MasterChef and the kitchen table

gay_bilson_narrowweb__200x290Gay Bilson knows a thing or two about food.

As a professional cook and restaurateur, she understands the world of fine dining and the sensibilities that drive those who cook for a living at the top end of town. The Sydney restaurants Bon Gout and Berowra Waters Inn—those she helped navigate to the heights of culinary success—are still remembered with acclaim. But now retired from the professional kitchen and farming in the solitude of South Australia’s McLaren Vale, Bilson understands well the domestic and more primary connections between the earth and our daily bread.

It’s because of this, Bilson’s critiques of the popular obsessions with food have teeth. For Bilson, the trajectory of most food writing, cooking programs and kitchen-based reality television is ‘aspirational.’ That is, it has little to do with the daily domestic life of our kitchens and more to do with the glamorous world of artfully stacked restaurant food we’re all meant to aspire to. While we salivate over stylized images of food ‘plated’ for the discerning consumer, we return to the dinner table with a diminished sense of what’s actually before us, its connection to the earth and the care that’s made it possible. The gaping distance between what is aspired to and what our ordinary lives most need is wide.

Perhaps most notably, Bilson argues, the value of the domestic cook is ultimately marginalized. For most domestic cooking—the cooking that marks our days and feeds our bodies—is not about art or performance. It’s about the daily sacrifices of earth and home. It’s about nutrition and wellbeing. It’s about the rituals and routines that hold us together as households and families.

‘ … the central culinary contradiction … is that MasterChef is a revealing picture of what has happened to the middle-class perception of food and cookery … Food for sale is the measure of excellence. Presentation is the measure of talent. In the forty years since we began to talk and write about food in a different way, we have been persuaded to aspire to the plating of a particular kind of food prepared in professional kitchens, learning from the top down rather than from agriculture, and all that agriculture entails.’

Personally, I’m not a great fan of competitive cooking shows and their manufactured sense of drama. While I am sure there are arguments to be made in their favour, I reckon Bilson’s critique is worth hearing.

Gay Bilson, ‘What we talk about when we talk about food’ in Voracious: The Best New Australian Food Writing, edited by Paul McNally, Prahran: Hardie Grant, 2011, 14-24.

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