MasterChef: The Professionals, 2015 – finals week

MasterChef: The Professionals, 2015 – finals week

by Food Urchin 29 December 2015

Danny Kingston reviews the long-awaited, and highly tense, final week of MasterChef: The Professionals. Find out who was crowned champion for 2015.

View more from this series:

Danny is a food adventurer, home grower, supper club host and writer of the entertaining and quirky epicurean blog, Food Urchin.

Danny is a food adventurer, home grower, supper club host and writer of the entertaining and quirky epicurean blog, Food Urchin.

I am not a betting man but prior to finals week of MasterChef: The Professionals, I decided to have a flutter at my local bookies and put some money down on who I felt was going to be crowned this year’s winner. Having watched and scrutinised each episode, I was pretty sure that it was going to be Mark S, as he became known. Throughout the competition, time after time, he simply nailed each challenge. Albeit in a slightly aloof and emotionless way; like a cooking robot machine. It seemed pretty obvious to me that he was going to win.

But then I had second thoughts and began to consider Nick. That big, bad, bouncing ball of fun who smashed it all the time with his pastry skills. So I put a bet on him too. As a backup plan. However, my mind began to meander some more and suddenly chirpy Londoner Scott came into view, who, as the series progressed, just got stronger and stronger. And bang, another tenner was slid across the counter. I had barely made it to the door when the devils on my shoulders started whispering ‘Danilo. What about Danilo?’ and they had a point. The quiet Italian had been quietly hammering away after all, with modern twists on his traditional cuisine. Yep, it would be worth sticking one on him. Just in case.

Which left me with Mark H, a rank outsider who actually is a very good chef. Some of the plates of food he dished up looked wonderful, worthy of leading him towards the top. He had just made a couple of mistakes along the way. As such, I popped into another bookies down the road and completed my messy round up of speculative gambling. It didn’t matter then as to who would take the crown, at least I would win something. And after spending a grand total of £50, I won £22.50 back.

Like I said, I am not a betting man.

Of course, we all now know the end result (if you still don’t, stay tuned until the end of this piece) but it was a very close competition and it would have been foolish to pick someone at the start of the week. Everyone had a wobble and it was neck and neck throughout, but who kept their nerve for the final furlong, to get their head first past the post? Let’s find out and stop all this horse racing horlicks right now.

Episode nineteen

Dramatic music heralded the start of finals week and Gregg came booming back on to our screens by proclaiming that this was the start of a ‘massive culinary adventchaaaaah!’ for our five chefs. And judging by the looks on their faces, when shown a heap of scraps and food waste for another invention test, it was going to be massive colonic one, too. As he surveyed the mounds of fish heads, meat trimmings and limp vegetables, Scott went pale and said ‘I’ve been dreading this.’ They had 1 hour and 15 minutes to come up with something palatable for the judges and in that time they all came up with different variations on a broth. Yes folks, in the almighty words of Mr Wallace, we suddenly had a ‘Broth-Off’ on our hands, where everyone would have to broth to the death and nobody looked happy about this test. Especially Marcus, who appeared to be very stern and cross throughout this segment, probably thinking ‘Oh for flips sake, I’ve got to taste five bowls of broth.’

He needn’t have worried, as Scott stepped up first and presented his bowl of roast chicken broth with chicken liver parfait, chicken hearts, confit wings and textures of onion and showed that you can make something decent out of nothing. Mark S also did well with his Asian-Italian fusion of pork belly with cod cheek, backed up with a broth delivering a spicy kick of chilli, coriander and spring onion. Nick did best though with his salmon, scallop and cod ravioli with a chicken velouté. ‘You cook food that I enjoy eating,’ cooed Monica, which left Nick beaming like a very happy boy who has just opened a Scalextric set for Christmas.

Danilo and Mark H on the other hand were not so happy with the comments offered for their plates of food. Having decided to make tortellini for the umpteenth time in the competition, Danilo showed that he was running low on inspiration and his ‘grey dishwater’ broth, made from fish stock and mushroom didn’t impress Marcus one little bit. Mark fared worse though. He had been aiming for big bold flavours but his pan-fried chicken with crispy skin, broccoli stem and spicy broth was too much, too overpowering and didn’t bring the best out of the ingredients and from that point on, Mark knew that he’d blown it.

The chefs were presented with 'scraps'
Mark H's broth cost him his place in the competition

For the four that remained, the challenge of cooking for the much vaunted Chef’s Table lay ahead. Which is not so much a table, more a collection of tables, but tables nonetheless that would seat the ‘heavyweights of modern gastronomy’ in the UK today. And as Gregg announced this, we were treated to some more dramatic music. Dun-dun-daaaaah.

Each chef was responsible individually for creating a course and this was their time to truly shine. Nick was in charge of starters, namely a selection of salmon prepared various ways and served with buttermilk bubbles, coated in a beetroot gel. Danilo returned to his home town and made seafood risotto, imbued with Italian wine and creamed oysters and topped with Sicilian prawns. Mark came up with a cheffy chef’s dish of suckling pork rack with confit belly and spiced pig’s head fritters. And Scott rounded everything off with a malt ice cream combined with a chocolate cremosa, pretzel crumb, peanuts and a dried milk foam; an idea he pinched from his time at Northcote.

