MasterChef recap: A fresh batch of 'best cooks ever' battle for a treasured apron

MasterChef judges Andy Allen, Melissa Leung and Jock Zonfrillo are back for 2021.
MasterChef judges Andy Allen, Melissa Leung and Jock Zonfrillo are back for 2021.  Photo: Channel Ten

Well, it's that time of year again – the twelve weeks when life is, relatively speaking, worth living. That's right, it's MasterChef time, and all the promos have informed us that this year we are going to see the BEST COOKS EVER. If you thought there were good cooks in previous years, prepare to punch yourself in the face as punishment for being so wrong. The standard of cooking in this year's MasterChef will be so terrifyingly high that it will make past contestants look like hapless cave-people waiting for lightning to strike a dead mastodon.

But of course MasterChef is not just about cooking – it's also about destroying ordinary Australians' lifelong dreams, and every series begins with a whole lot of dreams getting splattered over the kitchen floor like so many dropped panna cottas.

We begin, of course, in a darkened kitchen. Lights come up as a gaggle of hopeful home cooks enter. "I'm here to change my life," says one, before then revealing, "I became a lawyer four days ago". It's possible she might not be MasterChef material – how do we know she won't suddenly quit halfway through the first mystery box challenge to become a cave diver?

Behind the scenes lurk the judges, telling each other how excited they are. It will be their job to ruin dozens of lives this year, while still somehow remaining beloved by millions. As they walk into the kitchen the amateurs burst into spontaneous applause, scarcely believing they are sharing the same air as these gods of thoughtful chewing.

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Following opening speeches in which Melissa makes gratuitous reference to COVID, Andy recites a list of names and Jock informs all the contestants that winning is good, the newbies are asked to make their signature dish so as to prove that they have value as human beings.

If three judges like the dish, the cook gets an apron. If less than three judges like the dish, the cook must cook again for the chance to get an apron (for those new to MasterChef, getting an apron signifies continuing in the competition: they're not just being allowed to be tidier).

The amateurs are a diverse bunch. There's Brent, who has an enormous beard. There's Therese, who doesn't. There's a guy with glasses. There's a guy without glasses. Truly the entire gamut of humanity is represented here today. But no matter what diverse backgrounds these amateur cooks come from, they all have one thing in common: intrusive soundtracks.

Even at this early stage we can see the sharp divide between the cooks whose emotional family stories we get to hear, and the cooks who are too uninteresting to waste time on extended montages. The early frontrunner in 2021 is Therese, who makes a mushroom out of cream and mousse and stuff like that and causes the judges to lose control of their bodily functions. Jock declares the weird mushroom "better than restaurant quality", which doesn't seem like a particularly useful concept. Does he mean that it's too good for a restaurant to serve? In which case, where will Therese find employment after the series is over? All the restaurants will turn her down for being too good.

Halfway through the first episode we've only seen three aprons handed out – to Brent, Therese and Tommy, who – in a very unusual development for MasterChef – learned cooking from his mum. But here the pace picks up. Scott gets an apron for making a black lump with white stuff in it. Justin gets an apron for cooking chicken breast – a recipe that, against all expectations, he got from his mother. Pete gets an apron for rubbing coffee all over a piece of meat and then putting it in a plastic bag, in an act that must be called what it is: perversion.

Jess gets an apron for grilling an octopus, despite all we have learned as a civilisation. Like an explosion in a caterers' laundry, the aprons are flying thick and fast.

And then tragedy strikes. The first clue that all may not be well with air steward Ben is when he declares that he is "not a dessert person". He prefers cooking savoury dishes, but today, since he's been asked to prepare his signature dish, the dish that most effectively sums him up as a cook, he's decided to do something that he never does. It's a Japanese dessert that looks like the kind of food archaeologists discover in peat bogs three thousand years after it's been cooked. Yet despite its incredibly unappetising appearance, it actually tastes horrible. "I think you've given us a dish that you think we wanted to see," says Melissa. "I disagree," says Ben. Melissa assumes a facial expression indicative of a woman looking to take a mandoline to someone's intestines. "HOW DARE YOU DISAGREE WITH ME?" her flashing eyes scream…but out loud she simply tells Ben to try again tomorrow.

A procession of cooks follow, some winning aprons, some winning nothing but barely-restrained vomit. Watching this procession, Tom declares that he will let his food do the talking. Sadly he does not mean this literally, and talks at length with his mouth. He has made a red glob on top of a pile of ice with a hat, which is apparently good. He gets an apron and responds with an odd high-pitched noise reminiscent of a dangerously faulty boiler.

Hundreds of dumplings and broths and ribs and salads and quenelles and recipes learned from mums and heart-wrenching back stories and at least one sardine-related nervous breakdown later, the day is done – with some amateurs holding the aprons they've been dreaming of, and others cruelly allowed to cling to the false hope of another chance despite their public shaming.

But it's not important who has triumphed and who has humiliated themselves: what's important is that MasterChef is BACK, and we have many weeks of pretentious desserts and Asian fusion to look forward to.

As Jock might say: "Yes."