I felt kind of uncomfortable watching last night’s episode of MasterChef, not just because Khanh‘s elimination is illegal, but because of all the chatter around fine dining.
The elimination challenge was split in two parts. In the first, contestants were paired up for a street food challenge. In the second, the bottom four – Emelia, Reynold, Laura, and Khanh – were tasked with making a fine dining dish inspired by a country’s signature flavours. They had 11 countries to choose from.
Khanh’s elimination aside, the judges’ talk about what “fine dining” is sparked a lot of conversation on Twitter.
At the beginning of the challenge, Mel talked about generally elevating and modernising a dish in respect to its culture. Jock, meanwhile, chatted about the handful of French recipes he’d easily turn into a fine dining dish. “Of course, that’s not the same in some of the Asian cuisines for example don’t automatically lend themselves to a fine dining dish,” he said.
Enter Adam Liaw, winner of MasterChef season 2.
Asian cuisines are full of fine dining. Kaiseki, Confucian cuisine, Thai/Vietnamese court cuisine, almost any regional cuisine in China, Peranakan food… It's just that the Eurocentric conceptualisation of Michelin, World's 50 Best etc. constantly ignores it. #MasterChefAU
— Adam Liaw (@adamliaw) June 14, 2020
I didn’t really know what to think when Jock said those words, but it felt off. I’m not going to completely get into it because that would take more than a couple of hundred words on a Monday, so I’m just going to word vomit a bit.
Fine dining is associated with western culture because it is a European concept. Think Michelin, a prix fixe menu, white tablecloths. Fine dining is also dominated by European culture and ideals – we saw that in last night’s episode. Not once, not twice, but three times.
This ‘how do we make certain cuisines palatable to the tastes of rich white people’ chat is not ideal. #MasterChefAU
— Maeve Marsden (@maevemarsden) June 14, 2020
Their view of what is a “fine dining” concept seems to mean “French” #MasterChefAU
— Greg Jericho (@GrogsGamut) June 14, 2020
We saw it first when Jock delivered his line, second when three out of the four contestants chose to cook a French dish, and third when Jock and guest judge, Charlie Carrington, approached Khanh’s bench.
Khanh chose to cook a Vietnamese peasant dish called Gá Kho Gung. But how will he elevate the dish, Jock asked Charlie.
“There’s a lot of French influence in Vietnam, the French is the driving force in fine dining,” Charlie replied. Sure, but that doesn’t mean the only way to refine Khanh’s dish is to whitewash it, to make it fit a Eurocentric definition of “fine dining”.
French influence, French occupation – potato, potahto, I guess.
Funny how they only consider Vietnamese food to be fine dining if it has strong influence from their French colonial oppressors #MasterChefAU
— Niccy T (@NicReality) June 14, 2020
felt a bit off for the judges to say that the only way Vietnamese cuisine could be elevated to fine dining was with the incorporation of French elements :/ #MasterchefAU
— cloudy ???? (@cloudycritic) June 14, 2020
Fine dining isn’t just French food. If the majority of judges wanted that then it should have just been a French challenge. What was the point of including other cuisines if French cuisine is the be-all and end-all of fine dining? Before the cook started, I thought maybe it was an opportunity for contestants to think outside the box, to challenge the Eurocentrism that dominates food culture – that was the point of the big world map, wasn’t it? To take a country’s bold flavours and give it the fine dining treatment. Again, there were 11 destinations on offer: Thailand, Vietnam, USA, Mexico, Peru, Brazil, France, China, Korea, Israel, and Lebanon. It probably would’ve been a more interesting elimination challenge if the judges removed France as an option.
So when Jock said Asian cuisines don’t automatically lend itself to a fine dining dish, it felt like he was telling me that Asian cuisine should stick to its food stereotype: hearty street food. Forget about fine dining restaurants like Flower Drum and Ishizuka.
The representation on MasterChef this season has been extraordinary. It was only a few weeks ago when five Asian Australians competed in an immunity challenge, on a mainstream channel, in a peak time slot. I’m not here to say that last night’s challenge undid that, or that I’m disappointed. I think last night’s episode just shows that representation and diversity – genuine change and inclusivity – goes beyond having people of colour on our screens. It’s a great first step, but there are a dozen more to go. Have those uncomfortable conversations with yourself, dismantle stereotypes, you know? Maybe then will we have a fine dining challenge where everyone doesn’t just cook, or feel pressured to cook, French.
In all seriousness Andy and jock need to really educate themselves about Asian cuisine before next season if they’re going to continue to be judges. There’s just been too many comments this season that just don’t cut it #MasterChefAU
— Laura Jensen (@LauraJcookies) June 14, 2020
The term “fine dining” is so loaded – tonight on #MasterchefAU they may as well have told everyone to cook French. The technique, flavours and tradition of other cuisines do not make them any less refined. Good food goes beyond the Euro-bubble and its egotistical techniques.
— Ciann (@rinoahsan) June 14, 2020
Image: Network Ten, Twitter / @adamliaw
"Many Asian cuisines don't normally adapt themselves to fine dining."
Is that because there's been a particular mindset that has been levelled at non-Western European food, and the ones who have made them fine dining distinctively White™?#MasterChefAU
— Josh ???? (@abangpinoy) June 14, 2020