Guest Post: Strategic Tips For The Masterchef Australia Contestants
Regular readers might remember how last Masterchef season Matt giving his strategic advice on how the amateur cooks should think more like Survivor contestant to ensure getting further in the competition.
He has kindly written a brilliant and hilarious blog post outlining his strategy for the upcoming contestants to use to ensure they get as far as possible in the competition. Thank you Matt the Strategos…and over to you.
What Masterchef Contestants Should Have Learned From Previous Seasons.
One of the more fascinating parts of the 2010 Masterchef phenomenon was not watching the cooking, but the strategic plays made by a handful of contestants.
Sure, the cooking was great – who didn’t make the pavlova – but if I want TV cooking, I’ll watch Jamie Oliver. But Masterchef’s also a competition, which is something some of the contestants didn’t seem to realise.
Masterchef, as I wrote during Season Two, doesn’t lend itself to the ruthless application of Nashian game theory in the same way Survivor does, but there were flashes of strategic genius.
The best came when Jimmy and Adam almost singlehandedly orchestrated Marion’s elimination by canny team picking – more on that later.
Unfortunately, from a strategic perspective Masterchef is still in the pre-Richard Hatch stage of Survivor. To be fair to Survivor, that stage lasted about two episodes, but it’s a fair comparison – before Richard Hatch, everyone thought Survivor was a game about, well, surviving. Instead, it’s turned into a game of scheming, plotting and relationships.
Masterchef is still – and should be – about the cooking. But strategy can elevate a mediocre competitor or bring down a good one.
So, what can this year’s contestants learn from last year’s competition?
Rule 1. Be able to cook
This, you would think, is a no-brainer. But remember the CWA challenge last year? When contestants couldn’t even cook scones and sponge cake?
It doesn’t matter, as George and Gary decried this week, you can cook every page out of Heston Blumenthal, if when you come to an elimination challenge and it is whisking an egg. With a whisk, not a bamix.
If you look at the elimination challenges from the first two series, the majority were for basic kitchen skills – fillet a salmon, shuck an oyster, whisk an egg, be able to estimate the weight of a cut of fish or make a lemon tart without the recipe. And, in the most celebrated elimination, make satay sauce.
Oh, and have a signature dish. Because There Will Be A Test.
Knowing how to cook the basics better than everyone else may not have you winning many invention tests, but it does one crucial thing – it stops you from losing.
Which brings us to…
Rule 2. Winning isn’t everything
Sure, it’s a cooking show, but it’s a cooking show where to win, your competition needs to be eliminated.
And the most important part of being Masterchef contestant is not winning.
It is not losing.
There is only one night when you need to win, and that is the last night.
From a pure strategic viewpoint, up until the last night, it is more important that your competitors lose than you win. The reason for this is that to win, you need to take risks. The risk/reward tradeoff is just as valid, because the best meals always have an element of sophistication or finesse that is easy to get wrong. That’s why they’re the best.
So how do you ensure that your competition loses?
You can’t. They need to do that themselves.
But you can put them in a position to fail.
When you are in a position to influence events, you need to ensure:
(1) Your strongest competition is in front of the judges when you are not; and,
(2) When you are in front of the judges you are with the two weakest contestants possible.
There are several opportunities to do this.
Winning a challenge
Yes, I know, you’re not trying to win, but even Callum won a couple last year. Win a challenge and you get an advantage. Whether it’s a team pick, or choosing a mystery box, you need to consider the rules.
The best example of this was the team pick which led to Marion’s elimination, before the Army challenge. Masterchef team picks usually tend to be two things – picking your friends, or picking the best chefs – two strategies which are often the worst.
This one was different. With nine competitors left, you are going to have one team of four, and one of five. One of the team captains was Adam, who had immunity. Claire was the other captain.
Claire made the first good strategic move – picking Callum. Callum made it to the top two in the end, but with nine remaining he was the baby seal most likely to be clubbed. Picking Callum adheres to this rule – he may not help you win, but he will help you (not your team) not lose. Claire ensured that if she went to elimination, then she would be standing beside a (perceived) weaker competitor.
The next great strategic move was Adam picking Marion. Normally, Marion was the first picked, because she’d help you win. But Adam’s choice had a deeper strategic meaning (whether he intended it or not). If he won, great. But because Adam had immunity, he was ensuring that if he lost, the strongest competitor in the competition would have a much harder elimination. If Adam’s team ended up with five people, Marion has a one-in-four chance of going home, because Adam has immunity. If he ends up with a four-person team, she has a one-in-three.
But the clincher was Jimmy. The curry specialist was the last to be picked and got to choose which team he went on. Easy choice, right? One team which included culinary stars Adam, Marion, and Jonothan, (and pizzaboy Aaron) or the other, which had Callum and Courtney – good cooks, but not in the same firmament. So Jimmy chooses Team Stumblebum.
