Aspiration is hardly a new phenomenon, but TV gives it such scope with which to make its presence felt. Where would we be without talent shows, for instance? (Feel free to tell me; I have no idea. I never watch them: not enough screaming. When they make heavy metal talent shows, I am well in.)
The TV representation of aspiration in our house is competitive cooking; all competitive cooking. We watch Bake Off, we watched The Taste, we still search the schedules for Iron Chef America. The wife watches Chopped, Top Chef and My Kitchen Rules, me dipping in occasionally. But more than any of that we watch MasterChef: UK (Main, Celebrity, Professional), Ireland, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, and – the best of them all by far – MasterChef Australia. We are absolutely hooked.
The problem I have is with the nature that this aspiration is often voiced on these programmes. It’s not an issue that exists solely in the world of TV or of competitive cooking, but that’s what I’m in to, so that’s where I see it most. My problem is with people desperately trying to change their lives with a Hail Mary Pass, as part of a reality TV show of some kind. I call it MasterChef Syndrome.
Bored of life? Hate the job you fell in to? Feel the need to control your own destiny? Found yourself putting all of your hopes and dreams in to the food you cook for your friends and family? Then you need to try working in the ever-glamorous catering industry; a place where your dreams of working twenty hour days in stinking pits, getting burned, sliced and underpaid can come true at last.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that your job sucks and that your life is not as exciting as it was intended to be. At least in the dreams you used throughout education, in order to get you through that assignment, that lecture or that seminar. We all dream of a more halcyon life, of ploughing our own furrows, and controlling our own destinies. Catering seems an unlikely way of achieving that.
Yet that is the way each and every contestant wants to portray themselves: It can never be enough to simply want to cook for more people, to want to learn how to cook better, to want to show off how well you can cook: it must always be about a life changing experience and the opportunity for a new life, living the dream. The smelly, hot, perpetually tired dream. Yeah, that’ll do it.
Name me one ‘celebrity’ chef who turned to alcohol, crack or abuse of their position because the pressure they put themselves under became too great; there are a great many of them out there.
The fact of the matter is that the bulk of the catering industry is poorly treated, poorly paid and in just as much of a rut as you are. They’ll happily swap their low paid, antisocial job with your better paid 9 – 5 job in marketing, accounting or sales. It would be like a breath of fresh air for them.
The fact of the matter is that there are very few restaurant positions which could ever give anyone that freedom, that control, that sensation of actually living their food dream. Even then, they spent decades working in the drudgery positions, on their way to the top. That’s why they’re so good.
The fact of the matter is that everyone is trying some new food dream, some market stall selling gluten free matcha brownies, some internet only sourdough pizzeria, some hipster coffee and juice emporium. The market is saturated and you will fail more than you will succeed. Word to the wise.
That is why the image of the competitive cookery series is so seductive and so popular. We want it.
I hate being smug, and that is precisely what I have just been doing. The truth is that I spent a happy few years working in catering, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I was in my twenties; my social life was in the restaurants I worked in, and it allowed me to pay my way through college and university. Now I am in my thirties, and I know I couldn’t do that kind of work ever again. Physically or emotionally.
Likewise, I am chasing my own dream. I am sitting here, after the working day is over, writing for pleasure, rather than profit. Likewise, I am chasing a career in a profession which is also underpaid, also over idealised, and also full to the brim of people already doing the work. I suffer from my own MasterChef syndrome; the only difference is the specific set of symptoms which I exhibit.
The urge to improve your lot is as close to universal as makes no odds. In fact, the people who do not want more than they have presently got, more out of life and more for their family are barely worth considering: they’re either knuckle dragging, barely literate troglodytes or they’re by far too affluent to have any goals beyond raping peasants and injecting cocaine in to their own eyeballs.
Part of my problem is that I cook fairly well, but I have absolutely no intention of changing to a life of catering. I want to write. If someone were to produce a competitive writing programme, I doubt I could stop myself. Not sure how far I would get; much less sure how televisual the process of me typing a thing, for someone else to read silently, would be, but I’d give it a crack. Would you tune in?
Alternatively, if a competitive cooking programme existed where I could flounce in, cook a lovely rice dish, have someone taste it and tell me whether it was either edible or swill, then flounce back out again, without a whiff of a career in catering, I’d sign up tomorrow. As it stands, no thank you.
That said; if I were on that imaginary, non-competitive, cooking programme, they’d have to eat my rice dish – paella rice, chicken, prawns, thyme, garlic, peas – HOT. I cannot countenance eating hot food cold. It is anathema. But such is the MasterChef way. The contestants cook; work stations are in disarray; the judges are then served from clean work stations. The food is cold when it gets to them. I’ve read interviews with judges saying that it actually improves the flavour. They can fuck right off.