It’s back! MasterChef Australia premiered last night, and the fun has only just begun. We recently spoke with host and judge George Calombaris about the new season, and he was happy to share a few secrets about what we can expect from the competition in 2013. We also asked him about his family kitchen, and how he manages to please his toughest judge, 22-month-old son, James.
Q: Now we’ve seen the first episode of the new season of MasterChef – the competition is starting with the top 22 contestants, and it’s boys versus girls. How are you and fellow judges Gary [Mehigan] and Matt [Preston] enjoying the season so far?
To give you a bit of background about what’s going on, the first two weeks are boys versus girls, but then after that there’ll be Italian week, kids week, fast food week… Every week will be themed, which really is great for the contestants – getting into a rhythm every week, rather than chopping and changing all over the shop, means they can really do their research when they’re outside of the MasterChef kitchen. But the boys versus girls thing is a lot of fun, a bit tongue in cheek, and it puts up a signpost for what’s going to happen for the rest of the season. That’s exciting, as are a couple of other things: we’re in Melbourne now – Sydney is great, we’ve done it, and now it’s time to move on and what a great place to come to. It’s my hometown, Gary’s hometown, Matt’s hometown, so it’s nice to be here in Melbourne. It allows us to connect to places like the Barossa Valley; we’ve done an amazing Barossa Valley week, which was a lot of fun. This is technically our tenth season, if you include all the variations, and when I think, “Oh God, we’re going into another season, am I going to get bored?”, I’m just reinvigorated, excited and pumped, and can’t wait to see the first episode go to air.
Q: Can you give us any early tips on who you think is going to win – any real standout performers we should keep our eyes on?
I think I’ve learnt over the years, don’t bank on anyone! I think about Marion; she was my tip to win all throughout series two, and then she bombs out on a satay sauce. Anything can happen. This year we have a great bunch of cooks. You look at people like Christina, Daniel, Rishi – they’re all fantastic cooks and they have their own genres and they know what they want to do; they have a dream, and they have great characters this year, which is important. It’s like going to a great restaurant: the food can be great, the service can be good, but if there’s no character there, why do you go back?
Q: Have you ever seen a MasterChef contestant create a dish or try a technique, and think “I might give that a go!”?
Occasionally a contestant will put together combinations of ingredients and you think it’s never going to work, but then you take a taste and it’s actually pretty cool. You know, there’s a minority of people that go to work and it’s a job for them – they’re happy to be in the corner and chop the carrots and go home. I look at the MasterChef contestants, and they’ve got more than that. They have total love and desire to cook, and that’s something you can’t learn. You’re born with it. You’re taught as a child to love it. That for me is inspiring. When I see someone in my own kitchen who doesn’t have that love and determination and desire, I kick them out quicker than I used to!
Q: Tell us about your toddler, James – is he growing up to enjoy his food?
James is growing up the way I did: you eat what we eat. If you don’t want to eat it, don’t eat it – you’ll starve! What’s lovely is he’s around my parents – of course, he has a Greek background and food’s a very important part of my parents’ life – and Nat’s parents, who are Italian, and he gets to eat Nonno’s homemade sausages, and his homemade vinegar, and his homemade honey. So he’s constantly around whole food, real food, and his palate is acquiring flavours and tastes, and that for me is exciting. As long as I see him eating whole foods and real foods, I’m a happy camper. This morning, he had his toast and he had his Weet Bix, and he wanted cranberries on his Weet Bix – no problems! As long as it’s good for him. Plus he’s drinking whole, real milk, not milk that’s processed – that’s what I want him to know and understand. It would be so contradictory of me if he didn’t eat good food.
Q: What are your tips for creating quick, easy, tasty and healthy family dinners?
It’s about knowing when you’ve got time and you’re going to cook, bulk up a little bit. If you look in our freezer, there’s everything from little tubs of lentil soup to little tubs of chicken stock – and even something so simple as chicken stock can be dinner. That’s simply, the chicken stock goes in, a couple of chopped vegetables, a little handful of risoni, a good dash of olive oil, grated parmesan, and you’re done. And kids love that sort of broth-y dish – my kid does. So that’s the idea, always having staples in your fridge.
Q: What three words best describe your family kitchen?
Real. Delicious. Soulful.
Q: And what three words best describe the MasterChef kitchen?
Real. Delicious. Hectic!