I like food. I like eating it and making it. For some reason, I really like watching other people making food and then being judged by a bald man who clearly enjoys his food and his Antipodean sidekick. Whilst I love the show, this love is tempered (tempura-d?) by moments of exasperation caused by the quality of judging.
There are two broad (beaned) issues that are on my mind:
(i) Food is subjective.
When I started watching the show, the bald rotund man never used to like spicy food (but the Antipodean fella always loved the heat). Now, years on, he loves the spice. Can’t get enough. His judging has shifted with his changing tastes – chimichangas that he would have described as “too spicy” in 2008 would be considered “bland” in 2018.
This runs all the way through the show – the professional version, fronted by a handsome, dour Michelin-starred culinary stalwart always talk about wanting things “not too spicy” and looking for “a balance” – I assume because he does not have a taste for spice. My bet is that people who love the spice would find Mr Michelin’s food very dull indeed – I’ve tried taking my mum to a posh French restaurant, and I know the results.
Now I’m no expert but surely the challenge in judging food, the reason why baldy and Aussie (called b&A from here on in) get paid the big bucks, is in finding the objective. There clearly are some high-level principles that are common to all food we consider “good”, and b&A should have to get over their childhood food traumas and their social conditioning to focus on these principles. Otherwise what we are saying is that if you had two other judges up there the result would be entirely different, which surely defeats the purpose. That seems to be a line that show is sailing a little too close to on a regular enough basis that it is something worth thinking about.
(ii) Plato’s Chocolate Fondant
Over our lifetime we develop an “ideal” of what things should be. We experience many things that look like a pizza. They have some things in common – usually, some bread, some type of sauce and perhaps some cheese, and we use these experiences to form a view in our head of what a pizza is. Then, someone calls something a pizza that does not fit with the experience, these ideals get shattered and I have to bloody redefine a pizza again. Is vegan pizza actually pizza? Raw vegan pizza? Raw vegan pizza with a cauliflower crust? Overall, this process is good, it’s healthy. It is how words get their meaning, and it is the beauty of a living language.
Here is what happens on the show. b&A come and chat to Contestant X, who says that she is making something – let’s say a chocolate fondant. b&A glow, admire her courage and walk off, telling the camera how much work X has to do, and how many people have failed with fondants before. After a furious 75 minutes, where X has cooked four portions of grilled salmon with samphire and a dauphinoise already, X is getting ready to get the fondants out of the oven. She’s serving them with honeycomb, salted caramel ice cream and, surprisingly, a vibrant green basil sorbet. Everything else is plated up, just the fondants need to come out of the oven. Trembling, sweating, she eventually gets them out of the moulds intact. Phew. She gets them in front of last year’s winners and saves one of the plates for our friends b&A. b&A break into it. This is the moment of truth for a fondant – will it have a runny centre? The fork slides in, breaking through the steaming brown pudding. It does not. Too long in the oven. b&A are deeply disappointed. “Where’s my molten middle?”, they cry. And X is gone, off the show and into obscurity. Dreams of opening a small restaurant in a seaside town in tatters. Alcoholism and years of depression follow.
Do you know what X’s problem was? It wasn’t really what she made, which was exceptional cooking. It was what she called it. A fondant. She set specific expectations with the language she used. Never mind that it was objectively brilliant. If only she’d called a cake. If only.
The judging is often clouded by preconceived notions, on ideas from the past that we project onto the present. It is not always an objective look at whether the dish put in front of the judges right now, no matter what it is called, is delicious and looks good*.
And that’s it.
* What looks good in food also follows fashion trends, with a “natural but structured” look the main favour du jour.