Sundae Roast

Hugh Sundae adds some seasoning to Masterchef New Zealand

Sundae Roast: Fiji whiz

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It's getting hot out here: The MasterChef New Zealand final eight.
It's getting hot out here: The MasterChef New Zealand final eight.

Well my theory has gone out the window.

I thought I'd been clever and worked out the final four based on their social media presence, or lack of.

My theory went like this. Four of the remaining contestants don't have an official Facebook page. Aaron, Eliott, Kelly and Jennis. So I wondered if they weren't allowed to have one, to save momentum for a post-finale media blitz?

Tonight's evictee ruled that idea out, and actually I'm relieved. Figuring out something before you're meant to know is fun until you've ruined the surprise.

It's not the first or last time I'll be wrong this season either. Early in the season after a few cringe worthy blame-shifts from Eliott I predicted that attitude would get the better of him and therefore a team challenge would be his likely exit.

Now, not only does he seem to get on well with everyone, he's cooking better than ever. Anyway, with a small number of remaining contestants I guess we're past the team challenge stage anyway.

Same with Sushil. Some clumsy cooking early on and I figured he'd be an early casualty, as likeable as he is. I still think it won't be too long before he's gone though, he has a love/hate relationship with pressure. It's starting to look like there's not much left in the tank.

But if he's going to be comfortable, it's going to be in Fiji, where the final eight get their first and only overseas trip.

"Landing in Fiji's fantastic," the Aaronator says, which I think is code for landing anywhere after a Jetstar flight is a bonus. Then we see the obligatory tourism provider montage without which such expensive challenges would not be possible.

But budget's can only go so far, and this week the credit card maxed out before they could buy Simon Gault's ticket, so to replace him is the venue's assistant manager Rudy Crane. It's hard to pick his accent but I think he's Welsh.

Crane rattles off a list of activities the contestants are unlikely to have time for, before Josh Emett reminds them they're unlikely to ever be in the right tax bracket anyway.

"You may never get another chance to enjoy the wonders of Dolphin Island."

After another travel-channel montage ("beautifully appointed", "here we have an infinity pool", "taro is awesome") it's down to business. Not cooking business. It's a crab race and it will have some sort of effect on the next day's cooking.

"We're all very skeptical of the advantage," says Eliott, looking like an AFL player in an orange tank top. "Because last advantage you had to stitch your teammates up."

After meeting Group Executive Chef Michel Louws we learn that the crab race dictates the contestant's order of cooking in a fresh fish invention test.

Despite winning, Vanessa isn't happy. "I'm a little frustrated because I would prefer to not have all day to think about too many things." You'd think the chance to plan your dish all day would be welcome, but clearly she'd prefer to work under more pressure.

Louws' advice? "Don't make it too complicated." Earlier he described Dolphin Island's style of cuisine as "basically home cooking at the next level." I'm starting to think maybe it's not as five star as we've been led to believe, but then my mind starts to wander as I notice a small tuft of hair above his forehead that has been twisted into a spike.

They'll each have one hour with Chef Tintin breathing down their necks. The Aaronator is up first. "I'm going to make some coconut ginger rice." To go with it, and despite the clock ticking, his plan is to cook some test pieces of fish to work out what flavours will go together. This to me, more than anything else this season, demonstrates why he is such a great cook.

To accompany the fish he's making a salsa. He grinds down some papaya seeds to give it a peppery taste - "something I discovered the other day." As you do. He reckons he found it quite stressful but from the outside it looked like a walk in the park. Vanessa looked more stressed out standing on the beach than Aaron did in the kitchen.

This week judging is taking place as we go. In one hour Aaron has made: Coral Trout with a mild salsa, Barracuda with a hot salsa, sweet and sour Mud Crab with ginger and garlic and coconut ginger rice. It looks pretty bloody good, and Ray McVinnie thinks it tastes pretty bloody good.

"I think the star of the show is the crab and crab sauce, it is knockout."

Emett is more colloquial. "It's almost like he's taking the piss."

Rudy Crane does his best to muster up some useful feedback but doesn't really deliver. "It's got all the different components to make you smile while you're eating it." It's hard to pick his accent but I think he's American.

Ella, who loves to whip up a bread, is making roti with tuna and salads. She also cracks open fresh coconut to make a chutney with coriander, lime and chilli. Sounds great and Tintin agrees.

"I like the idea, it's fresh, it's vibrant, it's flavoursome, but God she's messy. She leaves shit everywhere. I'm a little bit shocked to be honest."

Ella decides to deep fry kumara in coconut oil. "Coconuts and Fiji just go really well together." Tintin thinks little of the idea. "Have you smelled it? It's a real bad smell aye."

