Hayden Quinn may be returning for a second shot at the MasterChef crown, but he's still nervous about donning that apron and stepping back into Kitchen HQ.
The new season of MasterChef: Back To Win has a whole new look and three brand new judges but the 33-year-old admits to that returning to the show was a daunting and scary experience.
In an exclusive chat with Now To Love, Hayden talks about the new look MasterChef, what it's like cooking for a former contestant-turned-judge and whether he's going to pop the question to his American model girlfriend Jax Raynor.
Now To Love: What was it like stepping back into the MasterChef kitchen?
Hayden: It was incredibly daunting. It was scary stuff. When they filmed our series of MasterChef we filmed in Sydney so I'd never actually cooked in the MasterChef kitchen in Melbourne so that was all new for me. I'd been in there before as a guest judge but it was pretty wild walking back into that kitchen having those same feelings roll over you once again and then looking around seeing it's not just random contestants - it's the best of the best. And then first episode bang, it's Gordon Ramsay!
Starting with a bang for sure! What was he really like?
It was kind of interesting because I'd only met Gordon in more casual settings but I'd never actually been in a high-pressure environment with him. Some of the other guys and girls had cooked with him in the past in other seasons and they were freaking out - they were so worried that he'd do this that and the other but supposedly he was really calm and really tame.
I thought he was an absolute legend, super helpful, really knowledgable, giving out tips, connecting, chatting and spending plenty of time with everyone so it was actually really cool to have him in the kitchen. I reckon the judges would've been just as nervous as we were - standing next to one of the best TV presenter chefs in the world on their first day on the job.
WATCH BELOW: First look at MasterChef 2020 with Gordon Ramsay. Post continues after video...
Was there anyone in particular there who you were scared of competing against?
When I went in I was definitely scared of my man Reynold - I was mainly scared of the dessert people. Reynolds does amazing desserts, Reece is the cake boy and he does incredible stuff, you've got people like Emelia who does wedding cakes as a profession - that's a skill set that I just don't have so that was the biggest freak out for me. I was standing next to those guys and imagining doing a dessert challenge and thinking "That'll be the end of me!"
MasterChef is a bit like school - you do your MasterChef time and all the things you don't like or don't enjoy or scare you, you don't need to do them ever again because no one's going to be judging you to do a three-tiered chocolate cake or whatever. You know when you finish school and forget about maths and chemistry and you don't need to go back there? It's the same with me - when I first went on MasterChef I was all over focusing on trying to do the pastries and all get this right and that right and once it's finished you're like 'I don't really like doing that so I'm just going to focus on the stuff I really enjoy.'
But now I'm getting thrown back into that competitive cooking environment, you've sort of got to know everything so it's scary stuff. You've got to be an all-rounder, you can't just rest on your laurels, you can't just rest on one skillset or you get found out and I guess that's the whole point of it.
We have three new judges this time round - chef Jock Zonfrillo, food writer Melissa Leong and season four winner Andy Allen. Was it weird cooking for someone who was once a competitor?
Andy is someone that out of probably anyone that's been through the MasterChef ranks deserves to be standing up the front. Obviously he's won MasterChef, he's a member of the Three Blue Ducks, has his own restaurant and runs it, he's won a hat, and he's done heaps of media and TV stuff. If he gives you the tick of approval you know you're hitting the right spot.
It was actually really cool to have that aspect of the judging panel with one of your alumni. Even the judges in general, for us contestants I guess they were almost like peers because we all work in a similar industry - I've worked with Melissa and Andy before, we're all at the same level and that's the way they treated it. I haven't done much work with Jock at all, meeting him on the first day was kind of cool. He's obviously an amazing chef and someone that you continue to learn so much from so they're a great grouping of judges and I enjoyed spending time with them.
So none of them were scary?
I think Jock was probably the most intimidating, Mel is so lovely and fun and vivacious – she has this really strong presence which can be a little intimidating. But I think Jock just purely because of his history in the kitchen – he's worked for Marco [Pierre White], with Gordon [Ramsay] and he's been at the top of his game for over 20 years so to be able to cook for someone like that is always going to be daunting. His knowledge of food is just incredible and I think his Scottish accent can get a little bit scary too sometimes!
You were a judge on Family Food Fight but you didn't return for the second season. What was that like?
That's media isn't it, that's life - some things come off, some things don't. I've been through peaks and troughs for the last nine years since I finished MasterChef the first time round and that was definitely one of the low points, which always sucks but I picked myself back up and created my very own show Taste of Australia with Hayden Quinn. In media, people always think that you get a lot of stuff handed to you but you've got to work your ass off.
I'm very happy with where I am at the moment, I think it's just a tricky time in business for everyone at the moment. Fortunately I don't have any hospitality businesses but I own a gym with two mates that I've had to close recently because of the pandemic but we've managed to switch our business to an online model which is very exciting and our members are sticking by us. Hopefully when we come out the other end we can open the doors back up and get back to business, fingers crossed!
Your girlfriend Jax is a bit of a whizz in the kitchen too, it appears. Who's the better chef?
She claims that she's better than me- she might have to get in the MasterChef kitchen and see how she goes! When we cook, we're just slowly becoming able to cook together in the kitchen, which is always a bit of a challenge but we're getting there. Normally it's one person at a time so we can have our own space and do our own thing.
She cooks beautiful food and her parents are both chefs so it sort of runs in her blood I guess and she's always been around amazing food. We just love to eat and cook together and have friends around when we can – we're very excited to be able to do that when we can.
Is a proposal on the cards this year?
No, not at this stage. We're still very young and living our lives and enjoying being who we are and hanging out cooking and living together, travelling, there's no rush. She's a lot younger than me and we're just cruising.
Given that many of us are in isolation and trying out our cooking skills more than ever these days, what are some of your tips for lockdown cooking?
Now's the moment to give something a go that you've been putting off for a while that you've been a bit too scared to do.
For me, my biggest thing when we're in a scenario like this is no waste – I'm a big believer in reusing leftovers and not wasting things. Jax and I actually did a really big pantry assessment when this whole isolation thing started just so we could get a really good idea of what was in the pantry, what we hadn't used, what we needed to use up, what was available so we didn't have to go out and buy a whole heap of new stuff.
We design our weekly Monday to Friday dinners around what we had at the start of this whole thing in our pantry and then buying fresh ingredients where we needed it and we also went to our local butcher and bought a whole heap of beef and lamb that we've got in the freezer. We just make it work with what we've got and try not to double up on things and go to the shops too often and utulise delivery when we can with fresh produce. For me it's about taking ahold of what you've got, limiting your time outside and in the community and being smart about cooking healthy and nutritious food when our bodies need it as much as they do at the moment.