MasterChef: The Professionals – week six

MasterChef: The Professionals, 2015 – week six

by Food Urchin 19 December 2015

Danny Kingston reviews the penultimate week of MasterChef: The Professionals.

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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.

Curiously, I had a mild panic attack this week and it was all down to MasterChef: The Professionals. It happened on Tuesday night as I settled down for the start of the semi-finals and as per my normal routine, I spent five minutes or so scrambling around, looking for my notebook. Which we shall call the MasterChef Notebook of Extreme Importance. Because without it, I am well and truly borked. It is jam packed this notebook, full of acute observations, the minutiae of what happened, menu details and witty asides about the rubbish that comes out of Gregg’s mouth. It is also written in my own particular brand of scrawl. You really wouldn’t be able to decipher the hieroglyphics and sometimes, neither can I.

Anyway, on Tuesday I couldn’t find the notebook and I practically had a meltdown. Cushions went flying off the settee, books were flung off shelves and accusations soon followed. ‘You!’ I bellowed at each member of my family whilst pointing. ‘What have you done with my MasterChef book?’ As per usual, each member simply glanced up from what they were doing, gave me a withered look that suggested I should ‘do one’ and went back to their business. The MasterChef theme tune then suddenly announced itself on the telly. So I reached for the first bit of paper I could find, sat down and furiously began scribbling. The paper was actually card. A Christmas card from my wife and naturally, you can imagine the consternation that arose from that.

After much screaming, I finally settled on etching tiny words on the back of a British Gas bill, hands all shaky, with the pen making its way onto my jeans on more than one occasion. It was about halfway through the show when the fabled book was suddenly plonked on my lap. Apparently it had been in the loo all along (and yes, I do like to take it in there sometimes, to have a quiet giggle to myself) but by then my nerves were shot and having run out of space with the bill, I had taken my jeans off and started writing on my milky white thighs.

The point being to all of this, is that pressure can do funny things to you. If misplacing a silly little exercise book can do to that me, then God knows how I would fare in a Michelin kitchen. I’d probably self-combust into flames before putting some whites on. So full kudos to all the chefs who ran the gauntlet of a stage in three of the top restaurants in this country. Well done indeed.

Anton Piotrowski
Anton Piotrowski won the series a few years ago
Panna cotta
Mark's panna cotta was certainly well received

Episode sixteen

The first two to go through this test were action man Dean and unshaven Mark and they headed down to the West Country to do a turn at Anton Piotrowski’s award winning gastropub in Devon, The Treby Arms. Anton has form on MasterChef: The Professionals, having won the competition in 2012, and since then he has gone from strength to strength, having garnered a Michelin star. Which in a way, does validate the whole point of chefs entering the show. If they do well, it really helps them to move on and do great things with their careers. Which is more than can be said for the winners of regular MasterChef. Don’t get me wrong, some of them do go on to open restaurants and have successful catering businesses but others have found themselves selling express food processors in department stores and the like. It is still equally a big gamble for full time chefs though and the journey has obviously been fraught for Anton. In building his dream restaurant, he was down to his last £55 at one point, and his wife used to be a Michelin inspector. Can you imagine the stress of all that at breakfast time? ‘These beans on toast look totally sloppy and nonuniform Anton!’ Mon dieu!

For Dean and Mark, their challenge then was to take on a lunch service comprising of 40 covers. All whilst wearing light grey t-shirts that would surely end up soaked in mansweat. Things certainly looked quite daunting for Dean, as he was in charge of a starter that featured no less than 342 elements. OK, I jest. I lost count as Anton reeled off the ingredients but the prospect of juggling smoked scallops with burnt apple, cockles, clams, seaweed, brown shrimps, pickled samphire, citrus dressing and dry ice sounded more than a ‘little bit fiddly’ to me. However, Dean soon found his groove and was plating up with aplomb, with Anton giving him a few fist bumps along the way.

As for Mark, well, just before service, the look of excitement was also palpable in his eyes; but then again, he could have also been having an accident in his pants. No matter, Mark also equipped himself admirably. Having been given the role of preparing a main dish in the shape of cajun goat loin with aubergine puree, charred lettuce, black eyed beans, apricots and goat sauce, he definitely seemed to fulfill Anton’s mantra of ‘Happy food. Happy chefs. Happy customers.’ He even got a bit cocksure halfway through service by plating up without actually looking at the plate. Very cocky that, but it seemed to fit in with the whole vibe of Anton’s kitchen, and no doubt they all went surfing afterwards.

On the second day, both chefs had to tackle one of Anton’s signature dishes; a pigeon wellington, with confit pigeon leg (claw and all), bubble and squeak and apple sauce. Again, both did very well with no real disparaging remarks from Anton, unfortunately. In the eyes of this former champ, they were simply both ‘very, very good chefs’.

