Sundae Roast

Hugh Sundae adds some seasoning to Masterchef New Zealand

Sundae Roast: You call that an ice-bath?

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Sushil approaches the finish line on MasterChef NZ.
Sushil approaches the finish line on MasterChef NZ.

Well this is nice. The best amateur cooks in the country, out of the ones who went on TV, sitting around a mansion having a nice meal and some wine. Each day they slog it out in a mammoth built-for-TV kitchen studio, but at nighttime they stop being gladiators and start being drinking buddies.

Could it get any better? Well of course. There is a knock at the door, and because there is also a film crew sitting there watching them having a nice meal and some wine, the knock must have come as a real shock! More wine arrives. As Mike Hosking would tweet, Life Is Perfect.

I think I'm starting to take this too seriously. What may seem like a nice idyllic made-for-telly moment is, to me anyway, an opportunity to play uninformed amateur psychologist. Ella, Paula and Kelly drink the white wine. Aaron, Sushil and Vanessa the red. What does this MEAN?

Well, all it means is that they were probably a bit hungover as they boarded their flight the next day to Marlborough. Yes once again contestants are flown outside their un-comfort zone to an even more uncomfortable zone, as we build toward the grand final of MasterChef New Zealand.

It's genuinely quite exciting at this point. As I've said before, every elimination from here on in will be an OMG moment. But first I'm just going to have a nap while Sally Williams, winemaker at whatever this place is, spends the next hour talking about what wines supposedly go with what food. I mean come on! We all know they just make that shit up.

But you have to get up pretty early in the morning to get something past Ella.

"What Sally says is really helpful because we need to know this stuff for our upcoming challenge."

She's dead right. "Today there won't be wine tasting," says Gault. "But there will be wine matching."

The contestants are brought through to a beautifully manicured garden and immediately notice the makeshift pantry. Many of the pantry items were mentioned by Sally earlier, what a stroke of luck.

If you're anything like me, then when you see a pantry like this you think two things. How long do they leave all that fresh produce out for unrefrigerated? And what happens to all the stuff they don't use?

Seriously though, what does happen to all that left over produce? That meat is expensive, especially at the supermarket.

It's not a free rein invention test though, the dish must represent Malborough, and be matched to the wine they draw from the hessian lucky dip in front of them.

"You didn't think that was all did you?" Josh Emett says. "Take a look over there, that's where you'll be cooking."

Boy are they surprised. Heads are thrown back in astonishment, as there in the distance four metres away are six rhinoceros-sized barbeques, stainless steel gleaming in the sun, right where they just walked in.

Sushil is excited. "I love barbequed food." Kelly not so much. "I don't cook on barbeques, that's a man's job."

Lucky for her they're not actually barbeques, they're 'fishing and something DIC grills' Gault corrects, or something like that.

The challenge is only an hour so they get cracking. I always feel sorry for contestants in these challenges, outside in the sun.

Vanessa drew the sauvignon blanc and plans to make mussels in a fragrant broth and a crunchy citrus salad. "Is that enough?" McVinnie enquires, "enough to win this do you reckon?" Vanessa doesn't address the question directly, but thinks it will taste good.

It's pinot gris for Kelly, "because I know pinot gris comes in a tall bottle," but it's not her ideal match. "I really wanted the pinot noir, I wanted to do venison," she tells Emett. She's going for salmon with a pickled vegetable salad.

"Is that going to be enough to keep you in the competition today?" Emett asks.

"Yeah," she says, shrugging her shoulders, like she's just been asked the most stupid question in the world, which of course she has. Some may think Kelly has an attitude, but I love the way she calls out the judges for saying daft things.

I mean how annoying must that be. Will this be enough? Have you done enough? Looking back do you think you did enough? It must be like a junior network entertainment reporter asking a visiting star, "so do you like New Zealand?"

Ella, who recently tweeted that she has gone back to uni, also ended up with sauvignon blanc. "I drink it quite a bit." Bloody uni students.

She's making butterfish with a lemon and saffron risotto, and she is chilllllled out. It's almost like she's becoming less stressed the closer she gets to the grand final.

