Kitchen chemistry

Celebrity chef and 2016 Distinguished Young Alumni Award recipient Ben Milbourne doesn’t have a perfect recipe for success, but his advice is simple: “You never know what path is going to open up for you or which one you’re going to take. One thing I can guarantee is that learning is the key to it all.”

No TV, no radio, no newspapers.

No contact with the outside world except for one 10-minute phone call a week to a family member – and always accompanied by a producer.

Welcome to the pressure-cooker environment behind the scenes of MasterChef.

“They try to prepare you for what it’s going to be like but they definitely can’t until you live it yourself,” 2012 finalist and now celebrity chef Ben Milbourne (Bachelor of Applied Science (Human Movement Studies) ’04) told Contact from his home in Tasmania.

“From start to finish, our season filmed for about 11 months. It was a long process, and for six of those months we were locked in a house with no contact with the outside world.

“There were two reasons for that. The producers wanted to protect the secrecy of who was doing well in the show, but they also wanted us to focus wholly and solely on getting better. We would have masterclasses in the house and we went out and did work experience in restaurants all over Sydney.

“It strips away your normal coping mechanisms, and that’s why you see many people on the show getting quite emotional."

“It was an intense period and you get a really good insight into who you are and what’s important to you.”

MasterChef changed Milbourne’s life forever.

The former high school science teacher had always loved using food to teach chemistry. But his experiences on the hit reality show and the skills he developed have helped convert his passion for food and cooking into an opportunity to educate more than 35 million viewers worldwide as a celebrity chef, entrepreneur, community leader and corporate ambassador.

Milbourne connected with cooking at a young age.

“My grandmother would always be cooking and I would cook with her. That was one of the ways we bonded,” Milbourne said.

“But I really developed a passion for cooking when I went to university. Once I was forced to cook for myself I realised that I enjoyed the process.”

Milbourne moved to Brisbane from Tasmania in 2000 to study Applied Science (Human Movement Studies) majoring in Education at UQ.

“I had always loved education but I had probably taken it for granted until I came to Brisbane,” Milbourne said.

“UQ set me on a completely different path and I think that’s where I really grew.

“I learned that words and actions actually could make a difference. I never understood the power of that until I sat in a room where a lecturer was able to change the way I felt about something just through words and conversation.”

Watch a video about how Ben Milbourne is creating change in science education.

Milbourne said School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences Senior Lecturer Dr Louise McCuaig and Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Teaching and Learning) Professor Doune Macdonald had the greatest influence on him during his time at UQ.

“When I sat down for one of my first lectures I saw that my textbook was written by Doune Macdonald and she was my lecturer. That was one of those moments when you think that this person probably knows what they’re talking about,” Milbourne said.

“Doune was always a great role model, and Louise has always been someone I’ve gone to for advice and who has probably moulded my perception of education as much as anyone else.

“I’ve been really lucky in every career path that I’ve taken to be able to move quite quickly through leadership positions, and that’s because I truly believe that the words that we speak and things that we do effect change in the people around us.”

Following three years of teaching in North Queensland and Gold Coast schools after graduating from UQ, Milbourne was pursued by the Queensland Australian Football League to become their schools program manager.

During this time, Milbourne reconnected with his UQ lecturers to devise an AFL-oriented physical activity curriculum resource for Queensland primary schools.

However, he missed teaching, so eventually returned to the classroom in Tasmania, where his gourmet lunch reward system for classroom engagement resulted in a student-led application to season four of MasterChef.

“I taught a grade nine science class and there were a couple of ‘foodies’ in the class. I would cook for them as a reward,” Milbourne said.

“The kids knew I loved cooking and we would talk about MasterChef every day for the first five minutes of class.

“The kids found an application form for the show and they were the ones who actually sent in the form.

“I didn’t even know until I got a phone call from the producers saying they had my application and they really liked me.”

Milbourne said the skills needed to make his mark in the media were developed through his MasterChef experience and taking an interest in what was happening around him.

“I went into MasterChef with no preconceived ideas of what would happen,” Milbourne said.

“I would get to add another string to my bow as far as life experience, but I always believed I would go back to the classroom.

"But things just kept happening for me and I got more opportunities to do more things and create change on a much wider scale.”

Since MasterChef, Milbourne went on to create his own television show called Ben’s Menu, which was nominated for a 2015 Logie Award.

Milbourne also runs a diverse business in Tasmania with his wife, Sally. Their business, the Cultivate Group, encompasses media productions and food tours on the north-west coast of Tasmania.

They manage events such as food stages around the country, and develop food lines and private dining experiences at their farmhouse.

He will also be opening a restaurant and production studio in October next year.

Milbourne returned to UQ this year to begin filming for his new television program Ben Milbourne’s Food Lab.

On set at Ben Milbourne's Food Lab

Ben Milbourne packed up his kitchen in Tasmania and moved it to UQ in September this year to begin production of his new TV show Ben Milbourne’s Food Lab.

The cooking show, which will air on Channel Ten in 2017, will focus on different scientific principles, including the evolution of food, its preservation, muscle matters, acids and Indigenous knowledge.

Each episode of the 13-show series will be based at a UQ campus.

The show aims to address Australia’s engagement with Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), inspiring future students to pursue careers in science.

The content will also be accessed to develop Small Private Online Courses or Massive Open Online Courses (SPOCs and MOOCs).

UQ has partnered with Cultivate Productions, part of the the Cultivate Group, for the development and production of the 13-episode series, which will air on Channel Ten in 2017.

The series will use the format of a celebrity cooking show as a medium to help viewers understand and engage with science. Each episode will be based at a UQ campus and will focus on a science principle, with the series covering the full spectrum of chemical, biological, physical and earth sciences.

Ben Milbourne’s Food Lab has been a pet project that I’ve been slowly working on since 2012,” Milbourne said.

“It marries the three things I absolutely love – cooking, science and education. Throughout my teaching career, I used food as a way to explain day-to-day occurrences in science.

Watch a video about Ben Milbourne's new TV show featuring UQ.

"I always found that students were more open to learning if I connected it to things they would do in their normal lives.

“Science has become sexy and food shows have obviously been some of the highest-rating programs in Australia over the last eight years. There is definitely a market to be able to educate people through food and use that as a vehicle for wider education around science.

“We’ll be filming on the campus grounds, filming with scientists and members of the UQ community. We’ll be telling stories about the science and research that’s happening at UQ, we’ll be telling stories about university life, and we’ll be telling my story, about how I got to where I am and the role the University played.

“It’s about an emotional connection to education. TV has to be entertaining, but for me, being able to connect emotionally with education is just as important as being able to connect intellectually.”

Milbourne believes there isn’t a problem that can’t be solved through a better educated public.

“The reason we are on this planet is to move our communities and people forward, and I think that education is the only thing that’s able to do that in the right way,” Milbourne said.

Ben Milbourne’s Food Lab is designed around trying to create change in a positive way with the biggest possible audience we can.

“As a teacher, you get a class of 25. Now I get an opportunity to speak to more than a million people a week and try to educate them in something I’m passionate about.

“It just means that my classroom has become bigger, and that’s really how I look at it.”

To learn more about Ben and his approach to cooking, visit