FACT – I watched about 4 episodes of MasterChef the Professionals this year (including the one with "39 Year Old Lee" and the one where cocky Kevin threw a wobbly).
FACT – That means I’m probably not qualified to review it.
FACT – That’s not going to stop me.
Our three finalists are Claire Lara, a tutor at Liverpool Community College; John Calton, chef at the Duke of Wellington pub, in Newton, Northumberland and Dave Coulson, chef at the Eden Castle Inn in Hartlepool. They’re all Northern. One of them will win.
Backstory time! Some kind of MOR dross (Keane?) plays as we find ourselves in Liverpool to discover that Clare grew up on a beach with a postman who fed her on oven chips. Suddenly Air plays, filling me with intense deja vu, but it all makes sense, as next she did a YTS which sent her to Paris for five years (long freaking youth training scheme), and fell for a French chef called Marc who thought her an oddball, but married her anyway. She now teaches kids in Liverpool not to steal cars.
Bob Dylan heralds shots of shakey Dave walking over a red bridge. I spent ages staring at David yesterday when they made cakes for macaron king Pierre Herme, wondering who he reminded me of, and it’s finally hit me – Dehydrator Eddie, Chandler’s insane room-mate in Friends.
Dave's the first person in his family not to be a coal-miner (What? Even your mum? And your granny?). As a youth, he went to football academy, but he left that and needed something to do, so he grew some facial hair. For some reason, he then tells us he’s had one girlfriend during the whole time he's been a chef. His mum says he’s fat.
Smashing Pumpkins plays for John, a cross between Craig Charles and Mark Lamarr – he chucked in being an electrical engineer and then became a kitchen porter, before working his way up to chef. He says he wants to give 110% - anyone who says that should be automatically disqualified.
These people are all younger than me.
Anyway, their first challenge tonight is to cook for a host of chefs who between them hold over 40 Michelin stars, eg Pierre Koffman, Claire Smyth, Alain Roux, Joscelyn Herland.
They're making a 3 course menu designed by Michel Roux Junior (creepy uncle one - Gregg Wallace being creepy uncle two) and the venue is Pearl at the Chancery Court Hotel in Holborn (where the frig is Jun Tanaka?)
David is responsible for the starter of salmon sashimi, marinated in citrus zest, topped with a crispy salmon skin rectangle, accompanied with black sesame puree and a deep-fried tiger prawn wrapped in shoe-string *cough* kadaifa pastry, served with pickled radish and drizzled with oil. Simples.
Claire is making a Paul Bocuse dish of pan-fried red mullet coated with finely sliced potato "scales", on a bed of white and green asparagus with a liver and red wine sauce. Fish and liver. Yummy. She has to scale and fillet 30 mullets, trim 180 asparagus and make 900 potato scales. Simples.
John is on dessert duty, with an assiette of framboise comprising white chocolate parfait, raspberry liqueur jelly, raspberry sorbet topped with tuille, raspberry souffle and shortbreads with raspberry coulis. Michel eyeballs John and says “You can’t afford to f*ck up". Simples.
David's a bit wary "I cook leeks, man". He then tastes some dashi and opines "That is good, like. It’s weird - dunno what it tastes like, but it tastes nice, like".
I’m glad that I’m the writer and he’s the chef.
He then preps the salmon, but forgets to keep the skin and to remove the bloodline – Michel yells "Trim your loins!" and David says, “This is really, really hard, like. Like harder than any restaurant. It’s mental, like".
I’m glad that I’m the writer and he’s the chef.
As voiceover lady tries to make it sound like marinading a fish for TWO. AND. A. HALF. HOURS. is the biggest deal in the world, David admits "I don’t really understand these ingredients. I’ve never heard of the Japanese spices. If I screw this, we’re all screwed".
No, mate - you’re screwed.
Meanwhile, Claire’s making potato scales, and Michel says she’s got chef’s brain, which is possibly something like housemaid’s knee.
In the pastry section, John has somehow made the raspberry jelly look like it's covered in washing up liquid, and Michel says in the understatement of the year “That’s not particularly nice”.
To add insult to injury, John then makes the sh!ttest raspberry tuiles known to man, and fails to understand that two shortbreads per person when there are 30 covers means 60 shortbreads and not 31.
Where is Gregg? Where is Jun Tanaka?
Suddenly Claire has a bit of a turn and needs to go for some air, as only 20 mullet have been prepped. Gregg (ah, there he is) reels her back in by telling her to go to her happy place and attempts to show emotion by pawing clumsily at her back.
The music from the end of Trading Places (okay, it's Mozart or something) plays as the superstar chef diners begin to arrive.
