Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Plate of the Nation

By Simon Grose

Our most successful television program provides insights into the Australian state of mind.

Averaging more than two million viewers nationwide each episode, Masterchef has been this year’s most popular Australian television program. Attracting the attention of around 10% of Australian eyeballs six nights per week is a mean feat, only achieved by nourishing the attitudes and aspirations uppermost in the minds behind those eyeballs.

Carbon profligacy was a constant theme. Various dishes were commonly “twice cooked”, perhaps searing under a grill after a session in the oven. Freezers were used to finish off desserts and chill other dishes between bursts of cooking. Occasionally a blowtorch was used to singe a meal to optimise its crunchiness or appearance.

No way was Masterchef’s kitchen carbon-constrained, indicating that Australians have yet to adopt a culture of carbon austerity.

The fantastic bounty of ingredients available to the contestants was a vivid showcase of our current era of plenty. Lingering shots of tubby judges thoughtfully chewing the day’s fare amplified this theme. In a world in which the FAO estimates that more than a billion people are malnourished, Australians enjoy life on an island of excess. Concerns about global food and water security, unnecessary waste and sustainable living may be paid lip service by programs like Masterchef, but that is as far as it goes.

The ethnic variety of the backgrounds of the contestants was a celebration of Australia’s multicultural success. While the recipes they tackled also reflected Australia’s openness to the world’s cultures, their complexity and often faux sophistication betokened a society so used to plenty that it strives to concoct indulgent challenges.

The best cooking involves simple, classic things done very well with a dash of creative flair. But flair and dash were the main ingredients of success in Masterchef, with rewards going to elaborate concoctions like Mango and Lychee with Fish Sauce Syrup, Coconut Granita and Chilli Sugar, or Light Red Goat Curry with Three Flavour Frozen Yoghurt & Pappadum Praline. This kind of cooking pushes into a zone where high creativity crosses over into pointless complexity, and is entirely unattainable in the average Australian kitchen.

Despite this, an encouraging theme was the thirst for practical knowledge. Masterchef’s formula is a popular metaphor for the lottery of life as a contestant’s fate hinges on the texture of a pie crust or the colour of a sauce. But its success was also driven by viewers’ interest in emulating the culinary feats they witnessed. Such proof that very popular television can also be educational television provides a ray of hope for those who hanker for science programs to break through into the top end of the ratings.

Ultimately, however, while Masterchef won the 2010 Logie for Most Popular Reality Program, it was successful because it allowed Australians to escape from reality.