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In a long-running show such as MasterChef Australia the aim, as it should also be in the kitchen, is to keep things fresh. To put it in food terms, think of a creme brulee, a classic that can be endlessly reinvigorated with new ingredients, rather than the blazing, but brief popularity of a fad like the cronut.
For its upcoming 15th series, MasterChef Australia aims to spice things up with the theme of secrets and surprises. One surprise already announced is the arrival of superstar British chef Jamie Oliver, dropping by for the first two episodes and returning to the MasterChef Australia kitchen for the first time in more than a decade. He joins a line-up of guest judges, including Curtis Stone, Maggie Beer, Rick Stein and Peter Gilmore.
MasterChef Australia: Secrets and Surprises features the return of Jamie Oliver (second from left), alongside regular judges Andy Allen (left), Jock Zonfrillo and Melissa Leong.
Oliver says while he doesn’t like conflict, he does feel compelled to share the truth with contestants, be that good or bad. “I try to be supportive and encouraging,” he says. “But sadly, the minute I’m faced with a plate of food that tastes terrible, I can only speak the truth. I’m not a very good liar!”
This season, contestants will face enormous lamington towers, exploding confetti mystery boxes and never-before-seen twists. “What you can expect is a secret and a surprise every single episode, which is no mean feat,” says judge Melissa Leong. “What it does is gives the contestants the catalyst to be inspired. There is something wonderful about food when you are truly inspired and asked to think about the world in a more magical way.”
This is Leong’s fourth season with the show after it was revamped in 2020 following the departure of long-time judges Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris and Matt Preston. “I had big shoes to fill. And Matt Preston has wonderful shoes, but they’re entirely his,” says Leong, who judges alongside chef Jock Zonfrillo and series four winner Andy Allen. “I have a fabulous collection of stilettos that are entirely mine. Walking onto that set, production said, ‘Be yourself’.”
That advice proved to be on the money, as Leong was last year nominated for most popular presenter and the coveted Gold Logie. As a woman of colour, she feels particularly proud of the nods.
Adi Nevgi was given a second chance to enter the MasterChef Australia kitchen, after she turned down a spot last year to concentrate on being a doctor.
“That’s wild, isn’t it?” says Leong. “But I’m happy to accept it because we have these discussions about representation and diversity and it saddens me that my being here is still somewhat a novelty. It is not the norm. But those of us of colour have always learnt that it is a long game. Looking at the red carpet at the Logies, looking at who was nominated, it’s changing. It is slow and we have a long way to go, but it is changing.”
As for this year’s contestants, one who is pleasantly surprised to be on the show is 32-year-old Victorian doctor Adi Nevgi. She had been accepted for last year’s series, but decided to pull out because of the pandemic.
“I just couldn’t step away from work because we were so short-staffed during COVID,” says Nevgi. “It was a tough decision, but it was a no-brainer. People were getting sick all the time. It was just not a good time to leave, so I couldn’t. Now in hindsight, I can look back and know it was the right thing to do.”
Nevgi only started taking cooking seriously the past few years as a relaxing hobby away from the life-and-death decisions of her work. In a full-circle moment, she credits MasterChef Australia as getting her behind the stove in the first place. “I’ve been a big fan for years. Watching the show got me into food, seeing people who had no formal training cook all these incredible things.”
For Nevgi, she sees the series as not only changing her life, but the very palate of the nation over its 14-year run. “I unequivocally think MasterChef has changed the food landscape in Australia,” she says. “I don’t think we would be as much of a food-loving nation as we are without it because it’s encouraged people to cook more at home. It’s made people more aware of what food is out there. Nobody knew what a croquembouche was until MasterChef showed it on TV. Now everybody knows what a croquembouche is.”
MasterChef Australia: Secrets and Surprises premieres on May 1 at 7.30pm on Ten.
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