Inside MasterChef Australia – much more than a cooking show
There’s no show quite like MasterChef if you’re looking for a warm hug. And MasterChef Australia offers the warmest hug of the genre. TGIFood’s Neil McMahon, who lives in the city that is home to the globally beloved show, gives a homeboy take on the biggest food programme of them all.
MasterChef feels like a warm hug. It was that tweet from Australian TV star Carrie Bickmore in April 2020 that perfectly captured two things. First, she summed up the embrace of a familiar old television friend in the early, scary and confusing days of the pandemic as the show returned to the air under a Covid cloud. And second, she reminded us of the place the programme has come to hold in the hearts and minds of viewers in Australia and globally since it debuted in 2009.
MasterChef 2022 has just entered its third week of the season on Australian screens (it will launch in South Africa later this year) and while there are still some clouds to contend with (underwhelming ratings for launch week, for starters) it is still a staple of the viewing diet for millions. Indeed, such is its success that it would probably continue to be made for foreign audiences even if we locals gave up on it.
I’m here to predict that won’t happen – it is too much a part of the TV furniture, and a part of the wider culture, especially in Melbourne where it is filmed – to suffer the fate of less beloved TV fare.
It premiered back in 2009 – a different world in media terms, with Facebook still a toddler, Twitter just a baby and TikTok not even a twinkle in a developer’s eye – and has since come to be much more than just a cooking contest.
That television ground has been well covered in many formats, but the Australian take on the original British MasterChef formula changed the game: it showed that reality TV did not have to be nasty. No toxic Big Brother brew of fake feuds and bitch fights. Instead it celebrated diversity, and friendship and camaraderie. It made you barrack for your favourite, but never at the expense of dumping on anyone else – because if the contestants were being so nice to each other, how could the viewers at home turn it into a nasty reality rumble?
And that’s how MasterChef slowly but surely became the television equivalent of Carrie Bickmore’s warm hug.
As psychotherapist and counsellor Melissa Ferrari told The Age newspaper ahead of the 2022 launch: “There’s something about these shows that makes it really safe to connect with. You’re seeing people throw their feelings into a loaf of bread instead of directing them at another person.
“We all have our own aspirations to want to succeed, and when you’re watching shows like that and you see someone achieve their dreams, we live a little through them.”
In the opening two weeks, early ratings have seen MasterChef returning much lower numbers than usual (in line with the general long-term decline in traditional television viewing across the board).
But everything is relative. Keep in mind that in season one 13 years ago – in a pre-streaming TV universe – the MasterChef final attracted one of the highest Australian viewing audiences of all time, close to four million people in a country of 21 million. The next year, it rated even higher.
There have been dips since, and premature declarations of its demise.
In its most notorious and challenging period, it lost its three familiar faces – judges George Calombaris, Matt Preston and Gary Megihan – in one go. The headline reason was a breakdown in contract negotiations over money.
But the background was Calombaris being embroiled in a very public scandal over underpaying staff in his restaurant empire. There was nothing like a warm hug about that mess, and many wondered if the show would survive after that 2019 upheaval.
In an unlikely move, the producers took a giant gamble. They stuck with the three-judge format – but in casting choices that surprised everyone, they brought in 2012 winner Andy Allen, food critic Melissa Leong and restaurateur Jock Zonfrillo, originally from Scotland, in an untested revamp of the show’s famous on-screen judge chemistry. Then came the pandemic.
But guess what? It worked, and worked spectacularly well.
Season 12 hit the airwaves just as Covid sent the world into lockdown. And for viewers stuck at home day after day and night after night, this was just what the pandemic doctor ordered.
Former MasterChef stars – season one runner up Poh Ling Yeow and popular 2011 contender Hayden Quinn – returned. And the fresh judging panel was a revelation, with the glamorous, gregarious, warm and charismatic Leong proving an inspired masterstroke. The show scored its highest ratings in five years and jumped 43% on the year prior.
Which brings us back to 2022, and the return of the warm hug.
No spoilers, I promise, but I can tell you that in a savvy move the producers have again brought back a bunch of former contestants in a format they’ve dubbed Fans v. Favourites, which pits home cooks against a team of past MasterChef greats from across the 13 seasons.
Among the big attractions: the return of the inaugural MasterChef winner Julie Goodwin, who surprised many including herself when she beat Poh in the final in 2009.
Goodwin’s life since has somewhat mirrored the ups and downs of the series itself. Her win, and the prizes and instant fame that came with it, meant she quickly became a ubiquitous presence on TV and radio. She wrote books. She was a “star”, but not one who ever seemed entirely comfortable with the label and the attention.
It was only recently that we learned just how difficult life had become. There was a hint of it in 2018 when she was arrested for drunk driving and evading a police breath test. Then, earlier this year, she revealed she had eventually had to check herself into a psychiatric facility for extreme depression. When these two worlds combined on our screen last week – Julie back in the kitchen, sharing her story through a veil of tears – it brought back once again that the programme is indeed a warm hug.
The difference this time was that everyone wanted to hug Julie Goodwin.
Watch the tearful return of the inaugural MasterChef winner Julie Goodwin on Twitter here.
She told her post-MasterChef story thus: “I’ve been able to publish six cookbooks, I’ve had lots of fun doing television programmes. Then I moved into radio. I spent four years on a breakfast show along with my cooking school, which I really love as well.
“But I guess … the past 13 years hasn’t all been amazing highs. There have been some struggles as well. I’ve really had to do some serious assessment of my mental health and wellbeing. I had reached a point in my life where I had lost my joy.
“And I had to give up my job on the radio. I couldn’t do that anymore. And I actually couldn’t set foot in my kitchen. I think maybe I have done everything that I was here to do. And I have achieved everything that’s possible for me to achieve. So this for me is an opportunity just to see if there is another chapter, you know. If there’s more.”
There wasn’t a dry eye in the MasterChef house, or in the homes of anyone watching around Australia. Goodwin is now 51. She was a young mum when she first came to the attention of the world. Now she’s a grandmother. She’s lived and lost and learned, and she has always found solace in the joys of cooking and food – even after once becoming too scared to set foot in her kitchen.
There is a lesson and inspiration there for us all. And there is nothing on television like MasterChef – in all its multicultural celebration of human beings of every different colour and stripe – to make you feel better having watched it than you did before you started.
Welcome back, and thanks for the hug. DM/TGIFood
Neil McMahon is a Melbourne-based writer and author who in an earlier incarnation covered events in South Africa as a correspondent and columnist in Cape Town.
Follow Neil on Instagram @neildmcmahon
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