Grosglik Samples Therapeutic Benefits of "Culinareality"

By Miguel A. Novoa Cipriani - "You are what you eat," as the old saying goes. But when individuals can learn about themselves and their collective identity specifically through the act of cooking, it may be more accurate to say "you are what you cook." On January 26, 2018, in a Department of Sociology-hosted talk titled "Cooking Your Self", Rafi Grosglik discussed the therapeutic benefits of cooking suggested by the Israeli version of MasterChef.

Imagine yourself streaming reality television shows during a lazy afternoon, suddenly catching sight of an elderly man crying over deviled eggs. You return. Now the man, a Holocaust survivor, tearfully embraces a weeping female chef as the camera turns to another male chef taking a seat in shock.

This dramatic display might seem abnormal to a casual viewer, but to Rafi Grosglik—a visiting assistant professor of sociology at UC Davis and an Israel Institute teaching fellow—this is just one example of events that regularly occur in MasterChef Israel. Having analyzed the show's first five seasons—a total of 110 episodes, each lasting about an hour and fifteen minutes—Grosglik posits that "MasterChef teaches us about the social and cultural meanings in the discourse of popular culture." 

Global "Culinareality"

MasterChef, which originated in the UK, is now broadcast in over 50 countries around the world. In each country, the show has been adapted to suit local tastes, creating a blend between the drama-filled reality television genre and cooking shows. Grosglik calls this genre "Culinareality."

Grosglik's research encompassed MasterChef versions from all over the world, leading him to realize the peculiarity of the Israeli edition. "In every country that MasterChef broadcasts, significant local issues are depicted," asserted Grosglik. Yet, only in Israel did the contestants and judges engage in overly jubilant behavior, including hugs, kisses, and joyful tears.

Crying is a particularly easy variable to compare, according to Grosglik. For example, in the United States version, the contestants cry when they lose. In the South Korean adaptation, contestants are immediately disqualified for crying. Nobody cries in the Russian version. 

Therapeutic cooking culture 

"Your mission today is to cook a self-portrait," ordered a chef in a video clip presented in Grosglik’s talk. The judging chefs act more like therapists than cooks, requiring contestants to prepare themselves in their plates. As the contestants "cook themselves," viewers are exposed to their personal stories, including themes such as divorce, drug addiction, and migration. Their problems are supposedly fixed through their cooking.

"Their internal identity, as well as their inner feelings and emotions, are all cooked and televised," said Grosglik.

This, he argues, is what earns the show its popularity in Israel, a country whose society is afflicted by historic and present traumas—particularly those pertaining to questions about individual and collective identity.

Rafi Grosglik"Israel has become an over-psychologized society," Grosglik said. "The global therapeutic discourse has become strongly combined with local culture. It motivates everyday life in Israeli society."

Cooking identity

In another clip presented in Grosglik's talk, one of the contestants proudly proclaims that his Indian samosa dish will include mashed carrots to reflect his character. "I'm sharp and spicy. I'm different. I am orange and I'm happy," the contestant announced. 

Food in Israel has traditionally carried additional nationalistic symbolism. Israelis take great pride in eating food sourced from their land. Grosglik explained that even early Israeli cooking shows indicated the importance of food reflecting a national character, with programs stressing the role of the Jewish housewife and the values of national cuisine.

MasterChef Israel also partakes in the shaping of individual and collective identities, encouraging both participants and viewers to define themselves through their cooking. This cultivates a sense of belonging, while also giving people a chance to shape their own sense of existence.

"My father is a second-generation Holocaust survivor,” Grosglik said. “He's a harsh person. He never cooked in his life. After watching MasterChef, he started to cook. I can definitely see from his experience that MasterChef becomes a part of a whole array of cultural aspects that fosters emotions." 

Beyond cooking

Grosglik plans to continue his research, possibly also using the show to compare multiple food cultures across the globe. Grosglik concludes that MasterChef is more than just a cooking show, allowing opportunities for more profound sociological studies about modern neoliberal society.

"It seems that the main ingredient in MasterChef is not only food," he concluded. "It constantly recruits powerful collective identities. It reflects individual life choices and re-asserts national boundaries and ethnic distinctions." 

This event was sponsored by the Department of Sociology and the UC Davis Jewish Studies Program. 

Learn more about Rafi Grosglik.