I – Russell – have lost track of the number of coping mechanisms I’ve clung to since March 2020. Some good… most bad. Some that have been the saviour of my mental health and others forms of coping that have lead to a bit of detriment. However, a global pandemic being in no one’s plans, we’ve all had to adapt, adjust and sustain our sanity. Truth be told, one of the best coping mechanisms I’ve had, with potentially the biggest, most positive, potentially transformative impact, has been the unlikely advent of binge watching hundreds of hours of MasterChef Australia.
Hear me out: Before 2020, I had never seen an episode of the now-cult phenomenon in the culinary reality TV arc that is MasterChef Australia. If, like me, you were either unfamiliar with it or just plain by-passed it as “another cooking show”, this is very much a different beast to the British originator. Where Britain may have paved the way in terms of format, the Aussies have taken it, interpreted it, lit a fire under it and blasted it into the 21st century. The stakes are higher, the scale is broader, the length is marathon rather than sprint, and the pressure is at a constant boil rather than a mere simmer.
Where the British version is endlessly appointed with grating Gregg “PHWOAR” Wallace gleefully exclaiming “DEEE-LIGHTFUL” at nervy home cooks whilst an Aussie chef holds the fort with some sort of authority, the Australian version feels fresher, more exciting and has buckets more fire and life flowing through its veins.
I remember the original series, with OG MasterChef host Lloyd Grossman and his iconic, (now cringingly passé) line “we’ve deliberated, cogitated and digested” before delivering each episode’s results on BBC One. It was classical in style, a mélange of “Great British” ingredients, gold standard home cooks and French gastronomic technique. It was simple and effective, especially in the infant years of reality TV. As I got older, I fondly remember the brief revamp fronted by the late Gary Rhodes –– a short-lived, livened-up version which figuratively blew the cobwebs off the now semi-aged, stuffy original. Then, ‘MasterChef Goes Large’ promised all the big, bright lights and high pressure stakes as a revival several years after MC quietly ended, this time hopping over to sister station BBC Two. That souped-up stint lasted three years before pushing on with some of the intensity in the new format whilst reverting back to the original title, and to this day this is the format that persists.
This is not intended to be a read on one version or another. MasterChef UK has had big success in its time, launching the careers of so many home cooks-turned-professionals and exposing us, the viewing public across the UK and Ireland, to real stars such as Thomasina Miers (author and founder of Wahaca), ‘Digger Dean’ (the prolific TV cook and author, and cherished friend of ours, Dean Edwards) and the more recent winners whom importantly reflect the diverse breadth of cuisine and culture in the culinary fondue that is the UK –– Shelina Permaloo, Dhruv Baker, Tim Anderson, Ping Coombes and Irini Tzortzoglou.
You can, of course, watch back episodes (still available to stream online) of many of these previous iterations, including the Celebrity MasterChef tangent, which too has endured. It’s fascinating to delve back into what was the originator and which had sown the seeds of one of the most successful culinary-based reality TV formats sold widely across the world.
Ordinarily, when you start to binge something, you’d hit play on Series 1, Episode 1, right? Well, I didn’t. The pair of us actually started at the current end –– the most recent season to conclude: MasterChef Australia: Back To Win, which began transmission in spring 2020 featuring past contestants who came close but didn’t win, now back for a second chance at the trophy. In fact, it’s funny as I arrived into the RuPaul’s Drag Race world in the exact same way, bellyflopping straight into the first All Stars series which had queens the audience knew and loved from the initial four seasons back for a second chance, all of which I had no clue of. A future therapist will have a field day about what this pattern says about me…
Not only was my initial taste of MasterChef Australia an ‘All Stars’ style format, but it coincided with the grandiose freshening up (read: serious shake-up) of the long-standing, somewhat beloved judging trio of Matt, Gary and George. Retired from the format after a decade, a new trio emerged –– Scottish-born, Adelaide-based chef Jock Zonfrillo, food writer Melissa Leong and former winner Andy Allen (kind of hard not to mention that, so sorry for the spoiler!)
My initial draw was Melissa, who was familiar from fronting/judging a relatively similar series called The Chef’s Line which arrived on Netflix in 2019 (and now, no longer available), but in general – with ample time on my hands in lockdown and looking to sink my teeth into a series worth binging – the newly-shaken up MaterChef Australia was right in my sights.
