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Masterchef’s Magic Ingredient

17 May

How good is this series of Masterchef? I must admit to feeling wary when watching the first few episodes, fearing the show would (as so many do) become a victim of its own success. So often successful shows lose the plot, feeling each series has to become more extreme than the previous. Not so with Masterchef. It’s largely as good as ever, with a few minor but important tweaks, such as the iron-clad guarantee that there will be no second chances for the contestants – once you’re out, you’re out – no ifs, no buts. BUT – there are a few perplexing questions about Masterchef – which – after watching in excess of 100 episodes, I still can’t quite figure out the answers. Here’s a few of them.

1) Why is there always a motor-scooter parked outside the Masterchef kitchen?

2) Why is the pavement outside the Masterchef kitchen always wet, even though the sun is shining?
3) Why does George bounce up and down on the spot when he talks?
4) How does Matt Preston get away with wearing white pants?
5) Why does Matt Preston perform facial contortions when he’s tasting the food?
6) How do you get to be in the top 24 amateur cooks in the country – but never have heard of a Bomb Alaska?
7) When George says ‘Boom Boom, shake the room’ why doesn’t he pronounce the ‘boom’ and ‘room’ so they rhyme?
8) Why do they clean up the kitchen before judging, thereby meaning the food is stone-cold when it’s served?
9) Do any contestants ever finish a challenge ahead of time, sit back and relax?
10) Why the ridiculous over-use of scripted puns by the judges? Like in the rabbit challenge the other night – if a judge said ‘hop to it’ one more time, I would have thrown something at the TV.
11) Has any viewer actually ever cooked anything that they’ve seen made on Masterchef?
12) Why does George eat like he’s never seen food before? He’s a chef – so why does he eat like he was raised with wolves?
13) What is the magic ingredient that makes us (the audience) watch a group of contestants bake bread (by machine) for a full hour? Why do we (the audience) care so much if Billy/Alex/Ellie’s meringue is smooth/grainy/glossy/over-whipped/not whipped enough? On paper, it sounds about as interesting as watching grass grow. This is the greatest mystery of Masterchef. It’s a cooking show – but it’s also much, much more.

Must-see TV drama series – Boardwalk Empire

21 Apr

It’s not often that you watch a period piece of television that really transports you back to the era in which it’s set. The recent ABC TV mini-series Paperback Giants achieved a fairily true-to-life 1970s feel through its archival street footage of people going about their daily business – and the use of hilarious ’70s clothing. But for a real lesson in how to achieve authenticity, you need to watch Boardwalk Empire – an American drama series currently screening in Australia on Foxtel’s Showcase Channel (7:30pm, Sunday). If you don’t have Foxtel then buy it on DVD. It’s worth it.
 Set in the 1920s era of prohibition, Boardwalk Empire is the story of Nucky Thompson (a real person), a corrupt county official whose main source of income is bootlegging. This is a man with his fingers in more pies than a bakery. He has close ties with everyone who’s anyone – politicians, gangsters and mobsters, including the infamous Al Capone. The series features some of Hollywood’s heavy hitters, including Martin Scorsese and Mark Wahlberg as executive producers and Steve Buscemi in the title role of Nucky. This is a truly lavish series. I believe the pilot episode (directed by Scorsese) cost a cool $20 million to make. That’s the price of authenticity. This was the flapper era – where men and women always wore hats and gloves, a man could get away with wearing full-length mink overcoat and a red carnation in his buttonhole, and all women wore silk lingerie and beaded ‘flapper’ dresses. Boardwalk Empire is at once evocative, violent, historically interesting and narratively engaging. At a time when the word ‘quality’ is rarely used in relation to television, it’s an absolute breath of fresh air. Ever have those nights when you’re just sick of cooking shows with recipes you’re never going to cook – or the pettiness and predictability of reality shows? In other words – cheap television. Boardwalk Empire is the perfect antidote – a cracking plot, talented actors and beautiful cinematography. You can see where the money went.

