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Understanding the Masterchef phenomenon


23 July 2010

by Dr Adele Wessell, cultural historian and chair of Southern Cross University’s Academic Board.

We are now in the second season of Masterchef, a phenomenally successful competitive cooking program that caught everyone by surprise.

It is on almost every night with consistent audience figures of more than two million people, including everyone single person I know.

Those of us who study food may not have been all that surprised by its success. Culinary culture has fast become a pop phenomenon and the interest is reciprocated. At the inaugural Australasian Popular Culture Conference this year participants spent lots of time talking about Masterchef and the Cultural Studies Association of Australasia will have a whole panel devoted to the program at its conference in Byron Bay in December.

While Iron Chef has had a cult following since it was launched in 1993, the secret of Masterchef might be owed to other aspects of media – the soap opera dimensions of contestant’s weddings (like Jonathan’s during the show and Aaron’s when he was eliminated); the popularity of social networking (within 10 minutes of Marion’s elimination hundreds of people had complained on the Masterchef Facebook page and Bring Back Marion pages started in about half an hour); the promotion of the show at Coles (where you can pick up recipes for the invention tests within days of screening) and in their own magazine. In fact the drama and tension, rather than the cooking, would attract a lot of people.

But despite its detractors (and I agree with what Neil Perry ‘didn’t’ say, that it takes a long time and a lot of training to become a good chef), the show does work for getting families to not just talk about food, but to do it.

We all know now how quickly we can make mayonnaise from scratch and kids are going to be cutting the lamingtons for their own parties evenly.

At my house the five-year-old has expanded her repertoire of vegetables, as long as she gets to ‘plate-up’ and the eight-year-old has his own blow-torch. I had to buy another kitchen appliance for the slumber parties where everyone is coming dressed in Masterchef aprons to do a ‘pasta challenge’.

Product sales of featured ingredients are up, the drips are all wiped off plates before dinner, food criticism as well as cooking has gone mainstream. If only they could waste less produce, use less animal products and bring back Marion.

A true test of the popularity of the show might be whether the ratings will be higher for the final than the federal election debate scheduled for the same time-slot on Sunday. Or perhaps that might reflect more on the people’s engagement with current political leaders.