In addition to the presence of Ramsay, another smart move by the producers, which also helped give the new judges a less pressured debut, was the season’s Back to Win premise. It sees a selection of former contestants returning for another shot at the title.
Since their stints on the show, many of them have gone to work in the food industry. They run restaurants and cafes – lockdowns permitting. They’ve opened catering businesses, written cookbooks and hosted TV shows. They’ve made food their profession and that translates to several notable changes for the current season.
The show can no longer claim to be a hunt for the country’s best amateurs. Many of these contestants aren’t home cooks keen to test their mettle and strut their stuff: they’re people who make their living from food. Regular, or even occasional, viewers are likely to be familiar with Poh Ling Yeow, Callum Hann, Hayden Quinn, Reynold Poernomo and many of the others.
The inclusion of contestants with a MasterChef profile shifts focus away from the judges. It also means, as we’re already familiar with them, that there’s less of a need for the potted profiles that have punctuated seasons past, so the filmed back-stories have understandably been fleeting. But with that reduction, the production has forfeited some of its emotional punch.
And the inclusion of battle-hardened contestants has also altered the show’s interactive element to some degree. The standard of cooking has been impressive from the get-go, but few viewers are likely to head to their kitchens to attempt many of these dishes, even with the time afforded by quarantines. The food being served up is frequently complicated, requiring sophisticated skills and multiple elements. It looks great, but it could almost come with a ‘Don’t try this at home’ warning.
While some things have changed, others remain the same. The contestants, hilariously, still arrive at the kitchen arena in a fleet of black SUVs, looking every bit like a hit squad for Mexican drug cartel. Once the challenges are under way, they still make frantic dashes to the pantry: no one ambles on MasterChef. There’s still tension in the kitchen, as Poh’s risky gambit with the chiffon cake during the first elimination challenge demonstrated.
And, happily, a crucial element has been preserved: the show has retained its hero ingredient, which is warmth. MasterChef has always been more about achievement than humiliation, the latter being the bread and butter of some reality shows. It’s always had a mood of mentorship and has fairly glowed with pride at what its participants can produce under pressure. Contestants who aren’t competing in a challenge still coax and cheer their rivals with genuine enthusiasm from the gantry. And the judges still relish a cleverly conceived and executed dish.
This is a well-honed and durable format, helped by producers who know what they’re doing. But they’re going to need to be inventive to keep proceedings bubbling along in the absence of the spice provided by culinary stars such as Nigella and Heston, who will not be flying in to add a touch of global glamour and allow themselves to be fawned over.
Meanwhile the judges of MasterChef Mark II will reveal more of their personalities and preferences. Viewers will get to know them better and become accustomed to the different flavour that they bring to the production. Like the contestants, they’ll need to step up, and more than sparkly earrings and natty vests will be required to carry this reality TV behemoth over multiple weeknights for months.