Generation Y
July 22, 2015

The late addition

The late addition

Why is the new judge on “Masterchef” so annoying?

For anyone who doesn’t know, “Masterchef” is a reality TV show and amateur chef competition—billed as the quest to find America’s best home cook—that has aired on Fox since 2010. Each year, after an extensive battery of tests and challenges, a new Masterchef is crowned by a panel of three judges, which traditionally has consisted of the British chef and professional bully Gordon Ramsay, American chef Graham Elliot, and restaurateur Joe Bastianich.

This summer, for the sixth season of “Masterchef,” a new judge has replaced Bastianich: the Brooklyn-based pastry chef Christina Tosi. For some reason she strikes me as really annoying, and I’m trying to figure out why.

To be clear, I wasn’t heartbroken to hear that Joe had left the show (willingly and amicably, according to reports), as he was surely the least important of the three judges. Ramsay, the hardest-working man in food television, was the program’s star and—in the tradition of fellow British TV villains Simon Cowell and Anne Robinson (from “The Weakest Link”)—the show’s primary source of cruelty and emotional abuse. Graham Elliot was his counterbalance: softer, kinder, more forgiving.

Ramsay’s clockwork-like outbursts fulfilled the popular conception of high-level restaurant kitchens as amped-up, merciless places where one mistake—overcooking a lamb chop or forgetting to add the cilantro—can cost you your job, while Elliot’s gentler approach reinforced the notion that, for all its harshness, the “Masterchef” judging panel was a benevolent force, not merely a ritualistic public-shaming committee.

Bastianich’s role within this dynamic was a little more difficult to discern: he was mean like Ramsay, but in a more composed way. His cruelty was controlled and unemotional. He was snotty and aloof, whereas hotheaded Ramsay was more like an abusive parent. Ramsay was that way because he couldn’t help it, because he was so deeply invested, because he loved you and wanted you to succeed, as demonstrated by the moments of tenderness and encouragement that he strategically sprinkled amid his sadism in order to win the loyalty of his victims.

The difference between the two judges’ artificial personas probably owed to the real-life difference in their backgrounds. Gordon Ramsay is an actual chef whose flagship restaurant has three Michelin stars, while Joe Bastianich is a rich guy who has a degree in finance and owns several restaurants but has never worked in a kitchen. For this reason, it made sense to position Gordon as the “leader down in the trenches” and Joe as the prototypical “exacting client” at a fancy restaurant: the wealthy businessman who probably has no idea what he’s talking about but will nevertheless confidently demand that the waiter who poured his wine incorrectly be fired on the spot.

So far, it’s hard to tell what the newcomer, Christina Tosi, is aiming for. Although her function is to serve as the “expert” during pastry challenges, she doesn’t seem committed to a particular TV persona yet. She appears to approach the job earnestly rather than theatrically, eager to employ the correct vocabulary and to uphold the generic New American food sensibility, wherein “comfort dishes” that reflect the upbringing, regional affiliation, or ethnic heritage of the chef (his or her “story”) must be “elevated” or “deconstructed”—that is, sanitized and adulterated with pretentious ingredients—in order to conform to the standards of conventional haute cuisine. Her only deviation from any random “Chopped” judge is that she likes sugary treats more than savory dishes.

Tosi has less TV experience than her peers and is a little stiff on stage, and her inability thus far to transform herself into a cartoon character for the camera seems to have thrown the other judges slightly out of whack: if she’s neither harsh nor sympathetic, what exactly are her colleagues attempting to “balance out”?

This may just be an imagined problem; it’s hard for me to tell. The issue may simply be sexism, the hypercritical attitude that most Americans—even most female Americans—unconsciously assume whenever a woman is granted a position of authority, a phenomenon recently demonstrated by the brief, insanely controversial tenure of Ellen Pao as Reddit’s CEO.

Have I been afflicted? Sadly, I have found myself whether wondering whether the 33-year-old dessert-maker for Momofuku “deserves” to sit on a panel alongside Michelin-starred chefs—as though the role of judge on “Masterchef” were actually a position of import and consequence—but I suppose this may only reflect a prejudice against dessert. In my mind, pastry chefs exist on a lower culinary rung than “real chefs”—an idea that may also have its roots in sexism (a line of thinking wherein cupcakes are for women, while steaks are for men), though I have no idea what the actual demographics among pastry chefs are like.

I’m more inclined, however, to believe that Tosi is suffering from the problem that any new character on a television show must face, which is that we’d gotten used to things the way they were. It’s no coincidence that virtually every character added late in the run of a beloved TV program has been universally despised: Cousin Oliver on “The Brady Bunch,” Tori on “Saved by the Bell,” Scrappy-Doo on “Scooby-Doo,” Seven on “Married with Children,” Kimi on “Rugrats.” You might call it the Poochie Effect, in honor of the “Simpsons” episode that satirized this phenomenon.

It’s not just that these characters disrupt a treasured routine: they have to justify their presence in a way that the original characters, whom we accept because they’ve been around since the beginning, do not. They’re like post-college friendships—these intruders must present some compelling reason for us to make room for them in our lives, whereas our older friends simply exist without debate. We never bother to wonder whether our lifelong pals really contribute to our happiness—they’ve always been there and always will be. Anyone else may just be cutting into our sleep and Internet time.

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