Dr Sister Outlaw asks, ‘do the basics matter’ and ‘what is the world coming to with these young people’?

I’m loving Australian Masterchef 2010, although it’s pretty different to the first season. Last year I didn’t watch seriously until the major personalities had emerged. Even so, it was clear that each contestant was seriously interested in a wide range of cooking styles and was a reliable all-rounder, as well as being able to demonstrate flair and insight.

But this year, night after night, I sit there tweeting (which, as Zoe and other tweeps have said, is more than half the fun of viewing) complaining about the incompetence of this lot and their constant moans (and tears): “I’ve never … [cooked Thai, filleted fish, seen a live chook, made a curry from scratch] before”. And although I initially forgave Kate for using a microwave because she made a great case for it, she was so ignorant that if she hadn’t been eliminated I would have microwaved her.

This week in the eliminations Jonathan “The Terminator” saw off “Soggy” Adele (thanks whoever tweeted that epithet). He’d also easily despatched Devon “No Nickname Necessary”. Why? Because of his technical competence. He was superb at handling eggs and had actually thought about the chemistry of tomato paste and that it does not enhance a bolognaise unless you cook it for hours. When I was discussing this with my bloke, who is learning to cook, he said “I always put tomato paste in bolognaise”, which kind of underscores my point – Adele failed because she cooks by the “always” method, rather than being analytical about what she is doing.

Home cooks like me usually have a good sense about how to dish up good tasting food, but I would argue that a chef thinks much more deeply about the ways in which the chemistry and physics of cooking affect taste. The highest expression of this is molecular gastronomy, which is iconoclastic in the way it challenges rules and understandings but does through via highly refined technique. You could say Masterchef teaches home cooks to think about chemistry and physics (certainly Gary and George try), but you can’t teach contestants how to break rules if they don’t know any rules to start with.

Then I read this Associated Press article about food snobbery. Apparently wee young things have not got a clue about cooking technique because they don’t read cookbooks any more but source their info from teh internetz:

“The twentysomethings right now are probably one of the most educated food generations ever. And by that I mean they can talk to you about foie gras or cooking sous vide or the flavor profile of a Bordeaux,” said Cheryl Brown, editorial director of the popular website Slashfood.

“But what they can’t do is truss a chicken or cook a pot roast. So there’s this funny balance of having an amazing breadth of food knowledge but not having the kitchen basics to back it up,” she said.

Hmmm. I’m not Gen Y but I don’t think we can blame teh internetz. For one thing, the web is full of people showing off their technique (I’ll often google when I am stumped about how to do something I’ve not done before). But if the current Masterchef contestants are any guide, this article may be bang on the mark.

But who or what can we blame for this problem? Maybe Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson (who I love, btw), for dumbing food down to reliable combinations? Maybe providore types, for telling us that only the most exclusive items from the most rarefied locations can be considered edible? Or is this just another Gen Y bashing exercise, and the truth is there is no problem at all?

An open thread, on whatever you feel like saying about food, technique, Masterchef, the contestants’ obvious hatred of Jonathan, Gen Y and food knowledge.


36 thoughts on “Dr Sister Outlaw asks, ‘do the basics matter’ and ‘what is the world coming to with these young people’?

  1. perhaps we need to question whether there is really a canon of shared basics any more or if our society is more diverse – after all I have no clue about trussing a chicken but as a vegetarian I never expect to need to do so

  2. Which is a supremely important point (and I do worry for vegetarians on Masterchef). In a ‘Mod Oz’ setting where there is a wide variety of genres on the menu ‘the basics’ are pretty broad. But then I find it flabbergasting in this day and age that people could say they hadn’t cooked a Thai dish. Or were uncertain about separating eggs.

  3. Would like to echo Johanna above – what the hell are basics, anyway? The article you quote just sounds like it’s romanticising a bygone era, with a nice dose of moral panic about the kids of today ruining tradition.

  4. which makes me sound much more curmodgeonly than I am really feeling…but I mean, really…’can’t truss a chicken’…quels horreurs

  5. I know!

    However, I do think basic white sauce and curry from scratch are important. As is being able to convert a cheap cut of meat into a decent pot roast without a slow cooker.

