Archive for August, 2010

MasterChef USA vs Australia: Is Gordon better than Preston?

So last week, MasterChef US finally launched on Fox television, hot on the heels of our own record-setting Australian franchise. And it was a fascinating look to see how the show recreated itself in an American mould, with Gordon Ramsay as the main draw. It’s fascinating for both its similarities and differences.

The biggest alteration is that the US version is only a weekly show that I’ve heard will run a dozen or so weeks, rather than the six-day-a-week onslaught of the Australian version. And given the tight timeframe for so much activity, there’s heaps of editing, and packing comments into sound bites to fit everything into neat one-hour weekly episodes. That’s a bit of a shame – it makes the drama feel sudden, brief and staged. Unlike the Australian show, it doesn’t allows enough time for viewers to get to really know the contestants, empathise with them and get involved in their daily lives. Instead, it’s a bit too wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am standard reality TV. The good news? I don’t have to be glued to the TV every night.

The choice of judges are clever, however. Ramsay was the no-brainer choice, given his strong following in the US and his TV savvy – and let’s face it, he’s guaranteed to produce fireworks. He’s joined by Joe Bastianich, a fantastic choice who’s the business brains behind Mario Batali’s ever-growing restaurant empire, whose dozen eateries include New York City’s Babbo, Lupa, Del Posto, Casa Mono and LA’s Osteria Mozza. Bastianich is intelligent, formidable and critical, but without a hint of the sensational that occasionally pops up with Ramsay. It’s also notable to mention that Bastianich is a restaurateur joined by two celeb chefs as co-judges, so there’s no direct replacement for the critic’s shoes – or should that be critic’s cravat? – of Matt Preston.

The yet-unproven selection is Graham Elliot Bowles, who entered America’s celeb chef ranks at age 27 (he’s now 33) after he received four stars by the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Magazine during his time as chef at Avenues at the Peninsula Chicago. Most of the PR spin glosses over the fact that Bowles’ move to his own, dressed-down ‘bistronomic’ restaurant (sounds a bit like glorified ‘gastropub’), called Graham Elliot, received a more earthly two stars by the Tribune. Bowles, a very big man in Alvin Quah-like white glasses, was fun to watch on Top Chef Masters as he jostled and joked with WD-50’s Wylie Dufresne, but on MasterChef he’s the least audible judge and seems to be overwhelmed by his more-experienced counterparts. One can only hope that he gains more confidence as time goes by, and he does begin to get slightly more vocal and defiant by the second episode, which aired the other night. Mostly though, he’s currently just the jovial and gentle fat guy who exerts what, to his fellow judges, seems to be occasional lapses in judgement. This is TV, however, and who knows what’s been left on the busy editing floor.

What makes the show entertaining from an Australian perspective is its only-in-America moments. As expected from a US reality show, there are the stereotypical, cringe-worthy moments: fist pumping, high-fiving, unearned bravado, some crazy-ass head moves and try-hard questions like “Are you gonna bring it?” I was almost feeling like a self-loathing American (I’m a native New Yorker turned Sydney boy) until I got to watch some of the delightful characters. My favourite is Avery, an African-American cook from Louisiana, who when tasting her Cajun specialties utters phrases like, “Mmmm. Slap your momma!” and “Makes your tongue slap your brain.” She presented her catfish Arcadia over angel-hair pasta in white gloves and a genteel, “I pray that this is pleasing to your palates.” That said, she doesn’t seem the type to make it to the finish line, with the kind of presentation-challenged, brown food that New Orleans cuisine regularly produces – and I say that from a position of loving Cajun and Creole food. “I hope it tastes better than it looks,” Gordon says before diving in.

It’s immediately obvious that the US will not be as kind and supportive at the Australian version; neither good or bad, but distinctly different and more cutting. Ramsay, as expected, is the most frequent attack dog. “That’s the most disgusting soup I’ve ever tasted in my life,” he spews about a dodgy looking beer cheese soup. When critiquing a yucca-encrusted snapper by a contestant who hypes her love for dating chefs, he admonishes: “My advice? Continue dating chefs because you’re never going to be one.” Ouch.

A good deal of the show is a duplicate of MasterChef Australia, which can make it feel cliché at times. Cooking food for the military. Check. Chopping onions to whittle the field. Check. Even the tryouts are similar. From my own experience as a contestant in the season one tryouts in Melbourne, I noticed the typical bollocking from the chefs to the contestants in feigned frustration that no-one is making the grade. Then there’s the contestant selected by the producers to be the comedy act for the camera, this time in the form of Suzette, a supposed former pro soccer player for Brazil (but with an obvious American accent), who shows a bit of flesh and flirts heavily with Ramsay. “I was a forward. If you were a back, I’d take you on.” And forget about thinking that Australians are soft – the Yanks cry just as much as their counterparts.

Oh, and like the molecular dude from MasterChef Australia’s first season, Aaron, there’s also the guy you love to hate. Here it’s David Miller from Boston, a software engineer who runs around manic like he’s strung out on smack, shouts out ‘blam!’ while cooking as if he’s Emeril Lagasse’s retarded brother, revels about being overconfident, and laughs a mock hyena laugh. For his audition, he cooks a New England-style bouillabaisse, and pronounces words like “Provence,” and “crouton” with an exaggerated ‘r’ that should require a sick bag. Yes, I despise him already.

