There’s a very nice science group on Facebook to which I belong. People post what they think are “stupid” questions, and all the science people say “nonsense! No such thing!”. And then they give long scientific explanations, most of which go clean over my head, but that’s not the point.
So I feel it’s not stupid to ask why, in the name of Our Lady of the Midnight Snack Nigella, do contestants on cooking competition shows decide to make something they’ve never made before, or change a tried and trusted recipe, when their very success or failure rests on the dish? Home cooks on MasterChef Australia (season 14 on M-Net weeknights at 6pm) do it all the time, in pressure tests and elimination cooks, inexplicably. It sends my anxiety through the roof and I’m trying really hard to cut back on the Xanax.
It’s an unwritten rule – or maybe it is written somewhere – that when you invite people, ordinary people, people you’ve known for years or only met recently, for dinner you never, ever, make something for the first time. Do you think chefs do that midway through dinner service? Like “ooh la la! This sauce needs a new ingredient, right now!” No, they test and test, and test some more before sending out the dish.
It’s the time to bust out a recipe with which you are confident, that you know how to make in your sleep, that never goes wrong. Yet for some reason, when eight relative strangers plus two judges – being David Higgs and J’Something – are coming over and there’s never been a more important time to be flawless (never mind the R1-million prize carrot), the home cooks in My Kitchen Rules South Africa decide to go off script. There is no hidden or secret rule that they must cook something for the first time. I checked.
In episode one, Martin and Eddie, son and father-in-law from Riebeek West, made ice cream in their instant restaurant called Ignite. They were really stoked to cook for judges David Higgs and J’Something.
When the menu was revealed to the judges, Higgs hinted that making ice cream at home can be tricky. And so it came to pass, because it’s especially tricky when neither of them seemed to know how to make ice cream. Not even a little bit.
In episode two, Azraa and Waven put up well-received starters and main dishes, then it all fell apart with the dessert, a citrus bread and butter pudding. Azraa admitted to Waven that she doesn’t usually put orange juice in her custard (which had split, surprise). He was as gobsmacked as I was. “But why did you do it now?” he wanted to know. I have the same question. Why, Azraa? Why? What made it even worse is that she is a baker. It’s her job.
Judge David Higgs said afterwards: “There was a lot of expectation with Azraa being a pastry chef. But it was interesting to see how that turned out – it was a case of expect the unexpected.” Which was a kind way to put it, shame.
Season four of MKRSA returns to the original format, that of each couple/team hosting an instant restaurant in their home. There are two groups of five; we’re currently two episodes into the first group. The second group will be announced later in September. Each team cooks a three-course meal on which their fellow contestants score them. Judges Higgs and J’Something score the dishes as well, giving a grand total out of 100. The team with the lowest score at the end of the round is eliminated.
As it stands now, Martin and Eddie have 69 points, Azraa and Waven have 66. Clearly, it’s too soon to be happy or sad, anything can – and probably will – happen. The dynamics this early on are interesting. The team who cook first don’t get to meet the other contestants properly (until episode two), whereas they become acquainted with each other at the dinner table, with Higgs and J’Something guiding the conversation. “The beginning is always so interesting because everyone loves everyone and episode two things are still very calm, people are still getting to know each other,” commented J’Something.
This is the time to decide who you like and who you don’t. They are doing the same thing, and the best moments of MKR have been when personalities clash. Not for nothing is the show’s tagline “come for the food, stay for the drama”.
MKR is for home cooks but really, shouldn’t there be a good general food knowledge in play? Maybe even a vast appetite and not being a picky eater? In episode one, when Martin and Eddie served seared springbok carpaccio for their starter, contestant Mbali complained that she did not like cold or raw food. It’s carpaccio. (She was partnered with Mark who introduced himself as an “influencer” which immediately sent me into judgement mode high gear; child, do you realise how ridiculous you sound to anyone older than 25?).
She also hates “creepy crawly” things and didn’t eat Azraa and Waven’s prawn curry; they made her butter chicken as a substitute. At the first dinner, when Martin and Eddie served kingklip (identified as such on the menu), she whispered to Mark, “is this a type of hake?”. Apparently she doesn’t like fish, and she didn’t like Azraa and Waven’s dessert either but that was them, not her. Overall, she doesn’t seem to be having a good time with the food. It will be interesting to see what she and Mark come up with when it’s their turn.
“Overall, there is a really high standard in this season’s contestants,” said Higgs. “Normally we have a range of some not-so-great, to some really good and serious home cooks. This time around, we’ve got a lot of contestants on the same level – they all cook a lot and gave us great home cooked food – which is what the show is all about, but this is a level up. It’s the show at its best level yet.”
