‘Don’t ever think that you’re too old,’ Benita Orwell told her fellow contestants as she departed the show following a failed elimination challenge. ‘If you have always had a dream and you still haven’t achieved it, just go and do it.’ Too frequently referred to as the oldest contestant in the competition, Benita had also been the most determined – auditioning on four separate occasions, and enduring the passing of her mother, Marjorie Baker, to pneumonia just days before winning her place on the show.
Twelve months on, Benita recalls her mothers’ final words to her, ‘You have to go to Melbourne. You have to go to Masterchef’, she pleaded. Concerned for her failing health, Benita had bargained with her mother, ‘I will but you have to stay well.’ Despite stubborn assurances she was fine, Marjorie passed away only four hours later.
Her mother’s words in her ear, Benita took the flight to Melbourne the following week. Battling her grief, she knew Marjorie would have been filled with pride, ‘bragging to all the other oldies at the nursing home that her daughter was off to Masterchef’, Benita laughs.
Growing up in Queensland, food and the value of quality produce had been a central theme for Benita – mother Marjorie had been the classic 60s entertainer. ‘She would host these amazing dinner parties, and champagne brunches. She made beautiful canapes,’ Benita beams. ‘She used to get around with this huge silver serving tray filled with the most decorated, well-presented bites I had ever seen – vol au vents and pastry boats with oyster mornay or curried prawns. It was her signature.’
An avid home cook and gardener, the Brisbane based mother of two had worked as a customer service supervisor for Qantas for some 20 years, and even a short stint as a Thermomix demonstrator before plucking up the courage to audition for Australia’s most popular culinary game show. ‘Back when I first auditioned, it was a different process,’ she recalls. ‘They took about 70 people to Melbourne and then whittled it down to the top 50.’ Benita first made the top 50 in series four of the show back in 2012 but didn’t then make it onto the top 24 – the group who go on into the house – citing paralysing nerves and self-doubt.
‘I really hated that time, I felt so out of my comfort zone. I just felt that I was the only one there that was nervous. Everybody else looked so cool and confident, like they knew what they were doing, which just made me feel more inferior!’ explains Benita. ‘But then when I got back home and started watching the show on TV, I thought to myself, I can do better than that! Why was I so nervous?’ she laughs, a sense of unfinished business fuelling her determination to crack the audition for the 2017 season.
Benita fast became a much-loved member of the Masterchef household, lighting up the screen with a spirited attitude and her penchant for vibrant Camilla kaftans. ‘We loved your smiles, loved your attitude, and loved the brightness you brought to this kitchen,’ Judge Gary Mehigan gushed during her eventual farewell.
An affinity with fellow contestant and kindred spirit Callan Smith, who was aged 18 at the time, helped ease the pain of being far from family and friends. ‘He was the youngest on the show, and I was the oldest, but we just got along so well. We laughed and laughed,’ says Benita. ‘We have a similar sense of humour, and sometimes I just needed to look at him and he would start laughing like he knew what I was thinking.’
She describes living in the house as a bit like a camp for foodies, but with an enormous pantry at hand. ‘Oh how I miss that pantry!’ she laughs. ‘It was just so plentiful. Each room would take it in turns to cook dinner each night.’ Besides cooking with abandon – When I got home and saw the price of raspberries I nearly died – Benita fondly remembers the swapping of food ideas, the nurturing environment of encouragement. ‘Everyone in there was a really good cook, and to be in a house where everybody feels the same way you do about food and cooking was wonderful,’ she says. ‘If you didn’t have your nose in a cookbook studying you were off practising a new recipe or swapping ideas with somebody.’
The hardest thing about the house beside the short, twice weekly phone calls? No booze. ‘Strictly no alcohol,’ Benita recoils – not a drop – going on to explain the in-house procedure for cooking with alcohol which required the strict administration and supervision of the on-shift ‘house-parent’. ‘They would go and get it out of a locked room, stand there and watch you pour it in, and then take it back and lock it away,’ she explains, in a tone reminiscent of one telling an urban myth. ‘At my exit interview they asked me what I had missed the most, and I said – a vodka, lime and soda,’ she laughs.
