You’ve appeared on MasterChef many times over the years, but this season’s Heston Week is set to be the biggest yet. Can you sum it up in three words?
Epic, challenging, and unique.
Can you reveal any more about the upcoming world-first ‘Hidden Heston’ pop up restaurants that form the backbone of Heston Week this year?
The challenge for the contestants was to do a series of pop up restaurants in locations [around Melbourne]. Much like in the MasterChef kitchen, there was a theme to each pop up - something that they had to keep [in mind]. People came from far and wide to get involved and be a lucky diner at these pop ups. So the contestants were really put under pressure.
Each pop up has a theme – were these inspired by anything in particular?
Yes, the pop ups were inspired by an element, for example, one pop up might be inspired by savoury ice creams, or certain flavour combinations. Another pop up might be inspired by a particular century or a time in history. These are elements that have been become a foundation of my cooking, I suppose.
The first pop up, held at the Melbourne Star Observation Wheel, celebrates your love of all things science. Is there a strong connection between food, cooking and science?
Think about how heating, mixing, blitzing, chopping and tearing involves physics. There’s chemistry involved when you take compounds from ingredients and roast them, grill them, whatever. That physical action gets the molecules and atoms in those ingredients to react with each other to form new flavours and textures. Eating food is biology. You think about reading a recipe, that’s language. You’ve got weighing and measuring out ingredients, that’s math. The origin of the ingredients, that’s geography. Everything [science, language, math etc.] can be related back to food and cooking.
Did you or the contestants face any unexpected challenges?
Yes, for instance during the first challenge, the pods [on the Melbourne Star] move at a certain speed. I think the contestants had only about 45 seconds to deliver their dishes, so precision – as well as flavour – was key!
Can you tell us more about the second pop up at Brighton Beach?
It was about ice creams, because of the beach huts. The challenge was to create savoury ice creams – they had to be surprising and not confusing. One of my early memories wasn’t actually at the beach, but it was with ice cream. My granny, sister and I used to stop on the way home to get a tub of ice cream in a brown paper bag, but it was the longest walk home and we had to wait to get back home to eat it. Ice cream ended up being a massive part of my life. It led to my ice cream and crab risotto in 1997, which was the beginning of my fascination with food as an experience. I was fascinated with smoked salmon and crab ice cream, and people thought it was quite weird. It was perceived to be more salty because the description ‘ice cream’ set up the expectation that it was going to be sweet. To me, it was the beginning of realising that eating is a modern experience.
How was it working quite closely with this year’s Top 10?
It’s been fantastic, and this is my seventh season. I love doing MasterChef for many reasons, most of them selfish to be honest! I’ve got a big group of mates here, and it’s really nice from that point of view. I also love the challenge; there’s no other cooking competition like MasterChef. The challenges I created this season are diverse. MasterChef is definitely a competition where the contestants know that they have to work incredibly hard to show a wide range of skills to get through to this stage [the top 10].
The standard of the contestants seems to improve from season to season. Why do you think that is - could it be the popularity of shows like MasterChef or the Internet that make cooking more accessible?
All of those things. MasterChef was one of the main catalysts of the food explosion in Australia. I’ve never seen such a nationwide interest in food and cooking. Having said that, the Australian food and wine industry have been booming for years. But when MasterChef first launched it just engaged the whole nation. People always used to be high-brow about celebrity chefs and food on television, but I can say television is a really good medium for cooking. You can hear the food sizzling and see what something should look like when it’s cooking. We’re getting more and more people interested and turning more people into food critics because they’ve seen it on MasterChef. But all of this stuff is good because it just keeps raising the bar.
Speaking of MasterChef success stories, how did season seven winner Billie McKay go in your kitchen?
She’s been fantastic. She spent around six months with us at The Fat Duck to learn from team and become a part of it. She’s a talented cook who has a long career in food ahead of her.