MasterChef Australia 2020: the highs, lows and talking points that made this season a hit

The grand finale was a celebration of friendship – but it was conversations about race and diversity in food that defined Back to Win

So ends another heartbreaking, heartwarming, frustrating and weird season of MasterChef Australia.

The show’s 12th season featured an all-new judging panel; contestants from previous seasons who were “Back to Win”; and, about halfway through, social distancing – which meant no hugging on a very huggy show.

Perhaps the most painful zero-hugs policy moment was when the dessert king Reynold Poernomo lost the dessert elimination challenge on Sunday, and cried hunched over a workbench.

Finalists Laura Sharrad and Emelia Jackson, close friends who appeared on season six together, hovered around Reynold, sort of moving their hands around a lot.

Reynold Poernomo
No touching!: Reynold Poernomo breaks down – alone – after losing the MasterChef semi-final. Photograph: Network Ten

Then came the grand finale.

There was some friendly ribbing. “If anyone was to beat me I wanted it to be Laura. I feel slightly differently today,” said French dessert master Emelia.

“She’s not going to win,” said pasta-master Laura, who did not make a pasta dish in the final challenge.

ARE YOU HAPPY AUSTRALIA?! ARE YOU HAPPY NOW?! you've successfully bullied Laura out of making pasta. #Masterchefau

— Em Rusciano (@EmRusciano) July 20, 2020

There was drama: while cooking, Laura burned her hand, summoning the greatest of all heroes, especially this year: a nurse.

There was also intrigue: the judge Jock Zonfrillo wore a kilt.

Sorry I can't hear anything over jocks kilt #MasterChefAU

— khanh (@khanhong) July 20, 2020

Ultimately it was Emelia who was triumphant, because, after a season where serving dishes à la mode – or as the French say, “with ice-cream on top” – was extremely, well, à la mode, Laura lost because of the texture of her ice-cream.

When the winner was announced, Emelia and Laura hugged illegally, Emelia saying over and over, “I’m sorry,” as Laura reassured her, “It’s OK. I’m so proud of you.”

Laura Sharrad and Emelia Jackson
‘I’m sorry’: Laura and Emelia break the rules of both social distancing and competitive grudges. Photograph: Network Ten

Which brings us to the season in review. In addition to ice-cream, and true to the show’s theme song – Katy Perry’s Hot N Cold – the MasterChef 2020 contestants also lost their minds over their hibachi grills.

Perry herself appeared on episode 24, bringing with her the most important element in any MasterChef episode: chaos. Poh Ling Yeow took back the baton for the next few episodes until she too got the chop – after which the show became considerably more dull.

There were highs: this season featured its first female judge and first Australian judge with Singaporean and Chinese heritage, in the form of the universally adored Melissa Leong, who brought not only a deep knowledge of food, poetic commentary, laughter and heartfelt encouragement, but an understanding of the histories and meanings behind a variety of Asian cuisines that had been sorely lacking.

can we go back a second and just talk about brendan saying how lovely it was that Melissa understood the importance of his wonton dish because she’s from an Asian background too 🥺

THIS is why representation and diversity is so important #MasterchefAU

— Isha Bassi (@Isha_Bassi) April 22, 2020
View this post on Instagram

This image is ground breaking. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ Not only did these tremendous humans create the five best dishes yesterday (we judge dishes, not people), but I could never conceive of witnessing a moment like this on prime time television in my lifetime. ⁣Thank you @channel10au. ⁣ ⁣⁣ Diversity and representation does not come at the detriment of others, it is for the inclusivity of us all. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ I am proud to be Australian. To be part of a nation whose identity is indigenous and multicultural, we are richer because of ancient and recent.⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ To every person who never felt seen, this is for you, may it give you hope. To every person who is yet to feel seen, you are valued and your moment is on its way. We rise together.

A post shared by Melissa Leong | FOODERATI (@fooderati) on

There were less-high highs: Jock, the owner of Adelaide’s Orana restaurant, boasted about eating 34 eggs and a whole cake in his car.

Andy Allen, who won the show’s fourth season, used the words “ripper”, “beast” and “mate” a lot.

Melissa: amazing, a culinary delight. Perfectly balanced on my palette - each bite taking me on a journey that has peaks and troughs with every mouthful.

Jock: I concur, what a wonderful experience

Andy: *chewing loudly with mouth open* YEAH NAH ITS HEAPS GOOD AY #MasterChefAU

— Matt Sullivan (@thegrainking) July 20, 2020

And there were pretty brutal lows, mate.

Last month the acting immigration minister, Alan Tudge, claimed Australia is not racist because, as he said, on MasterChef “one of the judges is Chinese, has an ethnic Chinese background”.

While MasterChef itself is celebrated as one of Australia’s most diverse primetime shows, it is not without blind spots. Yes, there was an all-female finale. But it was the conversations about cultural diversity, racism and food that defined this season.

As Jessica Zhan Mei Yu wrote of the Tudge sludge, and the celebration of MasterChef for its diversity, in the Monthly: “The fact that there are several Asian Australians on MasterChef and almost none on, say, Neighbours or The Bachelor sends a clear message to Asian Australians: We don’t want to live next door to you, touch you, get close to you or know anything about your inner lives, but we will take your food.”

That is, so long as that food doesn’t need to be called “fine dining”. In a fine-dining challenge, three competing contestants chose French food – but Khanh Ong chose Vietnamese, and lost. “Some of the Asian cuisines, for example, don’t automatically lend themselves to a fine dining dish,” Jock said.

Asian cuisines are full of fine dining. Kaiseki, Confucian cuisine, Thai/Vietnamese court cuisine, almost any regional cuisine in China, Peranakan food... It's just that the Eurocentric conceptualisation of Michelin, World's 50 Best etc. constantly ignores it. #MasterChefAU

— Adam Liaw (@adamliaw) June 14, 2020

Melissa just kept being her gracious, glorious self, handing out “tens across the board”; making contestants feel as though their food was being judged by someone who knew what they were talking about; and crying with joy when Poh made a “Malaysian feast” – partly because it was perfectly executed and delicious, and partly because Melissa missed her mum, as many of us have this year.

Hard to put into words what Poh even being on TV meant to me – this part Chinese-Malaysian kid, growing up in a sea of white – and so many other Asian-Australians.

What an absolute icon of Australian food. Gonna eat a goddamn century egg this week in her honour.#MasterChefAU

— Benjamin Law 羅旭能 (@mrbenjaminlaw) July 5, 2020

Certainly there were some important flaws this season. But at the very least – like a box of pantry staples with more ingredients added each time – the debate we’re cooking up is starting from a more sophisticated place.

As Isha Bassi wrote in BuzzFeed, MasterChef 2020 showed us not only “the importance of diversity and representation on prime time television” but a “progress point”, however flawed, “for them to build on for future seasons”.


Helen Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

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