Episode 5: What’s done, is plated. My experience in the MasterChef Kitchen.
Updated: Sep 2, 2020
This week there was something special in store for us. We were up really early for this challenge. Still groggy, taking naps between nooks and corners, we entered into a Cold Storage for this challenge.
Judge Bjorn explains that this is a team challenge where we have a super-sized pantry, the entire store to our disposal!!
Judge Damian briefs us that we have 60 minutes to prepare a main course and dessert and work within a budget of $50 to buy the ingredients. It is a closed pantry challenge and we needed to include some special buys from the store. The special buys included Lamb Cutlet, Australian potatoes, Cherry Tomatoes, Kale and Barramundi Fish.
Judge Audra explains that the challenge is to cook for a family of four, therefore, we need to make sure we make sure our dishes entice the kids and adults.
We were split into three teams, so two people in each team. Winners of the last week challenge, @Shamsydar Ani, @Zander and @Sharon become captains. We were paired by a luck of draw and the colour of the Bell peppers decide our partners. I pulled out a red capsicum and was teamed with the @Shamsdyar.
The tight-fisted purse stringsgot me thinking of the cheapest protein and carbohydrates. With only 15 minutes to shop, Shamsydar and I start verbalizing almost everything that popped up while we run from isle to shelf.
It was a simple decision. The cheapest carbohydrate is Potato, cheapest starch for mains is Rice and cheapest protein is Chicken. So we decided to cook a kampong style menu. Roasted Chicken, Herbed Rice, Pan Roasted Potatoes, Orange salad, Onion fritters and a Chocolate Cake.
We both knew that our strengths were in spicing up the dishes. The literal meaning of the word Rempah is spice in Malay, but in practice, a rempah refers to a paste of spices which imparts an intense flavour to a dish. Shamsydar had established her Sambal and Rempah skills in the competition and I understand how Spices work, thanks to my Indian roots. We pick up some paprika, lemon pepper, sea salt. We christen ourselves as #SpiceGirls.
Once the shopping was done, everything else depended on what we made of it (literally) in the MasterChef Kitchen. We decided to divide the work based on how we were going to prioritize the tasks. I was responsible for the Potatoes, Rice and Salad. Shamsydar was responsible for the Chicken, Onion Fritters and Chocolate cake.
Even though we decided to feed Kampong style, I knew that every dish mattered. My philosophy in cooking is that a good dish does not have to be a ton of ingredients. Even a simple, one-ingredient dish can be outstanding.
Highlighting a single ingredient dish is what all home cooking is about. It always boils down to the ingredient and the best-suited cooking technique to hero it.
It was a frenzy cook, I burnt my first batch of rice! God bless Judge Damian for pointing it out to me.
I herbed the rice with chopped curry leaves, coriander and cracked pepper. The most critical aspect of making a rice dish is to wash, drain the rice and cook out the starch in a copious amount of water. This helps achieve that very much need separated grains so that each grain is coated with flavour. Next, it is important to understand that herbs lend very different qualities to a dish when it is fried. That was what I was after for this dish. So, I fired the curry leaves, coriander, added the cooked rice and cracked pepper. It tasted very flavorful.
The #Australianpotatoes supplied by @ColdStorageSG from @pembertonfresh is what I used for the potato dish. These are slightly waxy potatoes and have a lot of starch in them. When you cut into starchy potatoes you will find a milky substance on my knife, that is a good way to know that the potatoes are good for frying. That was what I was after for this dish.
I pan-fried the potatoes to give that perfect roast. There is a video explaining “how to” cook the potatoes and pan roast them on Toggle. Click here to check it out: https://video.toggle.sg/en/video/series/masterchef-singapore/extras/ep5-cold-storage-challenge-perfectly-roasted-potatoes-masterchef-singapore/628089
I was very happy with the flavours in the pan roasted potatoes and herbed rice. Now the salad.
We had bought 5 beautiful oranges to be the flavour bomb for the chicken, cake and salad. I spent a lot of time prepping the oranges and I remember Chef Bjorn comments on us successfully using the orange from nose to tail!! He is so funny, quirky, quick with puns … I love his spirit and honesty. There is absolutely no pretence about him.
