'I Wanted To Continue What We Started': Andy Allen Opens Up About Returning To The MasterChef Kitchen

Returning to the kitchen that changed his life, Andy Allen admits it wasn't an easy decision.

Following the tragic death of his mate and fellow judge Jock Zonfrillo, Andy had a big decision ahead of him, if he wanted to return to the kitchen where it all began.

"In the lead-up to filming I was pretty nervous," Andy told 10 Play. "I didn't know how I would be able to cope but once I got in there, once I saw the fresh faces of contestants and was surrounded by Poh, Sofia, and Jean-Christophe... those emotions were still there but it was in a much more positive light.

"I was questioning whether I would come back but, looking back, I think if I didn't do it I would regret that so much."

Having won Season 4 of MasterChef Australia, and returning in Season 12 as a judge alongside Jock and Melissa Leong, Andy knows firsthand how the competition can change lives. And while it was a difficult decision to return this year, there was one factor that made the choice a little easier.

"It was Jock. It was continuing on what we wanted to achieve with MasterChef," Andy said.

"We really did enjoy the mentorship and that aspect of our job is what we took so much pride in. Being in the hospitality industry, knowing how tough it is to find good quality staff and how rewarding it is when you are successful in the industry.

"Our challenge was to get as many contestants to come through those doors and walk out joining the hospitality industry as we could," Andy added. "That's still my main focus, and I came back for that reason. I wanted to continue what we started."

For Season 16, Andy is joined by fellow MasterChef alum Poh Ling Yeow, multi-Michelin Star and award-winning chef Jean-Christophe Novelli, and food writer and critic Sofia Levin. Each arriving at the judging table with lifetimes of experience and diverse backgrounds in the food industry, Andy said the chemistry was instant.

"I've said it before but, even when Jock, Melissa, and myself were the new judges, the MasterChef kitchen brings out the best in people. There's an energy that is indescribable, so much passion, happiness, and positivity that you just can't help but get swept up in it.

"We're all so different, we've all got different strengths, but that's what creates a dynamic group of judges," he continued.

"I know what it's like to come into something that a lot of people are thinking, 'Hmm, I wonder how that will go', and I'm really proud of the way they've handled themselves and slotted into their roles seamlessly."

This year, 22 contestants will walk through the MasterChef kitchen doors, vying for the top prize and the glory of joining the winners' circle. And Andy says that they could be the best cooks yet.

"I feel like you get caught saying this every year but I couldn't be more sincere," he laughed, "I think this is the best food we've seen from day one and the best food we see at the end of the season as well.

"Sometimes the standard is high at the start, but the growth isn't that dramatic. This year, we've got really, really strong cooks -- the best I feel we've ever had. But the growth is still exceptional.

"Food-wise it's something else," Andy continued. "Even Jamie Oliver said this is the best food he's seen in the kitchen. He was part of the show last year, and he said these guys have set such a high bar. He challenged them to continue to get better and, mate, they absolutely crushed it."

So what makes a dish a success in Andy's eyes? "Flavour. My biggest thing is flavour," he explained. "Balance is such a buzzword when you're cooking but it really is the be-all and end-all of a great dish.

"It has to look good but, for me, it's all about how the dish tastes."

This year, Andy also said there were a few cooks who were in the process of discovering whether the dishes they grew up eating were 'worthy' of the MasterChef arena.

"That's what we love! We love to be introduced to their story and the food behind that story," Andy said. "It's so satisfying when a contestant feels comfortable in that because that food is totally worthy. If punters were looking at it and could taste and feel that story like we did, and have, it's really moving and makes some of the best food we eat in the kitchen."

Ultimately, Andy says it isn't necessarily about winning -- it's about getting in those doors and soaking up as much of the experience as you can.

"It doesn't matter whether you walk out first or you stand there and lift that trophy, you're part of the family," he said. "It is a bit of a cliche, but it's exactly that, a family.

"You're given the access to get out in the industry... chase those dreams and really be successful," he continued. "For some people, it's just the spark that they needed. They might have questions or doubts, but the MasterChef kitchen is a place that pushes that aside and gives you a pathway to chase those dreams."

MasterChef Australia premieres Monday, April 22 at 7.30pm on 10 and 10 Play