The critical flaw in MasterChef

[Note: I’ve added a postscript below which questions my initial analysis]

There’s a critical flaw in the design of MasterChef Australia which, in season 10, has me screaming at my television in frustration. Someone who is not ‘worthy’ of winning MasterChef has made it into the top four of the competition (and has just one an important advantage).

A worthy winner of MasterChef must have at least three* different talents. They must be:

  1. Inventive (have a deep knowledge of and intuition about food to invent delicious dishes),
  2. Artistic (have a high aesthetic which allows them to present dishes beautifully, and
  3. Efficient (have the ability to follow recipes under time pressure).

It is the first two talents which separate a MasterChef (a Chef de Cuisine) in the restaurant industry from a less accomplished chef. The MasterChef must design desirable dishes which other chefs (who are less inventive and artistic) efficiently recreate for customers.

It is the first two talents that we, as viewers, want to see displayed on the show. We want to be dazzled by the dishes that contestants pull out of a mystery box or invention test and see the inventive and artistic cooks rewarded for their creativity.

The current design of the MasterChef competition, however, allows chefs who are efficient but not inventive or artistic to remain in the competition far, far longer than they should.

That’s because MasterChef eliminations are almost always pressure tests in which the contestants are asked to mimic a real MasterChef’s dish (by following a recipe under time pressure). These pressure tests favour efficient cooks and do not reward inventive or artistic cooks. Worse, they give a significant advantage to cooks who find themselves constantly in pressure tests (because they are not inventive or artistic) as they become trained to cope with pressure and learn new techniques which help them survive mystery boxes, invention tests and future pressure tests. While it is nice to see efficient cooks become more efficient (and slightly more creative), it is gut-wrenching to see cooks who are significantly more inventive and artistic eliminated in pressure tests while efficient cooks (who should never win MasterChef) progress further and further in the competition.

The solution, I believe, is for MasterChef to raise the bar for applicants and to mix up the competition:

  1. MasterChef should stress the importance of efficiency to applicants who are inventive and artistic so that these cooks can train themselves in personal pressure tests before coming on the show (and avoid being eliminated in their first pressure test).
  2. As part of the audition process, MasterChef could test applicants with small-scale invention tests, mystery boxes and pressure tests to identify the cooks which have all three skills. Asking contestants to cook their best dish (which they may have copied from someone else and have practised cooking many times) is only a weak indicator of these skills.
  3. On some weeks MasterChef could use mystery boxes, invention tests or a brand new kind of test when cooking in black in order to make invention and artistry necessary for survival. This would be particularly useful after group cooking exercises to weed out the cooks who are merely efficient and, therefore, not worthy winners of MasterChef.
  4. MasterChef could introduce penalties for being in elimination multiple times to offset the training effect (e.g. to lose 5% of your cooking time for your third elimination task, 10% for your fourth, 15% for your fifth, etc.)

Ensuring that inventive, artistic and efficient cooks rise to the top of the competition would make MasterChef worth watching in season 11, and save us from screaming at our televisions.

An important postscript

It’s entirely possible that my frustration (and this post) is misplaced because it discounts the speed with which the ‘unworthy’ candidate (Ben) has learned and how much he has grown over the season.

Perhaps the problem is the expectations which are set by the show. The stated goal is to find Australia’s best amateur cook and Ben seemed out of place from the start (e.g. cooking a plain hamburger for an invention test). Then we watched as favourites such as Brendan and Reece were eliminated and Ben kept surviving elimination (ten times!).

This feeling may be reinforced by Ben’s ‘strayan accent and his honesty (or the editing) as he narrates the story of each cook – he consistently presents as an unassuming cook with few culinary ideas. Right up until the moment that he pulls something out of the bag and wins the cook.

Put all this together we can create a different narrative – a cook who scraped his way into MasterChef but through the the training provided by the MasterChef environment (and his determination to remain) is becoming one of Australia’s best cooks.

So … is the purpose of MasterChef to find the people who are already Australia’s best amateur cooks (before they come on the show) and then pit them against each other to discover who is the very best? Or is it to take some unpolished but clever cooks and see which of them can grow the most in the supportive but high-pressure MasterChef environment?

If it’s the latter, the producers may need to work harder to help viewers understand this narrative so that we delight in the growth of scrappy contenders rather than wish for their imminent demise (to make way for the people that we viewers, in our not-so-humble opinion, have already decided is the best). But if it’s the former, my initial analysis (above) still stands.

* To the list of talents (Inventive, Artistic and Efficient) you could also add Diverse – a worthy winner of MasterChef isn’t limited to producing whatever they are most familiar with (be that savoury dishes, desserts or the cuisine of a particular region) – they can cope with and create almost anything (because they understand a multitude of ingredients and a diverse array of techniques).