Naturally, he and his team had to devise challenges of unprecedented difficulty. At the same time, they didn’t want to alienate viewers with a glut of dishes that float, smoke or explode.
“We don’t want to be too high-end and unrelatable,” Bensons says. “It can be just as exciting watching someone make Maggie Beer’s tarte tatin as it is watching them make a six-hour dish from Heston Blumenthal.”
Callum Hann, who finished second in MasterChef’s 2010 season, says this year’s tests are “definitely more intense and difficult”. But it was a relatively simple dish of potato-crusted Murray cod, which he had to prepare under the watchful eye of Gordon Ramsay, that threw him the most.
“It was very achievable but the fact we had to do it at his pace was a heck of a challenge,” Hann says. “People don’t realise how much time you waste on things that aren’t cooking. You might be picking the little safety tab off a bottle or a jar whereas at home, those things have probably been opened already.”
Last month, contestants were tasked with recreating chef Peter Gunn’s black box dessert: a white chocolate cube dyed with ash that cracks open to reveal gingerbread stars, grilled mandarin custard, yoghurt pearls, honeycomb, choc-dipped mandarins, sherbet and chocolate soil. Dishes of such complexity can require up to 50 hours of development and testing.
“We have a massive team of home economists and chefs, with about eight of them working on a daily basis, who might make a dish five or six times before we give it to the contestants,” Benson says. “Time and ingredients are the two things we play with to [calibrate the level of difficulty].”
Chef Darren Purchese’s recent pavlova pressure test, for instance, became substantially harder when the recipe was confiscated from contestants, chewing up precious minutes as they tried to recall the instructions.
Benson is now casting for MasterChef‘s 2021 season, which will involve a fresh batch of amateur hopefuls.
“We’ll have to dial down the difficulty,” he says. “We need to make sure the judges are nurturing people who are starting from a lower base.”
Hann’s advice for these contestants is simple.
“Don’t forget the basics,” he says, noting that judges tend to be more forgiving when assessing highly-technical creations. “It’s not always about who cooks the best dish, it’s about who doesn’t cook the worst dish. If you nail the fundamentals such as making pasta or pastry or cakes, it’s harder for them to eliminate you.”
MasterChef airs 7.30pm Sunday to Tuesday on Network 10.
Michael Lallo is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.