The second episode of MasterChef Canada: Back To Win opens up with the promise that this week, our competitors will be faced with “the toughest elimination challenge in MasterChef Canada history.”
Acknowledging that this series is known for its theatrical flare, I have a feeling it won’t be the last time we hear that statement this season.
Following a brief reintroduction to the remaining home cooks, Michael Bonacini, right on cue, once again reminds the chefs that this year’s competition will be more difficult than previous seasons and for the second straight week we skip the standard pre-challenge pleasantries and jump directly into elimination.
This week’s challenge will take our chefs across the Pacific to the island of Japan for three grueling challenges that will test the competitors technique, precision, and finesse. The advantage Andre received from winning last week’s challenge is also revealed; he is safe from elimination and heads straight up to the balcony.
I'd be breathing a sigh of relief as Japanese cuisine is not an easy culinary genre to tackle.
We’re also introduced to this week’s guest judge, the godfather of sushi in Canada, chef Shigeo Kimura. The home cooks react as if they’re in the presence of royalty and rightfully so, the Toronto-based chef was one of the first to introduce Canada to the concept of sushi back in the 1980s and continues to push the cuisine forward as the president of the Japanese Restaurant Association of Canada and through his acclaimed restaurant, Ginko.
First challenge - Sashimi
The home cooks are instructed to break down a snapper in order to prepare uzu sikuri (thinly sliced sashimi). Chef Kimura steps up to show the competitors how it’s done and the delicate manner with which he handles the snapper immediately reminds me of the gulfing class difference between a MasterChef finalist and a world-class chef like Kimura.
Despite the technical difficulty of the task at hand, both Jeremy and Mai look markedly excited by the theme of today’s challenge. Jeremy says Japanese cuisine is his "favourite" and that he’s been studying Japanese food for the past 10 years. He says he’s excited to show everybody what’s up and follows with an infectious smile from ear-to-ear.
Alvin reiterates that creating a dish like this can take years of practice, but for this preliminary challenge the chefs will be given just 15 minutes. Chef Kimura and Claudio both appear to be astounded by the speed and intensity with which Jeremy is working his way through the fish. He’s the first to complete the fileting process and he is ready to start slicing the sashimi.
All the chefs appear to be doing relatively well, but April Lee is lagging behind. She’s damaged her first filet beyond repair and she’s decided to start working on the other side. She says she’s extremely nervous and it really shows. If we’re to believe what the editing suggests, she has less than five minutes to get her final product on the plate.
While all the chefs ultimately manage to finish on time, unsurprisingly, Jeremy is crowned the winner. The other three chefs joining him are Mai, Andrew, and Thea. Andrew says he rarely had the chance to visit the balcony during his initial season but he could get used to the feeling going forward. Again, it’s probably far too early to tell but I feel like we’re witnessing a very different Andrew from the one we saw in Season 2.
Second challenge - Maki
Before the second challenge commences, we say goodbye to chef Kamura. Before leaving, the chef remarks that he was not expecting such quality from the MasterChef Canada: Back To Win competitors and he's certainly not alone in that sentiment as neither was I.
For the second elimination challenge the chefs will have to prepare maki. Claudio tells the chefs that the maki they’ll be tasked with creating must be customized to reflect their individual personalities. Rolls must be in the uru maki style, meaning rolled inside out with rice on the outside–remember this one. At least one of the fillings must be a tempura element along with a thinly sliced ingredient of their choice as the topping.
Beyond those parameters, Michael says the sky is the limit. Oftentimes in cooking competitions like MasterChef, a lack of specificity can lead to overcomplication, so we’ll see which of the chefs manage to show restraint.
The chefs sprint toward the pantry, which is stocked with a slew of Japanese ingredients. Everyone appears to have an idea of what they want to cook. Some struggle finding ingredients but the chefs all exit the pantry in quick succession and are cooking by the 3 minute mark.
Andy is the first to acknowledge that the rice, while easy to overlook, will likely be the key component to this challenge. Alvin agrees.
Claudio says the judges are looking for ingredients that are fresh, bright, clean and have a good crunch to them. Andy’s making a citrus-forward scallop tempura with mango and a yellowfin tuna top, inspired by his wife, which seems to fit the judges’ parameters perfectly.
Barrie is also drawing on his wife for inspiration; when the first series of lockdowns subsided in B.C., the first takeout dish he and his wife ordered was fish and chips. So he’s doing a fish and chips-inspired maki with tempura crab and asparagus, Japanese coleslaw, and crispy fried leeks. It seems ambitious but if it works his creativity will surely be praised.
April Lee says she’s drawing on a deli sandwich for inspiration and Alvin looks visibly disturbed. Her thinly-sliced component appears to be a row of pre-packaged deli meats. Alvin reminds her that this particular component is meant to showcase her knife skills but she seems undeterred.
Jen is making a togarashi and ginger spiced tuna poke roll with tempura asparagus and avocado. She seems flustered and the judges make two separate stops to her station to express their concern.
Compared to some of the other chefs, Jen has had a relatively small amount of professional cooking experience, but as a mother of two young children, she has plenty of experience multitasking in high pressure situations. She continues to press on and with 10 minutes left on the clock she appears to be in good shape.
Christopher seems the most composed of all the remaining chefs. He’s making a vegetarian maki using miso-grilled eggplant, enoki mushrooms, daikon and leeks. He too has drawn on a loved one for inspiration for this dish and as his eggplant begins to caramelize he seems poised to head to the balcony.
