Walking back into the kitchen to meet the new recruits for season nine of MasterChef Australia held both a familiar calm and an anxiety-inducing rumble in my soul. Something, I am sure, only those who have walked through those doors can relate to.
The last time I stood there, at the front of the room, I was awaiting the ever-drawn-out words from the judges mouths regarding my attempt at Heston Blumenthal’s Verjus In Egg thankfully, I was being ‘held up’ and surrounded by my nearest and dearest, after a 6 hour marathon cook and months honing my craft, growing more in confidence and in love with the infinite potential I found and saw in food- I was physically and mentally exhausted. As I listened, to the words of praise and every compliment, each as surprising to me as the last; a warmth of electricity, encouragement and affirmation rose up inside me, standing side-by-side with the butterflies flapping about, not only in my tummy this time, but in every cell of my being; I made the right choice when completing that lengthy application form, and daring to dream.
I was concerned when signing up for a competition, as I’m not a particularly competitive person by nature; I’m most competitive with myself, always striving to improve, show growth and be a better version of myself each day and with each activity. I was worried that this might be my undoing, a potential weakness in a group of incredible and potentially strategic contenders. In that moment of celebration, however, the love, respect and support we’d all grown to show one another was so overwhelming – we’d all made it – we’d all shared this extraordinary, bizarre and totally remarkable experience together – we’d all found within ourselves our paths forward, focus and direction. I maintain that this feeling of my extended family of marvellous MasterChef alumni (and incredible staff and crew), more specifically my season eight people, all helped one another survive, thrive and flourish in very unusual circumstances. We were all there at the end, in celebration and positive reflection, and in joy. Competition aside, we were all winners for having found like-minded, passionate foodie friends that will be connected forevermore. Gosh, I’m so cheesy sometimes… but I really can’t help but feel absolute, complete and thorough gratitude for those friendships formed – thanks so much, you wonderful souls, for helping shape my experience so positively.
The warmth and joy of the shared experience was something I could feel walking into the kitchen again as a part of season 9. I was greeted by so many enthusiastic, excitable, nervous faces that had already created a bond that would also give them the strength and endurance to see each other through the competition and beyond. I remembered walking into that kitchen; I wished I could share it with my sister Alexandra, who had been so encouraging of my passion for food and such a support when I was applying. It was even grander than I could have imagined, like walking into some kind of cathedral entrance and trying to take in everything at once, the dreams that were realised here before me, the creative energy thick in the air and the feeling of having a whole new adventure ahead of me. The same feeling a teaching colleague always said was the best part of the school holidays; waking up that first day, with it all ahead of you – don’t worry, she totally earned every single break and felt the same way about each teaching in term time!
Approaching the benches where each new participant was madly and frantically cooking, I was so aware of the journey of growth we had all taken. Those first day jitters interfering with logical decisions, the first day excitement preventing your fine motor skills from operating properly, the first day ambition of wanting to incorporate every skill ever learned – I could see a bit of everything, and all I could feel was this massive sense of knowing what the joyful reflection of a steep learning curve feels like at the other end. In a few months, this group of home cooks would be transformed and may barely recognise themselves in the kitchen. I wanted to tell them to breathe, to take their time, to find their happy place quick smart – this always helped me do my best cooking and was way more fun than the panic and fear.
The nerves were evident as I tasted the food the new contestants had created. Whilst everything in the mystery box was chosen by me, I was pleasantly surprised with how the ingredients had been utilised. There were some standouts for sure, individuals who delivered comforting, tasty, experimental and exciting food that inspired me to look at my own favourite ingredients differently – I love seeing how other people’s minds work, it’s fascinating! There was a whole lot more potential in specific elements that others served up, a bravery and creativity that was just so much fun to observe and sample. And, as always in the early days, there was a lot of pasta and spaghetti heavy dishes. I’m sure all MasterChef alumni can remember making pasta early on, its fun, therapeutic and when successful, an absolute triumph! I of course had a very rough time the next day, so much gluten that I had tried out of respect to their creators, but boy oh boy was my body angry with me… Above all, I saw 24 individuals who were about to experience the adventure of a lifetime. They were about to experience highs and lows the likes of which I cannot compare, and come out stronger, more creative and upskilled on the other side.
As MasterChef approaches its 10th season, I can only imagine what goodies are in-store for the newest group of contenders, participants and soon to be the closest of friends. What a truly outstanding show and experience to have been a part of and be connected to. I was always a massive fan, I loved getting ideas and watching the participants create astounding dishes under intense time pressure; little did I know when watching Julie Goodwin and Poh Ling Yeow in 2009 that they were paving the way for all these years of entertainment, life-changing experiences, and what has now shaped my future in a most profound way.
There are so many moments I could share with you, but I’m a good rambler, and I may not stop, so if you have any specific MasterChef Australia related questions, please #AskElena and I’ll do my best to respond here, soon.