SEVENTEEN MasterChef contestants walk through the grounds of Sydney’s Vaucluse House when they spot a striking porcelain-skinned woman sitting next to Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris. Nigella Lawson is making a surprise appearance on the hit Channel 10 cooking show, and it is fair to say she isn’t prepared for the emotional response she receives.
The male contestants seem overwhelmed; the women scream. Shannon Smyth starts crying.
‘‘ How To Be A Domestic Goddess has been my bible,’’ Shannon says through the tears, as she rushes to hug her idol.
‘‘ I can’t believe my eyes,’’ Alana Lowes says. ‘‘ I’ve never felt so starstruck in all my life.’’
Lawson, in trademark black with a lavender cardigan, is here to judge the red and blue teams cooking six of her signature dishes, including a rib roast, a game pie and two desserts.
The twist is that only the first member of each team gets to see the recipes, and has to give the others verbal instructions.
Lawson says she was stunned by the emotional response she received.
Executive producer Margaret Bashfield says no other celebrity chef has ever elicited such a fawning reaction from contestants, but Lawson modestly puts it down to the power of food.
‘‘ The reason why people react so emotionally around food is because it is more than just fuel for life,’’ Lawson says. ‘‘ It is impossible to exaggerate its importance to people.’’
It is hard not to think there are other reasons. Men surely respond to her voluptuous looks and flirtatious manner. She has been labelled ‘‘ the queen of food porn’’.
Lawson’s casual approach to cooking — she is quoted as saying ‘‘ I think cooking should be about fun and family’’— resonates.
‘‘ I haven’t got any training (as a chef),’’ Lawson says. ‘‘ I don’t have the ability or the skills to do that kind of fancy footwork.’’
Lawson’s personal trials have also struck a chord with female fans. In 1997, her husband John Diamond was diagnosed with throat cancer. He died in 2001 at age 47 and Lawson raised their two children, Cosima and Bruno, solo.
Lawson recently described her bestselling How to be a Domestic Goddess, which celebrates baking and women’s role in cooking, as ‘ a feminist tract’.
‘‘ We think of baking as old-fashioned and homespun, but I think baking is a fantastic transformative act,’’ Lawson says.
She is the epitome of courtesy and calm, even when rain threatens to disrupt filming, but Lawson admits she had some trepidation about appearing on MasterChef.
‘‘ It is always very difficult beforehand knowing that you’re going to do a show of this sort, because I feel that the contestants are in a vulnerable position,’’ Lawson explains.
‘‘ You want to be honest, but you don’t want to be part of anything that is the theatre of cruelty, which some reality shows can be.
‘‘ What I like about Australian MasterChef is that while people (judges) are pretty direct about whether something works or not, there is a kindness and there isn’t any of that personal abuse or ritual humiliation (of other reality shows).’’ MasterChef Australia, Channel 10, tonight, 7.30pm Steady, boys: Nigella Lawson with Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris