|MasterChef The Professionals Season 1 Kitchen
“Wear closed shoes.”
It was that simple. Really. When I put in a request to visit the MasterChef Australia sets in Melbourne, it was just a shot in the dark. They are a reality show after all and knowing how very “real” they really are, I tried not to get my hopes too high.
But there it was, an email sitting in my inbox a couple of days back. I was to be given a tour of the MasterChef Australia sets, watch an episode being filmed, chat with judges Gary, George and Matt, and have lunch prepared in the MasterChef staff kitchen!
Their only request? “Wear closed shoes.”
On March 13, after some nine days of baking heat, Melbourne served up some very fine weather as I hopped into a tram from Elizabeth Street and trundled along route 57 to the Melbourne Showgrounds.
That is where the new MasterChef sets are located, shifted from Sydney only recently. MasterChef The Professionals was the first season to be filmed here and now it was time for Season 5. The shoot was in its third week, with the competition already whittled down to 22.
My tour guide for the day was Natalie. We crossed a simple-looking shed where the contestants wait during shooting and turned a corner to face the main MasterChef entrance. How I gaped at the big ‘m’ logo! This was the spot on the Sydney sets where a motorbike would rest, remember?
We entered the back kitchen and store. Here the dishes that contestants taste for replication are readied. The store houses rows and rows of kitchen equipment, from mixers and grinders to pots, pans, cutlery and what not.
|The MasterChef Pantry
And then, pushing open a simple door, there I was in THE MasterChef kitchen. The first thing I noticed was Matt Preston, for very obvious reasons. Dressed in a bright red checked three-piece suit, Matt would’ve been hard to miss. And when he stood up to shake my hand, I realised how very tall and imposing he was! After quick hellos to Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris, I turned my attention to the benches.
There was much activity on the floor, the production team speaking into mouthpieces, the assistant directors trying to be everywhere and the contestants chatting in groups. Right in the middle hung THE clock.
Natalie, clearly amused at my wide-eyed excitement, asked if I would like like a peek into the pantry. Hell, yeah! I thought, but nodded politely.
The pantry is a riot of colours, with fresh veggies, meats and many, many bottles — condiments, sauces, spices, stock. No wonder the contestants go slightly berserk when they have to pick out all their ingredients in a matter of minutes. Today’s was a Mystery Box challenge but done slightly differently. I can’t reveal more but it’ll suffice to say that the challenge involved kiddie food.
THIS IS THE REAL THING
|MasterChef The Professionals Season 1 Episode One
“Lights on!” yelled a woman in all black. She was clearly in charge. I learnt she’s the first assistant director or AD, Cathie Fox. The director sits in the control room.
Sporting the coveted white MasterChef aprons, the would-be chefs washed their hands and got ready, almost for a bout in the boxing ring, it seemed! Near me, a number of cameramen hauled heavy-duty cameras on their shoulders. They are responsible for all the close shots. There was just one camera on a crane, which took overhead shots.
“This is the real thing,” announced Cathie and suddenly the huge buzzing room had pin-drop silence. Yes, this is the real thing, I thought, my heart beating faster. Gary, George and Matt took position and before the cameras started rolling, Gary had just one thing to say, hands folded like a namaste: “Please make some nice food”.
“Your time starts now,” said the judges and the hand on the clock started moving. Most contestants ran out to the back and after much bangs and clangs, came back with utensils. The ingredients were already in the Mystery Box, so they didn’t need to go to the pantry this time.
As they started kneading their dough and beating their eggs, four story producers went around asking them what they were making and why. Story producers are the people who ask the contestants all the right questions to bring out their back stories. The contestants looked quite relaxed and chatted happily into the camera.
Making sure I didn’t come in the way of all the roving lenses, I started talking, in extremely hushed tones, to a lady with a bunch of brushes tucked into her waistband. She’s Maureen Moriarty, responsible for keeping the judges looking all dapper. “Do you touch up the contestants as well?” I asked. “Nah,” Maureen grinned. “This is reality TV. They want ’em looking stressed and sweaty!”
|The MasterChef Pantry
Soon, sounds of chop-chop, grind-grind were followed by hisses and sizzles. The aroma of caramelising sugar hit my nostrils. Next it was garlic in olive oil. Then eggs being fried. Then something sweet baking. Then something savoury baking...till my head was swirling with this delicious mishmash of smells. That’s something we miss out on, on TV!
