As of now, celebrity chef Jock Zonfrillo is busy “having fun” with junior home cooks on Junior MasterChef Australia Season 3, which is currently streaming on Disney+ Hotstar Premium.
The celebrity chef, who also judged MasterChef Australia Season 12 Back to Win, says that while there isn’t much that has changed for him in the two series, he does say the kind of cooking he is witnessing on the latest show is something he had not expected. In an exclusive interview with indianexpress.com, Jock, who was named Australia’s Hottest Chef in 2018, talks about his role as a judge on Junior MasterChef Australia, Indian cuisine on the show, and the impact of the pandemic on the food industry.
Before judging Junior Masterchef, you were a judge on the 2020 season of MasterChef. How different is the judging experience?
To be honest, I’ve been more at home with the kids because I am so immature; I’ve been able to relate with the kids more easily. It means that I get to laugh and joke and clown around more than I got to do in the main season, so I’ve found the transition pretty easy. I have thoroughly enjoyed it, and I’ve got to say that the kids are fantastic cooks and some of the dishes they put up are worthy of the main series. Their cooking is as good as some of the adults, but they are also looking for feedback and constructive criticism of their cooking and their dishes — so I kind of feel that in a way it hasn’t been much different as a judge. You know, other than the fact that I am able to have more fun because they are kids.
As a judge, what is it that you look for in a winning dish?
I am looking for something genuine, to have a sense of the passion — whether it is a grandmother’s recipe or the cuisine of the culture they come from or a dish they cooked for their family. But, I was thinking that we would not see as much of that with the kids, however, it was actually the opposite. These kids had to learn, maybe, a recipe from their grandma or mum and then they went online and started researching it as they wanted to make the recipe better. So they would be doing online courses, lessons and watching videos about how to make a pasta dish, for example, by Massimo Bottura instead of the way their mum made it, and then they would get that family recipe and make it even better, so it’s on another level. That, for me, is passion; and then they tell you that story and you think, “wow”. That’s like taking the bull by its horns and running with it and wanting to better – not only as a cook, but also the recipe that you’ve tucked in your belt. For me, that’s everything because you can taste it, see it, sense it when you’re standing next to it — and that’s the thing I look for first, before anything else.
Indian cuisine has always been a prominent part of MasterChef. How has your experience with it been on the show and otherwise?
I grew up in Glasgow, and there is a huge Indian population in Scotland; so the cuisine I grew up eating is a reasonable amount of Indian food even though I am half Italian-half Scottish. Take Tikka Masala, allegedly, invented in Glasgow in 1971 (laughs). So, you know, for me there’s a certain amount of familiarity with Indian food that reminds me of my childhood but also promises so much. You know, 2020 was the year I planned to travel to India and work my way around the 29 (sic) states that you’ve got, and start working on the culinary history and culture of each of these states. Well, COVID put a sharp stop to that, but it’s still on the cards for me. But MasterChef continually throws great Indian cooks into the kitchen, but not only that, some of the favourite dishes of cooks from different cultures, inevitably, will be from Indian cuisines. I think the cuisine is an incredibly important part of MasterChef and feel it will be moving forward as well. The more people realise the complexity of Indian cuisine and that it’s not just the five or six dishes that are known as a takeaway dish, people will fall in love with it more and more.
How has the pandemic affected the food industry?
It was really tough, the government forced closures in March and I had to close my restaurant in Adelaide and there is still social distancing in play, which meant we could not reopen our restaurant at least till the end of the year. So, Covid pretty much put an end to my restaurant; it was incredibly tough for my staff and me. But we are not the only people in that position, so there is this fragility that we feel as an industry now knowing that a pandemic like this can put us all out of business overnight practically. Insurance policies don’t cover it.
It also forced a lot of us who have not had a Friday or Saturday night with their families for decades, finding ourselves at home cooking for our families on the weekends, which was a beautiful thing — something none of us had never experienced. So, a lot of us also went ‘huh, I like it. I wonder if this is the way I can re-enter the hospitality industry in a way that still allows me to have a better life with my family and friends and still be in the industry’. So, big changes are ahead in the hospitality industry globally, whether that’s in cafes or fine dining restaurants alike. I think we will see a lot more value put on the work that goes into them as well because I think there’s been a reluctance to pay a full price for someone to cook for you, but now that everyone has had to cook for themselves at home every day, I think people realise the value of it and are quite happy to pay for it.
If you had to pick just three ingredients, what would they be?
Pork; I am gonna say it because the Italian side of me is all for pancetta, prosciutto, salami. I just love pork generally as meat. Also, flour — baking bread, making pasta, savoury, sweet dishes — the aspects of flour are just incredible. And the last one, water — fresh, unsalted water — because it is something we often take for granted. The thing is, as a chef, you are relying on so many things as a base pantry, that I am thinking if you have taken everything away from me and I just have these three things!
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