The life of a MasterChef contestant is no picnic - except of course when it involves an actual picnic. Almost daily there are tears, burns and assaults, but in exchange for these trials contestants may be offered something life-changing: hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money, work in some of the world's best restaurants, and maybe – just maybe – a chance to appear in the 2014 season of Celebrity Apprentice.
On Wednesday night, the six poorest performers from the previous evening's skills test must compete in the dreaded “Service Challenge.” To stave off elimination, the contestants will be working as a team in the kitchen against a brigade of chefs from three-hatted Jacques Reymond, in a challenge to serve 100 diners.
This is the kind of day that really drives home what an opportunity MasterChef: The Professionals provides. Without it, who knows where these people might have been at this moment. Perhaps back in their dreary everyday lives, just working in some kitchen with other chefs, racing to serve food to perhaps 100 or so diners – a world apart from the challenge before them today.
But today won't be easy. Bandanna-clad Luke compares the challenge of beating Jacques Reymond's team in a cook-off to "climbing Everest with one leg". There is no on-camera rebuttal from disabled mountaineer Tom Whittaker but we can suppose with some certainty that he disagrees quite strongly. But Luke's point is not lost – it would take some kind of superhuman effort for this ragtag bunch of professional chefs to prevail over the unstoppable force of, well, a different bunch of professional chefs.
Jacques Reymond enters the kitchen with his team and, after a lot of talk about his three hats, it's a little disappointing to find that he's not wearing a single one of them.
In fact, the only thing that looks even remotely like a hat in this kitchen is Luke's bandanna, a subtle message to Jacques that Luke's won a chef's hat himself at his former restaurant in Byron Bay, so let's nobody get too big for their boots today, Frenchie.
Contestant Michael worked as a chef de partie in Jacques Reymond's kitchen seven years ago, and he tells us that cooking against his former mentor has been a dream of his for a long time; which makes his participation in this challenge an enormous coincidence when you consider the relatively slim odds of cooking competitively against someone in everyday life.
The contestants tell us what an honour it is to meet Jacques Reymond. Jacques Reymond tells us what an honour it is to meet Marco Pierre White. And now we're just waiting for Marco Pierre White to tell us what an honour it is to meet the contestants so they can all drop to the ground and form their bodies into the shape of a giant snake eating its own tail in the middle of the kitchen.
Michael volunteers as the leader of the contestant team because he's worked in Reymond's kitchen. This will give his team an advantage for a reason that nobody really understands at this point. But I digress; the point is that both teams will have three courses to serve and two hours to prep before service.
The chefs run into the pantry and will have five minutes to choose their ingredients, which is how most restaurants start their day. Contestant Rhett tells us that he and Jacques Reymond were wrestling for the same piece of swordfish, but Rhett's Rhett and Rhett always wins so there's really no doubt who was going to walk away with it.
Jacques tells us that he is cooking wallaby, and although it's an Australian icon, we have to concede that the word "wallaby" actually sounds a lot better with a French accent.
Prep is in full swing. Michael is telling Tracy, a chef of nearly 30 years, how to sear a piece of veal, and that when she's done with that there's a whole bunch of eggs over on the other bench that she might want to suck.
Marco prowls the kitchen like a caged puma, alternating between constructive criticism and speaking in tongues. It's a tense couple of hours and Luke continues his flair for understatement by swearing to Marco – upon his father's life – that his dish will be ready on time. Watching at home, Luke's father is probably feeling a little uncomfortable with that bargain, because frankly, Marco looks like the kind of guy who would be willing to collect.
Bonny is making meringues so that, as Marco points out, the meringues will be made, but all is not going smoothly. Someone has callously left the door of the oven open, which has bizarrely caused Bonny's meringues to be overcooked.
Rhett and Luke are making swordfish scallops with a cauliflower puree and jamon and asparagus salad for entree, up against Reymond's scampi with nougatine, cured ocean trout and sea urchin.
Main course for the contestants is a roast and mash, but I'm pretty sure it had a lot more adjectives around it when put up against Reymond's seared wallaby with French accents.
