Although filming of MasterChef Australia season eight finished last month, the Endemol Shine Australia series is just over half way in terms of postproduction.
Executive producer Marty Benson lives in Melbourne during the filming of a series, then heads back to Sydney to get amongst the postproduction, overseeing the episodes still to be completed.
Benson stays in Sydney until the series final is all polished and ready for broadcast…then it is back to Melbourne to start the cycle again!
“It never ends,” he joked to Mediaweek from a break outside of a darkened edit suite. When pressed about the highlights of working on the show, Benson replied: “To be involved in the casting is a privilege. I get to be a food critic and I get to meet thousands of people. However, my favourite part of the job is definitely filming the episodes.
“To me MasterChef is like a sport and I love my sport. Every day is like a horse race when one of the judges says, ‘Your time starts now.’ It’s very exciting. On most days in the control room we are all up on our feet with excitement by the end of the cook – just like people do at a horse race.
“It is a lot of fun, but a high pressure environment where we have very tight schedules to meet.
“There is no question this is the most exciting TV show I have ever worked on.”
In terms of MasterChef experience, Benson is a relative newcomer. This is his first year as EP, having worked as coordinating producer in 2015 under then-EP Margie Bashfield.
Benson considers himself lucky to have worked with Bashfield for a year on MasterChef. “She knows the series better than anyone else after all her years on the show.
“I remember the first ever cook I watched on the show when I arrived. I literally did not know what was going on. I was in the control room watching 24 people cooking and everyone said it was brilliant. We were standing there watching 24 screens of the different people cooking. It takes a few months to completely understand how we shoot MasterChef.
“It is a very unique show. Margie was a great teacher and a great woman and she has loads of experience.” Bashfield remains at Endemol Shine Australia as supervising executive producer – unscripted content.
When considering the format for the program, Benson said, “It is a show we want to keep improving, but we don’t want to change it.”
Minor improvements this year include the guest chefs on immunity challenges being put in a storeroom for 15 minutes. “They don’t know what they are cooking with so they don’t have time to think about what they are doing before they are allowed to start.
“Other things that are happening soon include a pop-up week with Heston Blumenthal. We had a social media campaign where people had to follow clues and answer questions to win tickets to the pop-up restaurants. One of them was at the Melbourne Star Observation Wheel which we turned into a revolving restaurant.
“Another is in the underground car park at Melbourne University which is a location once used for the original Mad Max movie. Another was on Brighton Beach and another was at historic Rippon Lea House which was a dinner just for 10 lucky competition winners.”
Another change this year was the introduction of the overseas trip. “We went to California visiting San Francisco, the Napa Valley, Los Angeles and San Diego.”
Taking the whole MasterChef production on the road takes some organising, explained Benson. “We can’t pick up equipment there so we had to send over all our gear. It is a massive, massive job that took a lot of planning. In the first episode in San Francisco we are outdoors on Canary Wharf filming a challenge. In the second we were filming the #1 female chef in the world, Dominique Crenn, who is the first female chef in the US to get two Michelin stars.
“We then went and filmed at Francis Ford Coppola’s winery in the Napa Valley.” Other California highlights to come include a food truck challenge in Santa Monica and an episode with Curtis Stone in his award-winning Los Angeles restaurant Maude.
Benson’s food history
“I did a food show many years ago in the UK called Surprise Chefs where we had a chef called James Martin who surprised people in the supermarket and then took them home and cooked with whatever was in their trolley.”
An Australian version of that format starred chef Aristos Papandroulakis and was screened on Seven in 2001.
Benson also worked for a couple of years as a producer on the UK version of Hell’s Kitchen, which he said was a pioneer in the early days of reality television. Gordon Ramsay only filmed one season of the UK series for ITV before he signed an exclusive contract with Channel 4. Ramsay of course went on to make many seasons of the format in the US.
Benson first fell in love with Australia during visits here to work on the ITV version of I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here.
During his four to five month trips down under to work on the show, Benson said he worked on the UK version from season two until season 10. “Towards the end of my time on the show I fell in love with one of the girls working on the series. She became my wife and that’s what kept me in Australia. I was a very lucky man.” That put an end to his 12 years of TV production work in the UK, but it was the start of a new chapter here.
Although there is no escaping production mentions and images on air for MasterChef Australia sponsors, this is one program that seems to do it more gently than some others.
“A big part of my job is communicating and working with our advertising partners,” said Benson. “We do it in a very subtle way. Most of the other reality shows that have sponsors tend to slap you in the face with their sponsors. That is not something we will ever do on MasterChef. It has all got to be subtle. We are the premier food show in the world – MasterChef Australia season seven was shown in 144 different countries. We strive to have the highest standard and the best quality TV food show in the world.
“I am very proud of the way we integrate with our partners. For our US trip we have Qantas integration but it does just feel like it is part of the story and not an advert.”
Casting MasterChef Australia
Anybody who gets to a casting session really wants to be on the show. As Benson reminded us: “To be on MasterChef you have to give up close to six months of your life. The beautiful thing about casting for MasterChef is that we honestly only cast for the food cooking ability.
“People have to cook twice before they are even invited for an interview. They have to do a mystery box and if we can see any kind of talent we then invite them to come back and cook their signature dish.”
Benson proved his point by naming some of the quiet contestants from season seven – Billie and Reynold for starters – who may have found it hard to make the grade on another show where some of the criteria was being a character. “Because of their passion and love for food they got on MasterChef.”