As a foodie and long time viewer of the Food Channel , I am familiar with most of the cooking competitions on TV. I’ve seen and enjoyed Iron Chef ( both the original and Iron Chef America ) , Chopped , Top Chef , Bobby Flay’s Throwdown , The Next Iron Chef , The Next Food Network Star and Cupcake Wars but , of late , I’ve found myself getting a little bored. It’s not that the shows have gone down in quality ; it’s just that after so many years of watching them I’ve become jaded .
I’m just a bit tired of seeing the same old faces : The Chairman , Bobby Flay , Morimoto, Michael Simon , Marc Forgione , Morimoto , Padma Lakshmi , Tom Colicchio, Scott Conant , Aron Sanchez , Amanda Freytag etc. After so many years of watching these shows , there is nothing new and the formats have begun to pall.
My nephew had told me about Master Chef , the cooking competition on Fox but I didn’t bother to check it out because a) it was on Fox , a channel I never watch except during football season and b) the host was the unspeakable , foul-mouthed Gordon Ramsay . I’d tried to watch his previous shows ( Hell’s Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares) but couldn’t stand to see him yell and scream and bully his underlings . I didn’t care if that was his real personality or just his shtick ; I wanted no part of any show he was on .
Then we subscribed to HuluTV and discovered Master Chef . Big surprise. Both my wife and I liked it .
Most of you have no doubt seen the show and are familiar with the format. For the others , Master Chef is a cooking contest for home cooks and the lucky winner gets $ 250,000 prize money and a cookbook contract . One hundred home cooks out of the thousands who applied were invited to an audition . They were given one hour to cook a dish of their choosing and their efforts were then sampled by a panel of three judges . The sixteen contestants who survived made it to the competition proper , there to compete in a variety of challenges . One contest was jettisoned each week and today the three who remain will compete in a two-part finale to determine the winner. The first part is tonight on Fox.
There is no doubt that the Master Chef format is patterned after some of the other food shows . As in Chopped and Top Chef , the three judge panel has one nice guy , one meanie and one in-betweener. As in Top Chef , there is the equivalent of the Quick Fire round with the winner getting a huge advantage in the subsequent elimination challenge . What sets Master Chef apart is that the contestants are home cooks , not professional chefs , and they are easier for the home audience to relate to ( ” That could have been me !!” ). They come from all walks of life and have different backgrounds . There is Monti ( a 35-year-old single mother whose son’s name is Danger ) , Frank a 28-year-old stockbroker , Christine ( 32) a married grad student , Cowboy Mike (38) , Ryan ( 26) an unemployed cooking maven, Becky ( 24) a food photographer, and an assortment of others . As the competition unfolds , we at home get to know the different personalities and choose our favorite.
I think Ryan and his buddy Tali were universally disliked , not only by home viewers but by their fellow contestants . Both were insufferably cocky and arrogant , Ryan more so than Tali . Ryan was always talking about riding ” the flavor elevator ” to the top ( whatever that means) and Tali , after his monumental screwups ,still felt that the judges were unable to appreciate his genius . How wonderful to see them sent packing ; no sympathies for those two.
The other two things that Master Chef has going for it are that the challenges , though difficult , are not outlandish ( as in Chopped ) and that the judges are interesting.
Some of the tasks set for the contestants are : recreating a dish that President Obama requested at a top Chicago restaurant, putting together an alfresco three course meal for 100 hungry cowboys, preparing eggs four ways ( soft-boiled , sunny side up , poached and as a omlette) and baking three perfect souffles) savory cheese , raspberry and chocolate ) in an hour . There are plenty of little surprises , too , to keep viewers and contestants on edge . One little twist was to have contestants pick a basket of ingredients for themselves to cook with and the last moment have them exchange baskets with each other. Additionally, the Master Chef Kitchen is huge and the pantry enticingly arranged, thus adding to the visuals.
As for the judges , there is one nice guy ( Chicago chef Graham Elliot) , one meanie ( Joe Bastianich , son of Italian cooking Icon Lidia Bastianich , and a successful restaurateur in his own right ) and of course , Gordon Ramsay ( what a surprise to find that he’s not the meanie !)
One thing I did not mention about the grad student Christine , who is one of the contestants : she is legally blind . She is assisted by a helper who aides her in moving around and tells her what is going on , but does not help her in any way with the cooking . Christine does everything by touch and taste and memory . With such a handicap , I was surprised when she was selected for the show and expected that she would be cut in short order. However , she has been consistently good and gone from strength to strength. Departing contestants are asked whom they would like to see win the contestant and most of them have backed contestant , one going on to say what an inspiration she has been to him . I also love the way Christine conducts herself: always positive , never asking for any extra consideration , fiercely competitive and yet nice . She is one of the three finalists along with Becky , the food photographer, and Josh ( 24 ) the ex army man. All three are worthy but I hope Christine wins .
I’ve always heard that some aspects of these cooking contests are staged . For instance , in Iron Chef , I hear that the so-called ” secret ingredient ” is actually one from a list of five ingredients that are known to the competitors in advance . No way they could put together those fabulous dishes with hardly any planning. In Master Chef , I can’t believe that these home cooks have the knowledge to put together such a variety of dishes ( souffle’s, sushi, pizzas, Asian Food etc.) without recipes. These are not the sort of dishes that home cooks usually make . It’s obvious that they get some sort of practice and tips from the chef judges offscreen between the contests. I notice that when they lose , many of them are appreciative of the experience and say they have learned such a lot .
But that is just an aside . Master Chef has been an enjoyable viewing experience and I’ m looking forward to the finale . Go Christine !!