It’s times like these that it’s a pleasure to have Ramsay on the show, who goes straight for the jugular. “Are you acting, or are you trying to be normal?” he taunts, then points out it takes two days to make a perfect bouillabaisse. He also takes on Miller’s French pronunciations by engaging him in French, which the engineer expectedly can’t understand. The smackdown continues as Ramsay berates Miller’s ill-gotten confidence. “When you’re good at something, it creates confidence. When you’re insecure about something it creates an arrogance,” Ramsay fumes. “Arrogant chefs are like blondes in Hollywood.” The end result sees Miller bawling in front of the trio, which gains enough sympathy from the judges to give him a MasterChef apron. Upon exiting, he instantly reverts from sobbing to screaming wildly like he’s just won the Super Bowl. I hate him more, and I’m certain the producers wanted me to feel that way, just so I’ll keep watching, eager to see him go down in flames.

Early word is that the critics have regularly panned the show, but that’s not really important to the producers. What’s truly important is ratings, and so far MasterChef US has garnered strong viewer numbers: 6 million watched the debut. That’s way more than Australia’s 2 million average, but less successful if you consider population sizes. Even so, no-one in their right mind would expect a repeat of the show’s Australian dominance – the American market is far too saturated with entertainment options.

So will I keep watching the show? Definitely. Will I enjoy it? Yes, but I don’t expect it to captivate me the same way as the Australian show. It was clearly going to be hard to get a US network to commit to programming six days a week, but the result is that US MasterChef feels merely like mindless entertainment. That’s a far cry from MasterChef Australia, which to those of us who watched religiously, was not only more educational but also felt more like an extension of the family.

All Praise Melbourne’s Pope Joan

Pope Joan storefront

There’s a new Pope in town, and she’s a beauty. There’s a pile of Pope Joan books stacked in front of the register about the namesake of this heaving café in Melbourne’s Brunswick East, but my pilgrimage is moreso determined by the pedigree – Matt Wilkinson, only recently the head chef at Circa, has left the fine-dining building and created an equally fine neighbourhood café in Brunswick East, in the city’s north.

Aside from a cross-street café, the equally new Milkwood, there’s not much else here on this pedestrian section of Nicholson Street, so it’s extra surprising to find this sizeable café with its chock-a-block table, dogs hanging out the front, and more diners spilling out onto the adjoining outdoor area. It’s buzzy and feels like a bohemian hangout with an above-average budget. There are marble-covered milk crates as tables on the sidewalk, a forest-painted cement floor, wood furnishings and an ornate faux-rusted iron lantern light that dominates the room. It’s a bright room, but vintage hanging scales and found objects keep things creative.

The food has England at its heart, with the first sign being the Stilton Blue pots used to hold sugar for the Allpress coffee brewed here. ¬The barrista does the beans justice with a smooth pour and a rich crema. Other English touches include San Pellegrino bottles filled with HP sauce, and black-and-white kitchen tiles with an interected ‘O’ pattern that looks like an overhead view of an English garden.

It takes a little while for the service to get going. I’m greeted pleasantly at the door – “Take a seat wherever you like” – but then for the first 10 minutes I’m left staring out into space while I wait for a menu and to order coffee. The young staff, dressed smartly in olive cross-backed aprons, are continually on the move, but I’m here after the weekend brunch rush, so this issue seems to be a lack of eye contact. Finally, one waiter notices my gaze, rushes over to bring me a menu and for the rest of my stay is attentive. All is forgiven.

I ask the waiter for his menu favourites and he recommends the poached eggs with a ‘rosti’ hash of smoked fish (including eel and salmon), or the crumbed coddle egg with an anchovy and blood sausage salad. There’s also an omelette of souffled nettle, sorrel and Meredith feta that’s catches my fancy, and I later see on Wilkinson’s Twitter page that he forages for the nettles when he’s out in the countryside. Nice.

I’m given loads of good options, and therefore become stuck with indecision. I finally choose the egg and rosti before my waiter notices he needs to get back to work. The eggs arrive poached beautifully, with the yolk balancing runny and gelatinous, while the hash nicely mellows the smokiness of the fish with the potato. It’s all freshened up with a bit of mixed greens enlivened with chervil and parsley. I enjoy it all, even if it goes down too quickly and I’m left wanting more. Hmm, maybe I should have gotten the “Not So Full English Breakfast”, with its scrambled eggs, Cumberland sausage, bacon and baked beans.

I finish off with the house herbal tea, a slightly fruity and herbal rose-coloured blend, and a nice tough to what’s already a likeably unconventional menu. And that’s without even considering the lunchtime fare of the blackboard specials, strategically placed to a wood-cut moosehead. There’s a cream of pumpkin soup scratched off the list, followed by salads, a strozzapreti pasta, and such enticing sandwiches as oxtongue and piccalilli or another called ‘The Cornish’ featuring chicken and stuffing.

I look around the interior and notice the communal table next to me resplendent with weekend newspapers, as well as a right angle of bar stools around the opposite corners of the storefront window. There’s also the sunny, outdoor wooden deck that extends to a brick wall; it’s open air but undercover and winterised with wall-mounted heat lamps. Just as I’m gazing across the room, a tempting pistachio and currant muffin walks passed me, its face powdered with icing sugar. I’m instantly attracted, but then remember that I’m running City to Surf next week, and pass. Until we meet again.

Wilkinson is out today, so I don’t get to ask him about the Pope Joan reference. A post-Google reveals she’s a legendary, but likely fictitious, female pope who served during the Middle Ages. How she ties into the restaurant, I don’t have the faintest, but she did dress up as a man until she was outed during childbirth. Not sure what Matt’s trying to tel me, but I think I’ll keep this as one of those “don’t ask, don’t tell” scenarios and just love the café for what it is – a fantastic, creative cafe that one has one major fault… Pope Joan doesn’t have a sister in Sydney.

Pope Joan, 77-79 Nicholson St, Brunswick East, Vic, (03) 9388 8858,

Pope Joan on Urbanspoon