From Paris to Masterchef, and beyond...
Former Masterchef contestant Andrew Prior’s passion for French food has taken him on an amazing journey from Paris to reality TV fame to the streets of Melbourne. He shared his story, and a few of his favourite Parisian haunts, with Kim Campbell.
I’ m sitting at one of Melbourne’s top French delicatessens nibbling on some of the tastiest
charcuterie I’ve had in a long time. An exquisite terrine with juicy cranberries and crunchy pistachios, some sublime melt-in-your-mouth
rillettes, saucisson, and the tiniest cornichons possible all remind me that French food can be an amazing panoply of delights. Whilst I savour every mouthful, I am also lucky enough to be entertained by the jovial Andrew Prior.
Andrew is telling me a range of interesting stories about his year in Paris surveying the French food scene, his time as a contestant on Masterchef, and the launch of his thriving food tourism business. Incredibly, all these events occurred in the space of just two years.
Back in 2011, Andrew was a dedicated, passionate foodie – obsessed with TV cooking shows and anything related to French food – but was working as a frustrated insurance broker. When his partner needed to move to Paris to study for a year, Andrew decided to go along for the ride.
“We had been to Paris many times before,” Andrew says, “and had always loved it and, as my passion is French food, I had to say ‘yes’ when my partner asked me to come. Even so, it was a bit of a risk because it meant a break in my career and I wasn’t able to work while I was there, so that meant a drop to our income. But we both thought we had to do it.”
While his partner studied, Andrew was free to do whatever he liked during the day. “So I walked everywhere,” he says, “and, as food is one of my dearest friends, I got to check out the food scene from one side of the city to the other. Markets, boulangeries, épiceries, pâtisseries, the luxury food stores – you name it, I went to them all!
“…We lived in the Marais so it was very central and the best position to explore the city. The diversity in the city is quite extraordinary and I’d have to say that, while some of the smaller boulangeries and pâtisseries are amazing, my favourite place was the Bon Marche food hall. The variety of food there is extraordinary and I used to dream about eating the €1,500 per kilo jambon.”
Andrew kept weekdays for adventures and stuck to a routine on weekends. “We’d start to walk down to the Bastille, stop by our favourite boulangerie on Boulevard Beaumarchais that served seriously the best chocolate croissants you’ve ever tasted, and eat them while finishing the walk to the Bastille markets. The diversity of food at that market is extraordinary – from all over France – and how people can go to the markets and buy just one item I’ll never know! We always used to buy a crêpe from a small stall run by a family from Brittany…I could eat their lemon and sugar crêpes every day for the rest of my life.”
Each of the markets in Paris is very different, Andrew tells me. The market at Place d’Italie, the market in the 16th arondissement at Avenue du Président Wilson, and Andrew’s local, the Marche des Enfants Rouge (the Market of the Red Children), are among his other favourites. Each has its own character and unique story.
“The diversity of food… is extraordinary… how people can go to the markets and buy just one item I’ll never know!”
The latter, for example, was originally a 16th century orphanage where the children dressed in donated red clothing. Although the orphanage closed before the revolution, the building has remained intact to this day.
The area has a more recent tragic history, too. The Marais was home to Paris’ Jewish community, and the Nazis took thousands of people from here to the death camps during WWII.
I tell Andrew that, on my visit to Paris several years ago, I visited the Marais and ate the most amazing Jewish food. “Well you need to come back with me,” he insists, “I’ll show you a few that the tourists don’t usually find.”
So what are some of his other Parisian secrets? “Well, I love the old Art Nouveau passageways, where there are some great restaurants popping up. But there are great restaurants all over the
“I’d cry at the drop of a hat. Some people think it’s all for show, but it’s incredibly stressful. You’re under pressure and even something falling into your mashed potato can ruin your day.”
city, really. One of my best tips is not to go to dinner at the Michelin star restaurants, but to lunch. Many of them have specials for lunch at a quarter of the price of a dinner.”
At the end of their year in Paris, Andrew and his partner packed up and returned to Melbourne. “We could have stayed on, but we had our dogs at home and we were missing them badly.”
Just a week after arriving home, Andrew discovered that Masterchef was auditioning contestants for its next season. He had applied for the first series without success. Second time round, however, he was shortlisted.
