Learning from “MasterChef”

At my house, we’ve been following the second season of MasterChef all summer, and we’ll be watching its conclusion on Monday and Tuesday.

The contestants begin as ambitious home cooks, people who’ve clearly been “the chef” in their families and among their friends.   (We get glimpses of what their amateur cooking lives have been like up to now, as when contestant Ben Starr–who was eliminated last week, much to our dismay–volunteered that he makes eggs Benedict “every weekend,” or when Christian, from Gloucester, Mass., lights up at any sign of ocean-based protein, whether it’s a pan of scallops or a live lobster.)

Then the challenges begin.  Ingredients the cooks have never worked with (a whole Alaskan king salmon, complete with scales–too bad Christian was exempt from that one, and we didn’t get to watch him filet it, though we did get to watch judge Gordon Ramsay).  Or familiar dishes that the contestants must reinvent without destroying their essential nature (tomato soup with a grilled cheese sandwich, judged against seven other renditions of the same dish).  And group challenges, working together in strange kitchens, taking turns being team leader, recovering from the inevitable failures.

Time becomes a tyrant.  The judges are restaurant owners, and they never let the contestants forget that someone is waiting for the food.  On set, in the MasterChef kitchen, every challenge is timed–forty-five minutes, an hour, starting —now!  Out in the field, hungry customers are on their way.  The longer you keep them waiting, the better your dish needs to be–and sometimes they still won’t forgive you the wait.

Areas of strength, areas of weakness.  Alejandra, who left the show two weeks ago, had a gifted hand with flavors, but could falter on the technical niceties of applying heat to food.  Adrien has real talent with food and knows how to make a beautiful dish, but at least twice he’s come up with attractive dishes that didn’t address required elements of the challenge–plating “creatively” when he was supposed to copy another chef’s plating, for example.  (It was a memorable, and painful, moment when judge Joe Bastianich erupted, “Let me win this challenge for you,” grabbing Adrien’s fried catfish, coleslaw and sweet potato fries and heaping them on the plate in the approved presentation.)

And brilliance does not consistently make up for lack of people skills.  Is anyone rooting for Christian to win?  Maybe some people see themselves in him, the unacknowledged genius (and he is a kickass cook) who can’t register criticism–anyone who criticizes his work, including the three judges, is just wrong.  Not the rest of us, who have to work with, or around, people like him.

One of the most satisfying parts of watching is that over the weeks, as the “home cooks” (as the program calls them) gain in skill, they make accompanying gains in humility. Confidence dips and then rises in a more direct proportion to reality.  But you get to see each contestant realize how much he or she doesn’t know–and you get to see how this recognition helps them become better cooks.  They get better at drawing on their strengths, and the risks they take become, overall, more meaningful.  They come not out of jealousy, overconfidence or panic, but out of knowledge.  This is a sign of creative growth.  As you see how much more you have to learn, your ambitions get much more specific, much more informed.

Suzy has never been my favorite contestant, but she’s become more interesting as she’s recognized her own limitations.  I cheered for her last week when she produced the best plate of venison despite never having cooked that meat before.  I’d love to hear her explain how she figured that one out–what combination of intellect, instinct, knowledge, and nerve brought her through.  Her plate was gorgeous–well, she’s a neural engineer, and I’m not surprised that she could replicate the plating.  But something really came together for her with that plate.  Even though the challenge was to reproduce Gordon’s dish exactly, I think Suzy figured out something about who she is as a cook, how to get the best out of herself.

Another effect of the contestants’ growth is that the farewells also get more richly emotional and nuanced.  You feel that the ones walking away have been changed by the experience, and not just because they say so.  They know something more about who they are, what thrills them about cooking.  They have affirmed publicly, and at risk of embarrassment on TV, how much it matters to them.  Maybe this is naïve of me, but I would like to think that when they gasp, “This experience has changed my life,” they’re not really talking about being watched by millions on TV, but about the recentering of their lives around this thing that matters so much to them.  I’m not much of a cook, as my family and friends can attest, but I know about recentering yourself around the thing you have to do, and what a scary and impractical and altogether wonderful experience it can be.

I’ll be sad when this show is over.

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2 Responses to Learning from “MasterChef”

  1. lakinbacon says:

    So easy to see the parallels to a writing workshop, or even just writing in general: finishing a novel, working out the kinks in a short story, struggling over a poem that has a mulish-head of its own.

    Or a conference, eh? “recentering their lives around this thing that matters so much to them.”

    • nancohen says:

      Hi, Lakin,
      Yes, I think the transition from above-average dabbler to committed practitioner is probably quite similar in all creative fields, and I suspect it usually comes with a dip in confidence and/or performance–a failure of some kind. Some people give up; other people ride out the drop and go on.

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