I'm also not sure about the heavy turmeric rub she's given the Tuna. I've never had any success with turmeric outside using it with a bunch of other spices in a paste or whatnot, but Ella knows more about flavour than I do, to be sure.

So it's a surprise to hear the judge's feedback. "Too much salt," says McVinnie. "It's got great flavour but again the seasoning on the outside is a bit hefty," adds Emett. "They're so close but there's just a little fault with each one."

Paula comes up with an idea so crazy sounding you'd be forgiven for thinking it came from Jennis. Fish custard. Yes I know there are custards and there are custards, but when I grew up there was only one custard and it was custard powder. But this is Paula we're talking about and six words give me confidence.

"The inspiration is a Thai dish." Well in that case.

"I admire her courage to do something different," says Tintin, but it's not long before things starts to unravel. Paula's unsure of the ratio to make the custard set and Tintin gives her grief for gambling.

"I'm not a measuring kind of girl. I know that's one of my downfalls as a cook."

In the last few moments Paula seems so stressed that it's contagious and I begin to fear the worst. That is until McVinnie sets us straight.

"I think this woman cooks like an angel. The fish custard is absolutely sensational."

While the accompaniments aren't much to look at, they strike a chord with Emett.

"Pineapple and tamarind? Unbelievable together."

Jennis goes next and right off the bat doesn't impress Chef Tintin.

"I'm slightly disappointed with her inability to fillet fish, it's one of the main proteins, you know at some stage you will be filleting fish," he says. "That is something you can nail by practice."

Amen brother. All season people have been turfed out by challenges and techniques that could have been predicted.

With the filleting taking a while Jennis decides to keep the rest simple, steaming some taro wrapped in taro leaf with coconut cream, and fruit served in that most creative of ways - a stack.

At this point Tintin is way more concerned than Jennis seems to be, kinda waffling her way through tasks, seemingly unfazed by anything. "Well the fish is pretty springy so I'm pretty sure it's not overcooked!"

But her lax attitude to bench cleanliness is too much for Tintin who finally has a harrumph. He's been trying to clean up everyone's act all day but this time we find out why.

"You're attracting flies, I want you to clean your bench. If you don't do that you'll get too many flies. Too many flies on the food, you can't serve it." Too many? Exactly how many are acceptable?

My gut instinct is that Chef is a bit miffed by the fruit stack, based on how many times he questions it. But perhaps he just hasn't experienced the Jennis effect that the MasterChef judges are now used to - pulling greatness out of chaos.

I'm thinking everything looks simple, elegant, and I'm prepared for the judges to fawn.

"I don't know about you guys," says McVinnie. "But this absolutely bores me to death."

So Tintin was right to question the fruit stack. "I can't taste any dressing, any seasoning," McVinnie says, and Emett thinks even less of the palusami that isn't palusami.

"That's going to kill someone if it falls out of a tree isn't it, it's just a dead weight."

Crane adds his five cents. "When I looked at it I thought wow this is promising quite a bit, but it's a bit of a let down." It's hard to pick his accent but I think he's Irish.

It's no major surprise that Sushil opts for a curry. He aced one last week, he's in Fiji, and the brief was Fijian. Perhaps that confidence gave him the impetus to try a little cleanliness this week too.

"I love that, nice and tidy," says Tintin. "They told me you were the messy one."

But nothing is more endearing to an executive chef than having their suggestion adhered to, and after Tintin expresses distaste for skin and bone in the fish curry, Sushil gets a gold star for doing as he's told.

"Today's all about creating a five-star dish, so I'm going to listen to chef Michel and I start filleting a fish," Sushil explains.

The next minute Josh Emett pops up in the kitchen. He hasn't visited any other contestants so far (not that we've seen anyway), and it seems designed purely to give Sushil stick for playing it safe.

"Curry?" Emett says, like he doesn't know already. He achieves his goal and Sushil instantly regrets his decision. The confidence drains from his face and he chokes up. It's not pleasant to watch.

The encounter gives Tintin a chance to show some real leadership and he mentors Sushil out of his rut. "Make it bloody awesome, make him eat his words."

Emett is still banging on about it at the judging table but can't fault the taste. All three judges can fault the taro in coconut cream.

"It looks like something the cat brought up," says McVinnie.

Tintin however doesn't have the baggage of the Masterchef kitchen to cloud his thoughts and sees more in Sushil.

"Just in case you do not win this competition and even if you do, when you're finished and you're without a job, give me a ring." Now that is pleasant to watch.

Kelly goes next. "I'm going to do tuna two ways, so tuna on a crab and potato mash and then I'm doing raw fish salad."

Tintin has a problem. "She's... playing with my head. I'm extremely worried. Why the hell are you going to cook crab if you've never done it before." Little does he know that's usually Kelly's M.O.

He's also troubled by her decision to use tuna in the kokoda (raw fish salad), but he doesn't say why.

