As Master Chef prepares to launch back onto screens on Monday 19th April, B&T had the opportunity to speak to the show’s hosts, food critic Melissa Leong and chefs Jock Zonfrillo and Andy Allan, who won the show’s fourth season.
The three judges first appeared on last year’s Masterchef: Back To Win, which saw returning contestants compete for the crown.
For the judges, this season is particularly exciting because it’s their first with complete amateurs.
Allen reflected: “For me, this feels like season one – I know that sounds weird. But we’ve got amateurs, and we’ve never done the whole amateur cooks before. So it was just a different situation with Back To Win when we had guys who had been on the show and gone into the industry and really honed in on their skill and their craft….whereas this is what Masterchef is all about.”
“Seeing someone walk through the doors as one thing, and walk out the doors as a totally different thing – both in how they cope and how they are as people.”
For Leong, hosting the show – which is now in its 13th season – is both “a great honour” and “such a lot of fun.”
“I mean, we talk about it all of the time,” she said.
“I don’t think Jock or Andy or I come to work any day without thinking, “Is this really work?” We get paid to talk about food and eat food all day. It’s a dream come true for us.”
“To be able to judge food is a lot of fun, but there’s also a very real sense that this is someone’s life; that this is someone’s work…so you have to judge it with a deep sense of reverence and respect for what they’ve put in.”
When asked about how COVID has transformed Australia’s appetite (pun intended) for food shows and cooking more generally, Zonfrillo pointed out that people have returned to the kitchen partly because they had to. But, in his words, “there’s been a lot of weird shit, right?”
He pointed to the viral tomato and fetta pasta that made the rounds on TikTok a few months ago.
“Someone said to me the other day, “have you tried to do the fetta and tomato thing?” and I was like, “mate, jump on Ten Play and download any one of thirteen seasons worth of amazing recipes”…I think while COVID might have forced people into the kitchen initially, the novelty of that wore off pretty quick. People realised that yeah, cooking is only fun if I’m interested in doing it because I enjoy doing it.”
“I’m enjoying seeing that part of it now, Instagram full of people who are getting really good at making stuff in particular and seeing that content, as opposed to the beginning of COVID where we saw a lot of really dodgy foods.”
Leong agreed that the lockdown had given people an opportunity to ‘Masterchef themselves’, so to speak.
“I think it was a great opportunity for a lot of people to really investigate things that they had bookmarked for later.”
“I would rather see people being obsessed with learning how to cook or mastering a new food technique than…doing things that are counterproductive to their own sort of sense of humanity, and a healthy sense of who they are and what they do with their lives. So food is a great healer, and we’ve seen that in so many ways. It’s a way of answering emotional questions within ourselves.”
All three judges made sure to emphasize that Masterchef is an incredibly transformative experience for all the contestants, whether you come first or twenty fourth.
“It’s given me everything,” Allan said. “10 years ago, I was an electrician. So that puts it in perspective pretty, pretty massively. I take that with a big amount of respect. Because if it wasn’t for Masterchef, I probably would be still an electrician, I definitely wouldn’t be in food, because I just wouldn’t know how to get there.”
“I just feel very invested to give that back to the 24 contestants with everything that I have, to make sure that they get the best out of this situation as they possibly can. Because it is a life-changer for each and every one of them, not the person who wins, not the person who comes second, but from one to 24. They now have the opportunity to change their life. I really do feel quite really privileged, but also [I also have] a sense of responsibility to make sure that that they can get the most out of this experience.”
Zonfrillo agreed, “it changes 24 lives, and it starts them on a journey of food that they chose to go on. For me, certainly, I’ve been in professional kitchens for 30 years and Masterchef is just one of many ways that I’m able to give back, to show people, and help and guide them, in a way where they can find the beginning of their journey in food.”
On why Masterchef has remained so popular after airing on TV for over a decade, Leong put it succinctly.
It’s “because the hero is food.”
Then, she elaborated, “through that is the stories of the people whose lives have changed because of it – their family history, their culture, their pride – it all comes from that. It’s that unifying thing. Food connects us all, regardless of where we’ve come from in the world, what our personal backstory is. If you love food, then then we have something in common.”
For Allan, there was another core answer: “the production.”
“The production is so slick, but it’s so caring. They contribute so much more than us and, they contribute so much for the contestants [and] to making this show what it is.”
10’s Executive Producer for Masterchef Rick Maier said that part of the show’s success was the original promotion of Masterchef as a season.
“It’s that great feeling of being with friends and family that comes as we head into winter. That’s always stuck with me. The show generates emotion. The contestants generate engagement – this is not a show about conflict – it’s about encouragement, nurture, inclusiveness and growth.”
The 13th season of Masterchef will premiere on Monday 19th April.
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