We used the orange segments with the mixed salad leaves we bought. When it came to the dressing, we quickly realized that it needed some citrus as all fundamental dressings should have. The orange juice was too fruity and sweet. I used the lemon pepper (that I used for the potatoes) and vinegar from the staples provided under our bench. But it was still begging for a citrus zing! Shamsdyar added a lot of sea salt and balanced it out. Kudos girl!
If you are ever making an Orange salad, I would definitely recommend some lemon juice and shards of parmesan. The high salt, citrus kind of balances out the fruity sweet orange. Try it!
Back to the MasterChef Kitchen. We were introduced to the family we were going to feed. Two little boys entered the kitchen as our guest judges and we were excited to see them. They both looked like best buddies and full of sporting fun.
I am very happy about the dishes I worked on and plate. They do taste like how I intended it to be. Thanks to the large quantities we cooked, many on the sets got to taste it. I remember the crew members asking me for the recipe and wanting to try the rice and potatoes. You see, food does not need to be complicated. It is about the cooking technique. After all food that is simple to make, instills confidence in people. I am thrilled.
The following moments were very gratifying for me in the MasterChef Kitchen. Judges loved the Rice, Potatoes and Salad. An image that will always remain in my heart.
Judge Audra went back for seconds, watching her eat is always a pleasure. Judge Bjorn loved the fluff from the potato that had roasted to become crusty bits that he could not resist. Judge Damian had come to my station earlier and said that he wanted to see some well-cooked rice. I think I delivered because he loved the herbed rice.
The two kids who were our judges are just adorable. So thin that all I wanted to do was to feed them. Perfect candidates to feed a hearty meal. The kids ate our food and said it was “super-duper good!” The satisfaction of feeding childrensigh! There is no greater joy in the universe.
We still had three dishes on the table. Kampong style right!! The Judges loved Shamsdyar’s onion fritters, made with egg in a Malay style. Then the “big reveal” was the Chicken and Chocolate cake. Unfortunately, our chicken and the chocolate cake turned out uncooked. We were gutted because we were eyeing the deck and wanted to win this challenge to avoid the elimination.
Next we face elimination, a pressure test, an elimination challenge.
We had to cook a seriously complex dish from a renowned Chef. There was no recipe, no completed dish to taste or understand what it looked like. The only guide was to watch, listen and to keep up with Chef Ming Tan, co-owner of Singapore’s Park Bench Deli. We needed to finish the dish within 10 seconds of Chef Ming completing the dish. We had to make a Lobster Styled Bisque with Lobster, Prawns and deep-fried Oysters.
This challenge proved to be a litmus test for both Shamsdyar and me. She is allergic to crustaceans and I am a vegetarian. Both of us would have to cook the dish without tasting.
Afteryears of living in Singapore, people have always felt sorry for me that I am a vegetarian. I just don’t get it. I never will. You see, it is not a disease – it’s exercising my choice in food. I remember a colleague stating that being a vegetarian would amount to being an anti-social!! I understand that statement especially because I don’t drink alcohol as well. But you see you don’t have to drink or eat the same things to be friends.
I am the only vegetarian in the top 10 but get along very well with all of them. Sure, there is an element of planning to cater for a vegetarian when we all meat, meet (pun intended) but it is a good thing for chefs and foodies. It allows for creativity and bringing in flavours without banking on any meat.
I don’t propagate vegetarianism, but I do want to make a point that Vegetarian food can be very exciting and calls for a lot of cooking skill.
The challenge was tough but not impossible. I was confident I could pull it off because throughout the competition I had not served the judges undercooked or overcooked meat or fish. I don’t cook often with these ingredients so I don’t have oodles of practice cooking them, but I am usually composed when I cook, I find it therapeutic. I hate to rush through making food, but I had confidence in my cooking so I knew I would manage this challenge.
I tried to think of all the bisques recipes I had read. But I drew a complete blank. There was a crateful of ingredients under the bench and another trayful of seafood. I have worked with prawns but never with Lobsters or Oysters. But that did not bother me. I cooked Veal Sweet Breads to perfection in the last challenge even though I had never seen, cooked or tasted it before!
The challenge started, and Chef Ming was at breakneck speed. I needed to fish out the ingredient from the tray and prepare it almost the same time as Chef Ming. This challenge was about triumphing the speed needed in a commercial kitchen. Time was of essence.