Out of all the tests, this was probably the one that our chefs were looking forward to the most and was also the one that scared them the most. Cooking for your heroes, who have twenty-nine Michelin stars between them is bound to ‘get your ringer going’, as Scott so eloquently put it. And that was in full evidence during the day’s preparation. The pressure I mean, not Scott’s… you know what. No, Nick got told off by Marcus for squidging his pave of salmon in the sous vide. Danilo was screaming out for a commis to help shell his prawns. Mark needed all the balls he could muster; sweet potato and apple balls that it, scooped out using a melon baller. And blimey did Monica go on about Scott’s ice cream or what. ‘Don’t let it melt’ she said, about a hundred times. But they got there.

Sadly, after all that hard work, some of the reactions from the esteemed brigade were mixed, particularly for the first two courses. Nick was deducted points by Andrew Fairlie for trying too hard and Michael Caines was absolutely damning about Danilo’s decision to put raw fish on top of cooked rice. Thankfully, the mains and dessert for the Chef’s Table brought some much needed cheer back into the room with Daniel Clifford applauding Mark’s porcine celebration and everyone had a smile on their face after polishing off Scott’s effort. And so with collective sighs of relief, they all headed off for the next round, where four would become three.

More Michelin stars than you can shake a stick at
Mark's pork main hit the spot with the Chef's Table

Episode twenty – the penultimate

One last invention test was in store for our intrepid chefs and this was to be a challenge shorn of any meat whatsoever. No chicken, no fish, no nothing. Well, they did have a fine display of vegetables and fruit to choose from but as Danilo said – ‘It’s not easy to create a dish from vegetables.’ Which I am sure must have led to an uproar from vegans around the country, sitting in their front rooms, throwing tofu at their screen. It was a tricky one though, that initially had everyone stumped. ‘What do they want?’ said Nick to Scott. Who simply shrugged back with a ‘dunno’.

However, these two soon got into the swing of things and made two highly commendable plates of food. Nick worked his magic by creating some crispy polenta cannelloni with orange infused chicory, a pumpkin and sage velouté and manchego cheese mousse. And Scott scored top marks with his duck egg with beurre noisette, wild mushroom fricassee, sourdough toast and sweetcorn velouté. It was ‘very clever’ according to Marcus, whilst Gregg marvelled at the beautiful buttery flavour. He does love his butter does Gregg.

Then came Mark to the table with his dish and gasp, shock, horror, the rails suddenly seemed to come off. For he had made a tomato salad, a very pretty one at that, with garnishes of smoked aubergine purée, olive crumb and crouton but Marcus was left gobsmacked that he had kept things so simple. In fact, with all the ingredients that were on offer, Mr Wareing was outraged. As such, Mark crumbled and nearly rubbed his face right off. Had he cocked up big time?

Luckily for Mark, Danilo also messed up. His aubergine baked with tomato and pesto, accompanied with smoked goat’s cheese and pappa pomodoro just didn’t impress at all. ‘Not a pleasant texture’, ‘I am searching for something good to say but I can’t find one’ and ‘stodgy’ were the comments from our judges (and I’ll leave you to guess who said what) and that was it for our Italian friend. Danilo was done.

A shocker from Mark
But time was up for Danilo

Which was a shame because he could have been useful as an interpreter for the next stage, a visit to Piazza Duomo in Abla, northern Italy, to work under the guidance of the enigmatic Enrico Crippa. With three Michelin stars to his name, on screen, Enrico carried this otherworldly aura about his person, which might be down to eating too many of the local truffles but our three chefs were soon under his hypnotic spell. With a philosophy of letting vegetables take centre stage, grown in the restaurant’s biodynamic kitchen garden, the ethos of Piazzo Duomo is firmly planted in working seasonally and from an environmental and ‘mystical’ perspective with regards to ingredients. I must admit, I did start to choke on my Twiglets as Enrico started to talk about the power of vegetables but then Scott brought everything back down to earth with a classic bit of levity. ‘It’s going to be like working with Georgie Best,’ and wallop, they were soon in the kitchen.

After a demonstration of his famous ‘Salad 21, 31, 41’ where the numbers of different ingredients vary according to the season, their first test was to create a salad of their own. An easy task you might think but with dozens of eyes resting upon them, you could tell that Mark, Nick and Scott were unsettled. Still, they managed to equip themselves impressively and charmed the socks of Enrico with their array of flowers and herbs. Nick’s tomato heart infused with Borolo wine vinegar and dressed with bitter leaves was deemed ‘generous, just like you.’ Scott’s washed fennel with deep fried cavolo nero and pickled onion ‘tasted of Italy’ (but had a touch too much lemon). And Mark, with his dainty plate of courgettes, prepared various ways showed that for Enrico he ‘cooked in the good way for my philosophy.’ Leaving Mark all chuffed and nodding like a giddy school boy. As though he didn’t quite completely understand what was said.

