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‘If Not Now Then When?’: The MasterChef Australia Judges Explain How COVID Brought Them The Best Cooks Ever

From social distancing to following your dreams, the MasterChef judges explain how 2020 inspired some of the best cooks ever to join the competition.

Speaking to 10 play ahead of the Season 13 premiere of MasterChef Australia, judges Melissa Leong, Jock Zonfrillo, and Andy Allen looked back at 2020 and COVID’s unlikely hand in bringing many of the contestants to the competition.

“I’ve said this a couple of times — 2020 was a deeply clarifying year for all of us on some level,” Melissa said.

During the year, many people who already had established careers in their chosen fields began to reevaluate their paths, and when applications opened for the upcoming season, many saw it as a sign to finally follow their passion.

“Burning inside them is the big ‘What if?’ question,” Melissa added. “I love food so much, what if I gave it all upland made this my life? So it’s with a deep amount of respect that we receive each and every one of these contestants because they have put their whole lives on the table to see what will happen if this works for them.”

When COVID escalated last year, MasterChef Australia was one of the few shows globally to be able to continue shooting due to strict social distancing and regulations introduced, many of which will continue into this season.

But it wasn’t just the show that was affected, the food and restaurant industry felt the immediate effects of COVID, with many shutting their doors for good, unable to survive in a world that saw everyone isolating at home.

Jock noted the difference in the risk many contestants are taking this year. Comparing it to last year’s season of Back to Win where returning contestants knew what they were getting themselves into and had reputations and large followings on social media, Jock said the contestants this year were risking a lot more, but doing so to chase their dreams.

“This season we’ve got people who have been serious professionals who this year decided, hang on a second, I’m trying to tell my kids to follow their dreams, but I’m stuck in a job and after ten years I’m not really happy.

“If not now, then when?”

Andy jokingly added, “I was thinking about applying again.”

The Season 4 winner added, “If they were ever going to do it it was going to be this year, after what happened last year. We’ve got all the more talent on the show but they’ve got all the more to lose are well because they’ve been thinking and dreaming about this for such a long time.

“They do it for this love of food, this passion for food,” Andy continued. “There is a lot on the line for a lot of them, and it’s such a unique position to have all of these guys on the season because of what we went through last year. There’s just another layer to the show.”

Having won his season back in 2012, Andy credits MasterChef for giving him “everything that I have”. And despite it being almost a decade since he walked through the doors of the MasterChef kitchen, there is no escaping the stresses of the competition.

Teasing a challenge they had just filmed, Andy said, “I woke up at 1 am last night and from 1 until about 3:30 in the morning I was just replaying what happened over again, how it could be better and who could have done what.

“It was like two and a half hours of just staring at the roof… I shouldn’t do that!”

Jock tries to deal with his stress in a different way, with the worry beads he uses during intense challenges in the kitchen.

“There’s a number of episodes where they’ll burst all over the floor,” Jock said as the other judges laughed.

“It is genuinely stressful,” Melissa agreed. “When you watch people in varying degrees of stress and frantic behaviour trying to finish their dish and get something on the plate that they can stand up and be proud of, you feel for each and every one of them every single time.

“How can you not respect it when you see people challenge after challenge put all of themselves into that cook, whatever it happens to be, they’re all in.”

The new season of MasterChef Australia premieres Monday, April 19 at 7.30 on 10 and 10 play