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‘MasterChef’ at 10: Mentorship, Crossing the Pond and Breaking Down a Chicken Blindfolded

As the team behind “MasterChef” prepared to produce its 10th season, one key theme emerged: They had to be bigger and bolder, not only to continue to entice the audience to tune in live, now twice a week instead of only once, but also to celebrate just how far the unscripted cooking competition has come.

“I never want to sit on my laurels,” says executive producer, host and judge Gordon Ramsay. “I treat ‘MasterChef’ like running a restaurant in terms of, you need to be creative every year, and like customers in any restaurant vote with their feet, viewers vote with their controllers.”

A staple of Fox’s summer lineup since 2010, the Endemol Shine/Studio Ramsay-produced series has averaged 4.79 million live+same day viewers over its first nine seasons, becoming a utility player for the network as it moved around on the schedule season after season but consistently performed as the No. 1 unscripted show. In order to make the series appointment television in a much more crowded space than when it launched, the show now has upped the ante with the level of skill being required of its home cook contestants, as well as during demo time for the judges.

“We’ve seen Gordon explain how to break down a chicken, and it’s something that people love — and it’s something that I learned how to do by watching him — however, this time Gordon did it blindfolded,” says executive producer Natalka Znak, who just joined the series in Season 10. “That’s a twist on a ‘MasterChef’ classic. As a viewer I’m still getting all my takeaways, but I’m also getting a fantastic piece of TV.”

In order to find home cooks who could rise to such challenges, members of Ramsay’s own culinary team traveled around the country to grade applicants on their cooking long before the show’s producers ever met them or learned about their backstories. Regardless of a personality that might make for great TV, their kitchen chops had to be proven to push through to the Top 100 audition round.

Additionally, “MasterChef” has raised the bar for the production value of the series, opening the season with “the judges arriving by helicopter, with fireworks,” Znak says, and later going global for the first time to visit Ramsay’s restaurant in London. And the prize doesn’t just include money this year, but also mentorship.

“I got doors opened for me at a young age, so that’s my responsibility to continue that,” Ramsay says.

Fox’s president of alternative entertainment, Rob Wade, believes the reason “MasterChef” has had such longevity thus far is because “it can be reinvented every season.” So for this special milestone year, he says Fox wanted to really “lean into” the anniversary aspect. “Scale and ambition are really important in the celebration of a series, I think. And what the producers have done, both visually with the space in the competition and with the casting, have really elevated this season and made it special,” he says.

On the network side, Wade acknowledges that they saw how, particularly in the summer “flagship shows have benefited from being on multiple nights a week and have sustained well,” which led to the extra night expansion. “This show could do that, so it was worth taking the risk, but also because it was a landmark season, we had an opportunity and a reason to do that,” he says. This allows for a “cliffhanger” of sorts to play out between the episodes, as the show will have its immunity night on Wednesdays and the elimination on Thursdays.

“What used to be six acts — three acts of immunity and three of elimination — are now spread across 12. So we could stretch our creative muscles,” says executive producer Danny Schrader.

“MasterChef” judge Aaron Sanchez, who joined the show in Season 8, says the opportunity to be creative in the format is what attracted him to the show in the first place and keeps it fresh for him season over season. “I can share my passion for food, my experiences, my journey, with not just with an American audience but a worldwide audience. That’s an opportunity you just can’t turn down.”

The version of “MasterChef” that airs on Fox in the U.S. is not the first from the franchise: the format debuted in the U.K. in the early 1990s, with a revamped version bowing in 2005. That was followed by one in Australia in 2009 that introduced the competition element. The U.S. version was the sixth to premiere, in 2010, but since then the format has aired in 52 other markets (Singapore and Myanmar are the most recent, premiering in September), with three more coming later this year. While each market has its own version of the show with unique hosts and local contestants, the U.S. episodes air in 192 countries, as well. And of course, it also spurred “MasterChef Junior,” which also airs on Fox, and “MasterChef Latino,” for Telemundo.

“The U.S. is probably the most competitive market globally, and that’s why we have to keep challenging ourselves,” says Cris Abrego, CEO of Endemol Shine North America and chairman of Endemol Shine America. But, “there’s two universal themes in the format: You can really make it bespoke for the territory, it’s in the food and in the casting of the contestants. This is a format that really, over the course of the season, allows you to dive into the stories of home cooks that are incredibly talented.”

As the success of “MasterChef” has grown, it has inevitably changed the course of the culinary world, says Joe Bastianich, who was a judge for the first five seasons and then returned in Season 9. “There’s a whole generation of Americans who grew up watching this and now have a culinary [education]. I’ve done it for 10 years in Italy, as well, so I got to see it evolve in another country and change the food landscape in one of the most profound, sophisticated countries in the world. I think it will continue to grow as it evolves, and as long as it’s vibrant and dynamic and evolving it will speak to people. The narrative and the incredible dishes, as long as it’s growing, it’s got a place.”

Past contestants have gone on to open restaurants, author cookbooks and even, in the case of Claudia Sandoval who now judges “MasterChef Latino,” influence the production of the franchise.

“I think ‘MasterChef’ has given the culinary world a kick in the ass because every chef out there is watching and seeing the rest of the public, i.e. my customers, can cook better than they do in restaurants,” Ramsay says. “For me, that’s exciting. It’s gotten rid of the snob factor in food and made it a real drive for individuals who never had the position or the time in their lives for food.”

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