From Gluggy Risottos To Golden Balls: Are ‘Masterchef’ Contestants Becoming Too Good?

When did every home cook turn into Heston Blumenthal?


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When Masterchef returns each year, we’re told that it will be the most difficult season ever. Last year, it was “the best food ever”. This year, Channel Ten is describing it as the “most extraordinary season ever”. And they’ve brought proof — the ads are teasing us with what they’re calling the “Golden Ball”.

It looks exactly how it sounds. It’s a gold sphere surrounded by berries and sauce and flowers, and it seems to be the product of all the trendy techniques that contestants have learned over the past seven-odd years — domes, gold dust, flowers, ‘quenelles’, a bed of crumbs for the sphere to sit on. It’s like a collage of every bougie food trend you could possibly think of, and it looks as telegenic and polished as Matt Moran’s Aria Chocolate Tart (the pressure test dish from the season one finale).

While this is impressive, it also raises some questions. If contestants are plating up dishes like this in auditions — not even week one of the competition, but literal auditions — what does the rest of the competition hold? At what point does the season-by-season one-upmanship end? Also, is this even something we want?

Masterchef Australia’s initial hook was that it was about home cooks. In theory, anyone could audition and be given a chance. After all, in the words of Ratatouille’s Gusteau, anyone can cook. But somewhere along the way, as more and more techniques have been introduced to the contestants’ repertoires, the show’s (and the viewers’) concept of a ‘home cook’ has shifted to someone who has the same skill set as a professional chef.

A Masterchef contestant in 2017 is wildly different to when the show began in 2010. The audition tapes from Masterchef season one show almost painfully simple creations compared to the golden balls and savoury desserts of season seven.

Julie Goodwin, season one’s eventual winner, made standard-looking lamb and mash in her audition. Poh Ling Yeow, season one’s runner-up (and, arguably, one of the most successful Masterchef contestants ever) made a messy stack of chicken and pancetta, but was given a second chance to cook the judges a new dish made out of yam and tapioca. These dishes look tasty, but they’re hardly the spectacular creations we’re seeing now.

This isn’t inherently a problem, of course; there’s a thrill in seeing people cook up beautiful dishes featuring domes and foams and dusts. But one of the main appeals of reality TV competitions is the way we see improvement in the contestants over the course of a season. Some of my favourite scenes of reality TV have stemmed from this trope — deeply satisfying moments like when Poh, after being eliminated from the competition, returned and triumphantly plated up an improved of the dish that got her eliminated; or when Pearl in RuPauls Drag Race finally took the judges’ criticism on board, stepped up her game, and ended up making it through to the final.

This improvement storyline is particularly important for Masterchef. As the show leans away from villain edits and inter-contestant drama, there needs to be a significant number of feel-good moments throughout the season; many of which rely on overcoming challenges or improving after a rough week. With such skilled contestants so early on, I wonder how the new season will stack up in terms of emotional tension.

I love a dome, I love a parfait, but deep down all I really wanna see is a chalky, gluggy risotto.

With contestants this skilled from the get-go, we’re also deprived of another Masterchef pleasure: watching a truly shocking dish get judged. There have been some truly terrible displays on Masterchef, but these add to the appeal of the show. They make the good dishes seem really really good, and let the judges say something other than “smashing” or “AB-solutely incredible”.

Some of these dishes have been hideously bad — who could forget Kate Nugara’s uncooked microwave chicken and potato slice with mayo from the jar in season two, or any one of the many, many horrid risottos that were served up in the first few seasons? I love a dome, I love a parfait, but deep down all I really wanna see is a chalky, gluggy risotto.

It’s no fun to know who the winner will be from day one, and the Golden Ball promos are definitely making it seem like we’ll have a clear frontrunner. But, who knows? Masterchef’s seventh season might turn out to be really good. It might genuinely be the “most extraordinary season ever”! But I’m also kind of hoping the Golden Ball™ will be terrible, and it’ll be used as an example of what not to do. Don’t let me down, MC.

Masterchef starts 7.30pm tonight on Channel Ten.

Shaad D’Souza is a freelance writer from Melbourne. Follow him on Twitter here.