Matt Preston tucks into ninth season of MasterChef
NINE years ago, Matt Preston was that tall English bloke in the cravat set to star on a new show called MasterChef.
My Kitchen Rules hadn't been conceived yet, and the most popular shows at the time were Underbelly, The Biggest Loser and Packed to the Rafters.
Now Preston and his co-stars George Calombaris and Gary Mehigan are household names.
"We have a picture from the beginning of season two and we look so young,” Preston tells me at the show's Melbourne set, where we're seated outside at a table behind the test kitchen.
"Nine years is a huge chunk of our working lives. It was a whirlwind at the beginning, but now it's just a pleasure and a joy to work on a show you're really proud of with people whose company you really enjoy.”
Contestants still in their teens have auditioned this year. They're part of a generation that has grown up watching MasterChef.
"We have 18 and 19-year-olds who are really talented, innovative, interesting cooks,” he says.
"In a way we're reaping the benefits of those early years, which is great.
"That culinary culture shift also happened in Australia over that period and we're lucky to be a part of it.”
Preston would never take all of the credit for the country's culinary awakening. He points to Jamie Oliver getting a primetime spot on Channel 10, Stephanie Alexander's Kitchen Garden Foundation and magazines like Donna Hay and Delicious.
"It used to be food was only something talked about by big hairs in the big houses on the canals; something that went with burgundy and beef steak,” he muses.
"Now there's an appreciation that good food can be a really crispy bowl of chips or a fantastic pizza or an innovative, modern dish.
"Australians have always brought back their culinary experiences (from overseas) and shared them. That combined with people who have moved here has created a very diverse, vibrant food scene.”
From the towering croquembouche to the snow egg, a blooming chocolate flower and a dessert designed to be dropped, the series has also featured dishes by some of the country's most innovative chefs.
But this year it's the humble vegetable that will get a makeover thanks to special guest chef Yotam Ottolenghi.
"One of the two big changes we've seen in modern kitchens over the past 10 years has been the growth of (the use of) vegetables,” Preston says.
"It's about saying that eggplant (for example) is a thing of beauty; let's celebrate it rather than relegating it to the side of the dish.
"At the end of the day if you cook something that you know is going to be darn tasty to eat, then that's the one rule of MasterChef. It doesn't have to be the wackiest idea. If it's delicious and tasty then you're going to do well.”
MasterChef Australia returns to television screens on Monday, April 1 at 7.30pm on Network Ten.