A final service and the cooking of a six-course tasting menu in the famed restaurant remained, with Marcus, Monica and Gregg turning up, with friends and family of Enrico as guests. The important people in his life in other words, while I didn’t realise that Gregg and Enrico go back a long way but the set-up was apparent. Don’t mess this up boys. And they didn’t. Mark ably showed off his artistic flare with the aforementioned ‘Salad 41’ and showed steady hands to deliver a sheet of dehydrated tomato sauce atop some melting cod. Scott demonstrated a delicate touch with courgettes, lardo and salsa and a penchant for pink with his rose risotto, dressed with prawn, rose petals and a dusting of strawberry powder. Then Nick finished everyone off by flying in some handsome beef topped with a hazelnut, fennel and pine nut gratin and an effervescent dessert in the shape of a ricotta tart, corn biscuit, milk foam semifreddo and dusted with caramel powder.

Everyone in the house was happy. None more so than Enrico, who after chinking some well earned beers with the guys, said that he had also learned some English along the way. But obviously not from Scott.

Chef Enrico Crippa of Piazza Duomo
Marcus inhales the famous 'Salad 41'

Episode twenty-one – the final

As always with the final, we were treated to the usual platitudes of ‘only the three strongest chefs are left’ and ‘it’s going to be a bitter fight to the end’ and of course ‘it does not get tougher than this.’ Yet despite all the brouhaha, it soon became plainly obvious that all three chefs had nothing but the utmost respect for other. And I suppose, after all that hugging throughout the competition, you are going to become close. It was still heartening to see though.

We were also treated to a little montage of each chef’s journey along the way, which again was standard but it did also serve as a reminder that Scott has been the most imminently quotable chef of the competition. He really has come out with some crackers and for my money has been the most fun to watch. Soon enough though, we had the dramatic music to announce the start of the final three hours, of sweat, blood and tears, and of Gregg yelling for the last time ‘I am going to get myself a bigger spoon!’

Nick’s menu was zeroed in on first and for his starter he was preparing mackerel two ways; as a tartare wrapped in black radish and also seared. This was to be married up with oyster beignets, oyster mayonnaise, oyster leaves and pickled compressed cucumber. His main was always going to feature lamb; rump of lamb with courgette flowers stuffed with lamb neck and goats cheese croquettes. Then for dessert, the master of puds was making a chocolate delice, with apricots and hazelnuts, flourless sponge, chocolate mousse and a bitter chocolate glaze. A glaze that Marcus wanted to see his face in.

The final three
Nick's impeccable chocolate delice

Mark came next and as you’d expect by now, in his plans he laid out lots and lots of elements. To start, he was making pan fried scallops with peas, buttermilk snow and roast lemon purée. His meat course was to comprise of fillet of beef, paired with braised and compressed rib, to be topped with bone marrow, dotted with charcoal emulsion and surrounded by a variety of carrot. And for Gregg’s sweet-tooth, Mark was making an elderflower panna cotta, with vanilla parfait, textures of strawberry and a theatrical gooseberry candy floss. With all that on board, it was obvious that Mark was pushing himself.

Finally, Scott was aiming to go out with some fireworks by presenting a starter of similar sounding mackerel but his was to be brined and finished with salt-baked kohlrabi, vac-packed cucumber and cucumber essence. Chicken and Tunworth cheese was his surprising main feature, to be complemented with confit wings, potato terrine and truffle. As for dessert, Scott was a serving up a trip down memory lane; a reminder of his first holiday in Italy that came in the shape of lemon parfait, candied fennel, fennel meringue and olive oil jelly. Out of all the menus, for the judges, this one represented the biggest risk but Marcus didn’t want him to play it safe anyway.

After a montage of panting, puffing and music that was so loud and over the top, bar for the brief pause whenever a chef had to chop something; a final sixty seconds were announced and suddenly everyone had to stop.

The chefs stepped up and the tasting began and give or take the odd grating comment – ‘It’s good but has no wow factor’, ‘It just needed a bit more salt’ – all the judges were in agreement that they had all just sampled nine excellent plates of food. Maybe Nick shouldn’t have shaved his nuts quite so much. Maybe Scott should have added a touch more truffle to his chicken. Maybe Mark should have had a shower before cooking. Not that it would have made a difference because Marcus can ‘smell a good chef’ from a thousand paces and after a punch up to judge the champion, it was of no surprise that Mark was pronounced winner of MasterChef: The Professionals 2015 right at the end.

Mark's winning dishes
A bit of emotion finally from the chef

That he started to cry and once again began to rub his face off did raise an eyebrow or two but as he stared at the camera, uttering with a spent look ‘I’ve always been the stern one but hey, at least you’ve got some emotion out of me now’ you could finally see how much this competition meant to him. A star of the future indeed. And a safe punt too.