What’s more, though, was that in a changing world being literally shaped like play dough, a different outlook every day, dictated by a dangerously fast-moving and evolving pandemic, MasterChef Australia was an escape. For the first 30 episodes it was being dipped into a world formerly untouched by Covid-19. Contestants and judges were huddling together, touching, hugging, high-fiving and free of the confines of social distancing and pandemic precaution –– it was like a snapshot of a life gone by… until episode 31.
Screeching to a halt about six weeks into broadcast, Covid caught up with production (subsequently shattering the illusion and visual escape for us) and from one episode to the following everything changed in an instant. The series scaled back its outside connections to just its Melbourne set –– less off-site services, barely any guest chefs setting challenges and defined spaces between each competitor, with all and any form of touching outlawed right until the final in July.
When that series ended, and finding myself slightly at a loss, I decided to pop on Amazon Prime (as up to this point we had been streaming each episode via dodgy links the day-after each broadcast Down Under) and delve further into the long-standing series that had somehow evaded me but now it was my new lockdown love. So, where to next? Why not the very beginning?
Pressing play on S1:E1, I lasted the grand total of 20 minutes –– it was a total shock being thrust back to 2009 with a dated, semi-blurry, shaky camera-angled production that felt more like X Factor auditions than a serious cooking competition. It’s clear the series has undergone a glow-up over the decade (unlike, say, the aforementioned X Factor, which continues to rest on its laurels).
Changing tack, undeterred, I opted to work in reverse –– retracing the steps, so going back to Season 11. That was then, and, no surprises that Lockdown in Ireland has never really ended since spring 2020 –– I’ve made it all the way back to Series 4. Bearing in mind, unlike the UK iteration, there are probably 60 episodes per season, and each episode at least an hour in length so that’s about 75 hours per season.
Give or take, since April 2020, the pair of us have consumed around 600 hours of high intense cookery challenges. Or, if you look at it differently, have lost about 24 full days! Other than taking my mind off the present day challenges and being lost in an Invention Test or a Mystery Box as a form of entertainment, something bigger happened: it’s really soaked in and begun to shape and seriously influence the way both of us cook and approach the kitchen.
We’ve explained ad nauseam over the years that we are not trained. We’re self-taught home cooks, and by that we mean everything we’ve learned about cookery came from cookbooks, magazines, interviews, podcasts and TV shows, so through the guise of entertainment –– why should MasterChef Australia treat us any differently? We cut our teeth on Nigella Lawson and Ina Garten’s books and series, we’ve had subscriptions to food magazines for decades, offering us little kitchen tips and guidance on recipe timings, flavour pairings and best approach in the kitchen.
So much so, we genuinely believe there is a huge amount of value in the power of the cookery show – especially when it’s done right. And MasterChef Australia is the global benchmark.
For one, our shopping habits have drastically changed, as well as the language we use when corralling a list together. Cream, eggs, butter, milk, vinegar, sugar and flour are genuinely referred to now as “underbench staples”, the bases that bind most dishes – and they are omni-present in our basket, if they’re not in stock in our kitchen already.
Fresh herbs – where not already growing/clinging onto dear life in our garden – are in abundance on the counter, rather than buying as needed for a specific recipe and only using 2g of. Now, they’re used as often as an ingredient as they are a garnish. Most dishes looks better with a scattering of chopped chives or a couple of artfully placed coriander leaves. Fact.
A project Patrick has wanted to do for a while, which kind of pre-dates this series binge, is a clear and streamlined organisation of all our spices. So we mounted three shelves onto the wall in the kitchen, ordered a hefty amount of glass jars with cork lids online and begun filling, labelling and organising each together, like an apothecary or a souk-meets-science lab.
Our approach in the kitchen is thriftier, quicker and rather than be daunted by spare bits and bobs across the fridge and cupboards, it’s now a mystery box-style challenge. I’ve got cauliflower, Greek yoghurt, banana, lentils, tuna steak and fresh chilli. “What am I gonna make?” Especially at the scant end of the week when the weekly trip to the supermarket is just shy of the horizon, this also helps punctuate a dull week with a bit of culinary invention. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s the ‘going for it’ without fear that sparks something.
Before, we may have doddled and lingered in the kitchen stirring slowly without a real fire to plate up and dinner may have taken two, if not, three hours. Now, 75 minutes. MAX. Get it on the plate. It’s that discipline, that Pressure Test mentality, that chef’s approach that’s put a fire under our own cooking.
