Without giving too much away, how has your experience on MasterChef been so far?
Very pleasurable, but it’s also been stressful because it’s very emotional on behalf of the contestants. The pressure is on and I get really caught up in it. But I’ve had a great time, I’ve really enjoyed being with Gary, George and Matt. I’ve also really enjoyed spending time with the contestants, and it seems to me that they’re a really good batch.
Every year it seems like the calibre of the contestants improve. Was there anything about this year’s contestants that stood out?
I expected the standards to be high so that didn’t surprise me. But what impressed me was the way that the contestants absorb information. They know when to make mistakes and know when to risk something; it’s not about people who don’t make mistakes, but about people who really learn from them. I have to say I’m always so impressed with how much the contestants know about food. They all work so hard, they even do homework in the evening! They’re excited about what they learn and yes, there are moments of stress but I think that the boys [Gary, George and Matt] are very good at reminding them of why they’re in the competition: not to cook the food they think the judges like, but to cook the food they enjoy. I feel like the centre of MasterChef is about what’s wonderful about food, not just about what’s clever about it.
How does the Australian cooking scene compare to London’s?
I would have to say that Australia is a very food literate culture; it’s a country with lots of exciting culinary differences and Australians are very happy to mix elements of all these different cuisines. London is a bit like that too but I think there’s something vibrant about the cooking here. It’s not the sort of cooking that just relies on tradition; it’s evolving all the time like a language. Australians are constantly creating new traditions and I love that. It means that we get more variety in Australia and on MasterChef. As a guest judge myself, I’m so open to eating new interpretations of food. It doesn’t have to be something that’s wildly different, just an individual voice that says “I like this and this is how I cook it”.
What, in your opinion, makes MasterChef so unique amongst other cooking competitions on television?
MasterChef is not about creating moments of TV drama, it’s getting the best out of the contestants. This is reflected in the cooking and in the career paths that ex-contestants go on to. Everyone who walks into the MasterChef kitchen knows that if you really learn and you really apply yourself, there are certainly possibilities. MasterChef is not one of those TV shows where contestants appear on the show and that’s that. It’s like an apprenticeship; [season 7 winner] Billie McKay has gone on to work for Heston Blumenthal. That says something about the calibre of the show because Heston doesn’t take on someone simply because they’re part of the show; he took Billie on because she really astonished him.
What was the inspiration behind your latest TV series and your new cook book of the same name, Simply Nigella?
From the beginning I have always tried to communicate that what matters to me about cooking is not just the pleasure of eating, but the process of cooking. Simply Nigella is a continuation of all my other cook books, because I’m the same person. My inspiration for the book comes from the food, food cooked in the context of life. For example, I cooked a different way when my children were small compared to how I cook now. One always learns new things and that’s what’s so interesting about cooking. I think my main message has always been the same: cooking is such an important part of my life and I want to be able to share that.
In Simply Nigella, you talk about how “different days require different ways of eating” – can you expand on that?
They really do, and that’s why I find it so difficult when people ask me what my favourite dish is! I have so many favourites and it really depends on what day it might be. I suppose in a way the challenges during my week on MasterChef correspond to this; they encourage the contestants to explore different ways of approaching and responding to different recipes, and I like that. I think my challenges represent a very different but really high pressure version of how people cook every day.