Bake, bake, you little buggers
George and Gary started walking among the benches, talking to contestants, offering tips, showing one how to make scoops.... With the minutes ticking away, a few smiles were now being replaced by frowns and creased foreheads.
Some were in trouble. A woman in pink dropped a paratha while flipping it. But she just chucked it and rolled out another one, without batting an eyelid. The camera immediately zoomed in.
“Bake, bake, you little buggers,” groaned a blonde girl in orange. Two cameras raced towards her. Disaster sells, of course. Desperate, she seemed to be using mind power to speed up the baking. I had grown quite fond of her in the past half hour. I tried to put my mind power to work too.
Fifteen minutes to go, 10 minutes to go, one minute to go... the tension in the room just notched up higher and higher. Someone frantically called out for sugar, others were already plating up. My blonde friend (okay, that’s an exaggeration) was still struggling. Come on, come on, I urged silently.
“Okay everyone, big reactions,” yelled Cathie and the judges started the famous 10, 9, 8, 7... countdown. “That’s it, time’s up,” finished Gary.
But for the contestants, the work was far from over. Now they had to clean up their benches so that when the camera zoomed in for individual shots of their dishes, the counters looked all nice and clean. Contestants brought out a little red mat each and placed their dishes on it for the camera.
Then everyone broke for lunch, after which the tasting would be filmed. But I could see the judges already picking at the dishes, sampling this and that. Hmmm!
I stepped out with Natalie to get ready for my interview with the judges. I grabbed some lunch of chicken, vegetables and a delicious brownie with cream and it was time to head back.
Did the blonde girl’s dish finally bake? Would she face elimination because of it? I would have to wait many months to find out!
t2: We hear you guys were mobbed in India...
Gary: Yeah! George and I went there recently. Matt went the year before that. We went as part of Oz Fest, which ran from October last year to February 2013, and the [Australian] high commission was just absolutely flabbergasted. Up to that point they had musicians, a few cricketers, some politicians, like [Prime Minister] Julia Gillard... and they said, ‘You guys just topped it all. We just can’t keep up!’ (Laughs) Yeah, we raced away from a book signin g in different cars and people were following us on mopeds... it was actually quite funny.
t2: Did you expect such a
Gary: No, no not at all. Well, I knew a bit from my Twitter fans. I reckon 25 per cent of my Twitter base is from India. Then we’ve also got a big following in Indonesia and Malaysia. So, MasterChef Australia is quite a big thing in Southeast Asia, which is (pauses) interesting. MasterChef is actually shown in all kinds of places... Venezuela, Dubai... I bumped into a guy from Sweden and he said ‘I’m watching the show.’ I was like WOW!
t2: So when you signed up, did you anticipate that the show would be this big?
Gary: No, no. You know, we essentially auditioned for the show, along with a lot of top chefs in the country. George and I auditioned and I remember, when we were shortlisted, they set up a scenario very similar to what you’ve seen on MasterChef... contestants cooking, well they were professional chefs, pretending to muck things up. They would get three chefs and chuck them into the scenario to talk about what the ‘contestants’ were doing... give them feedback and all that... Now George and I have known each other a long time. He was my apprentice, and then he went on to do bigger and better things than I’ve ever done! So, we’ve got a natural kind of chemistry and understanding about each other’s feelings about food. We just got on really well and instead of a chance at stardom and big egos getting in our way, George and I had a very natural conversation every time we were put together. And I think they saw that and soon they were chucking out other chefs and keeping George and me together. And we were like, ‘Ooh, this could be good!’
Till then, there never really had been a food show that had captivated a primetime audience so well. All the food shows had really been on food channels and on lifestyle, kind of daytime television... and then we started picking up audiences of 1.6 million. And the highest-rated show of all time was in Season 2. It had something like 5 million viewers.
