It’s been eight years since MasterChef Australia made watching TV on an empty stomach very difficult – and eight years since we acquired mates named George, Gary and Matt, the endearing trio of judges who have mentored contestants with their characteristic combo of kindness and honesty.
And judge Matt Preston has noted some significant changes over the years.
“We dress better nowadays, for one,” he says, in Kuala Lumpur for the recent History Con Malaysia 2017 at Maeps Serdang.
“George speaks better English and has more shoes, we allowed Gary another suit, and my wardrobe looks like a box of Staedtler coloured pencils!”
Preston is a towering presence – literally, at 6-foot-4, and metaphorically, since he has enough wit and charisma for 10 people. And indeed, his meticulous suit is somewhere between mint green and robin’s egg blue, his signature cravat is on point, multi-hued and dashingly flowered (he’s been growing a beard lately too, and it’s getting pretty good reviews of its own).
Ever a dapper chap, is our Matt.
“But seriously, Season One was a huge hit, and Season Two was even bigger – and people just took ownership of it from there. Imagine, two of the contestants in the last season, Callan [Smith] and Michelle [Lukman], were nine and 10 respectively, when the series started.
“We need to respect that legacy, and understand that the series is now taking place in a time when food is bigger than ever, and more people than ever are cooking at home.”
Keeping it real
“A lot of reality TV shows centre on big, abrasive personalities, and we don’t take that approach,” says Preston. “It’s the food that comes first, and we want real people, not cartoon characters.”
Keeping the food as the main focus, says Preston, has meant that the show is populated by a host of anti-stereotypes – which is both empowering and reflective of Australian society itself.
It’s been just a few weeks from the reveal of MasterChef Australia’s Season Nine winner, and The Cravat-ed One says that Diana Chan was “a very worthy winner”.
“I’m not sure the finale really reflected the great job she did [with the final dishes assigned],” he says. He’s commenting on the online whispers questioning her win – he hears similar questions after every finale!
“Every year, we hear about it being fixed, etc.,” he says. “We take it as a sign of the passion and involvement of the audience. But we have always maintained complete transparency, and it’s important to us to acknowledge that.”
In the end, he says that reality TV viewers see the result of the editing down of many scenes – “but what the editing can never hide is a judge’s actual score.”
“That’s why you’ll sometimes see judges’ favourites go home – like Marion [Grasby] in Season Two. She went into a cook-off with Aaron where they had to cook satay – she’s half-Thai, so people were saying ‘oh, that’s fixed then’ – but she went home that episode,” says Preston.
Coming back to the latest season, he says: “Ben did a great job with the presentation, but we are driven firstly by flavour. Diana really did very well, and that was why Gary and I gave her such great scores.”
Unexpected results on MasterChef Australia are often the order of the day. “We have a saying among the judges: The food gods provide,” says Preston.
“The contestants learn off each other so much. We usually see the women coming in as better cooks at first, but the men develop faster [in the kitchen] – except for Season Eight, when it was the other way around.”
So in a nutshell – anything can happen, and even among the judges observing the action up close and personal, all bets are off.
“The upside of all this is that it makes the show very real,” says Preston. You don’t get the young blonde waif versus the bearded guy with the Satanic smile, in a finale showdown between the forces of good and evil.
“It’s not pantomime wrestling!”
MasterChef Australia and beyond
One of the hardest things for Matt and his fellow judges has been to send great contestants home.
“Especially when they’re people you like, and you feel they’re going home before their time – even if you do know that they’re going on to great things,” he says.
“We know the power of the show is that you don’t have to win it to get ahead with your food dreams. Of the show’s participants, I’d say 70% have gone on to do great things in the industry.”
These include Kylie Millar working in the hallowed kitchens of Melbourne’s Attica with the renowned Ben Shewry; Grasby, Julie Goodwin, Poh Ling Yeoh, Adam Liaw and Hayden Quinn have all headlined their own TV shows and authored cookbooks, among their other accomplishments.
“And Mimi (Baines) is at a cafe in New York, while Andrew (Prior) runs food tours of Paris,” says Preston.
For the judges, the bonds they build with the contestants don’t end when the filming wraps. “We want to be constructive and helpful, and we take our mentorship seriously, and beyond the show. George will have some of the guys over, cooking at Press Club, sometimes. We all keep in touch.”
A list of Preston’s best-ever times on, and because of, the show? There’s not enough paper in the world.
But this season, they could include the stint in Japan, when the whole team travelled to a country renowned for its rich food culture – and which boasts 227 Michelin-starred restaurants.
“We went on a ramen hunt in Kyoto, and found the best noodles in this tiny little place whose name I can’t even remember. Our ‘office’ was basically overlooking Mount Fuji. It was cherry blossom season. And, the amazing patisserie at the Paris end of Kyoto!
Preston also cites the contestants cooking in a yokocho as a particularly memorable sight. These foodie-focused alleyways host a myriad of tiny restaurants, cafes and bars, all jostling elbow to elbow.
“The contestants took over some of these tiny eateries, and they just nailed it. What amazing memories we have of that week.”
And Heston Week – when one of the most iconic chefs in the world takes the reins – is always amazing, says Preston.
“I mean, Heston (Blumenthal) is one of our favourite people in life! And you get to see parts of country Victoria that most people never see, in spite of the fact that it’s Australia’s food bowl.
Part of that week was filmed with the gigantic grain silos painted by Brisbane artist Guido Van Helten, set along the banks of the Murray River, as a backdrop; Preston recalls that with awe, as he does sunset shoots on the pink salt river plains.
“The Murray River is such an icon for all Australians, it’s a main artery and a border,” says Preston.
“And at night, we were able to discuss the meaning of life – in terms of food – with Heston, over toasted cheese sandwiches. The conclusion was simple: it’s all about friends and family. Food is a lubricant, a relaxant, something you put on the table for people you love. What it isn’t, is an expression of status.”
Finally, Preston continues to celebrate the fact that he’s gotten to work with some of his best friends for years.
“I’ve known George and Gary for 20 years now, and it’s been a real pleasure to work with such mates,” says Preston.
The three actually live close by, so Preston often bumps into Mehigan in the park, or heads to his local cafe to find out that Calombaris has just been in there.
“We are as big food nerds off-screen as we are on-screen. We’ll have excited conversations about sambal petai and go off to experiment with different kinds of sambal, and how different ingredients might work in the dish … our partners might look at us like we’re crazy, but we’re basically a support group for food nerds!”
Follow the latest season of MasterChef Australia Season Nine on Lifetime (Astro Ch 709), Monday to Friday, 8pm and 11pm.