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Eight years after its last season, MasterChef SA finally returns

From left, Justine Drake, Zola Nene and Grègory Czarnecki. (Photo: Charlie Sperring Photography)

New show, new judges, and a duty of care: the new-look food competition introduces Zola Nene, Grègory Czarnecki and Justine Drake as the ones who will decide the contestants’ fate. We chat to them and take a look behind the scenes of the filming, which took place at Makers Landing towards the end of 2021.

New year, new me (not really), a new season of MasterChef SA filmed in a new location by a new production company with a new judging panel. Season 4 airs on M-Net from February 28, 2022. It was pulled together by Homebrew Films in three short weeks with nine weeks’ notice and shot in a tight month at Makers Landing at the V&A Waterfront. 

The judging panel comprises chef, food stylist and award-winning author Zola Nene; former head chef at the award-winning The Restaurant at Waterkloof and mentor for the prestigious S Pellegrino Young Chef competition in Africa and the Middle East, Grègory Czarnecki; and Justine Drake, author of five cookbooks, host of her own TV cooking shows, and editor of Pick n Pay’s Fresh Living magazine. Pick n Pay is the headline sponsor for the season, providing a lavish pantry for all the challenges.

On having two women on the MasterChef SA panel, Dave De Bie, format consultant at Banijay, the content producers owning the rights to the show, says: “We are focused on improving the gender balance in MasterChef judges worldwide. Over the last couple of years, we have increased the number of female judges and this is something we are continuing to improve upon. Out of 37 active markets, 26 now have female judges. We are delighted that MasterChef SA joins the likes of Israel, Norway and Brazil with two female experts on their panel.”

Every cook’s dream – gas stove, sharp knives, and all the useful utensils. (Photo: Charlie Sperring Photography)

When she was approached to be a judge, Drake said she felt “thrilled, terrified, proud, apprehensive but mostly utterly delighted”.

Said Nene: “It is such an amazing opportunity to be part of such a successful and loved franchise. And it’s been quite a few years now since the first few seasons of MCSA aired, so I’m glad to be part of the much anticipated comeback season.”

Yes, folks, I was amazed, shocked and a tiny bit horrified to fact check and discover Season 3 was in 2014 (followed by a celebrity season early in 2015).

The calibre of the show is unbelievable, said Czarnecki. “I was really looking forward to discovering the contestants and to be able to judge home cooks that are passionate and looking for validation from a professional panel. It was a great eye-opening experience and I’m really glad I did it.”

The call for entries received 1,200 responses, each of whom was mailed a questionnaire. From there, they were cut to 350 and all of those were interviewed via Zoom and had to do a knife skills test. Reduced to 40 hopefuls, they were flown to Makers Landing for a warm kitchen audition from which the final 20 were selected.

Before production began there was a week of outings and culinary expeditions, such as tea at the Mount Nelson, exploring Cape Town’s street food scene and eating Gatsbys, tasting products like mebos and bokkoms, Zulu-inspired fine dining, learning from an expert how fynbos can be used in cooking, and a visit to Jan Innovation Studio in Cape Town’s City Bowl.

A visit to the famous Atlas Trading Company, fragrant purveyor of spices, was one of the contestants’ experiences. (Photo: Charlie Sperring Photography)

To put it in perspective, although we’re still six weeks away from seeing the show, production wrapped at the end of November 2021. The media set visit was on November 15; the contestants had been away from their loved ones, sequestered in a Waterfront hotel, for three weeks and half of them had already been eliminated.

“If you say mother or father or child, they cry. They are so homesick, which is good TV for us,” said producer Paul Venter from Homebrew Films. That might sound a bit harsh but that’s the reality of reality television. We viewers want to witness that raw emotion, the lows as well as the highs. Although, that said, MasterChef is not about bringing contestants to their knees.

MasterChef has changed a lot over the years. It’s not that crazy Gordon-Ramsey-get-out-the-kitchen thing,” said Venter. “It’s still a competition and someone will go home, but we want to be kind and we want to give them the experience. We want them to learn and we can see that already.”

The wellbeing of the contestants was ensured throughout, with a psychologist on call the entire time, as well as the appointment of Errieda du Toit as not only content producer but in a position titled Duty Of Care, which saw her deeply involved throughout the process, from interviews and beyond.

“I was responsible for the themes of content and challenges for each of the 20 episodes, as well as to design the cooking challenges. It also entailed identifying the guest chefs and liaising with them throughout the process,” said Du Toit. “I was on set for the full duration of the production. What made this job so special is the opportunity to be involved with a production of this calibre focused 100% on South African produce, food heritage and our own magnificent culinary professionals. 

“I was also closely involved with the initial selection of candidates, from their application forms, hundreds of Zoom interviews, and also being part of the judging panel during the final audition.”

