We’ve officially reached the halfway point of MasterChef Canada: Back To Win and after five weeks of tough competition and a handful of hard farewells, it looks like the chefs are finally about to have some fun.
The MCC kitchen has been converted into a makeshift game show set. The chefs gleefully scamper to the front where they find individually assigned buzzers along with Alvin, Claudio, and Michael–who wastes no time and leans right into his best Bob Barker impression.
Michael tells the chefs they will be playing a culinary trivia game called “Kitchenary!” and the game itself seems pretty straightforward. The judges will provide a culinary definition and the chefs will have to name the correct culinary term associated with it. Correct answers will earn the chefs 10 points while incorrect answers will result in a loss of five points.
As lighthearted as the game appears to be, the stakes are still high. The winner of the challenge will head straight to the balcony and will be spared from cooking for their lives in this week’s elimination challenge.
Last week we were told that the winner of the mystery box challenge would receive a big advantage this week and they clearly weren’t underselling it this time around. Andrew, who's winning dish earned him a recipe publication on the Becel website, will also get to start the trivia challenge with a 20 point head start.
A less ambitious chef might have decided to play it safe with the 20 point lead, but Andrew, who grew up watching game shows with his Syrian family as a way to help them learn English, jumps right out of the gate with a correct answer to build upon his lead.
The categories of questions are all over the culinary map and the chefs are all rather impressive with their combined knowledge. At the end of the first round, Andrew holds his lead with 35 points while Christopher and Mai, who hilariously dubs herself a “food knowledge nerd”, are tied for second place. Although Andy has arguably been the quickest to the buzzer, he doesn't always come through with the correct answers and sits in last place with -10 points.
By the final round the tides begin to turn. Andy and Christopher each go on impressive runs to usurp the lead from Andrew, while Marissa goes on a nice little run of her own to climb all the way to fourth place. As the chefs prepare for the last series of questions Andrew now sits in second, while Thea rounds out the bottom with -5 points.
At this point the lighthearted look the chefs all dawned at the onset of this challenge has turned drastically toward intense focus. Following a flurry of final round quickfire questions and another impressive run by Andrew, he is once again crowned the winner with a margin of victory only slightly less than his initial 20 point head start. He takes his place in the balcony and is onto the final 7.
The chefs are told that they will have to draw on some of the culinary terms that were featured in the first challenge. Each chef must choose two words from the assortment of techniques and ingredients and the dish they create must feature both prominently.
Christopher finished the first challenge in second place, so he gets to pick first. He says he’s going for two things he’s used before and is comfortable with; siphon and pandan.
Andy is up next and he chooses pomelo and mandolin, which Alvin deems a very unusual combination. Andy says he’s never tasted a pomelo. If you’ve been reading these recaps you already know what I’m going to say about his decision–ambitious and admirable, but often proves unwise from a tactical standpoint. At least in this case Andy seems to have some knowledge of the flavour profile he’ll be working with.
Since Marissa and Mai wound up tying for fourth place, I would have expected them to alternate picks, but somewhat shockingly, Andrew is given the decision of who picks first. He admits that Mai is a huge threat to him, and unsurprisingly picks Marissa.
Marissa chooses tamarind as her ingredient and en papillote as her technique, while Mai selects velouté and galangal. Next up, Andre picks cassava and flambe, followed by Jeremy, who takes emulsify and spiralizer. Thea is up last but says the two items she wanted most are still on the board; tortilla press and tomatillo.
Michael tells the chefs that they will be given exactly one hour to prepare their dishes and that their final products will not only be judged by their overall flavour and presentation, but by how well the dish embodies the two words they chose.
The chefs race to the pantry and begin selecting their ingredients. Although Andy is already outside of his comfort zone with an ingredient he’s not totally familiar with, he takes another step in that direction and decides to make a dessert. He’s making a meringue with pomelo curd, coconut crumble, pomelo caviar, and pomelo zest. Michael seems surprised at Andy’s decision to go the dessert route, and speculates that there might be a dessert feud developing between him and Christopher.
At this point, if Christopher does have a dessert feud with anyone, it appears to be with Andrew. He’s clearly still a bit salty after losing to Andrew’s dessert last week, and for the second consecutive week he elects to go all out. He says he’s going to make a tropical pandan forest with pandan espuma along with a pandan microsponge to utilize the siphon. He nearly bit off more than he could chew in the time allotted last week, so hopefully he doesn’t fly too close to the sun this time around.
Andre has yet to showcase his dessert skills this season, but he too is going for a fairly elaborate dessert dish. He tells Michael he’s making a cassava Alaska served with white chocolate ganache, cassava cake and cassava crumble with a peach and mango filling and a ube Swiss meringue topper. He’s going to combine grated cassava with condensed milk, eggs, and sugar, which Michael praises as ingenious.
Thea and Mai both draw on childhood favourites as inspirations for their dishes. Thai says she grew up eating Latin American flavours and foods, so she’s going to make a deconstructed tostada with halibut ceviche and roasted tomatillos, while Mai is making a seafood and galangal bánh bò (steamed Vietnamese rice cake) with seafood velouté, inspired by her mom.
Marissa and Jeremy are also going for a seafood-based dish. Marissa’s making tamarind glazed tuna en papillote (a French method of cooking in parchment paper) with an aromatic tamarind coconut curry, which sounds and looks delicious. Jeremy tells Alvin he is making seared cod with what he describes as a potato tube made from spiralized potatoes and a calamansi beurre blanc, but the judges are quick to point out a potentially fatal flaw in Jeremy’s plan; he’s using aluminum foil to create his potato tube and according to Alvin, the decision will spell disaster.
