Episode 9 featured Shivi, Bertie, Helen, Dave and Neil, whose invention test was geared more towards savoury dishes, and who saw the judges questioning whether it was skill or potential that they were really looking for. Some of the options prepared by the contestants seem a bit homely for Masterchef, with presentation in particular needing to be tidied up in Dave’s and Neil’s cases. The others had faults too, with the texture of Shivi’s dish being criticised, Bertie’s food lacking a unified concept, and Helen’s being useless all round (apart from the sauce). Nobody stood out at this stage, meaning the palate test (a chicken pot pie with spicy coleslaw) was even more important.
The unconventional all-in-one pie recipe with equally unorthodox thickening method meant that contestants could easily be tripped up in this regard. Apart from this, all of the ingredients should have been easily identifiable; we could even say that this test was easier than past palate tests, making one wonder if the palate tests are ‘chosen’ for the group according to their overall skill level. A protein choice of chicken, rabbit or turkey seems an easy protein choice, but despite this Bertie still managed to use all three. Other errors also abounded: Helen’s and Bertie’s pies were both undercooked, and Bertie’s sauce also suffered from being too thin. Neil’s pie, too, was not a triumph: it was too wet and lacked flavour, while the pastry proved floppy. However, this is not to say that there were no positives: Shivi was excellent overall, while Bertie’s good coleslaw and pie filling redeemed him a little. Dave’s errors were only minor, and Neil also managed to produce good coleslaw, even though his presentation was poor. Neil and Bertie were rightly asked to leave after this stage.
Dave, Shivi and Helen were then sent to Bistro 51 in London. Frankly, I’m not sure this section of the show merits any further comment.
In the final test, where each contestant must produce two dishes, Helen seemed flustered during the preparation of her partridge (served with mushroom and pearl barley risotto, and parsnip crisps), and this was presented poorly due to her lack of time management. Her partridge was also overcooked, but she compensated somewhat for this thanks to promising flavours and textures in the dish. Her sticky toffee puddings (with custard and pecan praline disc) sadly didn’t redeem her completely either: thanks to too much cream of tartar, they were undercooked.
Dave and Shivi fared much better: Shivi’s pan-fried sea bass, saffron polenta, mussels, sauce vierge and broad beans only needed a little extra seasoning, and her Moroccan ile flottante (with orange blossom, pistachio praline, and rose cardamom crème anglaise) was loved by Gregg Wallace. Equally, Dave only attracted one minor criticism relating to poor presentation of his lamb with black pudding and apple fritters (served with lettuce, pea shoots and apple purée), and his main course of spiced chicken ballotine and cashew mogul curry. All of this meant that Helen’s departure was inevitable.
Emma, Tess, Chris, Larkin and Sarah competed in Episode 10 to join Shivi and Dave in the quarter-final. This invention test provided more scope for desserts without backing contestants into a corner – as proved by the fact that most still chose to cook the pheasant. Only Chris made a chocolate fondant. The pheasant proved a risky gamble for some, with Sarah’s ending up overcooked and Emma’s dry. These two contenders also suffered other problems, with Sarah’s sauce being too greasy and Emma’s fondant potatoes being undercooked. Chris and Tess put in excellent performances, while Larkin attracted more mixed reviews: his concept was not terribly unified, and yet it worked.
The palate test saw the five attempting to recreate John Torode’s seafood chowder and soda bread. None of the contestants correctly identified the bread type, leading to heavy lumps of bread that could have been used to build a house. Other tricks lay in the lack of stock and the different stages of cooking for the fish. Some contestants identified ingredients that were blatantly not there, such as white wine and chives, that have quite specific flavours. All entrants received mixed reviews apart from Tess, who sailed through. Sarah suffered from some overcooked fish, but otherwise did well. Larkin, Chris and Emma seemed to do their own thing, with their dishes barely looking like John’s (Larkin’s resembled more of a fricassée than a chowder, and Chris’ like a stew). Emma redeemed herself in terms of how well she’d cooked the fish, while Chris’ and Larkin’s flavours also attracted praise. At this point, it seemed that Emma and Sarah had made too many mistakes, and they were both asked to leave.
