It is lunch time and on eight stoves, meat is searing, stock is simmering and the aromas coming from them are mouth-watering.
Meanwhile, not 20m away I sit having the non-competition lunch prepared for the production crew on MasterChef Asia – noodles from a plastic food container, which turn out to be spaghetti stir-fried in a sauce that tastes of tomato ketchup, with carrots, cabbage and mysterious strips that look like Chinese barbecued pork but are probably mock meat.
And here I imagined enjoying some terrific food at this cooking competition!
Last night’s MasterChef Asia episode, the ninth, was shot at Hong Kong Disneyland… six months ago. The Royal Banquet Hall had been turned into a “kitchen” where the eight remaining contestants would be making the signature dishes of the theme park’s executive chef Rudy Muller in a three-hour cook-off.
I have an escort who would answer questions and I can observe the contestants up close from the sidelines, but besides that, they and the judges are off-limits. Nor am I allowed to record anything on audio or film, or stay for the final judging.
I am hoping to see some frenetic action in the kitchen, but find it surprisingly quiet. Even my escort admits that the work stations are unusually clean and tidy compared to the one-hour cook-offs! Except for a couple of clanging pot lids, a house phone ringing somewhere off camera and chirping sparrows flitting about in the high-domed ceiling (this is Disneyland, after all!) and giving the sound guy a headache, the situation is pretty calm.
The cooking is done in real time and while there is no script, the time calls and chats with the contestants at their work benches is only done when necessary. When the story producers, who observe everything the cooks do, see them doing something interesting, for example, the judges are called in to find out about it and this makes it more interesting for the TV viewer.
Judges Susur Lee and Audra Morrice are pretty laid-back and usually sit quietly waiting for their cue. Bruno Ménard, on the other hand, paces a lot and always seems deep in thought. Now and then, his lips move as if mouthing something. A few minutes later, he does one of the time calls – “Come on guys, we don’t see enough energy” – and I assume he had been practising what to say to the contestants.
The final instruction to the cooks is to plate their dishes, and then the beauty shots are taken. As soon as that is done, I am politely ushered out of the building.
MORE: Watch the MasterChef Asia judges take on a blind food taste test at thestartv.com
The full version of this article appears in print in Star2 on Nov 2. MasterChef Asia S1 airs every Thursday at 9pm on Lifetime (Astro Ch 709).