SINGAPORE — This month of March marks the first anniversary of Singapore’s Circuit Breaker—a Singaporean variation of a full lockdown where 90% of public services were forced shut save for selected F&B establishments and essential services. It was a time when all schools were ordered closed, and office workers switched to work-from-home arrangements when workplaces had to cease operations.
Faced with the prospect of staying home all day, and with only that many Netflix shows one can watch, Singaporeans quickly turned to two activities that have come to succinctly represent the zeitgeist of March to July 2020–exercising and cooking.
In fact, there is no effect more collectively significant and astutely felt than when ordinary Singaporeans—some of whom were let go due to the nature of their jobs that depended on international travel—donned the proverbial apron and re-learned skills one needs to cook up a feast for the family. The braver ones took it one step further by setting up home-based businesses to cater to a burgeoning demand of customers doing their national duty of #supportinglocal.
2018 vs 2021
While home cooking and keeping active have come to represent everything pre-Phase 3, it is MasterChef Singapore Season 2 that, for me, is symbolic of all things post Phase 3. With an increased awareness of the intricacies of cooking, we can all now watch Season 2 of MasterChef Singapore with a heightened acuity, easily discerning the difference between sous-vide and blanching and knowing why steaks need to sufficiently rest before being sliced. We have YouTube, you know.
Unlike in 2018 during MasterChef Singapore’s inaugural season, the audience of Season 2 in 2021 is more learned and knowledgeable about cooking methods and kitchen jargon—things once reserved solely for chefs in restaurants and the astute amateur. We no longer watch home cooks gather in a studio to battle it out against the big clock simply because we’re a sucker for emotional crescendos. We do it because we can now confidently tsk-tsk Trish's and Inch Chua's risky attempt at creating Char Siew Pork Belly and Paella, respectively, in under forty minutes.
Although it might be a tad premature to conclude, watching the first episode of Season 2 convinced me that food would be under sharper scrutiny by the judges and the general TV-watching audience. The days of being swayed by the emotional narrative of a contestant’s background story, like we did in Season 1, is long over. Sans pandemic, perhaps that would pass as entertainment, but as home cooks ourselves who have toiled over a stove and one oven too many during our time in lockdown, we, the audience, know better.
A TV show with roots in sympathy & empathy
You must find it strange, all this analysis I’m doing for a one-hour Sunday night program. My investment in MasterChef comes from the fact that we have been so bad at making good TV that when it comes to Singapore reality shows, nothing comes close to the kind of influence and entertainment mastery MasterChef Singapore has achieved.
More recently, there was that disaster of a show, Singapore Social, which premiered on Netflix and gained notoriety for being entirely out of touch with the authentic Singaporean experience. The brickbats were, in some ways, beneficial to Singapore Social's publicity efforts—after all, any press is good press.
Balancing the New Normal:
But what Season 2 of MasterChef Singapore has achieved to aplomb is take the empathetic and human-centred experience of watching ordinary Singaporeans falter (and succeed) under pressure and combine it with this nation’s familiar and endearing pastime of eating.
Three years on, that formula has changed little. We sympathise with the contestants' struggle, like in the shellfish showdown when Season 2’s Aiman forgot to include the sauce so crucial to the dish in his final plating, while we rejoice in the methodical madness of Derek’s dessert extravaganza, which received effusive praise from judge, Bjorn Shen: “It’s not just well-executed, it’s well-conceptualised and impeccable.”
Dishes that embrace culture, heritage, and minimalism
An encouraging shift in direction that I’ve noticed is in the type of dishes contestants make for the showdowns and head-to-head in episode 1. In 2018, there was a clear culinary direction centred around fusion creations—the coming together of two cooking methods or ingredients to create one cohesive presentation.
In Season 2, the dishes on display take on a trend that is more fiercely embracing of culture and heritage, with a decidedly minimal approach that is more reflective of the gastronomical sensibilities of the food scene in Singapore today.
Dentist, Oon, for instance, chose to present a simple Red Velvet Eclair in the showdown of desserts while tutor, Leon, made a Lemon Cheesecake with Matcha Meringue. Both of them received white aprons, finding themselves in the prestigious company of 10 other home cooks who have moved on to the top 12.
Bringing MasterChef Singapore into 2021
While on the topic of culinary zeitgeist, it would be great if one of the challenges centres around plant-based meats, seeing how we are more cognizant of the effect meat has on the body and the planet. The burgeoning presence of affordable plant-based products in supermarkets are also a sure sign that it’s a movement whose trendy disposition has since expired, moving into the kitchens of ordinary Singaporeans slowly but surely as a daily staple.
Another growing trend MasterChef Singapore should embrace is vegetarian cuisine. I’ve had the pleasure of having some fantastic vegetarian food over the past year that eschews Instagram-worthy aesthetics for a plate that is a feast for the mouth and not for the eyes. After all, what could be more inclusive?
If it’s not already obvious, I’m pumped for Season 2 of MasterChef Singapore and not only because I’ve interviewed one of the contestants, Vasun, for this publication before.
Based solely on episode 1, I am curious to see if Derek’s Engineering background would prove advantageous or an unfortunate Achilles heel with all its precise measurements and mathematical accuracy. Will Inch Chua’s “culinary art is also a type of art” disposition take her far or is she but a Jack of all trades and master of one—performing?
And then there's Nor, whose crying during the judges' critique worries me. You are a fantastic cook, Nor—don't let a nagging imposter syndrome stand between you and greatness.
Here’s to a great Season 2 of Masterchef Singapore. This year’s tagline is 'We're back, better than ever', and in many ways, I cannot help but to wholeheartedly agree.
Watch MasterChef Singapore Season 2 here.
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