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MasterChef's added ingredient

Restaurateur Kylie Kwong lends a helping hand on MasterChef.

When the local iteration of the MasterChef phenomenon arrived in 2009, it ushered in a new type of competitive cooking show. It was inclusive, nurturing and homely, and a total turnaround from the cut-throat, expletive-laden and aggressive styles of a previous generation of TV chefs such as Gordon Ramsay and Anthony Bourdain.

The MasterChef effect was immediate and inescapable. Matt, George, Gary and an army of contestants were turned into household names, once-exotic recipes became standard school-night fare and supermarkets began to dedicate aisles to culinary items that were once the domain of fancy delis.

''It's revolutionised the way we eat in this country'', says Sydney restaurateur Kylie Kwong.

Five series and several spin-offs down the track, little, if anything, has changed in the world of MasterChef Australia. And that, contends Kwong, who also has a handful of books and three TV shows under her belt, is cause for celebration.

''How much has MasterChef improved the way Australians see food, cook food? The MasterChef terminology is part of the everyday vernacular; there's a lot more exotic ingredients in the big supermarkets. It's very inspiring and it's very sophisticated. How many people has it reached in the world?''

An occasional guest in previous series of the show, Kwong will join presenters Matt Preston, Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris as a guest mentor when it returns for its sixth outing on Monday.


She says she will share her food knowledge and restaurant experiences, dispense advice to the contestants and throw in ''a little bit of jeopardy'' during immunity challenges.

But, primarily, it is her role as a nurturer that made the offer of a regular part on the show appealing.

''I like mothering people and nurturing them … I'm comfortable in that role. It's something I do at work.

''A lot of my role here as a mentor is not just to help nurture and keep the contestants calm, but to go around and ask questions that I know will bring out people's personalities.

''When I watch TV, or when I was doing my cooking shows, it's about allowing the audience to feel your presence and connect with you and not being this intimidating figure on the screen. We want to see the real person on screen. The contestants are real people; they're ordinary people doing fantastic things.''

She credits Neil Perry, with whom she worked for six years, for mentoring her when she was a budding chef.

''He believed in me, as I try to do with these contestants here. I'd say, 'I can't do it, I'm not ready', and he would push me off the cliff and walk out the door. He did that to me time and time again. We had this wonderful mentor and disciple relationship. He's a very good teacher, very good with females in the industry, as well as men''.

Kwong admits she could not endure the competitive paces through which the MasterChef contestants are put.

''It's so exposing, and allowing yourself to be so vulnerable. The sacrifices, being away from the family, or the university career, or the incredible job. If only all of them could win,'' she says.

Arguably, another key element of the MasterChef effect is the way it has turned chefs and restaurateurs into celebrities.

''For someone of my generation, it's important to keep my brand and my name and profile out there by doing things like this and books and so on to keep [her restaurant] Billy Kwong in the front of people's minds. Otherwise, you get left behind.

Ultimately, MasterChef is about empowering the contestants, Kwong believes.

''It's a feel-good show whether they win or lose … they're let down softly, they're given constructive criticism, they're given life lessons. It's a very empowering competition and that's why I'm proud to be part of it. It's not about putting people down; I'm not into that. I think that's why the audience connects with it. It touches you.''

MasterChef, Ten, Monday, 7.30pm.