Dessert pits the contestants' berry soup with pretty things against Reymond's deconstructed chocolate, lemon and passionfruit tart – although I'm not really sure how you can deconstruct something that never really existed in the first place. But that's modern gastronomy for you. In a few years every dessert will just be a plate full of different textures of whatever and a teaspoon full of sugar.
Reymond's ambitious menu means that his brigade is struggling with the time limit and soon all six members are frantically peeling scampi, but while the fate of the world rests on one little langoustine, a rather restrained Professionals fireball casts us into yet another ad break. Things are a little different tonight, however, as the advertisements bring an unexpected dimension to the evening. A quick flick of channels reveals that this challenge in the kitchen is really a game within a much larger game – the commercial network battle for supremacy over weekday primetime.
One channel over and we're with Channel Nine's offering of The Block: Previous Contestants where we can watch dysfunctional couples shout at each other against the metaphorical backdrop of a ruined home.
Meanwhile, over on Channel Seven there is some kind of hidden camera show that is apparently trying to convince a charming father-son pair of identical twins from Tasmania that the Australian mainland is full of lunatics.
But for now, Australia's most uncomfortable dinner party must take a back seat as the remote control once again hurls us into the heat of the MasterChef kitchen.
Prep time has finished, orders are flying, and the snooty head waiter is barking at the kitchen in a fairly obviously fake French accent. The reality is not lost on anyone that where the menu is predetermined, the number of diners is set and everyone is eating at the same time, the presence of a snooty head waiter barking orders at the kitchen is entirely unnecessary, confirming once and for all that his sole purpose in this series is just to be snooty.
Jacques is taking his time with his entrees and appears to be getting a little anxious, but he assures us he will remain calm – because this is MasterChef: The Professionals and if you get frustrated you're not a professional. But then right away there is another ad break, so for a moment nobody at home is very professional.
Back again to the MasterChef dining room and although Matt and Marco are tasting the dishes, the fate of the contestants will be determined by the votes of the diners.
For entree, the contestants' mock-scallops are tasty but stingy, and both Matt and Marco have found "pooh chutes" (scientific terminology) in their scampi. The main courses both receive praise, although Marco suggests that the contestants may have overcooked their veal. And then it's on to dessert.
For the contestants, an artful array of meringue, berry and sand dances across the plate like an edible Peter Allen. A chilled berry soup is poured theatrically onto the plate because as well as being beautiful, true fine dining must also be impossible to eat and make no rational sense whatsoever.
Jacques' dessert is an arrangement of things, and that's all I can really say to describe it. It either looks beautiful or disgusting, and we're not really sure until Marco tells us that it looks beautiful so everyone is relieved.
With the tasting over, it's time for the scores to be tallied. Rhett tells us that to win one course would be great, and to win two courses would be amazing. He also tells us he's confident of taking out victory today because he is himself, by extrapolation, amazing.
Unfortunately, Rhett's swordfish entree loses out to Jacques' scampi entree, but Rhett helpfully tells us that if he'd just done everything differently that he thinks he would have won, so that's just about the same thing as winning. In deference to Jacques' reputation, we can only hope that Rhett is magnanimous enough to concede that it was a tie.
The main course has been a massacre, with Jacques' dish winning by a score of 22-3 and leaving Tracy and Michael as bloodied as a piece of rare wallaby.
The dessert, however is a different story. Bonny is worried that her burnt meringues have let down the team but miraculously, the contestants have won the dessert by just one table! This proves that Bonny and Cassie on their worst day in the kitchen are still better chefs than Jacques Reymond. Or at least I think that's how it's supposed to work.
Regardless, Bonny and Cassie are safe, but the sad fact of the matter is that one contestant must still go home, and today that contestant is Tracy. She walks away from the kitchen and we wish the budget could have stretched to giving her money for a cab, and as the episode draws to a close, we are treated to a tease of what's in store for next week. There will be professional chefs and amazing dishes, but more to the point there will be disasters, insurmountable obstacles, shouting and tears – and that's the MasterChef we know and love.