April 23, 2014
Posted in REALITY TV
Is MasterChef really about the “best home cooks in America”, or the most marketable (that is, youngest) ones?
MasterChef is a televised cooking competition series which is popular around the world, and in 2014 will be airing for its fifth season in the United States. The show bills itself as a competition to find “the best home cooks in America” through casting calls held around the country—something I have attended myself for the past two seasons in an attempt to get on the show! Yes, I am that much of a fan of the series, plus an extremely avid home chef.
But I’ve noticed something in now watching the show for four seasons (five if you count last year’s MasterChef Junior), doing a little statistical analysis, and what I observed at the casting calls I attended. If the show is really about the best home cooks in America, wouldn’t you think that many of the competitors should be older people with many years, or decades, of experience? People who have spent years studying cookbooks, perfecting family recipes, or traveling the world to try new cuisines?
But that doesn’t seem to be at all the kind of people who make it into the selected contestants you see on the show past the audition rounds. In fact they pretty much all seem to be photogenic 20-30 somethings (and quite a few of them with acting or media experience or aspirations at that.)
Maybe I’m wrong, or maybe I’m just pointing out the completely obvious. But I’ll share some of my experiences and analysis from the previous four seasons of the MasterChef US below, and then you can tell me what you think!
My experiences trying out for MasterChef
Second verse, almost the same as the first…
Last year I wrote about my experience going to a casting call in New York City for MasterChef season 4. (“My MasterChef Casting Call Experience”). To summarize, I was very nervous having never done anything like that before, but I made it past the first round of food tastings and “flash” interviews, to then meet with the casting people who were there that day.
This kind of screening goes on all day in an MasterChef casting call: groups of 20-30 people are brought into the tasting room at a time. You have three minutes to plate the food you’ve brought in. The food (and you) get photographed, then there is a taster who comes around and questions your dish, and an interviewer who quickly tries to find out a little bit about you. They then select a few people from this group to interview further, and then from that group select those they want to interview more privately and try out for a screen test. Of course, there’s no guarantee that you’ll even make it into the Top 100 that go to Los Angeles at that point, but it is pretty sure that if you don’t at least make it to the screentest/interview, you’re probably not getting a call back.
That first time in NYC I was brought in with a group of six after the tastings, four of whom were clearly younger than 40-year old me and one older woman. Three people were then selected for further interviews—not me, and I’m not sure from memory about the other older woman who did seem to have already won the favor of someone on the casting committee that day (I’d heard her being whispered to, “You’re going to make it!” or something to that affect while entering the room.) I did not see any of those other people actually on screen during Season 4 when it aired, but I can say that people of all ages and backgrounds were there that day for the casting call.
My “practice plate” at home for the MasterChef 2013 auditions: a selection of Venetian cicchetti offerings including marinated smelts, fava bean and watercress salad, grilled shrimp, tuna meatballs and salt cod on baccala…among other things!
With that experience under my belt, though, I was pretty confident about trying out again when a casting call was held in Philadelphia for Season 5. I had been planning a plate to bring for months, one that I thought really reflected “my story” and my background. I’d spent about a week marinating, cooking and tasting the elements of my plate to get it just right. I thought about the questions I’d been asked by the interviewers last time and how to have quick engaging answers for them.
I showed up early that morning but not as early as some people; I was about number 45 to sign in. But I was relaxed and the crowd in Philly was definitely smaller than the one in NYC the year before. People were again of all ages, races and appearances: there were young student types and older men and women in their 50s and 60s. There were young mothers and fathers with kids in tow (even though the rules said not to bring them), there were more mature women talking about their families and their jobs.
I was called in for either the third or fourth round of tastings, with a group of about 20 people. I thought my plate looked beautiful, the taster sampled basically everything, and I could tell I managed to engage the interviewer with my responses to her initial questions. Sure enough, I was one of four from this group selected to go on to the next part of the process. The other three were all men, of a younger age than me. I don’t recall exactly but I do believe they were all in their mid-to-late 20s, perhaps one in his early thirties at most.
