'I Have Been Guilty Of It Myself': Poh Ling Yeow Reveals What She Learned As MasterChef Judge

After competing in the MasterChef kitchen twice, no one was more equipped to step into the judging role than Poh Ling Yeow.

Appearing in the very first season of MasterChef Australia, Poh herself admits that she's proof "you don't have to win to win". Going on to make a massive career from her time on Season 1, she returned for Season 12, Back to Win, alongside other favourites from the series.

Understanding the highs and lows of the competition (and the prime positions to take while waiting for cakes to bake), Poh has now stepped up to the challenge on the other side of the bench as one of the four judges for Season 16.

"The thing that appealed to me the most is that I've been there before," Poh told 10 Play, "I've been in their position. Twice!"

"Even though I came sixth in Back to Win, It's only one more week of competition by then, it's very close to the end. So I've gone through almost the whole cycle twice and I feel like I have so much detailed knowledge to offer," she continued. "I love connecting with people, so I thought that would be a cool thing to do for this next generation of home cooks."

Poh also knows what it means to make mistakes in the MasterChef kitchen, and how easy it is to do, so she's already sympathetic to the contestants before the challenges have even begun.

"I love being able to relate to them so deeply on that level," she admitted. "I get so emotional in that kitchen because it has given me so much, and that feeling will never leave me.

"Some of the most life-affirming moments in my life have been in that kitchen," Poh said.

With a few weeks under its belt, Season 16 has already shown some mighty confident home cooks tackling big challenges and plating up restaurant-worthy dishes.

When a plate of food arrives at the judging table, Poh's criteria for what makes a successful dish is quite succinct. Laughing, she explained, "I just go, hmm... is that yummy? "I don't really care too much about the way it looks, I care about how it's going to eat together and whether it's tasty."

Poh explained that you can really tell a lot about someone by what they bring to the table, and even more so you get a sense of where they are in their heads.

"I can see when they steer themselves off-course because they think they're delivering something that we want to see, but we don't want to see anything except awesome food. Sometimes they can overthink it."

If contestants try to cater their dishes to what they think makes a 'MasterChef-worthy' dish, often they stumble and plate up something inauthentic to their voice.

"If they’re veering all over the place trying to please us or some notion of being impressive, they’re not anchored by their own conviction and if you’re not anchored by your own conviction, you never find your style," Poh continued. "That’s what they’re there to do. We want to see you find your style, your vibe, and what you want to say about and with food."

During her two stints in the kitchen as a competitor, Poh cooked dishes from across the world, she baked cakes and created sweets, and she cooked up flavourful savoury. It's not about sticking to one thing necessarily but putting your spin on dishes that interest you as a chef.

"I was always wanting to show off technique and versatility but that's not always smart either," Poh laughed, "I was always hellbent on being the 'cleverest' but if I didn't deliver, the person who cooked a simpler, more perfect dish would win and I'd get really frustrated and think there was some corruption in the judging process."

Only now, serving as a judge, Poh realised how "hardcore and incorruptible" the judging process is.

"I was constantly bitching about it," she said, bursting out laughing. "There are always whispers and conspiracy theories about the judging process and I need to put it out there -- because I have been guilty of it myself -- being a judge is so difficult, especially when someone is being eliminated, it's a really serious decision to make.

"We hash it out sometimes, painstakingly, trying to break down every element," Poh added. "Even though a dish looks perfect, the seasoning could be completely off. And then there's something ugly but the seasoning was spot on. So what do we value? It's very, very stringent. It's not about the person, it's always about the dish that day.

"You can’t judge it on past success or future potential, it’s literally what’s in front of us. Especially if that person you are eliminating has shown incredible potential and has been a forerunner in the past but they just cook this dud dish that day. It’s really hard to not be emotional in the decision-making process."

Over the years, Poh has dropped into the MasterChef kitchen as a guest chef or a mentor, but now as a full-time judge, she's reveling in being able to see the growth of the contestants throughout their whole journey.

"They kind of become your children in a way," she said, adding that she still calls Matt, George, and Gary her 'three dads'. Now a proud parent of 22 hopeful home cooks, Poh stands alongside returning judge Andy Allen as well as newcomers Sofia Levin and Jean-Christophe Novelli.

Poh had assumed there would be a great deal of feedback from the producers of the show about what they wanted from each of the judges, but she was shocked when it was left up to the judges themselves.

"The producers had been very reluctant to give us too much feedback, which I found unnerving because I'm needy," she laughed. "In the end, I understood why, because we had to carve out our dynamic on our own.

"We had to figure out what our niches were going to be, I think they wanted 'the essence of us' to shine through, and they didn't want us to be presenter-y hosts, they wanted our personality to come through.

"As unnerving as it had been, it made me feel they really trusted that I could do it."

MasterChef Australia continues Sunday - Wednesday at 7.30 pm on 10 and 10 Play