- 09 Feb - 15 Feb, 2019
MASTERCHEF AUSTRALIA 2018!
- 23 Jun - 29 Jun, 2018
I stood at the outer edge of the work table. I could feel the tension in the atmosphere. The cameras were trying to keep a safe distance from us and by now, I hardly noticed their presence. In the beginning, it was a challenge to keep going. Keep my hands moving, my mind racing while the clock ticked... tick tock tick tock. Each move, each breath seemed to be watched hawk-eyed by those ugly contraptions on wheels. Plus the noise. The constant hustle and bustle to and fro from the pantry and the judges yelling out the time left; pots and pans clattering; whisks gushing; even people banging into each other and spilling things here and there. Back then; I could barely continue, let alone make and complete a dish to put up for judging. But now, as I stood in the line of the top three finalists, that entire disturbance was white noise. Standing there and reminiscing made me chuckle. From small beginnings, from a person that could not even share his kitchen space with another person, was now standing at the counter and about to prepare his signature dish when he won that coveted title.
The producers of the show gave the judges the all clear and I silently sighed under my breath, “Let the game begin.”
“Alright contestants!! Welcome to the Grand finale of Masterchef Australia 2018. How does it feel?” Gary was always so kind and encouraging. I’m going to miss this place, I thought to myself while Matt went on to tell us the winnings and the amazing opportunities that would come my way when I took home this trophy.
Some may call it superiority complex or some may call it over confidence but I called it belief and faith. I had reached this place by competing against much better, much skilled cooking experts than myself and yet the judges always found my work to stand out and called it original beyond compare.
I fondly remembered when Nigella Lawson took a mouthful of my pasta with white sauce and said that she would fly from London to have this dish everyday if she could. That made me feel like a Superman.
“I’d like to tell you about the three rounds that you have to go through in order to win the competition,” George began to explain. “The first round is a mystery box challenge. Each of you can see a mystery box in front of you. You’ll have an hour to create a dish that is unique and then that recipe will be showcased in your cook book, if you win. We will score you on that dish out of 20 points,”
The tension was mounting. Beads of sweat appeared on my face and neck. Oh no I thought, the make-up team will come and powder our faces now. I just wanted the show to begin and I wanted the winning trophy in my hands.
“The next round is also a scored round. You will have the freedom to choose anything from the pantry and in 30 minutes you will have to cook a dish that you could serve to your family for dinner tonight. That will be your agenda,”
“The last and final round will be a blind tasting. Matt and Gary will be away in the dining room while you construct a dish with limited ingredients from those two tables over there. And the scores will be added up and then winner will be announced.”
“Alright now!” Gary’s friendly voice again. We missed him!
“Are you ready contestants?! Alright, let’s lift up our mystery boxes. What do you see?”
I could see eggs, milk, sugar, different flavoured essences and that’s it. I looked under the table for some staples but I also felt save for the butter these were the staples.
I looked at the other contestants for some cues, but they were just as clueless.
“I know what you all are wondering,” Matt’s smooth as butter killer tone. “Where are my staples and why is the mystery box so limited. Contestants, you have to realise that you cannot reach the finale of Masterchef and win until you have mastered the art of cooking with bare minimum of ingredients. I expect you all to make a dish that is worthy of your position in this competition. You will get 60 minutes and you all are allowed to grab one more ingredient from the pantry.”
“And your time starts NOW!”
I just paused when Gary told us to begin and kept starring at the three ingredients before me. I could see my peers flying to the pantry to pick out their single extra ingredient that was permitted but I couldn’t move.
The only thing that was coming to me was a beautifully glazed and cooked to perfection caramel pudding. It was my favourite dessert of all time and these three ingredients was all that I required.
I set off to get my pots and pans.
I began by caramelising the sugar. I poured a generous amount of sugar in a pot with a few tablespoons of water. I put that on low heat and kept an eye on it while I began to beat six eggs and three cups of milk in a large saucepan. I whisked in the desired amount of sugar while I kept a close eye on the sugar. It was beginning to caramelise and I abandoned the whisk mid-way to look over the sugar.
“Beautiful smell Hamza! What are you making?” it was George. I didn’t realise that he came to my counter and was quietly spying on me.
“Well George, I’m going to make a caramel pudding. I consider it one of my specialties and I can’t wait for you all to try it.”
“Everyone picked another ingredient from the pantry but you didn’t. Any reason for that?”
Nothing like the judges ruining my confidence. I wasn’t falling for it. The camera was zooming into my face. I could feel that ugly one eyed monster. This is what the viewers wanted to see, wasn’t it?
“This is all what I needed George, I don’t need another ingredient. I might choose something for decoration later on if needed.”
Oooo! Savage! The camera would love this one, I thought.
“Ok…” he discreetly moved on and I resumed my task.
