I’ll start off with a disclaimer. It has taken me a year and a half to decide to post this. I didn’t want to before because I thought people would think I was just sour grapes. Yet the more I have talked to people who have worked with the show, the more that my experience was verified. And with the revelations of what happened with Busker Busker on another CJ competition program, I felt I’d share my experience.
In late 2011, I was approached by media and food conglomerate CJ about helping with bringing MasterChef to Korea. We went through a series of meetings. At first, I thought they were asking me to be a judge. After a while, they said they wanted me as a contestant. Even though they wanted me as a contestant, they still wanted my help–as in, asking me for suggestions on who could be the three judges/hosts.
Me: “So, who are going to be the judges?”
Production Person: “We don’t know yet. Could you give us some suggestions?”
Later, we had a round where we filled out a questionnaire of all the types of dishes we could cook in various cuisines. It was mostly in Korean, and it was humongous. It took an hour to fill out. I also signed a lengthy reality show contract that looked like it was designed by western lawyers. I then did an on camera introduction in a small room.
That was where the similarities with MasterChef in the rest of the world ended.
I’ll say this. MasterChef Korea has AMAZING production values. They fell short in production ethics. The first headscratcher was who they chose to be the judges.
I’d say she’s the most experienced and qualified of the bunch. Her restaurant Kim Kocht in Vienna has gotten some awards and some good reviews. People also complain that it’s unnecessarily pretentious while at the same time feeling cheap. The real reason she got asked on was her appearance on a Korean documentary that showed her yelling at her staff, a la Gordon Ramsay. But more like The Frau on Austin Powers.
I like Leo personally. Whether he’s experienced enough to take the position held by Gordon Ramsay in the American version of the show–hmm… Before MasterChef he was the head chef at Macaroni Market. It’s a nice restaurant. Not really innovative but does the classics well. It’s not like having an empire of Michelin-starred eateries. But Leo used to work for Ramsay, and I hear he got to see him in person for an hour once. So I guess that qualifies. My business partner remembers him regularly stopping by her offices to research Korean food. He’s good but not yet at the level of mentor to aspiring chefs. Someone like Susumu Yonaguni of O Kitchen would fit that much better. I think CJ was desperate for a new celebrity chef after the resume padding scandals of Edward Kwon.
One of her former colleagues described her to me as “failed fashion designer who went into food because she comes from a rich family.” I wouldn’t say that’s really fair. She started Market O (the restaurant chain and the store-bought brownies) and has been involved with Bennigan’s and now is in charge of a bunch of CJ brands. So, it’s like MasterChef USA’s Joe Bastianich (Babbo, Del Posto, and many more) being replaced by the CEO of Olive Garden.
Everyone but Kim, to my knowledge, ended up becoming CJ employees–the same CJ that runs the show, owns Bibigo, and owns the O’Live network.
The next headscratcher was more of a furrowed brow. I found through my Google Alerts that the owner of a restaurant in the U.S. was competing. This was alarming because the premise of MasterChef is that it’s a competition between amateurs. Home cooks. I was fretting that I wouldn’t qualify because I used to work in professional kitchens.
On the Fox website for the American show they say, “We will NOT be considering professional chefs who work in professional kitchens.”
On the application they say the following:
You cannot have worked fulltime as a chef in a restaurant.
Your main source of income cannot come from preparing and cooking fresh food in a professional environment (restaurant,
hotels, canteens etc).
The New Zealand qualifications are more specific.
You cannot have any formal tertiary or other professional catering qualifications acquired in the last 10 years.
All MasterChef NZ Series 2 contestants must be amateur cooks. If you have previous professional or semi-professional kitchen experience that the producers deem (in their entire discretion) could create an unfair advantage you are not eligible. Guidelines for professional activity that preclude participation as a contestant on MasterChef NZ Series 2 (and the matters listed in this clause 9 are not exhaustive) are as follows:
a. You cannot have ever worked full-time in a kitchen as a cook, chef or in food preparation
b. You cannot have earned money or payment of any kind from preparing food and/or cooking fresh food in a professional kitchen environment such as a restaurant, café or take-away in a casual or part time capacity for a total of more than 12 weeks in the last 15 years
c. You cannot have taught cooking classes or have done cooking demonstrations or food preparation in any capacity be it casual, part time, full time or contract in the last 15 years
We called the producers to bring this up and see whether I was still qualified to compete. Their answer about including professionals was that they were worried that the food wouldn’t look good enough if they just used amateurs.