Eleven Reasons why ‘My Kitchen Rules’ is annoying

7 Apr

Like more than a million Aussies, I am a regular watcher of My Kitchen Rules (Channel 7, 7:30pm Mon – Wed). Now, even though I could be considered a ‘fan’, there are plenty of things that really annoy me about the show. So – why not switch off? I hear you ask. Well, two reasons. One, there’s nothing else to watch at 7:30pm. Two, sometimes the fun of watching TV is feeling like you want to throw something at the box. So – here’s my list of what annoys me about MKR.
1) The casting. It feels like the producers have a number of boxes they needed to tick – old, young, Asian, Italian, Caucasian, straight, gay, high-strung, laid back. And, sure enough they have found a ‘cast’ to tick all of these boxes. And then, just to make it really obvious that there’s a contestant for everyone – they use these ridiculous descriptors every time that couple says anything – like ‘Ash and Kelly – HIGH ACHIEVERS’ – why? Sure they were a little high strung – but what had they done to deserve the high achiever title? Peace in the Middle East? ‘Mal and Bec – URBAN HIPPIES’ – the only really hippyish thing about this couple was that Mal wore funny hats. So, the producers did a great job of finding a very wide cross-section of people – but the one thing they forgot was to test their cooking skills. (see point 2)

2) The number of times a contestant says – ‘I’ve never cooked this before…’. Hello? This is a national cooking competition on TV! This is not the time to be testing out new recipes. If you’re really that good at cooking, you should have made all these things before, at home,  without a national audience watching you fail.
3) Pete Evans. Enough said.
4) Manu Fiedel’s obsession with ‘sauce’. It’s bordering on addiction. I’d hate to see him at a BBQ where there was no tomato sauce for the snags. I think he would leave.
5) Three of the most overused phrases in a cooking show. ‘Cook with love’ – what the hell does a plate of love look like? ‘Cook from the heart’ – I think they basically mean ‘Be careful with your food’ but that doesn’t sound quite as interesting, does it. And – ‘Your dim-sims/steak/chicken/etc really took me on a journey to China/Morocco/Vietnam (insert country here)’. OK – let’s get something straight. The only thing that can take you on a journey is a car, a plane, a bus or a train – not a plate of food.
6) The way Manu speaks. Don’t get me wrong – I love Manu’s french accent. Very sexy. But – I think the producers are worried that the audience may not understand him so they’ve asked to enunciate everything V-E-R-Y S-L-O-W-L-Y A-N-D C-O-R-R-E-C-T-L-Y. He really labours over certain words. Poor fella.
7) The way the contestants slag off on each other’s food. See points 2 and 3. They’re not the best cooks in the world. They’ve all had monumental stuff ups in the kitchen – so don’t go dissing someone else’s equally tragic effort. 
8) The editing. We wait for the judges to announce their decision. The tension builds and builds. The suspense mounts. They say ‘And the winner is…’. And then comes the bloody commercial break. It’s an old TV trick – doesn’t make it any less annoying though.
9) The away the judges criticise the contestants about seasoning. OK – so I know food is supposed to have salt added while you’re cooking it. But – if the final product isn’t salty enough – then add some yourself, I say. Isn’t that why they put salt shakers/grinders on the table?
10) The whole ‘state versus state’ thing. It only works for football. Not for cooking. Ditch it Channel Seven.
11) The finish time. The show consistently ends at 8:40pm – which means you miss the first ten minutes of the show you want to watch at 8:30. I know it’s a ploy by Channel Seven to stop me changing channels. Bad luck Channel Seven. I switch anyway, and just wait for the following night’s episode to see who got kicked out.

Introducing the rock star of the pastry world – Adriano Zumbo

21 Feb

It used to be that Australian audiences went crazy for real rock stars – men who could shred a guitar, or pulverize a drum kit. These days, we’re all going crazy over men who can rattle their pans in the kitchen. We are obsessed with our chefs. They are the new rock stars of the celebrity world. And the most rocking rock star of them all is Adriano Zumbo. To date, the celebrity chefs (Neil Perry, Matt Moran, George Colombaris etc) have all come from a fine dining restaurant background. But Zumbo is breaking through the toffee ceiling. Think that a patisserie is just the home of the custard tart and lamington. Well, think again. He doesn’t call his kitchen ‘the lab’ for nothing.  It’s a place of experimentation with flavours and textures, where people queue out the door and around the block to buy a slice of culinary wizardry.

