From winning MasterChef Australia in 2012 to now judging Junior MasterChef Australia Season 3, chef Andy Allen has come a long way. And though he agrees that a lot has changed for him in the last few years, he says he still remains the same on the inside and out. Currently enjoying dishes prepared by young home cooks and mentoring them to do their best on the show, Allen shares he has been blown away by the young chefs and their exceptional cooking skills.
In an exclusive video chat with indianexpress.com, the chef talks about his journey, the effect of the pandemic on the food industry, his tryst with Indian cuisine, and what it feels to be on the other side and mentoring home cooks on the show.
Excerpts from the interview:
From winning MasterChef Australia Season 4 to now judging the show, how has the journey been?
I must admit that it was pretty smooth sailing. I’m someone who takes each day at a time. I’m a pretty relaxed human being as well and, as much as I felt humbled to get the job, I just wanted to do a good job. I always think back to not just the journey — from winning MasterChef to becoming a judge — but that nine years ago, I was a fourth-year apprentice electrician. A lot has changed since then, but I just still feel that I’m the same me on the inside and out.
However, since you’ve been on the other side, do you tend to go soft on the contestants?
Not so much. First and foremost, it’s a cooking competition and my job is to mentor those guys and make them better. However, the only thing we’d be soft about and tend to work out is how people react best to criticism because you’re not going to go into the first episode and just cane someone’s dish, it just won’t make sense. I deal with this in my restaurants, I know my chefs, and with some of them, you can give feedback differently to others. But at the end of the day, I just want to see better food, you guys want to see better food, and it’s my job to help the guys get to that goal.
But how has the experience of judging Junior MasterChef Australia been after the main series?
I don’t have kids, I don’t have nephews, so my time spent around kids from the age of nine to 14 is minimum. So I went in there with, I wouldn’t say low expectations, but I just didn’t expect the world both in terms of the food but also how entertaining and engaging the kids would be. But it has blown me away from day one. Throughout the competition, they have been given feedback differently to what I would to my peers, because, you know, these kids aren’t going to take feedback like that, so you really need to just craft your critique.
MasterChef is known to bring together different cultures and cuisines, and Indian food has always been a prominent part of the show. What is your take on Indian cooking on MasterChef Australia?
Indian cuisine in Australia, I feel, is really on the cusp of just exploding. Firstly, it’s packed full of flavour, it’s really colourful, and it’s got a lot of textures. And for me, that’s the food I want around the table and have my best friends and family over and we just go for it. I got that clearly when I came on the show as a guest chef a couple of seasons ago in an immunity challenge against a contestant named Sandeep, and he had cooked this lemon rice with chicken. The thing with that challenge is that you can’t see the other person as there’s a wall. I remember I cooked my dish and looked at it pretty stoked as it had gone to plan, but then the aroma came from what he was cooking, and I was like, ‘oh man, I’m in trouble here’. So, that was probably the first time that I’ve really gone, ‘this is such a good display of Indian food that Australia and the world could see’.
Do you also use Indian ingredients or experiment with the cuisine?
Personally, at the Three Blue Ducks (my restaurants), we don’t have a cuisine. So it’s not like we’re cooking just Italian food or Indian food. We like to pull things, and I won’t necessarily create an Indian dish but will take a spice mix that I’ve created with Indian flavours in it and rub it with roasted cauliflower. And I’ve actually got a dish on the menu — Indian spice with roasted cauliflower with cashew cream, lentils and herbs — but it’s not India-specific. But for me, the thing I love about living in Australia is that we’re so multicultural, we don’t have one cuisine, we have so many. So for me to have the license to pick and choose flavours and textures from all around the world, it’s unbelievable.
Going back to your time as a contestant, was there something about the judges that you dreaded/disliked, and now that you are a judge yourself, you end up doing the same as it’s what the job demands?
After being a contestant and now on the other side, I realise that the judges knew exactly what was going to happen. And for me, the fear of the unknown (as a contestant) was the worst because it was like, what’s tomorrow going to bring? And when you’re a contestant you think that those three judges hold all the cards. Yeah, they do, but there’s also a whole production side of things as well. And every day, I wondered if they’re going to give us any information about tomorrow. And it just never, ever came. That’s what I hated because all I wanted was to know what I was doing the next day so I could come prepared.
The pandemic has affected the food industry in a huge way. We even saw social distancing on MasterChef. So what do you anticipate the new normal to be in the food industry?
In Australia, it’s different in every state that we go into. Right now, Melbourne and Victoria have just started to gently open up their restrictions, because they’ve been in an intense 16-week lockdown. So I think we’re probably going to have to wait, maybe six months, to really let the dust settle. Hopefully, cases come down all around the world. But for us, I have restaurants in Brisbane, all the way down to Melbourne, so we’ve just been looking at those different states and what we can achieve right now. I don’t think that we’re going to really be able to comment on what it’s going to be… it’s so volatile and can change in a day. So I just cross my fingers that we can get back to normality. But, one thing born out of this whole pandemic is that people have really started to appreciate restaurants and hospitality a lot more as it was almost ripped out from under them overnight. So when we opened, the appreciation actually came back, which before, I feel, people took for granted.
How, according to you, has the show evolved over the years?
The food is the main thing that has evolved. The amazing thing about the show’s format is that we still do it in Australia, the mystery box and the one-night elimination — the five-week block is still the same. Though it did evolve a little in the first two-three seasons, from my season, all the way to right up to season 12, it’s virtually the same. I think it’s a testament to the format and the show. But yes, the food has changed. I mean, I just look at the food that I was serving up eight years ago, to what Reynold was serving up in ‘Back to Win’ or even Laura and now what the kids are doing. I would be happy if what I was cooking eight or nine years ago was as good as some of those juniors because it’s phenomenal. And I think that’s also a testament to MasterChef and how much it’s kind of filtered through into not just adults, but kids as well, and made food really approachable. I want to cook these days. I want to have really good food at home.
If you had to pick just five ingredients, what would they be?
Anchovies, curry leaves, pasta, Parmigiano-Reggiano and eggplant.
Junior MasterChef Australia comes out every Monday to Wednesday on Disney+ Hotstar Premium.
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