The mystery box challenge is one of MasterChef’s most loved. (Photo: Charlie Sperring Photography)

Having naturally assumed the role of mentor for previous shows like Kokkedoor, having Duty Of Care formalised and so well structured for MasterChef is probably one of the most fulfilling work experiences of her life, she said.

“Being such a high-pressured environment, with immensely intense processes with massive highs and lows over a long period from pre-production right through to the flighting of the episodes – it is vital that the contestants have emotional support throughout, and especially afterwards,” explained Du Toit. The support is in place for six months after the conclusion of the show as ordinary people find themselves thrust into the limelight, especially on social media, the bridge beneath which live hideous trolls.

“This entails being there every step of the way, sharing in their joys and excitement, their triumphs and their failures. I was the one to console them when they were voted out; it is a devastating experience for them to have to go home and feel their dreams shattered. To then have a ‘motherly’ person who really cares for them made a big difference. It also entailed daily check-in with them, spending time with them in the holding room; living with them in the hotel and being on set with them throughout.

“A clinical psychologist was on hand and had several individual and group sessions with the contestants – he was basically on standby 24/7 and is still available for consultation. This mental support is absolutely vital.”

Along with running a green set, with things like see-through bins to monitor wastage which was taken into consideration by the judges, and personal water bottles for each crew member who would fill it from a water fountain, and providing a welcome financial boost by using Makers Landing tenants for all the crew catering, there is a strong focus on local ingredients for this season.

Keeping track of wastage was a big part of MasterChef SA season 4, with unused (and unsullied) produce being returned to the pantry. (Photo: Charlie Sperring Photography)

“The show is rooted in South African culture. It is as entertaining as it is informative indigenous grains, foraged flora, camel milk…. never mind the contestants, I learnt things I didn’t know and even tasted a few previously undiscovered delights,” said Drake.

“There is a proud thread of culinary patriotism that runs through this season and it makes my heart glad. For so long we have excused our ingredients, our cuisine, our movies, music and art – apologised for being somehow less than the rest of the world. It’s nonsense. We have an incredible food heritage, unbelievable ingredients and a fascinating eating culture. I’m hoping this season of MCSA helps to spread that word far and wide.”

For example, the challenge in episode one is to use rooibos. “It was the start of so many things, their first time to impress, the viewers needing to get to know them, and the judges needed to get to know them too,” said Du Toit.

“The challenge they received, instead of a standard mystery box, was a mystery tea caddy with our ambassador in the international food world, which is rooibos. They received it in all its forms green and dry and fresh leaves and seeds together with a childhood photo of themselves. They had to prepare a starter, which for rooibos was already something completely different, and had to combine a childhood memory and infuse it with the tea. I call it the “blood against the walls” episode because three had to go home. It’s traumatic.”

Could this be a cheese challenge? You’ll have to watch the show to find out. (Photo: Charlie Sperring Photography)

In the next episode, the judges each present a definitive dish that says something about their food journey. The contestants had to draw a dish and replicate it exactly. “For most of them it was the first time eating or cooking duck,” said Du Toit.

Taking a cue from lockdown, there is a fine dining takeaway box challenge, the results of which were given to healthcare workers from Somerset Hospital to thank them for their role during the pandemic; there is a quick honey challenge for a reward or advantage, and the contestants benefit from masterclasses in things like plating or filleting fish. They get to cook with abalone, carrying the responsibility of tens of thousands of rand worth of it. When asked what ingredient they’d never cook with, most responded “offal”.

“It’s not just a trend, it’s a reality,” said Du Toit. “We show how for some a cultural thing or a necessity has its place in fine dining. It’s not a Fear Factor episode! They will eat a dish of impeccable quality created by a Zulu chef and fall in love with it. Then the body part under the cloche will be revealed.” 

Contestants were given a masterclass on plating like a professional. (Photo: Charlie Sperring Photography)

For Nene, the main highlight was seeing indigenous South African ingredients being celebrated. “We have so much to offer as a country in terms of our cuisine and all of its broad spectrum. I love that MCSA has celebrated the many interpretations of what South African food is through not only the challenges, but through the guest chefs too,” she said.

“We have so much food talent in South Africa and I’m so excited for the viewers to get to know (and in some cases be introduced to) some of our local food ambassadors and get to know them.”

The announcement of the contestants will be made on Sunday, January 23, 2022 but we can now reveal what the judges’ impressions were.

“I love the diversity within the selection of contestants in this season,” said Nene. “The contestants are all very different in their personalities, backgrounds and food styles, but they are all so very talented and so passionate. They are a great bunch of foodies and I’ve enjoyed experiencing the MCSA journey through them and alongside them.”