Australian audiences first met Zumbo through Masterchef where he reduced contestants to quivering wrecks with his insurmountable pastry challenges such as the eight-layer vanilla cake, the croquembouche, and the macaron tower. It’s the macaron that’s made him a star. He’s risen to fame on the back of this humble concoction of two meringue discs, sandwiched together with a luscious gooey filling. Now, he’s got his own TV show (‘Zumbo’ –  Thursdays, 7:30pm on SBS) furthering shooting his rock stardom further into a stratosphere.

Think ‘master patissier’ and you might conjure up an image of a podgy, ageing French man. This is the very antithesis of who Adrian Zumbo is. For a start, he’s young – just 29 years old. He’s got tattoos and the physique of a man who spends more time in the gym than he does eating his own wares. He was born and raised in country NSW – the son of Italian migrants who operated supermarkets in Coonamble. These days, Zumbo is assembling an empire – built on eggs, butter, flour and cream – with two patisseries and a cafe in Sydney. There’s no doubt he sees himself as a modern day Willy Wonka; the Wonka tattoo on his arm is evidence enough. But you can also see it in his creations.One of Zumbo’s recent gimics was to produce five golden macarons (how you get a biscuit to glisten like a gold coin like he did, I do not know) sold randomly to customers, with the prize being a day in the Zumbo kitchen. The cameras were there to capture the excited reactions of the winning customers – and you would think they had won lotto.

What the TV series is revealing is that there are a couple of themes that drive Zumbo’s work – one of them is childhood nostalgia. He loves making cakes based on flavours we all loved as kids. A recent episode of ‘Zumbo’ showed him creating a multi-layered milo cake that you drink with a straw and ends with a yummy base of crunchy milo – the bit we all liked to eat with a spoon at the end of a milky drink of milo. The other thing he loves to do is mess with your head by making traditionally savoury flavours into sweet treats (pigs-blood macaron anyone? Or maybe you’d prefer the wasabi-pea flavoured eclair). The sight of chopped-up hamburgers swathed in cream to infuse the burger flavour is something that will stay with me for a long time – both for its slight repulsiveness – and the constant refrain in my head – ‘gee, I bet that tastes good’.

The birthplace of the macaron is France, where pastry making is steeped in history and tradition. While Zumbo honours that tradition with his technically-demanding creations, he’s also making pastry into a very modern business and capitalising on his chef-as-celebrity status. He recently launched his summer ‘collection’ of cakes with a catwalk show, where the new creations were paraded by models in clothing that kind of matched the colours of the desserts. And, at the end, Zumbo himself took a stroll down the catwalk to the rapturous applause of his many fans, who had queued down the street to take their place at the summer launch. Afterwards, Zumbo posed for photos with his fans (he’s big on facebook) and even signed autographs. But it’s not just for show. You get the sense through the TV show, that this is who Zumbo truly is. He’s the guy who plugs into his i-pod at work and cooks like a demon, interspersing his whipping, beating and folding to throw a few nightclub-worthy dance moves. He seems to employ upwards of 40 or so people – none of them look over the age of 30. It all seems like a lot for a 29 year old. But he’s a cool customer. A box of cakes gets trashed one hour before a major function and it’s clear Zumbo’s not happy – but he doesn’t rant, rave and shout about it. He gets cooking. He’s a cool dude. He’s the modern day rock star.

