I have fought against a six-hour time difference and extremely shoddy hotel bandwidth to bring this to you – so I hope it’s been worth it!…
Episode 22 upped the ante for the final by not only making the amateurs do an invention test, but to do it for four Michelin-starred chefs. However, happily for Larkin, Dale, and Natalie, they get a 75-minute practice run, for John Torode and Gregg Wallace. Oh, and for MICHAEL CAINES. Minor detail!!
For this occasion, Larkin prepared a Spanish-style fish stew (containing trout, squid, and mussels) which, while it looked good, had promising flavours that didn’t quite come together, meaning it lacked refinement. Dale served a rack of lamb with a herb crust, lamb rissoles, caramelized shallots, potato purée, red wine jus, and anchovy and caper dressing. While the herb crust didn’t look that sophisticated to me, Michael Caines seemed to enjoy it. However, the great chef and I did agree on one thing: the lamb was a little overcooked, and Michael Caines said it was a little too fatty as well. Gregg, however, made the valid observation that how far meat is cooked comes down to personal preference quite strongly – and that he likes the lamb like this.
Natalie’s roast grouse with almond crust, parsnip fondant and purée, red wine and grouse reduction, and salsify crisps scored favourably, with its excellent presentation attracting positive comments. For improvement, the idea of more acidity perhaps being required in the sauce and a little more precision being needed were cited. However, these few little errors were more than forgiveable thanks to the dish’s incredible flavours.
Having had the chance to practise on Michael Caines, the three then got to cook for Clare Smyth (Gordon Ramsay), Jocky Petrie and Jonny Lake (Fat Duck), and Jocelyn Herland (the Dorchester). For them, however, they did not get to cook their own dishes, but instead a menu designed by Simon Rogan (which makes you wonder how far the previous task really served as practice).
Larkin prepared flaked mackerel in coal oil with fennel meringues, vintage beetroot, mustard mayonnaise, and caper lemon jam. He made a lot of little mistakes in the kitchen, which resulted in one of Simon’s sous chefs stepping in to help with the mackerel. However, he did then get the plate out, albeit a little late, which seemed to be made up for by how well-executed it was. Little errors affecting time management possibly meant that by this stage he had lost the chance to win Masterchef, as after all, a big part of the contest is how well the contenders fare within the setting of a professional kitchen.
Dale did fare well in this setting, though – his dessert of poached rhubarb, hazelnut crumbs, meadowsweet yoghurt mousse, rhubarb snow, Cicely syrup, and muscovado caramel tuile came off brilliantly apart from a few minor slips in preparing the tuiles. This, I’m sure, was far less serious than the Beeb’s overly dramatic editing would have had you believe, given that the contestants had FIVE HOURS TO PREPARE.
Natalie’s duck with sweetbreads, salt baked turnips, chanterelles, leeks, and cider sauce came out brilliantly, and this just consolidated the fact that she had a good chance of winning. While all three contestants showed these qualities, something that Natalie does have is consistency, and the ability to deliver excellent food time after time. However, the level of skill shown by all three contestants is not the miracle John and Gregg make it out to be – they all had epic skills to begin with, and their level of achievement is hardly comparable to, say, someone going from microwaving ready meals to prepping Michelin cuisine in 8 weeks.
Nevertheless, this week definitely focused on building skills, with no real decisions made based on episodes 21 and 22. Episode 23 – aka the grand final – was the real decider. With three hours ahead of them, each amateur was asked to cook 3 courses, and all rose to the challenge admirably, drawing on previous experiences and family history to create heartfelt and technically advanced dishes.
Larkin chose to cook Chinese mixed starters (consisting of vegetable and prawn spring rolls, yakitori, water egg with crab meat, cockles in soy and tofu emulsion, and morning glory), followed by Chinese roast belly pork (which was marinated in red and yellow bean paste, tamarind and garlic) and roast duck with glutinous rice wrap, pancetta, sausage and mushrooms. This only attracted one minute criticism – the idea that more sauce should have been added to the main dish. His dessert – a chocolate mojito with cucumber, Thai basil gel, caramel sauce, and coconut crumble – was also a master stroke, with only the portion size being pointed out for improvement.
Dale did equally well in this final challenge. His liver-stuffed ballotine of red mullet, which was served with a chorizo, pepper, confit tomatoes, basil and black olive stew, and chorizo/tapenade bruschetta, suffered slightly due to the fish being slightly undercooked. His main course (guinea fowl served three ways – confit, black pudding rissoles, and breast) was accompanied by asparagus mousse and spears, wild mushrooms, and white truffle cream sauce, and was judged excellent all round due to the contrasts and complements of flavour and texture. His dessert was just as wonderful: coconut, vanilla, and white chocolate panna cotta with coconut meringues, champagne syrup, and poached tropical fruits (mango, pineapple, kiwi and strawberry).
Finally came Natalie, who essentially just cooked food she’d been testing out on her grandad (rather than being chiefly inspired by her late grandmother, as the BBC’s shoddy reporting would have you believe, her entire trajectory was based on her very-much-alive grandfather). To begin with, she served a lobster tail with fennel purée and compressed fennel, orange gel, orange beurre blanc and lobster caviar. Her main course consisted of roast belly pork with pork loin, pommes purées, apple sauce, pea shoots, honey mustard, and black pudding Scotch egg; and to finish, her dessert was comprised of chocolate panna cotta, hazelnut biscuits, a bitter chocolate tuile, and caramelized pears. In short, the judges were practically crying with joy.
All three contestants, at various points in the show, demonstrated qualities that could make them winners. However, by the end of the series, Natalie’s position was assured: in the first instance as she didn’t have the (albeit tiny) mistakes of the others’ dishes, and in the second because she showed a consistency throughout the series that they lacked. While some viewers complained that this year’s series and contestants lacked lustre, Natalie has proved a popular contestant whom many wanted to win. Thanks to the Beeb’s unhelpful disclosure, I already knew that she would – but nonetheless it seemed a fitting end. The contestants also seemed to have really bonded, which really contributed significantly to this series, along with the impression of how much this meant to all of them and how much it could really change all of their lives – although perhaps especially Natalie’s.