the history of masterchef

For over 30 years MasterChef has had one aim: to discover the country’s best food talent through a series of extraordinary cooking challenges, and watched over by some of the world’s most prestigious food judges. Let’s look into the history of this long running TV show, and the surprising disagreement that led to it’s creation. We’ll look at the judges, the tests, and the dishes that made MasterChef a staple of TV schedules.

Heads up: here’s a video version of this article, packed with clips!

This week MasterChef returned to our screens on BBC One for it’s 20th anniversary in the modern era.

With versions in over 60 productions across the world, broadcast in 200+ countries, MasterChef is watched globally by over 300 million viewers. The UK edition of MasterChef is about to enter it’s 20th year in it’s current incarnation. Contestants are expected to show off their skills, think on their feet, replicate famous dishes, demonstrate their culinary knowledge, and work a busy service in top-end restaurants.

Over a series of weeks the dozens of wannabe MasterChefs battle through a knockout tournament to impress the hosts and a revolving panel of critics, chefs, and former champions. The format is instantly recognisable and easy to dip in and out of.

But it didn’t have the most obvious of beginnings.

Britain does not have a great reputation for it’s food. There are many reasons for this which are beyond the scope of this video, but rationing through World War 2 and for many years after 1945, a lack of enthusiastic food culture, thinning of margins combined with a chase to the best price have led to UK cuisine being looked down upon. Many – myself included – are happy to boast about our superb produce, ancient and excellent methods, exceptional home-grown chefs, centuries of experience with roasting meats, diverse weather giving us superb conditions, and an overall homeliness and warmth to our cookery. However, the stigma persists.

The negative stereotype was an opinion shared by Mel Brooks, legendary film writer, actor and director responsible for some of the best comedies of the 20th Century. In the early 1980s during a production meeting at 20th Century Fox he was holding court and openly mocking British food with his creatives.

mel brooks

Mel Brooks

One person in that meeting was noted English director Franc Roddam. Franc is from County Durham in the North East of England. His biggest hit was the 1979 cult film Quadrophenia, the magnum opus for mods that inspires fashions and reunions to this day. Best of all it launched the career of Phil Daniels. Franc’s other most notable creation was TV series Auf Wiedersehen Pet, the story of working lads from the North East ekeing out a living working in Germany. It was off the back of these two hits in particular that found him in a meeting with Brooks and his coterie, pitching new ideas. In an interview with William Sitwell he said:

“Mel Brooks and his buddies were doing their usual level best to mock British food. They were a braying pack of creatives saying that there was no such thing as British cuisine, that if you wanted a good meal in London you had to go Italian or French or Indian. But never British.”

franc roddam

Franc Roddam

This argument struck a nerve in him and this kickstarted the idea of a cooking competition between amateur British cooks. With his reputation behind him Roddam was able to secure the attention of BBC execs and devised the cooking competition MasterChef.

Bostonian Loyd Grossman was chosen as host. Loyd was a familiar face on TV having devised and co-presenting Through The Keyhole, among other roles. He’d been the food critic for Harpers and Queen magazine since 1981 so he had the right balance of subject knowledge and presenting kudos.

Loyd Grossman

Loyd Grossman on Through the Keyhole

“Before MasterChef, the only food programs were programs about how to cook. The brilliance of MasterChef was that it wanted to present food as entertainment. It was the first really entertaining, popular show about food, and then it took off and was the zeitgeist. It was exactly the right timing.” – Loyd Grossman

It wasn’t predicted to be a success by everyone. Loyd recalled in a meeting with a BBC Exec: “that’s a terrible idea. Who would want to watch people eat?“

Filmed in the TVS Television Theatre, the MasterChef of 1990 is difficult to recognise from the shouty-dashing-fryathon of today. Three cooks are challenged to cook a three course meal in two and a half hours, and allowed to bring up to five specialty ingredients or utensils. While I’m sure it didn’t feel like it for the contestants it always had a languid and relaxed pace. I can remember watching it on Sunday afternoons while putting off doing homework and feeling like the programme would last forever!



Subtitled “the British Grand Prix for amateur chefs”, the programme ranged from 30 to 60 minutes and menus had a distinctly French flavour. In this pre-Marco Pierre White revolutionary world, the menus read back now they are very fussy and overworked for today’s tastes, but it was at the cutting edge in the nineties. Top chefs and restaurateurs of the day were guests brought on to eat and judge. Guests like Pierre Koffmann, Terence Conran, Egon Ronay, Michel Roux Sr, and many others.

