Always in a sharp suit with panic beads in his hands and a Scottish lilt in his speech, chef Jock Zonfrillo has come a long way from Britain, to grace our screens as host and judge of MasterChef Australia. A reformed bad boy chef, Zonfrillo’s life is mired in dark moments and controversies, a fresh batch arose with his autobiography, Last Shot, hitting the bookshelves in 2021.
For the uninitiated, the Scottish chef with Italian heritage, rose the ranks in the restaurant and food space in the UK. A whirlwind rise to the top came with its own challenges for Zonfrillo, which included substance abuse, psychological stress and emotional backlash. He turned a new leaf when he moved to Australia in 2000.
With his worry beads in his hands, nibbling on goodies from the MasterChef Australia pantry, Zock Zonfrillo is a vision of composure, giving out sound and sage advice to the contestants of the now legendary food reality show.
In his third season and 14th of the show, themed Fans Vs Favourites, Zonfrillo along with co-judges Melissa Leong and Andy Allen, has been keeping everyone at tenterhooks as to who will have their name engraved on the gold plaque. After all some of the most popular faces which includes, Julie Goodwin, Billie McKay, Sarah Todd and Sashi Cheliah, winners of their seasons—as the ‘Favourites’. There are also the ‘Fans’, who include contestants who are ardent fans of the show and have previously tried for the show, such as Montana Hughes, Keyma Vasquez Montero and Daniel Lamble.
The finale of Season 14 is less than a week away, we spoke to Zonfrillo all about this year at MasterChef Australia and some more. Edited excerpts:
1. You started the entire season with gratitude towards the First Nation and the indigenous folk of Australia. Why is putting them on the forefront more relevant today than ever before?
My dad is Italian and mother is Scottish, so in a way, I am an immigrant even in Scotland and it's so important to recognise the origins of anything; let alone the origins of the people of a country. When I came to Australia, the lack of acknowledgement for indigenous people was unreal. Their wonderful culture has understood the crazy terrain that is the continent of Australia and make the most of it. But when Europeans settled in Australia, the indigenous people just got cast aside. I was like, ‘what's going on?’ Over 50,000 years of surviving culture here with the indigenous people why is it not a conversation? Why can I not see the food or hear their stories? I think it's something that got messed up in the early stages of European settlement here in Australia. And that's something that I feel very strongly about changing. In Australia, we are in a place of privilege, but we need to recognise that we're actually standing on the shoulders of the indigenous people of this country and not in a nice way.
Not just for Australia, it's become a global thing as well, where people are understanding the importance of the true local inhabitants of a land.
So even a simple acknowledgement was important for me so that people understood that we are, you know, it is at the forefront of our thinking and making sure that indigenous people are respected and acknowledged.
2. In Season 13 of MasterChef Australia, we saw the rise of flavours from the Indian subcontinent. Do you think these cuisines and flavours have finally arrived on the global culinary arena?
I think Indian subcontinental flavours are big and great. But they are also misrepresented misunderstood and unacknowledged. The cultural differences in the cuisines in each of those regions are vast. I would compare it to Italy—the food from north Italy to South Italy is completely different. There are 40 different variations of the same dish that you can see from north to south of Italy. To have this conversation on a program like MasterChef Australis is so important. True representation of the Indian and the regions flavours needs to happen in a meaningful way so that people don't just call a Bangladeshi Curry, just another curry.
I think this is a conversation that is on a lot of people's minds. I think, over the next five years, there will be a massive uptake in people’s understanding of India's different cuisines and that's going to be beautiful to watch as it unfolds.
3. Are you renewing your travel plans for India anytime soon? And what is your perfect vision of travelling to India?
I will have to acknowledge that I don't fully understand the regionality of Indian food because I haven't been there. But I can’t wait to come to India and visit different states to taste, feel and experience it. We had a three-month trip planned just before COVID and it was my intention to visit all 29 states. I would like to visit India in the offseason so when we're not filming and I'm to spend a few months with my family in India. I just want to be there in the moment, where while we drive down and aromas of local street food would force me to stop and try it out. The road and that great experience of the unknown are just it for me.
4. What are the essential qualities that a MasterChef contestant must have?
I think they need to be able to use the under-bench pantry very well. A base understanding of what they can make out of the under-bench pantry is extremely important, whether it's breads or cakes, whether it's pasta or noodles. The contestants, to understand how to get the most out of those under bench ingredients are the ones that generally go the furthest in the competition.
The second thing is to have a sharp mind to be able to connect with any challenge or any ingredient at a moment and just sharpen into what you're going to create. You have to be able to think of a dish from five ingredients and be able to think of that within a few minutes, because if you can't, you're probably not going to get very far in the competition.
And then the last thing is the contestants who understand how to balance a dish, that contains all but five tastes—sweet, salty, sour, acidity and bitterness—are the ones who succeed. If you get the balance, those five tastes right, you are three-fourth of the way there.
5. What is the importance of mental health in a professional kitchen?
I think mental health is critical. For me, having a workplace that allows you the freedom of just being is important. A happy work environment is where an employer provides the staff with space and time to do things on their own time. If you have a work environment where it’s a rat race, where you’re running at 100 miles an hour from the second you clock in, I can guarantee that your staff are not going to be communicating with each other very well. They're not going to be doing the task that you've employed them to do very well either. I think in hospitality industry we have a duty to care; we should be better at it than anyone else!
You can watch season 14 of MasterChef Australia, Fans Vs Favourites, on Disney+ Hotstar.