Her eventual exit from the show was both emotional and divisive. Burning a prawn broth during a time pressure challenge, her fellow contestants were visibly upset during her farewell, with sidekick Callan, fellow elimination contender Nicole Stevenson, and immunity pin holder Eloise Praino brought to tears. The debate raged online, with women’s opinion and lifestyle blog Mamamia asking the question – Is Masterchef ageist? Facebook and Twitter users too, were vocal about her departure, ‘All the oldies gone in record time this year, is there anyone left over 40?’ one user asked, another stating ‘Benita didn’t stand a chance. It’s a fact the over 50’s never make it past the first few weeks.’
To this, like most things, Benita is light-hearted in her response, ‘I just think younger people are probably a bit more experimental with food,’ she says. ‘I’m not into tiny little pretty plates of food, I prefer a meal. And in that respect, I can see why younger contestants do go further’.
She continues to laugh while describing her experience with online trolls. ‘I copped it on social media for being on television at my age. People were saying things like ‘just go home and make your grandchildren’s school lunches,’ she chuckles. ‘There were some more vile comments, but I just used to respond with a bunch of those laughing and crying emojis. My friends were asking me why I wasn’t more outraged, but it was really just so over the top. And full of terrible spelling and grammar, it was just too ridiculous to even be angry about,’ says Benita, ‘It’s just jealousy at the end of the day. People often take their jealousy out on others.’
Since the cameras stopped rolling, however, Benita has been working on another long-held dream, combining her love of food and the memory of her mother’s flair for entertaining to present a calendar of her Ladies Long Lunches events that also help raise money for charities close to her heart. Inspired by what develops over good conversation, great food and excellent company, her vision for the event is idyllic – large tables boasting generous sharing plates, dotted with foodie loving ladies chatting with local producers about food provenance and sustainable food production.
‘To me, food is everything. I think people really bond over food. And I get a great sense of satisfaction seeing people enjoying the food I have prepared,’ she admits. ‘I am also fortunate to live in Queensland, where there is an abundance of seafood and produce, and exotic ingredients, which plays into my style of cooking.’
‘I like to work with a charity theme, like Share the Dignity who help women in need by distributing sanitary and personal hygiene items to homeless women, and women in shelters,’ Benita adds. ‘Women really need to support other women,’ she says.
Though setting up any business can be hard, and while Ladies Lunches finds its feet (and a roster of venues – she laughs), she enjoys tending to her beloved home herb and vegetable garden. A garden she left strict instructions to ensure husband Michael dispensed the appropriate level of care to while she was living in the Masterchef house. She lights up describing what’s in season, ‘Well, at the moment my tomatoes have just gone berserk! There’s also plenty of cabbage, yellow squash, lots of chillies – because I love hot food – some rhubarb, capsicum, even pandan,’ she remarks. ‘All the herbs of course, parsley, coriander, dill.. I also have my own kaffir lime tree. I even planted some fruit trees down near my front footpath because I ran out of room in my backyard!’
It has already been a year since she exited Masterchef, and Benita continues to unite people and share joy through food. Her willingness to use her culinary prowess to help others in the community is just one of many qualities that made her so very popular during that (too brief) time when Australia got to enjoy the presence of a delightfully cheerful, lipstick clad woman over fifty on their television screens, fearlessly pursuing her dream – and wearing Mum’s engagement ring, and gold bracelet for luck.
In addition to organising her Ladies Lunches events, Benita has recently launched a business focussing on doTerra Essential Oils, which she has been using creatively in her cooking. We wish Benita every success, and will certainly continue to cheer her on. You can follow Benita on her Instagram account at @essential.oil.bliss or via Facebook here.