Going back to the MasterChef kitchen for the deciding round, things were rather neck and neck then and both Mark and Dean were brimming with confidence. To impress Marcus and Monica, two dishes were the order of the day, a main and a dessert and Dean stepped in first. His charred duck breast with charred carrot and turnip, mandarin gel and duck sauce scored highly with the judges for balance of flavour but Marcus did sniff somewhat at his crunchy root veg. Dean’s pine nut panna cotta with orange granita, orange curd and a gluten free cake also divided opinion. For Monica, his set cream was light and airy but for Marcus it resembled more something more akin to creme brulee, which was confusing to hear and I can appreciate why Dean was left looking so... intense.

That brow furrowed further as Mark showed off his cod fillet with squid ink pasta, scallop mousse, crispy squid and vermouth veloute. Mark was rushing his socks off but Marcus and Monica applauded his efforts for doing so. The sauce in particular really impressed them. They ‘loved it’ in fact and when they looked towards his dessert; a very pretty buttermilk panna cotta with basil sorbet, sous vide strawberries, strawberry jelly and szechuan pepper shortbread, it looked like the deal was done. The word ‘yummy’ from Monica must have felt like a dagger in Dean’s heart, because despite all the reservations from the judges that this was going to be a ‘tough, tough decision’, I think he knew that Mark was going to go through.

Tom Kitchin
Tom Kitchin gave the chefs a tough challenge
Danilo and Nick
Danilo and Nick made it through to the next round

Episode seventeen

The numbers of competing chefs for this episode rose from two to three, which was a bit alarming for me at first. I had yet another panic attack, thinking: ‘Wait a sec, did I completely miss someone out last night?’ But of course the uneven numbers came from the judges putting everyone through in episode fourteen. Is that right? Oh I don’t know. The three chefs in question for this round were Nick, Danilo and Darren and they were flown up to historic Edinburgh to cook under the watchful eye of Tom Kitchin. Who, if you didn’t know, was originally called Tom Smith, but he changed his name by deed poll. Because ‘Kitchin’, well, it sounds more cheffy doesn’t it.

The task at hand was a lunchtime service at Tom’s eponymous The Kitchin Restaurant and Nick, having worked in many a Michelin-starred kitchen before, knew exactly what was in store. ‘The pressure will be immense,’ he said, but for the other two, who are used to working in more sedate climes, this was to be a serious, serious challenge. And I have to say, this was the biggest test of the series so far.

Nick was put in charge of a mains dish; a plethora of lamb that used rack, shoulder, neck and tongue, along with potato spaghetti and heritage carrots. Darren was cooking turbot, the king of the ocean, with mussels, squid and seaweed; the ‘essence of the sea’ in other words. And Danilo had not one but two desserts to contend with. A layered strawberry panna cotta, with fresh strawberries, sorbet and consomme and a gooseberry-stuffed soufflé. If they were going to be late, they had to put their hands up, because in the words of Tom they ‘live and die by the clock!’ Blimey, it was like Braveheart all over again.

‘Get here man, you’ve got to dress the plate!’ ‘Messy, messy, messy!’ ‘Straight souffles please!’ and ‘Yeah? Well you broke ma fish!’ were just some of the barks that came from our feisty, curly headed chef-owner, but I think in his urgings Tom was merely trying to give our chefs a taste of the real deal. Because when things started to calm down, his demeanour became totally cool and complementary; with high fives and back slaps all round.

Mind you, when the next day came around and our chefs had to give their interpretation of one of his signature dishes, ol’ Mr Kitchin did start to turn it on again. The dish in question was a lovely looking melee of crispy sweetbreads with fried ox tongue, girolles, mushroom powder and a potato ‘risotto’. Each plate was met with an intense stare, followed by a good sniff and then a long pause. I am sure Tom was trying to mess with their minds. But if any seeds of doubt were sewn in the initial instance, he soon put them at ease about the quality of their food. As such, they all did well. Although Tom did say that Danilo’s sweetbread was a tad ‘salty.’

To the familiar MasterChef kitchen, these three walked then, with heads high and all the better for that test of fire. Nick in particular seemed very energised and emboldened by his addictive spell up north, and it showed. The word ‘confidence’ has been bounded all the over the place this week and Nick, with his plate of John Dory, lettuce, peas and bacon (a la francaise) and pickled cockles showed plenty of it. The man chose to dress it all on a rectangular plate after all, which is no mean feat in the eyes of Marcus. But it was his stylish dessert, a nougat glace parfait with poached peach, honeycomb, honey jelly and raspberry that really got the tastebuds going for the judges.

Danilo also came flying out of the traps with newfound vim. This quiet and meek Italian was not going to take it anymore and as such, he really impressed with his lamb loin, broad bean pesto, breaded balls, chicory, red pepper puree and liquorice jus. It was, in the twinkly eyes of Marcus and Monica, a ‘very accomplished and interesting dish’. Again, the dessert proved to be a strong point for this chef as he made a deconstructed tiramasu. Or ‘Terry and Sue’ as we like to call it in our house. Having taken a traditional pudding and given it a modern twist, everyone was left smiling. Especially with his velvety coffee ice cream.

