This week’s episodes of Masterchef were full of the same rousing music, hackneyed phrases and pregnant pauses. The whole reality show thing is something I really dislike, but I’m prepared to put up with it for the sake of all the gorgeous food involved.
Episode 6 saw us meet Jill, Toby, Sophie, Leon, and Paul. None stands out as a potential winner and this is rendered even more true by the demanding nature of this series’ invention test, which in a way seems trickier than that of previous series: instead of everyone choosing their own ingredients from a wider selection, everyone is forced to cook with the same narrow range of ingredients, which often seem to point to a particular type of dish. The ingredients in episode 6 just scream lamb curry, with there not being many other options out there. This group of five contenders therefore produced a good range of results, all things considered, from roast-style (with squash purée and lamb velouté) to innovative curries (with mango and mint salsa in one case), although some entrants’ dishes lacked a balance of flavour, definition or texture, or indeed a unified concept. Only Jill scored a perfect result with her roasted lamb, potato, and red wine and mint jus.
But it’s not just about the food: this is, after all, reality TV. So on a more superficial note, and without naming names, I am surprised that they let some contestants on TV with such poor makeup jobs, as appearance and self-marketing is potentially very important given that the winner of this show essentially becomes a celebrity chef. Just as the professional kitchen test also seems to serve the purpose of promoting the restaurant more than any practical purpose of selecting contestants, there are other dimensions to this whole “getting through to the next round” malarkey.
And the next round in question is the palate test. When put to the challenge of cooking John Torode’s pappardelle and meatballs, contestants may be thrown off by the mixture of herbs, and indeed the mixture of meats, in the meatballs. Making one’s own pappardelle is another challenge, with Jill being the only one to make her own pasta correctly and not lose her cool. The pasta of other contestants had various problems, including being cut too thinly (ending up more like tagliatelle), rolled too thickly, or cut into the wrong shape altogether (with Leon making squares for some reason). Some people panicked rather than analysing the task, with one contestant just throwing in all types of meat given (when there were in fact just two used: pork and beef). Incorrect meat mixes also caught some out in other ways, leading to a lack of texture or over-heavy meatballs. Sophie unfortunately overdid the garlic, having already overdone the chilli during the invention test, and Leon’s meatball mixture was way off the mark. While Paul’s and Toby’s dishes were not without problems (such as a lack of seasoning, an over-reduced and overly sweetened sauce, and a lack of intensity due to not adding chopped tomatoes), they squeak through, leaving Leon and Sophie heading for the door.
Paul, Toby and Jill were then asked to cook two dishes in an hour after their stint at One-O-One in Knightsbridge. Paul’s pan-fried scallops were served with a celeriac and truffle purée, and an apple syrup. The apple jelly he had also promised didn’t materialise due to not setting in time. The judges commented that this increased apple flavour as promised would have made the dish perfect; apart from this, there were no serious problems. Equally, Paul’s monkfish, asparagus risotto and parmesan cream did not get served with the promised basil oil and foam. The risotto did not look correctly cooked on screen, and the judges confirmed this, pronouncing it too wet, with the flavour balance not being right. Toby’s crab agnolotti with Virgin Mary sauce and basil oil was followed by lamb rump with lentils and a green herb sauce. It all looked messy on the plate on screen, but apparently delivered on taste. Jill’s main of pan-fried sea bass, fennel salad, pastis beurre blanc, and pommes purées was deemed stunning, while her dessert of hazelnut cinnamon apple shortbread stack needed longer to set. The calvados chantilly with which the dessert was served apparently needed more alcohol, but still tasted good overall.
Jill, who seemed reminiscent of 2011’s Annie Assheton in both physical appearance and cooking style, therefore went through without question. Either Paul or Toby could deserve a second chance, but in the end judges went with Paul, sending Toby home.
Episode 7 saw Andrew, (another) Sophie, Kieron, Martin, and Farhana battling to contend with Paul and Jill in the quarter-final. The invention test this time provided wider scope for sweet and savoury dishes, with the ingredients ranging from Dover sole and potatoes to pears and vanilla. Kieron’s approach sounded the most risky, and it didn’t pay off, with fish and fruit salad not proving a profitable mix. Further to this, his fish was massively overcooked and his smoky fish sauce too acidic. Martin has potential, but also has a few problems with texture and flavour balance. The invention test also proves how important subjectivity is, as while I thought Farhana’s spicy vegetable broth looked fine, the judges disagreed, describing it as looking like “something out of an Indiana Jones banquet”. Equally, not being a fan of filo pastry, I thought its use let the overall appearance of Sophie’s dish down, but the judges didn’t mention this. In the end, Sophie’s dish and Andrew’s pear and ginger tart soared through with flying colours, and the judges’ praise of individual components of Farhana’s broth seems to augur well for the future. Only Andrew and Sophie seem dead certs at this stage with the others still needing to prove themselves.
