Image: EndemolShine Australia/Network Ten

Image: EndemolShine Australia/Network Ten

On a recent episode of MasterChef Australia, one ‘pantry’ of ingredients was revealed every fifteen minutes – by waiting for more options, contestants sacrificed cooking time. The first pantry to be revealed was herbs, the second was vegetables. When the palate of vegetables was revealed, every contestant hesitated. ‘I want to put up a complex dish,’ one said, as if creating something layered and rich would be a challenge without ‘protein’ (as they insist on calling meat). ‘I don’t see a full dish in my head and I don’t see that depth of flavour,’ another said. ‘I’m willing to take that risk [by waiting] and add extra flavour to my dish.’

There’s a conservatism which lurks at the heart of MasterChef, disguised under a layer of domes, gels and foams. Most of the dishes, when you boil them down, are really just meat and two veg; a roulade has been made from the chicken, the carrots have been caramelised and the peas are now a parfait, but the elements are the same. While contestants regularly take risks with technique, fighting to solidify their savoury sorbet in time, risks are far less frequent when it comes to ingredients. The narrow view of food and eating MasterChef presents is exclusionary at best and damaging at worst.

It’s an attitude that gives the impression that vegetarian cuisine is somehow lacklustre. It finds a place rarely on the show and almost always to the side of meat dishes. This is to say nothing of other dietary requirements – intolerances, allergies, religious and cultural diets, veganism – which MasterChef more or less refuses to acknowledge. Indeed, these diets are rejected by a fairly wide swath of food culture, especially at the high end. Visiting a posh restaurant as a vegetarian or coeliac will often give you only a handful of menu items to choose from, if you’re lucky. So why does it matter what they do on a reality TV show?

There’s a conservatism at the heart of MasterChef, disguised under a layer of domes, gels and foams.

Odd as it still seems, MasterChef has the power to steer Australian food culture in a way that nothing else manages to. In 2010, a study attributed the Australian food and restaurant industry’s quick recovery following the GFC directly to the rise of MasterChef. According to the study, Coles saw the sales of unusual ingredients surge by 1,400 per cent after being featured in a recipe on the show. This phenomenon has been termed ‘the MasterChef effect’. As Katherine Kirkwood and Michelle Phillipov wrote in The Conversation last year: ‘techniques such as sous vide, tempering chocolate, quenelling and making ice cream have entered the culinary repertoire of ‘ordinary’ cooks thanks to the MasterChef effect’. The show has pushed what was once an exclusive and elitist world firmly into the mainstream, raising the bar for ordinary cooks and professional chefs alike, and making the ‘cultural capital’ of the elite food industry accessible to a greater cross section of the Australian population.

It logically follows, therefore, that MasterChef has the potential to instil that cultural capital into new aspects of the culinary landscape. Given its juggernaut status, MasterChef should have some responsibility for the way it shapes Australian food culture. The program genuinely has a huge power to change the way everyday people eat, dine and shop.

Yottam Ottolenghi held four spots on Readings’ list of the 100 bestselling books last year – two of those books featured exclusively vegetarian recipes. Nigella Lawson’s latest cookbook features multiple recipes for vegan and/or gluten free cakes and biscuits. A survey in 2013 found that more than 10% of Australians consider themselves vegetarian, up from only 5% in 2010 (an updated survey would likely find that number has increased again). To put that in perspective – that’s about 1 million people, or the audience of MasterChef’s highest rating episode this year. Add to this the 3.7 million people who avoid certain food because of an allergy or intolerance and the 1.6 million who restrict their diet for religious or cultural reasons, and you’re looking at a pretty significant portion (34%) of the Australian population.

If MasterChef is anything to go by, these people don’t have tastebuds and prefer to subsist solely on Soylent. They certainly do not cook nice food or go to fancy restaurants. Heaven forbid we let them be contestants.

The narrow view of food and eating MasterChef presents is exclusionary at best and damaging at worst.

If nothing else, the best challenges on MasterChef are ones which restrict the contestants – to ingredients which begin with a certain letter of the alphabet, flavours that can be solidified into ice-cream or to dishes which are only one colour. These restrictions foster creativity. Is it so outrageous, then, to think that real-world dietary restrictions (which form the basis of so many people’s cooking and eating) could produce exciting TV?

MasterChef has managed to convince ordinary people that they can and should sous vide (cook at a low, exact temperature for an extended period) in their own kitchen. Foam guns have gone from a grand final-level challenge a few years ago, to something contestants are expected to be able to use from the competition’s outset. The spike in people Googling recipes for ‘parfait’ since this year’s season begun is dramatic (and we’re not talking the Shrek definition of parfait here – they don’t have layers). Given this, how hard could it possibly be to make vegetarian food sound exciting? Or gluten-free pasta sexy?

Food trends are changing. There is a desire for different kinds of food, and a thirst for information on how to cook this way. If shows like MasterChef don’t begin to embrace this trend, they might find themselves at the back of the line, rather than blazing a trail ahead.