These days, whomever I speak to—friends, neighbors, academics, artists—they have been watching MasterChef Turkey. These conversations start off normally, but at a certain point in the discussion, one of us will quietly confess our recent viewing habits only to realize that the other person watches it as well.
MasterChef has been stealing the top rating slot in Turkey throughout the month of August. And whether the show is your cup of tea or not, you are statistically likely to run into an avid viewer. At a time when COVID-19 is raging in the streets and the price of basic foodstuffs continues to surge, the cooking reality show provides a much-needed distraction.
MasterChef began in the UK in the 1990s as a rather mellow amateur cook-off. It was relaunched in 2005 by The Shine Group, an international production company owned by Elisabeth Murdoch, daughter of right-wing media mogul Rupert Murdoch. With its new presenters, two men who know as much about making contestants cry as they do about making food, the show was a smash hit.
After success on BBC One, MasterChef was exported all over the world. As of now, there are more than 50 countries with a MasterChef franchise, with MasterChef Al Arabia shown from Lebanon to Mauritania, MasterChef Asia from Bangladesh to Vietnam, as well as national shows in Australia, Brazil, Greece, Israel, Uruguay, and beyond. The show reveals the sprawling extent of the global media system. MasterChef has even led to a kitchenware brand in France, a book series in the UK and Australia, as well as spin-off shows like MasterChef Junior and MasterChef Celebrity.
Thanks to the Turkish media empire of Acun Ilıcalı, foreign franchises like Survivor and The Voice have already been successfully adapted for the local market. So it was only a matter of time before MasterChef, the Guinness World Record winner for “most successful cookery TV format,” came to Turkey as well thanks to Blood Medya. The first attempt to launch MasterChef Türkiye was on Show TV in 2011, but the show really hit the big time when it came to TV8 in 2018. The third season launched to great fanfare last month.
For the lucky few who haven’t encountered MasterChef, here’s the concept: amateur chefs audition to join the show. If they’re lucky they make it through the elimination process and join one of two teams (red and blue) to compete. Every week more contestants are eliminated until there is a single champion left.
Every week contestants are given a series of different dishes to cook, from world cuisine to local classics. They have to race against the clock to cook and plate their creations in time for the judges to assess them. Often there are mystery ingredients placed in a box and contestants get to make a dish of their own choice. Words like “innovation,” “technical,” “sealing,” and “curing” never leave their lips.
Yet the show is as much about the drama as it is the food. Contestants switch back and forth between collaboration and back-stabbing. The more drama the merrier. Grudges and conflict between contestant helps ratings, as does the fact that contestants live in Big Brother-style dorms together. They explain their thoughts and feelings about each other in carefully placed voice-overs.
The greatest source of drama is the three judges: Mehmet Yalçınkaya, Somer Sivrioğlu ve Danilo Zanna. Mehmet Chef is the bad cop, known for his sour expression and yelling at contestants for incorrect meat preparation. Somer Chef constantly reminds us that he is a famous restaurateur in Australia. He seems to know his craft but raises eyebrows with his strange choice of necklaces and absurdly bright and/or long shirts (there are entire Twitter accounts dedicated to discussing these fashion choices). Finally, there is Italian-born Danilo Zanna. Married to a Turkish woman, Danilo Chef has become Turkey’s favorite “foreign groom.” His rapid rise to fame here shows that it sometimes takes little more than boyish good looks and a funny accent to win over local audiences.
As for the contestants, with the way people choose favorites you might as well be watching a major sporting event. After a weeks-long audition process, we were finally left with a core of 16 would-be cooks. Many support Barbaros, who appears to be the most capable cook but who resembles an American wedding singer from the 1980s with his mullet-like haircut. Others are team-Esra, appreciating the no-nonsense attitude and strong work ethic of this spunky head-scarved woman. Then there is the sporty Cypriot Tanya, the hunky Emir with his trademark headband, the tattooed Uğur, the frazzled ginger-haired Gülşah, and so on. Meanwhile, all these contestants have become minor celebrities on social media, so fans soak up every detail of their personal lives through TikTok or Instagram.
MasterChef Turkey has all the clichés of reality TV. Contestants fight for “immunity” so they don’t have to worry about being eliminated from the show. The judges’ verdicts on the best dishes are punctuated with seemingly never-ending pauses and dramatic music. And of course no Turkish TV experience would be the same without nearly twenty-minute-long commercial breaks. Endless advertisements for refrigerators and cleaning goods remind you that there is serious money in this show.
It’s clear why the corporate sponsors are here, what about the viewers? What is the appeal of watching other people cook and cry for three hours each night? There is certainly the vicarious pleasure of watching others eat, a national pastime for much of the world but especially Turkey. Once and a while one even learns something new about cooking by watching the show (though in my observations watching the show inspires less kitchen creativity and more late night take-out orders).
It is also fascinating to see local dishes treated with the seriousness they deserve. From the humble fast food favorite ıslak hamburger (wet hamburger) to the meze staple çerkez tavuğu (Circassian chicken), so many of the dishes taken for granted in Turkey require great skill to cook. It’s not for nothing that the cooks in kebap and pide restaurants or home-style esnaf lokantaları are themselves called master (or usta). These are the true master chefs.
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