The Black Box: How A Dish Inspired By A Mystery Box Became A MasterChef Pressure Test
It's the pressure test that will have the MasterChef contestants wondering... what's in the box?
Chef and owner of Melbourne's IDES. Peter Gunn, spoke to 10 daily over the phone about the mysterious dish the chefs would have to attempt this week.
First created in 2018, Peter explained the idea behind the Black Box was -- funnily enough -- cooking competitions.
"It's funny that it has an opportunity on [MasterChef]," he said, "given that the initial idea behind it was like a mystery box. You don't know what's in it."
A white chocolate cube, dyed with ash and treated to have a rough texture, the Black Box looks almost other-worldly, like some kind of alien rock that landed on a bespoke dish. And then there are the elements contained within.
When the dish was first created, Peter and his team developed three different versions. Tables of two would get completely different flavours within a structure of components -- a crunchy biscuit, a cream, some fresh fruit.
"It was so much work and people didn't really know. They were so into it and engaged they would just eat it and not realise," Peter said.
"No one was really noticing, so we just focused on a singular version which changes with the seasons and with the times."
Since the dish was introduced it has gone through seven or eight iterations, he said, noting while it's been cooked in different countries, by different people, and with different key elements, it always comes together in that inviting, mysterious black box.
"The contents inside are always evolving, moving, and different but what's great about it, it's a visual signature. My very first signature, I should say."
Peter honed his love of seasonal Australian ingredients and refined his own style and aesthetic of dishes during his years as the sous chef for Ben Shewry at Attica.
Prior to the coronavirus restrictions changing how we dine out, the IDES experience was a multi-course offering that slouched into fine dining with a relaxed attitude, a playful spirit and a drive to always engage diners.
"Especially in a world where fine dining is supposedly dead, even before everything unfolded over the past couple of months, the way people dine really has changed," Peter said.
"We love to incorporate what people enjoy into our offering. We just like to make it our own.
The Black Box, for example, is served with a silver mallet, inviting you to smash your way into the components hidden inside.
"Just engaging, being able to have a laugh while enjoying something delicious is really important," Peter said.
For every service, the IDES team aims to make the experience anything but boring. From the timing of dishes, the atmosphere of the restaurant, the temperature of the room, serving dishes with a collection of sauces so each bite can be different, to adding a silver mallet to the dish.
"There is a sense of playfulness and it's always depending on the dishes," Peter said. "We've got a menu format that is quite dynamic, it's always changing but there's a structure to it."
For the MasterChef contestants tackling the Black Box, when asked what the toughest challenge would be for them, Peter casually responded: "The box itself... and also the number of components that were in it," which adds up to everything.
Teasing the challenge was definitely one that pushed the chefs in the MasterChef kitchen, Peter said being able to see them sweat it out was encouraging.
"To know that my guys can do it -- if you know what I mean," he said, laughing.
Since restrictions were put in place many restaurants have had to pivot to a takeaway model, re-configuring their business models to do so. Peter and his team refused to compromise the IDES identity to retrofit dishes, and instead continue to offer their four-course menu "pretty much exactly the same" as they would serve it in the restaurant".
"We've simplified a few things and had to do away with a few little garnishes, but the techniques are still very much present and we don't put that on the person receiving the menu at home," Peter said.
"All we’ve really done is added a few extra steps to the daily preparation of our dishes but we’ve been receiving some pretty good feedback."
The feedback has been so good that Peter said they're serving the delivery offering to almost the same amount of guests they would serve across a week in the restaurant.
"The IDES experience really is just having a fun, memorable, tasty evening. It's really, really simple, I think."