[Matt Preston walks in]
Matt: Six million.
Gary: Okay six. It beat the Olympics, it beat man landing on the moon! So, yeah, we went from being known within professional circles in one state [Victoria] to people shouting out ‘Gary’, ‘Matt’, ‘George’ across Australia. MasterChef kind of changed the dynamics of our whole working lives.
Matt: But we’ve all been doing what we were doing before the show too. That keeps you grounded. George and Gary have been in their restaurants, I’ve been writing throughout this time. You know, you never know how long it’s gonna last.
(Both laugh out loud)
Gary: But also, you know, we really try to be relevant to the show. I mean regardless of what people say, we do really mentor the contestants, from the very beginning... which is where they are now... what you saw earlier today. They’re still very much amateurs, still trying to grasp and make something of this opportunity to learn. And we see the difference, don’t we?
Matt: Certainly. There was Mindy, Audra, Andy...
Gary: The other thing about television is its reach. In the restaurant, we’re restricted to the people who come to eat our food. With television, you’ve suddenly gone from touching the lives of a thousand people per week to seven million! And then hundreds of thousands in other countries. So it’s a very privileged influence. Particularly, in this country, the fact that we have affected in some small way the relevance of food for every child in Australia is very fulfilling. You know, when they come up to you and want to tell you what they’ve cooked or what their mum’s cooked or what they’ve eaten, or they’ll give you a bag of macaroons... it’s brilliant.
Matt: Yeah, it’s kind of changed the way a country thinks about food. Also, in other places. My friend from Bangladesh, he said he’s a huge MasterChef fan. After watching the show, people in places like India saw Australia differently.
Gary: Yeah, they saw a funny, humorous show, with three judges who can give critical feedback in a nice way. And they see a diversity that, may be, not all of them expected to see — Christians, Muslims, black and white and everything else.
Gary, Matt, George
Matt: The cooking is real, the people are real, the outcomes are real. When you watch other reality TV shows you see much more controlled outcomes, often much more bias. Sometimes, a contestant may be a terrible dancer but stays on because he’s popular or she looks good. Then it becomes more like American wrestling... [laughs].
Gary: Well, we are a reality show but we promised ourselves from day one, we’ll be first a cooking show. So you can watch it and learn something... sometimes even through somebody’s mistake, which is fascinating. It’s very relatable. We heard that some of the top downloads from the website are contestants’ recipes. Right Matt?
[Matt grins but stays silent.]
Gary: Oh, they are my recipes. Or is it Matt’s? (Everyone bursts out laughing)
Matt: Well, the top 10 recipe downloads are two from Gary, one from me, some from George and then the rest are from the contestants. The thing is, the show makes them want to cook. When Gary made his Eton Mess in Season 1, the whole country just ran out of meringue!
t2: What’s the Eton Mess?
Gary: It’s a mashed meringue. It’s a good dessert, a very childish kind of dessert, you know, Anglo-Saxon. It has all the right things – it’s gooey, it’s sweet...
t2: Is risotto still the ‘Death Dish’ at MasterChef?
Matt: Oh, it’s not like that. (Smiles)
Gary: But it has been! When have we had a nice dish in the last five years?
t2: You had one in Italy in Season 4...
Matt: Yeah, and one of the kids did a good job.
t2: We loved Junior MasterChef in India.
Gary: It was surprising how good they were! You know what is funny, though? We found out that the children performed the best when their parents weren’t around. Put the parents in and the kids will all look left, for approval. Take the parents away and you realise what they are like in school... they try things and they have fun, they make mistakes and they have tears and it’s okay. They can have all those emotions in one hour and they can come out completely unscathed.
Matt: And with all fingers intact!
Gary: And they were such natural cooks, some of them.
t2: So, other than risotto, any other disaster dishes?
Gary: Pies, scones... often what really throws them off is really the simple stuff. Then practical skills like filleting fish.
t2: Yes, one of them butchered a fish to bits...
