Huhu grubs for dessert, anyone? It’s on the menu at Amisfield.
It’s the Vaughan Mabee Show!
I mean, not really, but also, in many ways, very much so.
We’re down to the final eight, and they’re at Amisfield, the vineyard restaurant where Vaughan is executive chef.
For those of us who haven’t been to Amisfield (most of us; the dinner menu is in the vicinity of $250 a head without drinks), it serves one of those degustation menus where every course is two bites big and designed to be, depending on where you fall, either wildly creative and inventive or show-off stunt cooking.
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Contestants are put into pairs, each making two courses, guided by the head chef, whose name is Mathieu Legarde because of course it is.
On top of the three judges, they’ll also be serving 10 diners.
“Personally, I’d be terrified,” Michael tells the final eight.
Oh, they are.
For most of them, this is their first experience cooking in a restaurant kitchen, and it’s either Rudi’s dream or his nightmare because there’s only one person they really need to impress, and that’s Vaughan.
Jason and Sam have the first course. They’re making kōura, or freshwater crayfish, baby paua, and smoked eel on a version of Vogel’s toast. Three dishes, for 13 people; they’ve got 15 minutes to get these 39 plates out.
“There’s a lot of pressure to get it right, because it is for Vaughan and it’s his menu,” says Sam. He reckons he and Jason got off to a rocky start but they don’t seem to have too much trouble.
In the dining room, there are general murmurs of satisfaction. But what will the judges think? Or really, what will Vaughan think? Honestly it seems like Nadia and Michael are mostly here to get a free Amisfield meal. I salute them.
“I’m very proud of what you’ve given us today,” Vaughan tells them.
Hana and Alice are up next. They’re making tuna tacos, which have a number of different components – unica burritos, tuna, several sauces, edible cornflowers – and they start to fall behind.
In the kitchen their competitors, who can’t do much else until Hana and Alice’s course is out, cheer for them. “Come on girls, you’re almost there!” they whoop. That Alice and Hana refrain from turning around and smacking them is true testament to their focus on the task at hand.
The cornflowers have to be in the same sequence on every taco, which means a redo on some. Finally, they’re in the judging room.
“I spent way too much time in Mexico,” is Vaughan’s modest excuse for the frequency of tacos on his menu. Can our Kiwi girls live up to his well-travelled palatte?
“To be honest, that dish is, like, perfect,” he says. Hana and Alice clap and hug, then it’s back to the kitchen.
Next is Naomi and Elliot, making piper, also known as garfish or ihe. Fillets are served with fried piper frames – that’s right, the bones.
Naomi is starting to buckle. Tony, Amisfield’s formidable food and beverage manager, is pulling her up for not spacing her drops of sauce correctly.
“You can’t miss a single beat,” she says. “I’m missing a beat right now.”
They get to the judges and Vaughan is already not pleased. Making guests wait for food is a cardinal sin.
But, overall the dish is well executed. Naomi is visibly relieved.
Alice and Hana are back, with Vaughan’s famous paua pie.
“A few years ago it won best dish in New Zealand.” Vaughan is really playing this for all it’s worth.
Alice and Hana’s version might not win prizes any time soon – the brisee pastry is a little over-cooked, Vaughan says, and it’s missing some acid. It’s a “nearly”, which at this stage of the competition may not be close enough.
Here’s our first look at Rudi and Amberley. They’re cooking one of those deceptively simple dishes behind which there’s no room to hide: grilled mushrooms and a beetroot sauce.
“We’re going to be pushing it down to the wire with this mushroom dish today,” Rudi pronounces, deadpan as ever.
Once Amberley’s got her quenelles pulled in a straight line, they’re off.
“I can’t call you out for anything today,” says Vaughan. Rudi’s smile is so wide I actually choke up.
Jason and Sam again! “How privileged are we to be serving venison Wellington on a deer’s antler?” asks Jason; a question I can’t answer.
Nadia reckons it’s “a stunner” but The Judge Who Counts says it needed more butter and acid in the jus.
Naomi and Elliot have the first dessert course. It’s – I kid you not – huhu grub fudge, shaped into very realistic huhu grub forms and served in a log of wood. You need to use tweezers to get them out. For real.
Naomi knows her huhus. “Larvae live in dead wood for two years and they feed off it!” she tells us. Um, delicious?
In the judging room, Michael is visibly weirded out.
Vaughan makes him eat the first one – head first, natch. “What the hell just happened to me?” Michael asks. Vaughan says Elliot and Naomi have done a great job.
It’s the last course and we’re back to Amberley and Rudi, making an edible pounamu – a sort of kawakawa and pinot gris ice block with a kumara string threaded around it.
They agreed up front that Amberley would do the plating, says Rudi. “My shaky hands when I get nervous aren’t going to do stringing of pounamus justice.” Can he impress his hero again?
Kinda. The flavour is good, the texture not so much; they should have had more time in the freezer. Rudi’s smile is a little less wide.
Everyone assembles back in the judging room and my pick is Sam is heading into his second immunity in a row.
But no! Alice and Hana win the round; apparently “nearly” was good enough.
With those two top cooks out of the running, Sam knows who he needs to beat.
“Everyone needs to watch out,” he says, with as much menace as a pathologically sweet guy like Sam can muster. “Especially Elegant Elliot.”
I’m looking forward to tomorrow.