MasterChef Australia judges Jock Zonfrillo, Melissa Leong, Andy Allen talk about their individual journeys on the show
In an exclusive interview with Firstpost, Jock, Melissa, and Andy talk about their experiences and observations as mentor-judges in the MasterChef kitchen, and what it takes to make a mark in the competition.
The renowned American restaurateur and Emmy Award-winning TV presenter Guy Fieri had perhaps righty said, "Cooking is all about people. Food is maybe the only universal thing that really has the power to bring everyone together. No matter what culture, everywhere around the world, people eat together." How else is it possible that a cooking reality TV show set in the Land Down Under — featuring food ingredients and culinary techniques that are unfamiliar and absolutely unheard of — becomes one of the highest-rated English shows on the Indian television network?
MasterChef Australia has gained immense popularity in the Indian subcontinent over the years. Millions of Indians have been introduced to the marvels of modern, international, fine-dining food over the past 15 years the show has been airing in India.
One cannot deny that the show is not merely an entertainer but also a trendsetter, a changemaker in many ways. While it reflects on the increasing sophistication of the culinary desires of the Australians, at the same time, it also sows the seeds of cultural exchange in other parts of the world where it is broadcast.
While the previous seasons' contestants and host judges (Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris, and Matt Preston) have become household names in India, the new instalments (Season 12 onwards) are only taking the legacy forward. The year 2020 saw Mehigan, Calombaris, and Preston bid adieu to the show as mentors and make way for the renowned chef and philanthropist Jock Zonfrillo; MasterChef alumnus and chef Andy Allen, and celebrated food and travel writer and cookbook editor Melissa Leong.
In an exclusive interview with Firstpost, Jock, Melissa, and Andy talk about their experiences and observations as mentor-judges in the MasterChef kitchen, and what it takes to make a mark in the competition. Edited excerpts below:
How much do you think MasterChef has changed over the years?
MELISSA: I think the show has evolved in so many ways, yet remained at its heart, true. It is, and always has been about the food, and as an extension of that, the people and their stories. I don’t think that will ever change, despite trends coming and going. One thing is for sure, the skill level has never been higher!
ANDY: My life couldn’t be more different these days. I never thought I’d see the day where I owned a restaurant, and now I have seven of them called Three Blue Ducks spanning up the east coast of Australia. Then there’s being a judge on MasterChef. Never in my wildest dream did I think I would even be considered for the role, but now I feel so lucky to have the best job in the world.
Mel, this is your second season in the competition. Andy, you have been a contestant-winner. What convinced you to be a part of this show as mentors? Were there any apprehensions?
MELISSA: My great fortune, where my career is concerned, is to have the honour of discovering people’s stories and being able to share that with other people. I was offered a role I knew I could grow into, but aside from that, there was no trepidation or expectation.
ANDY: There was zero convincing, haha! I think I’m living proof of how much MasterChef can do for someone, and for me to be able to be a part of that is an absolute privilege.
While for you, Jock, this is not really that new, is it? Before joining MasterChef Australia as a judge, you appeared several times as a guest judge. Is the experience any different now?
JOCK: Being a guest on MasterChef was relatively easy. You just float in, and set a challenge or cook against a contestant. But in being a judge, we are able to get involved in each of the contestant’s journey as they progress in the kitchen. They come in pretty green around the edges, and as judges, we have input in the different challenges and how they’re set, and as the season goes on, we want to mentor them and teach them little tips and tricks that help them turn into great cooks.
Unlike many reality shows, MasterChef relies solely on the judges' verdict. There is no popular vote or any other metric in place. Do you think that creates some kind of pressure on you?
JOCK: I think it would only create pressure on us if we weren’t experts in our field. I know myself I’ve had over 30 years working in kitchens; I know what good taste is and what balance is. Andy comes from a perspective not only of being in the industry for a decade but from the competition perspective. He competed, he won MasterChef, so he's able to talk to the contestants and judge based on knowing what it feels like to be in their shoes. And Melissa obviously is a food writer and has eaten in many of the best restaurants in Australia and in the world, and is so well versed in writing about food and critiquing it in a way the contestants can learn from. Having three judges, that's the other secret.
There are no tiebreakers when there are three judges, there's always a winner.
What are your judging criteria in this competition? What does it take to crack this game and make that winning dish?
MELISSA: Bring your truth, work hard, listen to advice, don’t overwork or overthink things, and find your own personality in the kitchen. It’s not a difficult formula!
JOCK: There’s always the brief, and so first things first, the contestant has to hit the brief, whether that's featuring or highlighting an ingredient or a colour or a type of cuisine — that is the first set of criteria, they must have hit the brief. From there, it needs to be delicious. It’s as simple as that. We can bang on about lots of different things but at the end of the day, those two things really need to come into play first, and then there are considerations if you know there are still say 20 contestants in and everyone is cooking the same dish — how would that contestant stand out against the rest of the pack? That’s what makes winning dishes. When they're able to look around them, identify what's happening and make a delicious dish.