  6. I think it’s important to eat well and mindfully and with as little waste as possible, and apart from that what skills you do or don’t have don’t matter – unless you are trying to be ‘australia’s best amatuer cook’ or whatever it is masterchef calls it. I think the skills we have in the kitchen should probably relate to how we want to eat – I can do a basic white sauce and a curry from scratch, but I have no idea how to convert a cut of meat into a pot roast and that’s totally irrelevant to me because I don’t eat meat! 🙂

  7. I love Masterchef but all the crying this year is getting on my nerves (and I am a cryer).
    Jonathan is not warm, and he is determined to win. ( a bit like Chris last year). He is also very skilled.
    Hence the dislike, I think, by the other contestants.

  8. Just came across your blog (via Pavlov’s Cat I think) and have had a few hours of enjoyment reading some of the fantastic stuff on the blog and the diversity of commentators. One of the articles I read was your post in January regarding the article by Necia Wildon regarding her so-called difficulty in sourcing ingredients which were to her tastes (not gastronomic of course). I remember my own reaction to that article was pretty much the same. Glad also to see your reference to Tony Tan who I regard as an extremely authoritative source (not only for Asian food). Your reference to food snobbery in the current post is probably another example of the elitist attitude that has permeated the food world in recent times in my opinion. I’m looking forward to a long acquaintance with this site and all the others listed. Great work!

  9. When I was really starting to grapple with cooking in my late 20s (I’m 37 now) I eschewed old fashioned basics for fancier stuff. I didn’t want to do the stuff I grew up with – it seemed so dated, so bad. It took me years of playing with Asian food and various european cuisines before I came to discover that the old trad stuff of my Anglo heritage has much to offer – I couldn’t see it for a long time because the anglo food of my childhood was BAD. OK, not all bad but much was very badly done in my family home and I thought it was all terrible.

    What I’ve come to learn is that many of those basics like a roast chook or a good white sauce, or even a meatloaf are just like any other kind of cooking – requiring nothing more than to be done well and with care. If you don’t care, the food will suck. It’s opened my mind and eyes to a richer culinary experience as a home cook.

    I think I couldn’t bear to watch masterchef. I tried once. For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on (apart from being on comm tv) it just doesn’t appeal.

  10. Great post, keep up the Masterchef commentary everyone; it’s strange how addictive it is.

    I don’t think it’s a Gen Y “problem”, on the contrary, I think there has been an upsurge of interest in food and cooking which will mean that a whole lot of young people WILL end up getting skilled up and passing all the techniques on.

    I love it that my 13 year old is very opinionated about cooking and regularly takes on “challenges” at home – he cooked chili nd made tacos for the family just the other night and if that seems a bit easy, at 11 he made Koulorakia at after school care and then came home and taught me to make them!

    The kids are all right (with people like Zoe and others to teach them.)

    Re. Jamie Oliver – his TV shows have taught me some improved technique, no question. He’s not just a pretty face!

  11. I think it probably has more to do with Gen Y’s parents (and this would go for younger Gen Xer’s as well). The rise of convenience and processed foods has meant that less time is spent in the kitchen preparing food and so the skills aren’t passed on, except in families where the cooking is an essential part of the meal. I am only just starting to cook food from scratch again and at times it is difficult not to just shoo the kids out of the kitchen and do it myself because it is quicker. Most days I try to be patient and let them have a go. Most days. We all bought aprons today, so I hope it is a good start.

  12. Welcome aboard, lilet! Thanks, and looking forward to more comments from you. There are several writers on the blog – I wrote the Necia Wilden one, but this one is by Dr Sista Outlaw aka DSO aka @drnaomi

    And awesome post, DSO. Loving masterchef this year too, and totally rooting for Marion. That AP article is so poorly thought out I can’t begin to start complaining. Tehibol.

  13. Hi Lilit, nice to have you here. My esteemed host Zoe must take most of the credit, but she is pretty good at pulling a party together, don’t you think?

    I agree, the article was pretty weak. I mean, I can relate to the “foodiots” idea, expressed but not really explored in the article, where people think they are doing food if they go to 16 fancy restaurants a week. Way back when I had a disposable income I was pretty partial to a fancy restaurant experience (and used to love to take copious mental notes about flavour combinations and tricks) but I really do like the sharing and warmth that goes with eating with friends. (You’ll notice that I say ‘friends’ and not ‘family’, because bad Anglo cooking was also a feature of my childhood and I had to rediscover classics like white sauce, custard and stews through French and Italian cuisine). Anyway, food is the currency of so many of my relationships.

