Matt rewrites the menu

He is the most unlikely of television stars.

A 51-year-old from England whose penchant for cravats has become his trademark on screen.

Even Matt Preston can't quite believe the success he's had on the MasterChef franchise. ''It is shocking and surprising; it is a very strange thing,'' Preston says.

''I never thought this would happen.''

But with his new show, MasterChef: The Professionals, airing for the first time tonight on Ten, Preston appears to be on to yet another winning formula. This time around he is without his usual cohorts, Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris, instead working with chef Marco Pierre White on a show that focuses on professional, rather than amateur, chefs.

So has Preston become the breakout star from the MasterChef franchise? He is quick to stay humble, saying Mehigan and Calombaris have been ''taking the piss'' out of him for the new role.

''Of course they're hanging shit on me about it, massively,'' he says. ''They're like, 'Oh, you want to hang out with foreign chefs now …'''

Preston says while Mehigan and Calombaris love the MasterChef concept, they were less comfortable with the prospect of criticising professional chefs (as opposed to amateurs) because they work within that world and prefer support and camaraderie.

He says working with his new co-host, White, has been ''incredibly intense''. Funnily enough, they both grew up at the same time in London, but Preston admits they come from ''two very different worlds''.

But it's clear the two men have connected in a way television executives love. Previews of the show have TV critics buzzing.

Preston confirms he has signed a further two-year deal with Ten.

''I think that's really part of the reason I'm enjoying this show,'' he says. ''TV, along with advertising, is probably one of the least secure of all the industries … To find security and stability, to know what I'm going to be doing in the next two years, is fantastic. It also means I feel much more invested in this series.''

Preston says the MasterChef concept has plenty of room to grow further. He says perhaps one day he, Calombaris and Mehigan may do some filming internationally (think Top Gear-style road trips) because of how much they love working together. He says they watch the Top Gear road trips in Bolivia, Vietnam and Mongolia and say: ''We wish that was us!''

But for now, they're focused on making sure viewers can still connect to the locally made MasterChef programs. Preston says being real is the key.

''There has been a move towards authenticity and towards expertise [on television],'' he says. ''I think that resonated really well in terms of the contestants we've had. I remember being told by a senior person at one of the networks that the show would be a disaster because 19 of the people on the first series of MasterChef should 'never be seen on television'.''

''I think the great con about reality TV, historically, has been that it's not reality,'' he says.

''We have always wanted to fight against stereotypes.''

Preston, who is a father of three, found widespread acclaim before he appeared on television, as an award-winning food journalist. But there is another string to his bow that isn't often mentioned - he once worked as a soap opera correspondent for British TV magazines.

''I [first] came to Australia to write about Neighbours and Home and Away, for five years,'' he says. ''It's the only time I've ever been the world expert in anything.

''The wonder years of Pippa and Michael and the role of the caravan park … '' he adds with a laugh.

He knows there is a delicious irony to going from one-time TV writer to one of the best-known stars on Australian television, but you get the feeling Preston just takes it in his stride.

''I think the problem with TV is so many people get their head turned by the popularity and by the hyperbole that gets thrown at you. It's brilliant for me and Gary to be able to remind George at the end of the day, it's just TV,'' he says with a chuckle.

''We see [this] as a fleeting, transitory moment and we do joke about the idea we'll be on Channel 31, metaphorically sitting on a verandah, whittling and talking about the old days.''

For now, though, Preston remains firmly on prime time.

MasterChef: The Professionals airs tonight on Ten at 7.30 and continues tomorrow night and Tuesday.

Pulling the strings behind the scenes

The extraordinary artistry behind the British stage production War Horse is explored in an ABC documentary that screens this afternoon.

It's not often we'd recommend staying indoors on a summer weekend but, if you do get the chance to sit down in front of the television today, this is one of those documentaries that provide a fascinating insight into stagecraft and the challenges of bringing a story such as this to the theatre.

The show is, of course, based on the novel of the same name by Michael Morpurgo. (American director Steven Spielberg also received an Academy Award nomination for best film for his big-screen version.) Just how the National Theatre of Great Britain managed to pull this off on stage - with exceptional success - is a great story.

What is particularly astonishing is the lifelike nature of the horses on stage, despite them actually being large puppets guided by performers from the Handspring Puppet Company.

At present the stage production itself is being held in Melbourne, but it will move to Sydney in March. This is a great way for fans who are planning to attend the show to gain a taste of a smash-hit stage version and its fascinating machinations behind the scenes.

For those who won't be able to attend the live version, the documentary is a treat for lovers of creativity.

Making War Horse screens today on ABC1 at 3pm.

The story Matt rewrites the menu first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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