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‘It’s a real competition, with real stakes, and it genuinely changes people’s lives’: Cooking up MasterChef’s new season

MasterChef Australia returned to screen this week for season 16, entering into the rare air occupied by TV franchises that have lasted for generations while still finding new audiences.

The premiere episode launched on Monday night to a national average audience of 776,000, reaching 1.42 million viewers during the initial airing, with those viewership tallies likely to swell considerably once the 10Play stragglers catch up.

Season 16 of MasterChef kicked off with a fresh panel of judges, featuring journalist Sofia Levin, French chef Jean-Christophe Novelli, and season one runner-up, Poh Ling Yeow, who was drafted in last season as a guest judge.

The season premiere took the top spot in the competitive 7.30pm timeslot, and was the top entertainment show overall for the 16-39 demographic during Monday night, drawing 15% more viewers than last season’s average.

Sarah Thornton, executive producer from Ten, Marty Benson, director of content for Endemol Shine Australia, and newly minted judge Sofia Levin, all spoke to Mumbrella about the brand-spanking-new MasterChef Australia season.

MasterChef is obviously a proven show. How do you tread the line between making changes to keep it fresh and keeping the elements that have got the people there watching in the first place?

Marty Benson: Every year, our motto is that we can always do it better. But we never want to change it too much. We treat it a bit like the AFL, it’s like a competition that just comes around every year. But you’ve got to tweak it a little bit, you know. The mystery box will always be there; a pressure test will always be there, but we make it our mission to try and make the creative a little bit more interesting. There’s infinite ways of doing challenges, and we work extremely hard at trying to make the show better every single year.

Sofia, what’s it like being part of the show as a judge, as opposed to as a viewer?

Sofia Levin: I think you take it as the the job and the role first, in that you are there to nurture people to ensure that they do the best they can possibly do while simultaneously staying true to themselves, but also moving well outside their comfort zones, because that’s when they grow – so that’s sort of the job, but then when you’re in it. it does get really intense and really emotional and you do get really invested in everybody’s success, because you’re just around each other all the time

You’re seeing people at their best, you’re seeing them when they collapse, so it really pulls at your heartstrings as well as your logic, and everything that you’re there to do. That’s why it’s so different from anything that I’ve ever done before, because previously, as somebody who’s worked as a journalist, you know, you do the interview, you speak to the person, and then you sort of piece it all together. But, here, it’s happening in real time, right in front of you, so there’s no time to hide from either side.

Sofia Levin

What did you do to prepare for the role? Did you know what you were getting into?

Sofia Levin: I’ve been trying to to think about exactly what you’ve asked, because I’ve been asked a few times, and it sort of feels to me like you’ve trained your whole career for Olympic diving, and you’re there and you’re ready, and you jump off the tallest board into the deepest part of the water and then, just as you hit the water, someone yells out that it’s actually a competition where you’re holding your breath…

So, even though you think you’ve got the entire skill set — and to some degree, you do — you can’t actually prepare for something that can’t be prepared for. You can just do the best you can, and do the research, do the homework, re-watch the show, be across food and the hospitality industry, and then just be yourself.

Which is what Marty did say to me at the very start, he was like, ‘Just be yourself’. I was like, ‘But what about this and this and that?’

Marty Benson: I’ve got to say, we screen tested Sofia many, many months ago, and she was just completely perfect for the job.

What do you look for in a screen test, Marty, having done it so many times?

Marty Benson: I look for people that have conviction in what they say. Don’t try and say what you think we might want you to say, right? Say what you think, and have conviction – that’s it.

It was very obvious to us, from very early on, that Sofia knows and understands — there’s no question about that — so then, it’s just about having the confidence to be yourself and just say what you think. It’s actually as simple as that.

Sarah, from a network perspective, what do you think is behind the secret of MasterChef’s longevity, because it’s been such a success for so long.

