Saturday, July 18, 2009

Eating well with the nine-year-olds

Every now and then you get to witness a t.v. show that makes the shift from programming to phenomenon. This year that show is a little reality program called Master Chef Australia.

The premise is pretty simple: a few dozen of the country's best amateur cooks compete to see who can impress a team of professional chefs/food critics in a variety of challenges, as their numbers are gradually winnowed down until only one remains. The challenges are all genuinely food-related, such as making a meal from a given set of ingredients, or trying to copy a professional chef's signature dish (usually something horrendously complex). The competitors are quite ordinary -- not the "eye-candy with issues" that are cast on most other reality shows -- and there's a spirit of camaraderie that is refreshing. It sounds rather mundane, and highly derivative, but amazingly it isn't. It's entertaining and fun, and it's the top-rated show in Australia -- with an audience of 2.3 million this week, that means about 10 per cent of the people in the country are watching it.

This is the final week, and everywhere you go you hear people talking about the show, debating whether Chris should have been voted out despite the fact that his braised beef cheeks were judged a failure, or whether Poh was wise to use century eggs in her dumplings. It's particularly popular with families -- we're certainly not the only family that gathers together to watch it every night, nor are we the only parents to see our children suddenly taking a greater interest in plating technique or a desire to learn to make croque em bouche.

Naturally, then, when we started planning a birthday party for Charlotte, she decided she wanted it to have a Master Chef theme. Today we had six 9- and 10-year-olds over for an afternoon of cooking and fun. We mimicked a number of elements from the show, which all of the kids watch with just as much fanaticism as Charlotte does. For example, every week the professional chefs on the show conduct a "master class" in everything from sausage-making to how to make a proper kofta. We decided to teach the kids how to make their own pizza, starting with making the dough from scratch:

A popular elimination challenge requires contestants to name all the ingredients in a complex dish such as minestrone or Indonesian curry. We had a blindfold tasting where the kids had to identify items as varied as golden syrup and fresh lychees.

We even had a visit from one of the judges, Melbourne Age food critic Matt Preston.

All in all, it was a pretty enjoyable and memorable birthday party.

Tomorrow night is the final episode of the show, and along with a few million Australians we'll be gathered around the t.v. watching to see who wins. And, like a few million Australians, we'll be hoping to reap the benefits of the show in the coming months as our children attempt to cook ever more complex and satisfying dishes.

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