Ever begin a journey thinking you’re going to have one experience and then discover fate has other plans for you? So it was for viewers of this Sunday’s MasterChef, but more importantly, for one of our favourite contestants.
Earlier this week, MasterChef’s Victorian viewers suffered the bittersweet irony of watching episodes that had clearly been devised with a view to revitalise Victorian tourism by dazzling viewers with all the sights and tastes of Victoria, while Victorians themselves were trapped in another Covid-19 lockdown.
On Monday it was off to Apollo Bay for a crayfish challenge (Looks great. Can’t go further than my local 7-Eleven!), on Tuesday to Alla Wolf Tasker’s farm in Daylesford (Bye Amir. That walk home through the fields looks like it took longer than my daily allocated two hours), on Wednesday an “inspired by Melbourne” challenge on top of the Langham (“Looks like a run-over rat” – my housemate on one “Melbourne coffee culture” dessert), and on Thursday a patisserie challenge at Lune Croissanterie in Fitzroy (I dreamed a dream in times gone by …).
Come Sunday, the contestants enter to discover a wall of blast freezers and saucepan racks between two rows of benches: it’s the oooooold spite fence! Round one is a head-to-head duel between partners, one on each side of the wall; the timers read 90 minutes and whatever time is left will be used by those who have to do round two.
Minoli is hoping she can knock out a curry in 45 minutes; on the other side of the wall, Brent’s huli-huli chicken might take 55, so Mel, possessed by the spirit of my uncle, tells him it better be “hooly dooly”. Elise is planning to slam out orecchiette in 45; north of the tower of stainless steel, Pete is looking to do some truly trademark Pete desserts (vinegar sorbet?) in 60 minutes.
Speed demon Linda, concerned about competing with Aaron, is steaming scallops so that she has plenty of time left in round two. Roommates Justin and Scott are devvo to be up against each other; they started out like Romeo and Juliet but it ended up in tragedy!
Half an hour in, as everyone around him hits their timer buttons, Brent is sweating. “The amount of pressure is so crazy,” he says, his chicken still marinating, but it’s not just the challenge on his mind: Brent is really missing his family. Hang in there, big dog.
Nearby, Maja’s struggling: she takes her parmesan panna cotta out of the steamer and discovers that it’s the consistency of the forgotten Saturday night kick-on McFlurry you discover on Sunday afternoon.
Andy suggests that Maja might like to think about calling it quits, ensuring she can wring as many minutes out of a guaranteed round two spot as possible. She declares herself “not a quitter”. She’s going to bring that panna cotta back from the dead, goddammit!
Pete is hoping to offer the judges a dessert they’ve not tried before. “Vinegar sorbet sounds disgusting,” he says, echoing every viewer’s sentiments. He reckons it tastes like vinegar without the harsh acidity of vinegar. So not vinegar, then?
The first 45 minutes have flown by, leaving Pete, Maja and Brent still on the clock. Poor Brent is starting to panic, and the judges notice. With 33 to go, Maja upends her second panna cotta, and … “It’s set! It’s set!” Andy yells, his voice taking on the register of a cartoon parrot.
Finally, with 31 minutes left, Pete has plated up. Let’s eat.
Unusually, it’s a night of success for nearly every contestant. Elise’s broccoli orecchiette is as good as it looks.
Pete’s wacky dessert is also a winner. Jock reckons Maja’s parmesan panna cotta was “terrifying to watch, but beautiful to eat”, which is what I look for in a meal (#GeminiSeason), though Mel reckon’s it’s a bit grainy. Depinder’s curry is “perfect”.
Kishwar delivers: the judges reckon her Bengali barramundi curry is one of the best curries she’s cooked. “Bring me the Hill Tracts,” Andy pleads, as Kishwar’s megawatt smile solves Australia’s energy crisis for the next 50 years.
Minoli’s jackfruit curry matches Jock’s memories of his honeymoon in Sri Lanka, and she reacts with the delight of someone who’s passed a test she didn’t realise she was sitting. It’s good news for Brent, too, whose huli-huli chicken doesn’t recall Jock’s honeymoon, but is still “absolutely perfect”.
And so it’s time to announce which contestants lost their duels: Scott, Aaron, Maja, Sabina, Elise and Brent are through to round two.
With only 35 minutes left on his clock, Brent looks as worried as any reasonable person faced with that particular anxiety dream scenario. As Andy explains the parameters of round two, Brent raises his hand. “Um, I can’t cook,” he says. Everyone reacts with shock.
Jock springs into action and removes Brent to have a chat elsewhere. Brent explains that he can’t seem to shake off the stress and anxiety he’s feeling; “I just can’t break it,” he tells Jock. “I’ve just got nothing left.” It’s the first time he’s ever felt like this.
Jock checks one last time with Brent to see if he’s made his mind up to leave; he has. The pair hug, then Brent goes for a handshake, but instead, Jock gives the big bear his prayer beads. “Rest your mind, man,” he says, as I pause the stream to search for my tissues.
Jock announces the sad news to the other judges and contestants, praising Brent’s cooking skills, but also his courage in asking for help and making the decision to leave.
Mel reassures Brent that the conversation he’s sparked “is crucial and will matter to so many people”. The show throws the damned Covid rulebook out the window and everybody hugs Brent goodbye as they all weep.
“I’m just a tradie that had a crack,” says Brent in reflection, “I’m proud of what I’ve done.”
We’re proud of you, too, Brent – not just for making good as hell food, but for showing the country how to look after your mental and emotional health, which is something that’s even more valuable than a cash prize and your name on a trophy.
What made me cry:
Brent saying that even though he won’t be winning MasterChef, he’s “goin’ back to greatness”: to his wife Shonleigh and baby boy Alfie.