MasterChef means a lot of things to different people; some respond more to the food, some more to the human element. What does it mean to you?
Other than an excuse to wear really cool clothes - and it sounds really daggy to say it - but it's helping people achieve their dreams. It’s as simple as that. MasterChef inspires what we try to do as judges and mentors. What makes us proudest is when [people like ex-contestant] Georgia Barnes come in and tell us about their next few projects, or when we're able to go to one of the best restaurants in the world and see one of our alumni – not even the winner or the runner up – standing next to the head chef. That ridiculous kind of thrill that maybe primary school teachers get when they see one of their students walking on the moon or climbing Everest. It’s incredibly satisfying and that’s what brings me back year after year.
Viewers are chomping at the bit to meet this year’s MasterChef hopefuls. What can we expect?
More great cooks with big potential to develop, and with absolutely tangible food dreams. You want to see these people make something in the industry. I think you’re going to see more great food but there’s some real shocks and surprises. Things change fast which makes it very exciting. They’re a really nice group; they’re broad in their backgrounds and experiences, from the 18 year old student all the way through to middle-aged highly successful professional. It’s interesting to see how they prosper. Basically, we want to see them produce really good food that makes viewers wish they were in either mine, George or Gary’s shoes.
Why do you think the standard of contestants continues to improve season to season?
As judges and viewers we have to recalibrate and reset our senses at the beginning of a new season. The last time we watched MasterChef was the grand finale, with the year’s two best cooks going head to head. That’s our memory of Billie McKay doing the sugar bowl, or Georgia Barnes and her amazing mushroom dish. Now we have to recalibrate because we’re back at the beginning of the season. What we’re looking for at this stage is something as simple as it is tasty. It doesn’t have to be beautifully plated as long as it’s got some quality to it. Obviously as the competition goes on it gets trickier, although I think this year there’s a harking back to the ‘granny skills’ movement: the pickling, charring, roasting. It’s a lot more about the pan and the oven which makes Gary and me in particular really happy.
Is the “granny skills movement” a food trend that’s emerged in the last year?
Yeah, I think it’s a food trend as well. At the end of the day, there’s not a lot of trickiness to winning MasterChef. It’s about putting out tasty and exhilarating food. But of course there are moments, like when Reynold Poernomo made his apple dessert, which was super spectacular on television.
Is there a favourite food trend from the past year that might pop up this season?
Lots of barbecuing, but barbecuing different stuff like stone fruit such as apricots, peaches: that’s a trend. In the trendy world it’s called “embering”, basically cooking over wood or coal.
What calibre of guest chefs are in store for viewers this season?
Just the normal best chefs in the world. [Laughs] Four pop up restaurants for Heston; the hottest tickets in the world. Heston mentors our contestants in some unbelievable locations. We’ve got Nigella for a whole week. She’s not only super smart but, for me, a personal hero. An absolute joy and pleasure to have on set. Marco Pierre White appears early on. The contestants begin MasterChef thinking they’re going to get their skills up over eights weeks but then they’re find themselves up against Marco really early on! He is such a charismatic, powerful personality. And of course, a whole range of Australia’s best chefs.
Can you preview this season’s cravat collection?
I’m trying to wear less cravats that look like they’ve come out of an ‘80s disco. That’s number one! I’m moving toward something more geometric and simpler, a lot less checks and tartans and a lot more block colours and pastels. A bit more classic. Occasionally veering into Miami Vice DA cop-style with a pale pink shirt and pale blue suit. But the most important fashion change is with Gary! We’ve actually had a whip around to buy Gary some more suits. So expect him to wear more than the two suits that he’s had for the past seven years [laughs]. Expect Gary to look very, very chic this season!
Is there a food that you hated as a kid but have gradually come to love?
Eggwhites. I used to hate unset eggwhites and their rubbery texture. But now, I see their beauty and their value. I like them when they’re a hard-boiled or even used to make mayonnaise.
What did your lunch box look like in school?
I didn’t have a lunch box in school. We had a canteen, and I dreaded the days they gave us spotted dick with cream sauce. It was disgusting. It’s a steamed pudding with raisins in it. When you’re a nine year old boy served spotted dick… no one wants a spotted dick. And the cream sauce certainly didn’t help. There were good days and bad days, but that was one day where word would go round and we’d all start feigning sickness. Then there were days when you were given the plate and you ate the plate because there was no choice. It was all a slop of this and a dollop of that, all made for less than the cost of your tram fare to school.
You’ve released several cookbooks. To you, what makes a good cookbook?Recipes you want to cook. Recipes that, when you cook them, they work because they’ve been properly tested. Recipes that deliver the promise in the picture, and deliver all the flavour. The cookbook that I aspire to create sits in the kitchen and not on the coffee table, where you can find a few recipes that become part of your repertoire. There’s nothing more satisfying than hearing that people are making your bolognese once a week. Not because of the ego, but because people love it and it’s better than the one they had before. I think that’s remarkable. I get overly excited when I find a recipe that’s better than one in my own book, because then my next book will have something that improves on the last. At the end of the day, cooking is not hard. Cooking to impress is hard, but cooking to feed people is a pleasurable experience.
Your MasterClasses are always a hit. Which signature Matt Preston recipes might be making an appearance this year?
Well, there are a couple. One thing we’re doing this season is a ‘viewer’s choice’. The viewers have requested a new take on the steak sandwich and cheese on toast, and I’m delighted that I’ll be bringing a fresh new version of that to the table. And I’ve also got a very exciting new way with toast. From instant mayo to no-knead bread to the tutti-frutti of flatbreads - there’s a reason why those recipes work because you’ll want to make them again and again. You have to find stuff that is simple. See it, do it, taste it. There’s a whole world of creativity that can happen in your pantry that doesn’t need to happen in the laboratory of a three star Michelin restaurant, and that’s why I love the place I’m in at the moment.