Mo­ments with Matt

MasterChef Aus­tralia’s Matt Pre­ston talks about keep­ing it real on the pop­u­lar se­ries, and exploring the mean­ing of life with He­ston Blu­men­thal – over mid­night cheese toasties.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Taste - By SUZANNE LAZAROO star2@thes­tar.com.my

IT’S been eight years since MasterChef Aus­tralia made watch­ing TV on an empty stom­ach very dif­fi­cult – and eight years since we ac­quired mates named Ge­orge, Gary and Matt, the en­dear­ing trio of judges who have men­tored con­tes­tants with their char­ac­ter­is­tic combo of kind­ness and hon­esty.

And judge Matt Pre­ston has noted some sig­nif­i­cant changes over the years.

“We dress bet­ter nowa­days, for one,” he says, in Kuala Lumpur for the re­cent His­tory Con Malaysia 2017 at Maeps Ser­dang. “Ge­orge speaks bet­ter English and has more shoes, we al­lowed Gary another suit, and my wardrobe looks like a box of Staedtler coloured pen­cils!” Pre­ston is a tow­er­ing pres­ence – litand er­ally, at 6-foot-4, metaphor­i­cally, since he has enough wit and charisma for ten peo­ple. And in­deed, his meti­cu­some­where lous suit is be­tween mint green and robin’s egg blue, his sig­na­point, ture cra­vat is on multi-hued and dash­ingly flow­ered (he’s been grow­ing a beard lately too, and it’s get­ting pretof ty good re­views its own).

Ever a dapper chap, is our Matt. “But se­ri­ously, Sea­son One was a huge hit, and Sea­son Two was even big­ger – and peo­ple just took own­erthere. ship of it from Imag­ine, two of the con­tes­tants in the last sea­son, Cal­lan [Smith] and Michelle [Luk­man], were nine and 10 re­spec­tively, when the se­ries startrep­sect ed.

“We need to that legacy, and un­der­stand that the se­ries is now tak­ing place in a time when food is big­ger than ever, and more peo­ple than ever are cook­ing at home.”

Keep­ing it real

“A lot of re­al­ity TV shows cen­tre on big, abra­sive per­son­al­i­ties, and we don’t take that ap­proach,” says Pre­ston. “It’s the food that comes first, and we want real peo­ple, not car­toon char­ac­ters.”

Keep­ing the food as the main fo­cus, says Pre­ston, has meant that the show is pop­u­lated by a host of anti-stereo­types – which is both em­pow­er­ing and re­flec­tive of Aus­tralian so­ci­ety it­self.

It’s been just a few weeks from the re­veal of MasterChef Aus­tralia’s Sea­son Nine win­ner, and The Cra­vat-ed One says that Diana Chan was “a very wor­thy win­ner”.

“I’m not sure the fi­nale re­ally re­flected the great job she did [with the fi­nal dishes as­signed],” he says. He’s com­ment­ing on the on­line whis­pers ques­tion­ing her win – he hears sim­i­lar ques­tions af­ter ev­ery fi­nale!

“Ev­ery year, we hear about it be­ing fixed, etc.,” he says. “We take it as a sign of the pas­sion and in­volve­ment of the au­di­ence. But we have al­ways main­tained com­plete trans­parency, and it’s im­por­tant to us to ac­knowl­edge that.”

In the end, he says that re­al­ity TV view­ers see the re­sult of the edit­ing down of many scenes – “but what the edit­ing can never hide is a judge’s ac­tual score.”

“That’s why you’ll some­times see judges’ favourites go home – like Mar­ion [Grasby] in Sea­son Two. She went into a cook-off with Aaron where they had to cook sa­tay – she’s half-Thai, so peo­ple were say­ing ‘oh, that’s fixed then’ – but she went home that episode,” says Pre­ston.

Com­ing back to the lat­est sea­son, he says: “Ben did a great job with the pre­sen­ta­tion, but we are driven firstly by flavour. Diana re­ally did very well, and that was why Gary and I gave her such great scores.”

Un­ex­pected re­sults on MasterChef Aus­tralia are of­ten the or­der of the day. “We have a say­ing among the judges: The food gods pro­vide,” says Pre­ston.

“The con­tes­tants learn off each other so much. We usu­ally see the women com­ing in as bet­ter cooks at first, but the men de­velop faster [in the kitchen] – ex­cept for Sea­son Eight, when it was the other way around.”

So in a nut­shell – any­thing can hap­pen, and even among the judges ob­serv­ing the ac­tion up close and per­sonal, all bets are off.

“The up­side of all this is that it makes the show very real,” says Pre­ston. You don’t get the young blonde waif ver­sus the bearded guy with the Satanic smile, in a fi­nale show­down be­tween the forces of good and evil.

