Episode 20 proved a significant point in the series, with one person due to leave at the end of this hour, leaving the other three to embark on some gruelling final challenges. In order to sort the wheat from the chaff, twelve critics have been called in for Saira, Dale, Natalie and Larkin to cook for, including Jay Rayner, William Sitwell, and Kate Spicer. Gregg Wallace acted as host for the evening, while John Torode played the role of head chef. Each contestant would cook 3 courses each, with the critics choosing what they would like to eat.
The menus took the diners around the world, from modern Britain to Asia via India. Saira’s starter consisted of chicken samosas, chicken roti livers, and a chicken cake with tamarind chutney. The chutney was judged “bright, vivid and zingy”, although some found it too acidic. However, there were more serious errors than this, with the critics saying that the livers were overcooked and the cake dry and dusty, and that Saira should have picked one of these dishes and served it alone rather than miniaturising three different ones. Criticisms of Dale’s and Larkin’s starters were much more trivial: Larkin’s confit salmon with caviar was judged to have an excellent texture, and his cherrywood smoke effect drew positive comments too, with only the soy mirin dressing needing more seasoning. Dale’s Dover sole and clams en papillote lacked unity, though, and the sole was a little overcooked. Nonetheless, this dish (with Thai basil pesto) was still deemed successful overall. Only Natalie’s starter – of pan-fried sea bream with langoustine sauce, braised fennel, and caramelized fennel – came out unscathed.
Back around the world now with the mains. This task was not just about seeing if the amateur chefs could produce restaurant-quality food, but also about seeing how far they could cope with having to complete the number of orders required of them in time. Saira’s timing was way off in this respect, with her potatoes being cut too large to cook in time. Nevertheless, the quality of her lamb rasala with hot/sour sauce, aubergine purée & gooseberry chutney was praised, even though some diners dubbed it a lamb with curry sauce rather than lamb curry. Larkin’s main course (fillet of beef with black bean sauce, pak choi, and asparagus fried rice) did not come off much better – while competent, it lacked wow factor, and the side dishes did not attract many fans. Dale and Natalie came out of the main course brilliantly – Dale with a ginger pork fillet (accompanied by crackling, salt roasted carrots, mulled cider sauce, and spiced cabbage), and Natalie with rabbit wrapped in Serrano ham (served with a cockle vinaigrette, samphire, and cauliflower purée). However, much was made needlessly of the fact that Natalie had to restart her rabbit after overcooking them, due to making them too soon – how many of these mistakes happen in professional kitchens that we don’t get to hear about? It’s surely what’s on the finished plate that matters.
After this came the desserts. Unfortunately, for just about everybody except Saira this was a tour de force. Saira’s roasted rhubarb was served with a rhubarb syrup, and baked custard with ginger nut crumbs. While the baked custard attracted high praise, the rest was too sour for many diners’ tastes. The rhubarb syrup’s luminosity also didn’t have me drooling at the screen quite as others’ desserts did: I’ll definitely be trying to recreate Natalie’s fig frangipane tart with orange marscapone at home (hopefully without her slightly hard and heavy pastry) and Dale’s chocolate truffle cake with caramel brittle and honey milk ice cream (even if I have to buy some ice cream instead of making my own!). Of the chocolate soufflés with vanilla cream that Larkin did send out, it was clean plates all round. However, he dropped one thanks to John shouting at him, which was a great shame.
Because of this, his place and Saira’s are less secure than Dale’s and Natalie’s, who are undoubtedly safe.
Several of the contestants mentioned at this point their desire to stay in the competition so that they can carry on learning and growing. While this is a valuable process, it is ultimately not about them and their potential but more about what results they can produce on a day-to-day basis. As something was wrong with each of Saira’s dishes, she was the one who was asked to leave, meaning that Dale, Natalie and Larkin will fight it out for the winner’s trophy.
Their first challenge in episode 21 was just the first stage in an Italian odyssey, whereby they are sent to the Amalfi Coast to cook with Mamma Aguta, who has cooked for Humphrey Bogart, among other luminaries. She showed them some of her favourite dishes before challenging them to cook it for her family, making sure that the show struck a nice balance between testing the contestants’ fine dining skills along with using fresh ingredients simply in a home-cooking context. Natalie handled the gnocchi with artichokes dish with ease, only receiving one tip to use less flour in her gnocchi. Criticism directed towards Larkin was equally minor, with his stuffed squid needing to be cooked just a tiny bit longer to enhance the already excellent flavours. Finally, Dale was able to cook the pappardelle with peppers and sausage to perfection.
Afterwards, the team were taken to Florence’s Enoteca Pinchiorri, which carries three Michelin stars. There, they were shown how to cook three of the restaurant’s specialities, before feeding it to their mentors. Larkin’s guinea hen ravioli didn’t look quite as tight as the chef’s (and indeed the chef pointed this out) but in the end it more than passed muster thanks to its great flavours. Minor criticisms also came up in regard to Natalie’s and Dale’s efforts, with Natalie’s spit roasted leg of pork possibly benefiting from a little more olive oil in the mashed potato, and Dale’s portion sizes arguably needing to be a little more generous in his coconut dessert (which was served with three flavoured gels: basil, almond, and coffee).
The contestants were then encouraged to put what they had learned into practice, having been asked to cook a 3-course lunch in an Italian castle for members of the art world. Being Italian, the guests were forthright in their criticisms, which at least seemed valid from this side of the screen. Dale’s crab risotto looked a little too wet when served, lacking the creamy quality that comes when the rice begins to release its starch and allow the grains to melt together. This al dente quality was noticed by the diners, as was the fact that crab and cheese is not a usual combination (the cheese being added thanks to a Parmesan crisp) – although many diners seemed to reluctantly concede that they enjoyed this aspect of the dish in the end.
Despite having never cooked suckling pig or cavolo nero before, Larkin is serving this as the main course, with side dishes of potato fondant and celeriac purée. This inexperience was revealed when guests commented negatively on the texture of the crackling, as well as on the fact that his fondant potato was on the tough side (Larkin knew this, but sent it out anyway). While the flavours were good, it leaves one wondering if this can really be enough, as flavour has to harmonise with other techniques in order to result in success.
This combination of quality and technique was perhaps best exemplified by Natalie’s milk ice cream with dandelion and burdock blackberries, honeycomb pieces and lavender flowers, which was practically perfect in every way. She has a consistency in her cooking that others don’t have, and for this reason (as well as her lovable Cockney demeanour, reminiscent of Angela Hartnett), it’s easy to see why many viewers want her to win. She has only two episodes left now in which to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that she deserves it.