Barrie’s rice comes out soupy and the balcony reacts accordingly. If the rice component fails his dish won’t stand a chance. With five minutes on the clock he doesn’t have time to start over, so he sets it aside in the hopes that cooling it down will make the rice more palatable. It’s clear that the possibility of failure is starting to get to him because he returns to the wrong station and doesn’t appear to notice. To make up for its soupy texture, Barrie double wraps his rice with nori and the camera pans to Mai who points out that the decision could lead to problems with the judges.
We haven’t seen much from Marissa at all this competition but for the first time this episode we’re treated to a brief spotlight. She says she’s making a surf and turf-inspired maki with shrimp tempura and seared wagyu beef. The dish looks good but we move on rather quickly and I’m left wanting to see more from the Montreal-based chef.
All six remaining chefs manage to submit completed dishes but Christopher’s vegetarian maki is the obvious standout. The judges praise him for both his presentation and flavour profile, and continue to remark on the Ontario baker’s heightened command over savoury elements compared to his Season 2 performance.
April Lee’s "deli maki" looks better than I expected, but Alvin’s reaction still leaves me a bit worried for her. He describes it as “interesting” and warns her that elimination could be in her future. Never a great sign.
Andy and Marissa are both told their maki tastes better than they look, while Jen is told that her dish looked better than it tasted. Barrie’s fish and chips maki actually looks quite stunning, but without hesitation Michael points out the same potentially fatal flaw that Mai was worried about; his double wrapped rice does not meet the challenge specifications. Barrie defends his decision but Michael remains unswayed and suddenly the musical score intensifies.
Christopher and Jen are chosen as the top two and they both head straight up to the balcony. The final chef to receive immunity at this stage is under some contention, but the judges announce that Marissa has narrowly escaped the final elimination round.
Final challenge - Okonomiyaki
For the final round the chefs are tasked with replicating a dish popularized in the Osaka region: okonomiyaki–Japan’s take on a savoury pancake. Michael describes it as a comfort food that can be filled with anything you can imagine, but the one the chefs must replicate is made with eggs, dashi, shredded cabbage and shrimp, then covered in okonomiyaki sauce and topped with marinated grilled octopus, bonito flakes, pickled ginger and green onion.
Quick aside–His delivery is a bit cheesy, but I could listen to Michael’s silky smooth description of ingredients all day. If he ever decides to hang up his knives and apron, I could see a very lucrative audiobook narration career in his future.
Barrie’s change in demeanour has become quite apparent. This is a replication challenge and both April Lee and Andy have extensive professional cooking experience, so following instructions should be relatively straightforward regardless of the complexity of the dish.
The chefs dig into the demo dish and April Lee says she makes something similar at home quite frequently, while Andy acknowledges the difficulty of the challenge but seems confident he’ll get through it.
Barrie says he’s never seen, heard, or said the word okonomiyaki in his entire life, but a pancake is a pancake.
At this point Andy is very clearly in the zone and he tackles each step of the process with determination and grace. April Lee is multitasking like we’ve yet to see in this competition and aside from a minor misstep flipping her pancake, she seems on track.
With five minutes remaining on the clock we haven’t really seen how Barrie’s dish has progressed, but he decides to begin plating before the timer has expired and the decision is questioned by almost everyone in the room. He says he’s not running out of time again and seems happy with his dish.
All three cooks complete their dishes and at first glance they all look to have replicated the demo dish fairly accurately.
Barrie is the first to step up to the judges’ podium. Alvin says he gave it a good effort but the pancake is slightly undercooked and dry due to his decision to plate early.
Claudio says April Lee’s flipping mishap has visibly affected the pancake’s texture, but after taking one bite his tone changes. Both her flavour profile and the cookery of the octopus are spot on. As she starts to tear up in justified, joyous relief I find myself beginning to really root for the Calgary-based executive chef.
Andy’s final product is very clearly the closest replication of the demo dish. Michael says he’s achieved a near-perfect texture but could use a more aggressive approach to his seasoning.
The judges claim the decision was a close one and all three cooks say they believe they’ll go on, but Barrie’s face tells a different story. He is eliminated and clearly disappointed to have his competition run come to an end, but as Michael reminds him, he has accomplished a a great deal so he exits the kitchen with his head held high.
As a fellow Calgarian I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that after the second challenge of this episode, I was ready to write April Lee off. Despite a relatively rocky start, as the episode progressed so too did her confidence and composure. If that trend continues she could very well be a force to be reckoned with later in the competition.
I was also thoroughly impressed by both Jen and Thea, who each elevated their game to show a level of finesse and determination I was initially skeptical they could produce. It was nice to finally get a chance to follow Jen a bit more closely, and it would be great to see a similar focus placed on Thea and Marissa in future episodes.
After last week's episode I selected Jeremy as a chef to watch, but based on his performance in this week’s challenge I think it’s safe to say that he has catapulted himself into a top contender. For me, Jeremy, Christopher, Andy, Andrew, and Mai have each solidified their status as elite competitors.
Nevertheless, if last week’s episode has taught us anything, it’s that we really don’t yet know what these chefs are capable of and that anything is possible in the MCC kitchen.
MasterChef Canada: Back To Win airs Sunday nights on CTV.