Why? Because if he loses, he’s up against four cooks, at least two of whom are just as likely to fail as himself. He chooses Team Alvin and if they lose, he’s all but guaranteed to be going home. More importantly, if Team Stumblebum wins, Jimmy has ensured that Jono and Marion, the two undisputed strongest cooks, both have a 33 per cent chance of going home.
Genius, all the more so because Jimmy didn’t have to win a challenge to be in the most powerful strategic position.
Jono pulled a similar move earlier in the competition, picking Joanne as his opposing team captain after she had shown a propensity to, how shall we say, not be the most organised leader. Joanne won the challenge, which proves that you can’t always rely on your opposition to follow your plan, but Jono’s move was still strategically sound because he was putting his opposition in the most disadvantageous position.
A third case came when, quite late in the competition, the teams were asked to pick themselves. Callum quickly realised that there were six people, he was third in line, and to his right were the two best cooks in the competition – including one who’d lived in Japan for six years – not a bad help when Sakai is the judge.
He quickly suggested a split down the middle, before someone came up with a “girl’s against boys”, or over 25s against everyone else.
It also left the two “worst” cooks Courtney and Jimmy with Alvin. Like Jono, the end result may not have been favourable to Callum, but his rationale was sound. The poker strategist David Sklansky wrote that even if the cards don’t fall your way, you can consider yourself to have won a hand if you force an opponent to make a bad choice – because you have a greater expected value over time.
One caveat to picking teams – don’t let yourself be picked for elimination. Jake went meekly to the gallows when his team was asked to decide who was up for elimination. You’ve got to fight – refuse to go, insist on drawing straws, secret ballot with ratings, whatever. Don’t be a lemming.
Caveat two – Don’t give up immunity. If Marion was on The Apprentice, The Donald would have sent her home for that little stunt.
Picking the food
Find yourself with the power to choose the food for a mystery box and you need to follow the rules.
Jimmy gets a mystery box – pick curry. Claire gets one. Pick dessert.
Pretty simple, and again, the important thing is not to win, but not to go home. It’s no good winning the right to choose the ingredients and then stuffing up the Mystery Box WHICH YOU GOT TO PICK and being up for elimination.
Cooking the food
Basics are good, but there is a time to unleash your inner Shannon Bennet and go all foamy.
When the competition isn’t on the line.
No-one ever got sent home for stuffing up an Invention Test. And hell, you may even win the thing and get to choose the Mystery Box.
Example – Jimmy tries a croquembouche. I know, we’re all guffawing again. But it was inspired strategy. He didn’t have the skills to pull it off, but it was the sort of dish that if it had worked, Jimmy’s given himself an awesome advantage. At that point in the competition, Jimmy realised that he needed the advantage, so it was a clever play. If he’d played safe and done a curry – well he could have done a gold-flecked curried swan that wiped the judge’s arses for them and they would have just yawned. He needed to be spectacular, and he was. A spectacular flop, but, as Pierre the Famous French Fighter Pilot says, “when I go down, I go down in flames”.
Again, follow the rule – winning isn’t everything, just don’t lose.
Rule 3. Nice judge, niiice judge
Or, make sure you listen in Masterclass. Don’t fawn over the judges in the thing, steal their intellectual property and recycle it in the Invention Test.
Show them the respect they deserve by listening, then shamelessly stealing their techniques.
Same for celebrity chefs. One team stuffed up last season on the seafood challenge because they took lobsters out of the shells, despite Rick Stein telling them all before about respecting the seafood.
Rule 4. Remember Philip
No-one ever won by fronting the judges in tears, or saying your pavlova sank.
Call it an Eton Mess and serve it proudly.
This goes back to Rule Two – you don’t have to win, so long as you don’t lose.
Remember Philip, who could serve up burnt bacon and expound on the lovely aroma and crunchy texture.
And if you think it’s an unrealistic and shallow rule, remember this – the most successful chefs in the world aren’t just good cooks, they’re great marketers.
You’d never find Peter Doyle serving up a Snow Egg and apologising because the sides are a bit runny.
Rule 5. Don’t let the customers in early, and other restaurant blunders
There will always be a restaurant challenge – there were two last season.
The first one was a disgrace to the competition, with Devon going up for elimination based on letting customers in early, not because of his cooking. And then, getting eliminated despite another competitor pulling out because it was all too hard.
Still, Masterchef isn’t fair, or Poh would have won Season One. So anticipate a non-cooking challenge (or at least doing the non-cooking part), be nice to customers, don’t spill the soup and don’t let them in early.
