I am not a cooking program type at all, and have never watched any MasterChef programme.  Last night I watched the first episode of MasterChef SA, and loved every minute of it.  While there were some irritations, the tension that built up over the hour-long reality programme, the pithy comments from the judges, and the heartfelt emotions with tears and joy reminded me of a mix of ‘Who wants to be a millionaire?’ and ‘Idols’.

Interesting at the outset was the PG13 warning about strong language for the programme, which was not evident in the first episode.  From 4000 hopefuls starting off in Cape Town, Durban, and Johannesburg, fifty out of 120 aspirant amateur chefs received a MasterChef SA apron, to attend the MasterChef SA ‘boot camp’. The judges Pete Goffe-Wood, Bennie Masekwameng and Andrew Atkinson have a combined culinary history of more than 50 years, they said proudly, and individually have cooked for royalty, for Johannesburg’s rich and famous, and have judged and participated in local and international competitions. The difference between a good and a great chef is the burning desire to be the best, the participants were told.  ’Just being good is not going to cut it’, the judges added. Judges are searching for culinary perfection, and told the participants to go if that is not what they will deliver. Participants were told that the judges would be evaluating them on passion, skill, and the perfect flavour.  It was nice to see the multi-cultural and multi-gender mix of participants, even if the judges were all male, one of the first criticisms of the judges’ selection!  The judges appeared stiff initially, almost relying on the judgement of one of the others to be brave enough to say a dish was excellent or really bad, but they grew in confidence throughout the programme, being more bold to go against the majority view of the other judges.   The show was said on Twitter yesterday to have been R500000 over budget in its production.

Time-keeping was tough, each participant having thirty minutes to prepare their dish off-screen, and five minutes to plate it in front of the judges.  Initially the contestant names were seen on the screen, with the name of the dish, but towards the end of the first episode, fewer names were mentioned or depicted.  One could guess that if a profile of the aspirant chef was screened before he or she faced the judges, that the contestant would receive the MasterChef SA apron to get into the ‘bootcamp’.

Successful top 50 amateur chefs included Khayakazi Silingile, who prepared scallops and smoked salmon with an unusual rhubarb tart and orange juice, a colourful presentation.  The judges praised her ‘magical combination’ of ingredients and described her dish as ‘clever’.  Jade was a bundle of charm, energy, and confidence, and her chocolate tartlet with fresh berries and somewhat heat-melted cardamon ice cream won the judges’ approval, in that they said that she knows what she is talking about, that her dish was ‘magnificent’, and not ‘jaded’!  Callie-Anne was lucky to achieve two Yes votes for her fillet of beef with a mushroom and zucchini ragout, and started crying when she realised that the judges were not all ecstatic about her creation.  Sanjeev appeared over-confident, even singing for the judges, and his ‘lamb party’ curry dish was voted for by two of the judges.  Bongumusa received an apron, as did Sarel Loots. Ilse Fourie received a very strong vote of confidence from all the judges for her tagliatelle and salmon steak with a citrus dressing, for its taste as well as presentation, the judges showering her with accolades: ‘presentation is superb’, ‘tasted absolutely awesome’, ‘brilliant’, ‘you can cook with passion’, and ‘I was mesmerised by it’.  Lwazi’s crusted kingklip and Lungile’s duck burger and apple and plum sauce met the judges’ approval.  Chef Pete loved Deena Naidoo’s butter chicken so much that he took the plate back to his seat to finish off the dish, describing it as ‘moreish’ and ‘creamy’. An unnamed contestant made a sour cherry frangipane tartlet and served it with his home-made ice cream.  The judges could not stop eating it!  An unnamed contestant made ‘pap en vleis’, and was praised for her South African dish of a lamb chop. Luxolo received a sympathy vote from Chef Bennie, rewarding the scullery worker with a Yes vote for the passion in preparing his ‘Fish House’ dish of fish, mussels, and prawns.  He went down on his knees in tears when he received the vote to join the ‘bootcamp’. The judges appeared to drift away from their stated judging criteria in their evaluation of the dishes, not really providing any depth feedback about the dishes in culinary terms. Some of the recipes of the ‘bootcamp’ finalists are on the MasterChef SA website.

Wayde The Fudge Man from Johannesburg was less lucky, his pasta not having been cooked well enough, and was described by the judges as a ‘lump of goo’. A soup was described as a ‘bowl of emptiness’ by Chef Pete. The editors of the first episode were kind in showing very few of the dishes that did not make the grade, with the associated negative judges’ comments.   Interesting is that a contestant posted a complaint on ‘Hello Peter’ about the auditions at Montecasino on 3 December, for his dish being evaluated by one judge only, and no feedback having been given to him at all for it not making the grade. Chef Pete said about himself with a laugh: “It turns out that I’m less empathetic than I thought I was”.