Tough task on reaching that perfect golden brown caramel and talking to George at the same time. I quickly took my pan off the heat and poured the golden lava into my three ramekins already lined up and ready to go.
I tasted my whisked batter and poured in a generous amount over the caramelised sugar. I looked at the clock. A little less than forty-five minutes. My large pot of water was boiling vigorously and I carefully placed my three ramekins, over the steaming water, just reaching half-way. Perfect!
Then I placed the lid.
Now for the wait.
I began to get my plates ready and was having a mental debate on whether to get cream or edible flowers from the pantry to decorate my dish.
This was a challenge. I chose the edible flowers, they would add flavour to my dish and it would also look presentable. I ran into the pantry, picked a few little ones and brought them back to my stand.
At this point I was only focused on my puddings steaming to perfection. I prepared the three plates and waited. The producers of the show came out and spoke to Matt, George, and Gary off camera.
I could safely look here and there while I waited. I decided to remove my ramekins 10 minutes before the end time and then invert them on the prepared plates. The best one would go to the judges.
“Alright contestants! Who is going to win the competition today?” Gary’s voice boomed. “10 minutes to go.”
I took a deep breath and thought to myself, it’s now or never. I could see that one of my competitors had made a cake of sorts and the third seemed to be putting up a dish of scrambled eggs!
I felt, I have a really good chance. My dish showed technique as well as skill. Plus I was sure it would taste great.
I carefully loosened the edges of my perfectly steamed pudding and inverted it on my plate. The soft jelly-like mass was super perfect. The golden caramel layer glistened brightly under the studio lights. I decided to keep this for the judges and began to decorate it with the flowers. When I was done, I had probably two more minutes to spare. I inverted another ramekin and used it as a taster. I took a mouthful. It was delicious. Just the correct amount of bitterness from the caramel and the sweet milky pudding filling the palate with an oozing and satisfying sensation. I wish I had time to cool my dessert but I also knew that pudding in the west is served warm so I felt confident.
The judges finally called me up to their table. I took my humble offering to them.
“So Hamza, why did you choose to make a pudding on the show today?” Matt roared.
“It’s my mom’s favourite dessert. She loves caramel pudding.”
“Everyone’s. I made it to honour her and to remind myself of all the sacrifices that she made to bring me up, singlehandedly.”
“That’s quite a story. Do you think she’ll be happy with you today?” asked Gary.
“My mom always tells me that she’s happy with me no matter what I do. She’s just proud of me no matter what. So yes, I think she’ll be happy that I made her favourite dessert today.”
“Ok. Let’s try this now.”
I watched with baited breath as all three judges tasted my dish. They were not giving out any clues this time. Only nods and some non-verbal signs of approval.
After all three dishes were tasted Gary, George and Matt wrote on their note-pads the score for this round.
“Ok now, let’s look at the score-boards.”
Each of the judges told us their scores.
There was a bit of a hush. I felt a little let down being behind Jane but at least I was a step ahead of Ramis.
“Alright the next round is a thirty minute challenge. It’s an open pantry round. There are already a few staples at your bench. You can select any number of ingredients from the pantry to make your dish. However, the catch is; today is mid-week and the dish you are going to cook will be served as dinner tonight at your table at home for your family’s dinner. Keep that in mind.”
I had already made a mental note of what I wanted to cook. I rushed into the pantry with my basket and collected all the ingredients.
As soon as I brought my things to the counter I began to break down the chicken into twelve pieces. I put the skillet on high flame and added the oil, crushed garlic and ginger and sliced onions. I let that simmer before adding the tomatoes and spices. I had to work super-fast. I was left with 25 minutes when I added the chicken and some water. I put the lid on and prayed my chicken would be cooked soon enough. While I waited, I chopped some green chillies and coriander. I quickly made a mental note of preparing some flat bread to go with my chicken karahi. I brought some whole-wheat flour to the counter and quickly kneaded it with some water. I roughly shaped a chapatti and cooked it over a flat skillet while checking on my chicken.
“Contestants you have 5 minutes left.”
I uncovered the skillet. My chicken was ready. I added the garnish and spooned out a generous amount on to a large plate and placed the flat bread folded on the side. I used a black matte plate instead of a glossy one to enhance the reds and greens of my karahi.
“Time is up! Good work everyone!”
Just in time, phew.
I looked at my fellow contestants. They had made detailed fancy dishes and for a minute my heart sank. However, I was brought back into confidence with the fact that I was cooking for my family on a weekday. Who makes elaborate dinners on a working day? One makes a healthy nutritious meal with the limited amount of time available. And the main aspect is having a wholesome meal that the entire family can enjoy.
I was brought out of my reverie by George’s voice.
“Hamza, will you bring your dish to the judges’ table?”