The ensuing palate test saw them cooking crumbed venison cutlets, beetroot jalapeno relish and skordalia. This seems more complex than the previous group’s pappardelle, making me wonder if it’s really a fair test across groups of contenders. The skordalia is especially tricky, with the potatoes being cooked in milk and olive oil rather than in water. The complex herb mix of tarragon, sage, and chervil also could throw a spanner in the works for some. Of more concern, though, was the fact that while some contestants understandably thought the meat was lamb, some worryingly thought it was beef or even veal (how can you confuse venison and veal?!), with nobody getting the meat right in their initial appraisals. On the table is a choice of venison or lamb, with everyone choosing venison apart from Andrew. Sophie was the only one to cook the potatoes in milk, while Farhana was the only one to realise the relish was not raw. As a result, some relishes were far too runny, including Andrew’s, whose future suddenly looked far less certain. Farhana does well, proving one of the round’s dark horses. Kieron messed up again with his venison being raw inside and burnt on the outside, complemented by a bland relish. Martin’s dish also lacked seasoning, and served no skordalia at all. Andrew also felt his skordalia was too bad to serve and instead encrusted his lamb with potato and dill, making for a totally different and ineffective dish. While Andrew had the chance to be saved due to his performance in the previous round, his future still looked doubtful, with Gregg Wallace’s shiny bald head acting like a magic 8 ball for his fate. Surprisingly Sophie also did not do well. It would not have been surprising if all three men had been for the chop, but eventually Kieron and Martin were asked to leave.
Following a stint at One Twenty One Two, Whitehall (part of Royal Horseguards Hotel), Andrew, Farhana and Sophie are asked to cook again. Farhana produced cucumber noodles, with salmon balls and a sesame and tamarind sauce, with the former releasing too much juice and the latter being slightly dry. However, her pan-fried duck with spiced butternut squash, cabbage tempura and raspberry chutney proved perfect.
Andrew’s mushroom and tarragon stroganoff with rice and peas seemed a bit plain given that contestants are competing for a quarter-final invitation, and even this home-style cookery didn’t work well, with the mushrooms being slightly greasy, the sauce splitting, and the whole thing lacking vibrancy. Equally, his spicy plum sauce and smooth mash were let down in his second course by his undercooked duck.
Sophie easily surpassed him with her pulled ham hock fritter with piccalilli, garnished with microherbs, which produced amazing flavours and textures, although one judge posited that it could be a little stodgy for some. Her posh fish and chips with minted pea purée, pommes Parisiennes, capers, and tartare vinaigrette, also proved largely successful, even though the fish was not cooked well. This secured her quarter-final place, with Farhana joining her to meet Jill and Paul for the quarter-final.
Of them all, Jill seems strongest and most consistent. They will be judged not just by John and Gregg on their 2 courses (1 savoury, 1 sweet) but also by former champs Shelina Permalloo, Dhruv Baker, and Tim Anderson.
Paul opted to cook a pan-roasted duck breast, with fondant potato, fennel compote and cherry jus. This was virtually without error: even though the jus looked watery on screen, none of the judges commented on this, praising instead the well-cooked duck and intense aromas. The dessert of spherical crème brûlée, chocolate brownie, salted caramel, and red berry coulis attracted less praise, with the crème brûlée seeming too bitter to some, and while the brownie was tasty, it didn’t work as a dish all together.
Seeing off the competition with ease was Sophie: thanks to her beef fillet poached in red wine, with leek and pancetta suet pudding, asparagus and carrots, and dessert of apple and pear crumble with vanilla cream and toffee apple slice, her food was deemed stunning all the way.
By contrast, Jill put in a surprisingly poor performance compared to previous rounds. Although her duck breasts with spiced butternut purée, wilted kale, duck and harissa pastire, and pomegranate and quince sauce had good flavours, more seasoning was required and her purée was too watery. Her fig and almond tarte tatin, with Grand Marnier and orange ice cream, fared far better thanks to its clever concept and generally high quality, although the pastry, it appears, was a bit soggy.
Like Jill, Farhana also had texture problems with her main course of curried beef medallions on lentil and rice with pakoras, garlic and spinach, producing good flavours but slightly wet textures. Her carrot gajar halwa and coconut lime sorbet, however, excited the judges and left them wanting more.
Only Sophie was an absolute shoo-in after all of this, with Farhana a close second. It was fair to send Paul home at this point given previous performance, and while to see Jill leave was a disappointment, it was understandable given her performance in episode 8.
All of this showed the value of consistency, not just in Masterchef but to the métier of professional cooking. It’s not enough at this level to just cook well once or twice: you need to get it right time and time again, without silly slip-ups or allowing pressure to get to you, as was the case with both Jill and Paul, and I look forward to seeing if Sophie and Farhana can sustain this throughout the rest of the competition.