After a six-year hiatus, MasterChef NZ is finally back on our screens - and I didn't realise just how much I'd missed it.
Like countless Kiwi kids, I grew up watching not just the NZ version, but MasterChef Australia and Junior Masterchef. I printed out all the contestants' recipes and tried to make gnocchi, panna cotta, and the MasterChef death dish - risotto - in my mum's kitchen.
Now watching the new season feels like coming home to a beautifully cooked meal - although in 2022, we've got a brand-new format and a new lineup of judges to match.
We've got Nadia Lim, winner of the second season of the show, author of countless cookbooks and TV host. We've got Vaughan Mabee, head chef at Amisfield in Queenstown and the first Kiwi to be nominated as a contender for the global Top 100 Chefs in the world. And we've got multi-award-winning restaurateur Michael Dearth of Auckland restaurants Baduzzi and The Grove. It's a tall order to impress these three.
As the culinary candidates pour off the TSS Earnslaw to arrive at Walter Peak on picturesque Lake Wakatipu, near Queenstown, you can just taste the excitement. This year's batch of aspiring cooks represents a new era for MasterChef, but they also represent the wide range of cultures and backgrounds Aotearoa has to offer.
Tonight's episode sees the first round of hopefuls compete for an apron and a place in the competition. Out of 27, only 16 will get in - and with just 60 minutes to cook their signature dish, the pressure is on.
Six of them took home an apron tonight, while four others got a "Maybe" from the judges, meaning they're still in with a chance.
Coffee trainer Sam Low, 30, taught us all how to make the perfect cup of coffee at home during lockdown last year - and who can forget the time he gave MIQ food a restaurant-quality makeover? For Low, cooking helps him express his identity, and tonight he proved it to the judges with his Shanghainese steamed chicken.
Rachel Mako, 40, (Ngati Kahungunu) tells us "food is medicine". "It's bigger than me," she explains. "I just want to heal people through food." Little did she know when she served up her signature paua pie to the judges that the dish is Mabee's own specialty - but he was so impressed he wanted more. Does anyone else want Rachael to adopt them and feed them forever? Because I do.
Registered nurse Jose Villamil, 34, melted our hearts when he talked about how he watches MasterChef with his 5-year-old daughter - and then he melted chocolate for a decadent dessert with salted toffee meringue.
High school teacher Vicky Tristram, 41, wowed the judges with her Earth, Land and Sea dish featuring ingredients she foraged, grew and caught herself. And 26-year-old Japanese-Kiwi software product manager Hana Kirk's izakaya plate with karage chicken also landed her a coveted apron.
There is a dessert king or queen on every season of MasterChef, and this year my money is on 22-year-old Otago Uni student Alice Taylor. Her ginger cake with burnt butter, caramelised fruit and walnut brittle blew the judges away.
A few Mabee's (see what I did there?) were dished out along the way - but as for the rest, we'll have to wait until tomorrow night to see if they get a Yes or a No as the final 16 are confirmed.
• MasterChef screens on Sunday nights at 7pm and on Monday and Tuesday nights at 7.30pm on Three and ThreeNow.