Andy Allen Is Still Shooting For The Stars

Andy Allen is still shooting for the stars

How the MasterChef Australia judge and former sparky took a chance that changed his life

AS WE WIND up Andy Allen’s episode of The Turning Point podcast, I remark on the amount of basketball we’ve talked about over the last half hour or so.

“I could talk about it all day,” says Allen, who’s rugged up in a hoodie, as he chats to Men’s Health from his home in Melbourne’s Carlton. Allen’s love of hoops has remained a constant since his childhood in Maitland in country NSW, where he was a feisty point guard on local rep teams. It was the lessons he learned there on the court about teamwork, camaraderie, discipline and sacrifice that have informed the sparky-turned-chef’s philosophy in the kitchen and in business ever since.

“It was such a part of my childhood and adolescence,” says the 36-year-old. “I was at the stadium three, four nights a week. For me, the two things that I’ve probably taken the most out of my childhood were family and sport. When people have asked me the question, ‘What tools did you have at the age of 23 to be good at MasterChef?’ It wasn’t cooking. I wasn’t a great cook, but it was the things that I learned in my childhood and my adolescence that revolved around sport that I took away and that’s probably why I was successful.”

Indeed, you could call Allen’s decision back in 2012 to try out for MasterChef Australia a long shot – I suggest it was a deep ‘Curry Country’ three-pointer. Allen disagrees, describing the unlikeliness of his move from a guy who was fixing wires under houses to one who was knocking up dishes for a national audience, as more of a half-court heave.

“Mate, it was more than a deep three, it was a three-quarter shot, like off balance. It was an absolute Hail Mary.”

Of course, the shot went in. Allen ended up winning the cooking competition before going on to join the Three Blue Ducks restaurant group, eventually becoming a co-owner. He then returned to MasterChef as a judge in 2020.

Here, Allen recalls his unlikely path to stardom, reveals how hoops has informed his journey from the kitchen to the boardroom and reflects on the death of colleague and friend Jock Zonfrillo.

Channel 10

Men’s Health: You grew up in Maitland, right? What kind of kid were you?

Andy Allen: I was a pretty restless kid growing up, I’m not going to lie. Basically, I played as much sport as I possibly could to get out of the classroom. It really did build my childhood, and reflecting back, kind of formed the person that I am. It was cricket in the summertime and then basketball in the wintertime and everything in between. It’s weird how much playing sport has kind of shaped me as a person.

MH: In what ways do you think it shaped you?

 AA: I was always good at basketball in juniors and then that led to playing senior basketball at quite a young age and captaining the men’s side from the age of about 18, 19 years old. I was a fiery little point guard. I’m now still 5’10.5″, so I really did have to find other ways to be, I suppose, dynamic on the court, and that was through leadership and through hard work. I think from a young age, being around grown men and leading a team of grown men, you just had to A, grow up really quick, and B, had to find a way to get them to accept me as their leader. What could I do to make sure that they trusted me to lead them?

MH: After school, you became a sparky. What was that like? And was that something that at the time you thought you were going to do for the foreseeable future?

AA: Yeah, look, I enjoyed being a sparky. Every day is different. You’re always using your brain, you’ve always got to work out a problem, and I really loved that aspect of it. But also, working with my cousin, it was a two-man team and we had such a great relationship. I was 23 when I got the call to go on MasterChef. First of all, I thought I was going to be back in the trenches the next week pulling cables. But when I started to progress and realised that I probably wasn’t going to go back to twisting wires, I think, for me, I knew I was going to miss the relationship I had with my cousin. And he’s still there doing his thing today and absolutely crushing it.

 MH: So, during your sparky days, were you cooking as a hobby or was it something you knew that you were quite good at? How would you rate your home cooking in those days?

 AA: No, I was pretty shit, mate. I think for me, what kept me cooking was I kind of cracked the code. When you’re in your 20s and your mates are all finding different things to do, whether it’s work or social life, everyone starts to drift apart. I realised around the age of 20 that if I shot off a text and said that I was going to put on a barbie and have some beers, everyone would be there. And that really never happened in any other scenario. That was the first time that I realised that food is a connector.

MH: Let’s go back a little bit further to the application process. Did you see it on TV, or you’d seen the previous seasons and just thought you’d throw in an application? What happened?

