During this past season of MasterChef Canada, Trevor Connie and Thea VanHerwaarden certainly faced their fair share of pressure cooker tests. But they overcame them all in order to get to Thursday night’s finale where they were both asked to create the ultimate three-course meal.
Naturally, both chefs turned to one of the most terrifying kitchen tools around, the actual pressure cooker, in order to complete their dishes in a timely manner. It was a strategy that certainly seemed to pay off for both chefs, first for Trevor and his octopus and lamb and then for Thea with her pork belly.
In the end, the judges had such a hard time picking between the feasts that it was Trevor’s story that secured him the $100,000 victory. Still, Thea came a long way with her confidence and flavours, and that finale could have been anyone’s game.
We caught up with both of the chefs to pick their brains on their tricks to successfully using a pressure cooker, what they’ve learned about making ice cream, and how to extract the best flavours and plates possible.
What’s the No. 1 skill you each learned in the kitchen?
Connie: I was struggling throughout the season with my flavours, so making it all the way to the end and using the judges’ feedback, I strongly felt that I changed somewhat of my cooking style by balancing and layering flavours. It’s a skill that was really nonexistent for me prior to being on the show.
VanHerwaarden: Plating was my biggest thing, and having time to plate properly. That’s something I struggled with throughout the competition, but I think by the end I showed that I could make beautiful plates that tasted very good too.
How do you build on a flavour and elevate it to that MasterChef Canada level?
Connie: Say I was making mashed potatoes. Before, I’d use cream and milk and throw a bit of salt in at the end. Now I’d boil the potatoes in the cream and add some salt. Then I’d taste the liquid, add more salt, mash the potatoes and maybe add some sort of confit garlic into it. Taste it again, add some more salt. Maybe zest a lemon into it to take it one step further. Really create that layer of salt rather than add it in all at once in the end. It really changes the flavour profile of the dish.
What about building up a better plate?
VanHerwaarden: I’ve realized through the competition that plating was on the back burner of my mind. There’d be two minutes left and I’d just throw it on the plate. But to become a good plater you really need to have it at the forefront of your mind. Think about as you’re cooking how you want it to look on the plate. Planning it in your head and then executing it gives you much better plates, rather than thinking about it last minute and throwing it on.
You both successfully used pressure cookers in your final dishes, so what tips would you give on how to use one successfully, given the inherent fear so many of us have over using them?
Connie: That was the first time I’d ever used a pressure cooker myself. They’re not as scary as they’re made out to be, especially in today’s day and age. They’re pretty much foolproof. They do not explode. They’re not time bombs. It’s a simple fill it up, click and snap, and heat it up and you’re good to go.
VanHerwaarden: I actually think people should start using them more often, especially because everyone is so busy. If you want to make something really delicious in a quick amount of time, pressure cookers are amazing to do that. Like Trevor said, nowadays they’re foolproof. They have a safety on them and you can’t go wrong.
Another obvious benefit would be getting a more flavourful, tender piece of meat in a short period of time, correct?
Connie: Absolutely. It gives you the opportunity to make all of these dishes that usually take three to four hours in a half an hour. It’s a no-brainer to me; it’s an amazing tool in the kitchen and it’s come a long way in the last five, six, seven years.
VanHerwaarden: That was the first time I had used a pressure cooker as well and as soon as I got home from the show, the first thing I bought was a pressure cooker. It is such a time saver. On Sundays if you have time, you like to let things braise for hours and let the aromas fill up the house, but if you don’t have the time, the pressure cooker is the way to go.
Octopus and pork belly might be a little advanced for some, so what meats would you recommend to start with?
Connie: Braised short-ribs. Pulled pork. Everybody loves pulled pork; it’s a really easy, comfortable thing for a lot of families. Throw a pork shoulder in the pressure cooker with some spices and wine or even just water. You don’t have to get too crazy with it. You’re keeping all of that flavour, you’re not losing anything.
VanHerwaarden: You can make anything you want to be pulled apart.
Connie: You could throw a russet potato in your pressure cooker — baked potatoes take a long time to cook. Throw your potato in there, it takes five minutes, and then throw it in the oven to crisp up. You have a baked potato, piece of cake.
You also both made ice cream in the finale, what have you learned with that process?
VanHerwaarden: It is very finicky. If you want to make it the right way then you really need to take the time to make it right. There are a lot of steps.
Connie: You really need to nail your creme anglaise, it needs to be perfect. I’ve made it a couple of times since the show, and it’s a very specific science with lots of steps. To do it in that time constraint, obviously it worked out for Thea because she did her dessert earlier in the challenge, but mine didn’t work so I had to go and use liquid nitrogen. It totally screwed me.
That finale was no joke — how do you get through a three-course meal prepped like that… or just a big dinner you’re serving to friends and family?
VanHerwaarden: Even if you go into it well organized, in a situation like that, it never ends up being organized. You’re never going to be as organized as you hope, you just have to go with it.
Connie: Clean up as you go. We were under such a time constraint, making these extravagant dishes, that there was no time to clean. It turned into utter chaos.
What’s next for you guys?
VanHerwaarden: I’m working on my upcoming website, Thirsty, which will share recipes and reviews on restaurants, and I’m also doing a few segments… hopefully getting into the food media scene and we’ll see what happens from there.
Connie: After leaving the show, I got a job in a restaurant, which I absolutely love and I’m learning a lot. I’m just going to keep working under accomplished chefs and building my skill base. I’m going to use some of these winnings; I have a trip to Iceland, France, Germany and Spain planned next year. I’m going to go on a food adventure and build the skills that I need to succeed and eventually open up my own restaurant.