Simon Gault has tasted hundreds of dishes since Brenton Thornton cooked his crumbed snapper fillet with mango avocado coconut cream for him on last year's MasterChef New Zealand, but his apprentice chef remembers like it was yesterday.
“The first time you walk in that room and see not just the three judges, but the cameras, director, producer – a whole crew of people staring you down – it’s pretty terrifying,” says the former landscape gardener, who got his job at Simon’s Auckland restaurant Euro after he was eliminated in last year’s competition.
Brenton remembers having no idea whether the food he made early on in the 2012 series was any good, but he’s refined his skills in the past year.
“There are so many things you don’t know before you work in a professional kitchen,” he says. “Sharpness, knife weight – things like that make a huge difference, but I wouldn't have known that early on.”
“From my experience, most people can't chop an onion evenly. It is harder than you think!” says Simon. “It's always daunting having a chef looking over your shoulder, but that's the reality of a kitchen. “The knife challenge is a pressure test and when the pressure’s on, that's when people make mistakes.”
Simon's the first to admit he’s direct on the show – but while he loves telling people they’ve created a masterpiece, breaking the news to a contestant that their dish is bad is one of the worst parts of the job.
“Food is such a personal thing – the contestants arrive really excited because people have told them their dish is amazing, so to be told by us it isn't is soul-destroying for them.
“It is why they are there though and we have to be honest – as we were with Tracy. “Cooking a pork chop in a pressure cooker is misguided thinking. The fat and the skin isn’t going to come out well, unless it’s in the cooker for ages and time was against them.”
Simon’s mantra is you can never tell who’ll win until the end of the series, as each dish is judged individually, but even in these early days, the pair are united in their praise for 19-year-old Ella Krauts and yoga enthusiast Aaron Brunet.
“Ella's cooking got me really excited,” says Simon. “And Aaron has such a passion for food and an understanding of why everything works together.”
But it’s early days and as Brenton knows, the contestants have a lot still to learn. “If I were to give any advice to the contestants it’d be ‘tidy bench, tidy mind’ – and work quickly!” he says.
“Last year, my solution to having a brain freeze was to get as much produce as I could out of the cupboard so I got more time to think.” It’s a strategy Simon approves.
“The more you have at your disposal, the more chance you have of doing well. You don't have to use it all.”
MasterChef New Zealand Sunday, TV One, 7.30pm