CRIME CULTURE: Apart from George Calombaris’s now well-publicised wage theft scandals, MasterChef’s overwhelming symbolic motifs of ‘hopes and dreams and journeys’ also plays a role in concealing and distracting from a historically toxic and exploitative industry, writes Tim Kent.
The latest revelations that all three MasterChef judges – Matt Preston, Gary Mehigan and the aforementioned ‘Greedy’ George Calombaris – will be departing after this season will see a new if not dramatic makeover in order to refresh and protect the MasterChef brand and franchise. For me it’s too little too late. The network, the producers, and the brand itself, should not escape accountability for a number of reasons I will speak to. And it all goes back to shooting horses, not baking ever more ludicrous croquembouches.
The reference to shooting horses is drawn from the classic 1969 movie They Shoot Horses, Don’t They with Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin. The film revolved around the marathon dance contests that were widely popular in the Depression years in the US. They were cruel, exploitative events that capitalised on the life of poverty and unemployment that prevailed at the time. Contestants danced until basically the last person standing. Many were taken to hospital. Others died from exhaustion for that elusive pot of money that awaited the winner.
The movie is as relevant today as it was then, particularly in the context of reality TV shows that cruelly push contestants to the limits of their mental and physical endurance.
MasterChef has been described as the “thinking person’s” cooking show. An alternative to say My Kitchen Rules that hires a bunch of dysfunctional, narcissistic and nasty people as a ratings puller, and where actual cooking takes a backward step. But make no mistake about it. MasterChef belongs in exactly the same basket of reality TV shows as all of the others in that it illustrates an unreality.
It seeks to conceal and romanticise an industry with a dark underbelly of worker exploitation, bullying and outright wage theft. It relies on clichés and flimsy symbolic themes of “follow your food dreams”. That all food needs to be “cooked with love”. It is what bonds people, brings them together including families, friends, loved ones etc, etc. It’s the mythical aspirational world where everybody has got the ample resources, and time, and will, and commitment to create glorious gourmet feasts in the matter of minutes for all those much-loved family and friends who all magically super appreciate us because they’ve now seen our inner MasterChef sparkle.
MasterChef in applying these myths and symbolisms seeks to protect an industry under siege and of course their own kind, such as the now widely despised George Calombaris. As luck has it, one of the very final episodes of this year’s series of MasterChef focused on the very last meal service at Calombaris’s elite Press Club restaurant.
Throughout the episode the audience just like the contestants were constantly reminded of what lies ahead “when you follow a dream” via sheer hard work and vision. It was an episode saturated with pathos and a distorted homage, not only to the industry but Calombaris himself. One deliberately orchestrated and poignant scene depicted the lone figure of Calombaris turning for the last glance at his kitchen before switching the lights off and walking out.
Were we supposed to shed a tear?
Not me, as it was an episode where yet again MasterChef contestants were used to cook and cater for an elite restaurant, in this case George’s very own. He supervised the kitchen by barking orders, bullying contestants with statements such as “like my heart is one of your plates”, “don’t let me and my friends down”, these are “my people, hear me?”.
Let’s not forget this is the bloke who became a convicted football hooligan after punching a teenager in the aftermath of the 2017 A-League Grand Final while he was a special guest at the match. With the help of expensive lawyers, Calombaris eventually won an appeal against the conviction. The hot-headed chef claimed his angry actions on the day had come about due to a “brain freeze”.
The kicker came when criticising the hapless contestants for untidy benches: “I am OCD about all things,” he claimed. “I even have colour-coded underwear drawers”. Really George? It’s a pity that your OCD did not translate into paying your workers their correct salaries, worth the tune of $7.8million to be exact.
But more so, the timing of the Press Club episode was just as questionable. It was aired the day prior to his court ruling and subsequent fine of $200,000. It was a feeble and blatant propaganda exercise in attempting to place a human face to Colambaris and an industry with floundering credibility. Coincidentally, there also just happened to be a fawning front page cover for Calombaris in the Good Weekend Magazine published with the Saturday edition of the Sydney Morning Herald over the past week, just as news hit of his punishment and fine. He must be paying a PR firm quite some dosh to get those kind of strings pulled to help cover up his many sins.
