In an interview he gave about TV chefs a couple of years ago, Anthony Bourdain pointed out that there's a disconnect between the Gordon Ramsay who clawed his way up from nowhere and became a video star in England--"the Gordon I know and have a lot of respect for"--and the "caricature of his former self" that Ramsay performs on American shows such as Hell's Kitchen. (Bourdain on the series that introduced Ramsay to American viewers: "It's a circus of cruelty, like shooting fish in a barrel with a cut-down 12-gauge shotgun. There's no cooking. It's just a bunch of dimwits -- the lame, the halt and the delusional -- and him pretending to be angry. There's no suspense. None of these idiots would be qualified to work a Fryolator at a Chuck E. Cheese much less ever work in any Gordon Ramsay restaurant.")
MasterChef seems to be meant to give Gordon the chance to be Gordon--the way he is on such British shows as The F Word and the original Kitchen Nightmares--but with a dollop of the acid that's part of his image. (Confusingly enough, the show's format is modeled on the Australian version of a show that originated in the U.K., but the American version is the first one that Ramsay has been involved in.) Ramsay is seldom as tender-hearted towards the worshipful contestants cowering before him as his fellow chef on the judging panel, Graham Eliot, who at one point in this week's triple helping of MasterChef is seen leading a failed chef to the door with his arm around her shoulder, murmuring encouraging words while his co-stars can be heard cackling in the darkness behind them.
But he's more of a softie than the third judge, saturnine bond trader turned restaurateur and vineyard owner, Joe Bastianich, whose usual expression is one of pained boredom, and that's before he's been obliged to put something disgusting in his mouth. (At one point during the audition process this week, he told one dreamer that whatever that was that he'd made, he wasn't even going to put it in his mouth, because the way it looked and smelled told him everything he needed to know.) These three make for an entertaining edition of the Three Amigos, and the first season of MasterChef also had an intriguing built-in tension that seemed to derive from the fact that Ramsey is trying to do something smarter and more positive than his other American shows, but that he simply can't remain convinced that smarts and positivity are the key to cracking the U.S. market. So he's trying to be supportive and instructional one moment, and reverting to Chef Wolf mode the next.
It's not as if he isn't likely to be given plenty more time to try to get the balance right. Fox has so little to hang its hat on in the summer that this week, they gave us three hours of MasterChef, and two of those just consisted of continuing to let the audition process carried over from last week play itself out. If anyone watching was thinking about applying for next season, there was a lot to learn. For starters, if your food isn't very good, you probably don't want to try for a big, splashy entrance, because while that won't help you make the final cut, it will automatically get you included in the humiliating montage of spectacularly failed contestants. The boisterous, confetti-firing guy with the dreadlocks hanging down to his ass who looked like a bike messenger with the world's largest collection of Faith No More memorabilia learned this the hard way. Perhaps even sadder are those who come up with a nifty hook for their culinary identity but drop the ball somewhere on their way to the redecorated aircraft hangar where Gordon, Graham, and Joe seem to be having their tryouts. One guy talked a blue streak about his love of organic farming, then served up a tuna dish that failed to incorporate a single item from his garden. "Farmer Bob," Ramsay jeered, "E-I-E-I-No!"
Those with an inspiring and/or sad story did much better, even when the stories made those telling them sound, upon reflection, a little deranged. Twenty-eight-year-old Esther announced that she had been on the fast track at a major law firm when she quit to pursue her dreams of becoming a MasterChef. Why the heck did you do that, Gordon wondered, thoughts about the state of the economy distracting him from how hard she was trying to sound like a female Rocky Balboa with a skillet in her hand instead of a piece of somebody's ear. "Your soul says something's wrong," she said, "and you have to find out what it is!" She actually said a lot more in this vein, until Ramsay interrupted her: "My soul tells me you've got fifteen seconds left to get that on a plate." She made it in, but not until the judges had wobbled enough on the matter that she took to begging, so shamelessly and at such length that you started to think that getting her law degree probably had been a waste of time. I'm not sure how many people have won Supreme Court cases by whining, "If you could just give me a chance to show you what I can do!" Every so often, a gang of animated penguins would shuffle across the screen while this was going on, to remind you that however badly the auditions turned out for some of these people, their careers were still in better shape than Jim Carrey's.