“I had to go in and take a dish I’d made at home,” he says. “I made Stephanie Alexander’s chicken and pistachio terrine and it was a hit. I was asked to come back and cook in front of cameras…I thought maybe I was in the top 50. It wasn’t until we had to run out the front of the Melbourne Cricket Ground and were greeted by the three judges that I realised I was in the top 24. It was all quite surreal.”
Andrew gives me a few fascinating insights about a contestant’s journey through Masterchef, telling me about the difficulties of being locked away in accommodation without family and friends for weeks, the busy filming schedule and the pressure to churn out amazing food. But, he hastens to add, there are many details about the experience he can’t discuss.
“What I can say is that, overall, it was an amazing experience. Having the opportunity to cook with, and meet, some great cooks and chefs was just fantastic. It taught me a lot about food and how you should treat it. When you treat food with respect, it really adds to the taste.”
Sadly, Andrew’s time on the show ended abruptly when he was forced to retire with bilateral knee fractures and a fractured kneecap. He made the news in the process, sparking headlines such as, “Andrew tearfully bows out of Masterchef”.
“I was a great crier,” he jokes. “I’d cry at the drop of a hat. Some people think it’s all for show, but it’s incredibly stressful. You’re under pressure and even something falling into your mashed potato can ruin your day.”
Andrew stresses that he was never actually eliminated for his cooking. “I was turning out some of the best French food the show has ever seen. But I’ve gone on to learn so much more ever since and, ultimately, it’s about your willingness to learn, no matter where you come in the competition. Some contestants who went through to the end have done very little after the show and have gone back to their day jobs and others have gone on to set up successful businesses. It’s up to the individual to make something out of it.”
Indeed, Andrew has since gone on to be one of the more successful contestants from the first six series. Ironically, despite the injuries to his knee (which are still sore from time to time, but have generally healed), he launched a food tourism business running walking food tours in Melbourne’s South Yarra and CBD, as well as all-day French food tours around Melbourne.
“When I left the show, I thought long and hard about what I could do afterwards. I thought about establishing a café or restaurant but, given my knee injuries and on doctor’s advice, I decided to do something different. A lot of contestants go on to set up restaurants, but I thought it probably wasn’t the best thing to do, nor did I know anything about running a restaurant… [When] I was in Paris, I used to love showing friends around when they visited,” he says, so running food tours in Melbourne seemed like a natural progression.
He established his business, Queenie’s Food Tours, 18 months ago. Now, he makes a living from “walking and eating my way around Melbourne”. His business tagline is “taste, discover, indulge” and, he insists, “there’s certainly a lot of that on my tours!”
I’m curious as to how he thinks the food scene in Melbourne compares to the food scene in Paris. As a Melburnian, I love the city’s food, but I wonder whether he longs for the richness and quality of Parisian fare?
“Actually,” he says, “there is a lot in common between food in France and food here. It’s people’s commitment to food – quality ingredients, taste and presentation – that makes it extra special and there is no shortage of that in Melbourne. That’s what I look for when I research my tours and it’s one of the things I accentuate to people who come on them. There has to be a real commitment to quality that doesn’t stop at the kitchen door. It has to carry through to the way you shop for food, the food you look for, the season of the year, the locality you live in, and even the people you know.”
Andrew seems to have found his niche in the Melbourne food scene, but he takes regular trips back
to what he calls his “second home” – Paris. “We’ve been back several times and each time I get to explore a different aspect of food there in more detail.”
Andrew is also taking a tour to France in September – a 13-day food extravaganza in Paris, Dijon and Lyon. It sounds amazing: visits to the markets, cooking classes, dining at Michelin star restaurants, truffle hunting, a stay in a 16th century abbey, a tour of a former royal food garden, wine tasting in the Rhône-Alpes, a visit to a snail farm… Is it ok for me to feel monumentally jealous of what sounds like a dream job?
Andrew assures me that, although it sounds amazing, it’s been a tough road so far. “Yes, Paris was fantastic, and yes, Masterchef was amazing. But making something out of these afterwards has been a lot of hard work. It’s like any new business,” he says. “It starts slowly, you build and you build and you have to take a few knocks on the way. But I wouldn’t give it up for anything. I absolutely love what I do now…My mother-in-law says that if you love what you do you never have to work a day in your life, and that’s the motto I live by nowadays.”