As a recent export to Australia, I have to admit, the cultural landscape here baffled me, that is until I watched MasterChef Australia: Secrets and Surprises. I’d never seen any MasterChef show ever but having recently moved to Australia with a lot of time on my hands, sitting down to watch reality television every night at 7:30pm wasn’t difficult to do. However, as I watched the show, I realised, not only how special this series and this season was, but how unique Australia is, if only you know where to look.
MasterChef Australia has been criticised in the past for not being diverse enough, and other times for being too diverse (who knew there was such a thing) but as I sat almost every night for the last 10 weeks to watch this unique group of amateur cooks create magic in the kitchen under the guidance of three masterful judges, Andy Allen, Melissa Leong and Jock Zonfrillo, I could see the light of what Australia truly is shining through the cracks.
This isn’t the story of what the news tells us Australia is, or the story that media outlets are trying to force onto us of Australia's multiculturalism.
This is the story of what I saw unfold day after day in the MasterChef Kitchen as these home cooks, some who were born in Australia, and some who have only been here a few years, came together to create food that you can only make here. This is my personal reflection of what I saw and what it told me about Australia’s food and cultural landscape.
Diversity in Origin
MasterChef Australia: Secrets and Surprises follows the story of 18 amateur cooks, Adi Nevgi, Alice Han, Amy Tanner, Andrea Puglisi, Antonio Cruz Vaamonde, Brent Draper, Cath Collins, Declan Cleary, Grace Jupp, Jessica Perri, Larissa Sewell, Malissa Fedele, Phil Conway, Ralph Kahango, Rhiannon Anderson, Robbie Cooper, Rue Mupedzi and Theo Loizou.
If the names of this year's contestants didn’t give it away, this season featured a unique set of home cooks with roots from many different places across the globe, including China, Croatia, Greece, Italy, India, Ireland, Russia, Ukraine, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. The cultural diversity really came across in the plates we saw them serve the judging panels and celebrity chefs throughout the show.
Adi Nevgi, a doctor with ancestral roots in India who has already started writing her own cookbook, brought a dish from her native Indian state of Maharashtra to the Masterchef Kitchen. Adi, who was born in India but moved to Australia when she was just a year old, took it upon herself to go to India to learn how to cook Indian food with her grandma. Taking what she learned during that time, she made Maharashtrian Squid Curry for Chef Rick Stein that, as MasterChef Judge Melissa Leong, said, would make her aunties “proud.”
Theo Loizou, a Greek electrician by trade who found his passion in baking, had the MasterChef kitchen singing when he made his Greek Lamb with Pita bread and Tzatziki. In an attempt to make his dad proud by bringing a piece of his heritage into the kitchen, he got the highly-coveted clap from Jock Zonfrillo.
Two of the contestants this year, Ralph Kahango and Rue Mupedzi hail from Zimbabwe. Ralph Kahango, while an avid fan of Italian cooking and Chef Marco Pierre White, brought a slice of home into the MasterChef kitchen in one episode, creating Chakalaka, a dish steeped in his culture and memories of his childhood in South Africa.
Antonio Cruz Vaamonde served up a little piece of Venezuela with his Cachapas, a fresh corn pancake that is usually filled with layers of cheese. His version had three different types of cheese. The dish was so unique it had Jamie Oliver asking Antonio to educate him on its origins. This plate of cheesy goodness won Antonio a spot in the very first immunity challenge and gave him a chance to cook alongside 4 other contestants in a MasterClass led by Chef Jamie Oliver.
Larissa Sewell, who is both Russian and Ukrainian, won the very first Masterchef Advantage with her borscht and Ukranian pampushky dish. The gratitude she felt in being able to present a dish that represents her culture shone through the screen as she talked about the dish and her Babushka with tears in her eyes. It’s this representation that makes this show so unique, and it’s also in the knowing that a dish rooted in a culture that seems so far removed from where we are can still have such an incredible impact. The judging panel were so moved by the dish and the flavours on the plate, they awarded Larissa the very first advantage of the season.
And then there was Robbie Cooper… Robbie was deemed the uncle of the group with many contestants, including Declan Cleary - his MasterChef son as he called him on social media- turning to him for moral support and guidance throughout the experience. Robbie is a proud Iwaidja man whose ancestry incorporates Asian heritage, including Malaysian, Indonesian and Filipino, along with Torres Strait Islander.
The 65-year-old labelled his food as “Aboriginal Asian fusion” and brought incredible dishes showcasing his unique heritage, including a bush-inspired Seafood and Tomato Soup, that he made for Julie Goodwin, the MasterChef winner of Australia’s inaugural season. When faced with an overnight challenge, he served an Asian-infused slow-cooked succulent duck that won him the infamous clap and a well-deserved hug from judge Jock Zonfrillo, reaffirming his belief in himself in the competition.
While the competition served us heaps of cultural dishes, it also showcased a range of intercultural dishes that brought to life the uniqueness of what can be found in an Australian kitchen.
Australia is, after all, a country whose diversity doesn’t exist in silos, but rather in the weaving of multiple cultures into one. The display of dishes we saw from these home cooks showcased just how much Australia’s food is a fusion of multiple cuisines from around the world but particularly influenced by its proximity to Southeast Asia. We saw that influence show up on the plate time and time again with contestants serving up a slew of Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian and Chinese-inspired dishes.
