Andy Allen is about to become a household name on a global scale.
The one-time apprentice electrician and Maitland Mustangs basketball player won the MasterChef Australia crown in 2012 and will return to the wildly successful television series in 2020 - as a judge. Allen, chef and restaurateur Jock Zonfrillo and food writer Melissa Leong are replacing long-time judges Matt Preston, George Calombaris and Gary Mehigan.
MasterChef Australia is broadcast in more than 120 countries. That's a lot of viewers.
At one point, though, Allen seriously considered returning to Newcastle to resume his career as an electrician.
"After the show in 2012 I moved to Sydney to chase some opportunities and I was quite successful but then all the jobs pretty much dried up - another season of MasterChef was about to start," he said.
"I remember sitting in my room in Coogee and going 'Well, is this it? Am I going to go home to Newcastle and be a sparky now?'. And look, I won the thing, I was one of the very lucky people, but I still had that conversation with myself.
"Then I thought about what I had enjoyed doing over that eight-month period. I really loved working in kitchens - so I did work experience at Three Blue Ducks. I also really loved teaching people how to cook - so I started a YouTube channel. It all went from there. Nothing just happens, you really do have to work for it."
Allen became co-owner of the Three Blue Ducks, taking on the role of head chef at their Rosebery restaurant which went on to receive an Australian Good Food Guide "chef's hat". He has since opened a Three Blue Ducks restaurant in Brisbane and is soon to launch another in Melbourne.
The Rosebery restaurant lost its hat this year but for Allen it's a case of water off a duck's back.
"Yeah, we lost our hat but that's OK. As much as the accolades are really amazing, it's more so for the staff who do the day-to-day grind. It gives those guys a pat on the back," he said.
"When I opened Rosebery three years ago I just wanted to cook good food and make sure the the punters in the dining room were happy. That's what my food is all about. It's not about getting a hat."
Next year's season of MasterChef is called "Back To Win" and stars 24 previous contestants who didn't win but are "coming back to have another crack", says Allen. "That excites me because the standard of food from day one is going to be outstanding."
He will continue working with his restaurants in 2020.
"I can't step back now," he said. "I've had a meeting with my business partners about what we can do to keep a high standard because I am really hands-on at the restaurants. My first year as a judge will test the waters."
As for his school teacher parents, Peter and Maree, they have both retired and are living the good life at Fingal Bay.
"We've always had a holiday house there. I rang them the other day and they were talking about the beach and I'll tell you what, I was jealous," Allen said, laughing.
"To be asked to be a judge - and to come full circle back to MasterChef Australia - is really flattering and really special. I'm stoked because it means that I've done the hard work to be here. You don't ask Joe Blow to be a judge on MasterChef Australia."
Meet the other two judges:
Jock Zonfrillo is the owner and chef of three-hatted Restaurant Orana, and Bistro Blackwood in Adelaide. He was named Australia's Hottest Chef in 2018 and has hosted television shows including Nomad Chef, Restaurant Revolution and Chef Exchange, as well as appearing in the MasterChef Australia kitchen as a guest chef across three seasons.
"When I think of MasterChef Australia, I think of discovering new talented cooks with fresh ideas and creativity," he said.
"There hasn't been a season yet where I haven't been surprised by just how talented some of the undiscovered cooks are, so much so, that many of them have worked in my kitchen over the years. I can't wait to get in that kitchen.
Melissa Leong is an accomplished food and travel writer, food media consultant, radio broadcaster, television presenter, MC and cookbook editor.
On being chosen as a judge, she said: "It goes without saying, that it is an honour to be passed the baton and asked to help bring the next chapter to life on a show like MasterChef Australia. It came as a huge surprise for me, and is without a doubt the opportunity of a lifetime. I am really looking forward to getting stuck in."
MasterChef Australia - Back To Win will air on 10 and WIN Network in 2020.
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