Masterchef, the Culinary American Idol

JC here with a few thoughts on last night’s premiere of Masterchef.

MASTER CHEF: 1.01 “The Pilot”

I decided to watch the first episode of Masterchef last night. As you may have read on this site, I’m disillusioned with my former love Top Chef, which is currently mired in one of it’s weakest, least interesting seasons ever. While I really liked Gordon Ramsay’s other show, Kitchen Nightmares, I was never able to get interested in Hell’s Kitchen. Since Masterchef is focused on elevating amateur cooks, I thought it might have more of the flavor I enjoy from Kitchen Nightmares, namely Ramsay screaming at, yet eventually helping, hapless “average people.”

The first thing I noticed was the choice of announcers/narrators. I’m very glad Masterchef decided to go with a fairly normal, calm sounding female announcer. The announcer in Hell’s Kitchen was one of the dealbreakers for me; he always sounded like some kind of carnival barker or cheesy morning zoo radio DJ, so the lack of overstatement by the Masterchef announcer is welcome.

I wasn’t expecting the show to be as American Idol-ized as it was. It starts with 100 contestants, who one-by-one, must serve a dish to Ramsay and his two other judges. The judges will either praise the contestant and give them an apron signifying that they move on to the next round, or they’ll berate them and send them packing. It follows the Idol formula almost exactly. Ramsay’s obviously playing the part of Simon here, though he’s harsher on the failures (Simon can only insult you verbally, Gordon can actually vomit up your creation back onto a plate) he also seems more genuine than Simon when handing out his praise. I don’t remember the names of the two other judges, but the tall bald one is pretty harsh, while the shorter, heavier one fills out the role of the nicer, genial judge nicely. Unfortunately, there’s no one to fill the drug-addled role of Paula. Oh well.

The first epsiode was an hour long, and still didn’t clear through all the 100 starting contestants, so we’re in for more of the same next week. I’m not sure they really had to stretch it out this much. Despite what I think might be too much padding in the first episode, I’ll admit that I really did enjoy the show. The personal stories of the few successful contestants so far are very affecting, and it’s actually very cool to watch them overflow with happiness when Ramsay praises them. For an example, just look at the contestant (I think his name was Mike) who prepared an Asian style duck breast. It looked like his head was about to pop off from sheer ecstacy as he heard the glowing comments from all three judges, who were clearly impressed. You don’t find that kind of unrestrained joy with the professionals on Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen. Now, I’m sure Fox will eventually overmilk some of these personal stories (and in fact they were dangerously close to doing so with the story about the doctor and her mother’s cookbook) but so far they’re working, and I think I’ll keep watching.

More to come on this next week.

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