To the judges’ overwhelming dismay, Marissa prematurely cuts her parchment paper. Alvin says he can see the aromas escaping his proverbial Christmas present, and that Marissa has ruined his proverbial Christmas.
Jeremy says doesn’t know how to solve the problem he’s created for himself, and with the clock winding down it appears he’s now created an additional problem; his beurre blanc has separated and he has to start over. Although he somehow manages to get his dish plated on time, his final product is noticeably lacking his emulsified component.
Andy is the first to step up to the judges’ podium. By now, we shouldn’t be surprised that he appears to have pulled off his highly ambitious goal, but I am definitely impressed nonetheless. Michael tells him that he’s put forth a great effort and that he’s pleased by both the presentation and the creaminess of the curd, but that the dish could use an added element of texture to take it to the next level.
Jeremy has already stated that he’s unhappy with his presentation and Alvin seems to be in stern agreement. When Jeremy began his dish Alvin warned him about the downside to choosing beurre blanc as his emulsified component, and he appears almost insulted by what Jeremy has presented him. He confirms that there isn’t enough sauce on his plate, but he does credit him on the cookery of his cod. He tells Jeremy that he expects more from him because he’s a great chef and sends him back to his station with his head hanging.
Of all the dishes in this challenge, Andre’s cassava Alaska is the one I’m most excited for. As he slowly pours his flambe to toast his meringue he admits he’s worried that his ganache hasn’t set, but he’s clearly already won points from the judges for his creativity. To Andre’s relief, his dessert appears to have held up beautifully and after digging in for his first bite, Michael is blown away. He says he’d like the dish to be a bit more fruit forward, but otherwise it hits on all cylinders.
Christopher says he’s slightly worried because his dish is high concept, and if it doesn’t translate to the judges, they’ll just see a big mess on a plate. He should probably consider himself lucky that Alvin is doing the tasting because the Demon Chef’s style is about as avant-garde as it gets in the culinary world.
He sets his dish–which he has titled “Into the Ravine”–down on the podium and Alvin immediately dismisses any doubt. Not only is the dish stunning to behold, but he’s achieved a perfect balance of flavour, texture, and seasoning.
Thea is up next. She sets her dish down in front of Claudio and she is met with instant praise from the acclaimed Uruguayan-born chef. He says she’s beautifully captured the essence of modern Mexican cuisine and after tasting her tostada he is nearly speechless. Her deconstructed tostada is light and crispy and although he wishes she had made more of her halibut ceviche, it’s well-executed with a perfectly zingy balance.
As Marissa approaches the podium she is clearly questioning whether or not the decision to open her papillote prematurely was the right call. At the time, she wanted to ensure her plating was on point–and the dish does look quite lovely–but before she even has time to describe it to Alvin, he seems to have already made up his mind. He tells her that it's a good dish overall, but that it might not be good enough for the level of competition currently present in the Back To Win season.
The last chef to arrive at the judges’ table is Mai. Michael wastes no time digging in and he tells her that her dish has clearly been cooked with a great deal of care, passion, and intelligence. He’s also amazed by the sweetness of her shrimp and by the amount of umami she was able to infuse in her velouté. Claudio echoes Michael’s praise and states that there’s not a single element of her dish that he would change.
After some deliberation, the judges declare that the top two dishes were cooked by Christopher and Mai. According to Claudio, Christopher’s dessert “threw down the gauntlet” and Michael states that Mai’s dish was the best she’s ever cooked in the MCC kitchen. The judges determine the two dishes were equally deserving of first place and the two chefs join Andrew in the balcony.
Of the five remaining chefs, surprisingly, only Marissa is called to the front. When she was originally questioned by the judges about her decision to open her papillote prior to presentation, her defence was that she wasn’t here for “trickery or any bells and whistles” and Claudio tells her that the judges are offering her the same courtesy. Her dish is selected as the weakest of the night and she is eliminated from the competition.
This was probably my favourite episode of the season so far. The trivia challenge offered a playful reprieve from what has otherwise been a rather intense and heavy season, and it was nice to see the chefs let loose and have some fun. I also think this week was a great indicator of why the cast of competitors have been dubbed the MasterChef Canada “All-Stars”.
I think Christopher probably stood out the most, if only by a small margin. Even though he did appear somewhat disappointed to not be chosen as the outright winner, he made a great case for himself as the competition’s best baker. A part of me does worry about his tendency to take on too much, but as long as he keeps executing he will be very tough to beat.
Speaking of redemption, after Andre’s strong start he had been on a bit of a rough streak, but bounced back beautifully today showing tenacity and potential that should remind the other chefs that he’s still a top contender.
Mai continues to shine in her comfort zone, which I think is a great strategy at this stage in the game, while Andy somehow manages to test his limits each week and prove me wrong regarding the time-honoured tactical approach.
The judges’ decision to spare Marissa from the usual style of elimination probably saved Jeremy from receiving his first bottom-tier dish of the season. We’re now at the halfway point and as it currently stands, only he and Thea have yet to be on the bottom.
Thea might not be getting a ton of on-camera love at the moment and she hasn’t yet won an individual contest, but she’s quietly putting forth solid performance after solid performance and I believe it won’t be long before she gets a win under her belt.
MasterChef Canada: Back To Win airs Sunday nights on CTV.