The Biggest Scandals To Ever Hit MasterChef

"MasterChef" first arrived on screens in the United Kingdom in 1990, and what started as a humble cooking show has now blossomed into a worldwide phenomenon. With 58 territories airing their version of the show, "MasterChef" is one of, if not the, most popular cooking competition out there. Now with 12th seasons in the United States, "MasterChef" has become a staple of many households.

Viewers gather around the television weekly to marvel and fret as amateur and professional chefs battle it out to see who is the best, who can sous vide, who can make a souffle from scratch, and who is just the master of the chefs. Oh, and the $250,000 prize at the end isn't a bad motivator either.

However, with all the shows on television, especially when it comes to reality TV, there is bound to be drama. Whether it's from the contestants themselves, the judges, or perhaps an ingredient or dish itself, "MasterChef" has had its handful of scandals around the world. If you're looking for some juicy gossip or wondering how certain scandals turned out, well, look no further and keep reading. We're dishing up some of the biggest "MasterChef" scandals yet.

MasterChef judges and producers were accused of harassment

In 2013, "MasterChef" judges and producers were accused of sexual, mental, and physical harassment by former contestants. Many accusations came from a blog post by former contestant Marie Porter, where she describes how friends she met on the show were allegedly sexually and physically harassed by judges and producers. She claimed such actions cause contestants to become depressed and suicidal, and said one contestant was harassed so much that she asked to be edited out of the show altogether. Her claims were backed up by another contestant, Playboy model Carrie Stevens, who posted a comment on an article covering the news. 

While some contestants, like Ben Starr, refused to get involved, there was widespread media attention regarding Porter's claims. Shine America, the production company behind "MasterChef," released a statement refuting all claims of harassment, and that seems to have been the end of it. The statement read: "Contestants on MasterChef are treated with the utmost respect and professionalism and we care tremendously about their well-being. The recent comments posted about the treatment of contestants are completely without merit." 

Whether anything was done behind the scenes or settlements were made, we may never know, as NDAs prevent contestants from saying much more than they already have.

Judges from MasterChef Australia were fired because of stolen wages

Imagine messing up so bad that you get your coworkers of 11 years fired alongside you. That was the reality for restaurateur and "MasterChef Australia" judge George Calombaris. What did he do? Oh, just underpaying employees of his restaurant by $7.8 million AUS, or nearly USD 5.4 million. When the news broke in July 2019, viewers immediately petitioned for Calombaris' removal from the show, yielding over 25,000 signatures.

Network Ten, which airs "MasterChef Australia," soon announced it was letting all three judges go, and while it didn't outright name the scandal, it didn't deny it either. Citing "commercial reasons," Network Ten said it had been unable to agree on a deal with Calombaris and his co-judges Matt Preston and Gary Mehigan. The fact that the announcement was made just one week after Calombaris was fined and the scandal well and truly exploded, well, we think you can see the correlation.

Calombaris did eventually come out and say there was no excuse for the underpayment, citing issues with the classification of workers and just not being on top of things. Considering he had first been informed in 2015, some say he took too long to address the problem. He might still have a judging job today if he had.

A MasterChef contestant stole another's idea

During an immunity challenge on a 2017 episode of "MasterChef Australia," two contestants had to use prawns and shrimp paste in a dish. Sarah Tiong decided to grill her prawns over an open flame. Great idea, right? Well, that's what Tiong's competitor Ben Devlin thought as well. So much so that he told her it was a great idea... and then went and did the same thing. 

That alone was enough to rile up viewers, who were aghast Devlin wasn't being called out for it, but then Devlin went on to win the challenge by one point. To rub salt in the wound, Judge George Calombaris said that Devlin was clever for cooking the prawns that way.

"MasterChef Australia's" official Twitter even called Devlin out for stealing the idea, making it even more shocking that MasterChef did nothing to address the situation.

MasterChef showed killing animals on air

No matter what kind of chef you are, chances are good the "MasterChef" kitchen will cook up something you've never had to deal with before. This was painfully true for Sheetal Bhagat. A devout Hindu, Bhagat had the misfortune to be on a 2010 episode of "MasterChef" that asked her to kill a live crab. In Hinduism, it's believed that every living thing has a soul, so killing it was something she felt she couldn't do.

Host Gordon Ramsay offered to kill the crab for Bhagat, but ultimately the chef decided she needed to do it. It at least earned her a top three dish. Her emotional trial was referenced by chef Joe Bastianich, who proclaimed that the crab was probably happy to have given up its life for her dish. 

However, many felt this wasn't something Bhagat should have been tasked with in the first place, while others chastised her for not sticking to her morals.

Masterchef UK judges were blasted for ignorance of international cuisine

There are a lot of different cuisines in the world. We hardly need to tell you that, but someone should have informed the "MasterChef UK" judges of this phenomenon in 2018. Viewers blasted judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace for their criticism that Malaysian-born contestant Zaleha Kadir Olpin's chicken rendang wasn't crispy and that there was sauce on the skin. In case you were wondering, chicken rendang isn't supposed to be crispy. It is supposed to have sauce on the skin. This traditional Malaysian dish is more stew-like, with creamy coconut sauce that's flavorful and delicious.

This scandal caused quite a social media furor from international viewers and journalists who complained that the judges didn't have any idea about cuisine outside of their wheelhouse. They claimed it showed ignorance of international cuisine and a single-minded idea of what makes good chicken. 

What made this all worse was the fact that Olpin was eliminated that round. She defended herself, saying she stood by her traditional dish and wouldn't have changed a thing. Maybe "MasterChef UK" needs a bit more of a diverse judging panel.

