Mayfield home cook Reece Hignell started his MasterChef Australia journey in 2018 with a theatrical splash of beetroot caramel on a plate. It could have failed miserably but instead earned him a spot in the top 24.
The former Whitebridge High student finished an impressive sixth in season 10 of the popular television cooking show, quitting his job as a recruitment consultant and pursuing his passion for food as a full-time career. He taught students at inaugural MasterChef Australia winner Julie Goodwin's cooking school on the Central Coast and at The Essential Ingredient Newcastle; worked closely with chefs Frank Fawkner and Lesley Taylor and late last year launched his very own business, Cakeboi.
Then, out of the blue, he was asked to return to the MasterChef kitchen for season 12. The Back To Win series premieres on Monday night and stars 24 former contestants keen to claim the trophy which eluded them once before.
There are many familiar faces in the kitchen - Hayden Quinn, Poh Ling Yeow and Callum Hann, to name a few - but Hignell's is not one of them. He is almost unrecognisable due to his newfound dedication to diet and exercise and speaks to Weekender after a long day of filming.
"It's funny, I've had to reintroduce who I am because obviously I don't look like I did in season 10," he says.
"Even when I announced on social media I was returning to the show people didn't realise it was me. We've done a few challenges out in public for this series and everyone around me is saying 'Look, that's this person and that person' and I'm just standing there like, 'Hello, I'm Reece'. It's kind of cool when they finally work out who I am."
Rather than sweating over recipe books when filming ends each day, this time around Hignell is working up a sweat exercising. His confidence in his cooking abilities has grown over the past two years.
"I've worked with Lesley for so long I'm not as stressed about studying as much, like I was in season 10. Frank taught me heaps as well so I'm just doing what they taught me," he says.
"I don't know what Lesley saw in me but she took me under her wing and she's taught me heaps of basic stuff, like how to cook produce the right way and why. If I'm ever in doubt I can just call Lesley and ask her a question and she'll answer."
On Monday night the new MasterChef judges make their debut. Matt Preston, George Calombaris and Gary Mehigan quit the show last year and have been replaced by Jock Zonfrillo, Melissa Leong and Maitland's own Andy Allen. The former apprentice electrician and Maitland Mustangs basketball player won the MasterChef Australia crown in 2012.
"For me, because I am so passionate about MasterChef, this season is so refreshing and exciting," Hignell says.
"Even today, standing next to the judges and listening to them talk, the way they are critiquing the food and interacting with the contestants is so different. And this season we didn't have to introduce ourselves and get to know everybody. There are no surprises. Someone's like "Oh I've done this and that since MasterChef' and we're like 'Yeah we know, we've seen your show Poh' [laughs]."
Some things, however, haven't changed. Hignell says he was "nervous" in season 10 but "petrified" about season 12.
"This season is so much harder and there is such a high calibre of cooking going on. You see people around you cooking the most incredible food and start to doubt yourself, but then you cook something amazing yourself and start to feel hopeful again. This is 100 per cent a competition. Everyone wants it even more this time around. It's like a badge of honour."
Week one of MasterChef features chef, restaurateur, author and television personality Gordon Ramsay. Hignell impressed the fiery celebrity on season 10 with his cucumber and lemon verbena sorbet dessert.
"So we walk in to the MasterChef kitchen on day one and we see this figure standing at the front of the room," Hignell says. "When we got closer they turned the lights on and it was Gordon Ramsay and we're all like 'What the hell is going on?'. It was really cool to see him again but it's still so nerve-wracking cooking for the guy."
Filming the show has been tricky due to new COVID-19 social distancing restrictions but Hignell says the producers "are doing so much to keep us all safe".