MasterChefs no more: Recently departed judges George Calombaris, Matt Preston and Gary Mehigan (Image: Wiki Commons)
There are a couple of things that have increasingly disturbed me regarding MasterChef. The contestants are pushed to the limits of their physical and psychological endurance. Away from family and loved ones, many either take long amounts of leave from work, or quit altogether. They bow to their masters, while their idol chefs weaken the contestants at the knees for the unique and privileged opportunity to not only cook for them but to get that elusive nod of approval. It’s got all its own rituals and practices to go with the now familiar language and clichés that surround the show. Any more of it, and we could be describing it as the cult of MasterChef.
Obviously we can’t know the exact contractual agreements the contestants going on the show sign off on. And one could argue that they know what they are getting into. But for myself that is beside the point, because the contestants are hoovered up and drawn into the hype and propaganda as well as all the hyper-marketing to the viewing audience. Does the use of contestants in elite restaurant cook-offs constitute a form of free labour? Especially if the patrons are still paying for it? Did The Press Club final-ever service for George involve paying customers but George in return that evening obtained free kitchen chef labour courtesy of the exhausted contestants?
Deep down, beneath all the glitz and glamour and exploding fireballs every ad break, is MasterChef simply an extension of the exploitation model that has made so many ‘celebrity chefs’ like George and many of his mates who have appeared on the show down the years incredibly rich while ripping off their own employees by millions of dollars?
These are real questions people need to be asking.
Another cruel aspect of MasterChef is how the judges play ‘amateur psychologist’ – asking probing personal questions of contestants in their most vulnerable moments, ripping the emotional bandaids off them. Some are reduced to sobbing profusely. And just like that, then it’s “off you go now, we will taste your food”. The show also has many times quite deliberately and repeatedly focused on Calombaris zeroing in on a contestant who is falling apart with anxiety and the stress of it all. The cameras usually capture him ushering them aside for a counselling pep talk, even an embrace, with the producers making sure we not only still see George but his advice is audible.
Nothing like the tough chef who built a food empire from scratch and indulged in outright underpayment of his employees showing his softer side. It’s sickening most certainly. But it’s deliberate too. Of that, I have absolutely no doubt. It’s the 10 Network and MasterChef protecting its business model and that of the industry by way of imagery, myths and symbols.
Regular MasterChef guests and ‘celebrity chefs’ like Neil Perry, Heston Blumenthal, and Shannon Bennett all have similar wage theft and other storm clouds of allegations circling them. And of course it has just been revealed the entire MasterChef judging panel will not return for next season. If latest reports are anything to go by, it turns out George and Co walked out over a demand of a 40% pay rise in their salaries. An astonishing irony and at best hypocrisy, especially when you factor in the commercial breaks that are saturated by product endorsements from all three judges spruiking items ranging from Tanqueray Gin, Canstar Loans, Swisse Vitamins and Nespresso.
Nice ‘on-the-side’ money spinners for Mehigan, Calombaris and Preston.
The conduct of Calombaris and his mates across the industry are absolutely reprehensible, make no mistake about that. But in my view, so is Network 10 and the MasterChef brand, as well as its marketing and presentation. It remains to be seen if their departure signals the death knell for its Australian operations.
But the dreamers and the masochists sold on visions and imagery will still apply for that pot of glory and the voyeuristic viewers will get their fix. And for now the network has it all before them to restore the damage that the show and the three departing judges have left in their wake.
Whatever remains though and whatever the makeup of its new panel of judges, MasterChef will be just another garden-variety and extremely toxic reality show selling broken dreams, with the main meal served up concealing a wholly unhealthy protection racket for a hospitality industry that has much to answer for.
Sadly, it has little to do with food.