We had a fairly lengthy group interview with the casting people at that point. The one woman remembered me very quickly from New York the year before, which I took as a good sign (Hey, I made an impression over all the people they must interview every year!) I thought I did a good job of pitching myself and being confident without being arrogant…but maybe arrogance was what they wanted? One of the three guys I was with started out by talking about his genius-level IQ (although he was currently working as a bartender). I sort of snarked back when it was my turn to first introduce myself that I might not be a genius but I did go to MIT and have a PhD in engineering…although cooking and writing was my passion now.
I mentioned how writing and cooking had become a focus of my “Plan B” in life now that I was in my forties, and infertility had made it such that being a parent was not going to be part of my future. So I was all about being passionate with my creativity in sharing knowledge with others. I thought maybe throwing in that “human interest” element could be a good hook (reality shows love their sob stories, after all). After all, I was in there against a bartender who’d grown up in a cult, a volunteer firefighter and a financial guy whose main hook seemed to be he was into extreme sports. While we were chatting before the group interviews, it sounded like I was the only person who hadn’t received at least a partially negative comment on their food from the taster as well, so it seemed pretty clear my food had gone over successfully.
After a brief wait outside, wouldn’t you know it, there were three requests for screentests out of the four of us in that group. Guess who didn’t make it? Of course, me.
I was pretty upset at the time. It’s bad enough to not make it with a couple of other people, but to be the one person in a group who gets the “no thanks”? It definitely stings the ego, no doubt about it.
I have no idea (yet) if any of those other three made it past the next round of auditioning, but I’ll certainly be curious to find out when season five airs. But as I was driving home from Philadelphia that day, it did get me thinking. It seemed that most of the people I saw that day (and previously) getting a “golden ticket” for further interviews were on the younger side. And the contestants on the show seemed to me to mostly be in their 20s and 30s. Were these people being selected really “the best home cooks in America”, or were they just the best at getting on television—and with their youthful ages and appearances being a factor in that?
I decided to do a little data analysis to try to figure it out.
Looking at the age breakdown of MasterChef US Finalists, Seasons 1-4
Analyzing the numbers
In Season 1, 14 contestants made it past the auditions to compete in the MasterChef kitchen. The age range was 22 – 47, with 7 in their 20s (50%), 5 in their 30s, and 2 in their 40s. The oldest, Avis White, was the first eliminated while 42 year old Tracy Nailor finished in 8th place.
The average age for the season’s competitors was 31 and the winner, Whitney Miller, was one of the two youngest of the season at 22.
In Season 2, 18 contestants made it into the MasterChef kitchen. The age range was 18 – 52 with 1 teenager, 6 in their 20s (33%), 10 in their 30s, none in their 40s and only Tony Scruggs in his 50s. Tony was the third eliminated.
The average age for Season 2’s competitors was 32 and the winner, Jennifer Behm, was 34.
In Season 3, there were again 18 contestants in the MasterChef kitchen. The age range was 19 – 40 with 1 teenager, 11 in their 20s (61%), 5 in their 30s, and 1, Mike Hill, at exactly 40. Mike was the 8th person eliminated.
The average age for Season 3’s competitors was 29 and the winner, Christine Ha, was 32.
In Season 4, there were 19 contestants in the MasterChef kitchen. The age range was 22 – 42 with 14 in their 20s (78%), 4 in their 30s, and 1, Sasha Foxx, in her 40s at 42. Sasha was the first person eliminated.
The average age for Season 4’s competitors was 29 and the winner, Lucas Manfe, was 31.
What do these numbers seem to suggest overall? I think there are a few general trends that are apparent, at least based on the four seasons aired to date:
* With the exception of Season 1, no season of MasterChef US has had more than a single competitor in the MC kitchen age 40 or greater.
* Those over-40 competitors are usually eliminated very early on, with none placing higher than 8th place overall.
* The highest percentage of competitors each season are in their 20s, ranging from 33% to 78% of those in the MC kitchen. The average age every season has been between 29-32.
* The winning contestant is usually in his or her early 30s, with the exception of Whitney Miller who was the youngest winner to date at 22.
Does that make you think for a minute? Or is it just me?
MasterChef Australia: Also guilty of ageism?
More food for thought…
While first researching this article to see if others had any thoughts on the issue, I found the following 2010 piece about Australia’s version of MasterChef (one of the most popular in the world):
“Masterchef: Homophobic? No. Racist? No. Ageist? Maybe.”