Finally, the judges had weeded out such dubious prospects as the guy who served them "redneck sushi", consisting of raw chicken breast topped with his own mayonnaise-based "white barbecue sauce", while hanging onto, as if for dear life, such chefs of the future as Giuseppe, who's sure to be an instant favorite of all the Top Chef junkies in the audience, because he looks like Tom Colicchio sporting the facial hair, accent, and personality of Fabio Viviani. Then it was time to get down to business. Tonight's episode began with thirty-eight contestants, who applauded wildly when a truck backed into the aircraft hangar and discharged a huge load of green apples. They appeared to cheer even louder when Graham said, "How do you like them apples!?" Sadly, Gordon did not immediately start talking trash about their mothers and the men's penis sizes, so I'll always wonder of they would have applauded him if he had.
Instead, he made a speech about the importance of apple peeling skills and started handed out knives. Presently the number of contestants was down to twenty-four. One of those sent home because he could not cut up an apple right was a guy who, ironically enough, kind of looked like an apple carving. During his audition, he had shared the information that he had honed his cooking skills while caring for his ailing wife, who was out in the next room. She was invited in so that she could react to being without spitting distance of Gordon Ramsay the way a devout Catholic might react to seeing the Pope and Jesus skipping arm in across the surface of the Central Park lake. That was enough to get him included in the first round draft picks, but his early exit from the competition proper was not wholly unexpected.
But the main challenge of the night involved making a terrific dish with the most popular meat in the world: chicken. The truck appeared again to deliver a live chicken, and, yes, the contestants all applauded the goddamn bird as if they thought it was about to sing an aria from Il Trovatore, or at least break dance. As they fell to their work, part of the suspense was in waiting to see which one would claim that coveted title, the early exit who should have watch a lot more reality TV before going on a show like this. It was immediately clear that the winner in that category would be eighteen-year-old Seby, who informed the camera that "I've never made this dish in my entire life." I cannot remember a single occasion when someone who has used his fifteen minutes on a reality competition show to experiment with something he's never done before has failed to go down in flames.
Seby was no exception. Another contestant screwed himself by focusing on presentation and presenting Graham Eliot with a pretty-looking little dish that had hardly any chicken in it, and I don't know how anyone could look at Graham and think that he would go easy on you for the sin of wasting food. But at least I didn't notice anyone dancing on their graves. Elsewhere, bizarre and self-revealing hatreds were being developed. Another beardless youth, eighteen-year-old Max, who came across as a pretentious twit in his audition interview, where he babbled about how his relative lack of experience was no problem because he'd eaten in so many great Manhattan restaurants and learned a lot through osmosis, was keen to see another contestant, Suzy, fail because he thought she was "arrogant" and "thinks she's a lot better than she is." Both Max and Suzy were still standing at the end, and will hopefully last long enough in the competition together to generate some really weird and unhealthy sexual tension.
At the end, there were eighteen contestants remaining out of the thirty-eight who had been there an hour before. "Half will be cut," the announcer had promised at the start of the show, and "half will remain!" You can't be a MasterChef if you can't peel an apple or cook a chicken, but nobody ever said basic math skills were essential to a career as a Fox announcer. The ones who are left make for a promising cast, but for now, I have to deduct points from the show's grade because of its over-reliance on the crude, sadistic bait and switch technique of informing people that they'll be sticking around. It gets tiresome seeing the close-ups of distressed, hopeless faces listening to a judge say something like, "I'm afraid you need to pack your bags..." just before the break to a commercial, once you've gotten the hang of the formula and know that after the commercials are over, the judge will say something like, "...your bag full of hopes and dreams, because you're still in this race!" They pull this shit again and again, and it's not long before it's too annoying to be even theortically suspenseful. My advice to the judges and the editors is that they get ahold of some old episodes of Match Game and watch Richard Dawson. That guy was MasterTease.