Shormishtha Panja teaches at the University of Delhi. She writes books on critical theory, gender studies and visual culture. She loves being a mom and enjoys travelling to new countries. She is borderline obsessive about food and Renaissance art and guards her collection of children’s fiction fiercely.
Have any of you been watching the TV series Junior MasterChef Australia (Star World, 9 pm)? It is sponsored by Tourism Australia which has taken a beating after the horrendous cases of violence directed at Indians some time past. It is based on the MasterChef Australia show for adult amateur cooks, only here the ones competing are, hold your breath, 8 to 12 year olds! The show received over 5500 entries out of which the judges, famous Australian chefs Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris and celebrated food critic Matt Preston, chose 50 children. These 50 came down to 12 through a series of rapid eliminations. Every day the children are set a new culinary challenge: they may have to open a Mystery Box and use the ingredients to create a wonderful dish. They may have to undergo a Pressure Test where all of them are given the same recipe and have to cook an original dish created by a well-known Australian chef. They may have an Invention Test with the same core ingredient. They may have team challenges where they cook for a high school canteen, for the Sydney football team or for a fancy seafood restaurant. They even had a sort of cooking relay race where the two teams cook in a boxing ring and have to get a complicated meal ready, each team member getting a certain amount of time in the ring to take the meal forward. All the tasks are done to time-the huge clock dominates the bright chrome, steel, gold and hardwood-floored set, and many an anxious contestant looks up at it as the challenges get underway. The set can transform magically into a supermarket or a butcher's shop or even a herb garden, and this is where the children run with their shopping baskets to get all their ingredients as soon as Gary shouts "Go!"
The organisers have wisely tweaked the rigorous format somewhat so that the children are not scarred by the proceedings. They have added a warm, motherly judge to the all-male line up: Chef Anna, who dimples a lot and puts the children at their ease. The judges are never too harsh in their criticism. They always praise the dish and minimise the flaws. The eliminations are far more gradual and gentle. Unlike the adult version, here every week did not see a child being eliminated. Rather than individual eliminations, the children were eliminated in small groups so as to ease the pain of losing.
The children are an amazing bunch. They come from all over Australia. The only quibble I have is that the majority of them are Caucasian: no Indians, no south East Asians, no blacks. The contestants are not very representative of Australia's multiculturalism, one might argue. The heartening thing is that boys are as eager to be chefs, or cheflings as they are called, as girls. Cooking is no longer seen as a woman's job. Also, the interest in cooking, childhood up, is a healthy sign that visits to fast food joints and restaurants will not remain the norm and that people will return to healthy and delicious home-cooked food. To return to the contestants, Jack is from Tasmania and with his tousled curls and blue eyes looks like a mischievous Raphael putti, peeping out from behind the clouds in the Sistine Madonna. He cooks up the most original dishes, like snail porridge with a sweet beetroot crust or tea-infused quail. The dissimilar twins Isabella and Sophia have already planned their own restaurant, IsSophia, where they will serve all their home-learned Italian delicacies. They have designed the name, the logo and the menu together. Nine year-old Siena is the youngest finalist and holds her own with elan, dishing up an amazing pheasant a l'orange, with cranberry sauce and pistachio stuffing. Lucy is a tiny bundle of energy, so articulate and confident, she may strike you as a 50 year-old who has shrunk. Pierre with his sad eyes, fierce intensity and beautiful smile takes every tiny blunder to be a fault of mammoth proportions. Emily has grown up on a farm, so her choice of meat is, can you guess? Rabbit!and the most esoteric culinary terms ripple off their tongues: pettole (a sort of Italian malpua with berries,) profiterole (a pastry horn to be stuffed with cream,) clafoutis (a baked dish with batter and berries,) ganache (dense glaze, usually of chocolate,) jus, coulis, reduction, tempered chocolate....The list goes on and on.
And the children resolutely keep their self-confidence and self-esteem intact. For them the glass is always half-full, never half-empty. I am so proud of myself for having got so far, they exclaim. My friends will be so envious, my family so proud! When Sophia, who aces all the challenges throughout the contest but stumbles a little at the end, is asked about her most memorable moment in the contest, she says, "When my beautiful sister Isabella qualified for the Finals." Yes, cooking isn't just about food. It's about character. It's about generosity. It's about love.
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