But it’s not just MasterChef. Accusations of ageism on television and in other media is nothing new, and also an issue that particularly seems to affect older women in the entertainment industry. It seems as though television executives and casting companies think no one wants to see anyone over 40 on their television screens, at least not in starring roles. Which is a shame because if a show like MasterChef is supposed to be about “the best” in a particular field, they’re missing out if they’re passing on people who just aren’t fitting the Hollywood mold of young and beautiful.
Sexism accusations against MasterChef US
Season 4 of MasterChef US also faced allegations of sexual harassment on the set, from a contestant who made it into the Top 100, Marie Porter. The show’s production company denied any such allegations but it did leave many people wondering about what really goes on during the filming of the show that we never see on television…
Do you think there’s a trend?
Is it ageism, or something else at work in the casting of MasterChef US?
Of course, one could argue that there are obvious reasons why a show such as MasterChef would be dominated by younger contestants. Participating in the show requires spending up to two months in isolated filming, during which time a contestant is basically not able to have any contact with the outside world, or with friends and family. Many more mature individuals may be settled into jobs and careers that would not allow them 1-2 months of leave such as that, or have family members such as children or elderly parents dependent upon their care that they would not choose to leave to others. (Second season contestant Ben Starr wrote a very revealing blog post on what it’s like, and the difficulties that contestants can face during that time of isolation.)
A younger person may just be finishing school, between jobs, and is less likely to have others dependent upon them, a house that needs mortgage and utilities paid, etc. But of course, then you could have older individuals looking for that second career or calling in life! Maybe they’ve lost their job in the economic downturn. Maybe their kids are grown now and they’re looking for something else to devote themselves. The prize money—and possible cookbook—coming from a MasterChef victory could go a long way in launching that “second calling”, or helping someone turn a lifelong hobby into something more.
You could argue that a younger person might be in better physical health, and therefore better able to cope with the physical demands of filming the show which can require a lot of running around in the kitchen, cooking under extreme conditions and pressure, or even camping out overnight in the “wilderness” as in Season 4. So it is possible that some older contestants get passed over even if they get through the initial interviews and screenings because of their health. Of course, season three’s winner Christine Ha faced quite a physical obstacle due to her blindness, and that hardly slowed her down; the show in fact made the concession of giving her an aide to help her navigate around and provide visual information to her, so I’m sure they could do other things to accommodate older contestants who might have disabilities and physical impediments.
Or perhaps, the feeling might be that younger “home cooks” are more up to date on trendy cooking techniques and flavors that might be more appealing to the professional chefs who host and judge the competition: Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich, and Graham Elliot. But can modernism always trump good old fashioned techniques and flavor? I’m not so sure about that…
A few concluding thoughts…
Maybe I’ll just go back to eating—and writing about—good food…
I’ve hesitated writing this post up for a while as I did not want to come across as some kind of “whiny loser”, or be unfair to a show I’ve watched and enjoyed for many seasons now. I can’t say I have any insight whatsoever into what the casting people are looking for when it comes to picking even simply the “Top 100” people out of the thousands who show up for casting calls or submit video applications every year. I may just not have the look or the personality or whatever the “it” factor is they are looking for…and that’s fine! In truth I’m not really sure I’d want to go through the grueling experience of being on a reality tv show anyway and having people around the world comment on and criticize me based on how I might be edited for broadcast.
But I do question whether they are really being in honest in how they present the show, if instead of “the best home cooks in America” MasterChef should be described as featuring “the best young and photogenic home cooks in America”. (And I haven’t even gotten into the issue here of how many contestants on the show seem to come from acting, modeling, or other entertainment-related backgrounds, but that would take another post entirely…maybe next time?) Meanwhile, I guess I’ll be back at recapping episodes for season 5.