Sushil, who in the hot Marlborough sun has the perfect excuse to wear his new Sushil sweatband, got his first choice of pinot noir. He's making herb-crusted wild venison with a braised red cabbage, and some steamed vegetables with a honey vinaigrette.

"I'm looking over here and I'm seeing cabbage and apples and I'm thinking oh that looks a bit wintery," says McVinnie. "Do you think that's appropriate for this time of year?"

"Absolutely, chef," he replies. But I'm still trying to work out what time of year McVinnie is talking about. Is it like Shortland Street where they pretend they're in the season it will actually go to air in? That's it! Sushil is so on his game he's actually making a dish to suit when this episode actually screens. Eat that, McVinnie.

The Aaronator also gets his first choice, chardonnay. It was his first love. Mine was a hip flask of Coruba mixed in a 1.25ml cola bottle in a rugby club parking lot. You do the maths.

He too picks butterfish and is serving it with a hot panzanella with clams and capsicum. Like Ella, he seems totally on top of it.

Paula is squaring off against Sushil, also with pinot noir and venison, but hers is with a garlic mash and an olive and pine nut vinaigrette.

"Is this enough to get you to the top five?" Oh Simon.

It could well be considered a winter dish too, it is red meat and wine after all, so she's hoping the vinaigrette will, "give it that summer freshness."

Vanessa is struggling with her mussels. Maybe I'm a bit old fashioned but I reckon saying on television that you're cleaning your mussels with your long fingernails is a bit unsavory. What did she use to clean her fingernails?

The judges have a problem too, but it's the simplicity of the dish. In fact half the pack get that criticism. "Will this be enough to..."

But Sushil's venison is starting to sound complicated. He's using mustard to bind a herb crust to the venison but the judges ain't buying it. It would have been a good chance to explain what would have made that work - different binding agent, different method of cooking, etc - but instead they start talking about how amazing Ella is. She is SO teacher's pet.

"Risotto is reasonably easy," she says. "But there is a skill to getting it oozing onto the plate." I'm familiar with that skill, I call it shitloads of butter.

It's been at least a day since Josh Emett has given Sushil stick about something so he wanders over to start something. "What are you doing with these vegetables over here, why are they sitting in the water?"

Now, I know what Emett thinks Sushil says. "Chef that's called ice-bath," which of course brings on comical music and blank faces. I reckon Emett would have realised within a second that Sushil actually said "that's a cold ice-bath."

Elsewhere there is smoke and fire. Both Kelly and Paula have had the inevitable flare up. Simon Gault seems more worried about the barbeques themselves, but does check with Kelly if she's still on track. "Hmmm I dunno," she replies, swatting him away like a child who has just asked what is for dinner.

With ten minutes left on the clock there is frantic plating and last-minute testing. Ella says she's got lots to do but seems calm. So does Aaron, who gets a visit from Emett, who makes it quite clear he wants him to win.

Sushil reckons his venison is exactly as he wanted it, but his demeanor tells a different story. When he slices up the fillet the crumb on the outside doesn't look too bad. His veges though... "presentation wise I'm not going to go fine dining or something that I'm trying to imitate, but I'm going to go with how I'd like my plate to be and how I would like to eat it."

But the judges asked for sophistication. Perhaps he was burned by last week's dressing down of his modern presentation, but either way he's sticking to his guns.

It's a cautious Kelly who is first to be judged. We know, and she knows that she's good with flavour. But with the fire, overly hot grill, the pan, resting, it's hard for her to get a good handle on whether her salmon has had the right amount of cooking.

"I think it should be just perfect," she tells Emett, with a slight question mark in her voice. He's not so sure.

"From my angle I have a suspicion that it could be over." There isn't much reaction from Kelly. Perhaps she's simply thinking, "well why don't you just shut up and eat it and then we'll both know."

But Emett wants more so he brings out the old how would you feel if you went home line, then has a go about her not showing how much this means to her.

Then McVinnie tag-teams in. "This is your big chance to tell us how much it means to you, Kelly." Um, excuse me? Why does she need to tell you that? Has judging criteria changed all of a sudden and it's also an emo competition too?