After their visit to Brasserie Joel, Chris, Larkin and Tess returned to cook their two courses. Tess’ salmon ricotta ravioli and samphire tempura seemed like too many carbs on one plate for the judges, and showed competence while lacking wow factor. Her apple crumble tart with sweet raspberry Bloody Mary proved fabulous apart from slightly undercooked pastry – and thankfully these mistakes did not cost Tess a quarter-final place.
Larkin served sea bass with pork and shiitake wontons and a lemongrass consommé, and while the latter could have had a stronger flavour, it attracted no other criticism. His other dish was even more ambitious: steak tartare was served with a quail’s egg, scallops, hoi sin sauce, soy and ginger sauce, edamame, and nashi pear. Unfortunately, his steak tartare apparently overwhelmed the scallops, but the dish otherwise impressed.
Only Chris was asked to go after serving his crab ravioli, whose pasta was made too thickly and whose crab was too weak. Presentation was lacking again and the judges were divided on flavour. However, Tess could also have reasonably been asked to leave at this point, as the pressure seemed to be getting to her.
Episode 11 saw Shivi, Larkin, Tess and Dave come together for their quarter-final, and tonight the desserts appeared to appeal the most: highlights included Shivi’s deconstructed pina colada, Larkin’s poached pear with Asian spices, Tess’ lime and chilli-chocolate profiteroles, and Dave’s chocolate mousse with raspberry liqueur and pecan brittle. Being judged by past winners Thomasina Miers, Tim Anderson and James Nathan meant that there was nowhere to hide – and that is to say nothing, of course, of hosts John and Gregg.
Shivi impressed on every level – not only with her dessert (which, by the way, consisted of the to-die-for combo of coconut soufflé, caramelised pineapple, and rum butter ice cream), but also with her main course of pan-fried monkfish, crab ravioli, lime beurre blanc, and pancetta and okra fries.
However, to my mind she was to prove the only shoo-in of the night. While Larkin’s duck curry with half-and-half (that’s rice and chips to you and me) reportedly had a truly transcendent flavour, presentation was lacking – and having burned the candied hazelnuts, he didn’t end up serving them with his stem ginger ice cream and poached pear. Equally, even though Dave’s main course of lamb neck fillet, mashed potato, leeks, carrots, pea purée and redcurrant jus proved refined, his dessert needed more balance.
The real ‘car crash’ of the night, though, was Tess. Her pan-fried duck with tomato relish, served with shallot dauphinoise, seemed too much like two meals on one plate to the judges, lacking a unified concept. In addition, the dauphinoise was undercooked, and ultimately the entire combination seemed just too ‘homely’ for a Masterchef quarter-final. Tess also had to ‘rescue’ her dessert – her profiteroles’ failure to rise meant that she ended up doing a Shivi and deconstructing the dish, serving the baby profiteroles on a bed of lime cream and the chilli chocolate sauce on the side. This proved a wonderful mistake that was universally loved by the judges and chefs alike.
Despite the dazzling success of this dish, there were still two puzzlings aspect of this round. Firstly, the judges and chefs never once consult each other during the quarter-final (at least not in anything that’s televised), and the viewer is left wondering why this is. Secondly, even though it’s plain that winning contestants would be under similar time pressures in a professional kitchen, John and Gregg’s highly stringent attitude to timing could potentially be dangerous, with the risk of contestants cutting or burning themselves presumably heightened under their strict rule.
Regardless of Tess’ stunning dessert, she was asked to leave. While a shame in the context of her previous performance, it was a fair judgement when her quarter-final performance was compared to that of the other contestants. The others’ minimal errors (and in Shivi’s case, no errors) led to all three of them being put through to the next round – where I don’t anticipate John and Gregg’s attitude to the amateur cooks, or their level of collaboration with the celebrity chefs, changing one iota.