    Which brings me to my theory about Jonathon. Cold methodical Terminator that he is, he cannot be dismissed, but he is going to keep ending up in challenges because he does not (at this stage) appear very good at human connections. He failed at last challenge because he did something tasty, pretty and a bit confronting (lumpfish caviar) which would work fabulously well at a black tie and stilettos event, but was completely inappropriate for a 10am kids’ party.

  14. hooray! intellignet masterchef critique and commentary. Must be May! stay tuned for kids masterchef, mini me has entered and I wait to view the entire process up front and personal. My mind is boggling : 8-12 yo as prime time viewing…

  15. Oh gosh, that would be so exciting. My boy simply can’t wait for it (and when I tweeted that to @MattsCravat and asked him when it would be on he tweeted back! You see, twittering Masterchef IS most of the fun).

  16. Re: “basics”, I think this varies hugely depending on what you’re exposed to. My mother was a first-generation immigrant; she cooked strictly Italian food, but liked to bake traditional American desserts. As a result, I can make tomato sauce with my eyes closed and started baking when I was a teenager. However, I have had to teach myself how to make a white sauce and the basics of Asian cookery from step zero. From my own experience, I think the most important thing is to have *some* observational and hands-on experience of cooking: then you can at least figure out how to reproduce what you’re familiar with. And if you’re interested, you can break down that knowledge and use it as a foundation for all sorts of other types of food. I think the people who are in trouble are the people who’ve never been exposed to any consistent amount of daily, unglamorous, from-scratch cooking. And it seems as though there are a lot of them out there. I think if you don’t have that, then *everything* seems complicated.

  17. Yes, I agree with Nancy – ‘some’ kind of foundation is incredibly helpful in giving you confidence in the kitchen. I was lucky to have a mother who is a very good cook, loves to cook AND was really patient with me ‘helping’ in the kitchen as a child.

    Being told at age 8 that I should cook dinner once a week for the household was also a big confidence boost – since I knew that this meant they were willing to eat my cooking.

    Specific skills, like ‘trussing a chicken’ etc, are pretty much beside the point to me. It’s more about confidence, being willing to learn, and really really basic skills – like knowing which flavours combine well, what food looks, smells & tastes like when it is cooked, signs that food is fresh or past it, etc…

  18. well i didn’t know what a pot roast was, but after a quick wiki i realised i’ve been doing it all my life.

    I keep trying to give MasterChef a go, mostly ’cause of you two, Zoe and DSO. the only bit i have seen in anything like it’s entirety was the quail challenge against a proper chef, who i figured i ought to have known the name of, that was a lot of fun. i esp appreciated that there was filliting involved.

    i find it fascinating that ‘the basics’ can be a path to snobbery. the basics are the key to many a good dish, sure, but you have to care, as was said earlier. plus my basics are not your basics and so on. my basics are just my prejudices. ie i don’t think that everybody needs to know how to butcher foul or medium sized mammals, but it is one of my basics and i feel that my life would be poorer without it.

  19. plus my basics are not your basics and so on. Word. I learned to cook (Southern) Chinese in TAiwan, so my basics there are good, but I’d have to look stuff up to cook Thai, as opposed to seat-of-the-pants Thai. Would a real Thai cook know how to cook Boeuf Bourgignon? Would Nigella be able to cook Szechuan without looking something up?

  20. Nigella is quite transparent about her sources, and frequently quotes/shows the cookbooks she’s working from, which is one reason I like her shows – so quite sure she’s done a lot of looking up! And I look stuff up all the time and actively seek books that break things down to brass tacks. My favourite cookbook tells you how to boil an egg, kill a turtle and butcher a bear – I only want to know how to do one of those things.

    I am quite sure Jonathan knows rather a lot of basics, given his performance on the show tonight – even Gary and George seemed a bit awkward that he won, although Matt appears to be quite smitten with Jonathan’s talent.

  21. Great post & I’m sorry I have arrived late to the discussion.

    I dont think its about generation bashing at all. I think food, the cooking of it & its appreciation has become highjacked (again) as a status symbol.

    Like the so called ‘third wave’ of coffee appreciation, food has become manipulated into an exclusive club whos members are smugly self aware.

    Whilst I do not see food as fuel only I cannot help but think that their might be a growing expectation & associated anxiety from home cooks that every meal must be a showstopping extravaganza.

    However most meals are humble, nurturing & resorative .
    They have pride of place I believe in our daily eating regimen.

    I think shows like MC overlook this in the name of entertainment, which I understand. However there is more value in these everyday meals compared to the froth that is the glammed up frou frou meals that are created on the show.

