Can MasterChef get its mojo back?

Gary Mehigan ponders what went wrong last year - and how they'll get it right again, writes Karl Quinn.

De facto <i>MasterChef</i> host Gary Mehigan.
De facto MasterChef host Gary Mehigan. 

AS MasterChef dusts off the aprons and prepares for a fourth season, Gary Mehigan - the de facto host since season two - has a feeling this is a make-or-break year for the show.

''Series one was a thrill - it was new, it was exciting, and suddenly we were the biggest thing on television, and none of us expected it,'' the British-born, Melbourne-based chef says.

Series two set ratings records and series three was ''thrilling'' on account of the talent they were able to attract as guest chefs. But, he confesses, that success was also its failure.

Last year's line-up of culinary drop-ins included, among many others, Heston Blumenthal of the acclaimed Fat Duck in England and a variety of food-as-science TV cooking shows of his own; David Chang, owner of the Momofuku chain and just about the hippest chef in the United States at the moment; and Rene Redzepi, owner-chef of Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant voted the world's best for the past two years.

''It was incredible for us because, from a professional point of view, we thought we'd accumulated the best possible guests you could ever hope for,'' Mehigan says.

''Everybody who was anybody in cooking was on our show. And maybe that was the mistake, because Betty from Dandenong just looked at it and went, 'I don't get it'.''

The show still rated extremely well for Ten in 2011, but hubristic stunts such as the United Nations visit and having the contestants cook for the Dalai Lama had many observers suggesting the most popular cooking show Australia has ever seen had jumped the shark.

And it was a criticism the hosts - Matt Preston, George Calombaris and Mehigan - shared.

''The three of us regrouped and had a lot to say - in series one we felt we were just warm props, but now we have such a vested interest in it.

''And in thinking about it we realised what series one did so well was appeal to families and the home cook,'' Mehigan reflects.

''And the home cook is far from perfect. They burn things and drop things and go to grab an ingredient and they don't have it.

''What enamoured us most with [series one winner] Julie [Goodwin] is that she always seemed to be struggling and stressed and often confused, and yet through that confusion and disaster you were hanging on to, 'Well, what's it going to taste like?' And I think that's inspirational to home cooks.''

Everybody who was anybody in cooking was on our show. And maybe that was the mistake.

Series three was ''completely opposite'' to that, he admits.

While some of the high-end cooking it showcased was spectacular, too often ''there was no take-home element''.

This time around, there's a determination to recapture some of that do-try-this-at-home feel of the first season.

Mehigan claims to have barely watched Seven's My Kitchen Rules, which surprised everybody with the strength of its most recent season.

''It isn't my type of television. We're much more focused on the cooking,'' he says.

With a new production company at the helm of MasterChef Australia, the opportunity for reinvention is ripe.

(In 2008, FremantleMedia bought the rights to produce three seasons of an Australian version of the English show on which it was based; that deal ended last year, and the rights reverted to Elisabeth Murdoch's Shine, which owns the parent rights. In 2010, Shine established an Australian arm - headed by Carl and Mark Fennessy, who used to run Fremantle. And if you're a little confused, or don't really care, you're absolutely forgiven.)

But going back to basics is more difficult than it sounds.

While Mehigan talks excitedly about teaching this year's contestants how to cook potato cakes and onion rings, he says it's not so much about making things easier as getting the equation of ''time versus task'' right.

''What we've found is that the contestants are just better,'' he says.

''In series one, we were struggling with some basic stuff, like how to caramelise meat before stewing or how to chop an onion, but that doesn't figure any more.

''Now you can find an eight-year-old on the street who knows what a croquembouche is or how to make a macaroon.''

MasterChef has undoubtedly fuelled the foodification of Australia, but Mehigan insists it's a two-way street.

''As a chef you tend to become quite insular if you're not careful. Life revolves around your restaurant.''

But thanks to the show, ''I get to meet my peers and colleagues on a regular basis, and I tend to pick up lots of tips and tricks not just from them but also from the contestants.

''I feel quite blessed, to be honest. I've never enjoyed food as much as I do right now.''

The date of MasterChef's return to Ten will be announced at the show's official launch in Melbourne tonight.

The smart money is on a premiere next Sunday.

* Correction: MasterChef 2012 will begin on May 6.

twitter Karl Quinn is on Twitter: @karlkwin