The home cook, who has since released three cookbooks, made countless TV appearances, and even released a Christmas album, has now opened up to Yahoo Lifestyle about her illustrious career and why she’s so thankful for the Channel 10 reality show.
Why did you apply for MasterChef?
“I got hooked on the UK version of MasterChef with Gregg Wallace and John Torode, and I loved it,” she shares. “It was just a civilised little cooking competition where people would turn up for a few weeks, they'd cook, they went home every night, and after about six weeks somebody was a winner. But they had all improved and learned things and it looked like they had enormous fun.
“So when there was a contestant call for Australian MasterChef I thought, I love that show and it looks like fun. So I applied not knowing what it was going to be, like I had no idea what it was going to be. I thought it was just going to be the same as the British version, which it was not.
“Out of 7500 people, I got to the top 50 before they said, ‘Oh by the way, you have to live out of home to compete’. And I remember that conversation with Mick saying, ‘I have to actually live in a house in Sydney’. What I didn't know until I moved into that house was that they were going to take my computer off me and my phone off me and I was not going to have any unsupervised contact with my family for quite some time.”
What was your experience like on season 1?
“On the UK version, you don't see their homes, but they put us all together into one house, a very big house,” she points out. “And because they didn't quite know what was going to go to air and how it was all going to hang together because it was season one, they filmed us all day long. So there were cameras there in the morning, we got filmed putting our makeup on and brushing our teeth, and there were cameras there at night.
“Now when someone's eliminated, everybody's there and they get to have a hug and say goodbye. But in season one, everybody left and then they would film us sitting in our lounge room at the house waiting to see who came back. And that person just vanished! You didn't get to say goodbye to them, they just disappeared off the face of the earth! So it was a very, very different experience.
“We were filming six days a week, we were doing work experience on Sundays in restaurants, it was really big. But I wouldn't change anything about it because I actually think that some of the reason that I made it all the way through to the end was that I could tough out some of that stuff. And some of it wasn't about the cooking, some of it was a head game and you just had to be able to tough out those long hours and all of that, and back then I could do that! Nowadays, not so much. I don’t want to!”
How did you navigate life after winning the show?
“It was so strange. I had no idea what was going to happen when I applied,” she admits. “Season one was on six nights a week, so you've been in people's lounge room every night except for Saturday night and people feel like they know you. So I had total strangers come up to me and kiss me on the face in the shopping centre. Just really overwhelming.
“Nobody abused me to my face - the internet's a whole other thing - but it was amazing. And my boys, they were in year five, year six and year seven when all of that happened, and they just took it in their stride. We'd be walking through the shops and people would stop to chat and my oldest son would say, ‘Do you want a photo?’ and he’d take a photo and people would discuss with me what's in my shopping trolley, or they'd stop me in the aisle of the supermarket to ask for recipe tips. It was just extraordinary.”
What was it like releasing your first cookbook?
“I was really fortunate because at the same time I won - and we did win a cookbook for the first few years, that's not on the table anymore - I was given a job with the Australian Women's Weekly as a columnist,” she details. “So they trained me in the way that recipes ought to be written, so I had that support when I was writing my own cookbook.
“But also, the nature of that book was that I went out to my extended family and my closest friends and said, ‘What are your food memories and what are the recipes that meant the most to you?’. And so in that book, there's quite a lot of mixed grandmothers’ baking recipes - that I've had to modernise, obviously, because grandma doesn't put all the details in and it's all in ounces and all that sort of thing. So I got to draw on the beautiful memories and resources of others to write that book.
“My nan passed away only a few days after the finale went to air and my mother-in-law only two weeks after that. That book contains so much of them, and it was overwhelming to have that published.”
What stands out as a career highlight for you?
“I was the resident cook on the Today show for a few years,” she says. “The producer rang me the day before I was due to come in and she just sort of casually said, ‘Look, don't wear a skirt tomorrow because there's going to be a guy under your desk where you're cooking’, and I went, ‘I beg your pardon?’. She said, ‘Just wear jeans or something’ and I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ and then she said, ‘Oh, you’re cooking with Kermit the Frog tomorrow’.
“I screamed and threw my phone, I had to go find the phone, and I started to cry. I love Kermit the Frog, I've always loved Kermit the Frog. I used to play The Rainbow Connection to my pregnant belly for all three of my babies. And the next day I went and I cooked with Kermit the Frog. I completely forgot there was a human being under the desk, it was just me and my little green friend and I just thought, look at me! If you could have told my 4, 5, 6-year-old self that one day I'd be next to Kermit the Frog having a chat with him, I just don't even know what I would have done. I wouldn't have believed it.”
What was your experience like on season 14?
“Totally, totally different,” she remarks. “I think the industry has evolved, certainly the production has evolved, contestant welfare is much more highly prized than it was. I had to make sure that things were going to be okay before I agreed to go back on it, just because I was in a place where I didn't really think it would be great for my mental health to put myself under that kind of stress.
"But the production was very, very generous with me in terms of what they would allow me to do. I said things to them like, ‘I have to have eight hours of sleep a night, I can't work till midnight and get up at five, that doesn’t happen anymore!’. And they were like, ‘No, we don't operate like that anymore’. I was allowed access to my psych even though we were filming, I was allowed to drive my car down to Melbourne so that I could go get up early and go for a swim before filming and things like that. So the contestant welfare is super high priority now.”
What else is on your bucket list?
“There are lots of things, but really what MasterChef taught me and Mick, my husband, is that you can have plans but you shouldn't be overly committed to them because opportunities come knocking,” she says.
“We made a decision back when I found out that I'd have to walk out of my business, leave my home, leave Mick alone with the boys and live away from them to compete on this show, we decided that we didn't want to die wondering 'what if’. So my bucket list is short because if I start writing it, I think it'd be too long. And what I really want to do is just keep myself open to all the possibilities that are still out there for me.”
What are you most thankful to MasterChef for?
“I’ve worked with Oxfam on their GROW campaign, I've worked with the Cure for MND Foundation, I'm working now with Beyond Blue,” she details.
“There are times where I think what MasterChef did for me is not only give me opportunities for myself and for my family but it's given me a little bit of leverage to speak for other people and to have a bit of a voice in some areas that I think need a bit of amplification and a bit of attention. For me, that's the privilege of the whole thing, just being able to have a voice in some of those areas.”
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