There’s no singing for their supper, but Fox has found a way to incorporate the elements of “American Idol” into a cooking competition with “Masterchef.” The competitors’ naivete, unrealized dreams, hard- luck lives and irrational cockiness are all on display in the opening hour of the latest program from Gordon Ramsay, which is an experiment to see if kitchen acumen and professional advice can ferment into a star chef.
Tuesday’s debut of “Masterchef” (9 p.m.) does not dispense much information about how the show will develop, strictly showcasing the efforts of maybe half the 50 finalists. Each gives details of their dishes and presents them to the Simon-Paula-Randy team of Joe Bastianich, Graham Elliot and Ramsay. Winners moving on are handed aprons instead of “Idol’s” yellow sheets of paper; they usually race to a room of waiting friends, family and fellow contestants. The winner walks away with $250,000 and a cookbook deal, but unlike “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Top Chef” or “The Next Food Network Star” there are no business opportunity prizes.
Passion for cooking ‘a very positive sign for America’
This could well mean that “Masterchef,” in the end, is not a cook who can work a line or design a menu. It just may be the person you want inviting you to their house next Saturday for dinner.
Bastianich, speaking on a Fox conference call Friday, said he was surprised by the “incredible amount of emotion and passion vested (by the chefs) into what food says about them. When you do this for a living you get jaded and don’t realize there is so much passion for cooking for people who don’t do this for a living. That really struck home for me. … It’s a very positive sign for America.”
The three restaurateurs were selected, Bastianich and Elliot said, for their personalities as well as their backgrounds. With editing — there is no live element, at least not yet — the personalities are magnified. Bastianich, whose Italian restaurant empire includes shops with Mario Batali and his mother Lidia as well a line of wines, is the stern, no-nonsense judge who appears to have higher standards than the others. Chicago chef Elliot is the easy-going guy in the middle, the one who sees promise in tasty dishes that are visual messes. And Ramsay is the cheerleader, goading each of the chefs to do better than the last one who presented well.
“I don’t have to try to be overly nice,” Elliot said in response to the Paula Abdul comparison. “For the most part that’s who I am. I try to inspire.”
Would-be chefs from backwater towns and big cities
On the premiere, it takes awhile for anyone to show they have any skill, inventiveness or connection to culinary culture. Mike Kim, a waiter from Redondo Beach, Calif., who shows up with his two brothers, enters contritely and then delivers great television by starting with a flambe. It’s no Beavis & Butt-head moment — his duck ssam wraps look delectable and receive raves from the three judges. It astonishes Kim, creating the joyful response that has historically held viewers captive.
A parade of folks from backwater towns and big cities display their wares, most of the dishes at odds with their presentations. The unattractive ones get winning marks in taste, the gorgeous plates usually are found wanting. In each case, there’s a heart-tugging story to give viewers a rooting interest.
The show is produced by Ramsay’s One Potato Two Potato company, the team behind his “Cookalong” special, but one that has no connection with “Hell’s Kitchen” or “Kitchen Nightmares.” It’s the kinder, gentler arm of Ramsay’s domain — no doom ‘n’ gloom voice-over, no overly dramatic music or excessive repetition of the last segment’s key moments. The music is friendly, even gloppy, and Ramsay would rather dismiss a miscreant rather than dish out verbal abuse. It would cut into the amount of time he can spend inspiring the folks he believes in.
Phil Gallois an entertainment journalist who writes about music, television, theater and film in addition to food and wine.
Credit: Courtesy of Fox