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Benjamin Cucchi
MasterChef secret ingredient? Well designed learning
Apr 07, 2023
6 Minutes

64 countries. More than 500 seasons globally. 10.000 episodes. These are the Guinness World record numbers of the MasterChef franchise, the popular cooking show you have probably seen – or at least heard of. 


With an unchanged format since its first edition, the talent show features 20 aspiring chefs, a pool of expert judges and a series of increasingly complex cooking challenges that end up in the elimination of all the contestants except for one: the year’s MasterChef.


How can amateurs make the most of their skills and become (almost) professionals in a matter of a few episodes? Much of it might have to do with… instructional design. And it’s not a metaphor: the show’s format is an incredibly entertaining learning experience that can also be a source of inspiration to reflect on how we teach and learn. 

MasterChef's learning experience

From the overall structure to the design of each challenge, down to the assessment phase: MasterChef has it all from the instructional design point of view, making the cooking show a transformative and life-changing learning experience (many participants testify to it). 

"It's definitely not a cliche to say you come out of the MasterChef experience a totally different person. You're in this intense food bubble where you're learning about yourself and new ideas with food".
Danielle Dixon

Not coincidentally, MasterChef is one of the few talent shows that focuses not as much on each contestant’s results, but more on their learning processes. From that first, imperfect dish full of potential, until the last complete Michelin-star menu, one gets to see the path of development of aspiring chefs. Here are three main aspects of MasterChef that make it an exemplar teaching path.

1. A varied learning path

MasterChef’s journey is not a one-size-fits-all, but it touches on many different aspects so as to highlight different talents and intervene on each person’s weaknesses. The inputs are so many that everyone will find multiple learning opportunities. The aim is to find the one person who can both adapt to different situations and grow, aka: the MasterChef!

From a macro-design perspective, this is clear in the different types of challenges that alternate to develop a varied set of skills and attitudes.Obviously, participants need to show and develop knowledge about the ingredients and mastery of different cooking techniques. But other non-technical cooking-related abilities are just as essential! Think about:


Even though in the end only one contestant can win, offsite team challenges are fundamental to moving ahead in the race.

Time management

Arguably the most important soft skill in MasterChef, as all challenges have a strict time limit (but especially crucial in the insidious Skill test).

Risk management

Cook for salvation? In some moments, amateur chefs can try their luck with a daring combination of flavors or a new cooking method.

The variety of the learning path is also provided by the teachers, meaning both the judges and the guest stars. Each judge has their own teaching style – from the more motivational one to the most strict and severe – each working best for different participants. External chefs come in too, with their specific products, recipes and areas of expertise, providing different inputs and, surely, something of interest for everyone along the way.

2. Gamification for self development

If we zoom from the general picture to the structure of each individual challenge, we can see a recurring educational pattern. 


First of all, there’s an explicit learning objective (e.g. mastering the use of flavors) and a clear set of instructions (e.g. you got 10 different types of salts and peppers, use at least 2 of them and make them protagonists of the dish), including  time limits, the tools at disposal, special rules and so on. There’s always a reason or a theme behind the challenges, and it’s made evident: a fundamental move because understanding why we’re learning something and how we’re supposed to do it can help to channel the energies in the right direction.


Then obviously, MasterChef being a talent show, gamification enters the picture. Challenges are much more complicated (and fun) than “do this recipe”, as they’re always based on:

Scarcity of resources

both of ingredients (es. making a dessert with salty ingredients and without using sugar) and tools (es. cooking with just one pan)

Strict time requirements

(like in Skill and Pressure tests), that make even the easiest and best known recipe (like mayonnaise) a complicated task to carry out.

Creation with an unknown element

like a never-before-heard-of ingredient (as it happened in this particular episode of MasterChef Australia) or a difficult technique

Replication of unknown dishes

aspiring MasterChefs get the raw ingredients and the end result, needing to rely on their tasting and cooking abilities to understand and copy all the steps in between

The reason behind this gamified structure isn’t just entertainment. Gradually increasing yet feasible difficulties push learners into their area of proximal development – a concept invented by psychologist Lev Vygotsky and defined as 

“The distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers”.
Cambridge, 1978
Lev Vygotsky, Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes.
3. Assessment as part of the process

The tasting is probably the most interesting bit of the show. The viewer finally gets to see the finished plates, finding out who’s done well and why. But, most importantly, the way judges give feedback is an incredible model of good assessment.


The principal reason is that the feedback is formative, not evaluative (aka: no numbers that unilaterally give a positive or negative value, but on-point analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of a dish). That is, assessment in MasterChef is part of the learning process; indeed, it’s probably the most formative moment for contestants. Think about it: these aspiring chefs have the amazing opportunity to submit their work to the expert judgment of  Michelin-starred chefs, who provide hands-on advice and behind-the-scenes tips.


Secondly, the judges’ feedback is powerful also because it’s extremely personalized, as: 


  • it always takes into account the contestant’s whole path, setting a standard based not on generalized expectations but on previous performances
  • it often happens during the cooking process, providing the tool to save an idea that would have been doomed by a silly mistake – if the aspiring chef is able to listen
  • it sometimes leads to personalized rewards, like exclusive advanced classes on a culinary method, the mastery of which has been proven in the challenge 


Finally, assessment is direct and not sugar-coated, something teachers like Adam Boxer struggle to do in a school contest, even when it would be useful. 

“Time after time I find myself saying things like “not quite” or “almost” when it actually is just flat wrong. Desperate to not dishearten my students, I accidentally send them mixed messages. I need to be clear with them about what “right” looks like, otherwise I do them a disservice and only end up confusing them”.
Adam Boxer
The elephant in the kitchen

So, should other learning experiences be 100% like MasterChef? Well, no. Spoiler alert: learning is not a competition. 

As any other educational path, the MasterChef format has its own features and mechanisms that are conducive to its goals but that would hardly work in other contexts.

MasterChef is a talent show

Educational experiences should be aimed at getting all the learners from the beginning to the end, supporting them all along the way.

Judges can be though

It varies from country to country, from edition to edition and from person to person. But the judges’ teaching style can be… well, rough.

Too much competition

Lastly, cooperation is encouraged only if specifically required by the challenge.

MasterChef can be an inspiring model when designing learning experiences: a gamified and varied learning path that helps learners to develop a diverse range of skills and attitudes thanks to formative and personalized feedback.
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