Cooking began in the open, says Justin Bonello, and the challenges are unlimited.
With the first series of the Ultimate Braai Master, celebrity bush cook Justin Bonello inducted the first batch of South Africans into the world of reality TV cooking shows. Fifteen teams of two contestants covered 8 000km and 13 locations around Southern Africa in a 52-day outdoor cooking roadshow that involved “extreme cuisine” and gruelling challenges. Auditions for a second season are now underway.
The first series excelled at showing off, TV fashion, the beauty of South Africa, with colours boosted in post-production and tumid Carmina Burana-style music. The format of an escalating tournament with elimination rounds had the suspense, judging and rewards of shows such as Master Chef.
There were elements of Survivor, as when in the fourth episode Bonello told contestants that it was very likely they could be bitten by a snoek, which has anti-coagulant mucus; in the event of that happening, they would have to burst one of its eyeballs and rub it on the wound. Some challenges, such as dishing out huge, whole catfish for braaing, evoked Iron Chef.
But, even for an arch sceptic of reality television, there was something more honest about Ultimate Braai Master compared with most reality TV shows, which are notorious for their misleading editing and hidden scripting. In a departure from the norm, Braai Master had a sense of generosity and bonhomie among the competitors; the finalists even made a pact to share a portion of the prize money.
Bonello, the man behind the series, is similarly down to earth, despite his meteoric career — a dozen books and TV series and more in the pipeline. He is sporty, slightly rugged, loquacious but also discerning, alert and cultivated — more metro-oke than metrosexual.
He insists he is a cook, not a chef. “I’ve never said I’m anything else.” A chef “is trained to give you an experience. I can just give you an experience”. When he was growing up, he was “lucky” in that his family went away a lot, and he was the one who went diving for abalone, harvesting mussels and fishing. His grandmother taught him to make pancakes at the age of six.
I ask Bonello what he looks for in participants. “I’ve discovered that five-tenths of the protagonists we use in content will develop ego, and ego is the killer for me … If they can retain the humility, then I’ll use them again.”
And in the contestants? “Obviously they have to be able to cook but, then again, it’s television and there has to be the entertainment element.”
Aspirant braai masters have to be screened and must answer an on-line questionnaire. For the first series, one question was: How would you cook a warthog? “Venison is notoriously difficult to cook but the minute I saw the third red wine and pineapple recipe, I knew it was cutting and pasting from the internet, and there is no skill set involved in that.
“I boiled it down to one point — generally, the contestants were the one within their circle of friends who was the braai master … the gregarious one, the life and soul of the party.”
After a few days, the contestants forget about the camera.
Now that people have seen series one, won’t things be different, I ask.
“I think people were scared by the calibre of what was produced [in series one].” But, says Bonello, people shouldn’t be discouraged; those contestants improved enormously during the filming from having to cook every day and going through the challenges under pressure. They developed their expertise in leaps and bounds.
Getting it right
I say that there must have been an enormous temptation to manipulate the show, especially in the South African context, to get the demographics right for the TV audience. Series one ended with three pairs of whites. “Yes, you can skew things in reality television but, if you blow your integrity …” He shakes his head. “We have an obligation with the contestants to tell the truth … Only you can make yourself look bad … We don’t construct.
“We really wanted Nqobani and Mbuso [Mlagisi] to go through but there was nothing I could do … at the end of the day it’s who did the best.”
Looking ahead, I wonder what is left to braai in the second series. Bonello laughs. He says almost anything can be done on the braai. “We’ve been cooking in the outdoors from time immemorial … There’s an alchemy behind food … You can do an Eggs Benedict on the braai!”
Indeed, before electricity and gas, fire was the stove. And the fire, like Bonello’s own flair, gives it something unique.
Find entry forms online at ultimatebraaimaster.com no later than Friday February 15. Filming will start in May with the Ultimate Braai Master 2013 series premiering on SABC3 in spring this year.