My MasterChef SA Experience : Part 1

When I found out that South Africans were getting their own version of MasterChef, I felt like a kid in a candy store. A pig in strawberries. You get the idea – food has always been close to my heart - a very real love of mine and I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to explore that further.

There were a good few months leading to the first round auditions for the show – details were slowly given to us about the auditioning process, the judges, the prizes – which all culminated in me queuing outside the Southern Sun The Cullinan Hotel on 10 December, with my lovely man.
The Cold Audition

The brief of this first audition dish was fairly simple : make something delicious to present before an SACA approved chef, served between 0-4 degrees C. There were just over 1000 of us in Cape Town ready and waiting with our cooler boxes, preparing to face the first round. I made a salted caramel and chocolate tart, in vanilla-bean short crust pastry served with a shard of peanut praline. I’d made this a few times before, most memorably for a group of food-loving-friends –it received their stamp of approval, and was deemed Masterchef worthy.

After being temperature tested and tasted, the chef who tasted my dish (Jerome Norton from the Alphen Hotel), thought  it was all sorts of delicious and, I was through to the next round...and the next...and the next...and the next.  Through these rounds I made friends with Guy and Sue-Ann, who I didn’t yet know I’d be seeing quite a bit more of in future...

I made it through three rounds of elimination interviews that morning, and was then told that if I made it through to the next round, I’d receive a phone call in the next two weeks.

So I tried to enjoy my December holidays, as best I could, without obsessively checking my phone every few minutes. Then, two days before Christmas, I got an email – I’d made it through to the next round! Details were on a very much “need to know” basis, so we waited another week or so to find out the next stage – flying up to Johannesburg for the hot audition. 


The Hot Audition

We’d be up in Johannesburg for a weekend to meet the TV judges, and cook them our best hot dish in 30 minutes. This is where the serious nerves began. The planning, preparation, practicing at home, and making sure everything was just perfect, was excruciating. I decided to make a dark and white chocolate fondant, with smashed honeycomb and vanilla bean mascarpone. I knew I’d be taking a little risk making two chocolate desserts in a row, but as long as I had the choice, I knew I had to be true to myself as a cook and play to my strengths (which are definitely along the sweet side of things).

So, I packed my bags, ingredients and baking equipment, and headed off up north – meeting Sue-Ann at the airport, and finding myself sitting next to Guy on the plane. We had no idea who else had made it through, so it was great recognising a few friendly faces on the next part of the journey.

We were greeted by production at the airport, and taken to our very swanky hotel for the weekend - The Southern Sun Hyde Park. We were met by production, and given the opportunity to shop for a few last minute things, before "checking in" all our ingredients so they could be kept cold until we needed them for cooking the next day. 

We were then all briefed on what we could expect the next day - the layout of the kitchen and equipment, our routes for walking around the studio, where the judges would be standing...which was all fine. My nerves were in check, and I felt reasonably calm - that is until we were told that we would be given the coveted MasterChef apron immediately should our dish be deemed good enough. It was then I started trembling.
 We thought the show would run along the same format as MasterChef Australia - where only the top 24 contestants would be given white aprons. Now, knowing that we'd receive them the next day made the whole experience that much more real, and the enormity of the following day set in. 

Needless to say, not much sleep was had that night - we had to be up at 04h00 the following morning, and I think the majority of us functioned on adrenalin alone.
We headed off to studio, were set up for sound, wardrobe checked, and were told how the day would run : we were each given a number corresponding with each of the four cooking stations. We'd load up our ingredients onto a trolley, head to our station (equipped with a stove, oven, blender etc) and our 30 minutes would begin. 

Once that time was over, we'd move to the next room, where we'd meet the judges and be given 5 minutes to plate up in front of them, after which they would taste our food, and we'd know our fate.

My 30 minutes went fairly smoothly - the only hiccup was the mascarpone, which was meant to accompany my fondant - as it had been transported to and from studio, and not constantly refrigerated, it curdled, so I couldn't use it. While we were cooking we had the camera crew come round to our benches, ask us what we were doing and making, and the biggest challenge of our dish. Mine, of course, would be that the inside of my fondant would set, instead of being a river of chocolate lava. 

Once my time was up, I headed out to the next room, to meet the judges. This part was pretty surreal, and I have to admit I don't really remember much of it at all. The nerves were fully set in by this part, and I was so completely intimidated by the camera crew everywhere I don't remember most of what was said (by me or them!). I do remember Andrew tasting my dish, being silent for a long time (so close it felt as though our noses were almost touching) and finally declaring that he loved it. Pete and Benny were silent throughout the tasting, and only spoke once they were back on their podium. 

Benny said he had one question for me - which was "did I have another". At first I thought it was because he thought the one I presented was a disaster, but then I realised it was because he loved it.

Andrew said he spoke on behalf of all of them, and told me to come up and get my apron!
I was thrilled. I might have squealed a little. I think I hugged Andrew. I remember trying to take my own apron off, so they could put the MasterChef apron on, and my audio mic getting all tangled...sigh...TV nerves to strange things to you. No matter how inelegantly it happened, I was through - I was in the top 50, and would be coming back to Joburg for boot camp the following week.


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