“It’s not pan­tomime wrestling!”

MasterChef Aus­tralia and be­yond

One of the hard­est things for Matt and his fel­low judges has been to send great con­tes­tants home.

“Es­pe­cially when they’re peo­ple you like, and you feel they’re go­ing home be­fore their time – even if you do know that they’re go­ing on to great things,” he says.

“We know the power of the show is that you don’t have to win it to get ahead with your food dreams. Of the show’s par­tic­i­pants, I’d say 70% have gone on to do great things in the in­dus­try.”

Th­ese in­clude Kylie Mil­lar work­ing in the hal­lowed kitchens of Mel­bourne’s At­tica with the renowned Ben Shewry; Grasby, Julie Goodwin, Poh Ling Yeoh, Adam Liaw and Hay­den Quinn have all head­lined their own TV shows and au­thored cook­books, among their other ac­com­plish­ments.

“And Mimi (Baines) is at a cafe in New York, while An­drew (Prior) runs food tours of Paris,” says Pre­ston.

For the judges, the bonds they build with the con­tes­tants don’t end when the film­ing wraps. “We want to be con­struc­tive and help­ful, and we take our men­tor­ship se­ri­ously, and be­yond the show. Ge­orge will have some of the guys over, cook­ing at Press Club, some­times. We all keep in touch.”

Favourite mo­ments

A list of Pre­ston’s best-ever times on, and be­cause of, the show? There’s not enough paper in the world.

But this sea­son, they could in­clude the stint in Ja­pan, when the whole team trav­elled to a coun­try renowned for its rich food cul­ture – and which boasts 227 Miche­lin­starred restau­rants.

“We went on a ra­men hunt in Ky­oto, and found the best noodles in this tiny lit­tle place whose name I can’t even re­mem­ber. Our ‘of­fice’ was ba­si­cally over­look­ing Mount Fuji. It was cherry blossom sea­son. And, the amaz­ing patis­serie at the Paris end of Ky­oto!

Pre­ston also cites the con­tes­tants cook­ing in a yoko­cho as a par­tic­u­larly mem­o­rable sight. Th­ese foodie-fo­cused al­ley­ways host a myr­iad of tiny restau­rants, cafes and bars, all jostling el­bow to el­bow.

“The con­tes­tants took over some of th­ese tiny ea­ter­ies, and they just nailed it. What amaz­ing mem­o­ries we have of that week.”

And He­ston Week – when one of the most iconic chefs in the world takes the reins – is al­ways amaz­ing, says Pre­ston.

“I mean, He­ston is one of our favourite peo­ple in life! And you get to see parts of coun­try Vic­to­ria that most peo­ple never see, in spite of the fact that it’s Aus­tralia’s food bowl.

Part of that week was filmed with the gi­gan­tic grain si­los painted by Bris­bane artist Guido Van Hel­ten, set along the banks of the Mur­ray River, as a back­drop; Pre­ston re­calls that with awe, as he does sun­set shoots on the pink salt river plains.

“The Mur­ray River is such an icon for all Aus­tralians, it’s a main artery and a bor­der,” says Pre­ston.

“And at night, we were able to dis­cuss the mean­ing of life – in terms of food – with He­ston, over toasted cheese sand­wiches. The con­clu­sion was sim­ple: it’s all about friends and fam­ily. Food is a lu­bri­cant, a re­lax­ant, some­thing you put on the ta­ble for peo­ple you love. What it isn’t, is an ex­pres­sion of sta­tus.”

Fi­nally, Pre­ston con­tin­ues to cel­e­brate the fact that he’s got­ten to work with some of his best friends for years.

“I’ve known Ge­orge and Gary for 20 years now, and it’s been a real plea­sure to work with such mates,” says Pre­ston.

The three ac­tu­ally live close by, so Pre­ston of­ten bumps into Me­hi­gan in the park, or heads to his lo­cal cafe to find out that Calom­baris has just been in there.

“We are as big food nerds off-screen as we are on-screen. We’ll have ex­cited con­ver­sa­tions about sam­bal petai and go off to ex­per­i­ment with dif­fer­ent kinds of sam­bal, and how dif­fer­ent in­gre­di­ents might work in the dish ... our part­ners might look at us like we’re crazy, but we’re ba­si­cally a sup­port group for food nerds!”

— Pho­tos: Life­time Asia

(From left) Me­hi­gan, Calom­baris and Pre­ston are mates, on and off­screen.

— RAJA FAISAL HISHAN/The Star

In town for His­tory Con Malaysia 2017, Pre­ston was his usual bub­bly, bril­liant self.

Pre­ston con­duct­ing a demo for par­tic­i­pants dur­ing Ja­pan Week.

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