MasterChef Asia has started, but where are the Hongkongers?
Lack of local and Thai contestants in home cooks competition blamed on level of English
Reality cooking show MasterChef Asia makes its debut tonight on Now TV but of the 15 contestants from the region, none are from food-obsessed Hong Kong.
Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines are well represented along with two contestants from Indonesia, and one each from China, Taiwan, India and Vietnam.
“It’s a real shame that there aren’t any Hong Kong contestants, but we opened up a casting call for applicants but the ones from Hong Kong, their cooking didn’t stand up,” says Michele Schofield, senior vice president of programming and production for A + E Networks Asia.
She adds that one of the three judges, Sursur Lee Kwok-wai is originally from Hong Kong, though he has been based in Toronto since 1980. He owns several restaurants, including TungLok Heen in Resorts World Sentosa in Singapore.
“For him Hong Kong is home, his mother still lives here and we hope that he will resonate with Hong Kong viewers,” Schofield says.
She admits the application process was quite thorough, which may have deterred some from applying or even completing it. Potential contestants had to apply through the MasterChef Asia website by filling in an extensive form, outlining their culinary experience, and noting if they had any professional training.
Many applicants were weeded out, as Schofield says they wanted home cooks, people who were passionate about cooking as a hobby. “They may have taken some basic cooking classes, which is fine, and so we wanted them to list them all.
“But if they had taken Cordon Bleu courses, particularly all three modules, which meant the next step would be interning in a professional kitchen, then we couldn’t accept them. We wanted to have as even a playing field as possible.”
In addition to the written application, people had to submit a video, showing themselves making a signature dish. In this way Schofield and her colleagues could quickly gauge their English language ability and get a sense of their cooking style.
She says they contacted people who may have only completed half of the application, asking if they had problems uploading their videos in order to give them every chance to become a possible contestant.
Of almost 2,000 applicants, several hundred submitted videos and those who were considered possible contestants were auditioned and had to cook in front of the producers. The finalists had to cook again in front of the producers in Singapore where the show is based.
“Most of the applicants came from Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, because news about the show went viral on social media in those places,” Schofield explains. “We tried very hard to reflect Asia as much as possible, but there are no Thai contestants either, mostly because of their English language ability,” she says.
What surprised her the most about the applicants was that they were more skilled at cooking Western cuisine than Asian. “The new generation of cooks are doing this as a hobby, and they can easily get their favourite noodles down the street, but they would rather cook themselves modern Western fusion, with some knowledge of French techniques,” Schofield says, adding many are self taught.
She also says that pay TV doesn’t reach enough people and promises the show will be doing more to get more people to apply for the next season.
“We encourage everyone in Hong Kong to watch the show and hope that it will inspire them to apply,” she says. “We had some people say they didn’t want to apply because they didn’t want the judges to get mad at them, but our show is based on MasterChef Australia which is more about camaraderie, not drama. We are intentionally not like the North American version. We also want the audience to learn along the way so it’s more positive and about passion,” Schofield says.
Joining Lee as one of the judges is Bruno Menard, whose French restaurant in Tokyo, L’Osier, was awarded three Michelin stars and Audra Morrice, one of the finalists in MasterChef Australia 2012.
MasterChef Asia starts tonight on Now TV at 9pm, repeated on Sundays at 7pm