FOUR years ago, a production team at Fremantle Media and programmers at Channel Ten took a punt that TV viewers were so enamoured of cooking and transformational personal stories that they would tune in six nights a week to watch unknown home cooks undertake impossible challenges, sweat over souffles that didn't rise and incinerate tea towels.
Looking around the vast reception centre at the launch of the show's fourth season and it's clear the gamble paid off.
Mingling among the 170 guests are 20 past contestants, most of whom are now household names.
The wise men of MasterChef: (from left) Gary Mehigan, Matt Preston and George Calombaris.
One of the greatest satisfactions, says Matt Preston, who co-hosts with George Calombaris and Gary Mehigan, is travelling around the country and catching up with previous contestants at their restaurants and cafes.
''We measure the validity of the show by how many people go on and do something,'' he says. ''You don't want to sit there thinking, 'This person is going to front a fashion show on Foxtel'.''
Preston recalls a top-50 contestant from season one who prepared a vegetable stack with goat's cheese, which she made from her first herd of goats. ''A year later she sent a note saying, 'I now have X number of goats and won a medal.' Those stories are more exciting than the ones who got the accolades.''
Both Preston and executive producer Margie Bashfield are adamant that ''fourth-album syndrome'' won't prompt tricks or ante-raising stunts. They will hold to MasterChef's core values: revealing contestants' personal stories through their food and cooking.
Despite the remarkable ratings success of Channel Seven's My Kitchen Rules, with its vaudevillian pantomime of goodies versus baddies and culinary disasters, Bashfield is confident audiences' appetite for the feel-good optimism of MasterChef has not waned.
''The food isn't the hero, the people are and there's nothing wrong with that,'' Bashfield says, referring to the rival network's show. ''For us, I would argue, the food and people have equal standing. You watch our show and you want to eat the dishes being cooked. You come away knowing more about the person because of what they've cooked. The people we choose want to make food their life, not just be on TV.''
Preston admits there may be more drama in watching people who are dreadful cooks than accomplished ones, ''but it would be anti the whole spirit of the show to cast on the basis of personality if they can't cook''.
Bashfield concedes they did not get everything right last year and have tweaked elements of the new season.
''There was a feeling we had to be bigger and flashier and I don't think that's what the show needs to be. Putting dancing girls around the magic isn't going to make it better. The real magic happens when you as an audience connect with the judges and the contestants and the food they're making.''
The kitchen has been spruced up, a charcuterie installed to meet the vogue for smoking meat. The mystery-box challenge and invention test will return to Sunday nights. Tuesday nights' ''immunity pin'' challenge is now a team challenge, one contestant picking two others in a cook-off with a professional chef.
''There's something empowering watching people's mates trying to help them win [immunity] without any benefit to them. It has a nice altruistic spin,'' Preston says.
MasterChef's move from production house Fremantle to Shine is entirely seamless and won't be noticed by audiences, Bashfield says, pointing out that the key creators of the Australian format, executives Paul Franklin and Carl and Mark Fennessy, are now part of the Shine team. This year's top 24 contestants range in age from 18 to early 50s, are multi-ethnic, have mastered basic skills such as pastry making and, importantly, have the experience of watching three previous seasons of the show, Bashfield says.
Preston says the selection is increasingly rigorous. ''It's not good enough to want to make a TV show about Italian cooking; what are you going to bring that's better than Jamie [Oliver]? We want to see that they've thought about what they want to do.''
It would be perilous, Preston says, if MasterChef turned into a show with archetypal heroes and villains, or if it were edited for ''obvious storylines and jeopardy''.
''TV producers love to throw in curly ones to manufacture the drama: by the way, you have to write the menu in Portuguese,'' he says.
''But I think this show is more about letting the drama naturally unfold, as it does when you throw a group of amateurs into a multimillion-dollar kitchen.''
That can lead to the best contestants leaving early, as happened to Marion Grasby and Hayden Quinn in previous seasons.
''If you're on the producing team you don't want them to go,'' Preston says. ''They're gold. But worst dish goes home. There is, and always will be, because we're so cynical, a sense that things are set up; what happens in the tasting has been scripted and the outcome is fixed.
''That doesn't happen with our show and that's perhaps because the judges are three grumpy old buggers. But I think it rings true. We can't help contestants in terms of how they portray themselves and how they're portrayed in the edit but we can certainly ensure the integrity remains in terms of whether the best dish wins.
''You look at the ratings when Hayden did the immunity challenge and they shot up dramatically. He was TV gold. But he went home.''
MasterChef Australia returns on Sunday at 7.30pm on Channel Ten.