Ads for sponsors Woolworths, Robertsons, Nederburg, Southern Sun, and Hyundai ran throughout the program, the advertising breaks being used to build up the tension about whether a contestant would stay or go. Lacking credibility in its running in the programme was Chef Reuben Riffel’s endorsement of Robertsons Paste, many viewers feeling that he would or should not be using Robertson’s herbs and spices in his restaurants!  Interesting is the pay-off line which Robertson’s was using in its ads during the programme, of ‘Masterclass’, nonsensical in that no contestant was seen to add any Robertson’s products during the show. The word means teaching a group of students, and is mainly used in a music context, and this is not what the programme is about, and therefore does not match the definition of the word. Interesting is that Robertson’s has appointed erstwhile chef Sonia Cabano as its ‘Social Media Manager’, she announced on Twitter a few days ago, and seems technically ill-equipped to deal with the demands of the position, asking for advice on running multi-accounts on Twitter, for example, and who has a reputation for causing trouble with other Tweeters.  She is outspoken about herself (writing about her ‘drunk tweeting’ last week, for example) and others.  One sensed the restraint with which she Tweeted when some Robertson’s Tweets were criticised!

Having visited a Woolworths branch in Sea Point yesterday afternoon, one would have thought that the retail outlet would have prominently advertised its participation in the programme and encouraged viewership via posters or flyers, but there was nothing at all to alert one to the programme or to Woolworths’ sponsorship of it.  The company commissioned Platypus Productions to direct twenty TV commercials to highlight its role as the food sponsor of the show.  Nederburg ran a few ads in the programme, but the setting of its transformed 1000 square meter Johan Graue Auction Hall venue was not visible to viewers.  The wine estate has launched new wines in conjunction with Woolworths, to coincide with MasterChef SA, and has also just announced that it is starting a series of online Winemaster’s Classes, which will be broadcast on www.nederburg.co.za, and viewers can win Le Creuset cookery sets. Interesting is that Spar advertising was allowed in the programme – Chef Pete Tweeted last week that his column in Pick ‘n Pay’s Good Living magazine has been cancelled after many years, due to Woolworths’ involvement in MasterChef SA.  Loreal was a non-food advertiser.

On Twitter the judges were criticised for not looking professional enough, in not wearing chef’s outfits, and looking rather formal with a tie (Chef Andrew), and jacket (Chef Pete).  The judges seemed inconsistent in their evaluation on occasion, either raving about a contestant, or destroying them in their cruel feedback at times. Kenneth Goldstone’s pan-fried kingklip and tarragon and mushroom sauce was highly praised by Chef Andrew, rejected by Chef Bennie, and even though Chef Pete did not seem enthusiastic about the dish, he gave it a Yes.  Not only the contestants were under pressure, but the judges too.  They started shooting on 4 January, and it was a tough 10 week schedule, 12 hours a day, six days a week, necessitating that they move to Paarl for the duration of the shoot, Chef Pete told Eat Out.  Interesting is the fuss that the publication made of Chef Pete yesterday,with an in-depth interview in a special newsletter to co-incide with the start of the MasterChef SA series.  Last year the publication fired Chef Pete as one of its Top 10 Restaurant judges. Chef Pete said that the judges were ‘blown away by the calibre of the contestants’, given that all were amateurs.  He predicted that the top five contestants will enter the culinary industry.   Chef Pete expressed his hope that MasterChef SA will be followed up by a second series.

POSTSCRIPT 21/3: A Kfm 94,5 presenter poorly read an ‘advertorial’ style ad about Chef and Judge Pete Goffe-Wood this afternoon on behalf of M-Net for MasterChef SA, with very out-of-date CV information – e.g. that he is the ‘author’ of the ‘newly launched book ‘Blues – Essence of Cape Town’ (the Blues staff say the book was launched about 5 – 7 years ago), that he is ‘currently involved in developing 95 Keerom Street for Rhodes House’ (the latter building was pulled down years ago, and the restaurant opened years ago), and that he owns Wildwoods (he closed down the Hout Bay restaurant almost a year ago)!  On his Kitchen Cowboys website he advertises his next Kitchen Cowboys course as starting on 23 August 2011!  The radio announcer called him ‘Pete Goffe’, all in all a very poor reflection on M-Net and MasterChef SA, and its judge Pete Goffe-Wood for his very out of date CV information!

POSTSCRIPT 21/3: One wonders why the M-Net publicity department is depicting the three MasterChef SA judges in silly photographs, as the one in this blogpost, as well as the ones in the Sunday Times last weekend, based on the Three Monkeys, using pumpkins to cover their ears, eyes, and mouth, and Chef Pete wearing a pumpkin as a hat! MasterChef SA is a very serious program for its contestants, and one would hope that the chef judges thought so too.  The pohotographs do not do the judges nor the program justice!

POSTSCRIPT 23/3: Sarel Loots Tweeted today that he did make the top 50 ‘bootcamp’ – our apologies for misinterpreting the judges’ sentiments, and we have made the correction.

POSTSCRIPT 23/3: It was just a matter of time before we (unintentionally) irritated Robertsons’ Social Media Manager Sonia Cabano enough with our questions relating to Robertsons’ ‘Masterclass’ advertising positioning in its MasterChef SA TV commercials that she blocked our Twitter account today, unprofessional behaviour on behalf of a client.  One wonders what she is signalling through this action, in wanting to hide something about her client! Being in defensive mode, she has Tweeted in particularly poor English today, using literal translations of Afrikaans words in the wrong context.

MasterChef SA, M-Net, Tuesdays, 19h30 – 20h30.  www.masterchefsa.dstv.com Twitter: @MasterChefSA

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage