Masterchef. From backstage.

274

My blog is seven years old today. Seven years since the first post, written simply to mark the beginning. Nothing important to the world, just to me, to remember where I was and what was my state of mind. I’ve come a long and difficult way from then, but there’s nothing I can complain about. It’s good. My gift to you with the occasion of this anniversary is a true story about my Masterchef experience. Today being Saturday, perhaps you will have time to read it.
Thank you for everything. Stay healthy.

Masterchef. From backstage.

Masterchef is an occult organization in which only the chosen ones can enter and nobody gets out on their free will and if they do get out, they can’t say anything they’ve seen there. It’s the Opus Dei of TV shows. Right? No, although if you read the messages on the Facebook page, this is what you might understand. Of course, there are contracts forbidding you to divulge certain things, but these are usually connected to technical issues or management, but these types of contracts, or should we call them “brakes”, exist in any organization working with people. My contract doesn’t forbid me to write the following lines, from which you will learn information that doesn’t appear in newspapers, nor on the news or the Facebook pages of former contestants.

How did I get there?

I received an email in which I was asked if I would be interested in participating to a casting for the position of Masterchef juror (normal TV stations function on casting, meaning the selection process based on criteria established by the format of the show). My first question was with regard to throwing plates at the contestants and language, things that bothered me in the previous seasons. I was assured it won’t be necessary. I went to the casting, which had several stages. Lastly, there was the phone call telling me I’ve been chosen and that we can discuss the conditions of my participating to the show. I once again brought up the issue of thrown plates. It was established that I wouldn’t have to do that, moreover, I was assured I wouldn’t be forced to do things against my conscience or my character. I admit, it was hard for me to believe things would be like that, but I decided to take that risk. Essentially, the production house and the TV station were risking much more by trying to continue with a format that everyone believed long gone with the old jury. It turned out that I made the right decision. It has been a season without throwing plates, without being asked to emotionally and verbally abuse anyone. It’s possible some of the contestants feel differently, but this concerns them and the way they perceive the pressure of the show more than my performance.

The Jury

On the first meeting after the casting, I was asked whom I see myself working with from the jury best. I got to see some of the candidates for this position, I had made an impression. I said without hesitation that I see myself working well with Patrizia and Foa, although I didn’t know Patrizia and I saw Foa twice in the last few years. I was chemistry. It was then confirmed that Patrizia and Foa would be my colleagues and that there would be a few days of team building coming up, far fewer days than we needed to become a team. It was as if you had three days to become an elite paratrooper. In fact, those three days are enough for you to learn where the plane door is and how the altimeter works, which is more than nothing. For the falling and lading we counted on what each of us knew from back home and from the indications of the control tower. Only after the first two weeks of filming we started counting on each other, which is natural considering that although we spoke the same language, each of us came with extremely different luggage and with personalities that were different enough to ensure the judging process wasn’t dull.

The filming

The filming schedule is a lot like the working schedule in an active kitchen. Waking up at 7, leaving for the set at 8, getting ready (wardrobe, make-up, hair) at 9, brief with the day’s plan at 10, camera and action at 10.30 – 11, lunch break at 16, finishing the filming day at 24, sometimes at 1. Rarely at 22.30 – 23. Filming one episode takes approximately one day and a half, with exhausting rhythm breaks, unexpected pauses, many people telling you many things, many jokes and small pranks that help you unwind, with feelings of nervousness, which helps you reconnect. Ten of people in the team, tens of cameras, tens of microphones, the long line at the caterer’s during lunch break, the layers of make-up meant to conceal the 14 hours of work as much as possible, tons of hairspray, Flori who comes to remove the lint from your suit, the notes of the producer, the notes of the representative of the license owner (the format is respected by the book, the differences in the way the show looks in US, Australia, Italy, etc. being caused not by the format, but by adapting it to the characteristics of the country, so comparing Masterchef Romania to Masterchef Australia is appropriate only if comparing Romania to Australia would be appropriate, with everything it involves, from politics, living standards, general understanding of gastronomy, etc.), action again and a glass of Prosecco at the end of the day, make-up remover, dozing in the car on the way home, kissing wife and child in their sleep (and mine), alarm clock in five hours if I’m lucky and a new day.

The Auditions

The auditions follow after the great national selection attended by thousands of amateur cooks who believe they cook well enough to win 50.000 euros, public recognition and, possibly, the opportunity to start a career as a professional cook using a shortcut or a trampoline (let’s be honest, a career as a professional cook takes years of hard work, a culinary show can sometimes help you fast forward a lot of stages – of course, this can be either good or really bad, depending on how talented and smart you are). At this season’s auditions participated over 200 people, each of them wanting to walk away from us with an apron, each having a life story interesting enough to be on TV. However, the life story is just an ingredient from the recipe and it can’t make up for the person’s ability to cook. By the end of the auditions, 70 candidates received the Masterchef apron, the other remaining with the experience and perhaps the confirmation of where they stand. It’s possible some of those who didn’t receive the apron usually cook better than how they did on the auditions, but they didn’t do very well in that precise moment. Was it difficult to give aprons? Yes, it was very difficult, as this responsibility was exclusively ours. We were constantly reminded to take into consideration three things: we only have 70 aprons, the people in front of us are amateurs, the first prize is 50.000 euros. We chose as we knew best, thinking that we would have to work with everyone who had been selected and to determine them to have good plates the following weeks. The five minutes on TV, which sometimes are only 2 in the show, look different in the auditions. I mean there are those 5 minutes given to complete the dish and other 15-20-25 minutes for the interview during which we try to obtain as much information as possible from the candidate about his/her passion and the reasons he/she chose to come to Masterchef. The Masterchef auditions are a HR marathon. I lost sic kilograms by the time we gave the 70 aprons.

The headset

According to an opinion I found on the internet, our headsets are some devilish tools through which the masters of puppets from the black room are controlling us and dictating who stays and who leaves the show. And we don’t want to obey, they stick long, sharp needles into voodoo dolls made after our looks (Foa is the smaller doll, I am the fluffy doll with a Cluj accent and Patrizia is the one dressed in black). Nothing could be more wrong. Headsets are devices used by producers to tell us where to stand, what camera to look at, when should we approach the contestants, which of them dropped a spoon and put it back in the skillet (yes, there are 24 of them, spread on a few acres, we are only three and we need extra eyes), what tone to use for the texts of the test intros (yes, we’re on TV, stories are told with images, but also with words, the scenes have to be connected and it takes a story line to do that, which is not my business to remember, it’s the job of the producer, just as it’s his job to remind me when it’s time to say something about it). That’s about all the great staging implied by some. Actually, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that this is a reality show and that you simply can’t predict what contestant will do with the chances they are given, you don’t know how they will handle a certain situation, who they are going to save, who they will punish (they have plenty of opportunities for both), what is the form taken by their emotions. Things are simple: you are put in a situation and you are left to handle it.

Tests

Tests are a mixture of the indications and suggestions of the format, the ideas of the Media Factory producers and screenwriters and our ideas, the jurors’. We were always consulted and I consider that I’ve made a serious contribution to the balance of the show. This year have been three times more tests than the previous editions, at a double number of episodes. Settling tests implies hundreds of hours of work of very many people (over 100) in charge with screenplays, logistics, supplies, stage design, lights, sound and image. It wasn’t easy.

Eliminations

Eliminating people from the contest was a lot harder than giving them the apron granting them access. The responsibility was, again, solely ours, and we treated each elimination with maximum seriousness. Each time, we eliminated the contestant who cooked the worst or who made more mistakes. Of course, on TV you can see a dish that is disqualified although it looks good, while an ordinary looking dish goes to the next stage. What the audience usually forgets is that we evaluate food after several criteria: taste, smell, appearance, degree of cooking difficulty. Then we evaluate the contestant after other criteria (how clean he cooks, how well he concentrates, how involved he is in the contest). We aren’t interested in their talks, they alliances, their sympathies or our sympathies. We are only interested that in the end only those who are doing better than others (in the previously mentioned criteria) get to the finals. Regarding the comeback of some of the contestants (I saw it was a hot topic online) this is some practiced in other countries as well. This show is about food, but it’s also about life. Sometimes, life offers you a second chance where you screwed up the first time. How did we choose the ones who came back? That’s simple. We evaluated again the criteria and their performance and we decided to bring back the four people that could make the most of this opportunity and represent a tough competition to those left in the contest. Any two of the four could have remained. The strongest and the ones who were best prepared remained, meaning Lambrino and Ciprian. Mirabela and Silviu were left with the joy of being given a second chance and perhaps the joy of seeing former colleagues again. The proof of the fact that we weren’t wrong was double. On one hand, Lambrino nearly eliminated Tudor in the semifinals, on the other hand Ciprian won the big prize. Regarding the idea that a person who returned after a break has an advantage, I remind you that this isn’t a sports competition and although the physical component is important, there’s one that is more important: the experience gained by passing all the tests. If you look at it from this angle, those who returned had a disadvantage in front of their opponents, who managed to gather a great deal of experience in the contest.

Speculations

If they’re none of our concern, it doesn’t mean they don’t reach our ears. Contestants talk with each other, they talk to reporters, they talk about each other. Some manage to hide their feelings better, some not so good, while others don’t even try to do that. After the first tests it becomes obvious that some are more experienced, better prepared, more talented (by the way, equal opportunities means everyone has to pass the same tests and is judged by the same measure, otherwise everyone has the chances they brought with them from home, called “talent”, “power to concentrate”, “focus”, “attention, etc.). In the same manner, it becomes obvious the fact that some are strictly interested on the 50.000 euro prize, while others want to be seen on TV and cause a show. Then there are those who consider that food is everything, who don’t see the cameras around them, who don’t have opponents, friends or enemies, who are simply set on one thing. There are very few of those. The 24 people entering the Masterchef kitchen become 24 clans, they have social media supporters, they post photos, comments. This is how speculations appear. Until Siserman left the competition, there was a current claiming the die has been cast and that he was the one to win the big prize. After he left (and he didn’t leave because of his attitude, but because his attitude ruined his food just when it had to be impeccable), there was another current claiming the die had been cast for Tudor to win the competition. When Tudor was eliminated in the finals, the two currents reunited and formed another current claiming that the die had been cast for Ciprian to get the prize. Just to be fair, I remember that after Siserman left, there was a small current claiming that Oddette knows someone and she’ll win the competition. These are currents created and maintained by sad people, too sad to acknowledge a reality that is different from the one in which they, their parents or their grandparents grew up in. That’s alright, we’re working on that.