This season is all about authenticity and what makes South Africa such a unique and beautiful country, said Czarnecki. “I have learned so much during this journey. It was interesting to see the creative process of each contestant and see how they grew throughout the competition. There were some dishes that definitely left great memories. I’m so excited to soon be able to finally see everything on screen and relive those moments.” 

Other than the fact that they really are simply lovely humans, there’s a great mix of personalities and talents which make for good television, said Drake.

“In terms of their cooking skills, if you compare them to the MC Australia contestants they will fall short, so my advice is don’t. They all love food and cooking and some are obviously more talented than others – but don’t take my word for it. Just enjoy the show and their incredible progress.”

Fresh, fresh, fresh – the produce in the pantry. (Photo: Charlie Sperring Photography)

One of the most interesting things to see was the strong emotional bonds that formed between the contestants, said Du Toit. “They genuinely care for each other, which is quite conflicting when the person you now care for, help and support is also your competition, which can be your downfall. So, a lot of emotional issues had to do with dealing with this. When someone was eliminated, the whole group took it hard and had to find their equilibrium again. Even the most competitive people struggled when a ‘comrade’ went home. 

“Over the extended period of time I got to know their strong points but also their vulnerabilities; their talents, dreams, fears – all those very human things. So now the production part is over and they all continue with their lives, our close connection really shows – we share our lives, we keep track and I am like a doting mother wanting them all to succeed.” 

As much as Du Toit plays an important part in caring for the contestants, the judges also carry a large responsibility. They need to have a “genuine understanding of and respect for ingredients and how to best to use them, practical food and cooking experience, a good dose of EQ and better than average communication skills,” said Drake.

As headline sponsor, Pick n Pay provided the pantry for all the challenges, which was adapted according to themes. (Photo: Charlie Sperring Photography)

Czarnecki, who describes his cooking style as contemporary minimalist French cuisine, believes the most important quality for a judge is to be fair but also to give positive criticism. “It’s not always easy to critique a dish and give your feedback. But if it’s done right you can push a young chef to try harder and work harder, so mentoring is a great quality,” he said.

“I think to be a judge you need to have an extensive knowledge of food and experience within the food industry. More than that, a judge needs to be compassionate and encouraging, but also honest and critical at the same time; it’s a balancing act,” said Nene. “I take my role as a judge very seriously, I know how much the opportunity means to the contestants, I understand their passion for food and they want to take that to the next level. My role as a judge is to help them grow and mentor them through their journey. It is a privilege to be part of someone’s trajectory into the food media space.”

As much as the world is filled with incredible and super-talented chefs, not all of them can make the transition from kitchen to TV screen, nor do they even want to. For those that do, and who then find themselves working with colleagues on a judging panel for MasterChef, the chemistry between them is vital.

“I’ve known Zola for many years but had never met Greg… well, suffice to say, we spent all our off-camera time teasing each other, debating, supporting (it gets pretty intense when you have to tell someone their journey is over),” said Drake.

“And oh how we laughed… so much that in one instance we literally couldn’t shoot for 45 minutes. That kind of laughter is really infectious; you don’t even have to be in on the joke – so ultimately the entire crew was screeching with laughter.

“It was a fun, warm, friendly set – ultimately we ALL (contestants, crew and judges) ended up going on the MasterChef journey together.”

Laughter is the common denominator in all their responses to this question: “We had just an amazing connection so we had a blast shooting the whole season. We complemented each other very well in terms of judging. You’ll have to watch to see all the fun we all had and see the beautiful moments we had loads of emotions and laughter,” said Czarnecki.

Nene admitted it was a very emotional show for her. “I had a number of belly aching laughing moments and an equal number of teary moments too. We as judges have gone through the rollercoaster of emotions along with the contestants. 

“Probably my most emotional episode was the tribute to Mam’ Dorah Sithole, even when I first got the rundown of the challenge, I started tearing up, so it was inevitable that I would be teary when we actually filmed the episode. Her passing impacted me greatly; she was not only a mentor and friend to me, but was someone who paved the way for black food writers like myself. Getting the opportunity to pay tribute to her on MCSA is a moment I will always hold dearly, she deserves all the flowers and recognition for her immense contribution to the industry and I’m glad we were able to pay tribute to her on the show.” DM/TGIFood

MasterChef SA season 4 premieres on Monday 28 February 2022 on M-Net (DStv Channel 101) at 6pm. For more information on MasterChef South Africa visit mnet.tv. Be part of the conversation #MasterChefSA and follow on the official Twitter @MasterChef_SA, Facebook @MasterChefSA and Instagram masterchef_sa pages.

Follow Bianca Coleman on Instagram Bianca Lee Coleman.

The writer supports The Gift of the Givers Foundation, the largest disaster response, non-governmental organisation of African origin on the African continent.

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