I place watching Ready Steady Cook just behind eating dirt on my list of things to do in a day, so I was understandably pretty cynical about MasterChef Australia. A cooking competition on television? Sounds about as much fun as French kissing over the phone. But cook me a whole pig and call me crazy, I was wrong. Channel Ten’s ratings behemoth has captured the imagination of Australian viewers over the past 11 weeks and become the most watched show on Australian television, with a total of 2.2 million viewers at its peak. The alchemy of its success is an interesting mix of hats, happenstance and a lack of Hot Dogs.

TV critic and host of weekly television podcast, Boxcutters, Josh Kinal, suggests it’s partly to do with Australian television viewers growing up. “We’ve had our fill of overt nastiness — it’s not entertaining anymore. For the moment, we’ve grown up beyond that.” This seems particularly apt in a time when many people are experiencing their own Survivor: Workplace. Which is not to say that MasterChef is all nicey-nicey. “We can still tell who hates who, but it’s almost a subtext. But good TV is still all about the characters.”

Kinal also says that the timing of the show is also important. “Having the show on at 7pm in non-daylight savings time means it’s already dark, we’re inside and there’s no guilt about sitting in front of the TV.” The lack of guilt contributes in other ways to the MasterChef success. It’s aspirational television — but without making us feel as though we should be running up a sand dune carrying a truck tyre.

MasterChef Australia also suits the zeitgeist. According to The Wall Street Journal, cookbooks are one of the rare items to defy recessionary trends and in the midst of the recession we’re having while we’re not having a recession, learning to cook is an affordable luxury. Further, Borders reports that “comfort food cookbooks” received a double-digit bump in sales in the US in 2008, so you can insert your own theories about how Julie’s unfinished servery stuff led to Chris getting the boot to go with hat last night.

But most simply, MasterChef is a success because food is something we all understand. We eat over 32,000 meals by the time we’re 30, so we might not know much about the art of cooking, but we know what we like. MasterChef engages viewers with its familiar reality TV language whilst giving us something more than a view of Hot Dogs in a spa flashing his hot dog.

Food is life — and MasterChef shows us all the passion, skill, drama and flavour that make it great. So roll on Sunday night — now, where’s my lunch?

Courteney Hocking is a Melbourne writer and comedian who believes Chris was robbed.