Sarah Thornton: Oh, gosh! Look, I think that it’s partly down to the brilliant production team that we have. They have managed to retain the essence of the show every year while innovating and keeping it fresh, which I think is the secret to any long-running show.

True.

Sarah Thornton: But what I would really say is, it’s incredibly authentic. As someone who has stepped into the machine — I wasn’t in the [MasterChef] machine at the beginning — it’s a real competition, with real stakes, and it genuinely changes people’s lives. And, I don’t think many TV shows can claim to do that in the way that MasterChef has, and continues to do.

My background is in both factual and reality TV, but the thing I was struck by most is, as a competition, it is so rigorous!

And really, the thing that matters more than anything on this show is the food, and you can’t really beat the passion that humans feel for food. Food is so much a part of our essence that I just think it’s that perfect combination, coupled with real skill in production, and a real commitment to authenticity.

Sarah Thornton

Sofia Levin: I think the the other thing about going from being a viewer to being involved is, I know people love the show and think that it’s got integrity, but I just can’t believe the amount of integrity that it actually has, from contestants actually stopping their cook the second that clock runs out, to us actually trying the food when it’s hot, to the food team ensuring that between when we try the food, and then when we try it again for on camera, that it’s exactly replicated in the same way than when they finish cooking.

There’s just so much from that production side that nobody gets to see.

What you do get to see, is the results and all the contestants: when they leave the kitchen, everybody says straight away how incredible their experience was how, much they learned, the people who they’ve come to call their food family, and the other contestants. I assume this doesn’t necessarily make it to air, because it’s not relevant to the viewer, but they all also talk about how incredible the crew is and how professional and empathetic they are as well – and it’s amazing to see that from right up front.

Marty Benson

You’ve taken a journalistic eye to it as well. It’s good to hear that it’s all legit. Any spoilers any of you can reveal?

Marty Benson: Well, what do you know, what don’t you know? We’ve got unbelievable guests. We’ve got incredible new challenges We’ve got a viral week, which is where we really focus on social media food stars, which is very exciting. We obviously go to Hong Kong. We travel in Victoria. We’ve got, basically, the who’s who of guests. Jamie Oliver for the first two weeks is incredible. Adriano Zumbo, Anna Polyviou, Curtis Stone, Darren Purchese, Josh Niland, Clare Smyth, Hugh Allen, Luke Nguyen, Guillaume Brahimi. I mean, it really is like the who’s who of the food scene.

It is the most exciting season that we’ve done for a long time, and there’s a whole new level of freshness about it that Sofia brings in, that Jean-Christophe Novelli brings in, and obviously Poh [Ling Yeow] is just an absolute dream. And Andy [Allen] just gets better and better every single year.

What was it like having Jamie Oliver involved in this season?

Sofia Levin: People started saying to me, ‘Is he is as nice in person?’, and I keep saying ‘No, he’s nicer.’

I think perhaps the the best way to show that is that he texts us, and sends us all messages saying ‘good luck’ and ‘how’s it all going?’, throughout the entire thing.

Just the other day, I asked him via WhatsApp if he’d say a few words about how is he is feeling, so I can put something together, so I can write something. He sent me — I was just looking at it this morning — it is more than a thousand words of him rambling about how much he loves us all, how much he loves MasterChef, how amazing the contestants are — and now I have the job of going in, and actually trying to edit that down (laughs).

He’s all in. He loves the opportunity to come and mentor people, but something that I thought was really interesting, is that he says he doesn’t often get the opportunity to take time off from focusing on Jamie Oliver The Brand, to focus on other people, and to think about that. He really is such a people person. You see the way he behaves, and gives people his time, regardless of where they are in the so-called pecking order.

And the other thing he said, that was really sweet, is — because of his lifestyle, and where is that at the moment, both in terms of being a celebrity, and his age — he doesn’t get the opportunity all that often to make new friends, and he really, really loved doing that while he was with us.

So, yeah – I think he can stay!

MasterChef airs on Ten and 10Play 7.30pm Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays.

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