Top stories of 2020: MasterChef new judges hit home run + Junior MasterChef simmers along


• Before the series launched Mediaweek went inside the MasterChef Australia kitchen

The heat is on for MasterChef judges Andy, Melissa & Jock said the Mediaweek mid-year headline about the team employed to replace Matt, Garry and George on one of Australia’s biggest TV reality franchises.

However, once the ratings started to roll in they had nothing to worry about – the TV audience warmed to them immediately.

Before the series launched Mediaweek went inside the MasterChef Australia kitchen to talk with the three new MasterChef judges Jock Zonfrillo, Andy Allen and Melissa Leong.

They were instructed by the producers to just be themselves on the show, and it worked.

The heat is on: MasterChef judges Andy, Melissa & Jock

Mediaweek goes inside the MasterChef Australia kitchen to talk with the three new MasterChef judges Jock Zonfrillo, Andy Allen and Melissa Leong. Just how will the audience welcome the replacements for Matt, Gary and George?

How long did it take to say ‘yes’ to join the show?
Andy: Absolute no brainer for me. Coming from the show originally I wanted to do it as much as I possibly could. I have got six business partners who all work very hard in our business which allows me to go off and do something amazing like this. It was an easy decision.

Jock: It was a harder decision for me because I have a lot going on with multiple businesses including a three-hat restaurant in Adelaide. It was tough. But because of what we do with indigenous acknowledgement and engagement [via The Orana Foundation] this is a great platform to spread that message. I will try and bring indigenous ingredients into the MasterChef kitchen on a daily basis instead of just on a special episode.

Melissa: I am a freelance journalist, so it was a bit easier for me. The opportunity to come on to a show like this – such a high calibre and such a loved show – is the opportunity of a lifetime.

Matt, Gary and George all sent their best
Jock: I know all three of them as friends and when we spoke they wished us all individually the best.

Andy: It’s a tight knit community the food industry – there’s still lots of love between us and Gary, Matt and George – maybe even more now to be honest!

It’s the food, not the people, but when your time’s up…
Andy said he didn’t feel any pressure from having to pass judgement on former friends and colleagues returning to the show to compete.

“No at all – I have worked with most of them since the show and earned their respect. I am very comfortable passing judgement on what is a plate of food.”

Jock: “And that’s important. All we are doing is judging on the plate of food that is put in front of us, not the person who gave it to us. That can be a tough call and after just a few weeks of filming there were already some very emotional moments.”

Melissa: “We never want to send anybody home, but that is the nature of the show. All we can do is critique the food on the day and then be really honest and heartfelt about that.”

How prepared were you for the first elimination?
Andy: “Not at all. I thought it was part of the process of the show, but it is hard when the contestants all care so much, no just about the competition, but every plate of food they put up, whether it be to their family, friends or at work. To tell them that it is not good enough is really emotional.”

Jock: “It is hard because we really care about them –we want them to succeed, we want them to win and put up great dishes day after day. It is very hard to deliver the bad news and criticism, no matter how constructive it is.”

Testing the judges’ chemistry
If MasterChef makers Endemol Shine Australia and Network 10 tested the chemistry between the judges, they did it in a clever way. “No, they didn’t,” said Andy when asked. “It proves how well they do their job because we all got along immediately like a house on fire. We had a lovely dinner not long ago at Mel’s house one evening and all our partners came. We hang out at work and outside work. We have a great friendship.”

How tough is it in the food business now?

Gordon Ramsay with Andy, Mel and Jock in week one of MasterChef Australia 2020

Andy: “People still have a strong desire to be part of the industry, despite the current challenges. The former contestants in this series really want to win this series because it gives them a platform and a big old chunk of cash to go out and build their dreams. There is lots of hard work, determination and passion going into every day in this competition because they really want to win.”

Jock: “No matter how hard it is in the industry now, food continues to be something that connects everyone every day. There is going to be no shortage of career opportunities or avenues to pursue in food.”

Melissa: “When you work in the food space you love it fiercely. Nobody who works in food wants anything else but to be here. That bonds us all very much. This is the second time these contestants have been here. When they go back out into the world they have a renewed vigour and love for it.”

