people as well as sensational cooks.
What has also been sensational has been the guests. There have been some of the world’s leading chefs: Daniel Boulud, Marco Pierre White, David Chang (Momofuku), Heston Blumenthal, Neil Perry. For the final they had the head chef from what has officially been the world's best restaurant for the last two years: René Redzepi of Noma.
There has also been a great selection of TV chefs and cooks: Rick Stein, Kylie Kwong, Curtis Stone, Anthony Bourdain, Chef Wan (a very camp Malaysian celebrity chef) and Nigella Lawson amongst others.
I don't think Maggie Beer's very well known outside the antipodes, but to Australia she's a national treasure, a lovely woman with the demeanor of a kindly grandmother who’s sold more cookery books than you could shake a stick at. Also not so well known is Adriano Zumbo who creates the most incredible, fantastical patisserie. An amazing master craftsman.
The absolutely blow-your-socks off moment for me, however, was when a particular special guest walked through the kitchen doors: His Holiness the Dalai Lama!!! It was enough to have me squirming in my seat and squealing with delight.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama holds the hand of a Masterchef contestant as she offers him food
Now how am I going to fill the hours of the day without Masterchef Australia? Perhaps I should look into the Croatian, Greek, German, Indian, Indonesian, Israeli and Malaysian versions.