How do you filter 32 talented professional chefs down to just one? Why, send them to MasterChef: The Professionals, who will put their culinary skills through a series of demanding tasks, from invention tests and cooking for the toughest critics, to devising a dish and preparing it in a pop-up restaurant. We meet Kasae Fraser, Head Chef at Robun, who tells us the story so far…
MasterChef: The Professionals is always a gripping watch, as professional chefs from all over the country are put through rigorous, time-restricted culinary tests which challenge the nerves of even the most confident chefs, supervised by the uber-cheerful Greg Wallace and the distinguished and exacting chefs Marcus Wareing and Monica Galetti. The fascination increases significantly when one of our own is taking part, and in the latest series Kasae Fraser from Japanese restaurant Robun in Bath is included in the line-up.
Born in Victoria, Australia, Kasae has worked professionally in her home country, in Stockholm, Sweden and in a fish restaurant in Falmouth, before joining Robun as Head Chef last year. Her food is strongly influenced by her travels and culinary experiences in these countries and she told me she was keen to reflect this in the dishes she created in the series, including the Japanese style she specialises in at Robun.
The application process was swift – Kasae applied close to the deadline and got a call from the BBC a week later asking her to come in for an interview in London. “At the interview you had to provide an idea of the dishes you would prepare if you were selected. I took my little drawing book in – I always draw my recipes and write notes to the side – and they video you while you’re talking to the head producer and the casting manager. Then a week later, I got a call, saying ‘you’re going to be on’, and three days later I had a three-week warning before my first episode.”
The series features 32 professional chefs over seven weeks – with the initial rounds introducing four chefs who do a skills test, followed by a two-course signature menu. Two of the chefs go through and then meet two qualifying chefs from another round. This time they do an invention test – based around a particular ingredient or type of recipe – followed by the (rather nerve-wracking) preparation of a two-course meal for three professional food critics.
The skills test – which the chefs cannot prepare for – involves a 20-minute challenge set by either Monica or Marcus. Kasae’s skills test, which aired in early November, was set by Monica, an apple tarte tatin and a Calvados Anglaise sauce. Kasae had done her prep well: “My partner is a chef and on each Sunday leading up to the filming day, he would buy a bunch of ingredients. Sometimes they were achievable in 20 minutes and sometimes I felt like he stitched me up, because, for example, he wanted a frangipane for breakfast. He would then pretend to be Marcus and say, ‘right, so for breakfast today you’re cooking…’ ”
When Kasae walked into the kitchen for her skills test she saw puff pastry, apples and sugar. “I said to myself, ‘I’m probably making a tarte tatin’, which I knew how to do.” The nerves were still there, however: “It was the first time that I’d been into the MasterChef kitchen. And it’s really, really intimidating – when I was trying to open up my vanilla pod, I was just shaking so much.”
For the signature menu that followed, Kasae cooked a saddle of lamb with a green goddess dressing, prepared with anchovies, tarragon, wild garlic, lemon juice and crème fraîche, served with seaweed glazed carrots. This was followed by a coconut bavarois, with coconut mousse, Champagne jelly, yuzu elderflower glazed strawberries and coconut sablé biscuit. There was some criticism from the judges of the style of plate that she used for her main, and a suggestion that the lamb would have been better separated from the sauce, but the food itself was a success.
For her invention test in the next episode Kasae did a cauliflower and goat’s cheese and ricotta filo pastry tart, with apricot and vermouth cream, and pickled apples and walnut praline, with a gazpacho of tomato with strawberry, apple, chilli and fennel tops as a side dish. Marcus was impressed by the novelty of a drink as a side and his judgement was glowing: “You’ve come in and you’ve given us something a little bit different, with your twist, and that is exactly what we wanted.”
The critics’ meal – the final stage of this round, judged by Jimi Famurewa, Grace Dent and Tom Parker-Bowles – saw Kasae bring asparagus and sorrel royale with pickled asparagus, almond and truffle cream, toasted almonds and a lace tuile to the table (“One of the nicest things I’ve eaten for a long time” said Tom Parker-Bowles), followed by grilled rainbow trout, hispi cabbage stuffed with Jerusalem artichoke and pumpkin seeds with a chive and roe cream sauce (“I love the theatre of this” purred Grace Dent). Critics’ compliments abounded, but it was a challenging experience: “I remember just the relief of stress and the drop of adrenalin after I left the kitchen. I sat in the debrief area just feeling like a zombie, totally gone”, says Kasae.
The Knockout Week saw 12 chefs remaining, and this was a tricky one for Kasae because the Invention Test was presented as a ‘do what you want’ challenge. “It really threw me. My brain was just ticking over every single idea and dish that I’d made in my life, and I totally flaked,” says Kasae. “Everbody else had a direction and an idea and that put me off even more.” She ended up making a Chowanmushi (Japanese savoury steamed custard), but it was a little overcooked because it went back in the oven at the last minute because she was worried about it getting too cool, and therefore it got less glowing feedback. The next stage was to create a dessert, and Kasae’s choice – a chocolate cremeux with madeira poached pears, a chocolate and porcini mushroom soil, tamarind gel and a mascarpone folded through a pistachio praline – was a winning combination and the judges loved it.
In the Pop Up Restaurant challenge, Kasae prepared a prawn and lobster corn dog, despite a ‘heartsink moment’ when she realised at a crucial point that the fryer wasn’t switched on. Then came the Last Dish on Earth challenge, where Kasae went back to her roots and did a variation of the lemon slice that her Nan used to put in her lunchbox for school. “I used a really soft flaky buttery almond biscuit with some coconut and I got some lemon myrtle from Australia and ground it down and mixed it with some brown butter. Then I did a really light and fluffy lemon parfait and lemoncello curd, coriander and preserved lemon gel and meringue on top. I got the judges to eat it with their hands because that’s how we would eat it in school. Marcus’ reaction had initially been ominous: “I’ve got a real problem with this”, but then he went on to say, “I can’t put it down, I can’t stop eating it!”
At the time of publication, Kasae is one of eight chefs remaining in the MasterChef kitchen so you can watch the rest of her journey on the BBC or iPlayer.
Back at Robun in Bath, with its substantial menu of exquisite dishes – from Wagyu Beef Tataki to Bluefin Tuna Tartare and Shirakiku Chicken Gyoza to Popcorn Shrimp – you can understand why Kasae’s culinary imagination is so fertile, and why she has gone so far in MasterChef.
Kasae explains some of her favourite dishes on the Robun menu. “My personal favourite is the Prawn Tempura Roll – it’s so good I could eat that for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We use the nobashi prawn, which is cut in a way so that when it cooks, it’s really soft. That goes inside a roll with avocado, rice on the outside, sesame seeds, and orange tobico (flying fish roe), which gives you a little light pop in your mouth when you eat it, and we combine it with a spicy mayonnaise. It’s just such a crowd-pleaser – and is also a good entry level to sushi for people that are a little bit unsure about raw fish.”
Another dish that Kasae recommends is one created by her, which has recently been introduced to the menu. “This recipe is Soy and Sesame Glazed Beef Cheeks, served with smoked aubergine purée and fresh salad with a nam jin dressing. I really love that.”
See how far Kasae gets in the competition by watching the last six episodes of MasterChef: The Professionals, airing the week of 27 November and 4 December – watch them on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday at 8pm, or catch up with the whole series on iPlayer.