Taking the taste test
Just two weeks in, Matt Preston has emerged as a formidable character on MasterChef Australia. But he tells TV Tonight it isn't his first foray into television.
“Neil Perry trained as a hairdresser, Stephanie Alexander was a librarian, Nigella Lawson was a TV columnist,” says Matt Preston.
“There are amazing top Australian international chefs who don’t come from a traditional training background, but come like these guys. They know that what they really want to do is cook and they’ve got a natural aptitude, a palate and a general love of learning more to improve their skills. And that’s what will make them.”
The Age Food Critic turned Television Food Critic insists MasterChef Australia is an opportunity for contestants to radically change their lives by winning the title of TEN’s new reality series, and securing a cash prize, book deal and an entry into the food industry.
“Someone said to me the other night we always talk about chasing dreams. What these people are chasing is fantasy. They have this fantasy of opening a patisserie or a little French restaurant or whatever. What fascinates me watching it is you can see the potential to make it. They’ve actually got the skill and drive to make that happen.
“Suddenly it stops becoming a fantasy and starts becoming a dream and starts becoming an achievable dream. At the point the show becomes really interesting.”
Just two weeks in, Preston has emerged as a formidable character on the TEN reality series. But it isn’t his first foray into television. He was the secret critic on the first series of My Restaurant Rules, as well as stints on BlueList Australia and Lonely Planet Six Degrees.
“I’ve done a few bits but this is the first serious bit of grown up TV I’ve ever done,” he says.
“You can only be who you are, and this sounds like a terrible cliche, but being older you don’t want to be someone else, you want to be yourself. If I didn’t wear a scarf in real life then why would I wear one on telly?”
He says he isn’t about to alter his persona or modify his performance for television cameras.
“If I don’t like a dish then I’m not going to say it’s a good dish for the sake of TV. George (Calombaris) and Gary (Mehigan) share that attitude.
“The interesting thing about TV is you can’t lie on it. You know when people are telling the truth or not.”
Preston adds that the contestants on the series better anything he’s seen on his last reality television foray.
“The food that we’ve seen already on the audition tour of MasterChef was far, far better than anything I saw travelling around, other than maybe one restaurant, when I was doing the reviews for My Restaurant Rules.”
With its first week of nightly challenges completed, Network TEN will be pleased with its results. After concerns the audition week might deter viewers from sampling its regular format, the series took some healthy audiences last week. When the network announced the show late last year, there were many sceptical voices. Filling the mid-year hole left by Big Brother is certainly a big ask. Preston is uneasy with the comparison.
“I’m not a ratings guy but everyone seems to be very happy and buoyant so all I do is put on the cravat and do what I do. But it’s a totally different show and it would be wrong to compare the two. Different markets, different audience, and a very different show,” he says.
The FremantleMedia show is also determined not to sacrifice its contestants for the sake of fake reality drama.
“The discussions have always been ‘if that person can’t cook they’re not going on,'” he says.
“We had a situation recently where I think all four of the best cooks have been in an elimination tests and one them is going to go. And you sit there thinking ‘oh my god we’re going to lose one of our best guys.’ But the deal is if it’s not as good as the other guys then they’ve put themselves in that situation.”
While his role is to be firm but fair, Preston says he isn’t about to turn into Gordon Ramsay, even if it does make him a more identifiable brand.
“We’re over that kind of bullying, crash and burn TV. We want to see stuff that’s uplifting. I’d much rather see someone cry because someone’s been nice to them than see someone cry because someone’s been horrid to them,” he says.
“I’m an old softie.”
MasterChef Australia airs 7pm weeknights, 7:30pm Sundays on TEN.