"It starts with what is beneath this shroud of mystery."
A shroud? Of mystery? I'm pretty sure the Shroud of Turin deserves the title Shroud Of Mystery. What Simon Gault was referring to would best be described as a tablecloth of... no, just a tablecloth. A flash one, yes. Embroidered even.
This may all seem a bit trivial. Poking fun for the sake of it. Flogging a dead joke, etc, and it is. But it's the straw that broke this camel's back.
Until this point in the episode it had all been pretty much my usual routine. I fast forwarded through the recap, the coming up, the opening titles. You really can only sit through those twice - the first time they're on for a laugh, and on Grand Final night as a kind of farewell.
I then prepared to turn a blind eye to the usual weekly gripes.
The mansion shots ("I'm exhausted it's been a long week"), the driving shots ("going back to the kitchen we definitely know there is going to be a challenge in store for us"), the no-shit Sherlock live-captioning from the contestants ("I arrive into the kitchen and I see a table with a black shroud on it, and I'm thinking what is going on").
I'M thinking what is going on. All this fluff has hammered me down for weeks and now I'm starting to accept it without question, then Josh Emett drops a pun about last week.
"Because last week's challenge was a cruise...". Cracks are appearing in my usually calm demeanor. I'm a kettle and someone forgot to fill me up before turning me on. Gault starts talking about double-bangers and fireworks and that pretty much brings us up to date. We're back at the shroud.
The truth is I can't stand all the non-solicited extras. They are the junk mail to the cooking's letter from a friend. If the comments on this blog (the printable and the unprintable) are anything to go by then you think so too. We're 3'28" in already and that is time I'd have rather spent watching cooking or judicial advice.
The judges are all chefs. Prove it! Show us why they're there. Why must we wait for MasterClass to see their stuff? For whatever reason, Gault seems to have accepted this is how it is and is comfortable with it. Emett certainly isn't afraid of a pun or two. But there is still hope for McVinnie. You can almost see the colour drain from his face as he serves up the pre-scripted plot points. More than any other judge this season he really seems to be trying to give constructive feedback and encouragement to the cooks. There is a Gary Mehigan in there just bursting to get out.
Would it be so bad to just brief the judges on the challenge, roll the cameras and let them go for it, sans script?
Well that's my mid-season crisis over. I've said my piece. On to the cooking.
"Then the judges came out with some fish puns and I was pretty sure it was going to be a fish challenge," says Kris. Give me strength.
But if fish-friendly Kris is happy with the challenge, Paula is not. "I was a bit nervous because I haven't actually filleted a fish yet," she reveals. That's quite a surprise to hear from Paula - she's top four material for sure. This had better frighten her into some nighttime mansion kitchen homework.
The challenge is to identify the ten types of fish with the winner getting an advantage in the main challenge. I'd be struggling as much as most of them. "I should know these fish, my dad's going to kill me," Kelly says.
But if anyone was going to nail this one it was going to be Kris, right? Vanessa clearly thought so too, as she sidled up next to him and tried to copy his answers. In what universe is that okay? Well obviously in Vanessa's universe, as she quite happily admitted it to us. For a show that makes a religion of rules, regulations and time limits, letting that slide was a bit shit.
In the space of the next 21 seconds we hear that the judges were "stunned mullets", "who got the catch of the day?" and that the winner landed this one "hook, line and sinker."
The winner was a contestant from Raglan called Aaron. It will be nice to have a confidence boost I guess, seeing as how he has been flying under the radar so far all season.
His prize is one that will make him the envy of women up and down the country. He gets to join Josh Emett in the pantry! But wait there's more.
It is up to Aaron which contestant gets each of eleven different cuts of pork, to be used in the coming challenge. But is mince really a "cut"?
It's always interesting to see what the contestants make of each other, given how our own opinions are coloured by the way the episodes are put together. It's certainly a surprise to see Aaron sees David as his biggest threat, giving him the trotters.
This is a pretty good idea for a challenge. Because everyone is cooking a different cut we're going to see some variety, and because everyone has no limit on ingredients we're hopefully going to see a bit of the contestant's creativity.
As someone who can count the amount of times I've cooked pork on one hand it's doubly rewarding as I have some pork loin chops in the freezer and no idea where to start with them. Although there doesn't seem to be pork loin chops today, I guess they went for mince instead.