Let that set in a bit.
They were worried that the food from Korean home cooks wouldn’t look good enough. So, it’s another case of a Korean organization caring more about the image it conveys to the world than anything to do with ethics or reality. Fake window dressing and plastic snow. I was debating whether or not to quit right then. I should have listened to my instinct.
I practiced my recipe. It was based on a New Orleans oyster bisque from a fine dining restaurant recipe that I like to cook in the winter. I tarted it up, inspired by Eric Ripert’s Lobster Cappuccino, by using a simple food science technique to make a stable foam using a microwave. I served it in a coffee cup with “muffaletta bruscetta,” using roasted garlic as the butter. It was okay. It was fun. Every time I serve the bisque there’s nothing left.
The filming in March 2012 was all the way in Paju, so I packed a cooler (for this part, we had to supply and pay for our own ingredients and plateware) and went from Anyang to the hotel/convention center there via public transportation. Yeah, that wasn’t fun. I booked a night in the hotel and had to eat dinner at a convenience store since there were ZERO open restaurants in the area.
The morning of the filming we assembled in the lobby. I met a few people there who have since become close friends. I also met a few chefs that I had known before. And yes, they were CONTESTANTS. In fact, a good many of them had more actual cooking experience than some of the judges. They had been holding auditions for a few days, and we were the last group. My new friend Kibong was the very last contestant in the auditions, so I stuck around for the whole thing that day. So from morning to night. And the only food for us was some rice, soup, and kimchi sitting out in the open in a tent outside.
The set looked amazing. It was also bedecked in CJ food products. I don’t know of any other MasterChef franchise that exists to promote one brand, the brand of the show’s producer. They ran us through what we were supposed to do. After cooking, we put our dishes on a rolling cart and covered them with a wooden box. We then rolled it through these doors after getting cued. We went through the dark corridor. But then we went outside and crossed a path, went into another lobby and then entered what’s supposed to be the end of the corridor. When cued, the doors opened, and we had to put our cart and dishes in precise locations for the cameras. Then the stuff happened that you see on the show. Talk with the judges. They eat the food. Say their thing. You go. And the stage guy on the other side of the door says, “I’m sorry,” as you go back with your tail between your legs.
We had to stay in the seats to be the audience, too. But as more and more contestants didn’t pass, the emptier they became. There were some serious tears, too, with cameras right up in their faces. There were a few token foreigners in the group. I guess it went with what Brad on Busker Busker said about maintaining an illusion of diversity. The weakness of the judges was evidenced in their lack of knowledge of international cuisines outside the countries they’d worked in. For one South American contestant, they had no ideas what plantains were.
For my dish, only one of them could name any dish in Cajun/Creole cuisine–gumbo. So when they tasted it, they had no reference for authenticity or how it was supposed to taste. They were more concerned with what Korean dishes I could cook. Maybe I shoulda done that. Ah well…
But we saw some amazing dishes get rejected while other ho-hum dishes got passed. Oh, and by coincidence, two family members got through. I’m sure that was by chance. Yeah.
If I remember correctly, none of the professional chefs made it through either. In fact, and this was hilarious, the WINNER of O’Live’s “Hell’s Kitchen”/”Top Chef” rip-off “Yes Chef” didn’t make it through. So that meant that either “Yes Chef” was a sham or “MasterChef Korea” was a sham. Another reason why it was unethical to include professionals is that it could hurt their real careers losing to amateur home cooks in the preliminary auditions.
As for me, I was pretty down. I just wanted to get through the auditions and do a challenge. I didn’t go in my own kitchen for a month. I never watched the show. Later, I talked with a chef friend of mine who owns a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York. He said that “MasterChef Korea” approached him to be a judge. But he said they were so disorganized and–sleazy–about the project that he wanted nothing to do with them.
In the meantime, “MasterChef Korea” is being used to promote CJ products in stores around Korea. Leo Kang became head chef of the now failed Bibigo restaurant in London. I wish I could go into detail of what my friends in CJ boardroom conversations told me about the London fiasco, but I can’t. Hee-young Noh oversees Tous les Jours and other brands. I had dinner with a reporter who had just had a meal with her earlier in the day, and she rolled her eyes when I asked how it was.
Anyway, take what you will of this. Maybe it’s sour grapes. Maybe it’s another example of the lack of ethics in Korean broadcasting and chaebols.