MasterChef judge almost quit cooking
Andy Allen knows he's a pretty blessed bloke.
Not just because he entered a cooking competition called MasterChef almost a decade ago as an apprentice sparky and not only ended up winning it, but he returned to the show last year as a permanent judge.
And not because in the interim he wrote a cookbook (The Next Element) made some TV (Farm to Fork; Andy and Ben Eat Australia/The World) and so impressed a group of seasoned restaurant operators in the kitchen that they brought him on as a partner (Three Blue Ducks).
It's not only because he loves the buzz of a busy service and still gets "a kick out of cooking the perfect piece of fish", or even because his girlfriend Alex Davey said, "yes" and they are now making wedding plans.
On top of his many reasons to give thanks, Allen knows that the cards certainly fell his way last year when he got to escape Melbourne's hard lockdown and go fishin', foragin' and a-feastin' across NSW with his mates and fellow Blue Ducks, Mark Labrooy and Darren Robertson.
Sure he had to do a fortnight of hotel quarantine first, but after that the trio road-tripped through the bush and to the ocean, catching crays and fly fishing for trout and meeting the farmers and fishers of some of the best produce in the country. And then cooking up a storm.
Of course the photogenic fellas took a camera crew along for the ride and the result is a six-part series where the three dream up and test new dishes to put on the menu at one of the restaurants in their growing Three Blue Ducks empire.
"(The show) came at such a good time. We had a hell of a year … went from Melbourne lockdown, to hotel iso then three weeks on the road shooting with Mark and Daz, it was a big change of scenery. We had an awesome time," Allen says.
"As much as all three of us are head chefs in the business and look after the menu, we do separate it up, so for us to get three weeks where we hang out with each other, it's all about food. For all three of us it was a really special three weeks, because we just got to hang out."
What started as a little beachside cafe in Bronte has grown into a seven-strong stable of venues spanning Brisbane through Bryon Bay and now Melbourne, with the Three Blue Ducks opening last November a year late but in time for summer at the URBNSURF wave park in Tullamarine.
Allen, 32, moved to Melbourne to film MasterChef last year and now calls Carlton home as he and fellow judges Melissa Leong and Jock Zonfrillo currently film their sophomore season, and heads out to the sprawling 350-seat restaurant by the airport to do a shift in the kitchen on his days off.
He says opening the Tullamarine restaurant during a global pandemic took its toll on the team.
"It's one of the most stressful things we've been through as a business. It (was) an investment, a new venture at a wave pool, no one knew how it was going to go, there were a lot of stresses," he says.
"I'd be lying if I didn't have reservations about it … but now we're finally open, it makes it all worthwhile. The achievement of seeing people come through the door, we have a busy restaurant. If we opened before the pandemic (as planned) you just never know. We may not have made it through, we would've spent all this money to open, and then to be shutdown, that costs money in itself … just never know what could happen.
"As much as it was a hard time, I probably wouldn't change anything about (the timing). To be able to open after (Melbourne's lockdown). There was a bit of a surge in dining, it's a large space, with lots of outdoor dining, so we could make the most of the restrictions. We're in a good spot now, which is good."
Allen says it's been heartening how Victorians have embraced dining out during these COVID normal times, but fears for the broader industry once government support, including Jobkeeper, finishes at the end of next month.
"I have lots of mates, both in hospo and not in hospo and I think (lockdown) hurt every individual in one way, shape and form. For Victorians to come out of that, and really embrace hospitality, and abide by the rules, do everything they can so that cases stay low and everyone does their part … it's really evident in Victoria that that's happening. It's so good to see," he says.
"A lot of restaurants were just hanging on before the pandemic. I think the worst is yet to come once Jobkeeper wraps up, then we'll see the real impact … will see more closures."
For now, when he's not filming the next series of MasterChef at the Showgrounds, or cooking at Tullamarine, you'll find Allen embracing the new outdoor dining parklets that have taken over carparks across the inner city.
That Allen is the only working chef of the three judges - Zonfrillo closed his Adelaide restaurants last year and Leong is a food writer - is an ironic turn of events for the one-time sparky who almost returned to that trade once the MasterChef winner's shine started to wane.
Having met Robertson and Labrooy during a MasterChef challenge, Allen gave cooking one last crack and asked to get some experience in their kitchen.
"I knocked on their door and did two weeks' work experience. They were shooting their first book at the time so the timing was great and it went from there," he says.
Labrooy says Allen was a natural fit for the team (that now consists of six business partners). "He came in (to work at Three Blue Ducks) did the hard graft in the business and then became a partner. He has an incredible willingness to learn, he's a great leader," he says.
Having been afforded the chance to work in a professional kitchen post MasterChef, Allen says he now welcomes ex-contestants and others looking to learn in one of the Ducks' kitchens.
"If I wasn't welcomed through the doors by the Ducks, I could be back on the cables being an electrician."
But he was, and so he's not.
"I still love getting in and working the pans, making sure that people know, that my staff know, that I'm not just that guy on TV."
THREE BLUE DUCKS SCREENS SATURDAYS, 7PM ON CHANNEL 10
Originally published as Why MasterChef judge almost quit cooking