50 to 1: Those are the odds that a contestant will become Australia’s next Masterchef. As the season marches relentlessly on, the odds improve but the standards get tougher, the challenges increasingly impossible. The weak (or often the merely unlucky) are ruthlessly weeded out; amateur pastry chefs and makers of homemade pasta begin to disappear from your screen, their smiling, hopeful faces in the opening sequence the only reminder that they were ever there at all.
Audiences all over the world have thrilled to the spectacle, backing their chosen culinary gladiators and their favourite team, episode after episode. Until, at the very end, only one is left standing to claim the title and the glory – ahead of them the career they’ve fought with heart and soul to claim, a chance to publish their own cookery book and $100,000 in cash to fund their vision.
Season 4 will begin airing on local cable on June 14. What’s in store? “Lots of surprises, and I bet it will be even bigger, but I can’t imagine how they are going to top last season’s line up of world chefs,” says Sri Lankan-born, Season 3 contestant Kumar Pereira. It’s the same question all the fans are asking. (Once you’ve cooked for the Dalai Lama and Nigella Lawson, you might have nowhere to go but down.) The celebrity line-up is one of the great draws of the show – with master classes and a range of new culinary experiences leaving contestants measurably more impressive cooks by the end of their ordeal. For his part, though Kumar didn’t get to light up a stove with Nigella, he says he still spent plenty of time being star struck.
|The celebrity judges: Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris and Matt Preston|
“It just kept getting better and better – I still remember having Heston [Blumenthal] standing next to me on the gallery and him telling me the finer points of making the perfect chips – it was so casual and natural and mind blowing at the same time,” says Kumar, adding that “this was the case with all of the world’s greats: Thomas Keller, Rene Redzepi, Shane Osbourne, David Chang, etc – they were so generous and giving with their knowledge and ever so friendly and down to earth, as were the Aussie chefs, Tetysuya, Neil Perry, Maggie Beer, Sean Pressland…I could never in my wildest dreams ever think that I would be hobnobbing with such a stellar cast.”
The rewards multiply the further you get. If you’re one of those lucky enough to make it to the top 8 in the show, a much anticipated international jaunt awaits. Contestants in previous seasons have travelled to Hong Kong, London and New York, but competition-related field trips aside, contestants spend the rest of their time effectively under house arrest – “there’s no leaving the house or talking to anyone,” says Kumar. “There are no calls other than the weekly call.” Aside from that 10 minute conversation with their families, participants have no access to internet, T.V or their cell phones – violate the rules and you’re asked to leave.
Still, the top 24 know they’ve really arrived when they finally walk through the doors of the Masterchef house. 4 stories tall, the house’s prime location places it in the Eastern suburbs of Sydney, says Kumar. Its windows open out onto a lovely view of the harbour and a swimming pool – and depending on how well they do, this could be ‘home’ for many months. Afforded a modest stipend, participants are also asked to take charge of their own cooking and cleaning (and this includes taking turns scrubbing out the 11 fridges in the house) for the duration of their stay. The cameras even follow them here and so it’s no surprise they become quickly accustomed to being filmed.
Each found their way of coping with the confinement and with the knowledge that, for better or worse, they were stars on national television. “We were shown the opening titles before the show went to air – which was quite weird as suddenly you knew that everyone and I mean every one, would suddenly see you and that was a shock- you suddenly felt very exposed,” Kumar admits frankly. Contestants had to learn how to deliver candid interviews that were later spliced into the episode. “The asides were obviously done later in the day or sometimes the next day or even days later,” says Kumar. “Photographic records were kept of what each person wore every day and sometimes it was difficult to talk in the present tense about something that had already happened.”
To cope with the stress of competing, Kumar practised his tai chi, kept an illustrated diary and tended the herb garden, worm farm and compost heap, all of which were familiar activities. “Some coped better than others – it drove some to start smoking again!” says Kumar of the other competitors. “Luckily we were in a ‘dry house’ with alcohol limited to the weekends only and then only 2 glasses of wine or a couple of beers.”
The pressure cooker environment allows contestants to form strong bonds with each other…and with their audience. The show has won millions of viewers over by offering not just a rollercoaster ride of a competition but an extraordinary wholesomeness unusual in reality television, both traits which have already been dramatically highlighted in the new season. The contestants, who you get to know through succinct, confessional style video clips introducing them, their families and why they love food, have a rare camaraderie as a group.
Tweaks in the Season 4 format, such as a new team centric approach to the celebrity immunity challenge cook-offs seem set to simply strengthen the bonds between them.
“It was difficult and strange initially, as there were such diverse age groups,” says Kumar, who remembers that in their case there were people from 20 through to 60 years competing. “The common denominator of cooking was what caused bonding…It wasn’t easy sharing the same space but we found our safety valves and spaces that kept us sane…” Of course, their confinement left them plenty of time to practise in the house’s two kitchens. The steep learning curve the process encourages will stay the same for the contestants facing off on Season 4. It’s immediately evident that standards are higher than they were in previous seasons. The show also looks set to be more inclusive and diverse than before – contestants include the likes of young Amina Elshafei whose mixed Egyptian-Korean heritage has her drawing from an unusual palette of flavours even while her adherence to her Muslim faith means that when she inevitably has to cook with pork, she won’t be tasting her dish.
In the past, Masterchef judges – chefs George Calombaris and Gary Mehigan and food critic Matt Preston – have heaped praise on contestants like Jimmy Seervai and Poh Ling Yeow when they cooked recipes that drew on their culinary heritage. Kumar chose not to do the same – did it cost him? “Probably, but I was true to myself and did what I like to cook – I refuse to conform to the expectations of others,” says Kumar, who faltered only after making it into the top 12.
If their strategies don’t pay off, eliminated contestants can look still forward to a reunion as they are called to witness the epic battle between the last two left standing. Cheering loudly, they will toast the one that triumphs. For Kumar, who is still in touch with his old friends, that return to the Masterchef kitchen was very special. “It felt lovely as you had the opportunity of seeing people who shared an intense period of your life…we all went through a lot and we know what we did, and what we experienced and can be totally free, as even though we are bound by contracts we can be honest with each other,” he says. Membership in this elite group is restricted to Masterchef veterans: “It is a very special club that even extends to previous contestants as when we meet each other at functions we have a very special bond that brings us together.”
Published in the Sunday Times on June 11, 2012. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Masterchef Australia.