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MasterChef’s Jock Zonfrillo on Global Food Culture in 2020

July 15, 2020

For many people around the world, MasterChef is the definitive reality food program. The franchise is decades-old, and has spawned global versions, including an Asian one (where Filipino contestants fared quite well). If you’re a true MasterChef geek, then the best version belongs to Australia. The quality of cooks that pass through their kitchens is so high, that they have to pass extreme measures before any auditions take place. The series’ popularity in the country means that episodes air 6 days a week; presidential debates have even been moved for fear of viewer-less time slots.

In a bold move, after ten years, the show’s popular judges who have been credited for much of its success, left together, with controversies following in their wake. A chance for reinvention meant adding a BIPOC woman to the panel, and popular personalities who’ve made appearances before, including a previous contestant, and an award-winning chef.

Today, we focus on Jock Zonfrillo, the enigmatic Scotsman who cooks indigenous Australian cuisine. We’ve been fans of his for quite some time, and got a chance to catch up on his MasterChef journey, and asked him what it’s like to film a tv series in 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, and a cultural revolution in kitchens across the globe.

What was the process like when you were cast as a judge on Masterchef? When you were cast, did you decide that you were going to have a particular approach to judging, especially with the pressure to fill the shoes of previous judges Matt, George and Gary?

They just asked me, because I knew everyone there, it just took a simple call really. You know, I really feel like I came into it thinking I’m just gonna be myself, there’s no point trying to be what I’m not. What’s really I think for me was more important was being true to myself especially with the MasterChef brand; you know it’s such a historic program over the years, since 1980. To be able to be part of this is truly a privilege.

As judges, you guys all have strengths in certain cuisines, right? How do you encourage contestants to cook the dishes that they’re afraid to present differently or introduce to you guys? And how do you in turn judge dishes that are unfamiliar to you?

I think all of us have got a pretty good grasp on global cuisines, and collectively we’ve traveled the world quite extensively. We did our research obviously in cuisines that we are not familiar with. Say, we’re eating a dish that for example, is extremely unique, of course we are going to look at it, and research it, find out about it. And we’re going to use our palates and our knowledge around that cuisine. We’ll also check technical aspects like if the flavors go well together, if something is cooked or undercooked— there are many ways you can judge a dish. And of course when I show later, we love dishes that we’d never heard of before. It’s a chance for us to learn, and to be honest, we can’t have eaten everything in the world; it’s just impossible! For us, it’s just exciting to see the unfamiliar. With this batch of cooks particularly, they are well-travelled, and they have diverse restaurants. There’s no problem with the unknown because that means we’re learning, and we judge them with open minds, and focus on taste.

Now that you guys have changed the way you’re filming because of COVID-19, how do you balance the classic heart of Masterchef, and your chemistry with Melissa and Andy? Obviously there’s a lot more constraints now with the filming, has it changed the way you interact at all?

We’ve had a great chemistry from the beginning and though the way that we film has changed a little bit because of the social distancing–we’re not able to get that many international guests as we normally have, and we’re not able to travel internationally as we normally do so–the whole fabric of MasterChef, not our chemistry in particular, has become more challenging especially with the lockdown. So we have had to change it up, but the spirit of Masterchef and the camaraderie is the same and we’ve learned just to work together and have a great laugh.

Whose journey and progress so far, have you been most excited to see?

I think all of them have had exciting journeys. They’re an incredible bunch. When Melissa, Andy, and I were really looking at the contestants, you know, reputation is there, hundreds of social media followers they know that there’s going to be one person they’re going to be looking at in the hot seat of the show. But I’ve got to say, we spent a lot of time on and off camera working together, bonding and making sure everyone was doing okay and if they leave it’s not the end of the world. I’ve got to say everyone has shown a huge amount of growth and l think that is really incredible.

I’ll just change track a little bit from a MasterChef. We were talking a while ago about the global experience, and how you guys really do your research. When you were also filming Nomad Chef, it was important for you to treat the cultures you encountered with respect–you would talk about really researching the cultures and the food that you ate and covered. In this political climate, how does one honor the food and cuisine of another country without appropriating it?

I really think it’s everything that you said. Sometimes, it’s based on your experience, you know. It’s an honor for you to try and go and cook a cuisine from a country. If you’re going to try cooking the cuisine of another country professionally, but you don’t have the skills for it, then you should approach it with respect for the culture. You should ask for permission from the local community, and they’ll most likely be happy to share their culture with you. I’ve never come across a chef who didn’t practice this without respect for a culture not of their own. When you ask permission, the communities or elders are usually happy to help and get their message across. That, I think is really the main point. 

The restaurant industry is also something that’s experiencing much upheaval due to politics, for example, with the #MeToo movement and then a call for more BIPOC represented in kitchens. Recently, on your Instagram you stood up for fellow judge Melissa Leong when somebody called her a racial slur. How do you ensure that the work environment at your restaurant, Orana is one that is progressive and fair? How do you practice that especially as a white, male chef?

It’s important to use my position as an ally. For example, my cooking, I highlight indigenous people and their culture. In Australia, I want to think people are very cross cultural, they are very conscious. In Orana, because of the food we represent, we have Aboriginal people in the kitchen and we accept and allow indigenous people but only if that’s what they want to do. If they don’t want to be in my kitchen, I make sure to represent them well. And I said, you know, the indigenous people that I’ve worked with and encountered do what they love to do, not what you think they should be doing.

At what point in your career did you realize that the preservation of Australian produce and techniques was what you wanted to pursue? Have you ever thought about what your cooking would be like if you were still in the UK?

The Australian culinary culture was something I had never experienced. I think this was the course that I was meant to take and I couldn’t be happier.

Have you learned any techniques or dishes from the contestants that you have gone home to try out yourself?

We’re inspired by a lot of things. At the start you have all these 24 contestants who are all at different stages of their career. They all do very different things, and all those can be a source of inspiration. The main thing, authentic techniques like Brendan with his dumplings or Khan’s mastery of flavors, or the thought process of Reynold when he starts to compose a combination of things; these trigger a memory or trigger of rediscovery.

This article has been translated, transcribed, and edited for clarity and brevity.

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