The finals

The semifinals and the finals were my favorite moments of this season. Fewer contestants, more pressure, more adrenaline, food better than I’ve seen all season and, I have to admit, there were some pretty good dishes. Lambrino troubled Tudor who, even of he is (in my opinion) the most talented contestant this season, he dragged himself to the finals. He lacks experience and self-confidence, but the healthy one, based on a lot of work, not on the sympathy of the audience. In fact, I think this is what made him lose in the finals, where I decided to present a complicated dish whose main piece, the meat, was chosen negligently (decent Argentine beef sirloin, but nothing spectacular) almost well cooked (in Patrizia’s plate there was a very large piece of meat which was undercooked, which, together with the three partly burned potato cakes, perfectly justifies the 6 that my colleague gave him). If Tudor assumed he can parade in front of his less popular colleagues, he assumed wrong. Maybe you didn’t pay attention, I saw him on TV saying that he knew everything was over when he saw the dishes of the other two contestants. Sometimes, the tortoise overcomes the hare, and this is another lesson he learned in this contest. And yes, he was my favorite for a number of reasons (he’s serious, he’s very talented, extremely civilized and decent), but I never favor my favorites, by family or my friends (this is probably why I have very few of them), because all I care about is my objective, which in this case is judging fairly until the end. Tudor will be alright and he will achieve greatness. Before that, he must become a man.
Odette beat Patricia harder than she thought, which again delighted me. Patricia made it to the finals in a skilled way, trying not the make a fool of herself. I think the last dance came out rather well.
Andreea quietly approached the finals, caring too much about her creative resources and culinary intelligence. She remained with the aces up her sleeve, as she said so herself. Just as everyone else seeing themselves in the finals, she left the spectacular dishes last. If she had displayed her advantages earlier, she would have caught the tide and gather enough energy to grab the finals. She has potential, but she also needs guidance. She can be a good cook.
Ciprian is the type who keeps to himself but minds his business. He doesn’t show everything he knows and he doesn’t fish in muddy waters. He risked very little in the competition and was eliminated after a test that was clearly to his disadvantage. We decided to call him for a second opportunity thinking that he could spice up the final stages. I confess that I didn’t see him in the finals, but he somehow managed to win ground during the last hundred yards. The dishes he presented before us (and that he cooked in front of hundreds of people, including former opponents, who could see and understand that what was happening before them was real – except they couldn’t taste) were sensational. If his entrée needed a bit more work (for my taste), his main course was perfectly executed (he made a dish from sweet potato cooked with the technique used for risotto, impeccable, with Saint Jacques scallops and pancetta), and the dessert, his greatest fear, was very well-thought. He chose a simple dessert, made from simple ingredients, that didn’t require special technical abilities and which he could master. This was the great secret. Ciprian would have been satisfied with being in the top ten. In the top five. Third place would have been enough. This detached attitude helped him in the finals. He beat Tudor’s talent and the ambitious Odette. Everything he cooked was extremely simple and very, very good. I congratulate him with all my heart, as I congratulate the other two. And to get settled on their evolution, Ciprian and Tudor have made about the same mistakes, just as they have won about the same in the competition. The shows are available on voyo.ro, I invite you to watch them again. It could be useful. Regarding the grades, you may want to know that we have judged and graded every dish individually, in writing, without consulting each other. The scores obtained by the contestants at each test have been the result/sum of the grades given by each of us.

Regrets
There are none.

Appreciations

There are a lot of those. Both acknowledged and to be transmitted. I’m happy with the way in which we managed to bring this season from having (close to) zero chances to constantly being the most watched TV show edition by edition, to winning an important award (the best cooking show – TV Mania). I’m happy that we managed to show you can have an audience and maintain decency, that you can have a show without being gregarious. I am happy and grateful for the opportunity of stretching my patience, my attention, my openness and my generosity. I’m happy that I worked in a big family from which I learned a lot. I’m happy I have another family at home, despite the fact that I dedicated myself to this project almost completely for the last six months. I’m grateful I got the chance to meet Foa and Patrizia, who are very dear to me. I’m happy and I appreciate having contestants I could work with and, why shouldn’t we admit it, they were the salt and pepper of this how.

PS

While filming this Masterchef Romania season, I didn’t throw and plate or any food to the trash, although I did stumble upon some awful things, impossible to call “food”. And to end with this, the speech “there are so many people who are starving, it would be better to give away the food than throw it” is a populist and an indolent one. You can’t donate food from a TV show (it’s illegal) and anyway, what makes it to the trash bin isn’t eatable, despite how it may look on TV. Food donations are made in our free time and abiding the law. On the other hand, if each of those concerned with the fate of sub-standard cooked eggs would donate an omelette a day to a homeless person, things would be better in this country.

 

Special thanks to
Oana Bodnariuc, Authorized Translator
oana.bodnariuc@gmail.com
facebook.com/oana.bodnariuc

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