As a judge on Masterchef Australia, Matt Preston has the unenviable task of passing judgement on the creations prepared by the reality cooking shows’ contestants. Together with Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris, Preston is a key pillar of the highly-successful cooking show, which airs in Malaysia on Lifetime (Astro Ch709).
Arriving in Kuala Lumpur for History Con 2017, Preston was on hand to meet his fans and also showcase his abilities in several cooking demos. In between his meet and greets, we caught up with the Masterchef Australia judge to discuss the show, cooking and the culinary realm.
When it comes to judging the show, does taste or presentation rank higher for you?
It’s always taste. The line about eating with your eyes is rubbish. You eat with your mouth. And that’s the problem with television because it’s a visual medium. So people sit at home and go “that looks really good!”, but it could taste like sawdust. On the other hand, a dish could look really bad but taste really delicious, so which one are you going to order?
This is especially true for a place like Malaysia. Where does everyone eat here?
They’re all not eating in a fancy restaurant with the big windows with views over the city. You’re out there on the street, sitting on a rickety plastic chair because the food is amazing. And if the food isn’t’ as good as the fancy place, then why would you go there? That’s exactly the same in the Masterchef kitchen.
You’ll see that in the finale with one contestant doing a better job in terms of presentation but the other producing great flavour. Personally, I would always veer towards the one with the flavour. Flavour always wins and that is especially tricky with pressure test dishes when they’re attempting something that’s very complex and visual.
The pressure tests. Has it been harder to come up with these challenges so many seasons on?
Personally for me I think the pressure tests this season got too crazy too soon. For me, the dishes that really resonate are the dishes that are familiar to the audience. Take a toasted cheese sandwich for example, and turning that into something that is Masterchef worthy . That is a challenge that everyone in Australia would relate to. One of the great things about Diana Chen and Sarah Tiong has been able to do this year is deliver amazing flavour with limited ingredients and limited time. And that’s their real skill its just – flavour, flavour, flavour.
Amazingly, the show has been able to access some really talented culinary minds…
Well, there is such an amazing wealth of talent in Australia. We’ve had four years in Sydney, and we used a lot of chefs from there and later Melbourne and we’ve flown in people from Queensland, South Australia and overseas. We love to celebrate the best in the world and we’ve been lucky to have been able to access every major chef in the world for Masterchef Australia.
And that’s certainly been a credit to the show hasn’t it?
Yes, it is and its down to how the show is made. Masterchef has always been about the food and the contestants cooking and that’s what’s exciting. That’s why we have people like Jamie Oliver and René Redzepi on our show. The top chefs in the world would do Masterchef Australia and not anywhere else. We love that and we take it as an incredible honour for the show. We’ve had Heston (Blumenthal) eight seasons in a row and we’ve taken the contestants on the road with him and the challenges have been amazing.
Australia has grown to become a very prominent culinary destination. But that wasn’t the case decades ago wasn’t it?
Yes, it has. We’ve come a long way since pies. Margaret Fulton was one of the first to produce a proper cookbook in Australia and in there she did recipes from Fiji and Italy. That was during a time when Olive Oil was still being sold in chemists and not at the supermarket. But today the market has changed and that’s due to the wonderful wave of migration, which has brought all these great flavours to Australia.
We’ve had a natural infusion of Vietnamese, Malaysian, Japanese and so forth and because of that, there’s a wide range of ingredients readily available in today’s market. Another reason is that Australians love to travel, and they’ve gone abroad and experienced all these flavours. It’s also very cheap to start a restaurant in Australia and a lot of people have come from overseas to set up their own place and that in turn have created another generation of mentored chefs and culinary talents.
We just had the 50 best restaurants in the world in Melbourne because the city has an amazing food culture. We’ve got access to great produce, access to talent and international food festivals like the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, which has gone for the last 25 years. Through that we’ve brought great chefs from everywhere and that forms connections and all that kind of grow.
Are you amazed by the increasing number of talent season after season?
We got better in picking contestants. We spend more time and effort in finding them because we realised that the most important episode of Masterchef each season is the first one. If you don’t find those cooks you’re going to like and root for then the show’s not going to work.
So now we have a team of five people scouring the country, going to farmer’s market, cooking schools to find these talents and persuading them to enter. Another thing, is that we’ve been going on for nine seasons and we’ve had a lot of young contestants who basically grew up with Masterchef. They see food as a real career and something that they want to do. Those seeds we sowed nine years ago, we are now reaping the harvest of great talent.