‘Nesting’ instinct feeds our kitchen obsession
WHO'S going to watch a cooking show?
It's a question asked out loud when Channel 10 announced they were going to replace Big Brother with a program based on a cooking competition.
I now rank my question with other great misjudgments I have made, like not buying a house on the beachside of Oceanic Dr for $276,000 in the late 1990s because I thought it was too expensive, and passing up a one-owner 1971 VW Beetle that had only ever been driven with gloves on simply because I didn't like the colour.
Plenty of people want to watch a cooking show.
More than 2.5 million viewers watched the My Kitchen Rules grand final a few weeks ago - twice as many as watched the highest rating news.
That figure was despite a boycott that some viewers called for when popular surfer dads Paul and Blair were beaten to a spot in the grand finale by Chloe and Kelly.
I don't like cooking. I resent the number of pages in my once favourite magazine now filled by recipes.
But I had watched enough MKR to know all the contestants by name.
So, what's got us all tuned in to food?
Dr Anna Potter, a senior lecturer in communication at the University of the Sunshine Coast, puts the rise of food television shows down to two things: the popularity of reality-based format television and a 21st century return to domestic skills.
Dr Potter said format-based reality shows dominated television these days and cooking shows had proven among the successful formats that had been sold and replicated.
"We've seen the rise of the format in all sorts of television. Apart from drama, everything we watch today is fact. We've got the format trade and the global distribution of formats," said Dr Potter.
But what makes a cooking competition a successful format? It was, after all, more attractive to Channel 10 than a show about a bunch of strangers living together in a house.
Like Big Brother, MKR and MasterChef both build up characters on the screen.
But MKR and MasterChef put those characters through a struggle to succeed.
"I think people really like to see people doing things well," Dr Potter said.
"MasterChef is all about people being really good at things and working at things and achieving."
Peculiarly, cooking shows have succeeded in the same environment as The Biggest Loser, a weight loss program.
They both share the same "character + struggle" formula.
But MKR's grand finale audience was twice that of The Biggest Loser finale this year.
Dr Potter put the interest in cooking down to a return to the domestic sphere.
Post 9-11, experts put a surge in home renovation and gardening down to people retreating to their backyards rather than the rest of the world.
Dr Potter puts the interest in cooking down to a post-GFC return to the domestic sphere.
"It's that value of home and family and being part of something really special at home," she said.
Along with some domestic nostalgia, Dr Potter said a healthy dose of cross-promotion in print media also helped pushed the cooking shows to prominence. If you read the food supplements in the newspapers these days, you might have picked up that MKR has Fairfax ties and MasterChef is hitched to News Limited.
Those who cook for a living regard food shows and their popularity as more of a positive than a negative.
Tim Montgomery, executive chef at berardo's restaurant and bar, Noosa Heads, said television cooking shows were contributing towards more knowledgeable and adventurous diners.
"I love the fact that people are getting interested in food and are willing to try new things," Mr Montgomery said.
"I've seen a massive change in the way people dine, especially in regional communities.
"People are much more adventurous. They want to try degustations, offal, people will eat steak less well done.
"It's because of the education they've been given by these shows."
David Rayner, chef and owner at Thomas Corner eatery, Noosaville, said the wave of TV-educated diners was now far more informed and interested in their food and its origins.
"They want to know where everything comes from and what it's been fed," Mr Rayner said.
"They want to eat healthier and cleaner and fresher. They want their dressings and sauces on the side."
Mr Rayner said today's savvy diners were also confident enough to pass opinion on what was served up to them, just like MasterChef's Gary, George and Matt, or MKR's Pete and Manu.
"They become little MasterChefs themselves. We have a lot of customers who are fare more critical of dishes, I think," he said.
Mr Rayner said food was now fashionable.
He said the availability of different ingredients had helped create the season for food and encouraged
people to venture beyond lasagne.
"There are so many different types of product out there. People want to know things and try things."
Mr Montgomery said diners were also seeking more contact with chefs.
"People in the restaurants ask to speak to you more. They want to enquire about the food and where it's from," he said.
"As a chef, instead of just being in the kitchen doing your thing, you have to mix with the public.
"Initially, it's a bit confronting when you're not a front of house person but after a while, you get used to it and it's quite complimentary."
If Mr Montgomery has one criticism of cooking shows, it is the way they instantly propel contestants from obscurity to the knowledge seats of the industry and instant credibility as "food experts".
"If you are that passionate about food, why didn't you do an apprenticeship, do the hard yards?" he said.
"Some of these people have only been cooking for a couple of weeks and they're meeting Marco Pierre White and Heston Blumenthal.
"The opportunities like that should go to apprentices who are working hard to complete their apprenticeships."
Mr Montgomery said that on the positive side, cooking programs did show there were career opportunities beyond the kitchen for dedicated chefs.
On camera-roles, cookbooks, cooking schools - they are all now on the career menu.
Mr Montgomery is not sure how long cooking shows will remain the pick of the pantry.
But as long as they do, they are good for his industry and chefs like him.
"I hope it stays strong for another 10 years."