Gordon Ramsay on MasterChef

Gordon Ramsay on MasterChef

In this form the show continued until 2000 with host Grossman being replaced by chef Gary Rhodes for one tournament. Loyd was not happy with planned changes.

“They told me this summer that they wanted the show to switch channels, which I very strenuously object to.

“Then they said they wanted it to be less of a competition, which I think is totally moronic and then they decided that they didn’t want to do Junior Masterchef, which to me is total lunacy because everyone loved the show.”

It had a similar setup but with a more relaxed and modern studio. Unfortunately ratings declined and was cancelled after the 2001 series.

The names of the winners between 1990 and 2001 are below. I consider myself engaged with chefs and cooks but few of these names sound familiar to me now in 2024. I gave each name a quick Google and made a few notes on their selected achievements.

Year Winner
1990 Joan Bunting Did cookery demonstrations in the North East and columnist in local press.
1991 Sue Lawrence Became a regular columnist for Scotland on Sunday and Sunday Times, while also penning a number of cookbooks.
1992 Vanessa Binns Became a hotelier.
1993 Derek Johns Was already a successful dealer in fine arts, and continued this career after his win.
1994 Gerry Goldwyre Opened a restaurant in Edinburgh.
1995 Marion Macfarlane Did not pursue a career in food but remained in education.
1996 Neil Haidar Bounced around various jobs within the industry, including AA Restaurant inspector.
1997 Julie Friend Has run cookery courses, written books, been a private chef, run catering companies.
1999 Lloyd Burgess Did various cookery demonstrations and tutorials, and set up his own UK coffee roaster business.
2000 Marjorie Lang Ran various cookery classes and worked at several restaurants.
2001 Rosa Baden-Powell Recipe writer and sometime face of Alpro

In the early 2000s Roddam pitched a new format to the BBC working with Elisabeth Murdoch and her production company Shine.

In 2005 Franc Roddam along with other executive producer John Silver and producer Kate Ross revived the format under the title MasterChef Goes Large. In a post-Pop Idol, mid X-Factor world suddenly everything is brighter, louder and a veritable riot after the staid and fussy Grossman years. Instead of a single host, a pair was chosen to front the show. Chef and restaurateur John Torode would judge the cooking, beating out critic AA Gill for the role. It was felt that two chefs would unbalance the show, so commercial greengrocer Gregg Wallace was more of a ‘straight’ role as a keen diner. Gregg was known to TV producers, having originally presented Saturday Kitchen on BBC One, and Veg Talk on Radio 4. The show moved from a classic BBC studio to the working kitchens of City University London, with exposed brickwork and stacked shelves. Just in case you drift off, the soundtrack is pumping techno and buzzing EDM. There is a huge push on “changing your life” and “realising your dreams” which is repeated over and over again, with the grand prize being “to work in a professional kitchen.”

“Things felt different. We caught a new energy and hope that people had about the possibility to change careers.” – Kate Ross

In a change from the previous generation, rather than preparing one three course menu over one show, contestants went through a series of different rounds.

Series 1 to 9 followed a very similar template throughout the early heats. A handful of hopefuls start with ‘The Invention Test’. Would-be MasterChefs are given a range of ingredients and invited to come up with something on the spot – this round often gave us the most humorous results. In later years this would be replaced by the ‘Market Test’ where they can choose from a decent range of ingredients – though generous this can cause some cooks to select too many things and yes, more humorous things ensue. Then they would face ‘The Pressure Test’ where they would be thrown into a professional kitchen and pushed into a busy service to see how they cope. Inevitably they get the feedback that they were too slow but did OK by the end. A ‘Final Test’ where they would cook their own 2 course meal under a strict time limit.

Gregg Wallace tucking in

Over the years the rounds would change to freshen up the format and demonstrate different aspects of the participants. ‘The Calling Card’ would be a more welcoming first round, so that they can begin with showing off a dish they know really well, hoping that it shows off their personality. A ‘Reinvention Test’ where a previously used ingredient would be used again. Very common would become a test where they must cook two courses for three critics or former contestants. A ‘Palate Test’ in which they taste a dish and unpick all the ingredients they can name. A ‘Critics Choice’ where a restaurant critic sets a challenge using a particular ingredient or method.