There's Brett Graham (The Ledbury), Olivier Limousin (L’Atelier Joel Robuchon), Helene Darroze (The Connaught), Michael Caines (Gidleigh Park - just voted top of The Sunday Times Food List), John Campbell (Coworth Park), Atul Kochhar (Benares), Andrew Fairlie, Alexis Gauthier, Philip Howard (the Square), and Martin Burge (Watley Manor).
As well as chefs, there are restaurateurs David Moore (Pied a Terre and L’Autre Pied - the put-upon one from The Restaurant) and Will Smith (no, not that one, but from Arbutus and Wild Honey).
Lastly there's Derek Brown and Chris Miller, ex Michelin Inspectors.
Anyway, I don’t care about any of them because Monica is there. Monica!
Back in the kitchen, and voiceover lady intones "DAVID has to SCRAPE the marinade off the salmon". Never has cuisine sounded so repugnant.
"I’m gonna put me all into it, like" says David earnestly, and I decide I quite like him, even if he does look like he'd mug you for a Yorkie Bar.
Give me your Yorkie. In return, I may dehydrate something for you.
Michel says to him “You're leaving yourself very little time to dress up neatly" which seems a bit personal (though he does need a good iron).
Back in the restaurant and it's my favourite hobbit! *happy thoughts*
David's salmon starter goes out - what's the verdict? Alexis Gauthier says it's a bit shabby, but Pierre Koffmann give the presentation 10/10 (FIGHT!), and Atul Kochhar give it a Thums Up (taste the thunder).
Clare Smyth says to Dave “I don’t think you could have done a better job” which seems a bit harsh. For Dave, it’s been like boxing with Pele, or playing football with Muhammed Ali. Or something.
Claire's mullet is finally ready, and the chefs tuck in - Pierre Koffmann says the green asparagus is undercooked, and there's not enough sauce, but Tom Kitchin and Claire Smyth say she's nailed it.
Jean Christopher Ansany-Alex from L’Auberge de l’Ile says "it’s perfectable - is that a word?" and it's not, but I don't mind, as I'm bathing in his treacly Frenchy-French accent.
As for Claire herself – she’s over the moon, and weirdly they seem to be playing the love theme from Indiana Jones.
Meanwhile, John has been in the pastry kitchen, so has to bring all the puds back to the main kitchen in a service lift. I’m feeling quite teary with empathy at this moment, as I remember staggering with stockpots down the stairs at the Wild Garlic (no, I'm not f*cking going on MasterChef for real).
He attempts to blowtorch off the scum from the jelly, and then Michel cusses him for having puds that slide around and tells him to fix them with jam.
"Top shelf" says John, and all I can think of is nudie mags, but alas he's referring to the souffles.
Out go the assiettes.
“My tuile is a bit soft, guys” says Michael Caines, and no-one knows where to look, which is a bit unsympathetic, as it's a common problem for men his age.
Comments come in - "No howlers", "Very, very good attempt", "A lot to deliver", "Glad it wasn’t us".
“It’s been a good day” says John. The sad music (and comments) think otherwise.
John, David and Claire are brought in to see the chefs one last time. Alexis Gauthier says lovely things with that lovely smile he has.
Then Monica (Monica!) tells them she’s pleased she put them through the first round (thus acknowledging the fact that it has sod all to do with Wallace).
Talking of Wallace, where’s he been? Oh, there he is!
Where was Jun Tanaka?
A shot of Big Ben! So this means we’re back in London, having been all the way over at Pearl which is in … London.
Michel winks at them coquettishly as he says "This is it, guys. Treat us today. Spoil us", and the three of them start thinking of ways to incorporate Ferrero Rocher into their dishes.
2 ½ hours, 3 dishes, 1 champion.
John again says he needs to put in 110 % (seriously man - if it was up to me, the first time you said it, you'd be out).
I fail to pay attention to any of the cooking, though I do notice that Gregg has upgraded from merely wanting to stick his face in puddings to wanting to dip his head in them.
The Final Frontier
John's dishes are:
- Poached lobster with tempura lobster claw served with a salad of mango, tomato, basil and avocado;
- Panfried turbot with langoustines, potato fondant, truffle celeriac puree, white asparagus;
- Dark chocolate mousse, topped chocolate nougatine on a green tea financier, and milk ice cream.
Michel says “Visually great” and John says “Let’s hope it tastes nice”, but this sounds less of a joke and more of a genuine concern.
For John's starter, Michel says the “the lobster has a chewy edge which is nice [really?], but the salad is a little bland” .
Gregg says he likes the “metallic tang of basil” and I wonder if he's pregnant, as apparently your tastebuds play tricks on you when you're up the duff.
