‘I wondered if it was a job only they could do’
ANDY Allen knows what it's like to sweat it out in the kitchen with the MasterChef clock counting down the precious seconds above your head.
The Maitland native, originally an electrician by trade, won the fourth season of the reality cooking show in 2012.
Now, at just 31, he's mentoring and critiquing returning contestants - some his good mates - in the new Back to Win-themed 12th season of MasterChef Australia.
Familiar faces including Poh Ling Yeow, Hayden Quinn, Reynold Poernomo and Callum Hann are all back for another tilt at the title which previously eluded them.
"I feel like I know what they're (the contestants) going through," Andy says.
"It's an emotional ride as well as this ride you're on in terms of your food.
"I'm very blessed to have the respect of all of these guys. In one way or another we've all worked together or seen each other do something. Personally, it's amazing to have them listen to your comments, taken them in and subtly put that into their food. That's the greatest mark of respect for me."
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Andy, food writer Melissa Leong and Scottish-born chef and restaurateur Jock Zonfrillo will face the ultimate screen test when they make their TV debut on Easter Monday.
The fresh-faced trio replaces original judges Matt Preston, Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris, who collectively left the program after the collapse of Calombaris's restaurant empire.
"I was wondering if it was a job only they could do," Andy says. "They took the show to a place where it's the biggest food show in the world.
"I'd met Jock once before and I'd never met Melissa (before we were cast) so it was ballsy for the production company to go 'Let's put these three guys together'.
"Without taking away from anything Matt, George and Gary did, we've just slotted in and hit the ground running from episode one. Jock and I get along like a house on fire. I feel like I'm kind of his little brother and Melissa is like the sister in the middle.
"All three of us feel really comfortable both as a team and as individuals."
Andy, who has gone on to success as a co-owner of the Three Blue Ducks restaurant group, promises viewers will see the highest standard of food in the show's history.
"The food has been amazing. It's a pleasure to go into every tasting and really have my palate tested. We'll taste 20-something dishes ranging from a coconut and mango ice cream to beef with cauliflower puree,"' he says.
"I can't think of a bad day's cooking that we've had. I put up much more disastrous food in my series than I've seen in this season yet (laughs).
"These guys are so experienced, nine times out of 10 they're going to cook a protein perfectly.
"Whoever wins this series is right up there with the best of the best because of the competition they've had to beat to get there."
This year's special guests include Gordon Ramsay, Curtis Stone and pop star Katy Perry.
MasterChef: Back To Win premieres Easter Monday at 7.30pm on Ten/WIN.