‘We could all relate’: how MasterChef tapped into lockdown cooking boom

Exclusive: show was already loved but pandemic brought food’s emotional power to fore, say producers

From sourdough starters to the ubiquitous banana bread, the UK’s obsession with food was never more obvious than during lockdowns, but that enthusiasm has been heightened by the pandemic, say the producers behind MasterChef, as the long-running TV competition marks its 500th season globally.

Watched by more than 1 billion people worldwide, the series has curried favour with more viewers than ever as “the world, not just the nation, are so much into food and cooking”, according to Monica Galetti, a judge on MasterChef: The Professionals.

“During lockdown … we were all stuck at home making things over and over again,” said Galetti, “and [when watching the show] people were saying: ‘Oh I could make that.’ It was things we could all relate to at the time, the cooking!”

MasterChef was the third-most-watched programme of 2020 on iPlayer, with 22.2m requests, beaten only by the dramas Normal People and Killing Eve, as locked-down UK audiences sought culinary inspiration and experimented with skills such as breadmaking.

Its executive producer, David Ambler, said: “People really want to show off their food. You could say ‘it’s only cooking’ but the amazing thing about food is that everyone’s food story is unique to them and that’s something the audience relate to.

“Food is incredibly emotionally powerful … if you lose touch with relatives or your grandmother dies … these things live on and are passed down through our food. So it is laden with emotional resonance, even though it’s something seemingly so simple and so everyday.”

He said lockdown reinforced the fact there “is something primordial … in each plate of food; there is a story and an internal drama from the humblest food situation, whether it be chopping an onion or burning toast.”

The format airs in about 200 global territories, and Spain recognised the increased resonance food had during lockdown by creating MasterChef Seniors, which has been picked up by other countries.

Emily Randall, format manager at MasterChef’s parent company, Banijay, said the Spanish had begun thinking about how important older people were in terms of food culture, with “grandparents teaching us to cook and passing down traditional recipes”. The show was “a sort of thank you to the older community who’d been isolated and more vulnerable than ever last year”.

She went on: “With MasterChef you’ve got the ingredients that everyone in the world can relate to: we can all cook to one degree or another. And it’s life-changing, which I think is even more apparent in the last couple of years … people wanting to do something different with the time that we have.”

Last year MasterChef was the first big BBC show to return to production under new Covid-19 restrictions. Now, embarking on its 50th season in the UK, the show’s longevity lies in its ability to “evolve [as] food habits change”, said its creator, Franc Roddam – the film-maker behind Quadrophenia and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.

He came up with the format in order to “democratise fine food” after a ribbing about British cuisine by the actor Mel Brooks.

MasterChef began on the BBC in 1990 and was rebooted in 2005. Then the most-cooked dish was pancetta-wrapped monkfish or chicken. Now Banijay says that veganism, “clever things done with eggs” and crispy fish and chicken skins are popular.

Ambler added: “The food constantly reinvents itself. We’re filming the amateur series at the moment [and] five of the dishes John [Torode] and Gregg [Wallace] had never seen before.”

Over the years the contestants and judges, as well as the food, have become more diverse. And there has been a greater focus on sustainability, with 75% of productions donating leftover food to charity, contestants using sustainable fish and reducing waste, and the German version using a 100% recycled set.

Despite offering no formal prize, 1,700 contestants have taken part in UK versions of MasterChef and the show has created stars such as the Wahaca founder, Thomasina Miers, as well as spawning celebrity, professional and junior spin-offs.

Ambler said another version was “possibly in the pipeline” in the UK but not yet confirmed, while Randall revealed there were “some really exciting ideas” about a potential global iteration of the show and “untapped potential” for a teenage version.

Roddam would like to see the UK show scale up and use previous contestants as mentors. He also thinks MasterChef is “a little undervalued because it’s been around a long time.”

Not unlike a bowl of ripe bananas during a pandemic.

  • MasterChef: The Professionals starts Monday 8 November on BBC One


Tara Conlan

The GuardianTramp

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