MasterChef Canada Back To Win Episode 4: Rolling with the pasta punches

Breaking down this week's Italian-themed episode of MasterChef Canada

After last week’s team challenge cliffhanger left us on the edge of our seats wondering who will be the next chef to exit the MasterChef Canada kitchen, we find out that for this week’s elimination challenge, the chefs are going to Italy.  

Although it might feel like a step backward from previous challenges in terms of the chefs’ familiarity with the cuisine, no matter how much pasta they’ve made in their lives, it likely pales in comparison to judges Michael and Claudio, who are both of Italian descent and have spent decades mastering the artform in their combined catalogue of award-winning restaurants.

The chefs are told that winning last week’s elimination challenge would have usually meant immunity in today’s challenge, but now they say that's not the case. Did they not tell them precisely that? The last thing we hear from Andy in last week’s episode is “I’m very, very proud of the effort we put forward, and I’m stoked to be safe.”

In either case, we must move forward and the chefs are told that one member of the winning Red Team must compete in the pressure test and Jeremy, who captained that team, must decide.

The Red Team chefs are asked what they would do in Jeremy’s position. Thea says to pick the person who performed the weakest. Christopher says he would pick his biggest competitor, which could very well be him. Marissa, who whether due to editing time constraints or otherwise, hasn’t really stood out from the competition as of yet, also says Jeremy should pick the strongest competitor. Andy takes an entirely different approach and suggests that Jeremy can prove he’s the toughest competitor by choosing himself. 

Jeremy appears none too impressed and almost in retaliation to Andy’s perceived audacity, quickly dismisses the notion and chooses him as the chef that will represent the Red Team in this week’s pressure test. Andy, along with the remaining competitors on Team Mai, are given black aprons.

The judges tell us that this pressure test is going to be not one, but two rounds. Michael says the theme of the first round is something very close to his heart, and the task the chefs must perform will be demonstrated by someone who is also very close to his heart. 

We’re then introduced to the acclaimed chef’s son, chef Oscar Bonacini who at first glance, appears to be a chip off the old block–but somehow even taller. In addition to having his hand in multiple Bonacini-owned properties across Canada over the years, the young chef has a wealth of authentic Italian culinary experience by way of a stage at Trattoria Cacciatori in the region Emilia-Romagna, which also happens to be where the Bonacini family has its roots. 

First Pressure Test: Primi piatti 

For the first series of challenges, the chefs will have to prepare three types of pasta that derive from three different regions: capunti from the Puglia region served with tomato sauce, lorighittas from the Sardinia region with a butter and herb sauce, and trofie from the Liguria region with a pesto sauce.

When the chefs were told this was going to be a pasta challenge, they all seemed to let out a collective sigh of relief. But after watching chef Oscar demonstrate while detailing the minute intricacies of each step, for some, confidence transitions into confusion. 

The chefs will have to work with a semolina-based dough–a dough made from only two ingredients: water and durum wheat semolina flour. Chef Oscar says the key will be managing the dough’s moisture and finding a fine line between wet and dry.

Andre is the most visibly affected by the complexity of the upcoming challenge. He explains that he barely ever eats pasta and if he does, he buys it premade from the supermarket. That surely doesn’t bode well for the Whitby chef but he does seem focused and as long as he remains mindful of each step he should be fine. 

We’re now told that the first pressure test is also going to be a head-to-head challenge. Each pair will be tasked with making one of the three pasta shapes. 

The winners will earn a place in the gallery and the losers will face off in another challenge with elimination on the line–assuming they hold to those parameters this time. As the sole remnant from last week’s winning team, Andy gets to choose the dueling pairs.

Andy decides that he will tackle the capunti and his competitor will be Barrie. He chooses Barrie because while he believes him to be a good chef, he’s shown a tendency to get a bit frazzled under pressure. He thinks he can take him, but it won’t be easy. As you might expect, Barrie says he’s a little bit salted, but not scared to cook against Andy. He says the first 20 shifts he ever worked in a restaurant were spent exclusively hand rolling pasta.

Andy picks Mai and Andre to compete in the loragitas challenge. Of all the chefs, Andre seemed to be the most nervous going into this challenge and if I were him I’d be even more nervous now; they’re both strong chefs in their own rights, but Mai should have the advantage here because hand-rolling and folding dumplings is something she does daily. That leaves Andrew and Jen left to square off in the trofie challenge.

The chefs begin to build their dough and Mai is not only fast, but the look of pure determination and focus on her face is almost scary, if not thoroughly impressive. Christopher refers to her as a dough master and the title seems more than apt. She says she’s fully aware of the added pressure on her in this challenge, but that pressure only seems to add to her focus. 

On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, Andre almost appears to have conceded this round. He seems to be watching Mai for pointers, but whenever he speaks his tone indicates he’s already written himself off for this challenge.

Jen elects to forego using the scraping tool chef Oscar utilized to shape the trofie. She hopes that working with her hands will lead to a more perfectly shaped pasta. She also chooses to use a mortar and pestle as opposed to a blender, which the balcony seems to have mixed emotions about. We’ll see if she gets dinged for not following exact instructions or if her end result is tasty enough to trump any disappointment from the divergence. 

The judges then take some time to elaborate on their expectations for the round. Until this point there has been hardly a mention of the accompanying sauces, but we find out that they will in fact play an integral part in the final assessments. It’s probably safe to assume the chefs were told off-screen at some point. 

