Over the 13 years that it's been on screens in Australia, MasterChef has served as feel-good entertainment and taught us a lot about food. Now the new season MasterChef Australia: Fans & Favourites is about to premiere and while there are many reasons to celebrate its return, there's one in particular I'm eager to talk about.
As a woman of colour who loves reality TV, I've spent my career writing and celebrating stories about representation on screen — whether that's the way in which Australian Survivor has become an unlikely feminist show or how Married At First Sight has disappointingly shown nude photo scandals and nastiness thriving between female contestants. I'm keen to weigh in on how MasterChef Australia — one of my favourite reality TV shows — measures up in its portrayal of women.
Since first airing in 2009, MasterChef has celebrated the talents of amateur home cooks, allowing them to showcase their culinary skills in front of the nation and learn some techniques from the celebrity judges along the way. Over the past 13 years, eight women have won MasterChef (putting females in the majority of winners). But grand finale winners aside, the reality show's true victory lies in the way in which it has helped launch the successful careers of many incredible women in Australian food and entertainment.
You can't speak about MasterChef success stories without considering the show's first-ever winner in 2009, Julie Goodwin. The then-IT office manager was selected from over 7,000 applicants for a program that Aussie viewers were not yet familiar with. With her bubbly personality and passion for fresh, home-cooked meals, she won the approval of judges Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris and Matt Preston — and also our hearts.
The platform that MasterChef gave her helped catapult her to fame, and while fame can be fleeting, her professional success hasn't dwindled. Her television career continued with her own food show, Home Cooked! With Julie Goodwin, she's released more than five cookbooks, started her own cooking classes and a catering business. Her career in entertainment has also thrived beyond food, becoming rather clear when she was cast as a contestant on I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! in 2015.
When I think about Yeow's accomplishments, I always think about how inspiring it is to see her as an Asian woman with her own cooking show — an opportunity that came off the back of her MasterChef success. It's unfortunately still rare in Australia to see a woman of colour front her own TV show, and Yeow has been the face of two of her own shows, ABC's Poh's Kitchen and Poh & Co on SBS. She more recently fronted SBS's Adam and Poh’s Malaysia in Australia alongside fellow MasterChef fave, Adam Liaw, and is also the co-host host of Channel 9's Snackmasters which was recently green-lit for a second season.
Yeow's infectious personality made her a perfect casting choice for I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! this year, where she took her job of representing Asian Australians very seriously. She spoke about the challenges she faced growing up in Australia with two cultures. She also openly talked about her struggle with whitewashed beauty standards and has previously encouraged children of immigrants to push past cultural expectations about their career.
"She's a national treasure," MasterChef judge Melissa Leong gushes about Yeow in an interview with Refinery29 Australia. "It's because of a show like MasterChef that she was able to be herself. All people needed to do was just see Poh being herself, and they would fall in love with her."
Similar to Yeow, Sarah Tiong has been able to pursue a career in food after studying law and working in risk consultancy. She says she has MasterChef to thank for it after appearing in the 2017 season and then on the Back To Win season in 2020.
"I definitely think since being on MasterChef the first time around, I'm quite firmly placed and rooted in hospitality," Tiong tells Refinery29 Australia.
"Not only am I a published cookbook author, but I am frequently in the media and on television cooking and showing recipes. I'm frequently collaborating with different brands within the hospitality industry, I do private catering and I do actually cook in restaurants and do big events.
"So for me, it's been a huge shift in in my path and it's really taken passion into something that I can now build a profit from and really build a living from."
The stigma that men are chefs and women are home cooks is still largely rampant.
For Minoli De Silva — who returns to the Fans & Favourites season this year after making her MasterChef debut last year — being on the show has given her the confidence to swap her chemical engineering career for the restaurant biz.
"MasterChef has given me the platform to basically go after something that I am obsessed with," says De Silva.
"It teaches you to work hard and it teaches you to back yourself. When you leave the competition, it's a skill that helps you in anything that you do, no matter whether you go back to your current job or whether you take on something new."
Sexism In The Food Industry
The food industry, like many other industries, has been plagued by gender equality issues over time. The stigma that men are chefs and women are home cooks is still largely rampant. So, does MasterChef help turn this issue on its head?
Leong agrees "that we often consider home cooking to be feminine and professional cooking to be masculine," and that it's "an indication of our embedded patriarchal gaze" that "we definitely have to change".
"The clear thing to be specific about from a professional point of view is that a professional cook isn't a chef," she then explains. "You don't do MasterChef and become a chef. A chef is a professional qualification.
"That does not mean however, that you cannot have a very successful professional career cooking food for people as a cook. A lot of the best purveyors out there, the best restaurants and a lot of the best people are self-taught and pride themselves on calling themselves a cook and not a chef," Leong says.
Tiong praises MasterChef for not pitting men and women against each other because of their gender. It's a level playing field.
"It evens the table. It kind of brings everyone to the same table with opportunity and the same challenges," says Tiong. "And I think that's what's probably very, very different to a more traditional sort of culinary school approach [where you get a chef qualification].
"Women are free to be themselves on the show and women are free to just do their thing and not have to worry about this whole thing of, 'Am I being gaslit? Am I being portrayed in a certain way as a particular stereotype of a female in the kitchen?'"
MasterChef Australia's First Female Judge (Finally)
Leong becoming the first Aussie female judge was the subject of many headlines at the time, and the fact she's a woman of colour was greatly celebrated too.
"The first year that Melissa stepped into that judge role, I think it was such a revolutionary feeling," says Tiong. "It was sort of everybody being like, 'Oh finally' or 'This is interesting, what a really different dynamic' or 'Is she going to be able to fill those shoes?' and I kind of really hated that."
"It's not to say that she's [Melissa Leong] got shoes to fill — I think that's a very dangerous saying. I think she has her own shoe."
Tiong explains she's always been a fan of the previous judges, especially as she cooked for them during her first time on the show in 2017.
"But I think what Melissa represents is a shift in things and a fresher perspective. It's not to say that she's got shoes to fill — I think that's a very dangerous saying. I think she has her own shoe. She has her own path and her own approach."
Jenn Lee is competing in the 2022 season and explains why Leong's involvement on the show is more important than you might think, especially to Asian Australian women, who've struggled to see themselves represented on television and in the local food industry.
"You don't see a lot of Asian women on TV," says Lee. "So when I saw Mel as one of the new judges, I felt really connected to her and just thought that maybe it's a sign that I should apply."
"She's able to critique and things that she says are just so eloquent," Im said at the time. "As a fellow Asian, I just feel like she's a really good representative for us on television and she just knows so much and speaks really well, which I admire."
This season, Leong returns with Zonfrillo and Allen, eager to see what 12 former contestants (favourites) and 12 amateur home cooks (fans) bring to the table.
The favourites include Julie Goodwin (Season 1), Billie McKay (Season 7), Sashi Cheliah (Season 10), Alvin Quah (Season 2), Michael Weldon (Season 3) Mindy Woods (Season 4), Christina Batista (Season 5), Sarah Todd (Season 6), John Carasig (Season 7), Aldo Ortado (Season 10), Minoli De Silva (Season 13) and Tommy Pham (Season 13).
No matter who you're backing when you tune in this year, take a moment to notice the delightful representation of women who may very well be the next Goodwin or Yeow.
MasterChef Australia: Fans & Favourites continues at 7:30pm on Channel 10 and 10Play.