Weekends always were the preserve of more leisurely, experimental cookery in our house, both when GastroGays was a side-hobby to full-time jobs in London and even now when GG is our 24/7. But this has exacerbated that –– the weekend is when we’ll take a punt on a cut of meat we’ve never cooked, like nailing pork belly with crisp crackling, trying to master a classic technique like meringue or delving into a long-winded recipe with lots of steps and timings. Beef Wellington’s been a fixture for a couple of months. Quite a technical dish to make, but so rewarding. A proper test of endurance, patience, skill, clear-mindedness and the pursuit of perfection.
We genuinely call some dinners “invention tests”, where – to spice things up and keep it interesting – we’ll pick a cuisine, a dish, a classic and think of ways of amping the volume up. Reinventing the wheel for the sake of it, sometimes to delicious gain!
When lockdown forced us all, for the most part, to live within the four walls of our dwellings for effectively 23 hours a day, every day, you get a bit claustrophobic, and some might be surprised to hear our kitchen is quite often our least favourite room in the house. It’s the smallest room, it’s over-stuffed and overflowing with all manner of condiments and kitchen accoutrements, not to mention the utensils and cooking kit taking up every inch of space. Amidst this pandemic, it’s actually a part of the house we began to resent. But we make do, through gritted teeth, until the day we call the perfect kitchen in a far-off house of dreams our own.
On the subject of equipment, though, because of the nature of our job there are some really random bits of kit clogging up our cupboards. We don’t own a microwave, for example, but we have an egg poaching machine, a waffle maker, crêpe pans, churros guns and much more.
Three pieces of equipment, in particular, have really been influenced by this show –– and, though our kitchen probably can’t handle any more, they’ve now become an extension of our hands. Firstly, a mini Kamado barbecue, which I actually nabbed in Lidl last summer for about €100, but always on the look out for an upgrade. This is my alternative to the “Hibachi” grill which appeared almost daily in the episodes of the most recent couple of seasons of the show. So much so I don’t even call it a kamado, I affectionately dub it “the Hibachi” and Patrick knows exactly what I mean.
It’s the perfect size for cooking a small selection of veg, cooking steaks, kebabs for two – and ultimately and easily achieves that optimum flavour of fire seasoned on what I cook. Not dining out for most of past year has been far easier because of being able to achieve somewhat similar flavours by cooking over coals.
Secondly, our Sage Appliances smoking gun, which does double duty as smoking guns are omnipresent on the show but also because Heston Blumenthal himself is also an annual fixture on the programme. We were kindly gifted the smoking gun from Sage Appliances years ago when living in London and it was the kind of thing begun to become like a Cher farewell tour –– reclusively gathering dust throughout the year, save for a few brief, dazzling appearances, like in a Smoked Negroni. But MasterChef Aus has pushed the limits of it in our minds: why not smoke sauces, chocolate desserts, fish and even yoghurt? When we can source it, Velvet Cloud sheep’s yoghurt works wonderfully for this, but otherwise, we are big fans of a bowl of thick greek style yoghurt, grate a little garlic and leave to absorb smoke. On top of flatbreads, with falafel, with bbq chicken – it’s a beautiful flavour.
Thirdly, and finally, was the purchase of our pressure cooker. We’ve had a slow cooker for years, and it’s earned its low price tag about ten times over at this stage, but our Pressure King Pro (5L) from Drew & Cole, (picked up on special in Tesco many months ago) is the new baby. Ours is closer to a multi-cooker, but the principle is the same. Digital programmes help guide us to cook stocks, broths, stews in a fraction of the time. Is it temperamental? Yes. Does it stress me out? Yes. Does it make life easier? Without doubt. Before, making a delicious stock using leftover chicken required planning, preparing, timing and hours of boiling. Now, we have delicious, rich bases for sauces and soups within half an hour. Slow cookers are wonderful for those who want a hands-off approach and can plan ahead, pressure cookers are ideal for those who want to work like a chef.
It has been bliss diving into the unknown, losing myself and getting hooked on a competitive reality show which viscerally connects in to what we do, professionally –– constantly developing recipes, taking briefs from clients, participating in events and constantly trying to up our game, culinarily. But also fuelling what we love passionately , regardless of career. So much so, singularly this one TV show has adapted, streamlined and influenced my approach to food in a real way. Sometimes reality TV really can teach us real-life lessons and skills, and other times it’s just the ultimate escape from our own day-to-day reality.
You can watch MasterChef Australia on Amazon Prime in Ireland & the UK.