Thursday, December 15, 2011

Master Blaster

Ash Mair, the delightful young Aussie chef with a passion for Basque cuisine, has become 'Britain's next culinary superstar' as winner of the 2011 series of MasterChef: The Professionals. And, for once, yer actual Keith Telly Topping managed to tip the winner of a MasterChef competition without putting the mockers on them. Trust me, dear blog reader, when I say that he is as surprised as you, probably, are. And, also, to note that'll almost certainly never happen again. As usual the final episode began with a catch-up on the lives of previous winners of the title - Derek, Steve and, last year's winner, Big Cuddly Claire. Then we got a round-up on the home lives of the three, quite exceptional, finalists this time around. Firstly there was young Steve, baby-faced, with spiky-hair and astounding talent, talking about his inspirational grandma, his prowess as a teenage footballer and then introducing the viewers to his, really, tasty girlfriend. As they always used to say about George Harrison, it's often the quiet ones that pull the loveliest ladies. There was Ash, growing up in the bush in Tasmania with his ninja fantasies, his self-taught cooking style, emigration to Europe and, again, a really stunning partner, Begoña, the love of his life who encourages his appreciation of all things Basque. The sequence ended with Ash thoughtfully looking out over the river Thames at Barnes, drinking a pint on a glorious summer's evening. And then there was Claire. Lovely little Claire with her beautiful blue eyes and her charming smile. We heard from her proud mum and dad about her early 'wilful' determination, her college years and her lack of a winning record in competitions. Plus, she revealed how scared she'd been in the early rounds with sour, scowly-faced Monica ('she's actually quite nice' said Claire, with a cheeky grin). Three extraordinary talents. Three future Michelin star chefs in the making, according to Michel Roux who knows a thing or two of Michelin stars. Three young people who, on any other given year might well have walked off with the title without breaking sweat. And yet, like the movie Highlander, there can, ultimately, be only one. The final was the same routine as always, three dishes, two and a half hours, one winner. 'We have a culinary joust,' said Gregg Wallace, ramping up the tension. No pressure, then. In a year in which the main MasterChef series got its highest ever audiences - despite something of a concerted campaign of whispers against it from a couple of scum tabloids - but, also, when Celebrity MasterChef found itself crassly scheduled and, frankly, a bit underwhelming when it did finally appear in the evenings, it's nice to know that The Professionals strips away much of the unnecessary padding. And, that it remembers what the format is good at and why it's so popular with many people who, otherwise, aren't that fussed about cookery shows. This blogger, for one. Because it's about the dishes and the people. As noted yesterday, it combines the excitement and competitive elements of The X Factor, Strictly et al but without the often arbitrary and, to this blogger anyway, very unappealing meanness of spirit than many shows with a voting element deem necessary to maintain viewers interest. As creator Franc Roddam said, recently, MasterChef works because everybody basically wants everyone on it to do well. This is The Whole of The Law. So, young Steve Barringer, twenty five but looking about sixteen, was up first. His starter was confit salmon and a smoked salmon scotch quail's egg with beetroot julien and horseradish cream. 'A whimsical dish,' the MasterChef website calls it. Personally, yer actual Keith Telly Topping is no great fan of beetroot, but I'd've licked the plate of everything else. 'Vibrant and striking,' said Michel. 'Without fault,' added Gregg. The main course was slow-roasted duck breast, pan-fried duck liver, carrot, orange and vanilla purée and braised chicory with potatoes and a port and duck sauce. And, he followed that with 'flavours of peach melba' a modern deconstruction of the classic French dessert comprising raspberries purée, peaches jelly and vanilla custard with flake almond and caramel praline. As noted earlier, in any other year, those three dishes would have walked off with the title before another mouthful had been tasted. But, this was no ordinary year. Next was Ash.
At thirty four he was the oldest of the final three by a distance although, in chef's terms he's still just a young man at the start of what should, clearly, be an outstanding career. 'He's come out all guns blazing,' noted Wallace as Ash prepared his food. 'He wants it badly.' Ash's starter was monkfish tail and chorizo served on black lentils with a piperade jeu. 'That just screams of Spain!' said Gregg. 'It couldn't be more Spanish if it chucked a maraca at you!' Of course, we should have expected nothing else. Ash's love for Basque cuisine has been a recurring feature of his food all series. 'The flavours are like the aroma, intoxicating,' noted Michel. Onto the main course, rump of lamb, with lamb-stuffed baby artichokes, fondant potato croquette in panko breadcrumbs with chopped lamb neck and piquant garlic, onion and anchovies aioli. It made you want to cry it looked so lovely. 'You don't faff about when it comes to putting food on the plate, do you?' asked Michel. Gregg loved it all, particularly, the little potato croquette. 'What you've done there is a miniature Shepherd's Pie!' he exclaimed. The dessert was torrija ('very similar to a bread and butter pudding' explained Michel, helpfully) with apricot and almond. 'Bowl-lickingly good,' was Gregg only comment. It didn't need any more than that. Meanwhile, over in another part of the kitchen, Claire Hutchings was becoming the first chef 'ever to light a bonfire in the MasterChef kitchen!' 'I hope I don't get invited to any of your barbecues,' said Michel with a worried look on his face. Twenty two, with mad-skills and a growing confidence, little Claire's opener was poached oysters with Iberico ham, toasted buckwheat, cucumber balls, Velvet Pioppini mushrooms and vinegar aioli. 'Sometimes you are just so clever,' said Gregg. It wasn't a criticism! There followed a main course of deep smoked squab pigeon with beetroot and chervil, rosemary oil and a red wine sauce. It worked, even thought Michel thought it might not. Again, in any normal year Claire, whose dessert - chocolate and coffee marquise with deep fruity cherries, amaretti biscuits and silverleaf - would have been crowned champion for just a couple of those three dishes. Such was the outstanding quality of the 2011 final. In the end, however, as Gregg noted 'if I could only eat one of these guys' food for the rest of my life, I know who I would chose,' at which Michel Roux nodded, like the wise old Buddha he is and the announcement was made. 'Ash is a supreme talent. He pushes himself to the absolute limit, and always delivers. Ash has got the gift, the gift of culinary genius. His food is outstanding,' said Roux. Ash described himself as 'in dreamland. When my name was announced as the winner I was in shock, I think I was hit with every emotion all at once but mostly overwhelming joy. I'm still not sure if it's actually sunk in - but I'm just so happy that all the work paid off and mostly that Michel and Gregg had so much belief in me throughout the competition.' So, there you go. A great end to a great series of one of British TV's most interesting, occasionally infuriating but always madly entertaining formats.

And so we, briefly, return to Keith Telly Topping's 45 of the Day for the evening. Tell 'em all about it, Stevie.
We return you, dear blog reader, to your scheduled pre-Christmas entertainment, tomorrow.