MasterChef: The Professionals 2013 - week 1

The Staff Canteen

MasterChef: The Professionals 2013 has kicked off. The Staff Canteen will be following the contestants’ progress closely this year with a series of blogs from food blogger Danny Kingston aka Food Urchin.

Here he reflects on the first week of the new series.

So, phase three of the juggernaut that is MasterChef commenced earlier this week. We’ve had the amateurs who thrashed it out earlier this year. We’ve had the celebs preen and swoon over their stoves. Now it is time for the professionals to ply their trade and show off their skills to the professionals.

The Über-professionals, as it were. Oh and Gregg Wallace. For those who are brave enough to enter this competition, it’s a tough, tough gig. Reputations are on the line here and some of the chefs came out admirably in the first round of heats and quarter finals. However, some did not and it did make me wonder what they were doing there in the first place. As the old adage goes, the camera never lies.

But hey, onwards and upwards so let’s have a brief rundown of how things went. Well everyone is pretty familiar with the start of the show by now I am sure. The opening pensive club soundtrack, the flashing logo, the contestants walking around the corner into frame just like those chaps from Reservoir Dogs and shots of people setting things on fire in their restaurant kitchens.

Judges Michel Roux Jr and Monica Galetti loom large and ever so menacingly into view, Gregg barks something incoherent in the background and it’s off we go. Monica’s invention test is the main fodder for the first episode and for all eight chefs, there is a charmer of an ingredient in the list for them to tackle; quinoa, that grain which is often found at the bottom of bird cages.

Still, everyone leaps in with great aplomb and they all come up with various dishes of interminable success. Rugby playing Scott from St Andrews wisely leaves the goosefoot alone and impresses with his jelly, shortbread and lemon mascarpone whereas hotel sous chef Matt ruffles noses with a strawberry rice pudding that looks like pink cat sick. In the next episode, our earnest group gets split up and Monica hits the first four with a skills test that involves creating delicate coconut tuiles.

Or “Twills.” As Gregg likes to call them. Unfortunately, everyone’s efforts crumple into an abstract mess. Apart from spice king Luke, who turns out a nifty looking plate whilst panting and puffing all over the place. Get that man an asthma pump, quick! It is then time for a master class from Monsieur Roux Jr who ably demonstrates how to make an ancient Beer Zoop (I love it every time he turns on that sexy French accent).

The stumbling block for some students this time around though is making accompanying choux pastry buns to be filled with a cheese and ham mornay. But thankfully Marcus, head chef from Trent, excels with his perfectly formed balls and Michel is delighted every time he pops one in his mouth. To make it through to the quarter final, the chefs have to impress with their twists on classics and again the result is a mixed bag.

Dishes such as boeuf bourguignon and a Moroccan lamb tagine shine but alas, beef fillet with oyster tempura and lamb with mint, mint and more mint do not. Sadly, self-taught Lindsay is the one who has to go and off she trudges, possibly ruing the decision to use Michel as a guinea pig. Episode 3 brings the remaining four back into the kitchen and Monica gets up to her old tricks again with the skills test as she plonks some abalone on the table and asks her bewildered chefs what it is.

If I were in their position, I’d probably venture that it was some hawked phlegm spat out in a shell but luckily the chefs get stuck in, with Michael from Nantwich going so far as to eating the damn thing raw. Quentin on the other hand, reveals very early in the game that he really is a very messy cook, and is therefore a very naughty boy. Another test over and another master class begins. This time Michel rustles up a lovely “Magretducanardalabordelaise.” Or duck with red wine sauce to you and me. Super smiler, Petrus from South Africa really gets in the zone with his interpretation of this dish and the story he tells whilst cooking warms the cockles of our hearts.

Meanwhile, Scott continues to pile his ingredients high up to the sky. To see who gets through to the quarter finals, there is another succession of classic ‘twists’ including excellent executions of salmon en papillote and duck a l'orange and the process of elimination feels like a tricky one for the judges on this occasion. “What does your gut tell you?” Monica asks and Michel grimaces, as if he were shifting an ill wind.

So a tough decision maybe but messy Quentin is the one who has to walk on this occasion. For the final episode this week, to sort out the wheat from the chaff, the invention test was brought back in and our chefs had a fanciful mix of pigeon, trout, duck, mussels, butternut squash, cherries and dark chocolate to choose from. Personally, I would have gone for a savoury meat/fish trifle of some description but our competitors travelled along a more refined route where sous vide pigeon breasts and butternut purees were the order of the day. Heads had to fall though and Michael and Matt were soon ousted for their lack of pizazz and a lack of sauce.

The deciding round, the one that would see two chefs go through to the semi-finals was adjudicated by food writers and restaurant critics William Sitwell, Tracey MacLeod and Charles Campion and the pressure in the kitchen was evident on the remaining sweaty faces. Luke stuck to his fiery guns with monkfish masala. Scott bolstered his underlying confidence with loin of lamb and sweetbread ravioli. Petrus served up a plate of childhood memories spritzed with chakalaka sauce. And Marcus walked off the edge of the cliff with his duck, squid and pineapple.

As you might expect, the critics were quite fierce in some quarters, bemoaning student nightmare cooking and soil and grit and nonsense but overall they were quite fair. And overall, it was quite apparent as to what pair were going to go through. Namely Luke and Scott. If I were to be hypercritical, I would say that a couple of the chefs who entered the first round of events were half-baked prospects from the start and as of yet, we haven’t seen an outstanding original talent.

But it is early days and things could change throughout the series. The next bunch of pale-faced, sunken eyed hopefuls have yet to walk around that corner (seriously, you can see hours and hours of service edged on some contestants faces) so all is not lost. I just wonder who is going to be Mr Pink next week.

Danny is a food adventurer, enthusiastic allotmenteer, supper club host and writer of the entertaining and quirky epicurian blog, Food Urchin. He also writes for Great British Chefs and past credits also include writing for Delicious Magazine online and MSN Food and he is an absolute sucker for East End pie and mash (with loads of liquor and vinegar).  

>>> Read our article on past MasterChef: The Professionals winners here

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Editor 8th November 2013

MasterChef: The Professionals 2013 - week 1