MasterClass with Ben MacDonald

It’s an invitation too good to miss: a chance to meet MasterChef 2014 finalist, Ben MacDonald at an ‘intimate’ masterclass at Palazzo Versace.

Why am I excited? Besides the obvious factors such as venue and food interest, it’s the gossip factor which is tantalising. Admit it, ladies, you’d be the same!

Ben 4

Ben, with the ‘more than able’ assistance of 42-year-experienced Executive Sous Chef of Versace, Charles Duffin, is demonstrating three dishes, which we will later enjoy as lunch, cooked for us in the Vanitas kitchen:

~ Snapper with fennel purée, asparagus and miso orange reduction (Ben’s MasterChef audition dish. It’s a simple dish, he says, which relies on the quality of the ingredients.) ~

~ Scallops with Romesco sauce, snow peas, braised daikon and chorizo crumb ~

~ Pepper roasted pineapple ~

It’s a light and breezy class, with banter and jokes flying freely. Eager observer Claire gets up to help…

“Oh, I cut myself!” she jokes.

“Good and bad chefs always carry their own bandaids,” Charles quips back.

Ben 2

There are sixteen of us in the group, and it’s a chance to pop some of those curly questions that bugged us while watching the show or, in my case, not watching it this season. I think I’d worn out the Main Squeeze’s cooking tolerance in previous seasons and I’d got a bit past what I thought were improbable kitchen scenarios. But that didn’t mean I was not vitally interested in the food! Or the goss!

“So, how do you get to be on Masterchef?” Nobody else seems curious, so I ask the obvious question.

“I applied on the closing date, a Sunday night, got a phone call on Thursday and was cooking on the Saturday. Of course I cooked all week,” Ben adds with a smile. “I had cooked my signature dish only once before, for my friends.” He’s endearingly self-effacing. A love of cooking, inherited from his father, had led to a lifelong interest in food, his skills augmented by world travel.

Ben 2B

About 10,000 apply for MasterChef each year, and 100 chosen contestants cook together at each sitting. Whittled down in number, we see the top 50 in the first two episodes, Ben being one of five from Queensland to make the top 24!

Like I suspected, contestants’ suitcases are packed with cooking books. There’s no access to these during the day, of course, but lots of swotting takes place at night.

“Some people actually learn a whole lot of recipes by heart. It helps them get through to a certain stage but not past there. I’ve lived in lots of countries and experienced many different dishes and I think that knowledge proved to be an advantage. In the end it is the cook’s creativity, as well as their technique, that counts. You must see a box of ingredients and be able to come up with new possibilities of dishes you can make with those foods.”

Ben 6C

Someone in the group asks about the ‘reality’ aspect of the show…

“The challenges are very accurate. They have a huge bank of ingredients, and when they stop the clock that’s it. All spoons down! What you see on TV is a pretty accurate account of what happens on the show, but obviously there are hours of footage which are left out.”

But what about the time lapse between when the dish is cooked and when the judges sit for a tasting? When the contestants finish cooking, everything’s a mess, but the kitchen looks clean at the tasting. How does that happen?

“Yes, there’s a bunch of ‘magic fairies’! They’re called the Food Team. The judges walk around and taste from the pot, of course! You have to put everything you want to keep on a red mat. Frozen items are plated separately, to be added at the last moment. Sometimes it’s three or four hours before the televised tasting.”

[Charles: “Many people would say that we eat our food too hot anyway; it’s better at 60 degrees!”]

“Of course the dishes are cold, but you’re talking about chefs who have tasted thousands and thousands of dishes. They really know what they’re looking for,” Ben expresses great confidence in the MasterChef judges.

And what about the pressure? I get really anxious just watching the show at home. How do contestants cope? Is that the biggest test?

Ben 6B

“Somehow, I don’t know how, you just deal with it because you’re concentrating so hard on what you’re doing. The worst dishes were the ones where you were given the most choice. It seemed that when I was really constrained, I was my most creative. You had to be. For me, there were other hurdles, such as the team challenges. Also, I had to learn how to cook Australian fish, rather than NZ varieties, such as John Dory and Harpuka. Plating up is one of the most difficult tasks for all the contestants.” No, there’s little tuition given to the Masterchef contestants to build this skill. I asked that question! Looks like we’ll have to resort to some more careful food porn analysis!

What we all love about Masterchef is, of course, the tips and tricks, and Ben gives us plenty, such as:

  • A simple dish with thoughtful presentation can look really elegant!
  • Play on visuals. Work with something that looks like another element in the dish. (To demonstrate this principle, Ben braised scallop-shaped pieces of daikon to use in the dish. It’s a vegetable I’m never seen cooked before!)
  • Place red capsicum directly over a gas flame to roast, turning as the skin chars. Or you can use a blow torch. This will gain a smoky flavour which is harder to achieve when roasting in a hot oven. When charred, place in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap for 20 minutes. Eggplant can be roasted the same way, however it takes longer for the insides to bubble.
  • Use rice bran oil, grapeseed oil or peanut oils to fry. Many chefs only use olive oil to finish a dish, never to cook, as its smoking point is too low (especially for fish, which requires a high temperature to seal.
  • When cooking fish, cook the presentation side really well then cook the other side with a quick flash (one third of the time) to finish. Leave your food alone when you’re cooking it, especially fish. Don’t play with it!
  • Make your own salt mix by blending ½ salt and ½ curry powder. It’s a great rub for seafood, and the curry gives a depth of flavour, yet is often not recognisable in the finished dish.
  • A Thermomix is a fantastic piece of equipment if you can afford one. You certainly don’t need one, but it’s a really powerful blender that also heats, which makes it a very useful timesaving piece of equipment. (By the way, Ben doesn’t own one; neither do I – that doesn’t stop our interest!)

Ben 9

Previously an IT consultant, what’s next for Ben after his whirlwind MasterChef experience?

“I’ve been working part time at The Stokehouse in Brisbane to gain experience and I’ve been running a popup restaurant, the Hard To Find Supper Club, serving five courses with matched wines.

I’d love to have my own restaurant one day… I’m someone who loves to cook, just like you guys, but that doesn’t mean I can run a restaurant. That takes so many more skills to be successful!”

But after watching Ben flick out a perfect one spoon quenelle, after tasting our meal, a palate of flavours, textures and colours, we agreed that Ben is well on his way!

Try some of Ben’s recipes on his website. I particularly like the coconut gelato recipe – that’s first on my ‘to cook’ list!

NOTE: Good Food Gold Coast was a guest of Palazzo Versace.


Palazzo Versace, Seaworld Drive, Main Beach QLD, Australia