Reece Hignell went from a regular life working in recruitment to MasterChef Australia finalist in 2018—returning to the show’s Back to Win series in 2020 where he was again a finalist. Taking the plunge into the spotlight changed Reece’s life and he now spends his days doing what he loves in his own boutique cake store, Cakeboi.
In your past life you were working in recruitment. What stopped you going into the food/baking space initially?
I actually worked in hospitality when I was younger—my very first job ever was as a kitchen hand when I was 14. I absolutely loved it because I used to be able to help the chefs out, making the food—they used to get me to plate up all the desserts and help them make entrees and whatnot. I got roped into the front side of [hospitality] though—I went into hotel management after school and that’s how I ended up in recruitment. Cooking just became my hobby.
You originally competed on MasterChef in 2018 where you were a finalist, and again in 2020; what made you decide to audition?
I did complete the application form for season two of MasterChef but I got a bit scared and thought, “Oh no, I’m not good enough to do this” and deleted my application. I remained a fan of the show and always loved it, and I suppose in the back of my mind, I always thought maybe I could do that. Never did I take that aspiration seriously though—until I was watching one of the finals and one of the guys made something that I’d made the dinner the previous night. The next day I applied and I got an audition!
What impact did the show have on your life/career?
Well, I’ve not returned to any type of office management environment since—I’ve purely worked in hospitality. I’ve worked at amazing bakeries and amazing restaurants; I was a fine dining pastry chef working on a new menu—which I loved—and I’ve taught at cooking schools and toured around the place.
I’ve opened my own business now, written a cookbook, done TV shows. It’s just wild!
Is the reality of being on television a lot different to what you imagined it would be?
The first time was really hard to be honest—I found it very uncomfortable. I was always the fun, jokey, somewhat-outgoing person amongst all my friends, but on TV it was a big room full of people you don’t know and a whole process you’re unfamiliar with. I found it very overwhelming and it took me quite a period of time on that first season to get my grounding.
The second time, from day one it was the same crew, the same environment or contestants that I had known, and it was probably one of my favourite experiences out of anything I’ve ever done.
How did you first get into baking?
When I was younger, I actually was scared of baking. I still find it takes you a few times to perfect something—you might make a certain cake, but even if you follow that recipe to the tee, you probably won’t get it the first time.
I always admired my Nan—you’d message her and say you’re coming over and then by the time you get there, it’d be cakes or biscuits or something already made up, and they were always the same, no matter what.
I suppose over time, my style of cooking changed from where I wanted to be modern and play around with ingredients and techniques that were really exciting, to where I discovered what I think is the most complex form of cooking: traditional.
I find this style the most challenging because once you put something into a cake or a tart, it’s in—there’s no turning around and changing it.
Are you self-taught, or did you have formal training?
I’ve worked with some incredibly talented chefs but one of them was actually a TAFE trainer as well. She taught me everything I needed to know, but it was on the job.
In terms of formal qualifications or formal training, I’ve not had any. I just learned a lot of stuff through the way Nan did it and from working in the industry.
Tell me about Cakeboi. When did it open, and what made you choose to specialise in cake?
We opened in February last year in Hamilton, Newcastle. We specialise in old school, traditional baking—most things are things that my Nan used to make.
I decided to open the shop because during MasterChef, I really wanted to make my Nan’s sponge for the judges. I would call Nan every second day and be in the kitchen at the apartment trying to master it at night before I went to bed. Every night I would just chuck this sponge on and try and work it out and it always worked out wrong. Then I’d call Nan and she’s like, “are you using a metal spoon and a metal bowl? You have to do it this way, you have you beat the egg for 20 minutes, did you sift the flour three times?”
She was so particular about everything and I was finding it really hard to master this sponge. Then the next day I went into the MasterChef kitchen and they had a challenge where you opened up the box and there was a photo of me holding my Nan’s sponge as a kid. And I was like, “oh no, I have to make Nan’s sponge”, and I hadn’t perfected it yet.
But I just did what Nan said and made it and it turned out perfect. The judges loved it and it was a really cool and very emotional moment.
When I was away at MasterChef it had already started airing on TV. Nan would call me every few days to find out when it would come to air, because she wanted to see her sponge on TV. And then on the very last day of filming, I was the last person to leave the studio and I got like a call to say Nan had passed away that day. And her episode was airing the next day.
It was pretty upsetting. It took me a while to like really appreciate the tradition that was in my Nan’s cooking, so it made me want to open Cakeboi to keep those things going. You don’t really often see places who would do like a nice sponge cake or traditional carrot cakes and just stuff like that.
I read that you turned to a vegan diet—are you still plant-based? And does that carry across to your products?
Yeah, I’m still eating a plant-based diet. I just find it works best for me and my lifestyle—it works well for my health as well. In our shop, we always have plant-based options. I really hated that whenever I’d eat a vegan cake, they’d always be dense and have heaps of nuts or dates in them, so I decided to play around with all these recipes and create vegan cakes that tasted like and had the texture of a traditional cake.
We also have a motto where no one should be deprived of cakes, so we do an array of allergy-friendly cakes as well.
What is your signature dish (besides the sponge)?
The lemon tart! I actually read a quote once by Marco Pierre White: “Any chef worthy of his name will have a lemon tart on his menu”.
I was working in kitchens with all these really highly-skilled trained chefs and they’d all worked in London and France and I found it really intimidating, so then that became my motto—I was like, “I’m just going to make a perfect lemon tart so all the other chefs respect me”. I worked really hard for about six months perfecting a lemon tart recipe and it was really popular. Now, we have it at the shop.
Tell me about your future plans – do you hope to do more television or expand? How about family?
We often do get opportunities coming our way for growing the business, but I love its natural form that it is now. I’m kind of always tossing and turning what I want to do next, but I’m never set in stone. I’ve got a few things in the pipeline, but until they happen I never voice them out loud.