Each year, many hopefuls vie for their chance to make it to the audition stage of MasterChef, presenting a dish to the judges, Melissa Leong, Jock Zonfrillo, and Andy Allen, in the hopes of winning an apron and a spot in the top 24.
But it can be overwhelming to decide on that perfect dish, so we spoke to the three judges ahead of Season 13 to find out exactly what they’re looking for when it comes to auditions.
“Bribes,” Jock immediately offered as a first suggestion.
“A crisp hundred under the plate,” Mel agreed.
Jokes aside, Jock explained that it isn’t a particular dish or skill he’s looking for when a contender steps up to the judging table in auditions but rather what they’ve done to get there.
“I really look for someone who has mastered something,” he told 10 play. “It can just be one thing — it might be an omelette, it might be scrambled eggs or the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten — I want them to have mastered something because learning how to master even just one thing sets you off for what lies ahead in the competition.
“Simple things done with precision always wins,” he continued, “and that’s what makes us happy.”
For Andy, the audition is like a job interview where he’s not just looking at the dish but also the person behind it.
“The dish is probably 99 percent of what you look for… you do so many job interviews as a chef when you run kitchens and you look for something and, for me, it’s the willingness to learn.”
When it comes down to just one or two people, Andy says looking at someone’s willingness to learn will always put them an inch forward in his mind.
“When we have a chat and I’m able to ask them questions, I’ll always take someone who is willing to learn. It has worked out better for me every single time to someone who may be able to cook a fraction better but their attitude isn’t right.”
His time in the MasterChef kitchen that saw him take out the top prize in Season 4 cemented this hunger for knowledge, which he now looks for in future contestants.
“I knew that I wasn’t a good cook and, I know that sounds weird to go on MasterChef, but that’s where I put myself. Being able to want to learn, I really want to see that in people when you meet them for the first time.”
For Melissa, taking both the food and the person into consideration, she explained that there’s something she looks for in every MasterChef hopeful.
“You’re looking for that unifying spark that we all have, that love of food and knowing what good food is, being committed to the idea of it,” she said.
“When you meet someone and, if they know how to do one thing really well, it shows you that they’re committed to knowing what good food is. They’re committed to learning technique but also, if they know that it’s good then you know there’s something you can work with.
“You need to know what good food is on some level in order to develop and progress.”
Many contestants also strive to deliver a perfect plate that communicates who they are. So often we hear MasterChef hopefuls describe a dish as “me on a plate”.
In a recent piece for Stellar, Melissa even wrote about “teasing open the stories of others, through the lens of food”.
But how much can you really learn about someone just from a plate of food?
“You can learn so much!” she told 10 play.
“On one level, as we were talking about before, you can tell if they know what good food is based on what they’re presenting to you and whether or not it’s a conceptual part of it,” Melissa explained.
The simple assembly of the dish, its technique and execution, can inform the judges if the chef behind it has an understanding of what makes a balanced and “good” plate of food.
“Beyond that, what you get to know is the motivation behind their choices that can come from their life experiences. It can come from family, it can come from their historical or cultural roots and through that, I most often find the most special food.
“It always comes back to a story that someone has deep inside themselves, something that they’re trying to express. It’s the greatest gift, to me, to be able to have someone feel comfortable enough to be able to share that and it speaks to the skill I’m always trying to develop - becoming that person that can draw that out of people.
“To be able to share that on a platform as huge as MasterChef is… it’s a great privilege.”
The new season of MasterChef Australia premieres Monday, April 19 at 7.30 on 10 and 10 play