Mystery boxes, immunity challenges and pressure tests: oh my!

At the end of 2018, I started watching Masterchef Australia. I don’t really know why it took me so long to start, but it was the re-ignition of my love for food and cooking, and since then, I’ve watched all but I think three seasons (Season 1, 3 and 4) – mostly because I couldn’t find a good stream of them (ahem, nothing dodgy to see here, honest). I’ve been watching the most recent one, and there is quite a challenge because I follow a lot of the contestants on instagram, so I often accidentally spoil the elimination episode for myself – my totally legit source of episodes has about a 12-24 hour delay on the broadcast.

This means that I am contemplating not going on instagram at all this coming weekend… because it is the finale!

The thing I love about cooking is the opportunity to experiment and explore, to encounter different cultures and cultural histories into my life, to nourish myself and my loved ones… To learn new things. What I love about MasterchefAU in general is that the contestants come from home situations – they are home cooks who are *misty-eyed expression* making their dreams come through. I get that it’s a reality show, so it is probably a lot more scripted than I would like to think, but that’s okay. This season in particular is awesome, because it is the ‘Back to Win’ group of contestants, going up against other top performers from past seasons. These people have all done really well after their Masterchef stint – they are killing it in terms of making their dreams come true – and are back for more.

If you haven’t watched Masterchef AU before, they have certain frequent challenges, including a Mystery Box (usually containing 8 themed ingredients), Immunity Challenge, and the Pressure Test. Each of these sets up particular constraints and a brief for the cooks to follow. The Mystery Box usually requires working with a very limited pantry, while the Immunity Challenge pits the contestants against each other to show off their skills within a theme. The Pressure Test usually requires the contestants to reproduce a world-class chef’s dish on a tight timeline.

All of these are really interesting as a viewer, and I’ve certainly learned some methods I’ve tried in my own kitchen. But I also want to try these approaches in other forms of my creativity.

What does a writing-related Mystery Box look like? Is it writing to an unfamiliar prompt, or one that doesn’t feel comfortable somehow? Writing beyond one’s comfort zone is, you know, most of what writing is. You’ve got to make the most of the situation you’re given, and the materials at your disposal. This might look like whipping up a masterpiece, but it might look like working on something small, reliable and foolproof. The mystery box requires making a plan and making do – working with some reliable components and some odd ones, and working hard to get a sense of harmony. The time is also usually tight, so you can’t overthink your creativity; just get going and see where creativity takes you.

So what’s a writing immunity challenge then? If a mystery box is a willingness to tackle the unknown, and work with limited themes and rigid constraints, then maybe working for immunity is doing something you know you are good at, and refining it further than before. The other thing about the immunity challenge is that the challenge is always creating against another competitor. In terms of writing, why don’t we reframe that in terms of writing against a different version of yourself? I am just a tad competitive, so setting up a competition in which I try to outwrite myself is good for progress.

And what about a writing pressure test? Well, in the show, a pressure test is the perfect reproduction of a star’s dish. So could a pressure test be something like breaking down and analysing a favourite writer’s work so you can learn new techniques? I’ve done a little of this in the past to learn how to write in styles that aren’t my natural voice. Most recently, I’ve seen this as the ‘Benjamin Franklin’ writing process: he decided he wanted to learn how to write well, so he devised a method of paraphrasing and rewriting an essay from his favourite publication. He would rewrite and compare his version to the original, noting where he could have done better. But that wasn’t enough – then he would rewrite the text in verse, and then back into prose. I’ve thought about doing this for a while, and I’ve got as far as paraphrasing a snippet of some Pratchett. Don’t be too surprised if you get Magrat Garlick in poem form at some point, is all I’m saying.

No matter the challenge or the constraints that shape the creativity, you have to try your best. The contestants, well, they teach you that you win some, you lose some. Some dishes are stunning, and some just… fail. Don’t set. Burn. Or may be totally okay, but just not tasty. Good cooking is the practice of, well, practice. You can’t get better if you don’t show up, hand on a cook’s knife. You will make some messes, and have some disasters that you can’t even feed to the dog. But those will get fewer and farther between.

I’ve been feeling that with my writing over the last month-plus that I’ve been writing daily. Sometimes, it’s not great, and I feel a bit meh that I have to post it or lose my streak. But other days, I feel proud of my writing. And I have a few amazing friends who have messaged me to say they are reading and enjoying my random scribbles. So I’ll keep showing up, in faith that sometimes the writing will go badly, but slowly I will improve. I’ll tie my writing apron on, get my hands dirty by chopping up some juicy words, saute the aromatics of grammar or sentence structure, and… have I stretched this metaphor too far?

Happy cooking!


  1. Anique says:

    Mystery Box Challenge for you…
    Flash fiction: 400 words
    Narration: First person, 25 year-old male
    Setting: A theme park
    Theme: Anger
    Must also include a symbol of some sort

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Laura M. says:

      You’re on! Will send you a link to the outcome as soon as it is written 🙂


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