Do you think MasterChef Australia has changed over the years? How would you describe the evolution of the show?
I think it’s become very comfortable in its skin. It’s the biggest cooking competition in the world because of where it’s watched; it’s watched in 95 countries even though it’s an amateur cooking competition. It’s turned into a big thing, and I think it’s very comfortable with that, it’s very comfortable with taking amateur cooks who are great in their own kitchens and bridging the gap to the professional world.
The very first season was a thrill because we’d never seen anything like this in Australia and as the years have gone on it’s just got better and better, and I think it’s a lovely snapshot of Australia’s love for food and Australia’s growing reputation for great food. What I mean by that is we’re eating different cuisines all the time; we’re eating Lebanese on a Monday and Thai on a Tuesday, Laotian on a Thursday, and roast chook on a Friday, and that multiculturalism is expressed beautifully in our food culture. What we’ve seen on the show is a reflection of Australia’s love for food.
… and also a reflection of the diversity of Australia?
Yeah, without a doubt. We’re very proud of that and we’re very comfortable with that now. Twenty years ago, if you asked the average Australian what our food culture was I think they’d struggle to put a label on it. We wanted to label it, you know, it was important for us to label our food identity, because we could look overseas and say, “I love Italian Food” or “I love French Food, it’s so romantic and wonderful.” So, we were calling ourselves sort of “Pan Asian” or you know, “Pacific Rim” or trying to be all about “Bush Tucker” rather than “Indigenous” back then. Now we’re really confident and comfortable with the fact that diversity is what makes our culinary landscape so wonderful.
Most people have a favourite part of the show – Pressure Test, Mystery Box, Team Challenge etc. As a chef and judge, what element of the show do you enjoy the most?
It’s the Mystery Box, always. I love the Mystery Box because the true test of a clever cook, or a good cook, is to be able to take often seemingly disparate ingredients and see a dish in there. For me it’s like when you go to the shops or the market and see beautiful kale, or a chicken or a duck or some lemons or rhubarb and the ideas that pop into your head. That’s what the Mystery Box does, it challenges you, it challenges your culinary ‘library of recipes’ as such, it challenges your creativity, and it challenges your management of task and time. So if you give the contestants 15 minutes or 30 minutes, it’s about managing that task within that specific time. It’s not like cooking at home - it puts the contestants right under the magnifying glass. I love it.
It’s a challenge for us too, I mean George, Matt and I. As soon as the cameras are turned off us we’re thinking about what we would cook; what the hell are you going to do with those five ingredients, or do you select two? And sometimes we draw blanks too, and I think as a professional it’s always a fascinating. Which ingredient do I ignore, which ingredient do I focus on? It often ends up being a worse dish because you’ve added too many elements or you’ve taken it in a different direction. It’s also very exposing; I think being able to accept criticism or compliments is not something that you do in everyday life. It’s very unique to this kitchen in that everyday someone gives you feedback that is pointed at you and you have to carry it forward as a lesson.
What is one piece of advice can you give to this year’s contestants?
The standard thing I always say is that you’ve got to give yourself to the competition, you’ve got to surrender to the process, and you have to go in without any preconceptions. They’ve got to let the shackles go because once they do that, once they realise that the three of us [judges George, Gary and Matt] are not the be all and end all of the learning, once they realise that everyone around them contributes to their learning, once they realise they don’t know everything then the proper learning begins. And part of that is losing the fear of the kitchen, of criticism, of failure, of lots of things that often hold us back as adults in our real lives. Once they surrender to that it’s game on, it’s onwards and upwards.
And yeah, just leaving the ball and chain at the door. They don’t have anything else to worry about, they’re in this wonderful little MasterChef bubble that’s probably one of the greatest learning experiences in their lives. I often bump into people in the street who say, “I don’t think I could do it” and I say maybe they can’t but what’s the harm in trying? The first hurdle is just being willing to give something a go, and that’s what separates the MasterChef contestants from those who think that they could or think that they could be, but never try.