The finale of Season 3 of MasterChef Australia is just a few days away now, so I thought it would be a good time to revisit some of the skills we contestants learn throughout the competition. The style of competitive cooking on MasterChef is very different from cooking in a commercial kitchen or cooking for your family at home, and it can take some time to get used to. Yesterday the News Limited papers published an article I wrote sharing a couple of tips for getting ahead in the MasterChef game. There was no online version of the article, so I thought I would share it with you here.
For those of you that want to put their hat in the ring for next year’s MasterChef title, applications are already open. You can apply here.
The article “My recipe for success”, as it appears in The Daily Telegraph, The Herald Sun, The Advertiser and The Courier Mail:
“The finale of this year’s MasterChef is just a few weeks away and from nearly ten thousand hopefuls a few months ago we will soon have another winner joining Julie and me in our little club. For anyone wanting to try out next year, here are my six tips to help you come away with the MasterChef crown.
1. Find your own style.
At home, we might like to try different things and we all have our strengths and weaknesses, but in the MasterChef kitchen you need to think beyond that to find your own style of food. Even if you can cook everything from Asian Abalone to Zimbabwean Zucchini, you still need to work out exactly what warms your cockles.
I love Asian food and it’s what I cook at home, but for the first few months in MasterChef I was making fancy European dishes that I thought would impress the judges. It wasn’t bad food, but it wasn’t getting me anywhere in the competition. It was only when I started to cook the food I loved that I started winning challenges.
People cook the way they like to eat. It’s natural and authentic, and that’s what the judges want to see. As Jimmy will happily tell you, it’s better to be a one-trick pony than a dead duck.
2. Cook to the challenge
Cooking in the MasterChef kitchen is very different from cooking at home. There are absurd time limits, weird ingredients, ridiculous themes and long tasting procedures. You need to think about all of that when you decide what to cook. Give yourself plenty of time and don’t try to be too ambitious. Good food doesn’t have to be difficult, and in fact, for amateurs like us, it usually isn’t.
In terms of tasting, the first thing you realise in challenges is that the food on MasterChef is usually cold when the judges taste it. The contestants cook in the morning and then the food goes into the fridge while the kitchen resets for the tasting and the benches are cleaned by magical elves. However, before that break the judges will zip around the room for a mini pre-tasting to give them an idea of what to expect in the real thing.
The easiest way to make an impression is to leave enough time and ingredients to make a second plate that the judges can taste warm without ruining the dish that needs to be presented later. If the judges have a chance to taste your food the way it would normally be eaten, you’re immediately off to a good start.
If you want to be really clever, you can even add a touch more salt to the dish that will be tasted cold, because the saltiness of the dish will mellow as it cools.
3. Tell the story
Food is better in context. If we think back to the favourite meals we’ve eaten, we rarely remember the food alone. We remember the company, the restaurant, the atmosphere – the whole experience.
The judges have tried thousands of dishes in the MasterChef kitchen, and so it is sometimes hard to create that special experience around yours alone.
To make your dish stand out you need to explain not just what is on the plate, but also why it’s there. Is it inspired by a childhood memory? A simple family favourite? An edible homage to a Rolling Stones song? This doesn’t mean that every plate needs to be dedicated to an elderly relative, but it does help to give the judges an idea of why you made that dish and what makes it tick.
4. Know the judges’ tastes
All the judges love good food, but they still each have their preferences. George likes food prepared with professionalism and discipline – that means your dish should be well-seasoned, clean and elegant – Gary loves unpretentious food made with humility and strong technique, and Matt likes ‘smart’ food where he can see that thought has gone into the dish.
When you cook for the same guys day-in and day-out and hear their feedback on everything you make, you pick up on their likes and dislikes. If you can make a dish that tickles all the judges in all the right places, you’re looking good.
5. Listen and learn
The person who wins MasterChef is not necessarily the person who comes into the first day of the competition as the best cook. If it was, we could have probably just given Marion the title in the first episode last year and called it a day.
The entire process takes ten months from audition to finale, and for the whole period you are living, breathing and (of course) eating food. In that time you have an opportunity to learn from the people around you – the judges, the guest chefs, the other contestants. Absorb information like a sponge and accept every piece of judges’ advice and criticism as like manna from Heaven. Then put it all into practice in the next challenge.
6. Embrace the experience
A big part of winning the MasterChef title is about keeping yourself in the right frame of mind to cook well. It’s not easy. There are the long hours, the early starts, the isolation from your friends and family, and lots of pressure. But the trade-off for all of that is the chance of a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. Once you accept that fact, you can relax, make friends and have fun. Happy cooks make happy food, and I certainly could not have won MasterChef without the friendship and support of the other contestants… but those guys probably didn’t want to hear that.”