As My Kitchen Rules NZ returns for a second season, the judges tell Lydia Jenkin why this offering will be tastier.

Reality TV shows are like restaurants. Popping up all the time. And some need time to succeed.

"Like the opening night of a restaurant," chef and My Kitchen Rules judge Ben Bayly says. "It's always a bit chaotic, it takes a while for the team to gel, and your style to evolve."

When My Kitchen Rules NZ aired a year ago, it struggled to find the popularity of My Kitchen Rules Australia, or MasterChef. But for the second season the show has undergone a rethink. It's also shifted from TV One to TV2.

"It was a tough time slot, it was up against tough competition, and it was on TV One, which at that point wasn't quite where TV One is now" explains TVNZ's General Manager of Programming John Kelly.

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"For me it wasn't necessarily about a short-term win though, it was about the long-term future of the show. And nothing rates as well as the Australian version in that time slot, so we never expected it would come out with the Australian numbers in season one.

"We learnt a lot in making it, as you'd expect the first time you do something, and the great thing about bringing it back is that we can put a lot of that learning into practice."

As with any reality series, the success depends on the casting of the judges and the contestants. Having got into the swing of things in the first season, local star chefs Bayly (of Baduzzi, The Grove) and Gareth Stewart (The Nourish Group) are back as judges with a little more confidence and a few more tricks.

"It was our first kind of exposure to television really, so I think seeing ourselves take on another role was exciting, and a bit scary, but we got through it," says Stewart. "We laughed a lot, and we figured out how to enjoy it. At the same time, after the first season came out, the effect of social media was quite a shock. I mean they tell you not to read anything, because if it's good your head swells, and if it's bad you get depressed, but it was all a bit of an eye-opener. For the contestants as well - they had to deal with a fair bit of backlash."

According to the judges, that backlash was mostly the result of the food sometimes being less than ideal - a reality show needs great food as well as the occasional disaster.

"I think with the first season, people were quite down on the food, but this time the food has definitely, definitely lifted. Which has made our lives a lot easier - it's so much easier to say nice things about good food, than to be negative."

"Yeah the food is consistently better this time" Bayly agrees. "They seem well-practised.

"Maybe they saw last season and learned some things" he laughs. "There's a really professional attitude among them as well. And I'd actually just love to sit down and have a beer and a yarn with most of them too. They're a good bunch."

Particularly the team from Waikato, according to Bayly.

"I'm from Waikato, and I support the Waikato rugby team, and so the Waikato team automatically get a 10 from me, every time" he jokes.

"This year we've really focused on the regions. I think the biggest change this year is getting people to support not only their favourite contestants, but the contestants from their region. It's like we'll see who gets the Ranfurly Shield at the end."

Ben Bayly (Baduzzi, The Grove) and Gareth Stewart (The Nourish Group)at the judges of My Kitchen Rules NZ.
Ben Bayly (Baduzzi, The Grove) and Gareth Stewart (The Nourish Group)at the judges of My Kitchen Rules NZ.

The emphasis on the regions also means there's quite a bit of pride in local ingredients, and a trend in teams delivering meals which have a strong personal connection.

"It's great to see them creating something where a dish has a story. You know, it came from this family member, and there's a tradition behind it in their family, or it's using local ingredients, you know, there's a specific reason why they've cooked something for us, and they're not just random recipes found on the internet."

The pair also feel they've tackled this season a little differently as judges.

"We're self-critical, and always looking at ways to improve," Bayly explains.

"Whether it's going, 'Yeah I could've said that better' or 'I could've left that out'. I think we already knew a hell of a lot about food, but we had to learn how to articulate that to the viewers and contestants. It even comes down to working out how to sit down and where to put your hands. I remember with filming episode one of season two, we both sat down, and we just smiled, because it felt relaxed, and we knew how things would go, and it all just flowed."

"We definitely gained some confidence" Stewart adds. "We were much more at ease filming this season, and I think that always shows. We knew some of the secrets, particularly when it came to the instant restaurant section, and we learnt how to embrace the awkward moments."

"I love the awkward moments!" Bayly laughs "I love it when it all gets a bit awkward at the table, and everyone is shuffling and looking down."

Both were also very happy to have Australian tasting panel judge Liz Egan (who's done five seasons of MKR Australia) join the New Zealand show, so they could prove that what is being delivered in New Zealand is just as good as anything the Aussies are doing.

"I think we're always getting compared to Australia, so to have Liz, who is such a pro, come across and say 'This food could win MKR Australia' was great," Bayly smiles.

"We've always joked about it, but we would love to do MKR New Zealand versus MKR Australia, because I know that our guys would be amazing, we'd kick their ass! They'd be in trouble, because they'd come in all cocky, thinking it was going to be easy, and they'd get done!" he laughs.

Who: Judges Ben Bayly (left) and Gareth Stewart
What: My Kitchen Rules New Zealand season two
Where and when: TV2, Monday and Tuesday, 7.30pm