He shelled his prawns in one easy motion. I on the other hand struggled to remove the legs and then the shells. He asked us to leave the tail section on, but I thought it was the pointy bit of flesh inside and pull the entire shell out.
I took so long to peel the prawn that I was at least 3 steps behind. I was standing right in front, but I am so short that I could barely see how he cut his vegetables. I had to completely rely on his verbal instructions.
He cut the vegetables so fast that would put Barry Allen AKA Flash to shame. He choped his carrots to matchsticks and asked us to cut it across into a brunoise. I had no clue what it meant. I though it is some kind of cooking technique. I add my carrots cut in matchsticks to the browning shells.
When Chef Ming called us over to have a closer look on how the carrots and onions have browned, I realized my mistake. I came back to my station and increased the temperature of my carrots, onions and prawn shells so that I could still achieve caramelisation.
Next pickling the fennel. Chef Ming asked us to slice it thin. I had not even started shaving my fennel. Chef Ming was clearly concerned and reminded me to get to the fennel. Back at the deck all the judges are concerned. Judge @AudraMorrice throws her hands in an animated fashion and voices her concern to the other two judges. I could hear Judge @the_rebel_chef cheering for me asking me to work faster. It felt like I was in a marathon and I needed to focus on the finishing line. @Aaron and @Zander looked very worried for me as well. I tightened the mandolin blade closer and slice the fennel thin, but not as thin as Chef Ming’s.
At this point I was playing catch up with Chef Ming but several steps behind. I asked him if I need to add the coconut water to the shells, he confirmed and reminded me that I am way behind. I remembered that he added coriander to the pickling liquid. I add in the coriander powder. Mistake!! it was supposed to be the coriander seeds!!
Next, Chef Ming started prepping on the Rempah, a wet, paste of spice roots that is the basis of Malay dishes. This required chopping of onion, shallots, lemon grass, red chilli, galangal, fresh turmeric, coriander leaves and roots, ginger, candlenuts, shrimp paste, clove powder, cumin powder, cinnamon, tamarind paste, oil and coriander powder. I had used up my coriander powder in the pickling liquid! God’s grace, good sense prevailed. I have worked with spices enough to know that I can manage with the corianders seeds that I was left with now. I added it to the chopped vegetables for the Rempah. While all this was happening, amongst all the stress and tension, heart of hearts I was very happy to have this MasterClass. I was learning. It very important for me.
I hear Chef Ming Stressing on how important it is to be a fine paste. I had to make up for time, I considered toasting the coriander seeds before I add it into the food processor. But I was strapped for time. I did not want to go home. Not at this point in the competition. I had not yet shown all that I was capable of! I was acutely aware that that untoasted coriander seeds would come up in tasting. So, to get that same amount of smoothness I blitz, then put it on the pan fry a bit, then back in the processor, blitz then back in the pan for frying. It looked like Chef Mings Rempah that he held up to show us. I was happy with my decision.
We needed to prepare oil for frying, so I pour a bottle full of oil and get the heat up to 6 for frying. Next, we had to pull out our lobsters, when I did, it was a nice orange. Chef Ming taught us how to deshell the lobster keeping the tail intact. He was hold it up and demonstrating and I was able to follow through all the steps. When I deshelled, I was confident that it had cooked through. At this point I was catching up, getting closer and closer to Chef Ming.
He asks us to decant the shells, pour the liquid gold into the frying Rempah to let them cook together. Add in the coconut cream. Take the prawns - devein, butterfly and coat them in turmeric. I followed through.
The oil was another calamity waiting to happen. Before, I start shucking the Oysters I realise that my oil was smoking hot. It was too hot to fry anything. I quickly pull it out of the heat and pray edit reaches perfect temperature of by the time I needed to use it. I had no more oil to bring the temperature down.
Now comes the Oysters. This was the first time I saw,touched, shucked and fried an Oyster. Chef Ming comes around showed us how to Shuck an Oyster. I go full force shuck them all one after another. This wasmy turning point. I make up for all the time. I finish shucking first. Chef Ming coats the oysters in Semolina, salt and turmeric.
Chef Ming said that we would need to fry the curry leaves and Kafir lime leaves. The oil was perfect for curry leaves. I put them in and fry it.
