Hang on to your colanders, and keep a lid on your crock pots, MasterChef is back! They’ve been teasing us with ads for weeks, claiming (as they always do) that this is the best crop of contestants they’ve ever had.
We love it when George rises to his tiptoes to deliver a message, when Matt puts a spoonful of something in his mouth then stares whimsically into the distance while he masticates, and Gary, we just love Gary.
Nevertheless, we all have our doubts about how real this reality TV show is. What are they hiding behind the aprons? Pre-packaged sauce? Heaven forbid!
Who better to clear up the mess than MasterChef star pupil, Alice Zaslavsky. We asked the Season 4 almost-finalist: what’s going on behind the aprons and immunity pins?
1. Challenges are not exactly what they seem
Make no mistake, the contestants are under the pump, but next time they show a shot of someone looking scattered while they fluff around at their bench, you may want to take a closer look.
“The challenges are definitely a scramble, they will not compromise on the time you are given,” Alice says.
“But they still need to get all of the shots from different cameras, so we would finish cooking and then have to step away from the bench, put all of our utensils down, stop touching the dish and then the next two to three minutes, just pretend to fuss around our plates.”
Pretend to cook? Outrage!
“That’s when they get those overhead shots, during that time. The clock has stopped because we aren’t touching anything.”
There’s also a “fair go” rule when it comes to challenges. Who knew?
“They want to make it fair for us, so for example, someone forgot to pack the pantry shelf properly, of course, they are going to stop the clock and fix it, but the duration of the challenge doesn’t change.
“One particular time I was up for an immunity pin and I was doing the ‘pretend to fuss’ at the end, and I remembered I’d forgotten to season my peas and the salt was so close to my hand but I knew there were five cameras on me so I couldn’t do anything! Naturally, the judges said the dish was tasty except the peas were under-seasoned.”
2. Balcony cheering IS annoying
You know those scenes. The contestants lean over the rail hurling encouragement and advice at someone sweating it out in the kitchen. Funnily enough, some people don’t really care for that.
“A couple of times, and it usually doesn’t make it to TV, the contestants specifically looked up and said: “can you guys just shut up!” Alice says.
Then there are the times when you just can’t bring yourself to cheer.
“The finale was shot during my birthday, and we’d been brought back, so weren’t in lock-down, so of course I’d had a massive night to celebrate. The next morning, I was trying to look down and cheer on my fellow contestants, but super green in the gills. It was one of the worst experiences in my life.
“People were tweeting in “where’s Alice, why isn’t she in this episode?” It’s because I looked like a white walker!”
“I thought: I’m going to be the first person to spew on the contestants during a challenge.
3. Yes, the judges eat cold food
It’s one of the first things people want to know, and Alice says, the judges are “100 per cent” eating cold food when they are judging, but the interesting thing is: they may have already made up their minds before that point!
“It always surprises me that after seven seasons, the first thing people still ask me about the show is: is the food cold?” Alice says.
“The judges would walk around and taste the food as soon as the challenge was over, while everything was still hot. If you were smart, you’d make a second plate of everything, so they get a complete sense of what you’ve cooked. You’d try your hardest when they tasted it the first time to figure out what they thought, but they have very good poker faces.
“Once you finish cooking, they take your plate away and shoot it with an overhead camera so it looks fresh.
“Then all of the dishes go straight into the fridge, while the cast and crew would break for lunch.”
Wait, the judges go out for lunch before tasting the food?
“Ha ha, yeah. But often, we would be so nervous that we couldn’t even eat lunch!
“When your name was called, you’d walk up and put your dish on the bench, then they’d show that overhead shot. The judges put a fork in, eat a mouthful of the cold gloop for the cameras and pretend it’s the first time they’ve tasted it, but by that point they already knew what they thought!
“But the best early indicator that you had a winning dish was when the whole production crew came down and licked your plate clean.”
4. The judges play favourites
Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris and Matt Preston have become household names, and every season they seem to take a genuine interest in the contestants. But do they favour some over the others?
“Like any teacher, the judges have those contestants they connect with more,” Alice says. “George was always very interested in anyone keen to become a chef because that’s his own experience, Matt would always pick out the ones who love to write or talk about food. And Gary is a real stickler for classic technique.
“You can definitely say the judges have their favourites. But what the general public don’t often see is that those favourites may change throughout the show. The judges have to invest emotionally every year in a group of people they have never met before and you need to give them a reason to make that investment.
“You learn what the judges like and don’t like, but the biggest pitfall is cooking for the judges instead of yourself.”
5. But they’re good eggs
Think the judges are just feigning interest in the contestants to collect their pay cheque? Wrong.
“Once they’ve invested in you, and especially if you give the industry a red-hot-go, they’re there for you. I’ve been really fortunate, all of the judges have stayed in touch and helped me in different ways,” Alice says.
“Gary’s dog Molly and my Leopold are both big gentle giants. We send each other dog photos.
“When The Weekly Review opportunity came along, I sought advice from Matt and he gave me a massive push in the right direction.
“And George has been super supportive. He is passionate about kids’ food education and when my book came out, he was the first one to read the whole thing. And, funnily enough, he’s been reading my reviews, too… I got a message just last week to say “loved your ‘Up in Smoke’ review”.
6. Life in the MasterChef house is intense
There’s a reason the phrase “too many cooks spoil the broth” was coined. The MasterChef house is a bit like the Big Brother house, but with less hanky panky and more dishes.
“Imagine school camp, except it’s a collection of people that are intentionally as different
“There are 24 people that all use cooking as their way of relaxing. We had to have a roster to cook in the kitchen. Some people stuck to that roster more strictly than others.
“Tensions were high, especially after team challenges, so there were some cracker situations.”
But it wasn’t all bad.
“More often than not we would come together for family meals in the evening. At first, everyone would try and show off but after a while the most popular meals became the home style ones, we didn’t want foams and gels – just roast veggies and soup.”
7. Cooking is probably the smallest part of the show
We know making a TV show takes time, but just how much time does it take to film those packages outside of the cooking segments?
“A shooting day can be up to 17 hours, sometimes at least four of those hours are spent driving up and down, from the house, to the studio, up the driveway, out of the driveway; and at least another seven spent waiting around, some interviews can take like 3 hours – sometimes more… and then one of those hours is spent cooking,” Alice says.
“It has taken up to three or four days to shoot one challenge before.
“We called it ‘hurry up and wait’ because we’d get up at 5-6am for “wake up shots” and interviews, and then spend an hour or two driving up in cars!
“Someone’s job was specifically to hose down the driveway so it looks nice and glossy.”
“The production values on MasterChef are arguably higher than any other show in the genre. The equipment, the amount of producers and crew on the ground. All of that takes time and patience. That’s part of what keeps the show relevant though – how slick it is.”
8. Forget your phones!
Just like modern day trivia nights and school exams, mobile phones are a big no-no – for obvious reasons!
“You’re definitely not allowed to google anything during challenges – or at any time. They take your phone away,” Alice says.
But cook books are all the rage in the lead up.
“The worst thing was finding out someone had the same cook book as you.
“I think that we thought that if you could have a cook book on every style then you could do that style of cooking.
“When you hear someone say I’ve never done this before, it’s because they’ve read it in a cook book and they’re trying it out on the set!”
MasterChef returns on Monday, May 1 at 7.30pm on Channel 10.