Andy Allen never imagined after winning MasterChef in 2012 he would one day be a judge on the show.
"Very much no, I never thought I would. When I got an email I was in Sicily at the time." Following the cryptic email he flew back and "had a few chats" with the producers and finally got the call.
Allen did not know his fellow judges that well. "It was very much a gamble, but they definitely got it right. I'd met Jock [Zonfrillo] a couple of times, but I never met Melissa [Leong]. For us to be put in a room together, and just go for it, the production people know what they're doing. They couldn't have picked two better people. "
The three new judges are well aware they have very big shoes to fill. "It was daunting but not in a bad way. We never were trying to compete in terms of what they (former judges Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris and Matt Preston) brought to the show. The producers picked us for a reason ... we just wanted to be ourselves."
The returning 24 contestants have international celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay on board for week one.
"Having Gordon there for the first week immediately set the tone. He was asking questions about us, He didn't just rock up for a pay check. It was intimidating sitting in the green room with him. He's a monster of a man, but as soon as he opens his mouth, he's such a lovely guy."
Allen has worked with many of the contestants in the past eight years.
"For me to be able to give feedback on their food has been natural. It might be very cliche to say there is a family thing about being on MasterChef, but it's the truth.
"Once you've gone through it, you know how mentally draining the whole process is, you have a respect for each other and want to help each other.
Allen is a hatted chef, which he says was very unexpected."You don't do it for those reason, you do it to serve an amazing product to the punters. You owe those awards to your staff."
The hospitality industry has been one of the hardest hit during the coronavirus pandemic.
"Each business is different, and I can only speak for myself. It's a volatile moment in history. We'll tell our kids and grandkids about it. It would be rude of me to give advice to other people. The only thing I'd say is the hospitality industry is bloody resilient, as it's not easy at the best of the times."
Allen has two Sydney restaurants, two in Byron Bay, one in Brisbane, and is building one in Melbourne.
"It's a terrible situation, I feel like I still have those restaurants but I really don't. We've shut everything down. We've had to stand down 220 staff, it rips your heart out.
"Most of them [contestants] are going through pretty much what I'm going through. We are all there for each other.
"But their reputations are on the line, someone has to go first. But whether you come 24th or first, to be asked to come back is such an achievement.
"The food has been unreal from the first challenge. There have been some cracking dishes and homestyle dishes as well. It's just as important people at home can have a crack at cooking them as well."
This season some of the contestants will also give master classes. "It would be stupid not to have contestants give a master class. They're at the top of their game. I'm learning from them.
"You will have to be the best of the best to come out on top of this competition."
- MasterChef: TEN/WIN Network, Monday to Thursday, 7.30pm, this week, then Sunday to Thursday.