    That type of food is more concerned with spotlighting itself, showing off in the form of technique & ultimately its about ego.

    Where does the nourishing aspect of cooking get a look in? On this show it doesnt.

    If there is a positive element that the show conveys to the home cook is the reality of cooking for large numbers of people in a restaurant environment, replete with all its stresses & timing issues-perhaps this has emlightened the audience that restaurants are not for the faint hearted.

  22. I agree about everyone’s basics being different. What astounds me about masterchef at the moment, is how people make souffles, pastry & cakes with seemingly no recipe in front of them. I think I’m a fairly competent cook, with a good grasp of the basics, but I still don’t bake without a recipe in front of me..
    I CAN truss a chicken, or do a pot roast, and separate eggs. I can even fillet a fish, although it usually looks a bit rough.
    When you look at most modern cookbooks, though, you don’t really need to. Not just Jamie and Nigella, but Donna Hay and Women’s Weekly, too.
    Did you know they took out all references to ‘creaming’ butter and sugar in the WW cookbooks? Apparently not enough people understood what it meant, so now it’s something like ‘mix until paler and the sugar is dissolved’.
    THAT is generational change : )

  23. Pingback: Tweets that mention Dr Sister Outlaw asks, ‘do the basics matter’ and ‘what is the world coming to with these young people’? | Progressive Dinner Party -- Topsy.com

  24. If there’s one basic I know well it’s creaming butter, so that’s a shame!

    Steve, I think you are right, nourishment is overlooked, both in the emotional sense (although the ‘cook a dish from home’ challenge did do that, and Matt P certainly acknowledged Kate’s use of the microwave as being about that nourishment), but also in the nutritional sense. It would be good to have some discussion of that! Rosemary Stanton as a judge?

    Which reminds me, I would love to see a masterchef vegan challenge (although Skye would probably win and I would hate that) – hell, we could even have a wholefood earth mother/hippy challenge – where people were credited for making something tasty AND wholesome that didn’t tax the environment. Judged by the founders of Iku, of course.

    IMO, of all the ways to cook food, I think the techniques of really good vegetarian/vegan cooking are the hardest to access. And most chefs pay bugger all attention to the vegetarian options on their menus, which is a crying shame, not just for the vegetarians, but also for people like me who long for really wonderful food that doesn’t contain animal protein.

  25. I think at the age of 31 I no longer qualify as a yoof, but… when I first left home I couldn’t boil an egg. I had no kitchen literacy. My mum isn’t a bad cook, although for various reasons she relied very heavily on ‘convenience foods’ when we were young, but anyway I apparently picked up absolutely nothing in the kitchen and didn’t know a thing until the age of 19 when I was forced to cook for myself to survive.
    So I’ve had to teach myself most ‘basic’ skills and I still have a lot to master. I certainly can’t make a curry from scratch and I’m not confident making things up – I almost always work from recipes, I often have to watch tricky techniques on Youtube to get an idea of how to do them, and I regularly stuff things up.
    But what I wanted to say was, well, does it matter? I can’t julienne to save my life but I’m willing to try recipes which call for julienne action, and they’re usually edible, if not gorgeously plated up.
    I mean, ultimately I’m willing to give most things a go (maybe not souffle) and I’m really just trying to feed myself and a few other interested parties, so does it matter that I have to turn to a book to give me ideas for a pot roast or curry?

  26. I’ve been thinking on this topic for days now, and am building a mental response which will perhaps come later.

    But for now I wanted to jump in on a note of confusion: I don’t really understand where all the comments to the effect that Jonathan is socially strange are coming from. If there was any awkwardness last night when he was awarded le prix indien, I certainly didn’t pick up on it.

    I’m also curious about the extent to which recipes are used on Masterchef: I think recipes are consulted, if only at a preliminary stage, to a much greater extent then the producers of the show let on.

    While I might disagree with several of DrN’s points, I think it was a thought provoking—in a genuine and rare way—blog post.

  27. I don’t watch Masterchef but love how it is getting people talking about food like you have (rather than it just being a bitch session).

    Like others have said, I tend to think of the basics as what many of us learnt from our mothers. Sure some dad’s cooked in my generation (early gen x/late boomer) but they were rare. My mum was at home full time for a large chunk of my childhood and she almost always cooked from scratch. She taught me the basics of sauteing onions til translucent, creaming butter and sugar, separating eggs, cooking meat (can’t remember the trussing but I observed it), making gravy…many of those things are lost to me now that I don’t eat meat but I “seal” tofu before stir frying much in the same way that she browned meat for a casserole. I had to teach myself Asian food and other things but the point is if you do know how to boil an egg, what heat to cook on for different effects etc than it’s easy to build on it from other cuisines.