AA: Mate, I got dared by one of my mates. I’m going to come clean. There’s no kind of beautiful story about this. Being a struggling fourth-year apprentice electrician that loved a challenge, my mate was like, “I’ll put 500 bucks on the table”, and I was like, “I’ll take your 500 bucks”. So that was the catalyst, which is quite a unique and funny story, but that was the catalyst of me filling out the application. And mate, this application was a nightmare.

 MH: Rigorous, yeah?

 AA: Like 30 pages. It went through a lot of detail but somehow the guys saw something in me. They saw that I could deal with pressure. And for me, that was the reason why I think I was so successful on the show. It wasn’t because I was the best cook, it was because I was able to learn and I could deal with pressure. I think even being a judge these days, very rarely does the best cook win MasterChef, it’s the person who can deal with pressure. They’ve got to be able to cook but also be able to learn under every circumstance.

 MH: Absolutely. Well, obviously you dealt with it very well if you went on to win the show. How much did your life change after that?

 AA: Immediately. The first eight months was a whirlwind. You kind of get thrust out into the big bright lights of winning a reality TV show and everything that comes with that. And for me, that first eight months, I didn’t find out what I wanted to do. I probably found out a lot of the things that I didn’t really want to do because there are so many opportunities that come your way. And then, I remember, I’d moved to Sydney at the time, and I was sitting in my bedroom in Coogee and another MasterChef season had rolled on, so there was a new winner, and the NBA finals were on. And I’d watched five games of the NBA finals in a row, back-to-back each day. And I kind was like, What are you are you doing? This is madness. You’re sitting in your small little apartment and you haven’t done any work for the last five days. And I had this real conversation with myself, like, Is it time to go back to Newcastle and just restart the old life, go back and be a sparky? Because you can’t just sit here and watch the NBA finals for the rest of your life.

And I had that deep conversation with myself, I was like, Nah, you’ve come this far, you’ve moved to Sydney, let’s give it a crack. What are the two things that you really enjoy doing? And I love to teach. You do a lot of cooking demos and things like that coming out of MasterChef. Looking back, it’s kind of the coaching aspect of playing sport. I love that. And so, I was like, If you’re going to go and do that, maybe start a YouTube channel or something. You need to learn how to cook, because I was pretty real with myself. As much as I’d gone on a reality TV show and won the thing, there was so much more that I wanted to learn.

And so, that’s when I knocked on the door of Three Blue Ducks. I’d met the guys on the show. They had the one cafe in Bronte. And I just knocked on the door and said, “Hey, what have you got? Can I come in and get behind the stoves?” And I was really lucky at the time, they were shooting their first cookbook. And so, they had a bit of space in there and I did two weeks work experience and I loved it, and they loved having me in the kitchen. For me it was like being part of a team again. And it was like you have game day nearly every day. You have your prep time, which is your training. And then, you have service time, which is your game. And you’ve really got to be in sync. I was like, This is where I belong. And I worked my arse off and we opened one restaurant together in Rosebery and then the boys said, “Do you want to come into the whole group?” We’ve gone from a little 25-seater cafe in Bronte to having six venues.


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MH: Now, obviously, from there, you went on to become a judge on MasterChef, where you worked alongside Jock Zonfrillo. Can you just tell us a little bit about that relationship and how difficult it was when he passed?

AA: Yeah, I miss him every day. And I suppose shows how special that relationship was. It was more than just being in the MasterChef kitchen with Jock and I. We’d never met until we were both announced as judges on the panel. It was so fast tracked because we were around each other so often. I think what people don’t realise with the season of MasterChef, it’s filmed over six months, four to five days a week. They’re long hours. And we just clicked, not just in the kitchen, but our families clicked, both our wives became really good friends, we’ve got great relationships with Jock’s kids. It was a really fast-tracked relationship.

Jock was like a mentor for me. And it was the toughest thing that I’ve ever been through when he passed away. It’s still really raw and it’s only a little over a year since he passed, but you kind of reflect on that and you learn so much about yourself in that period. It was an intense, it still is intense, but for the first three weeks, we could hardly go out of our apartment because there were paps sitting out the front waiting for photos. It all played out in the public eye and it was just a really, really difficult situation to navigate with no playbook.

