Natalka Znak and Danny Schrader tell TV Formats about the milestone tenth season of MasterChef on FOX in the U.S., with Lisa Perrin, Cathy Payne and Jane Smith weighing in on the enduring success of the mega-format.
The world’s biggest food competition format marked a milestone event in the U.S. last week as season ten premiered on FOX. “We’ve gone all out for season ten,” says Znak, the new showrunner and executive producer for the hit adaptation. “We started with a spectacular entrance by helicopter for the judges”—the returning Gordon Ramsay (also an executive producer), Joe Bastianich and Aarón Sánchez. “We have fireworks and the biggest prize we’ve ever had. We’ve gone all out throughout the entire season to make it the biggest and most exciting, with lots of new challenges and new twists.”
The most significant new development, Znak says, is that for the first time the U.S. version of MasterChef will cross the pond to where the iconic format originated (it was created by Franc Roddam in 1990 for the BBC and then rebooted in 2005 for BBC Two). “We take our six finalists to London to cook in Gordon Ramsay’s three-Michelin-star restaurant for the finale.”
The show, produced by Endemol Shine North America and One Potato Two Potato, is also airing in a new format for season ten, with two episodes playing out each week. “Wednesdays will feature immunity challenges and Thursday will be an elimination episode,” says executive producer Schrader. “Along with showing the viewer more cooking action, it also allows us for much more character growth to develop, and you really get a chance to know each cook week in and week out. Our stories can arc more than they’ve ever had a chance to.”
Znak and Schrader add that the show also used a slightly different casting method this year as it sought out the best amateur cooks in America. “We do open calls across the country, in eight cities,” Schrader says. “This season for the first time, Gordon sent members of his personal culinary team to each city. Before it was a team of casting professionals and food professionals gathering in each city to help judge. This time it was people that Gordon is most comfortable with that are out there judging. We really did end up getting a much higher echelon of cook, because the critique was much harder and we put them through more during that casting process.”
Also key to the casting process, Znak adds, was avoiding “typical reality types” in favor of contestants with “genuine warmth and enthusiasm. I love and root for everybody on this show.”
Asked about the enduring strength of the mega-format—adapted in 60-plus markets worldwide—Znak notes that it’s based in part on being able to watch everyday individuals pursue their dreams. “So many people have boring jobs or just don’t feel like they’re doing what they want to do. This show is not just about the cooking; it’s about everybody watching it saying, What if I got the chance to do what I’ve always loved?”
There’s also an opportunity to watch a master chef at work, Znak adds. “I’ve been watching and working with Gordon for years,” says Znak, who first collaborated with Ramsay on the first season of Hell’s Kitchen in the U.K. “On the first show he chiffonades some herbs and I was like, Oh my god, I didn’t know how to do that. Every time you watch, you can go, I could do that! Is that really how you chop an onion? Every season Gordon [demonstrates] how to chop up a chicken. For the very first time, he did it blindfolded, which is incredible to watch. That’s a good example of where we’re doing something we’ve done before, but we’re doing it in a different way.”
The “blind chicken test,” as Znak calls it, is one of a raft of new challenges in season ten. “The tarte Tatin episode is amazing. I love when really simple things like making an apple tart become incredibly dramatic, edge-of-your-seat stuff. Also, I then went home and made a tarte Tatin because I’d learned how to do it. That’s the joy.” Znak adds, “I admit, I bought the pastry. I didn’t make the pastry!”
Schrader lists a slew of other highlights. “We threw a tenth-anniversary pool party where we invited 100 former MasterChef contestants. Our contestants had to cook for them in a Hollywood mansion. We did a challenge with NASCAR, which was a lot of fun—contestants were feeding the drivers and the pit crews. We had last season’s champion, Gerron Hurt, get married in the MasterChef kitchen,”—”by Gordon!” Znak interjects. “And taking them across the pond, to Gordon’s flagship restaurant, is monumental. A restaurant takeover is a rite of passage on the show, but to have them go to Gordon’s first restaurant, which is celebrating its 21st anniversary as we’re celebrating our tenth, was pretty mega. While we were in the U.K., we actually opened Tower Bridge too, which was pretty exciting! The judges enter on a big steamboat and in order to do that we had to have the bridge open.”
This season also sees the appearance of a slew of guest stars, Schrader adds. “We have legendary culinary people like Masaharu Morimoto, Grant Hackett, Nigella Lawson, Candace Nelson. I think everyone is in for a real treat.”
Schrader and Znak are also working on the franchise extension MasterChef Junior. The season seven finale airs June 4 on FOX and production on its eighth season begins in Los Angeles this week. It, too, saw a slightly different casting approach for the new set of episodes. “America is a very large country and it’s not always easy for everyone to get [to casting calls],” Znak says. “We audition nationwide, but it still might be a long way for people to travel. So as well as doing our nationwide auditions, we want out of our way to find people and let them Skype and send in their casting tapes. We feel like we have scoured every bit of the country to find the best junior home cooks.”
Plus, she adds, “Much like season ten of MasterChef, it is the toughest year. This show is not kids’ play—if you come here to cook, we’re going to put you to the test.”
MasterChef is not just marking a milestone in the U.S.—this year also marks the tenth version of the format in Brazil, “and we have further tenth anniversaries and new commissions around the world set to follow,” says Perrin, CEO of creative networks at Endemol Shine Group.
The format has also become a success off-screen, in the U.S. and elsewhere, with MasterChef-branded live events and consumer-products lines, including Cooking with MasterChef and MasterChef Junior interactive cooking classes, small kitchen appliances and cookbooks. This summer, Camp MasterChef is expanding to Los Angeles, Houston and Chicago, in addition to camps in Connecticut and Georgia. There is also a live theater tour for MasterChef Junior that will run across several American cities beginning in October. There have also been three MasterChef Cruises with Holland America that were produced by events company Life Journeys.
“Demand from audiences worldwide to engage with the brand beyond the screen is huge and we are committed to delivering authentic experiences that live up to fans’ expectations,” says Smith, group director of brand licensing and gaming at Endemol Shine Group.
Meanwhile, the finished tape of the U.S. version has also been a huge seller for the company, having been licensed into 188 markets, according to Payne, CEO of Endemol Shine International. “It is our most successful version in terms of countries sold to,” Payne notes. “Their unique version of the format has proved incredibly popular with audiences around the world.”
Perrin adds, “MasterChef’s tenth season in America is a great example of how the format stays fresh and maintains momentum. The format has been refreshed for the new season which people will be able to see on-screen. We are so pleased with it—it looks fantastic and we expect the show to carry on for at least another ten seasons!”