For what it's worth I don't think the trotters are the cut of death some think they are. Australian MasterChef contestant Chris Badenoch proved that a few years back and not just with the trotters but the head too. David's pressure cooker plan seems the best course of action and as I said last week - I think braises can be a safer bet than a delicate cut like Sushil's fillet.
Like all of you I can't wait to find out what the Aaronator has up his apron, particularly as he has his choice of cut. Not content with simply serving up ribs he's scraping the meat of a second cut of ribs to make little balls out of, like a boss. But as my wife pointed out to me, the supposed advantage of getting to choose what everyone cooks has been the downfall of many a contestant before.
Vanessa is another contestant who is aiming high, planning a selection of different dumplings from around the world.
"I'll be rushing at the end, but that's life when you're cooking dumplings."
Jennis, who has become the go-to girl for hilarious and often confusing soundbites, has been given the pork rack. "I've never had this cut of pork before so I don't know how to treat the meat with respect." Emett agrees that she is being disrespectful to the pork, as he stands there watching her take to it with a cleaver, mesmerised.
Eliott admits he's been playing it safe all season. His mantra so far has been just don't come last, but it's hard to see a challenge-winning dish with sausages and mash. The sausage filling does look like it's got the right meat to fat balance though, but is he using anything as a casing? It's hard to tell.
Sushil is cutting silverbeet with samurai-like precision as Gault approaches him to pick his brain.
"I'm going to be focused, I'm going to be neat, tidy, no sweating today and keep myself calm." One look at his bench tells Gault he's thrown tidy out the window. We'll have to stay tuned to see if he breaks a sweat. I know where I'd put my money though.
As we all know now Ella is some kind of flavour master, but she's keeping her scotch fillet simple with seasoning and cumin seeds. "I guess this dish is an invention of mine, as pork and Middle Eastern flavours probably normally don't go together."
The other rough cut in the challenge is the cheeks. Kelly gets out the gadget that seems to be making an appearance every week this season - the pressure cooker. I should get one. They're the hottest thing on the home kitchen scene since the great potato ricer craze of 2009.
Emett doesn't see Kelly's cheeks as a tricky cut. "I cooked pork cheeks solidly in London for ten years," he says. Was that with your old mate Gordon Ramsay?
Meanwhile things are going to plan for David and his trotters. "They seem to be falling apart the way I want them to." They kind of look disgusting but in a 'I bet they will end up tasting wonderful' kind of way. Once I get a pressure cooker I might have to give the trotters a try. Mind you after buying a pressure cooker the trotters are likely the only cut I'll be able to afford anyway.
Gault tries David's sauce but it's hard to read his poker face. I do take his advice - "remember taste, taste, taste" - to mean the sauce could go either way.
Eliott is attempting a Yorkshire pudding to serve his bangers and mash on. It looks like a shambles wrapped up in a disaster. He admits he's never made one and is pan frying it like a pancake. I really can't see this ending well and I'm starting to think my prediction of Eliott's demise being a team challenge is wrong.
And so to Vanessa. Vanessa, Vanessa, Vanessa. The high achiever with not a small amount of determination. My wife notes that Vanessa looks like she's been crying as she says: "I stupidly decided to do, you know, a f**king journey of dumplings." The cuss word was beeped out so I'm not sure I have quoted her entirely correctly. However Vanessa kindly gives me a handful of opportunities to practice as for a few seconds MasterChef seems more like a Tarantino film.
She's started doing that thing Eliott used to do. Running her hands through her hair as she turns her back on the food, sighing audibly. She's actually starting to look like Corinna did last week when they went head to head in a whitebait to the death. Deflated. Beaten. My god is Vanessa going home?
Paula's pork belly sandwich doesn't look very appetizing it has to be said. Although she is cooking the crackling separately so perhaps it just doesn't look so great without its clothes. It's a smart idea to separate it and I borrow the technique for those loin chops I had in the freezer. It turns out cooking crackling is harder than you'd think. Than I thought anyway.
Sushil is getting flustered and possibly sweaty. His dish is a rolled something or other, and he's constantly mumbling something about fine dining.
But if Sushil is flustered then Vanessa is, um, super-flustered. You can't see her bench for bottles and Emett's inquiry as to whether she'll make it over the line is met with a stern, "don't know."