MH: It would be incredibly tough. For you personally, obviously, you’ve got a lot on your plate and you’ve had to deal with Jock’s passing. What are your tools to stay on top of your own mental health and keep yourself looking forward and being positive?

AA: Balance is a huge one. When you’re shooting, it’s tough. It consumes you because it is such a commitment. Plus, I still have restaurants and other businesses. Exercise has been a huge part. I feel better about my exercise regime that I ever have. I’m running a lot. I’m going to the gym a couple to three times a week. And that really has helped my mental health. And I’ve noticed it more than ever. And diet as well. I try to eat as healthy as I can, when I can. And I think I’ve just noticed, this year especially, my mind and my body being the best they could possibly be. And I just don’t think it’s any coincidence that I’ve kind of got those three chess pieces somewhat in place.

MH: You mentioned running and obviously you were training for your first marathon on the Gold Coast, which was meant to be in the coming weeks. So, what happened there?

AA: Mate, it sounds like a book, but it all started about three or four months ago when a bunch of my mates were like, “Hey, why don’t we do the Gold Coast marathon?” There was one of my mates who’d done a fair few, travelled around the world, he loves it. And he was like, “Why don’t we all get together and do a marathon?” And I reluctantly said yes.

And I wasn’t running really at all at that point. I might go for a 4-5km jog, but that was about it. And then, it probably took me about a month to really go, This thing’s coming around. If you’re going to do it, let’s do it. So, I started with a running program and got into it through that. And I was going okay, I was up over 20km on some runs, which was good. And then, all of a sudden, I went for a run and I just felt my hammy, it didn’t go, but it just got tight. And I was like, Okay, something’s wrong there.

So, I went and got a massage. She was like, “Yeah, go for another run. See how you go”. I was going to go do 10k. I only got through two and it started to do the same thing. So, I went to the physio and I was like, “Man, I’ve got this tight hammy, it hasn’t snapped or anything, it hasn’t pulled, it just gets tight the longer I run”. And he started feeling around my lower back on my left-hand side and my glute. And I was in excruciating pain, I was squealing. It was a bit shameful. And the more he pushed on it, the more I was like, “Man, you’ve got to stop that”.

And he was like, “Mate, you have some of the worst scar tissue in your back and your glute, that I think I’ve ever seen”. He’s like, “Do you know where it came from?” And the only thing I can think of is playing basketball for so many years, taking charges, being small, diving on the ball.

So, he’s put me on the sidelines for eight to 12 weeks and I’ve got some pretty excruciating physio sessions to go. I will do a marathon one day, it just might not be the GC.

MH: Now, I’ve got to ask you, as a chef and someone who works in the industry, what do you think of The Bear, if you’ve seen it?

AA: I think they do a pretty good job of getting most things right. But, like, some of the intensity of how he speaks to staff and all that kind of stuff, his staff and friends and family, we’ve kind of built a restaurant group that prides itself on that not happening. No pans are getting thrown, all that kind of stuff. That was in the old days. I can understand why they’ve done that because it is interesting to people who are watching it. But they do a pretty good job of what goes into creating a new restaurant and the hardships that go along with that. And in terms of being a dramatised version of that, I do still watch it and I do still love it.

MH: Yeah, nice. Alright, what do you think your next turning point might be?

AA: Oh mate, that’s such a good one. I don’t know. I never expected any of the turning points that have come my way. I’ve been extremely lucky to have great opportunities and I suppose, right now, I’m just really comfortable with what I’ve got. I’m also really aware that taking on more and more things could lead to those things not being as successful as they could be. So having Three Blue Ducks, being a judge on MasterChef, I’ve also got a new beer brand out called Traveller, and everything else that comes with being in the entertainment industry as a chef. There’s a lot going on. And I suppose that I just don’t want to sacrifice anything that I’ve got by taking on anything more.

 MasterChef Australia is on Channel 10.


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By Ben Jhoty

Ben Jhoty, Men’s Health’s Head of Content, attempts to honour the brand’s health-conscious, aspirational ethos on weekdays while living marginally larger on weekends. A new father, when he’s not rocking an infant to sleep, he tries to get to the gym, shoot hoops and binge on streaming shows.

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