Reality TV shows burst onto our television screens in a big way around twenty years ago — including a plethora of shows with food and cooking themes. At first, they were a novelty; now reality television is almost all there is to watch — season after season, on every channel.
While the reality TV concept is relatively new, cooking shows (and celebrity chefs) are not. In fact, the first of many cooking TV shows in Australia aired in 1957. The Chef Presents — initially a 5-minute cookery segment, which was later expanded to 15 minutes and broadcast in different television timeslots — made Willi Koeppen the first Australian TV chef.
Fast forward to 2021 — how many cooking TV shows does Australia have? What is the most popular series? Why should you watch them? Is any cooking program effective when it comes to learning to cook?
We're going to take a look at some of the classic and current cooking TV shows in Australia and unpack why they continue to be so popular.
If you're as old as me, you'll remember sitting around the tiny television screen with your family, soaking up the wisdom of our favourite celebrity Australian chefs, scribbling down their recipes — and never actually cooking them.
1970s — King's Kitchen
Flamboyant and incredibly popular, Bernard King became a household name with his television cooking series, King's Kitchen.
With honey ham and lamb chops among his signature dishes, long after King's Kitchen had ceased airing, King continued to be seen on television — though, not without controversy after he was banned from performing live cooking demonstrations following a series of inappropriate comments.
1980s — Come and Get It
G'day! Who didn't love Peter Russell-Clarke when he greeted viewers of his 5-minute cooking show, Come and Get It, with a smile, a wink and that simple catchphrase?
Come and Get It featured market trips where Peter would 'buy' fresh produce and then show viewers how to cook it. Always a firm family favourite, as is the way with many celebrity greats, there was a touch of controversy when a 'blooper' video was released on YouTube in 2008.
1990s — What's Cooking?
One of the more lighthearted cookery shows of its time, What's Cooking? was originally hosted by French-Australian chef, Gabriel Gaté, and actor/comedian, Colette Mann. The pair were replaced by chef, Geoff Jansz and talk show celebrity, Kerri-Anne Kennerley. Semi-serious, achievable recipes and fun to watch.
Late 90s to 2010 — Huey's Cooking Adventures
One of the all-round popular television chefs, New Zealander, Iain Hewitson was adopted as Australia's own and known only as Huey. His smiling face has been on our television screens for decades with shows like Huey's Cooking Adventures. This series was particularly popular for its focus on different regions of Australia where Huey would lob in, have a chat with locals and cook up a storm.
The 'adventures' concept was replaced in 2010 with another show featuring Huey — Huey's Kitchen.
Great Shows with Cooking and Food Themes that Fly Under the Radar
If you were asked to list as many Australian chefs with celebrity status as possible, you'd probably have no trouble rattling off Curtis Stone, Kylie Kwong, Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris, Andy Allan, Shannon Bennett, Pete Evans and Manu Feildel. Why? Because they all feature on reality cooking shows (specifically MasterChef and My Kitchen Rules).
Not all celebrity chefs, however, are involved in reality television and not all cooking TV shows in Australia are mainstream.
In fact, you'll find some of the best Australian food and cooking-related programs on SBS. Let's check out a few.
Available to watch on the SBS On Demand channel, Food Safari is presented by Maeve O'Meara and focuses on cuisines brought to Australia by immigrants. Each episode in season 1 through to season 4 explored a different cuisine from a specific culture, looking at its culinary background, the people and traditions and where you can find the ingredients to replicate the recipes in Australia.
After season 4, the shows changed focus slightly. Season 5 (Food Safari Fire) explores barbecuing, grilling and smoking of meat; season 6 (Food Safari Earth) had a vegetarian focus; and Food Safari Water (season 7) was all about seafood.
The Food Safari adventure continued with spin-off episodes, filmed in other countries — Italian Food Safari and French Food Safari being the first in the new series.
Luke Nguyen: Vietnam
Born in a Thailand refugee camp to Vietnamese parents, Luke Nguyen emigrated to Australia in the 80s and has spent much of his life championing food from his heritage (and beyond).
His first series, Luke Nguyen's Vietnam, screened on SBS One in 2010. Since then, he has returned season after season, with episode upon episode of shows exploring regional food, ingredients and recipes of Vietnam, France, the Greater Mekong, UK and the street food of Asia.
Despite winning season 2 of MasterChef and achieving celebrity chef status, Adam Liaw maintains a low profile and generally does not get involved in mainstream reality shows. His series, Destination Flavour (which you can watch on SBS on Demand), started with the aim of meeting the restaurant chefs and other people (such as growers) behind the best Australian food and discovering what inspires them. Each episode acts like a mini-documentary with a cooking and recipe element weaved in.
The show proved so popular, Adam Liaw has continued with further series, including Destination Flavour Japan, Down Under, China, Singapore and Scandinavia. There are also cookbooks available to complement each season of the show.
The Cook's Pantry
Not all low-key cooking TV shows in Australia are on SBS, however; Channel 10 is known for its 4 pm cookery slot, which has featured a range of family friendly cooking shows for years. The Cook's Pantry is notable for the fact it is hosted by three past MasterChef contestants (who did not win but nevertheless found their way into Australian hearts) — Matt Sinclair, Courtney Roulston and Michael Weldon.
Viewers can watch the trio cook, or cook along with them as they show you how to cook their favourite food, step-by-step.
The Big Names
There are two mainstays when it comes to cooking TV shows in Australia and they just keep coming back, in various iterations and, sometimes, with new hosts.
My Kitchen Rules (MKR)
Hosted by Manu Fieldel and Pete Evans, Channel 7's My Kitchen Rules was developed off the back of 'My Restaurant Rules' and buoyed by the success of MasterChef, which airs on Channel 10. The show was an Australian original and spearheaded a number of copycat shows, including My Kitchen Rules New Zealand.
Since its inception in 2010, the show has been nominated for 5 Logies, winning in the category of Most Popular Reality Show.
The premise of My Kitchen Rules is that it pits a number of 'home cook' couples against each other, taking it in turns to host a dinner party in their home, cooking out of their own kitchen. Other contestants participate in the judging with the final decision resting with Fieldel and Evans.
One suspects that people tend to watch the show for the controversy and the tension between contestants, rather than to get ideas and tips for their own cooking. Owing to the ongoing controversy surrounding Pete Evans, which peaked in 2019, it appears the show may have aired for the last time — but who knows in popular reality TV?
When original judges, Matt Preston, George Calombaris and Gary Mehigan, exited the show in 2019, everyone thought it signalled the show's demise. However, after a 'changing of the guard' in 2020, carefully orchestrated to bring in past popular contestants, MasterChef was back for its 13th season in 2021. Undoubtedly, MasterChef has had its ups and downs when it comes to ratings but, on the whole, it has remained in a stable, if not somewhat predictable viewing format.
As the three judges watch over them, 24 initial contestants are faced with a series of challenges until eventually they are whittled down to the final three, then two, then one. MasterChef is renowned for giving a record number of 'home cooks' their start in the industry and many of the names you know today were once contestants on the show.
With the high calibre guest chefs that can appear on this program, you may even be familiar with some international Michelin star recipients.
Australian Chefs on YouTube
YouTube is filled with Australian cooking shows but there is one in particular that is well worth a look: Nat's What I Reckon.
Comedian, Nat, has been posting on his YouTube channel for over a decade but it was last year, in the height of the Covid lockdown, that his cooking series became a household name. Essentially, Nat's about simple home cooking using fresh ingredients — no canned food, no packet food, no instant fake meals. If you are offended by swearing, stay away — otherwise, it's cooking (and comedy) gold!
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