As the clock begins to wind down, we see that Jen's hands-on approach has left her lagging a bit behind, but not as far behind as Andre, who at the 2 minute mark does not yet have boiling water. He decides something is better than nothing, and puts his pasta in the non-boiling water. He, along with the other five remaining competitors, plates his dish before the timer expires. 

Andrew and Mai win fairly decisively, while Barrie narrowly edges out Andy with what he describes as the best dish he’s ever cooked in the MCC kitchen. All three head up to the balcony and move on to next week’s episode.

Second Pressure Test: Secondi piatti

Before the judges divulge the details of the second challenge, they offer the three remaining chefs a palate cleanser in the form of a sgroppino cocktail made with lemon sorbet, Prosecco, and vodka. Andy, who is still feeling the sting from losing a challenge he probably shouldn’t have been a part of, appears unimpressed by the gesture. 

Each chef will have to cook one of three main course dishes. Andy is tasked with creating an eggplant Parmigiana (breaded eggplant with layered mozzarella, Parmesan, and tomato sauce), Jen is assigned with veal saltimbocca (sauteed veal cutlets that are layered with prosciutto and sage in a marsala wine sauce), and Andre is given a chicken cacciatore in a rustic hunter stew made with tomatoes and mixed vegetables. 

We’re told that this is not a replication challenge, so the chefs will be required to elevate the classic rustic offerings with their own fresh interpretations. 

If we’re to base our predictions solely on the performance from past seasons, Jen could be perceived as the underdog in this challenge; Andre and Andy were both finalists in their respective seasons, while Jen left the MCC kitchen relatively early on with an 8th place finish.

Luckily for Jen, success in previous seasons doesn’t guarantee success in our current season, and she presses forth with a full head of steam. Andre, however, continues to appear daunted by the pressure of the pasta challenge, and seems to be as worried about his fate as I now am.

Andre elects to go with a fried chicken interpretation of the chicken cacciatore dish with grilled asparagus and a roasted red pepper and tomato pork sauce. Claudio warns him that it might not be elevated enough for the MCC judges and despite looking frazzled, Andre agrees and decides to place more emphasis on his technique and flair. 

Jen has decided not to use veal at all for her reinterpretation of the veal Parmigiana, and is instead going to go with a rabbit loin and leg served in a red wine pan gravy with pecorino and a sage and prosciutto-infused crumble. 

The protein choice seems straightforward enough, but upon further questioning, she reveals that she’s never actually cooked with or eaten rabbit before. Alvin says he’s impressed by her boldness, but you can tell he is visibly perplexed by the decision. Cooking for your life in uncharted territory rarely bodes well in situations such as these, but hopefully Jen has at least some experience cooking other types of wild game meats. 

Andy says the sight of eggplant took his mind straight to his love for Middle Eastern cuisine, and is making a reimaged Italian-style Baba Ganoush with crispy eggplant, confit tomatoes, and lemon ricotta topped with a Parmesan tuile. 

Surprise Third Pressure Test: Contorni piatti

With 30 minutes on the clock we find out that the judges are adding an additional round: contorni piatti–a vegetable-forward side dish typically served alongside the secondi dishes. Beyond pairing it with the theme of their main course, the chefs are given free reign to come up with whatever they see fit. 

The chefs are now in crisis mode but all three push forward nonetheless. For the contorni course, Jen says she wants to keep it simple and fresh, and decides to make a seared squash with blanched rapini. Andre continues down the comfort food path and opts for a buttermilk salad with lemon, pinenuts, and fried bacon. Andy remains the most composed of the three and rolls with the contorni punches to create an orange fennel salad with fresh Burrata cheese, inspired by his wife. 

Judges’ Table

Despite some initial doubt, Andy seems incredibly proud of his final dishes, and after a couple of bites, Claudio confirms that he should be proud; both dishes exceed expectations and the presentation, cookery, and flavour are all sensational.

Jen’s presentation is equally impressive. According to Michael, her sauce is the star but the rabbit is slightly overcooked. The judges praise her for her courage, focus, and unwillingness to give up, but her fate is now in Andre’s hands. 

Andre sets his dishes down at the judges’ podium and it does appear as though he’s taken Claudio's advice. At the very least, his presentation matches that of the other two chefs, but without hesitation Claudio states that Andre “makes the most beautiful looking food.” His chicken cacciatore receives compliments across the board, but his fennel salad falls a little short for its lack of complexity and its somewhat flat and ubalanced flavour profile. 

After some deliberation, the judges say all three chefs performed exceptionally well, but select Andy and Andre as the challenge winners. Unfortunately, that means Jen is heading home one spot sooner than in her previous MCC run.

Kitchen Scraps

Although Andy really had no business being put through that grueling series of challenges, it has to feel good for the Season 5 runner-up to overcome every obstacle thrown his way and emerge as the standout chef from this week’s episode.  

Despite his initial dismay, Andre’s final dishes both seemed very focused and well-thought out, while Jen really seemed to be winging it to some extent this episode. The chefs obviously do not have a lot of time to come up with a plan when curveballs like the contorni course are thrown their way, and that’s where Jen’s lack of professional experience may have come back to bite her. 

I also can’t help but wonder if Jen could have gone a little further if she had just selected a protein she was more comfortable with. The judges said Andre’s margin of victory was miniscule, and the fact that the only criticism she received was that the rabbit was slightly overcooked speaks volumes about her natural technical proficiency, but with a cast of competitors this strong even the smallest slip up can prove to be paramount.


MasterChef Canada: Back To Win airs Sunday nights on CTV.