Mel, how has the journey been for you so far, with Jock and Andy by your side? Are there things you guys individually take note of while judging any dish? Is there a designated lens through which each one of you views the food served in front of you?
MELISSA: They’re my brothers and my friends. We know we are on this ride together, and so we trust each other and learn from each other every day. I love that we have our own way of articulating what we are experiencing — it gives the audience an opportunity to see the same dish from different angles. We are ourselves — there is no designation of who says what and why, we’re just us.
Andy, I guess there is nobody who understands this competition better than you. In a way, you have travelled the whole arc — from being a contestant on the show to winning the competition and now mentoring upcoming cooks. What do you suggest should be the "things to remember" while being in the MasterChef kitchen?
ANDY: MasterChef is as much a mental game as a cooking competition.
This might sound weird but for me, the most talented cook very rarely wins the competition. However, the cook who can deal with the pressure and the mental side of things will always come out on top.
And what do you think are the biggest skill sets that come in handy while you are on the show?
ANDY: What you can actually do when you pushed to your limits. I’m sure I can speak for everyone who has walked the MasterChef kitchen, that there are many times when the challenge is revealed to you, and you think that’s actually impossible. But somehow, you just find a way to make the impossible possible.
As the audience, we only get to see the journey of a contestant till the end of the competition. Could you throw some light on what happens once you are out of the kitchen? What is that journey like?
ANDY: I think it varies from contestant to contestant. For me, it took me a while to find out what I really wanted to do in the industry. For the first year, I just made it my mission to try as many things as I could in the hospitality industry, and then from there, it was down to picking and choosing what I enjoyed and what I wanted to pursue. I knew I wanted to cook in a professional kitchen, so I simply went and did work experience for Three Blue Ducks. From then on, it was just about working relentlessly and gaining their trust until one day they asked if I wanted to go into business with them.
The conversations around diversity and inclusivity in the show have never been as pronounced as in Season 12 and the ongoing 13th season. What do you think changes in a competition like this when we have people from all walks of life — gender, ethnicity, backgrounds — coming together?
MELISSA: I disagree. I think that diversity has always been a key component in the contestant lineup since season 1. It’s just that different years yield different concentrations of people, as they do skills and stories. MasterChef has always been a celebration of cultural diversity, and I am proud to now be part of that story.
JOCK: I think that eclectic mix brings one thing which is diversity, which is essential, and when we’re talking about the world of food, diversity is critical. If we didn't have diversity in food, it would be a very boring place, and dinner tables around the world would be very boring. Diversity is what makes MasterChef 'MasterChef,' it’s what makes the show so interesting and watchable. It’s what makes families from all walks of life join in. We have hundreds of emails and direct messages on Instagram from families, young kids, and older people who have tried a recipe that was on the show or a recipe that was on the website, and they had a crack at it. They’re learning how to make a Southeast Asian curry or classic French dish that they've never made before in their life, and they've had a crack and I just love that. That's what this show is all about.
Unlike the last season which featured established cooks participating in the competition, the current season features amateurs and first-timers, which is also the USP of MasterChef. As judges-chefs and food industry experts, do you also look at providing some of these amazing cooks with some professional mentorship and guidance post the competition?
JOCK: This is one of the amazing things about MasterChef itself is that whether contestants win or not, most of them have made a decision to go out and get a career in food. And that means that they are looking for mentorship, for some advice, or looking for a foot in the door in different restaurants or businesses in the food industry. So it is with great pleasure that we are able to assist a lot of the contestants post the competition. I've been able to do that over the years. Even when I was a guest judge, we had a number of contestants come and work for me in my restaurant. I think it’s an amazing bonus for me as a judge to be able to help. The industry has given me so much over the years and I’ve got an obligation to give back, and this is one of the many ways I’m able to do it and I love it.
Lastly, what have been your biggest takeaways from MasterChef?
MELISSA: I think I value how special the hospitality industry is a little more every day. It is full of people with huge hearts, great kindness, and an incredible work ethic.
ANDY: Look, I’m learning every day inside the MasterChef kitchen. There are some seriously talented cooks that walk through the MasterChef kitchen, and you’d be silly just to turn off and not take all of the information in on a daily basis.
JOCK: My biggest takeaway from being in the MasterChef kitchen is that as I have always suspected it is impossible to know everything in food. There is always a new technique, a new dish, a new way of doing something, a variation of a classic recipe that you just haven't come across before, and that's what makes food and being a chef and being in the food industry so amazing. Never a day goes by where I am not wowed or surprised or I put something in my mouth and go, "How did you make that work, how did you get so much flavour in that?" Being able to come to work and experience that every day is amazing, and what’s even more impressive is that our contestants do it in 60 or 75 minutes, so there's no excuse for not putting good food on your table at home. The contestants come in and they are not experts in the kitchen by any means. But towards the end of their time in the MasterChef kitchen, they are producing restaurant-quality dishes, and I love that, I love the impression that that gives. But yes, if there is one thing I've learnt, it’s that you can never know everything. It’s just impossible, you can't know it all.
— MasterChef Australia Season 13 is currently streaming on Disney+ Hotstar Premium.
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