It's true that contestants are regularly given the how much does this mean to you line. Generally it's a throwaway line, but this time it's different. This was one of the few things MasterChef Australia did badly. Contestants facing elimination were made to give tear-laden monologues about why they should stay, usually sitting next to those they were up against. It was laboured, uncomfortable to watch, and implied that their answers were part of the judges' decision-making process.

Ray McVinnie's prompting to Kelly was dangerously close to this, and of course it did the trick. The tears came, the piano soundtrack started, and before you know it we're watching X Factor: Kitchen Edition. It all comes out and finally Emett is satisfied that perhaps she is interested in winning. Meanwhile the salmon, the actual measure of how much she wanted to win, was sitting there. Getting cold.

"We have the pinot gris here," Emett says after he sends Kelly away.

After all that, the judges agree that the dish is great and matched the wine well.

Paula is up next and escapes the piano soundtrack. The olive and pine nut vinaigrette sitting on top of the meat looks fresh and delicious, but boy is that venison rare. I'm fine with rare but compared to how it looked when she plated up it almost looks blue in the middle. Maybe the meat's been waiting around so long it's started uncooking.

Emett thinks it's a great dish, but with the pinot noir she could have gone all out. "Heavier with the garlic flavour, more seasoning, more bold with the flavours."

The Aaronator comes next and as McVinnie points out: "the old Aaron is back." About bloody time. Not only has he cooked the cumin-rubbed butterfish well, it's what else he's done that really impresses.

"The flavours he's got in the panzanella are extremely interesting," McVinnie continues. All we really know is that he rubbed the bread with anchovy oil. But what really gets me interested is Emett's observation.

"The broccoli is the bit for me, there's some sweetness in there that just adds a whole different value of it to the dish." The broccoli? This I have to try, I'll be printing the recipe out for this one.

Vanessa comes along next with her Zesty Marlborough Mussels, a crunchy seasonal salad, and plenty to fear. After all, as Vanessa herself points out, "I feel sick because I know that there still could be beards inside the mussels which will see me going home."

She sounds definitive about that because like all of us watching, that's her understanding of the dos and don'ts of MasterChef. The things that are up for debate and the things that aren't. I mean weren't.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The judges aren't buying into the idea of the dish before they even lift a fork. "I don't kinda get it," McVinnie says of the two separate plates. Vanessa explains that the flavours join the two plates together, but that doesn't wash with Emett. "I still don't get it."

Once Vanessa starts to shed tears she's allowed to leave. That's when the mussels prove themselves to be something of a lucky dip. "My pet hate is when I get a beard in a mussel like this and I get this tuft of hair growing out on its tongue," says Gault.

"Well I've got a crab and a beard inside my mussel," adds Emett. I expect McVinnie to say he's found his wallet in there too but instead he reveals: "this is a very unrefined dish, I can get this in any little café."

"She's had a howler," says Emett. "A shocker."

Ella's butterfish with lemon and saffron risotto, asparagus and salsa verde is one of those deceptively simple looking dishes. "For me it's just perfectly executed," says Emett. "She couldn't have done better if she tried."

"It's the perfect wine match of the day for me," says McVinnie. "She obviously drinks the stuff, she knows what she's doing." Wow. When she kept saying she actually drank the sponsor's product I thought she was just trying to butter them up.

Sushil is the last to face the furnace. I'd be quite keen to try his herb-crusted venison fillet with braised red cabbage and red wine, but those honey glazed vegetables do look like something out of Food In A Minute.

Last week's presentation inevitably gets a mention. "Do you really think this is good enough to keep you in the competition, that's something out of the 80s," says Gault. Who owns a restaurant on Auckland's Viaduct Harbour.

It's hard to know what it is about presentation that Sushil struggles with. He pretty much gave up at that point during the challenge when he said he just wanted it to look like a plate he'd eat. He knows it too, and lays out his obsession with food in order to impress the judges and hopefully get himself across the line. Smart move - apparently that kind of thing is what they're looking for now.