A former MasterChef contestant died by suicide

Josh Marks was the runner-up on the third season of "MasterChef," making an impression as a gentle giant with a passion for cooking. Despite having no formal training, he was immediately likable, with his big heart and smile. Even though he didn't win his season in 2012, he was lavished with praise and everyone expected amazing things from him. Marks himself told the camera that he would never give up on his dream.

However, his world fell apart shortly after the show ended. He began having panic attacks, hearing voices, and eventually received a bipolar diagnosis. An unfortunate incident with police culminated with Marks claiming Gordon Ramsay had possessed him and turned him into God. Marks spent weeks in jail with his mouth wired shut due to a broken jaw received during the altercation. Meanwhile, the media had a field day reporting on the affair, not knowing the mental anguish the former contestant was suffering.

Marks was released and given medical care, but spiraled further when he was also diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. It wasn't long after that he was found dead by his mother from a self-inflicted gunshot. His family refuses to blame "MasterChef" for his death, despite the fact that filming was stressful and may have triggered his mental illness. 

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

MasterChef Junior contestants are told about challenges ahead of time

If you know anything about reality television or cooking competitions in general, this may not come as a surprise. Many reality shows are fake or at least heavily scripted. When it comes to cooking shows, it's relatively common, as producers don't actually want contestants to be scrambling around the kitchen and failing miserably. A few failures are good for drama, but everyone messing up? Not great television. 

Still, it does take a bit of the luster off of the show as a whole. All those screams and shocked faces when the task is revealed? All fake — at least on "MasterChef Junior." A father of one contestant said the kids know about challenges for weeks. And while they may not have every single detail, they know enough to be able to practice their dishes at home. Combine this with accusations that some junior chefs have taken professional cooking and acting lessons ahead of filming, and it does all come off as quite staged.

Still, things can go wrong in the kitchen under pressure, and they often do. While no one will deny that the child cooks on "MasterChef Junior" are skilled, they aren't pulling that decadent filet with butter-braised green beans out of their hat in 30 seconds. It just goes to show, don't trust everything you see on television.

An Australian judge claimed Asian dishes aren't fine dining

Television audiences have grown accustomed to meanness in reality television, so perhaps it's harder for someone who is both a chef and TV judge to successfully implement a verbal filter. Still, that's no excuse for racism. To that end, "MasterChef Australia" judge Jock Zonfrillo should have kept his thoughts about Asian food to himself.

On a June 14, 2020 episode of "MasterChef Australia," Zonfrillo gushed over the fine-dining appropriateness of "hundreds of French recipes." Yet, in the next breath, he claimed that "many Asian cuisines don't automatically lend themselves to a fine dining dish." It's even worse than that, though, because the other judges seemed unfazed by his comment. Guest judge Charlie Carrington even followed up with an enthusiastic "absolutely," though he remained hopeful that contestant Khanh Ong's Vietnamese dish might be saved by the colonial "French influence" that's part of Vietnamese cuisine. So much to unpack, so few paragraphs.

Viewers were unimpressed, but perhaps none so much as "MasterChef" season two winner Adam Liaw, who tweeted, "Asian cuisines are full of fine dining [...] It's just that the Eurocentric conceptualisation of Michelin, World's 50 Best etc. constantly ignores it."

Embracing diversity doesn't just mean inviting chefs from diverse ethnic backgrounds onto a program; it also means embracing diverse and authentic dishes from around the world, not just those westernized by European "fine dining" standards.

MasterChef Spain gave fans food poisoning

There's nothing like a little Staphylococcus aureus to humble the most pompous chef, but what could be worse than spreading some bacterial love around with a live television audience? An episode of "MasterChef Spain" shot in January 2022 had contestants prepare food for 120 employees of the Oceanogràfic de València aquarium. The episode aired in April — even though 44 of the aquarium's employees became ill shortly after filming. And this wasn't a mere stomach bug. Instead, they suffered the camp out by your toilet and pray for death kind of illness. The diner who reported the outbreak even said she was sick enough that she lost 11 pounds and wound up in the emergency room.

It's unclear exactly what microbe infected the diners. Moreover, since the Valencian Health Department wasn't able to obtain any samples of the food, it's also not obvious which dish was the culprit.

The diner who spoke out said she was going public because "MasterChef" had failed to even offer an apology to those affected. "MasterChef's" response: "From MasterChef we are very sorry for the indisposition expressed by some of the diners." Thanks for that heartfelt apology, MasterChef.

A former contestant was accused of plagiarism

You don't have to win "MasterChef" to benefit from the publicity. Take Elizabeth Haigh, who appeared on the show in 2011. Though she wasn't the last chef standing, she did go on to win a Michelin star. In 2019, Haigh opened a Singaporean restaurant in London, Mei Mei, making it clear that the Singaporean chef's career was progressing quite nicely. Then, she decided to write a cookbook.

When "Makan" was published in 2021, it was praised for its diverse selection of recipes from Singapore. Many were old family recipes, as Haigh told Mob just before the book's release. Not all of them, though. Shortly after the book's release, American chef Sharon Wee accused Haigh of plagiarizing recipes from her book, "Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen." Wee claimed that Haigh also copied some of her personal anecdotes.

"Makan" was soon pulled from shelves. It didn't end there, though — at least one food blogger, Bee Yinn Low, says Haigh also used a blog contributor's recipe in the book, which leaves some wondering how many other recipes Haigh might have pilfered en route from Michelin star chef to dubious cookbook author.