    I took a basic macro cookery cause from Tony Chiodo a few years ago. His basics included how to sharpen a knife (yeah!) and general knife skills. I got an introduction to cooking with agar agar and other ingredients that were new to me at the time. So you can teach an old dog new tricks after all 🙂

    I’m too much of a feminist to suggest that Gen Y have skipped the basics because their mum’s and dad’s worked and took short cuts in the kitchen but if there were no other cooking mentors- how else were they to absorb such knowledge from?

  28. I want to stew on this a while, but I think the most important part of MC is that it is a television program with the usual set of editing, producing and shooting context. What I see is a product of what a particular company is looking for.
    I’d be almost entirely certain that MC’s entire structure and content is shaped to sell the products of a particular company… whoever that main sponsor is (I’m not sure). So I’m not sure it’s useful as documentary evidence of what yoofs is doing/cooking/eating. But it is a useful tool for figuring out what a particular company or industry might like to sell the yoofs next.

    This is such a lovely, post, though, and I really like it as a development of the crazymad MC twittering that’s been happening lately. I especially like seeing the way people’ve developed their thinking from tweets-and-chat to longer talks. All praise the internet.

  29. Dogpossum, the points you make about editing etc are very wise indeed – I wonder if this mob have been selected specifically because they are not particularly competent and have so much ot learn (but if that’s the case Jonathan problematises the whole thing because he so clearly is).

    Ninjamoeba, I am awestruck that you don’t see the awkwardness, because for me it stands out like canine’s cojones – I think he is comfy with himself, but the others … well, Alvin’s staggering un-niceness is one example.

    And Antipodean Kate, it matters not one jot that you turn to cookbooks (we all do and we should). I can cook certain simple things by feel but still have to check proportions (thank heavens I can read and write). But then you and I aren’t going to be going on national telly talking about our visions for our restaurant/cafe/cookbook – we recognise our limitations.

    Is that what the original food snobbery article was about? Keeping youngsters in their place?

  30. I was thinking about this some more last night and I realised there are two things going on here, one being ‘yoof bashing’ and the other being Masterchef.

    Yep the kids can’t cook, they are over-privileged brats who like to eat foie gras but wouldn’t know how to scramble an egg etc etc. This view is of course nine parts crap as others have pointed out, with one part not crap and possibly more to do with technology etc than anything else. Are young people damned because they don’t darn socks/chop wood/do their washing in a copper?

    And then there’s this other curious matter about the people who are on MC and what they say about wider culture. As dogpossum rightly points out, they say far more about the choices of the producers and advertisers than culture.

    Anyway, one of the things I’ve repeatedly said about MC is that if I really wanted to be a chef, I wouldn’t do it by going on a reality TV show.

    I’d go down the TAFE/apprenticeship route and actually learn my trade, rather than assuming my ability to make a nice dinner for my mates means I could just walk into a commercial kitchen and magically become a chef.

    Ultimately I find it a little bit curious and arrogant that people assume they could run a kitchen and serve great meals for 400 covers a night or whatever just because on Sundays they make a nice lamb roast.

    There’s a bit in Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Kitchen Confidential’ where he writes about people who think they can open a restaurant because they like throwing dinner parties, and his opinion of them is that they are universally deluded and doomed to fail.

    I’m not lumping all the MC contestants in that boat of course and as a friend of mine pointed out that in a few weeks/months on Masterchef your average contestant is going to have experiences and training your average TAFE student can only dream about as they julienne a million carrots.

    Anyway, I can’t stop watching it, so what does it matter? Eyeballs on the screen, money to the advertisers…

  31. What I think is interesting is what is going to happen to the cookbook recipe industry. Because I get most of my recipes from the internet these days.

    It would have to be a great book for me to buy it.

  32. Recipes – online all the way – haven’t bought a cookbook in years.

    Learning to cook – my parents were youngish, and brokish. So I learned to cook tuna mornay, sausages, ‘casserole of what’s in the fridge’, ‘potato cakes made of leftovers and an egg’, mince and lamb chops (remember when they were cheap?).

    Still, as someone else said = a grasp of any sort of cooking basics gives you a very good start in learning to cook the things that take your fancy. I am still not good at cooking slabs of meat though.

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