Gary: Yes, butchered it. But it’s kind of a professional skill, so it’s unfair to give them big chunks of fish and meat and expect them to cut perfectly. But yeah, mostly it’s the simple things. The longer they are in the competition, they want to try difficult things.
Matt: Yeah, it’s the simple foods, with a clearer kind of vision that’s the problem.
Gary: I’ll just suspend the interview for a moment. George Calombaris has walked into the room. (Applauds with much gusto) Now, ask George a question...
t2: We’re talking about ‘Death Dish’ risotto. Is there something that you never want to see again in MasterChef, George?
(George smiles and shrugs)
Gary: You know, when we give them a short period of time, 15 minutes, 30 minutes, they’ll come up with great food. Give them longer and they think ‘I’ll do this and I’ll do that...
t2: They want to try complex dishes to impress you guys.
Gary: I think the best way to approach this competition is to start with simple things and as your skills improve, that’s when you try bigger things.
t2: What’s surprised you the most on the show? Anything you never thought you’d see?
Matt: Camel! Camel shoulder? Delicious! Camel liver? (Makes a face)
Gary: Mine was the tinned and frozen challenge. I never want to see that again! Nooo I don’t...
George: Well, there are many things I’d love to see back...
Gary: Come on! Cold bone marrow?
Matt: How about that scampi? You remember that one?
George: I remember Alvin’s Drunken Chicken. It was delicious. We’re all about happiness and joy. We make Gary eat all the stuff that looks terrible [everyone laughs].
Gary: Yeah, there was this Jewish dish with chicken, like a meat loaf. I don’t know what the guy did with it but it was terrible. It’s amazing how badly some people do cook... and how badly they want to be on the show!
t2: Yes, there are people who just want to be on television...
Gary: We are often asked how we cast for the show. And the answer is, we go around the country looking for the best cooks we can possibly find. But you gotta tick the other boxes too. Like you got to be a go-getter, you’ve got to have the spark in your eyes, you’ve got to be able to communicate your ideas and passion. They can be quiet and gentle, but whoever wins, or whoever is in the top 10 really, has to be able to make a career out of it. It’s a bit like applying for the top job.
t2: Like you went to Italy for Season 4, any hopes of bringing the show to India?
Gary: Oh, we’ve been begging, haven’t we?
Matt: I would love to. Well, commuting within the city with the crew might be a challenge but we’ve shot with STAR World and in terms of the technical stuff, you guys are just unbelievable. It was amazing. May be if we camp inside the Mumbai film studio or Tollywood in Hyderabad... I would just love to go.
Gary: What if we went to Kerala?
Matt and George: Yeah, yeah...
t2: Any favourite Indian food?
George: I love that sugary thing [makes circles with his hands] umm, umm... jalebi. Then in Old Delhi, I had this thing... it was sweet potato, wiped with tamarind.
Gary: We had all sorts of stuff in India. I loved this vegetarian Gujarati place we went to. Then we had beautiful dosas and curries and malpua... do you remember the malpua, George? Then rabri. Oh, that was just amazing...like a condensed milk sandwich! Even the snack food like sevpuri and bhelpuri... loved them.
t2: Did you try the panipuri?
Matt: Is that the golgappa? Yes, yes.
Gary: I was in this Indian shop a couple of weeks ago [in Melbourne] and I’m wandering around, looking for milk solids... mewa, is it... and I’m trying to explain to the guy what I want when this woman walks in and she goes, ‘You’re making malpuas?’ I said yes. And she directed me to an Indian sweet shop, where I could get it readymade!
Matt: As you can see, we could get into a long and detailed discussion about Indian food...
Gary: The other day, I was making Paneer Butter Masala and one of the spices to be used was kasuri methi, fenugreek, and I wasn’t sure if I used it right, so I tweeted ‘Any tips on making Paneer Butter Masala?’ And I got every kind of tip possible! ‘Fry the paneer, don’t fry the paneer, add cumin, add this, add that’... [laughs].
And it was time for the judges to head back to the sets for tasting what the contestants had plated up.
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