For John's main, Gregg says "Balance those up and I’ll give him a big kiss", and I cheer, as it's just not MasterChef without untoward and slightly pervy comments from Puddingface.
For Michel "the presentation is bang on the ticket; it's heavenly; the turbot is slightly over, but I'll forgive you because it's glorious" .
Gregg says "Corrrrr ... it's really lovely" .
For John's pudding, Michel says "very indulgent and expensive ingredients" (not fancy-pants gold leaf though, was it?).
John says "I want to be as good as this guy", gesturing at Michel, who replies “I’m not that good”, and he looks so deadly serious that I wonder if an owl hooted and a clock chimed in the studio at that point.
But John's dessert is "great, chocolatey, rich yet light - though one little let-down – ice cream is grainy" says Michel. For me, the let-down is that it looks like a doo-doo sandwich.
Gregg says "I think that’s absolutely lovely - despite the graininess, with chocolate of that quality I’ll sit happily with a spoon in my hand all day" - but then how will the pud get in your mouth, Gregg? HOW?
Claire's dishes are:
- Crispy skinned seatrout with balled apples and apple puree, baby leek stems in caper and cider beurre blanc
- Roasted boneless pigeon on mashed potato, peas and pancetta with quince jelly and a red wine sauce
- Raspberry and white chocolate millefeuille served with lemon thyme filo discs dusted with raspberry powder and raspberries
Claire's starter "works perfectly" for Michel, but Gregg is slightly less enamoured as the apple "though not unpleasant, is a big wash of sweet juice which takes away from the sweetness, but that wouldn’t stop me really enjoying it".
I'm not sure anything would, Gregg.
As for Claire's main, it's making Michel salivate with its "lovely crisp skin, rich, deep, quite simply delicious" .
Gregg says "Oh my word, that’s brilliant – the sort of dish the waiter tries to take away and you’re still picking with your fingers". Shudder.
Claire's pudding for Michel is "Neat, precise and classy. Damn good. I would definitely, definitely wipe the plate clean".
Gregg just says "Lovely, lovely, lovely", and I'm relieved that he's spared me another gruesome mental image.
David says "I’ve used my imagination on this. It’s pretty cool, like" in an accent so
lazily Scouse Ringo Starr that all I can think of is Thomas the Tank Engine.
He then says he wants to give the judges something to really think about, which sounds more like a threat than a promise.
His dishes are:
- Mackerel pate with smoked mackerel and tartare with raw mackerel, pickled cucumber;
- Deconstructed chicken and mushroom pie on a roasted mushroom topped with puff pastry served with a sweet sticky chicken wing, poached chicken breast, crispy skin, mashed potato;
- Hot chocolate mousse on top of rice crispy cake, with a cherry sorbet and cherries soaked in kirsch.
Re David's starter, Michel says it's "very clever, very good seasoning. Works well, very well in fact".
Gregg says it "tastes good - leaves me wanting more, but maybe the main is the 'more' I’m after".
I'm idly wondering where I've had mackerel tartare before, and realise it's the Ship pub in Wandsworth, where it was bloody good.
David's pie is next - Michel says "Wow, I’ve never seen that before. This guy’s got imagination. It’s fun. I love it when that happens. It’s a clever dish. And I want a plateful of those wings".
Gregg says "Cor, I think that pie is lovely - the meaty strong morels match the chicken".
I'm idly wondering where I've had deconstructed chicken and mushroom pie before, and realise it's ... the Ship pub in Wandsworth, where it was bloody good.
And now I'm a bit scared.
Lastly, it's David's pudding - Michel says it "has to be very, very tasty to make up for the poor visual aspect". But "the mousse is rich, intense as it should be. You removed the stones, but replaced the stalks which is craftmanship. And the chocolate crispies at the bottom are chocolate crispies". This last comment seems least helpful. Gregg says something. I've lost interest.
Our three heroes are then sent away, whilst Michel and Gregg begin to deliberate.
"John picked the right day to get it together, he's grown and taken everything on board" .
"Claire’s food was stunning, delicate, elegant, but with depth of taste – she's a class act".
"David’s forte is delivering great taste in abundance" .
"All three have immense potential - I love all three of them so much - where do you draw the line?" (I would say inappropriate touching is where you draw the line, Michel).
John, David and Claire are brought back into the room for one last time and "With or Without You" plays for no apparent reason other than to give Bono some royalties. Where is Take That? I demand some Take That.
Then after the longest pause imagineable ...
Michel announces Claire as the winner, and I'm quietly smug that I've backed the winning horse since 2005.
Although never have I cared so little about a MasterChef final. Apart from Celebrity MasterChef.
But then I've never bothered watching that.
All screencaps copyright BBC / SHINE