Advice from EP Marty Benson
Jock: “We get on well because we are both Scotsmen. Between Pete Newman (Endemol Shine Australia chief content officer) and Marty they knew a lot about us, and they have seen the individual TV projects we had done over the years.

“The advice we have all had individually is, ‘Be yourselves. We employed you for what you are, not some other character.’ People that know me get that I am very black and white. What you see is what you get. And if you don’t like that you can f-off!” [Laughs]

Has the show and the team changed much?
Andy: “It is a big beast and there’s many people here that I worked with on my previous visit. Benny the cameraman has been on all seasons and there are many others still here from my season. That is reassuring because it is such a great thing to work on.”

Melissa: “There are lots of new structural elements that people won’t have seen before. That is keeping us on our toes and certainly the contestants as well. Every day we walk onto set there is something new and exciting for us and them.”

Junior MasterChef: Melissa Leong on another serve of kids in the kitchen

Like most people, Melissa Leong found herself with some free time on her hands during the Covid pandemic, but unlike most this led to making an impromptu season of Junior MasterChef. The show will return for its first season since 2011 when it premieres on Network 10 on Sunday, October 11.

Leong was part of the fresh contingent of new judges to spearhead MasterChef Australia earlier this year that also included chefs Andy Allen and Jock Zonfrillo. This saw the trio go on to lead MasterChef to a ratings resurgence, cementing it as the number one TV cooking show in Australia.

Mediaweek spoke to Leong about her success on MasterChef, the unexpected season of Junior MasterChef and what she has learnt from her cooking show packed 2020.

After replacing long-time judges Matt Preston, Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris, Leong was glad that the audience was willing to give the new group of judges a chance.

“My first season on MasterChef was an extraordinary adventure and an exercise in saying yes and taking that leap of faith,” Leong told Mediaweek. “We are all so overjoyed that it came together the way that it did, and it encapsulated so much love and resonated with the MasterChef audience.”

“What Jock, Andy and I bring is a dynamic that is entirely our own. I feel so fortunate to be working with such smart, funny, hardworking, supportive human beings. Our relationship developed really quickly, and I think whenever you find yourself in a work situation when the people around you really do care about you it allows you to rise to the occasion.”

When Leong signed up to the new look MasterChef a return of Junior MasterChef wasn’t discussed, but the newfound success of the franchise and the Covid-19 pandemic led to the show coming together this year. Leong said she jumped at the opportunity to be on the show.

“I was utterly thrilled, and I loved the idea from the get-go. Kids bring so much joy and energy to a space. While it has been several years since the last iteration I thought why not, there is always an opportunity to learn from our youth and I think we forget there is so much that we can learn from the generations much, much younger than us.”

Almost 2,000 young cooks aged from 9-14 applied for Junior MasterChef Australia. Leong said that these mini chefs have come into the competition after growing up in a different generation of food.

“The greatest joy with Junior MasterChef is how bright our future is with kids like this wanting to cook from such a young age. These are kids who have grown up with MasterChef for most of their lifetime and this is really a testament to how much our food IQ as a nation has progressed. That fascination with food helps us connect and learn about each other’s cultures because a lot of the time the easiest way to learn about each other’s cultures is through food.”

Leong said that she had high expectations but was still surprised by the quality of cooking that was presented.

“The calibre of cooking and their interpretation of the creative challenges really surprised me in terms of their maturity, their artistic conception, and their execution. I really hope that the audience can appreciate just how special these kids are.”

While judging and providing feedback differs between adults and children, Leong said that ultimately the judges’ style doesn’t change.

“We always make a point of being honest and constructive in our feedback, so that doesn’t change. It is a slightly different crowd from MasterChef and MasterChef Junior, but the sentiment remains and what makes a show like MasterChef so special is the continuing thread of a love for food.”

When asked if these mini chefs will be allowed to compete on MasterChef when they are older, Leong said she wasn’t sure but that it would be a wild ride.

“How crazy would that be if they could go on Junior MasterChef and then MasterChef and potentially win both!”

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