It has been a tough few weeks for the MasterChef New Zealand contestants.
Away from the support network of family and friends, with only each other to help escape the unrelenting stress, the wannabe chefs are on a learning curve many never get to experience in a lifetime.
So when contestants Elliott Brookes, Aaron Brunet, Jennis Hayes, Sushil Ravikumar, Vanessa Baxter, Ella Krauts, Kelly Kaihea and Paula Saengthian-
Ngam learned they would be undertaking their next challenge on Dolphin Island – a luxury retreat off the coast of Fiji’s Viti Levu that can only be accessed by private boat, helicopter or seaplane – their excitement was understandably plain to see.
“This is a slice of paradise in the middle of nowhere,” smiles judge Josh Emett.
He happily made himself at home on the private island with fellow judge Ray McVinnie and Huka Lodge assistant manager Rudy Crane for the 48-hour flying visit (third judge Simon Gault was away due to a family emergency – see page 56).
“The island is tiny – you can walk around the whole thing in five minutes. Coming here is a reward for the contestants, who’ve had a gruelling time of
it so far. It’s nice to give them something back,” says Josh.
But while there was plenty of time for contestants to enjoy a swim in the crystal-clear sea, a gourmet outdoor feast and a glass or two of whatever they fancied, there was work to do.
After a post-dinner crab race, which saw some of the crew indulge in sneaky behind-the-scenes betting, the real game began.
In a kitchen smaller than most people have at home, the contestants were tasked with cooking an island-style seafood dish worthy of their stunning surroundings.
“Fiji is renowned for its Indian cuisine. So many visitors only eat at the resorts, but there’s some amazing food to be found if you look,” says seasoned traveller Ray.
“I came here about 10 years ago and ate at every Indian restaurant I could find between Suva and Rakiraki – they were knockout. Like anywhere,
to find the good food, you have to find the good cooks.” And for the most part, that’s exactly what the contestants are becoming.
“They are a really nice bunch of people actually – and for the most part they are coping okay too,” muses Josh.
“It’s super hot and while they’ve all got used to cooking in the studio, what these guys have to do here in this tiny kitchen isn’t as easy as it looks.”
But while the contestants enjoy each other’s company off-camera at this stage, Josh has seen it all before and says that atmosphere is sure to change.
“All the fun disappears when they realise, ‘I could actually win this thing.’ Rather than looking to each other for support, these guys they’ve been super-friendly with are the competition.”
Both judges are also passionate about the quality of the contestants – Josh regretfully tapping his lean torso, which he says is suffering as a result.
“The past three seasons were good, but this is the first where virtually every dish cooked is outstanding. It’s probably why I’ve chunked on a few pounds in the belly region!” he laughs. But despite the talent and skill the contestants are showing, the tide can turn very quickly – as Jennis found out that evening when she was eliminated.
“The thing about food – the really exciting and interesting thing about it – is that it’s an unstable commodity,” explains award-winning food writer Ray.
“ Not every lemon tastes or behaves the same, not every meat will have the same density and everyone, even a great cook, has bad days. The trick on this show is not to have a worse one than someone else.”
And as the seven remaining contestants head to the airport and back to the “reality” of the TV studio, which will see one of them win the ultimate prize in just a few weeks, both judges are in agreement.
There are clearly a couple of frontrunners, but the winner won’t necessarily be the best cook – it’ll be the person who can cope with the stress.
“Aaron soaks up knowledge like a sponge – he has to be in with a good chance of taking the title,” says Josh.
“Paula too – she’s given me some of the best dishes I’ve ever had on MasterChef – and Ella is just outstanding.
“But as we saw last year, Ana [Schwarz] – who in my opinion had the edge on Chelsea [Winter] before the nal – ended up coming second because she
succumbed to the pressure, so anything can happen.”