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Say what you will about MasterChef, but it has taught millions of us some valuable lessons. Chief among these is: don't bother cooking with tasty stock made from bones when you can buy a perfectly expensive box of salty water. Perhaps most importantly, though, MasterChef has taught us all the power of positive thinking.
Four long, long seasons ago when Matt's neckwear collection was modest and Gary was yet to perfect his famous carving technique for donkey sashimi, MasterChef stood out like a sober man on Anzac Day. Here, at last, it seemed there was warmth and compassion in a reality tundra dominated by the cold cynicism of a Kyle Sandilands or a Simon Cowell. Matt was positive. Gary was positive. George was positive with added positive raisins grown in positive glowing sunshine. It was refreshing, if a tad unAustralian, to see everyone being so nice.
Many of us came to love a program that sincerely encouraged excellence. Sure, some of the dialogue was stolen from an Anthony Robbins DVD and not one of us can use the word “journey” any more with a straight face but, darnit, a little pep was just what this country needed and we ate it up with a spoon and a dessert fork.
But lately, George is behaving more like a life coach than a chef. Lately, certain contestants seem less like eager cooks and more like parishioners at the People's Agricultural Temple. Lately the cheerleading has bordered on mania and a viewer can take just so many “food dreams” before a “journey” to a sick-bag becomes urgently needed.
I mean, could Audra turn down the motivation just a tad? Could we have just a crumb less of the Power to Succeed? Does she have a library of personal development books we could confiscate to stop her saying things like “This is MY TIME” and “I OWN this kitchen” and “I have WINNER written on my forehead”? Honestly. Believing in the Best Me I Can Be to this degree should be unlawful.
However, I suppose if I had won the Mega Mystery Box Challenge by stunning all with my meal of braised whatever-it-was on a bed of chives and heirloom Nutella, I'd be pretty pleased with myself. On Tuesday, Audra's pride was palpable as she declared her intention to “SMASH” the competition for this Immunity Challenge. As it happened, her competition had been listening to the same motivational MP3s. Celebrated Modern Chinese chef Hamish Ingham also had his Hulk on as he uttered his need to “SMASH”.
The aggressive HULK SMASH language so often employed by motivated cooks like Audra is peculiar. We hear brutal, driven words and then they watch for an hour as cooks fart about meticulously extracting base-notes from star anise. It's the least butch and aggressive thing in the world. You cannot SMASH a confit into existence any more than you could CRUSH a Bartók concerto from a violin or POUND a crocheted coverlet out of yarn. But, Audra was not to be stopped in her bid to sound exactly like a professional wrestler and to cook exactly like a professional caterer.
Although, as Audra reminded us last night, she is not a professional but an amateur whose passion would serve to outrun the professional Ingham with her use of the core flavour ingredient, tea.
In her selection of capable teammates Amina and Kylie, it seemed Audra may make good on her HULK SMASH threat. On every occasion Amina has assisted others in immunity bids, she has delivered a winning dish. And Kylie, as noted, is the honoured “Queen of Tarts”. Although, it must be said, Kylie's alleged tart looked less like crème brulee and more like tradesman's putty going into the oven. Personally, I make it a rule never to eat desserts that resemble building materials.
Audra set about making a chicken dish that looked wantonly juicy and might have been even more succulent if she hadn't spent the first 30 minutes of competition saying aggressively positive things. Honestly. She really seemed as though she was fresh off some sort of hideous self-actualisation seminar with all this talk of WINNING and SMASHING. I do hope someone has a word to Audra and reminds her it's a slippery slope from affirmations to armaments. One minute, you're looking into the mirror and Seeing the Power of You. The next, you're preparing poison apple-sauce for a bunch of old-dudes in sneakers.
The HULK SMASH chicken was cooking. Meantime, Ingham stood leering as one of his two sous chefs swung her luxuriant ponytail in a manner we can only describe as warlike. I have never in my life before seen hostile hair and its memory will haunt the retina of memory until I die.
Of Amina, however, we can only think pleasant thoughts. She seems genuinely dear and genuinely gifted if her tea-smoked duck was any reliable guide. Despite an early duck-up with her bird, Amina regrouped and emerged as the winner of the appetiser category in judgment.
Honestly, Amina's tea-smoked duck with mushroom and radish salad, which was matched against Ingham's green-tea tuna sashimi with pickled mushrooms, looked genuinely good. It certainly served to send the judges potty with Matt's countenance taking on a new “sex face” variant; let's call it a “sex-while-doing-algebra” face. Preston looked both intellectually and sensually stimulated as he downed the duck.
When George served the main-course, Gary had a brief moment of Oedipal candour as he shrieked, “Thank you Daddy”. As many of us made a mental note to call our therapists the next day to schedule emergency counselling, Audra's tea masterstock chicken with chicken rice was served up against Ingham's tea-smoked quail with marbled eggs.
Dude, the latter looked awful. Have you seen Prometheus? I don't want to give too much away but, really, it looked less like a delicate dish of small game and more like a graveyard for extraterrestrial bird evil.
Anyhow, apparently the quail was delicious as George started up with his appreciative beat poetry and said, “it's like someone's hit me with a baseball bat and I'm in a spell and we need to call the food ambulance”. Sometimes George sounds like a cross between Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Siri. He seriously doesn't make any sort of human sense.
Neither did dessert, really. Both of the sweets looked fairly ill-advised even though Gary kept saying, “It's wonderfully dark!” Last night, though, Gary was altogether absorbed with matters of darkness, which probably helps us understand why he called George “Daddy”.
In all, it was a peculiar night of culinary enchantment which made me wonder if it was just tea they were smoking, wink wink. But, it was not one in which we doubted Audra's skill for a minute. If only she'd dropped the power of positive thinking and picked up the whisk a little earlier, this could have been the lady's night.
Instead, Ingham and the hostile ponytail HULK SMASHED their way to victory. And they did it without a single affirmation.