But Kelly glides on. She never seems that concerned in her interviews. In fact she always explains things like she's just started her third glass of wine and is beginning to feel it in her legs.

Unsure of exactly what to do with the cooked crab, she bashes it up before Tintin imparts something I never knew - 80% of the meat is in the claws.

Where Sushil chose to listen, Kelly stuck to her guns. The presentation queen goes for a rustic theme against Tintin's wishes of something more discerning.

McVinnie sees good and bad. "Loved the kumara, crab and coconut, don't want to see all this crab garbage... didn't like the kokoda, not marinated enough."

Eliott, fresh from his recent success, looks confident. "Today I'm cooking crab fishcake, butter-poached lobster, seared tuna with a spicy rub and fresh fruit salsa."

Sounds pretty good, but Tintin sees a problem with the lobster.

"When I poach lobster I poach it at 63 degrees for about 10 minutes, this is boiling."

Next thing you know there is 12 minutes left, they're really skipping through this one - I guess he falls in the middle of the pack.

"He's not poaching his crayfish he's killing it," says Tintin. His crab-cakes are going into a cold pan so they soak up all the oil... he had it all under control, what's he doing?!"

As Eliott walks towards the judging table, which has now moved to the end of a pier, he shares some pretty hilarious self-justification. "The only downside for me is the poached lobster tail, to me it's just a little bit chewy, but I've had worse at restaurants."

I'm surprised he doesn't mention the crab-cake too, which from the outside appears pretty poor. "It's just a big, fat, flabby, clumsy fishcake," confirms Emett.

McVinnie agrees and doesn't like that crayfish tail either. Even Crane has the confidence to finally be quite specific with his comments. "The tuna stands out in terms of flavour, the rest are all a little bit bland, the crayfish is slightly overcooked," he says. It's hard to pick his accent but I think he's English.

Eight hours into the challenge Vanessa gets her chance. "I went into the challenge with three ideas as always, and decided to run with the first one and see how I went time wise, so I'm going to cook coral trout whole."

Tintin is worried about time. So much so that he drops another one of his strong suggestions. "I strongly suggest you reconsider your strategy for the coral trout."

"I'm not saying you can't do it," but he kinda is. There is under half an hour, Vanessa checks the fish and says it's opaque in the middle, as Tintin knowingly nods his head and calls for a Plan B.

Plan B is tuna salad. Vanessa starts filleting but sounds like she's really only doing it to keep Chef off her back and still plans on serving the whole fish. With a minute left and still full of doubt she sticks to the plan.

"I'm relieved to be finished, what will be will be."

Emett's first question is obvious enough. "Is it cooked?" But he seems otherwise happy to finally be served a whole fish. "It's really delicious, it's exactly what I've been looking for today. It's nicely seasoned with a nice salsa and a nice kumara mash."

"Couldn't agree more," says McVinnie. "Screams Fiji at me."

Here is where it gets a bit iffy. The underside is completely raw. Raw fish. Anyone who watches MasterChef knows what happens when you serve raw fish or raw chicken, but excuses are already being made.

"She's really understood what Dolphin [Island's] all about, it's that simple easy style of cooking," says Crane. He has the oddest accent, it's very hard to pick where it comes from.

"Bottom line is if she served that to guests here at Dolphin Island she'd be going home," says Emett. Apparently he was using the politician's definition of bottom line, which isn't a bottom line at all.

The contestant's line up along one side of the pool, the judges the other. Jennis, Vanessa, Eliott and Kelly step forward and are showered with praise, some that's inconsistent with the earlier judging even, but it turns out these are the least impressive dishes.

At this point in the competition every elimination is going to be good cook against good cook, as it is now with Vanessa and Jennis. The comments during Vanessa's judging should have made this elimination a no brainer, but Emett has softened his stance.

Earlier he had said the underside of Vanessa's fish was "completely raw", he now says "verging on raw."

Sure enough, Vanessa was safe at the expense of Jennis. I can understand on balance that Vanessa may have had more positives, but MasterChef always makes a big deal about not being able to serve customers raw food. It's inconsistent. Or perhaps it's just "verging" on inconsistent.

I really thought Jennis was going to be top four, maybe even top three, and not just because of my Facebook page theory. The upsets will no doubt come thick and fast now. Although given Vanessa not only has a Facebook page, but an actual proper website, that rules her out of winning the competition in my opinion.

But I've been wrong before.

Episode 11

Best line: "Just in case you do not win this competition and even if you do, when you're finished and you're without a job, give me a ring." Chef Michel Louws. Bless.
Worst line: "It's just a little bit chewy, but I've had worse at restaurants." Keep 'em coming, Eliott.
Current favourites: Aaron, Paula, Kelly, Ella

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

-nzherald.co.nz

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