With Sushil dismissed the judges reluctantly tuck in. "Dead boring," McVinnie starts. "The vegetables don't belong there covered in honey, a bizarre combination especially with this wine."

"He's trying to cook a dish, again, that is not relevant to the challenge," says Emett. Cripes, lucky he didn't serve up mussel beards!

The order of achievement is pretty predictable, with Aaron back on top.

Despite taunting her like a kid with a kitten, the judges deem Kelly to have done very well. "You presented a very sophisticated salmon dish," says Gault. She looks genuinely surprised. Well you would after that wouldn't you.

Paula and Ella also breeze past, as expected leaving Vanessa and Sushil.

"It's fair to say that you both had an absolute shocker," says Emett. But of course not cleaning out shellfish properly is one of those no brainers right? Like serving something raw? Well no, and what happens next makes no sense at all. It's a tie. "Your dishes were equally as bad as each other's today."

"We have based it on who we think has more to give in this competition."

Well if it was a job interview that would be fair enough. But this is a cooking competition where the rules are pretty clear. For the second time in three weeks, the judges give Vanessa a pass for failings that are well-established eliminators. Last time it was serving raw fish, this week it was serving unwashed shellfish.

There are people who think these shows are rigged, that telegenic people are groomed through. I don't really buy that rubbish but it's pretty hard not to come away with the impression that Vanessa has been getting a little extra help making the top five.

None of that is Vanessa's fault of course. She's certainly proved herself a contestant capable of making the grand final. I mean here is an Australian who did her homework on Whitebait for goodness sake! The poor thing has probably been dreading this episode finally airing for months, knowing there was the potential for a backlash. As she said herself, "Now two other people have gone home who I've been standing next to in the bottom two, both Jennis and Sushil now, I feel just gutted for them, and almost guilty to still be in the competition."

The point is that there are plenty of contestants who on a different day in the kitchen could have gone further but were let down by mistakes of various sizes, as with David or Jennis. Two seasons ago I would have loved for Cameron Petley to have gone further, but that's not how it played out.

I'm sure some of you will think I'm taking this too seriously, that it's just a reality show and who cares. But this show has lots of promotion around it, book deals, Facebook pages and the rest, that encourage us to take it seriously. They make it so we buy in, and we buy in.

I'm sure even more of you will think that it doesn't matter because Sushil was never going to win anyway. Well, I don't think he would have made the grand final either, but that's beside the point. Each week you earn the right to have another try or you don't, based on what happens on the day. Sushil may not have earned the right per se, but Vanessa earned it less, if you catch my drift. Hey - I don't make the rules.

But Sushil is out. What a great character he's been, and in his cuisines of choice - what a cook. I'm curious to know what happens/happened with that Fiji offer, but I hope he doesn't do that for too long, and capitalises on his profile. Maybe do some kind of endeavour where his energy and personality are front and centre. A curry house with an open-plan kitchen in the middle, or in-home cooking parties or, whatever.

I wish the rest of the final few well too. I can't wait to see who is in the grand final, and I reckon it could be Aaron vs any one of the other four. Anybody can have a bad day in the kitchen after all. Whatever happens, I'll be watching, but I won't be writing the Roast. The Fiji elimination put a bad taste in my mouth. Tonight just took the piss.

It's not really a protest, more forced disillusionment. I guess I feel like I can make the rules up as I go along too.

Now then, what's for dinner?

Episode 13

Best line: "That's an interesting word to describe it, an interesting day." Sushil beautifully understates his predicament, while remaining perfectly polite.
Worst line: "We have based it on who we think has more to give in this competition." Josh Emett gives the underarm bowl of MasterChef.
Winner prediction: Aaron

Episode 1: Fourteen grand up
Episode 2: A route of pleasure
Episode 3: Keep blowin' brother
Episode 4: Wake and shake
Episode 5: True colours
Episode 6: Dropping the ball
Episode 7: Get your ship together
Episode 8: A journey of dumplings
Episode 9: All you need is love
Episode 10: Excess baggage
Episode 11: Fiji whiz
Episode 12: A gentle nightmare

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