'My heart is broken': MasterChef star's tragic loss ahead of family challenge

Penny Burfitt
Lifestyle & Entertainment Producer

MasterChef’s Reece Hignell has shared some tragic news following the series’ much-lauded family memories challenge.

The cake specialist wowed the judges with a recreation of his grandma’s sponge cake as part of a challenge that asked contestants to make a dish based off a family photograph on Wednesday evening, but he’s since revealed watching the episode was far harder than he anticipated.

Reece Hignell shared the heartbreaking news of his grandmother Heather Bates' death to Instagram. Photo: Instagram/ reecehignell

Reece told Yahoo Lifestyle his grandmother Heather Bates sadly passed away just four days before her sponge cake made its debut on Aussie screens, after she spent weeks eagerly awaiting its appearance.

“My Nan, Heather Bates is my number one cooking inspiration,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle, adding his grandma had been hoping to see her famous recipe perfected by Reece when she heard he made it onto the show.

“Whilst I was at MasterChef, Nan was calling me trying to train me on how to perfect her sponge recipe, my favourite of all her recipes,” he says.

“So when I did end up making it on the show I called her immediately. I was so excited and she seemed very proud.”

Reece presented Heather's sponge cake on Wednesday night's episode. Photo: Instagram/ reecehignell

He said she was so excited to see her grandson baking up a storm on TV, she even had Reece’s mum make her an Instagram account so she could keep up with his newfound celebrity status.

“Nan called me a lot the last few weeks waiting on the episode with the sponge and even got my mum to create her an Instagram account so that she could see what I was posting,” he said.

Taking to Instagram on Thursday, Reece shared the tragic news with fans and friend.

“Ok... so this is a tough one for me,” he wrote. “This week my Nan passed away, just before this episode.”

Reece wowed the judges when he plated up his grandmother's sponge cake. Photo: Ten

He said while the loss at such a difficult time has hit hard, the support he was greeted with has made a huge mark.

“Its been a really hard [and] emotional week but the online support to me and my family has been overwhelming,” he said. “I am incredibly grateful.”

On Instagram, he expressed his happiness at being able to celebrate a very special woman on such a huge platform.

“My heart is still broken but I am very grateful [to MasterChef] for giving me a chance to show how special my Nan is to me,” he wrote.

Co-stars and fans’ touching messages of support

The heartbreaking post prompted an outpouring of messages of support and love for the dessert chef.

“Hope you’re doing okay mate!” judge Andy Allen wrote.

“I’m so sorry for your loss Reece,” judge Melissa Leong wrote. “I am sure you did her so proud in honouring her through her food, and it makes that day and this episode even more meaningful for us to have all shared it with you.”

“I’m so sorry Reecey,” fellow contestant Khanh Ong wrote.

Fans also sent thousands of messages of support for the chef.

“You have done her proud,” one reassured.

“Sending you and her lots of love Reece,” another said.

MasterChef’s emotional week of diversity and memories

The sad news comes after fans were left in floods of tears after the episode in which the ‘mystery boxes’ contained photos of each contestant’s family, requiring them to create a dish inspired by their nearest and dearest.

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house as each Back To Win contestant relayed stories from their past, with some fans online saying they should have been warned to have a box of tissues nearby. 

A usually stoic Reynold broke down as he revealed the picture of him sitting out the back of his parents’ kitchen brought back a plethora of emotions for him, with Melissa letting him know that it’s clear he got his strong work ethic from his family. 

Khanh burst into tears over a photo of him with his parents on the day they arrived in Australia. He went on to reveal he was born in a refugee camp and the photo showed the day they were approved to enter Australia.

The emotional episode was followed by an immunity challenge which saw judge Melissa Leong post an image of the five contestants to social media, with the acclaimed food critic writing: “This image is groundbreaking.”

The challenge saw Jess Liemantara, Khanh Ong, Brendan Pang, Reynold Poernomo and Poh Ling Yeow, all from Asian backgrounds, whip up some of the most breathtaking dishes ever plated up in the reality show kitchen. 

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