Think of Rule Two – you’re allowed to stuff up, as long as three people stuff up worse.
Rule 6. It’s not Nigella Bites, it’s Kitchen Idol
Masterchef doesn’t just want to find the BEST AMATCHA COOK, it wants to find the best amateur cook who is marketable and can sell a swag of cookbooks.
Here’s a test – who can remember Courtney? Yep, blond girl, sassy. What could she cook? Umm.
Sharnee, Daniel, Kate, Dominic? Remember what they cooked? Didn’t think so.
The best Masterchef contestants don’t just know how to cook, they have a readily identifiable, and marketable, TV persona.
Jimmy? Curry. Callum? Desserts. Aaron? Mex and pasta (yes, I know, he occasionally seemed like he didn’t know how to cook it, but he was still good at promoting it). Claire? Gorgeous Frenchy stuff. Even hapless Jake was the fish boy.
Philip hung around for ages, I suspect not because he was any good at cooking Greek food (he was) but because his pieces to camera were so damn interesting.
Looking at it from pure strategic terms, if you make the final 24, you only have a one-in-24 chance of winning.
Having a marketable TV persona does two things – it keeps you in the competition for longer, and ensures that when you are knocked out you can start up your restaurant (Jimmy), or fish and chip shop (Jake), and have a ready-made client base.
One important, but largely unremarked bit of strategy, was Jono and Courtney playing it very safe in a late-season (seven left) Mystery Box challenge. Playing it safe is usually the kiss of irrelevance in Mystery Boxes, and sure enough, he didn’t make the top two. However, with two weeks to go he only had a 16 per cent chance of making the final two. So while you’re trying to win the competition, you also have to realise that the odds are very much against you.
Jono made sure he (a) positioned himself not to lose, and (b) positioned himself for his post-MC career, because you’re not going to do six months of TV hell for no return. His easy but elegant dish was enough to keep him safe and good advertising for his new restaurant (or at least for his future equity partners in the restaurant). Courtney did the same, positioning herself to headline a small bistro or her catering company post MC. Good, honest food – and she’s using her pieces to camera to ram that message home.
And Jimmy – like Chris Badenoch, no-one is ever going to look at Jimmy and doubt where his culinary heart lies. Jimmy was a one-trick pony, but he was pretty good at that trick. I actually reckon he’s got the greatest chance of selling a post-MC cookbook of all the contestants. Just don’t ask him to cook any the recipes in it under pressure.
Speaking of cookbooks, HAVE A COOKBOOK IDEA. It’s hilarious when you see the final four and they’re still struggling with the cookbook. It’s important – because it defines the winner.
Poh was the standout performer in Season One, but the minute Julie came out with her mumsy cookbook idea, it was obvious (if you believed in conspiracies) that she’d win, because it was more marketable, even if it should have been called “What do ya call these darl? Rissoles…”.
Rule 7. WWERD
Or, What Would Evil Russell Do.
This doesn’t mean being the villain of Masterchef in the same way Evil Russell Hantz got himself to the final two in two consecutive Survivors – although every show needs a villain, and the good villains tend to last longer, because the producers love them so much.
In pure Survivor terms, it means plotting and scheming.
Blog poster Chunks last year pointed out quite rightly that the appeal of Masterchef is nice people cooking, rather than nasty people strategizing.
But because of that appeal, a player with a smidgen of strategic nous could, and should, run amok through Masterchef – especially the off-screen parts. Sowing discord, forming alliances against the ugly kids, causing people to doubt their cooking skills – all would work.
- Final three and there’s a choice between doing the lamb or the fondant for the Governor General’s dinner. Evil Russell would not have allowed dessert specialist Callum to choose the fondant (especially when Callum was all but dancing naked around the chocolate singing “let me have it”). He would have clubbed the hapless boy and made him take the lamb, where he had a much better chance of stuffing up. Not that much better, but it’s all about placing your opposition in the worst position for them.
- Eliminations, where everyone seems to be shouting advice to the about-to-be eliminated below. Evil Russell would not do anything like shout the wrong information. He’s pass the wrong information to another person and let them shout it.
There was one good bit of WWERD in Season One, when Chris “Alfoil” Badenoch texted his girlfriend to make sure she’d talked the local Coles into getting in some sort of offal. Chris went far –again, I suspect, not so much because of his cooking skills but because he was a bad boy who the producers wanted to keep around.
If you’re a bad boy, you might even make it into the final two because of luck, plotting and some basic cooking skills.
The producers would never let you win, but who wants to win? If you win you get $100,000, a cookbook deal and some appearances on the Today Show.
Come second and you’ll get a cookbook deal anyway, and a nice little series on the ABC.
Rule 8. Cut the red wire
Because the Blue team is cursed. Always choose Red.