Once we’re out of the heats the gloves are off and all sorts of challenges start to emerge. Contestants cound find themselves faced with a mass catering challenge, make a well-known chef’s signature dish for the chef themself, or fly abroad to work in a completely unique kitchen environment.

The set would move locations over the years: from Ram Brewery in Wandsworth with it’s industrial feel, to 3 Mills Studio which gave it arguably it’s most cinematic look from 2014 – 2023. For the 2024 series filming for MasterChef has moved to a new bespoke set in Birmingham as part of the BBC’s drive to improve its regional reach putting it at the vanguard of it’s programmes.

There’s subtle changes in the tone too over the decades: in the mid-2000s negative feedback was harsh and pointed; as reality TV grew up we saw more constructive criticism and less outright insults. In later years you also get small glimpses into the camaraderie between the contestants which helps soften the edges.

Gregg and John judging

The show has also seen success by spinning off the format into different flavours. This includes the inevitable celebrity version running since 2006, as well as The Professionals (my personal favourite) where chefs from inside the industry show off what they can do. Michel Roux Jr, Monica Galetti, Marcus Wareing, and Anna Haugh have presented this series over the years. The format is much the same, though asking Professionals to think on their feet and recreate one of the host’s recipes under a strict timeline is a thoroughly insightful round. There have also been versions for younger cooks, with Junior Masterchef popping up over the years, and Young Masterchef which started in 2023.

There are dozens and dozens of localised versions for different countries – too many to list here – but the principle of an elimination reality cooking show remains the core.

MasterChef has produced some excellent talent in it’s history, with almost all of the champions continuing their career in food, writing cookbooks, and opening restaurants. And not just the winners, much like other reality competitions runner-ups have had plenty of success too.

I can’t list the achievements of all the winners but here’s a few headlines. Almost all of them wrote a book or picked up newspaper columns.

  1. The first winner of the modern era was Thomasina Miers, who created her chain of Mexican cantinas Wahaca.
  2. Second series champion Peter Bayless became a private chef and food writer.
  3. Series 3 gave us Stephen Wallis who became a private chef and consultant.
  4. James Nathan of series 4 served as head chefs for many top places.
  5. Mat Follas apart from being the jolliest of winners set up numerous restaurants.
  6. Dhruv Baker from series 6 did a spot of stages and became a food writer.
  7. Series 7’s Tim Anderson turned out a bunch of books (his latest comes out this year!).
  8. Shelina Permaloo won series 8 and has written books, columns and frequently appears on TV.
  9. 2013’s Natalie Coleman became a successful chef in many restaurants.
  10. Ping Coombes won series 10 and became a Malaysian food ambassador and runs cookery courses.
  11. Series 11 winner Simon Wood achieved a boyhood dream and runs Oldham Athletic Football Club’s kitchens.
  12. Jane Devonshire runs regular food courses and works food events.
  13. Saliha Mahmood Ahmed wrote a well-received cookbook but continued her career in the NHS.
  14. Kenny Tutt won in 2018, opened a restaurant and offers private dining.
  15. Irini Tzortzoglou got busy writing books and giving talks and representation in the kitchen.
  16. In 2020 winner Thomas Frake launched his fine-dining at home service. Tom Rhodes, Winner in 2021, creates recipes and offers private dining.
  17. Series 18 winner Eddie Scott is about to release his first cookbook.
  18. Our newest champion Chariya Khattiyot is opening her first restaurant in Surrey in 2024.

But apart from giving us something entertaining to watch whether in genuine joy as we cheer along, or the schadenfreude of a dish gone wrong, MasterChef has done something else in the UK specifically: given us vocabulary to talk about food. Whether it’s cooking at home for ourselves or others, or eating out at restaurants, MasterChef has democratised the language of food.

Look at the dishes put up by contestants in the first few series in the early rounds – usually a protein, claggy sauce and token veg. In 2023? Fish tacos three ways, tempura curry leaves, crab tortellini, roasted chicken with black beans, and food from all over the world. The diversity of the contestants is incredibly broad – not just box-ticking, but people bringing recipes from their authentic selves done their own way.

“You’ll think I’m mad, but it’s about the democratisation of food. At that point good food was only for rich people. It was like, ‘No, hang on a second. Let’s democratise this.'” – Franc Roddam

franc roddam

What’s your favourite MasterChef memory? Let me know in the comments.

Selected sources:

“MasterChef 1995” – Loyd Grossman (Vermillion, 1995)

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