Finally.. something decent to watch on TV

5 Feb

I have never understood why TV stations choose to air such rubbish over the summer period. A time when many people actually have time to watch TV. They take all the good stuff away – and replace it with b-grade rubbish. I mean, how much more ‘Two and a half men’ can Channel Nine put to air? Soon, it won’t be called Channel Nine – it will be the ‘Two and a half men channel’. Thankfully, pay television doesn’t quite follow the same formula. Slightly less restricted by the official ‘ratings period’ pay TV continues to air new series of some of my favourites. Topping my list at the moment is ‘Come Dine With Me’ (weeknights 8:30pm on The Lifestyle Channel). It’s funny, life-affirming and  a little bit cringe-worthy all at once.
Sure, it combines two of the most overworked genres going around – cooking and reality television. But it’s great fun. The concept is simple. There are five ‘contestants’. Each one hosts a dinner party during the week. Each participant gives their fellow contestant’s dinner party a score out of ten. The winner gets 2 grand. So far, so simple. The beauty of this show is in the casting. Recent contestants have included – a ‘little person’ who performs as ‘Baby GaGa’ (impersonating Lady Ga-ga’), a 40-plus year old female body-builder, a train driver who dabbles as an artist, an embalmer (a homosexual man who cried at least three times during the dinners) and a wannabe Las Vegas cabaret performer whose actual job was performing tricks on horseback. There are also ‘normal’ types – real estate agents, butchers, corporate high flyers, teachers etc. So – the mix of people is – to say the least – ecclectic. Needless to say, none are professional chefs. However, they all seem to think they could be professional chefs. Cue the kitchen disasters. From burning biscuits and pork roasts, to small kitchen fires, and missing ingredients – a lot goes wrong. The constestants give frank (sometimes brutal) assessments of each other’s food, which ranges from restaurant quality (think slow roasted duck confit with a red wine vinaigrette, radicchio and rocket) to simple homestyle fair (steak and three veg). The dinner party is also supposed to include some form of entertainment, which so far, has ranged from a female bodybuilding ‘pose-off” to a tango demonstration, gold coast metre maids, backyard ‘golf’ and medieval sword fighting (a particularly hilarious episode where the contestant’s husband actually suffered quite an injury when ‘play-jousting’ with his step-son’). Add to that, a witty narration by James Valentine – and you have all the ingredients for a great little snack size (about 40 minutes per episode) show. Sure, there’s the odd argument between contestants. But rarely is it serious or mean-spirited. And it’s yet to come to blows. What I love is the fact that you can bring five complete strangers together, fuel them with a little alcohol and (mostly) good food – and differences in age, wealth, intellect and sexuality, seem to melt away – and these perfect strangers just get on with having a great time.

  

Watching… ‘In Treatment’ on Foxtel Showcase

10 Feb

Lord knows why televsion stations choose to bury some of their best programs. But – they do. Often. And they’ve done it again with ‘In Treatment’. I’ve never seen a therapist. But this TV series provides an insight into what it might be like.
Challenging. Confronting. Emotional. And no guarantees of happy endings. The performances are fantastic – the characters are credible, authentic and certainly not always likeable. Irish actor, Gabriel Byrne, plays 53 year old therapist ‘Paul’. Each half hour episode takes us into a therapy session with his patients. We get to know five of Paul’s patients, who we see on a repeat basis as they return for a weekly session. There’s the couple whose marriage is falling apart, an outstanding young gymnast in a sexual relationship with her coach, a promiscuous young Doctor who’s in love with Paul, and a soldier dealing with the atrocities he inflicted during the Iraq war. We also get to see Paul’s sessions with his own therapist, Gina. These episodes are perhaps the most interesting. As a therapist, Paul is empathetic, calm, controlled, rational and probing. As a patient, he is the opposite – emotional, challenging and aggressive. At times, it’s hard to watch this capable man falling apart. Now – this is an American series. But it has the kind of subtletly that’s rarely found in some US dramas. That’s probably because it’s based faithfully on a terribly successful Israeli series ‘Be Tipul’. It might also be explained by the presence of two Australian actors in starring roles – Melissa George (Angel from ‘Home and Away’) and Mia Wasikowska (a rising super star). The other factors that set this series apart is the fact that each episode takes place in one room, and it features 2 -3 actors per episode. It’s kind of like watching theatre. Anyway, while ‘In Treatment’ seems to be screened at very odd hours, it’s worth tracking down. Put it in your IQ if you’ve got it. It’s a winner.