Top 50 week: Day 4

Speculation was rife as to what Day 4’s challenge for the group would be. I had almost been convinced that it was a produce-identification test, when tomorrow’s note from the producers was slipped under the door. We had to be in the hotel foyer at 7:15am, and we would be cooking. All of us would be cooking.

Day 4: the day we all cooked, or “how not to cook a pork cutlet”.The idea of a magic box would ordinarily excite me. The reality on this day was a nightmare. We had to take a space at a very long bench, which was minimally fitted with a camp stove, chopping board, two knives, some cutlery, serving dish, two bowls, salt, pepper & oil. Plus a box. A big, wooden box set over the top of our chopping block. I was almost convinced we would be cooking chicken, as chicken breast featured in the judges’ pep talk of the previous night.

In the box, we would discover 10 ingredients: sugar, chocolate, cabbage, flatleaf parsley, a pork cutlet, a bread roll, a granny smith apple, lemon, two eggs, a tomato. We could use some or all, but we had to make a tasty dish for the judges out of whatever was used. We had 30 minutes.

I was lost. These were not ingredients I would normally choose to put together. I felt naked without my pantry, my stock of spices, my utensils, an actual cooktop. It felt like it would be a travesty not to use the perfectly plump pork cutlet, even though I had no idea of how to prepare it. After some sad and scary eating experiences, I did not cook with pork as a rule.

[BTW, I braised some corn-fed pork belly for a dinner party on 10 March but still can’t face the idea of cooking/eating another giant cutlet. Maybe in time.]

I decided to cook the pork cutlet with caramelised apple and a cabbage & apple slaw. I started by scoring the skin of the pork cutlet because it seemed like the right thing to do, then I oiled and seasoned. I felt like I was cheating as I seared the fat first; I stopped as the judges came close.
>The three second tip I wish I had before the challenge: if you’re after excellent caramelisation, definitely do sear the fat before you cook the cutlet.

The slaw-like accompaniment was similar to a salad I make at home, only this time I added tomato, which was never going to be a good idea. Why, oh why, did I feel the need to add colour? Probably because it was staring me in the face.

The judges gave mixed reviews at each stop. It was impossibly to tell which way they were leaning. They reached me after the most innovative dish of the challenge [darn!] and their summation of my dish was non-committal. My meat was cooked well but underseasoned and the fat should have been more caramelised. My caramelised apple was not caramel enough. The slaw had good flavour but components should have been cut to the same size — but what was the tomato doing in there? Matt flicked now-limp ribbons of tomato across the plate. I didn’t know how to feel: I had got some big things right and also made some stupid mistakes.

If I had my time again…

Of course, I would have done things differently! For starters, I would have ignored half of the ingredients upfront and I would have focused on just one or two key items. Although anyone with eggy bread garnered generally positive reviews, I would probably avoid this. Instead, I would try for something like the following idea.

Untrialled dessert recipe: Apple, three ways. Parsley-infused apple slices, caramelised & peppered apple bruschetta, and choc-coated candied apple peel.

Maybe one day I will feel the urge to try this out… First, cut a 2cm slice from the bread roll, drizzle with olive oil on both sides and place in the pan on medium heat. Peel the apple evenly with the paring knife in long strokes, cut into half and core. Squeeze lemon over the apple and peel to prevent it from browning. Turn the bread slice as needed, then remove from the pan and rest on the edge of the chopping block.

Lower the heat and shake about a cup of sugar into the pan. In the meantime, finely dice one of the apple halves, and finely slice the other. The sugar should melt & start to caramelise. Place the diced apple in one half of the pan. Allow the diced apple to heat through and turn it a couple of times then take out and place in the large bowl; mix in some cracked pepper and a sprinkling of salt. Place this on the toasted bread slice. This is the bruschetta. Put it in the middle of the serving plate.

Ensure that the sugar is becoming toffee [add a drop of the toffee to water (use the large bowl) and it should solidify]. Add the apple peel. Coat evenly and place on the very edge of the chopping block to set. Hopefully they will not stick fast. Pour water to ~1cm depth into the pan and turn up the heat; break chocolate into the small glass bowl and place this into the pan. Stir the chocolate with the spoon until it is smooth and evenly melted. Coat the candied apple with the chocolate using the fork and tongs, allowing it to set on the chopping board (you can carefully cut it off with your knife if it gets stuck). Now the choc-coated candied apple is done.

Tip out the toffee water and pour ~1cm of fresh water into the pan. Tear parsley into the simmering water and leave for 2 minutes. Cut the remaining apple half into six slices and place in the pan. Cook with the large glass bowl overturned on the pan for about a minute, until the apple is just softened but not stewed. Now it’s ready to serve.

To serve, line all three elements across the serving plate, in the order of: (1) parsley-infused apple slices; (2) caramelised & peppered apple bruschetta; and (3) choc-coated candied apple peel. All done and, hopefully, very delicious.

Talking to my partner that night, I felt overwhelmingly homesick. I had never left my son for a night, let alone six days, before this. I was so utterly exhausted and emotionally drained that I was ready to leave. Even if 17-hr days are the norm in the food industry, you have your friends and family around you for support. You weren’t caged.

Not that I was prepared to work the 17-hr days it seemed were required of a chef: I knew I was not prepared to take up a job where I would not be able to spend even a single waking hour with my son or partner each day. I still had my burning passion for food, still had my restaurant idea in mind [which will hopefully come to fruition in the future]. Why was I putting myself through this when I didn’t even know what it was all for?
[Remember: the prize was only revealed on 27 April.]

These to-and-fro thoughts were doing me no good. I felt incredibly torn. I had no idea of which way the judges would sway: I was the vanilla contestant from the start, so low under the radar that I could just as easily slip in as get kicked out. And, as another contestant very rightly pointed out to me, the Top 20 was not necessarily a 3-4 month commitment: you could always be kicked out after a week or two…

Next post: Judgement Day.


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