The four semi-finalists have now been chosen: Saira, Larkin, Dale and Natalie. They have one week, at the end of which, one will leave. So, y’know. No pressure.
Firstly, Saira goes to cook at Benares, while Dale goes to Launceton Place, Natalie goes to Trinity, and Larkin is sent to Hole in the Wall (Cambridge). Restaurants seem to be selected according to contestants’ interests and style, which is nice. All are shown struggling a little, but I think this is down to selective editing. Plus, they’re Michelin starred restaurants and they’re amateurs – it was bound to happen and I think the editors have made it look worse than it is thanks to all the dramatic music etc. More interesting is that the four then get to cook for their mentors, with the mentors then offering constructive criticism. Natalie’s mentor invited her to taste the food she’d cooked for him, pointing out quite rightly that improvement of one’s cooking is not only achieved by cooking but also by tasting. Saira’s problem of putting too much food on one plate for fine dining is mentioned, but this is rightly not treated as a serious problem. In all, the professional chefs only point out minor issues for the four contestants, such as cooking polenta for a little longer, charring cauliflower more, and including more sauce.
After this, the four are back to cook again for John and Gregg, being asked to produce two dishes in an hour and forty-five minutes.
Dale produces smoked cod with mussels, spring vegetable broth, and anchovy and caper puffs, which are deemed good, albeit a little overpowering for some in terms of smokiness. His main course – of lamb’s liver, onion purée, kidney suet pudding, mint pea purée, red wine jus, mushrooms and chestnuts – is equally well-received, although John thinks the pudding lacks gravy and is a little tough.
Also on the fish theme was Larkin’s Dover sole stir fry served in a Dover sole bone basket. This was followed by braised pork belly with tarrow, chilli fennel, lotus root crisps, chop suey greens, fennel kimchi and chrysanthemum flowers. This was deemed perfect in every way – and to my mind Larkin is beginning to stand out as a sure-fire winner for his skill and creativity.
Saira’s dishes also attract little criticism : her pork loin with vindaloo sauce, pork crackling, rice and peas, pickled onions and baby turnips is flawless, aside from the judges wanting more rice. Her lemon tart, cassis-soaked blackberries, and frangipane sponge with clotted cream are also judged lovely, although the sponge seems superfluous given that there is already a tart on the plate.
The comments accorded to Natalie’s dishes were similar. She’s clearly confident with making pan-fried sea bass, as she returns to this, serving it this time with cauliflower purée and tempura, as well as cauliflower, apricot and almond couscous. This divine main course was followed by chocolate hazelnut crumble tart, which was served with chantilly cream and raspberry coulis. As with Saira’s sponge, the crumble topping was judged superfluous, while Gregg is apparently not a coulis fan (but this seems to be a preference of his own rather than being a reflection on Natalie’s cooking).
After a successful day, the four contestants have to do it all again in Episode 19, selecting ingredients from meats, seafood, fruit, vegetables, and a full larder in order to create two dishes in 90 minutes. The results of their invention test would then be served to Marcus Wareing – head chef of the Berkeley and the Gilbert Scott.
The girls came out of this well, with Natalie serving teal, celeriac purée and fondant, wild carrots and mushrooms with a blackberry reduction, which attracted a rave review from all three judges, with John’s view that the reduction should be stickier and sweeter being the only blemish. Equally, her chocolate fondant with vanilla chantilly cream was judged perfect by Marcus Wareing.
Saira therefore had a tough act to follow, but didn’t need to worry. Her red mullet and langoustine tails, served in a ginger and chilli Thai broth with broad beans and coriander cress, perhaps required more vegetables and potatoes to complete it as a main course, but generally got good reviews. Even though her dessert of millefeuille, with plum compote and creme patissiere, did less well, her errors were nothing unworkable. Marcus Wareing recommends cooking the pastry flat between two trays and cooking the plums for longer to create more juice and pulp. Encouragingly, this project also shows that Saira can go beyond the traditional Indian cuisine that she knows and loves so well.
However, Dale and Larkin were treated harshly by Marcus Wareing. Dale’s razor clam and langoustine salad, served with pickled carrots, turnips, radishes, nashi pear, and ginger and chilli Thai dressing, needed rice to go with it and was too heavy on the chilli. Equally, his white chocolate and cardamom tart with toasted almonds and a blackberry and vanilla sauce was poorly received, judged as being sickly, undercooked and heavy. This criticism left Dale virtually in tears – perhaps because I’ve toned down the exact words and tone of voice used. Wareing acknowledged, however, that Dale’s reaction showed just how passionate he is about food.
Larkin also served a razor clam salad, but this time with spring onions, radishes, pork and langoustine dumplings, and a coriander and ginger dressing. This apparently tasted too strongly of sesame oil, without too much else going on, with Marcus Wareing judging it ‘appalling’. Larkin’s dessert of white chocolate soufflé served in a mango, and mango and vanilla ice cream, had clearly been allowed to sit around too long. This meant the ice cream was melting – unsurprisingly, given that it had probably been sitting on the plate for an hour by the time the judges got to it. Marcus Wareing refused to even taste the dessert, which seemed grossly unfair.
All contestants had the chance to redeem themselves, however, during a special event for twelve Bond girls at the Savoy Hotel. In three hours, they had to prepare four courses between them, with each of the courses devised by themselves. Natalie handled the starter of stuffed quail & chicken mousse ballotines, confit quail’s legs, quail jus, deep-fried quail’s eggs, wild mushrooms with truffle oil, and parsnip purée. For the fish course, Dale served cured mackerel, mackerel pâté, cucumber, pickled mushrooms, coriander cress, pomegranate vinaigrette, and crostini ; Saira’s meat course consisted of chicken makhani, broad bean and stir-fried potato aloo gobi, cauliflower purée and pickle, and deep-fried cauliflower pakoras. Finally, for dessert, Larkin concocted a lemon tart with raspberry coulis and edible flowers. He had originally also planned a white chocolate tuile but ditched this after deciding that he did not have enough time to make it in a way that would ensure it came out well. The fact that his pastry needed more finesse was virtually the only criticism all night, although Gregg also said that the lemon could be sharper. In short – a triumph for all concerned.