Sadly, as is always the way, someone had to take the fall and in this case it was Darren who didn’t quite meet the standards or expectations to continue on in the competition. Which sounds harsh and I don’t mean it to be. If perhaps he was able to serve up some of his confit chicken wings with his halibut and handpicked girolles, instead of overcooking them. Or if he managed to get his peanut praline parfait to chill and set properly, then he would have been in with a chance. But in his own immortal words, ‘it’s the small mistakes that get you booted out’.

Lisa Allen
Lisa Allen was the third chef to put the contestants through their paces
John Dory
Scott's John Dory helped seal his place in the next round

Episode eighteen

The last of the musketeers to compete for final’s week were Cockney Scott, bearded Mark and Andi, who I have now decided looks remarkably like the hip hop DJ Tim Westwood. These three also headed north and found themselves travelling in the back of a cab around the dales of Lancashire at six o’clock in the morning, probably wondering what the hell was going on. But it soon became apparently that they would be doing a session at Michelin-starred Northcote, owned by chef-patron Nigel Haworth and run by head chef Lisa Allen.

With eleven years at the helm, it soon became apparent that Lisa wasn’t the type who would not take fools lightly. This place was her baby and one that she had nurtured and given that she was about to let three strangers roam about in her kitchen, it was obvious that this all represented a big risk for her. Actually, it was more than obvious; she actually said ‘this is a big risk for me’. So she made it quite clear that our chefs had to keep their focus and to be switched on at all times. One slip and they would soon be turned into escabeche.

Bearded Mark, as always, took this all in his stride though. Having been given the task of preparing starters; a venison tartare with pickled mushroom, goat's curd, sorrel leaves and hazelnut, he was more than able to match the freshness, elegance and precision that Lisa required. He might have complained that he wasn’t used to plating up in the way she asked but he still did very, very well. I might say that he found it all too easy and if I were Scott, I would have been tempted to kick him up the backside at some point, to send him sprawling.

But Scott was in enough trouble anyway, having been given wood pigeon glazed in onion sauce to cook. Once Lisa had run through the accompanying garnish of legs, stuffed with chicken mousse, cabbage, girolles and chives with him, he simply gulped and said ‘I’ll do me best.’ Just like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. And he did do his best. Despite a couple of undercooked moments, Scott eventually came out on top.

Andi, who works at his best with his head on the block, had a slightly different service to the rest. Insofar that it was a very shaky one and as he struggled to assemble a dessert of peaches and cream, resplendent with fresh redcurrant, redcurrant granita and mascarpone ice cream. I was yelling at the TV to ‘get the man a brandy or something!’ to calm his nerves. In the end, Lisa had to jump in and save him. Because of that, I suspect that Andi would be happy to never work on pastry again. Still, after service, at she least gave him consolatory wink that it was a very hard test.

He did redeem himself the next day though, when asked to reproduce Lisa’s signature dish, which was another pudding funnily enough. She rather liked his take on her tempered chocolate roll, filled with chocolate mousse and dressed with salted sheep’s milk ice cream and pulled sugar. So all was not lost. She also commended Mark and Scott’s efforts too, admiring their passion and individuality. For plates of food that looked totally different to her own, which I thought was a little too nice of her. But I am sure they all learned something.

So, after absorbing all that talent, like a veritable sheet of kitchen towel, they were back in the kitchen once more. Once more into the breach and all that. And for the first time we saw a speck of worry behind those glasses on Mark! Which did endear him to me once more – I was beginning to think that his style was becoming a touch too swanning. Maybe he has been proverbially thrashing underwater all along, whilst gliding along the surface. Despite the nerves, his dishes were up to the very high standard that he has been displaying throughout. A plate of plaice with textures of cauliflower, pickled, roasted and pureed and used as scales was clever and inventive and his coconut panna cotta delivered just the right amount of ‘wobble’ that Marcus was looking for.

It was Scott though who really shined and surprised everyone I think. He has been doing pretty good throughout but his John Dory with oysters, cockles, cucumber and Cornish potatoes hit a whole new level. The judges were beside themselves at the quality of his dish. Then he hit them again, with a honeycomb mousse with apple, raspberry and a verdant sorrel sauce. Marcus and Monica were left dumbfounded by it, such was its brilliance. It was quite ominous in fact that Marcus should announce that ‘people should start worrying about this guy’.

Which couldn’t have been good for Andi’s confidence, because despite a fairly good effort with his main, a playful dish composed of sea trout with crispy skin, mussels, samphire, cockles and broth, he had quite the disaster with his dessert. Unfortunately the shakes returned and as he plopped out a flabby looking chocolate delice, his passionfruit parfait just couldn’t save him and alas, you could tell that it was game over for him. And so could he. And an entire nation all cried. Because we all liked Andi.

The seething cauldron of finals week now beckons then, where the chefs will have endure the most intense pressure of their entire lives. But listen up chefs – Mark, Nick, Danilo Scott and Mark – it will be nothing, absolutely nothing compared to the pressure of losing the MasterChef Notebook of Extreme Importance. I can tell you that right now.