We Chat All Things MasterChef With Matt Preston

The King of Cravats spills his judging secrets.

17/06/2016 4:47 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:54 PM AEST
Network Ten
Matt Preston in all his cravatted glory.

Some people just aren't into reality cooking shows. For everyone else, there's MasterChef Australia.

You don't have to be a fan of the series to acknowledge other people can't get enough of it (the show is currently in its eighth season, with promotions encouraging would-be contestants to sign up for a ninth in 2017).

Featuring restaurateur and chef Gary Mehigan, chef George Calombaris and food critic Matt Preston as judges, the MasterChef kitchen has launched the food careers of cooks such as Julie Goodwin, Adam Liaw, Chris Badenoch, Andy Allen, Reynold Poernomo and Billie McKay -- to name a few.

But what is it about this televised cooking competition that keeps viewers tuning back in year after year?

The Huffington Post Australia sat down with Matt Preston to find out.

Martin Philbey/Fairfax Media
The boys: George, Matt and Gary.

Did you, George and Gary ever anticipate MasterChef Australia would turn out to be this successful?

"No. Absolutely not. We all knew each other prior, and we thought we'd be up here in Sydney for a couple of months -- we'd never lived in Sydney before -- so we thought we'd hang out and have fun and no one would ever see the show and then we'd be gone," Preston told HuffPost Australia.

"My mates who worked in advertising used to call it 'Disaster Chef'. They'd say, 'as a mate I have to tell you, it's not going to work'. Because no one could have predicted it.

"Those first two years [where the show consistently dominated Australian ratings] -- that was insane. To achieve what that show did, breaking all the records, then breaking them again the next year... it's amazing stuff. And we, probably at the time, thought that was what happened on TV."

But that's not to say there weren't some hurdles along the way...

"We had a year, a dodgy year, in year five I think, when we lost our way with the show.

"It's a bit like changing the Barbecue Shapes recipe. You only realise how much you loved the original once they change the recipe.

"In a way, that's a challenge of the show. There's an ownership of the show... the viewers understand what the show is about and won't settle for anything less."

Fairfax Media
MasterChef 2015 winner Billie McKay with Heston Marc Blumenthal.

What about the contestants? How does the casting process work?

"Well, you have to be able to cook, number one," Preston said.

"It's not about their personality. It's almost counter-intuitive in terms of TV, the people we get to be on the show. We cast people on the show because of the way they cook, not because of their personality.

"But brilliantly, because Australia is a smart TV nation, they embrace people like Reynold [Poernomo] or Karmen [Lu]. Reynold and Karmen, you know, they're not the greatest talkers. But people love them. It's authentic. We all know people like that.

"Reality TV should be a prism through which we see society -- not a tiny section of society TV thinks is interesting.

"You know, in the first year I was told by someone high in the network that we had cast 19 people who should never be on commercial television. Because we're non-stereotypical. And yet this is why the show also resonates overseas. It presents this image of Australia as this wonderful tapestry of different people and different beliefs."

What about favourites? Surely the judges have them?

"Judging 'MasterChef' is very simple. There's only one way to do it, and that's to pick the dish you'd most like to have again. That's it. Of course you can have cheeky things about who you like and who you don't but at the end of the day, when you're asked what dish you would most likely order again in a restaurant, you know what the answer is. And that's why one person will go home and another will stay.

"That is the essence and why I think the show has that validity and transparency."

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(From left) Gary Mehigan, guest mentor Shannon Bennett, Matt Preston and George Calombaris during season seven.

"Of course people will always think there are certain favourites or that they know something others don't.

"Two years ago -- it was when Brent [Owens] won, so season six -- I remember... everyone on social media was saying 'Tracy [Collins] is the favourite, she is so going to win', or 'Sarah Todd is going to win, she's a supermodel.'

"You sit there looking at all this, knowing the outcome, going 'let's see, let's see if they recant'."

Do the winners ever surprise you, as judges?

"The person who wins always surprises us," Preston said.

"Last year was the first time we had two people compete in the final we actually thought were going to make the final [from early on]. Normally we have a list of four people we think will make the final, and we've never been right. Billie [McKay] and Georgia [Barnes] were the first time we were right."

Will the this season's winner surprise people?

"The winner always surprises and confirms in equal measure. It will always be that thing where some people will be happy and some people will be disappointed.

"The best moment in the show is when you get in the top 10 or top eight and you don't care anymore. You just don't care because they would all be good winners. That hasn't happened every year.

"This year, the top ten deserve to be there, which is a happy place for us. Then it doesn't matter."

The very first MasterChef Australia winner, Julie Goodwin, with her cookbook 'Our Family Table' in 2010.

What about those considering applying for MasterChef season nine? What would you say to them?

"Firstly, I'd say not one of the people in that top 24 thought they would get in. Matty [Sinclair] is a great example. [His partner] Jess made him apply. She filled in the forms for him. She forced him into doing it.

"I think that's another thing. I think we have gotten better about who wants to be on the show just because they want to be on telly. So we've stripped that out, stripped out the dickheads, stripped out the wannabes, and have just focused on the dishes and the dreams. That's what we want. We want to continue this idea that 75 percent of our contestants continue on to make their life about food.

"I would say, anyone who loves the challenge of throwing things together on a Tuesday a night when there's nothing in the fridge is absolutely who we want to see.

"You don't have to be the fully-formed article. That's really important. If you are the person who has that nerdy passion and who wants to learn, then you should apply."

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