MasterChef semi-final week: Episode 1 review – It’s all about the cauliflower

"With a mere five episodes to go, my money is on the bloke who before MasterChef had never made a dessert"

Saira beams like Christmas has come early as she bounces up the steps of Michelin-starred restaurant Benares. Alas, chef Atul Kochhar is no Santa Claus. As he dishes up a rogan josh that wouldn’t look out of place in the National Gallery, Saira’s smile slips slightly. No, my dear, no paper bags here.
 
Over at Launceston Place, Dale is learning the secret of high-end fare: how to turn an ingredient worth 7p into a dish whose price tag would make a banker blanche. This viewer can feel her arteries silting up as he mummifies a carrot in a bathtub of salt. Perhaps Dale can too. His hands are all a-jitter and his forehead is shinier than the cutlery.
 
“I don’t want to get impatient but you are running slow!” Atul Kochhar barks at Saira. I must admit I’d been thinking the same myself: 20 minutes in and I’ve been reminded of every semi-finalist’s every tremor in slo-mo but no one has so much as peeled (or salt-baked) a carrot.
 
But now the pressure is on, especially for Saira: Kochhar has either decided she is deaf or thinks he is auditioning to be the next Gordan Ramsay. Only once does he smile and it’s blood-curdling: “I don’t want anyone to get this recipe wrong. Otherwise they will be punished.” Saira – who’s understandably confused Kochhar with a sergeant major – ladles up enough curry to feed a small army. “Wow,” says Kochhar, with the enthusiasm of someone who’s just bitten into a three-day-old no-frills egg sarnie.

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Cool as a cucumber, Natalie is at Trinity cooking her first pheasant. “I feel really inspired,” she says, not sounding it. Larkin is also at home in the lab – sorry, kitchen – of 2010’s Heston Blumenthal-alike: MasterChef finalist Alex Rushmer. Soon the boffins are poring over bubbling saucepans, lovingly tending their magic potions.
 
Dale has finished with the carrot salad and must now master burnt cauliflower. Cauliflower embers are also on the menu at Trinity, as is alliteration (cod, cauliflower, capers and cockles anyone?), and the boss is so taken with Natalie’s efforts he offers her a forkful.

If Saira turns up her nose at recipes, Larkin is positively allergic. He’s recreating the first dish Rushmer cooked on MasterChef. Or he’s supposed to be. “The caramel will be my own interpretation,” he confides. “I’ve gone for more subtle flavours. Bit sweeter.” Oh Larkin, surely you’ve forgotten rule number one: don’t tamper with the head chef’s signature dish? It’s the Palate Round fiasco all over again. Or perhaps not…


Round two 

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Gregg and John are as terrifying as teddy bears after Atul Kochhar. Gregg almost proposes when Dale announces he’s making liver and suet pudding. Poor Saira, on the other hand, can’t win: John reprimands her for not dishing up enough rice. At which point it would have been entirely forgivable – indeed laudable – if she’d poured the impeccably spiced vindaloo over his head. Natalie has learned her Michelin-starred lesson and serves up cauliflower pureé, cauliflower tempura and cauliflower couscous.
 
But with a mere five episodes to go, my money is on the bloke who before MasterChef had never made a dessert.“I just wanted to cook: less gadgets, more about flavours,” grins Larkin, skipping between a sous-vide, pressure cooker, deep fat fryer and three steaming baskets. Gregg and John grin back.
 
On the menu tomorrow: 12 icons of the silver screen