How Masterchefs can help us understand extreme poverty

Image: Jonah Pang, J.P Photography

Former Masterchef contestants Beau Cook, Alana Lowes, and Dani Venn fight over ingredients. (Image: Jonah Pang, J.Pang Photography)

Whenever I tell people about the Live Below the Line challenge, they always ask me whether eating on $2 a day is even possible.

My gut reaction is to explain to them that more than 1.3 billion people do it every day. And for people living in those circumstances, $2 often has to extend a lot further than food, in order to cover things such as healthcare, transport, and education.

While this information paints a horrible picture, it’s often a very difficult picture to actually imagine. Even after personally spending a good deal of time in sub-Saharan Africa, witnessing extreme poverty first hand, I still struggle to grapple with the severity of the issue.

In an effort to comprehend poverty from a completely different perspective, I decided to invite six former Masterchef contestants to see what they could cook on a limited budget. I gave them an imaginary $10 note and asked them to prepare a series of meals using only that money. Ten dollars was to represent five days worth of meals on the Australian equivalent of the extreme poverty, which is approximately $2.

On Friday 22 March, Alana Lowes, Dani Venn, Alice Zaslvasky, Tregan Spiteri, Beau Cook, and Keen Poon made their way to Birrarung Marr in Melbourne for the first ever Australian Live Below the Line Celebrity Cook-off.

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Tregan and Keen’s set of meals (Image: Jonah Pang, J.Pang Photography)

As I should have expected, the Masterchefs weren’t fazed by the challenge. Each team created a series of amazing dishes, which looked and tasted gourmet despite the cheap ingredients used and plastic plates on which they were served.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing though. In the lead-up to the event, one of the cooks requested I include fish and various seafoods as part of the foods on offer. I naturally agreed to fulfill his request, only to realise on the day that no fish or seafood could be purchased without breaking the bank. Accordingly, the selection of meats available was very slim; we could only afford to let our Masterchefs choose from a few slices of ham, a bit of mince, and a can of tuna.

Furthermore, when reiterating the rules prior to the commencement of the challenge, the contestants gave me a few panicked expressions.

When I revealed, for instance, that they couldn’t share ingredients with their competitors, I could sense that I had ruined a few of their cunning meal plans. Likewise, when I mentioned that each pinch of salt or pepper would incur an extra fee of five cents each, the contestants were forced to do some mental arithmetic to re-calculate their stingy cooking costs.

Even with these limitations, the cooks managed to pull off a masterclass. Indeed, their efforts demonstrated that Live Below the Line isn’t as difficult as it looks. They proved that participants in the $2-a-day challenge can not only dine on a series of different dishes, but some of them can be quite flavoursome.

Among Alice and Beau’s concoctions was a pizza that wouldn’t look out of place at one of those trendy Melbourne pizza joints. Tregan and Keen, meanwhile, used their leftovers to create a sea of tomato and chick peas to accommodate their hot meatball dish. Finally, Alana and Dani went even classier, opting for dumplings – albeit only three of them.

As impressive as their meals were, it is necessary to make two caveats.

The first catch is that we’re not all Masterchefs. As much as we try to convince ourselves ‘that our homemade chocolate omelettes are the best thing since traditional omelettes, most of us will never even make it through the first stage of Masterchef auditions.

The second catch is that we all like to eat three meals a day, and that doesn’t include snacks. With all due respect to the six contestants, it is unlikely any of their sets of meals could have sustained the average Australian over a whole week. Perhaps that says more about eating habits in Australia than the realities of poverty. Regardless, it takes careful planning and sacrifices for $10 to last a whole week.

For every creative cuisine you cook, there’s an after-dinner dessert you’ll have to give up. For every lunch meal worth uploading to Instagram, there will be a breakfast you will try hard to forget. 

While those moments of culinary genius make Live Below the Line enjoyable, those aren’t the moments you remember. Rather, it’s the busy mornings when you wake up to find nothing but a single piece of toast on your plate. Or it’s the evenings you spend with friends, when their oversized steak dwarfs your makeshift lentils and soup serving.

While Live Below the Line can’t offer you the experiences, nor the diets, of real poverty, that’s not the point. Rather, the challenge gives you a small taste of what poverty might feel like. You might only experience it for a day, or perhaps only for a moment. But it only takes you one moment to realise how fortunate you really are.

I wish to personally thank Nova-dmg radio, Everdure, Bright Young Things, Masters Box Hill, Woolworths QV, James Mason, Jonah Pang, David McGorlick, Mandeep Singh, and all the celebrity chefs for their generosity and support in making this event a success.

To help Live Below the Line reach its target of $2.5 million, you can make a friendly donation at www.livebelowtheline.com.au/me/kevinhawkins

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The table of bargains (Image: Jonah Pang, J.Pang Photography)

Dani Venn, Tregan Spiteri, Beau Cook, Keen Poon, Alice Zaslavsky, and Alana Lowes (Image: Jonah Pang, J.Pang Photography)

Dani Venn, Tregan Spiteri, Beau Cook, Keen Poon, Alice Zaslavsky, and Alana Lowes (Image: Jonah Pang, J.Pang Photography)

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