So under the extreme pressure of the MasterChef kitchen, not to mention her own drive, she is questioning herself and gives a deflated answer. Remind you of anyone? I bet Raheel is enjoying watching this.
It's telling when she says "and I look at all these young people around me and they're making all these amazing thing...", but while this all points to Vanessa's world crumbling around her it dawns on me that this isn't ringing true.
For one thing they're making a BIG deal out of it, but more than that I realise the only thing she's not achieving is her own stubborn standards. If you look at what she's making she appears to know exactly what she's doing - she just won't serve up as many as she would have liked. It is again McVinnie who chimes in with a bit of moral support to get her over the line.
Once time expires Vanessa is choking back tears as she says "it's nothing like what I was expecting to put up," as it cuts to a shot of the dish. Looking like something you'd get served at a restaurant you only go to to when someone else is paying.
Kelly is first to be judged and her three ways looks like it came from that same restaurant. Once again her plating is outstanding but more than that she's been inventive and the judges assure us it tastes sensational. As Emett says "she nailed the brief."
Paula's pork belly sandwich does indeed look much better with the crackling on, which Emett says is perfect (perfect way to make crackling in the comments please?), Ray McVinnie goes further. "This woman is a thinker, it's a restaurant dish."
Kris' dish also looks like it came from a restaurant. Unfortunately the restaurant is Valentines. The pork steak looks okay but it's surrounded by baby food-inspired mash dollops and a green bean tic tac toe.
Worse still - it's the dirtiest plate Emett has seen since the last dirtiest plate he ever saw. "Under flavoured, under seasoned, underwhelming," says McVinnie.
Vanessa delivers four dumplings and I would have struggled to have served up any one of them. "For all the tears that came along I think she's done a great job," sums up Gault.
By the time Jennis brings out her dish it's hard to think back to early in the season when everyone doubted this lot were up to it, once again it's a crazy good looking plate. Sticky and sweet looking pork ribs, pork loin dumplings, tomato pulled pork with crackling and pork-wrapped zucchini and a pork patty all served tapas style. "She's up there with the best of them in this competition," says Emett. "She just walks her own path."
When Eliott serves up his bangers and mash it's clear that no he didn't use any casings for the sausages. I saw him rolling them in plastic wrap earlier, so would he have used a water bath to maintain shape then pan fry gently? Whatever he's done it's a nice idea to have a skinless sausage. But I hope he tasted the Yorkshire pudding because it looked awful.
Gault's next line pretty much confirms that yes Eliott indeed tasted everything. "I want to open a pub just to put that on the menu." Well if anyone is in a position to open a pub...
Aaron comes to the table with pork spare ribs on the bone and off the bone with apple and lemon puree, date puree and coleslaw. I don't know how many more ways there are to say the feeling we're all experiencing now, right? It's way beyond a joke. McVinnie says it's one of the most successful fusion dishes he's ever seen and I've always had the impression he loathes fusion cooking.
"The strange thing is he seems to get stronger with every challenge," says Emett. "He's like some kind of super hero who is fueled by the fear of others," I add. Quietly to myself.
David has returned to the David of earlier episodes. Creative and clever. He's on a good run now and no doubt will be gaining confidence. He nails the trotter ragu and it seems Aaron may be right to watch his back.
Well what a turn for the books. Eliott takes his place out front as co-winner along with, da da da da, Aaron. It seems we're getting to a point in the competition where it is actually becoming quite exciting.
David gets special mention for his trotters but unfortunately the camera cuts away from him a bit too soon before we get to see where he sits on the couches - given Eliott and Aaron are the only other two there.
The rest plays out as expected, save for the final cull. Vanessa was never really in any danger of going and if anything Sushil was the only other person who should have worried.
I like Kris. Perhaps if he hadn't got mixed up when writing down the fish in the first challenge he'd have picked himself a cut he liked more.
He's a likeable enough guy, I can actually see him hosting some sort of cooking show on a boat. He's definitely got that kiwi likeability. Don't forget that beer bread recipe from the audition challenge too, I've made it a few times now. It's in my arsenal.
And if you're inspiring people to cook, that's a kind of win, right?
Best line: "I'm going to be focused, I'm going to be neat, tidy, no sweating today." Sushil aims high.
Worst line: "It starts with what is beneath this shroud of mystery." Simon Gault
Current favourites: Aaron, Ella, Paula, Kelly, David