Will there be a season 6, and if so will I try out for it one more time? Hmm…
My MasterChef US Seasonal Recaps and Reviews:
MasterChef US 2012: Season 3
If you’ve become addicted to the series MasterChef on Fox, then you’re in the right place! This page was continuously updated throughout the third season – so if you are just catching up now on episodes, be warned that there are plenty of spoiler…
MasterChef US 2013: Season 4
MasterChef is a worldwide television sensation, one of the most popular cooking competition shows everywhere from Australia to the United Kingdom to the United States. The third season of MasterChef US drew sky- high ratings for the FOX TV network, as many…
Junior MasterChef US
MasterChef has been one of the hottest summer series on the FOX TV network for the past four seasons. Now, fans can get ready for a brand new version of the show, spotlighting some of the youngest talented home cooks in the USA: MasterChef Junior! This com…
Related posts at Spacial Anomaly
sockii is just your typical Jane-of-All-Trades who never has enough time in her day for all of her projects. She has written for many websites online including Squidoo, Zujava, Yahoo! Contributors Network, HubPages and Wizzley. She has been attending and vending at science fiction and media conventions for over 15 years, and for several years ran an art gallery and jewelry store in Philadelphia. Today she is happy to be living in South Jersey with her partner David and their 6 cats. Sockii is a member of several affiliate sales programs including Amazon Associates and Viglink. Products from these services may be advertised on her posts and pages to generate sales commissions.
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January 23, 2015
I like the idea of your plate, but there’s too much going on. Should have picked one or two elements and concentrated more on your plating. Also, they probably chose the 3 guys because they had more interesting backgrounds and were probably better draws for people more concerned about reality TV then cooking.
Also, one of the reasons they may not have taken you is because I hear that some reality shows are hesitant to hire someone who is a hardcore blogger. Especially since you tend to do in depth reviews about other reality TV shows. Its a risk.
I like Master Chef but I am 100% convinced that the only reason Ha was because she was blind and that would be a good draw for ratings. I don’t really consider age so much, but the younger the cooks are better at adapting to the chefs’ demands and modernizing their dishes.
Old dog, new tricks.
February 3, 2015
That wasn’t my final plating but a run-thru which I simplified a bit for the final version (and, the plating only gets you through the first screener and taster, which worked for me.) A number of bloggers have made it very far in the competition in the past two seasons at least – and at this point after hearing from people who made it further through the audition process to actually read the contracts put before them to go on the show no way would I have gone through with it. They basically want to own your life and control anything and everything you say for several years if you agree, so no thanks to that. (I skipped even bothering with the 6th season casting calls this past year.)
I still watch the show but have no illusions about there being any “reality” any longer as far as the judging and the cooking; it’s pretty clear they know pretty well who they want to win from the beginning or at least very early on after filming begins and they can edit/manipulate things however they want to get to that end point. Christine was ok but honestly her cookbook was very boring and pedestrian. Luca at least put out a cookbook with some innovative and creative takes on Italian food and I enjoy that. No way I’m going anywhere near Courtney’s book…
May 13, 2016
You concentrate a bit too much on the age, the very young competitors don’t fare much better than the over-forty year olds… Max in Season 2 went as fifth, Michael Chen in Season 3 as third. both were 19 IIRC.
But yes, they surely look for younger cooks when they cast. Why not… the series is based around the premise of opening up new talents a way into the food industry and that sells best to an audience if they are still young enough to open a new restaurant and gain the experience or renomee expected from true talents in that business.
Also you should take into regards that people cooking for decades tend to have a bit worked out their “thing” and aren’t as flexible and happy to experiment any more as younger cooks tend to be… that may not be a 100% rule for all humans, but it reflects quite a bit what is shown in the auditions when older cooks appear. Avis e.g. wasn’t failed because her food tasted bad, she wasn’t up to par in terms of what now is thought to be tasty food and how to make it look sexy on a plate, her style was 80-ish and thus outdated. A bit of that may be another way to show bias towards older participants, by systematically feeling they are unfit to provide good modern food, but it did not really look all that forced or dishonest when you looked at her finished plates and compared them to some of the dishes cooked by other competitors..
Finally there also is the stress and while this may not quite be as horrifically bootcampy as e.g. Ramsay’s other big show “Hell’s Kitchen” where they are basically shut off in their cooking Gulag for thirty or forty days on a row to film these 15-20 episodes, it still will be a lot of pressure on every contestant and it seems that between 25 and 35 the highest number of contestant is both experienced enough to fiddle through all the different challenges and yet can also take the stress of filming for weeks under extreme conditions.
So yeah… MC is probably a good deal ageist, but that may not be without its reasons and merits if you look at the whole deal and not just the wish to have a fair chance at competing.