All right then.
Jessica (with partner Nicole, Portuguese Sistas) hates bobotie, and says she’s never had a good one, but Higgs said Azraa and Waven’s bobotie phyllo parcels had “a beautiful flavour and lovely balance of spices”.
“I had so many moments whilst filming this season where I felt an overwhelming sense of pride for what we were creating. This season is my favourite by far,” said J’Something. “I think there is this beautiful underlying narrative of South African pride and the most beautiful depiction of our diversity through food. This season is really an incredible celebration of our cultures, heritages and traditions.”
In season three, filmed during lockdown, there were only instant kitchens, all in the same Cradle Of Humankind Covid-bubble location, leaving contestants with relatively limited shopping choices and being on the back foot in a strange kitchen. And that’s where it ended. This time, MKRSA will continue with the eight remaining teams, who will be put through vigorous challenges to be shot at as yet undisclosed locations along the Garden Route. The last team left standing wins R1-million, which has been the same prize money for all the previous seasons.
“It’s great to be back at the instant restaurants in people’s homes,” said Higgs. “It really makes a massive difference. People can get comfortable with the show – cooking in a kitchen they know, and that they are comfortable in, and then sitting with everyone at a table in their home. It’s also been great to get to visit so many places in different areas of South Africa.”
J’Something echoes the sentiment: “Ah, this is where the magic is, you know, when we get to travel and be inspired by the vast beauty of our country. What we did that was really special for this season is we did the challenge phase along the Garden Route and wow man, the beauty is ridiculous.”
It’s going to be an interesting phase of the competition. Obviously no one would tell me what the challenges will be but Higgs granted that they are all tough, because they are pressure-based. “Home cooks are home cooks – they don’t cook under real pressure – they cook for their family and friends. On MKR, they’re cooking for R1-million, every day… on TV… often outside, with the elements. There are these things to consider. How they handle the pressure, and convert this into positive energy, becomes the real challenge for me,” he said.
“I feel like the challenges they are going to be put through are aligned to things we should be thinking of, and cooking, as home cooks. So expect a lot of relatable challenges that when you actually have to do them you realise how challenging they are,” added J’Something.
“This season was about using the show to tell a beautiful story of South Africans and us all exploring and getting to know one another better through food.
“Food holds so many stories and conveys a message like nothing else. We all need to just be willing to learn more about one another. This season was exactly that.”
Overall, season four is their best yet, said Higgs. “There were so many cultures and people bringing their heritage and traditions to the table. It was beautiful to see. That’s what this season is strongest on.”
But what happens when the cameras stop rolling and the confetti has settled? A million bucks is a million bucks. I caught up with season three winners Wessel Pieterse and Izak Redelinghuys who mailed me from France where they are “on a culinary trip through the countryside of France on a canal boat living our best foodie lives”.
“Izak and I both loved the experience, and MKR challenged our friendship and food knowledge at the same time,” said Pieterse. “What the viewers didn’t get to see was the amount of stress we felt in the kitchen, and the pressure you work under and how we had to push each other. It is something only other contestants can relate to.
“We grew as home cooks and we grew as friends, and met some amazing people along the way, which is what MKR is about.”
Their My Kitchen Rules experience was a rollercoaster ride with joy, despair and drama, said Redelinghuys. “Winning season three was surreal – the competition was tough and we constantly doubted that we’d done enough to impress the judges and claim the title of My Kitchen Rules winners. Hearing J’Something announce our names as the winners was a feeling we will never forget.”
For the serious foodies hoping to use MKR as a stepping stone, the show provides many opportunities. “MKR linked us to so many amazing people and brands in the South African food space,” said Pieterse. “People now recognise you on the street and want to know about your experience or just want a moment to chat to you.”
“It gave us the platform to start GATHER (which was also the name of our instant restaurant) which is our sell-out long table dining experiences which without MKR wouldn’t have been possible. We also now partner with brands to create media content and product reviews or pairings for them, and even do some corporate experiences. MKR definitely opened many doors for us.”
Guests at GATHER have included Karen Dudley, Jo-Ann Strauss, Katinka Kat and Siv Ngesi. DM/TGIFood
My Kitchen Rules SA is available on DStv Premium on M-Net (Channel 101) every Sunday at 6pm, as well as live-streamed on the DStv App, and is available on DStv Catch Up after broadcast. Visit the M-Net website for exclusive show content and join the conversation on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, using #MKRSA.
Follow Bianca Coleman on Instagram biancaleecoleman
The writer supports The Gift of the Givers Foundation, the largest disaster response, non-governmental organisation of African origin on the African continent.
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