Ben Macdonald was the only Kiwi competing in the 2015 series of MasterChef Australia, and each week he shared stories from his time on the MasterChef journey.
Born in Whangarei, he now calls Brisbane’s New Farm home. Ben was diagnosed in 2002 with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia and spent six months in and out of hospital and 10 years in remission.
The former IT consultant, who is now pursuing a food-related career, has travelled to nearly 100 countries, working across Europe and the USA. For recipes and more on Ben visit his website www.benmacdonald.com and check out his weekly Bite columns here.
Was competing in MasterChef as you imagined it would be? How and Why?
Yes and no. I was a big fan and had watched a lot of it, so I was pleased to see that with the challenges, what you see on TV is pretty accurate. You don’t get any warning; you get the ingredients, hear the challenge and are cooking within minutes. The reactions you see and the pressure you feel is completely authentic. What I didn’t imagine was just how much waiting around there would be - it turns out TV takes a long time to make – especially on that scale! The living situation is also very difficult with such diffierent people all in one house, limited contact with the outside world, bunk beds and getting woken up at crazy times. I think a lot of people find the non-cooking side even more challenging than the cooking. In the end, you have to be able to handle both.
How much practice did you put in before you went on the show? If so, how did you tackle it and what did you make?
I practised as much as I could, but I put my application in not thinking much of it and then got called to audition pretty much straight away. A few weeks later I was in Melbourne for the first part of the competition. So, with wrapping up my job and sorting things out at home, there wasn’t a huge amount of time to do much practice. It all happens so quickly, but I tried to work on my weaknesses and also things you could make using the mystery box basics. Especially things I could cook in under an hour! I did manage to squeeze in a day at a fishmonger, butcher and even a couple of days in the kitchen at Soul Bar in Auckland (while back for a wedding), which was invaluable!
You were the only Kiwi on the show. Did that have its challenges?
Aside from being called ‘Binny’ for 6 months, it wasn’t too bad! We had a few people from other countries there, so we all had a bit of fun with it. There were also a few on the crew and Kiwi chef Dave Verheul turn up for a challenge, so it wasn’t like I was on my own. George did love his sheep jokes, but then that is probably why he is a chef and not a commedian.
Do you still have family in NZ? When did you leave to live overseas?
Most of my extended family are in NZ, and my mother also lives there now. I left for the US to work in 1999 and after two years there spent 13 in the UK and Europe and now two in Australia, so I guess I have almost made it back home. New Zealand is certainly something I am considering in the near fiuture.
You said in your first Bite column that dessert is not your favourite thing to make. Do you have a sweet tooth? Do you make dessert at home?
I don’t have a very sweet tooth, though have nothing against dessert. It is more a case that I would rather eat savoury food, so I don’t tend to cook them much at home - if I did, I would be the size of a house. I prefer fruit-based desserts that are lighter and also using vegetables such as parsnips or beetroot for an interesting twist. Saying that, you can go a long way in MasterChef with just a few dessert skills, especially in mystery boxes where you always have eggs, butter, cream and flour – so it is worth knowing a few basic skills, especially as many can be used in a savoury way too.
What would you say is your culinary forte? And your dream meal?
Probably cooking seafood. I love to eat it and I love to cook it - a perfect piece of fish is hard to beat. I dream of simple things, eating beautiful New Zealand scallops and oysters like we get in are definitely things I miss. As well as freshly caught snapper, terahiki, kingfish or some smoked marlin.
You have travelled the world to nearly 100 countries. What’s your favourite country and cuisine?
If I had to choose one, I would have to say Spain. I think the food culture is amazing and so is the quality of ingredients and the diversity in their culture and food. At one end of the spectrum you have food that is very modern, but at the same time respects tradition and the ingredients – it is extremely exciting and Spain has really led the way in this kind of gastronomy. At the other end you have tapas and pintxos – the simplest food in the world, but also some of the most satisfying. Food and wine is also a very social experience in Spain and friends and families enjoy food together at every opportunity. They also have some of the highest quality and best value wines you can find.
Are you still working as an IT consultant? Have you taken your love of cooking and made plans to use it professionally? How?
Since MasterChef I have pretty much been throwing myself into food. Working part-time at the Stokehouse restaurant, some private dinners, demonstrations and masterclasses - all sorts of food-related things. I have also been working as an ambassador with the Snowdome Foundation, which is a blood cancer charity and is a cause very close to my heart. On top of that, I recently started the Hard to Find Supper Club, where I cook a five-course menu with matched wines for small groups each month and it has been going really well.
Your illness and subsequent recovery must have changed much in your life. Did it affect how and what you cook now?
It probably impacted my perspective on life more than food, though it certainly makes you value your health immensely. While I am certainly no angel and also don’t believe in radical diets, I do believe it is important to be aware of what you eat and where it comes from so that you can be as healthy as possible while still enjoying your food.
You said your father instilled your love of cooking. Tell us about that.
I would have to say my father was a foodie before foodies even existed. He spent a lot of time in the kitchen cooking weird and wonderful things and that definitely rubbed off on me. He would often cook foods from faraway lands, maybe paella or some kind of curry, and was also a pretty skilled baker. As a young family we couldn’t afford to travel to these places, but this was the next best thing and opened my eyes to the world of food. My favourite thing was always when we would go fishing and then eat the fresh fish as soon as we got back with family and friends. Saying that, it was always Mum who seemed to catch the biggest fish…
Who is your food idol?
I would have to say Heston Blumenthal – when I first dined at the Fat Duck in 2006 it completely changed the way I thought about food. Of course, I was a big fan of his before the show and now having met him and being able to spend a bit of time with him, I hold him in even higher regard. He is a lovely guy, very easy to talk to and completely down to earth.
What is your earliest food memory?
As a Kiwi kid, I think you start collecting shellfish as soon as you can walk and we used to do a lot of that, pipis on the east coast and oysters on the Kaipara. Then you soon graduate to a rod and start catching fish. I also used to help my granddad with his garden, cows, ducks and sheep.
When friends come for dinner, what’s on the menu?
Not usually fine dining, but something tasty and maybe unusual. I like to get large cuts of meat, brine them, and cook them low and slow on my charcoal barbecue (exactly the things you can’t do on MasterChef). I also have a gas one for convenience, but the flavour of charcoal is unbeatable, it takes time and effort, though, so that’s why I like to get a few people over and enjoy it together – that is what food is all about. It also means you can spend time with your guests and have a couple of drinks rather than slave away in the kitchen.
Have you made your signature snapper dish again?
I have made it recently for a Masterclass I held at the Palazzo Versace on the Gold Coast. It is a dish that isn’t difficult to make, has lovely balance and only a few simple ingredients, while combining the flavours of Europe with Asia – it is a dish I am really proud of.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I love cooking because no matter what you know, you can always learn more. My philosophy on food is simple – buy the best ingredients you can afford when they are in season (and therefore cheap), cook them simply. Use modern techniques if they make the dish better, but try not to overcomplicate things. I also love to use techniques such as fermentation, pickling and curing for preservation in order to provide different tastes, textures and prolong the life of the food. The last thing to remember is to just have a go. You can’t learn to cook a steak without burning a few, so just accept that. Cooking is like anything else – you will make mistakes and learn from them – sometimes your mistakes might even taste better, but that is all part of the fun.
MasterChef Australia screens on TV One Tuesday through Saturday at 7.30pm.