Here’s how you can tell if a hotel is posh: No matter where in the world they are, or where they are from, the staff greet you with “bonjour”. French, as everyone knows, is the world’s poshest language.
So when the first word out of the mouth of Sofitel Queenstown’s unmistakeably Aussie general manager is “bonjour”, we know the MasterChef NZ top six – Sam, Elliot, Alice, Hana, Jason and Naomi – are in the kitchen of a posh hotel, and they’ll be cooking posh stuff for posh people.
Tonight one of them will win immunity by cooking the best room-service dish, three times over, in under 25 minutes.
They’ll be cooking for a VIP, but I’m not going to get excited about that, because this is Three, which considers the lady who presents Lotto to be a star.
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Room service, we’re told, is about speed and quality. It’s tricker than restaurant service because the food will continue to cook in the four-minute journey from the kitchen to the hotel room.
The top six have an hour to prep. Sam’s drawn ricotta and golden kumara tortellini, and he’s nervous, remembering his pasta woes of yore.
Elliot has drawn cote de boeuf, which he’s pronouncing “cote de beef”. Guess he’s not that posh. (In fairness this is a tricky one. The only way I can describe how to pronounce it is to say it’s like you start the word, forget the middle part, then finish. “B-uhh-f.” I’m not posh either, but I have befriended lots of French people in hope it will rub off on me.)
“Ultimately, no matter what, I’ll put the best version of myself on the plate,” says Elliot, which frankly sounds kind of ominous when there’s a massive cleaver hanging behind him.
Michael is the only judge in the prep room, the others presumably being bonjoured by the staff at the spa. He says Hana, who’s drawn bouillabaisse, has the toughest job.
“I just need to cook with confidence,” says Hana. “And also take the fish out at the right moment.” Wise words, Hana.
Naomi is freaking out over the recipe for her salsa verde, which calls for “a bunch of parsley” or “a little handful of pickles”.
“How much is a little handful?” She despairs. “Is it like my little handful, which is just like a handful, but little?” In her after-match interviews her hair is wild, sticking up all over the place, like she’s been frantically pulling on it.
But when prep time comes to an end, she’s feeling confident. The first order comes through and the VIP on the end of the phone is… restaurateur Ben Bayly. Better than a Lotto presenter, I guess.
He orders three cotes de boeuf, two rare and one medium rare, and Elliot’s up to the plate. He’s going to give his prepped meat a “tickling on the grill”.
“Looking good!” Jason calls from the sidelines. “The food’s not bad either.”
“Jason!” Elliot flips back. “You’re such a flirt!” This doesn’t surprise me.
Elliot finishes plating in the final second of his 25 minutes and takes the steaks upstairs. Turns out Ben Bayly can’t pronounce boeuf either. Huh. I would have picked him for posh.
The boeuf, anyway, is not perfectly cooked and the gratin – so much French! – is undercooked. Texturally, says Vaughan, it’s “a little annoying.”
Next VIP on the blower is Kelli Brett, editor of Cuisine mag and probably one of Vaughan’s favorite people. She orders three portions of bouillabaisse (as expected, she pronounces it right).
The first thing Hana has to do here is mix her rouille into her broth, but – oh no! – it splits.
“I’ve made a mistake,” she says, “which is not good.” Hana, it is not.
She recovers though, and gets back into it, cool as blast freezer.
“Pull it together!” says Michael, in a clear example of gaslighting; she is very together.
The mistake slows her down, however, and with one minute to go the plates are empty. She gets there on time, but she hasn’t had time to taste anything, and when she gets up to the suite, that’s clear. It’s under-seasoned, the judges say. Hana looks dejected.
The next VIP on the phone is… Tony Stewart, last seen last Sunday barking orders in his role as Amisfield food and beverage manager. He orders duck breast – Alice’s dish. She knows what she has to do, but “I’m not sure how I’m meant to do that in 21 minutes… I don’t have time to follow this recipe,” she says.
It’s an uncharacteristically downbeat cook for Alice. She missed an opportunity to enjoy the experience, she says: “I’m not 100% proud of this dish.”
The judges tuck in and a close-up of Nadia’s chewing face makes it clear the duck is very tough. It’s undercooked, says Tony, the sinew hasn’t broken down and the fat hasn’t rendered. Ever-kind Nadia says the broccolini side is “perfect”, but this is a rare miss for Alice.
Back in the kitchen, Ben’s still hungry! This time he wants Naomi’s lamb racks.
Like Alice, Naomi’s feeling the pressure. When she slices her lamb it’s undercooked and goes back in the pan. By the end, she’s literally throwing chickpeas onto the plate.
“You can definitely see it’s had a bumpy ride,” says Ben, who can tell it needed another cook. According to Vaughan, it’s now over-cooked, even if it tastes good.
For her next course, Kelli wants venison with pomme puree – mashed spuds – kale, mushrooms and blackberries. This is Jason’s, and he felt pretty good about it, having blown the judges away with his audition venison.
But this time it’s not coming together. Like Naomi, he has to send too-rare meat back to the stove, and with 30 seconds to go he’s not even plating. In the end, the blackberries that should be there don’t make it onto the plate.
“I cocked it up,” he tells the judges. Vaughan says it’s pretty rare, which isn’t too bad, but the “cookery” is not good.
The missing blackberries “kind of ruined the dish”, he says. All the flirt’s gone out of poor old Jason.
Finally Tony orders Sam’s tortellini. “Obviously I’ve had a few tortellinis in my day,” he says down the phone.
Sam reckons he’s terrified, but it doesn’t show at all. He’s plating at 10 minutes, prompting a “Looking beautiful Sam, well done” from Sofitel head chef Roy, and is the only one to get his food up early.
His dish is perfectly cooked and delicious. He nailed it.
It looks certain Sam will get immunity – his dish was the only one without significant problems – and he does.
One place in the final looks like a lock. But the other two feel wide open. The question is: who can come back from a fiasco like this?