That post title sounds impressive, doesn’t it? It was! Recently I was invited to attend a MasterChef MasterClass with Ben MacDonald, a 2014 MasterChef Australia finalist. It took me about 30 seconds to accept.
Arriving at Palazzo Versace is very impressive. The mosaic stone driveway leading to the Roman colonnade instantly conveys elegance and attention to detail and that’s what you’ll find throughout the hotel. It does remind me of an upscale Vegas hotel, beautifully decorated with friendly, welcoming staff.
Once inside I was met by the event management and taken to the Vanitas restaurant where I was introduced to Ben MacDonald who is so friendly and down-to-earth that I didn’t feel at all like the poor country cousin. In fact, I mentioned to Kel Constantine, the marketing manager, that I’d stayed at the resort across the street several times because I didn’t think I was posh enough for the Palazzo Versace. She laughed and said that she hears that a lot and nothing could be farther from the truth.
‘We’re a great resort hotel with guests from around the world and everyone feels welcome here,’ Kel told me. Honestly, I expected to find fashionistas who’d look at my gladrags and roll their eyes. It didn’t happen. I had the best day there.
The class of 16 was full and the attendees ranged from those who couldn’t cook very well at all to some who were quite expert to begin with. Everyone was friendly and the room had a great vibe.
Ben MacDonald had an excellent assistant in Charles Duffin, the Palazzo Versace’s Executive Sous Chef. He’s been cooking professionally for 42 years and there’s little about food and its preparation that Charles doesn’t know. I instantly liked him.
The menu for the day that we watched (and helped) Ben make was also the lunch we all enjoyed.
Entrée: Pan Fried Scallops, Braised Daikon, Chorizo Crumb and Romesco Sauce
Main Course: Pan Fried Snapper with Asparagus, Fennel Puree and Orange Miso Reduction
Dessert: Pepper Roasted Pineapple with Coconut Gelato
When I saw Ben pull out the Thermomix, I knew I was in for a treat. I use my Thermomix all the time but I doubt my food equals his and it was a great opportunity to see how I could lift my game in the kitchen.
This was a beautiful plate of food. Scallops and I are not the best of friends but look to the center left of this photo and you’ll see that Ben has shaped and braised the daikon to look just like a scallop. Perfect for me!
The cooking began with making the romesco sauce (recipe below). The red capsicums/bell peppers had already been roasted over a flame and charred skin removed, the tomatoes had already been cored and seeded, the sourdough bread had been turned into cubes and pan fried in olive oil and the tomatoes and almonds had been roasted in the oven for about 10 minutes and the garlic for about 30 minutes. The hard work had already been done, but Ben showed every step for those who weren’t experienced in the kitchen.
Everything but the oil went into the Thermomix and whizzed while he added the oil slowly until he got the consistency he was looking for. The aroma of that sauce made my heart beat just a bit faster.
The sauce finished and we moved on to the main course of pan fried snapper. Ben began making the orange miso reduction, the fennel puree and then moved on to pan frying the snapper. While the fish was cooking he pan fried the asparagus and really, in a very short amount of time, that dish was plated.
The dessert was really outstanding. The pineapples were sliced lengthways and roasted before making a sauce of brown sugar, honey, cinnamon stick, star anise and 2 teaspoons of Szechwan pepper and 2 teaspoons of black pepper and 4 cloves.
The coconut gelato was made from coconut milk, runny honey, icing/confectioner’s sugar and the juice of half a lime. Before serving the pineapple and sauce was garnished with a mix of toasted dessicated coconut, brown sugar and 4 teaspoons of pink peppercorns. The gelato went on top.
Once the cooking was done it was time for the eating. The Vanitas staff prepared the menu for the 16 of us plus a few staff who joined us. I wish you’d been with me as we dined and drank wonderful wine served by French sommelier Cyril Thevenet.
Once the meal was finished I had a stroll around the place before driving back home to the Sunshine Coast. I know I’m going to stay at the Versace next time I need to be on the Gold Coast. This is a regular hotel room.
The pool is really beautiful and this photograph courtesy of the Palazzo Versace shows just how close the hotel is to the water.
Just next door is an upscale shopping center where John and I bought our first art work for our home. His Australian-ness and my American-ness meant that we were always going to clash so when we looked at a beautiful nude sketch he said, “I don’t hate that,” and I said, “I don’t hate that either,” so we bought it. It’s still a favourite.
Waterside just outside the Vie Bar and Restaurant is the marina so you can arrive by car or by boat.
My friend Marj Osborne who does restaurant reviews all over the Gold Coast was also at the masterclass. She asked some of the best questions about MasterChef like how does one get a spot and what’s a shooting day like. You can read her review on her blog at Food Gold Coast. Marj is the reason I don’t often review restaurants – she’s REALLY good at it.
My thanks to Kel and the marketing staff at Palazzo Versace for inviting me to be a guest at this masterclass. Check out Ben MacDonald’s website for his recipes. He’s a pretty good cook for a Kiwi.
- 2 red capsicums/bell peppers
- 2 tomatoes, core removed
- 6 cloves garlic
- ½ onion
- 1 medium chilli
- 100g almonds
- 1 slice sourdough bread, crusts removed
- 1 teaspoon sweet smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon hot smoked paprika
- 40ml sherry vinegar
- 100ml olive oil
- salt and pepper
- Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF.
- Wrap the garlic in foil with a dash of olive oil, then place on a tray in the oven with the tomatoes and chilis.
- Char the capsicums/peppers over a gas flame until blackened all over (if you don’t have gas you can use a blow torch or just place them in the oven with the other ingredients). Place in a sealed bag or bowl covered in cling film so as to not let the heat escape. Leave to steam for 10-20 minutes.
- After 20 minutes in the oven, remove the tomatoes, chili and garlic and allow to rest a couple of minutes until cool enough to handle. Remove the skins from the roasted vegetables and also the seeds from the chili, then roughly chop and place in a blender.
- Fry the bread in a little olive oil until browned. Tear into pieces and add to the blender.
- Carefully remove the black skin from the capsicum and also any seeds and ribs from the inside. Roughly chop and add to the blender.
- When the vegetables are cool enough to handle, remove the skins and seeds and discard. Roughly chop the remaining flesh.
- Roast the almonds in the oven for 3 - 4 minutes until lightly roasted but not coloured. Add to the blender along with the sherry vinegar, salt and pepper.
- Blend the ingredients until they form a smooth paste and then with the blender running, add the remaining olive oil slowly so that it emulsifies. The sauce should be textured and rough, rather than smooth. You can pass it through a fine sieve if desired, but it is typically served as is.
- Check the seasoning of the sauce and adjust as necessary with salt, pepper and vinegar (or a touch of lemon juice).