Four courses and six very famous chefs stand between our amateur cooking heroes and a $100,000 cheque.
In any competition, a grand final is a magical event. You can feel it in the electric crackle of anticipation and sense it in the surrounding pomp and ceremony. The grand final of My Kitchen Rules NZ is no exception: celebrity chef judges Pete Evans and Manu Feildel have turned out in full black tie.
They look extremely fancy standing at the foot of the Sky Tower, and so they should. The final two teams – Chris and Bex, married of Wanaka, and Heather and Mitch, platonic friends of Christchurch – have performed incredible feats of under-pressure cooking to make it to this stage in the competition. When was the last time Pete or Manu cooked a mouthwatering salmon sous-vide in under two hours? These finalists deserve all the respect a black tie dress code confers.
To be fair, both probably deserve the $100,000 prize – Chris and Bex for their technicality and consistency, Heather and Mitch for their never-say-die battler attitude – but this is a grand final, and there can be only one. To help Pete and Manu with the judging, they have roped in a formidable panel of notable Kiwi chefs: Ray McVinnie, Sean Connolly, Nadia Lim and Metro’s 2016 Chef of the Year, Tom Hishon.
As if the teams need any added stress, a handful of friends and family have also been brought in and told to stand on the restaurant side of the open kitchen screaming encouragement all night long. Heather greets one of her friends by complimenting her on her “good spray tan!” – one of the greatest negs ever broadcast on New Zealand television.
The four defeated teams have been invited back too, to smile down on the finalists like the ghosts in the sky at the end of Return of the Jedi.
What’s for tea?
An unprecedented four courses will determine the champion of MKRNZ 2017: an entrée, a fish course, a meat course and dessert.
Heather and Mitch kick off their bid for glory with a Mussel and saffron soup. Pete, who is sounding uncharacteristically hoarse, croaks that it is “a strong start” and his table of cooking royalty agrees. Similarly, Chris and Bex’s Duck, walnut and pickled grape salad gets a resounding vote of approval. McVinnie, in particular, loves what he’s tasting and goes so far as to call the raw onion element “genius.” Advantage: Chris and Bex.
For the fish course, the Wanaka pair make blue cod, butter beans and cauliflower. Clams don’t even feature on the menu, yet they are the star of the dish for Pete. The fish is well-cooked, but the butter bean puree leaves an overly-acidic taste in his mouth, which is “quite jarring.” Heather and Mitch have an opening with their John Dory, coconut and cauliflower curry, but McVinnie slates it as “completely one-dimensional.” He wants something to cut the sweetness of the curry – “where’s the lime or the chilli?” he pleads. Advantage: Chris and Bex.
The meat course was always going to be Heather and Mitch’s strong suit, and Mitch pulls through with another clutch performance for the beef fillet, barley, creamed spinach and onions. Steak connoisseur Sean Connolly praises the perfectly cooked bit of meat, but the presence of about five different type of onion in the dish sends him into a tailspin and “blew out [his] palate,” preventing him from being able to taste the steak. Pete loves the sauce, but wishes there was four or five times more of it. It’s “a good dish… but not great.”
Chris and Bex’s meat course is redemption gnocchi and oxtail ragu – so named because they absolutely ballsed-up the same dish in their Instant Restaurant. Their only major misstep in the competition to date has been haunting Chris, and the pair have been tirelessly practising ever since. That practice pays off with what Connolly and McVinnie agree is the “dish of the day.” Manu is close to tears as he describes the “soft little pillow” texture of the gnocchi. “This is gnocchi made in heaven,” raves McVinnie.
The only way Chris and Bex can lose this from here is if Bex drops the tray of desserts she must precariously cart in and out of the fridge. At one point Heather has a clear-cut opportunity to psyche her opponent out and put her off balance – the ultimate test of good or evil. It turns out she’s good after all, and the advantage remains emphatically with Team Wanaka.
Their dessert, on paper, is gloriously simple: imagine winning MKR with Rhubarb and custard. But this is the fanciest rhubarb and custard ever created… and the judges hate it. “Have they got shares in the gelatine industry or something?” McVinnie quips – please get him on as a third judge next season – while Connolly outrageously upturns his glass to demonstrate how firmly the dish has set. “The ratios are all wrong,” cries Manu, and suddenly Heather and Mitch are in with a sniff.
“I know the Dessert Queen is going to nail it tonight,” Mitch confidently predicted earlier in the episode, but in the kitchen Heather is crumbling like the bases of her L&P cheesecake served with passionfruit cream and hokey pokey. It’s the World Cup final, they’re down a goal with time up on the clock and Heather can hardly walk from exhaustion – yet somehow she finds the strength for one last run into the box to volley home the late equaliser and send the game to extra time. Her cheesecake is outstanding – “feather light,” says Pete; “one of the best I’ve ever tasted,” sings McVinnie. The foodie friends are coming back in in a big way.
“Heather, you are very quiet,” Manu notices as the teams line up to learn their fate. “I’m shitting cinder blocks mate,” she replies, at least the third time she has used that specific turn of phrase this season. “I love your honesty,” Manu chuckles.
Each of the six celebrity chefs will score the teams out of ten for their combined four courses. Will Heather and Mitch’s good-average-average-great win out over Chris and Bex’s great-good-great-bad? 8s all round – apart from a 7 from Nadia Lim ensuring Heather will never touch another My Food Bag so long as she lives – make it seem possible. Chris and Bex need to beat 47 out of 60.
Connolly gives them an 8. Lim gives them an 8. McVinnie gives them a 9. This is the moment everybody realises Chris and Bex have won My Kitchen Rules NZ. The result is confirmed with three more 9s from Pete and Manu and the Metro Chef of the Year. It’s almost as if their custard and rhubarb wasn’t that bad after all.
“We’ve had to put up with a few boring yarns along the way but apart from that it’s a top effort,” says Mitch, by far the most gracious words he has spoken in the last ten weeks. He and Heather started the show as dreadful villains and came out the other end quite likeable, but still villains. They should open the restaurant they dreamed about opening with the $100,000 anyway.
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Chris and Bex were the best cooks, though, and they are rightful champions. In a sad postscript to the show the pair have separated since filming, meaning we may never get to see them turn the $100,000 prize money into Wanaka’s most angelic catering company. Wherever their journeys may lead, let us salute them and their unrivalled mastery of fancy cooking techniques.
Free pitch for Season 4: MKRNZ Celebrity Pro-Am. Pair the six celebrity chefs from the grand final with six of New Zealand’s most inept cooks. Heather and Mitch are the new judges.
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