Written by Isabella Keith
Graphic by Reema Hindi
CW: Mentions of COVID-19
Amongst the anxiety and uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, a hint of familiarity has returned: MasterChef is officially back for its twelfth consecutive season.
The show is not without its own commotions – its three judges of the first eleven seasons, George Calombaris, Gary Mehigan, and Matt Preston, have departed, leaving three fresh faces to take over. In many ways, the pay dispute between Channel 10 and George, Gary, and Matt, that led to the termination of their contracts, is a blessing in disguise. As far as we know, after all, none of the new judges have committed wage theft of several million dollars, so we can all watch with far less guilt, knowing we are not stuffing the wallets of anyone who picks at the pockets of their employees.
The show’s new judges, Andy Allen, Melissa Leong, and Jock Zonfrillo, are met with 24 familiar faces, all past contestants of the show who are, as the title of the season suggests, “back to win.” Following their appearances in prior seasons, many of the returning contestants are now successful restaurant owners, cookbook writers, hosts of cooking shows, and household names. Callum Hann, who was a teenaged university student when he was crowned as the Season 2 runner-up back in 2010, is now a married father of two in his thirties. Season 7’s Reynold Poernomo has his own dessert bar. After being widely rumoured to be one of the new hosts, Season 1’s runner-up Poh Ling Yeow, finds herself behind the contestants’ benches instead.
As much as MasterChef is trashy, overly-dramatised reality television full of tears about undercooked eggs and debates about what the precise meaning of ‘gooey’ is, it is also a comforting staple in the evening routine of autumn and winter for many Australians. It airs five nights a week at the very sensible post-dinner time of 7:30pm, for no more than an hour and a half. Unlike other reality shows like The Bachelor and all its spin-offs, MasterChef has a family-friendly PG rating for mildly coarse language; a rating which appears to have been amended following Gordon Ramsay’s week-long stint as a guest judge.
With Australians practising social distancing and spending more time at home with their families, MasterChef has come around at an excellent time. This is not only because it is family-friendly and holds wide appeal, but because this period has seemed to conjure a widespread desire to take up baking and cooking. Stovetops that haven’t been used in months are finally flickering on again. Instagram stories are rife with breadmaking attempts (in all their varying degrees of success) and trays of cookies.
For all its ridiculous challenges like Snow Eggs and its reliance on technology like blast chillers and liquid nitrogen, a large part of MasterChef also involves doing the best with what you’ve got. While these artificial, judge-imposed restrictions on things like time, ingredients, and style are very different to the experiences of those of us who face empty supermarket shelves, we may still find ourselves seeing some commonalities. Moreover, now is a better time than any to learn how to make use of new ingredients or try out a different recipe. For those who are struggling during this time, cooking can be an outlet for personal expression and a way to feel productive. MasterChef offers some inspiration, and serves as a reminder that, even under difficult constraints, it is still possible to produce something incredible.
Even among those of us who have no intention to use this time to cook, the producers of MasterChef could not have hoped for a more captive audience. In a period of so much anxiety and uncertainty, the nostalgia and familiarity of the show’s format are a winning combination. There may have been a risk to bringing in new judges, but the familiar addition of past competitors seems to have worked – at least so far. The premiere drew in an audience of 1.2 million; the biggest the show has had in years. Over a million loyal viewers continued to watch the entire first week of the show, and the numbers since show no signs of them stopping anytime soon.
Despite all its petty dramas over the counting of pork ribs or the size of chicken portions and frustratingly-timed ad breaks before every single announcement, MasterChef will remain as a brief, unwavering moment of escapism each weeknight during an otherwise confusing and stressful time.