Rhiannon Anderson, who hails from Townsville, Queensland, has a deep love for Asian cuisine. We saw that love in the many dishes she served that were inspired by her time spent in Southeast Asia but the one that stands out the most is her Prawn Laksa, which her family requested for her to cook in the last mystery box challenge of the season. She brought the dish to life with a fragrant broth that had an Australian touch of finger limes that took the acidity to the next level. Her recipe was a true representation of the beauty that can be found in the combination of Asian and Australian ingredients.
Alice Han, a Chinese Australian who grew up in Sydney, wowed Chef Jamie Oliver in the very first cook of the season, making a dish that he’s never seen before, a dish she coined “Moondust” on her Instagram page. In her own words on this work of art:
This is a fusion dessert that represents who I am on a plate: a dialogue and intersection between East and West, between the old and the new. Growing up Australian and Chinese in Sydney, I didn’t always feel at ease in my dual identity but it’s taken years of growth, travel and learning to get to where I am today: someone who is actively proud of the rich cultural tapestry that surrounds me.
Grace Jupp, who was born in Victoria but grew up in Queensland, is most inspired by her family’s rich Croatian heritage. Grace’s diversity in cuisines shone through as she gave us dishes inspired from multiple regions including her take on falafel and tabbouleh, her Cevapi-style spiral sausage and her Squid with Ajvar. However, the dish that stood out the most is the one she made in the competition between the Home Cooks and the Pro Cooks, which won her team the battle, her Tempura Betel Leaf with Pork, Pineapple and Rosella Sauce, and Salsa. An unlikely combination of ingredients but a winning one as demonstrated by Andy Allen's feedback after he tasted the dish, "You are going up against some absolute weapons in the NOMAD crew, and you are right there with them."
Brent Draper, this year’s MasterChef winner, was also a contestant in the 2021 season but decided to leave the competition to focus on his mental health. He came back to the MasterChef Kitchen this year with his eyes on the prize and that came across in almost every single plate he served. What was also evident across his impressive array of dishes was the influence of multiple cultures, including Asia and the Middle East. His Middle Eastern Chicken with Hummus and Cumquat Glaze brought his love of two very different cuisines together and kept him safe from elimination in the first week of the show.
In the Family Mystery Box Challenge, his wife asked him to make a Balinese Braised Pork Belly, one of their favourite dishes from their travels. His interpretation of the dish won him immunity in the final week of the season. As judge Melissa Leong said to him after tasting his dish, “What this plate of food demonstrates to us is a profound respect for what you love and an innate ability to bring it to us in a language that is all of your own.”
However, the dish that knocked it out of the ballpark for him, a dish that he made on his first day and his last day in the MasterChef Kitchen this season, is his Tamarind Glazed Pork Chop and Charred Cabbage. Tamarind, an ingredient that is predominantly found in Indian food, took his pork chop to the next level, helping him win the title this year.
The contestant that had one of the biggest arcs this season was probably Declan Cleary, a 24-year-old fresh-faced carpenter from the Northern Beaches. Declan came into the competition not knowing what a choux bun is and left being an expert in making them. He challenged himself with every cook and made it a point to try new things every chance he got. His very first dish on the show, which he called a “Northern Beaches Curry,” was a Sri Lankan-inspired yellow curry with coconut, chili and kingfish. Throughout the show, we watched him bond with Robbie, and through Robbie’s mentoring, develop his own style of cooking.
In the Family Mystery Box Challenge, Declan’s partner asked him to make Chili Prawn Pasta and as he was starting to work on the dish, judge Andy Allen asked him how he was going to make the dish, prompting a discussion on his evolution throughout the show, stating, “You might need to push a bit to MasterChef it and really show your growth. I don’t know whether this is now you.” Declan quickly pivoted to a dish that was more aligned with the style that he has crafted over the season, which was influenced in part by his relationship with Robbie, and instead made Thai Chili Prawns with Rice Noodles in a Prawn-Head Broth. When he presented his new take on the dish to the judges, Andy Allen, talking about Declan’s progression, said, “I’m very, very proud of you just for going, ‘you know what, this is what I’ve become. Prawn Chili Pasta was what I used to be, but this food right here, this is who I am.”
It is this story that I saw in the show that opened my eyes to what Australia and Australian society is. Through the story of Declan and Robbie, we see the spirit of this country. This unlikely pair, with such different backgrounds, found common ground here. They became fast friends, learned from each other, grew together, and will forever be influenced by what they created in that kitchen.
The Magic of MasterChef
While I’ve always loved reality TV and cooking shows, I’ve never experienced one quite like MasterChef Australia. Jamie Oliver said in the first episode of this season that the Australian version is “the best version in the world by a long, long way,” and I felt that in so many aspects. Not only are the plates imaginative and spectacular, steeped in cultures near and far, but there’s also a sense of acceptance for every individual and what they have to offer as they walk into the kitchen. With that spirit of allowing people to embrace where they’re from and be inspired by where they are, to grow and evolve, magic can happen.
I think MasterChef Judge Melissa Leong said it best when Chef Ross Magnaye of Serai Restaurant made his Seared Beef Kilawin in the MasterChef Kitchen, “What you do for Filipino cuisine by elevating it, modernising it and celebrating it in the way that you do makes me so, so happy to be Australian.”
Herein lies the beauty of this show and of Australia, in the weaving of multiple cultures and backgrounds together to create an intercultural landscape where everyone, no matter their cultural background, can create (or recreate) their identity based on their own set of experiences. Regardless of what that identity is, it can still be called Australian.