He calls us to his station to show us how to devein the kaffir lime leaf and slice it real thin, called chiffonade. I don’t have great chopping skills but slice it, fry it. We needed to plate the dish and I was barely a couple of seconds behind Chef Ming.
He asks us to take a pan butter fry the prawns and lobster. I understand how to cook meat. I follow almost same time. I make sure I don’t overcook the lobster and prawns.
Now we need to fry the Oysters. I test the oil with a bit of Semolina and a prayer. The oil is perfect for frying. I throw in the oysters. While handling the oysters, I get a good sense of not cooking it too much but gust getting the coating fried to a crisp. I was at par with Chef Ming.
My aim was o get all the elements on the plate and get it done on time. I am super thrilled with myself that now I am plating as Chef Ming is verbalizing. I take the UFO shaped black plate place three prawns, pour over a ladle of the bisque, place lobster tail cut into half (cooked right to the center), two fried oysters, place some fried curry leaves around the plate, top the lobster with pickled fennel and fried kaffir lime-leaves.
I plate on time. I shout, “I survived, I survived!!”
I felt a huge level of accomplishment. I was very happy that I did not give up at any time during the challenge.
It was tasting, judgement time. Chef Ming explains that some of the key elements he is looking for are balance of flavor in the dish, well-cooked proteins but the single most important element is the Bisque. It is a complex sauce and good dish needs to bring it together. I must say that this challenge was set with a lot of thought and kudos to how Chef Ming did it with such speed and finesse!! The Flash of the Singapore Culinary world in my opinion!
Special thanks to Chef Ming Tan for this super amazing MasterClass. I am very grateful to him for teaching me soo many techniques in just one class!!
After tasting my dish, Judge Audra’s and the others felt that my bisque was watery, lacked depth of flavor and I could not keep up with Chef Ming. For these reasons, it was time for me to leave the MasterChef Kitchen.
It is a very difficult feeling because you are so happy and enjoying yourself. You are finally doing something you love, just for yourself. You have 3 amazing people as Judges mentoring you, an amazing production and crew who took such good care of you and the amazing contestants who are family now.
It was a difficult challenge, I goofed up several places. My pickled fennel was thicker, my rempah had not thickened enough, the coconut cream had not cooked enough to have caramelized, it lacked the depth or concentrated flavor.
It is devastating, heart breaking. When you hear that it’s time for you to leave the MasterChef Kitchen, your mind is telling you go but the rest of the body including the heart just refuses to move. I am very aware that I will have a 13-year-old and many other children watching this and that I should not break down, cry. I want to be an inspiration and tearing will just be a weak moment. I don’t make people cry, I make people laugh, smile. It is my thing. I spread happiness. I will continue to do the same.
I tell Shamsydar, Sharon and Gen that it is okay, smile and heart of heart wishing all the best for their journeys ahead.
Judge Bjorn says that I cooked some of his favorite dishes. I am sooo touched. He is a role model and I had made no secret about the fact that he was a role model. Judge Audra says that one of the biggest things you gain in this kitchen is resilience. She also goes on to say that she has thoroughly enjoyed having me there and that I have given them some incredible dishes. My heart bounces in joy. Judge Damian leaves me with a comment of the highest order. He says that my vegetarian cooking is going to change people who eat meat. I can’t ask for more.
I hug all. I thank the Judges, I don’t think I can ever thank them enough.
I am very thankful to God, universe, the greater force for making this happen!
Making me experience the MasterChef Kitchen. My experience is my trophy.
I made friends for life, mentored by the best possible Judges in the whole wide milky way and taken care by people who are all cumulatively responsible for the amazing journey! I would love to go back in time and relive the entire experience even if I cannot change the outcome.
I walk out of the MasterChef Kitchen for the very last time. It feels like an end of an era but what matters is the journey and not the destination.
This is not the end. I am working on a new journey. Now, a new chapter, a book may be, a vegetarian restaurant?! What is important is that I am here to stay. I will work hard to make all those people in MasterChef Singapore proud of giving me this opportunity.
I am so looking forward to the future, something I will make of in the months to come. With a marketing background and rooted into Indian cooking, I am constantly trying to rethink the obvious. My approach to life is to be out-of-box, the non- conformist. I will attempt to reach out, influence and serve you with my creations.
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! for journeying this experience with me.
Until my next … Lots of love.
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Check out my website: www.kechilkitchen.com