‘The anxiety’s still there’: Former MasterChef contestants return

The MasterChef kitchen is filled with the mouth-watering scent of frying onions. There aren’t too many more comforting smells in the world than onion-meets-butter, but there’s nothing homely about the dishes being prepared. A contestant is competing against a professional chef in an immunity challenge. The clock is ticking. The stakes are high. And overseeing it all is MasterChef alumnus and season eight runner-up Matt Sinclair.

MasterChef season 11 mentors Matt Sinclair, Poh Ling Yeow and Billie McKay.Credit:Ten

As MasterChef enters its 11th season it’s very much a case of “if it ain’t broke…” At the same time, striking the balance between keeping things fresh and keeping on doing what works is probably a greater challenge than just making a new show from scratch.

It was staring us in the face … we should have past contestants.

In 2018 executive producer Marty Benson decided to give a little tweak to the Mystery Box challenge. Then at the end of last year he thought, well, Shannon Bennett has been the resident “mentor” on the show for four years. The longest anyone had been in the role. “It felt like that was an area we could refresh,” Benson says. Problem was, there aren’t many chefs better than Shannon Bennett in Australia.

The other thing that happened in 2018, though, is that the show marked its 10th anniversary and celebrated by bringing back a bunch of beloved former contestants – much to the delight of long-time fans.

The original MasterChef winner and runner-up Julie Goodwin and Poh Ling Yeow.Credit:Ten

“So it was staring us in the face,” Benson says. “We should have past contestants. But one past contestant? Over Shannon Bennett? It didn’t really make sense. So we thought, 'How about we get a crack team of past contestants that are popular with the viewers, have a wide range of skills and kind of cover all seasons?'”

And the thing about MasterChef is that when it comes to mining the talent of past seasons, there’s an embarrassment of riches. The majority of contestants have gone on to forge careers in food and hospitality. Several have established themselves as serious media or culinary talents, or both.

Matt Sinclair achieved his “food dream”, as they say, in short order, setting up a food truck at Brisbane’s Eat Street market. He then parlayed that into a restaurant on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, Sum Yung Guys, which quickly became beloved of locals and tourists alike. He’s the kind of chap with the drive, smarts and charisma to have made it happen anyway, but he freely credits his MasterChef experience with fast-tracking his journey into hospitality.

“People come on MasterChef to develop as a cook,” he says. “To open up opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have. To be surrounded by legends of the industry, the brains and wisdom and experience. Normally, you can’t just ring up George Calombaris and pick his brains about something for 10 minutes. Here you get to do that – whether it’s on or off camera.”

Now, Sinclair’s delighted to be able to give a little of that back. He remembers his time being mentored by Shannon Bennett as not so much about winning the challenge (although that mattered); more about all the little tips he picked up along the way: “Different ways to use ingredients, different ways to cook, cut, present them. All of those little pieces of gold that he would pass on were what I really tried to collect.”

Similarly, while he’d love the contestants he mentors to blow the opposition away, what he hopes for most is to help them progress as a cook, whether that’s by passing on technical knowledge or simply boosting their confidence. “Providing that sense of calm,” Sinclair says. “To get them in a good headspace. So they’re thinking: ‘You know, I think I’ve got a pretty good shot here’. That’s what I’m shooting for.”

WHAT: MasterChef Australia
WHEN: Starts Monday 7.30pm on Ten

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