Australian food television connoisseur and disappointment addict Eleanor Robertson journeys through cyber space and time to watch and recap TV3’s competitive cooking show, Masterchef New Zealand each week.
Team challenges on Masterchef are often where things fall apart. Contestants who’ve been plating up lacy tuiles, singing arias to their soufflés, constructing elaborate shrines in front of the sous vide machine to pray for the perfect 63°C egg: they’re all at risk. It’s no different on Sunday’s episode of Masterchef NZ, except that the budget’s pretty low so they don’t get to do the challenge anywhere exciting, like at an actual restaurant.
“Welcome to my world,” says judge Mark at the beginning. This is a bizarre and nonsensical claim. As a restaurateur he presumably spends his life in and around restaurants, not TV studios kitted out to look like gaudy, pre-GFC casino bars from one of the bad Pierce Brosnan Bond films.
Sarah, the tall 19-year-old who looks like a cherub and cooks food that I would eat voluntarily, is recused from the competition because she won the last episode. Good – she’s too precious for this crap earth. The challenge is to design a modern Indian menu to feed a group of guests who are restaurant employees of the judges. Good move, judges: this means they can’t say anything you don’t like, in case you fire them. Very Machiavellian.
“These diners aren’t just run-of-the-mill, off-the-street Kiwis,” warns Al. Yeah, these aren’t just some unwashed peasants Al fished out of a ditch whilst wearing cattle pregnancy testing gloves up to his shoulders. These people know how to blow on a pie.
“Make sure all your ducks are in a row,” he continues. “These people literally live and breathe kitchens.”
Oh come on, Al. As if you’re not misusing the word ‘literally’ on purpose for cheap laughs from bitter TV writers like me. Try harder mate.
Tim and Leo are team captains. Tim picks Hayley, Gemma, Chris and Jemima; Leo chooses Glenda, Richard, Ben and Lily. Each team sets about designing a menu, which Glenda is nervous about because she’s never cooked Indian food before. I am baffled by this. I think I cooked my first inauthentic weeknight chicken curry at the age of 10 or 11. As a passionate but poor and lazy home cook, I’ve still got a banger palak paneer recipe that involves making my own cheese and pressing it in the fridge. If I can do that, surely Glenda can pick up a jar of curry paste and mix in some coconut milk to feed to her mewling children on a Wednesday evening.
From the start, Leo’s looking shaky and Tim’s breezing through like he’s been doing this for 40 years. Al wafts through the kitchen like a stale fart, burbling things like “get a move on” and “cook food make hot for guest din dins”. He makes a pit stop to mop Leo’s sweaty brow; the man’s perspiring like an overworked horse. He and Lily spend pretty much the entire challenge running around in circles and barking. Lily, who is completely charming and always looks like she’s using 25% of her brain to communicate with aliens, is worried about letting her team down. Bless her cotton socks.
The difference between the teams is obvious in the demeanours of their respective front-of-house staff. Glenda, who’s running the red team’s pass, spends the episode doing her nut at her teammates, stopping just short of clambering over the bench and whipping Leo with a wooden spoon. Hayley, on the other hand, casually breezes in and out with orders and food, occasionally stopping for a quick chat or high five.
During the judging, both teams plate up non-life threatening cuisine. The red team’s samosas and chai panna cotta both look pretty good, and the blue team’s lamb curry with puffed rice is declared a triumph. But the real winner of the day is Sarah, who gets to sit on the judging panel, adding a touch of humanity to Al’s muddled rambling, Mark’s eight-word-vocabulary reviews, and Josh’s… I don’t even know what Josh says. I believe him to be a mannequin one of the producers stole from a department store on the way to the first day of taping, and I keep expecting him to fall over sideways onto the floor.
The blue team wins, the red team loses, and – surprise! – nobody is going home. At first I’m furious about this. Why miss a perfectly good chance to send someone packing? Where are the tears? But then it cuts to Lily’s narration.
“Yaaaaaaaay!” she cries, in a pure and beautiful expression of relief. “Too good to be true! I love you Mark!”
No Lily, I love you.
Yeah baby, it’s a nose-to-tail challenge! Because Masterchef NZ is basically easy mode, the range of gross ingredients isn’t actually that bad. After a short lecture from Mark on his razor-thin restaurant margins and the importance of not wasting food, Al whips a funereal black rug off the table to reveal pigs’ head, beef cheek, tongue, lamb neck, and for some reason, crayfish. He whips out a shiny coin and makes the contestants flip it for heads or tails. Weirdly, nobody asks Mark to produce his restaurant’s financial ledger so we can check if he’s accidentally spending 70% of his budget on luxury candles.
Some are allowed to pick their own ingredient, but some have to pick for each other. Ben, because he’s a shitlord, picks crayfish for Lily, reasoning that it’s a soft option and there’s a high chance she’ll stuff it up. Luckily, it’s clear that Lily is favoured by the gods. She’s got that look that Mila Jovovich tried to portray in that awful Joan of Arc movie – the unshakeable but still humble determination of someone who’s pretty sure if they get shot, a Bible will magically appear in their breast pocket seconds before the bullet hits.
Richard the butcher chooses lamb neck, a braising cut, and decides to turn it into a pie because he’s a white male between the ages of 30 and 65 so if he doesn’t eat three pies a day his todger will fall off and crawl away in disgrace. Chris the Jorts Man is making beef cheek with polenta, and as always, he looks like your good-natured friend who’s been stoned more or less constantly since 2002 and holds a doctorate in bong engineering. I’d bet an ounce of dank bud that Chris could make a bong out of a bike helmet and a curly straw, and when he offered you a hit from it he’d say “get it up ya bro”. Thanks Chris, maybe later mate.
Jemima, whose plating always looks like an anxious 12-year-old tried to arrange the food with reference to a Women’s Weekly family favourites cookbook from 1978, is going okay. Al trundles over to patronise her like he always does, and she takes it with good humour. She reminds me of the shy kid in every primary school class who never got over the shame of wetting their pants on the first day of kindy, and has fight-or-flight reactions every time the ball comes near them during combined year 3 and 4 cricket practice.
Lily ends up making a stunning crayfish and parsley Spätzle dish, and the judges lap it up. They say she’s pushing out in front, which is the smartest conclusion they’ve come to all season. Richard’s pie and Glenda’s beef cheek are also received well, but Glenda serves her cheek on a wooden board, so the gravy can’t be poured over without risking the fronts of the judges’ trousers. I was really hoping they’d pour it on and let it stain their pants brown just to prove the point, but I guess I’ll have to wait until the Raw Chicken and Mouldy Rice challenge to see them crap themselves. Salmonella could still take out this competition.
Tim plates up a baffling crayfish dish with fussy circles cut out of green apple. Gemma, the contestant I formerly thought of as The Pointy One, does a dish with a million elements and techniques. I assume this is because she’s auditioning to be one of those chefs from the heady days of the 80s who’d stew 5g of compacted lobster in gold saffron broth and serve it to you in a priceless Ming vase. It’s a bit clumsy, but she’s putting her back into it, which I respect.
Lily wins the challenge, because she’s a perfect crazy angel. The bottom two are Chris the jorts man and Ben, who tried to screw Lily over. In an act of transparent cosmic injustice, Chris gets turfed instead of Ben. Chris was never a serious contender, but I’d really gotten used to having his jorts and stoner grin as constant companions on this horrible journey. Somehow, I know Al is to blame for this. Watch your back, hat fucker. I’m onto you.
Masterchef NZ airs Sunday 7pm and Mondays 7.30pm on TV3
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