Having only recently been eliminated from the competition, Eric Mao had a shot at winning back his apron on Thursday night. The young medical student had shown his skill and knowledge of regional Chinese cuisine, a passion that resulted in some incredible plates of food.
Standing alongside fellow contestants Tom, Maja and Wynona, the returning cooks were tasked with plating up three courses in two and a half hours. After each course was served, one contestant would be eliminated until only one remained, winning their spot back in the competition.
Many of Eric's past successes came when he cooked the regional Eastern Chinese food he has been so passionate about for years, so it came as no surprise that his three courses were all centred in those traditional flavours and recipes.
Starting off with not one but three entree dishes of seaweed peanuts, tea-smoked eggs and cold-pressed tofu, Eric's first course received an incredibly emotional response from Melissa.
During the tasting, she quietly noted that she was getting overwhelmed and while giving Eric feedback, started tearing up.
"What we have here is an opportunity with cooking like this on this level on this global stage, to tell stories and to share our histories," Melissa said.
"I watched Jock plating up and I could smell the smells and I really started to feel it," she said, adding, "It's history, it's meaning, it's life. Thank you."
For his main, Eric went with a dish steeped in history and technique. Introducing the dish by its Mandarin name (sōngshǔ guìyú), Eric explained that it translates to squirrel fish, a name that dates back to the Qing Dynasty.
A whole fish is deboned and scored using a cross-hatch technique before it is turned inside out and deep-fried, plated up in a way that obscures the fish into looking less aquatic and -- it's believed -- more like a squirrel in motion.
Paired with a sweet and sour tomato-based sauce which gives the already visually intriguing dish a vibrant flair.
Explaining the dish to the judges, they were blown away by Eric's knowledge and love of not only the flavours of his heritage but also the reverence he has for the dishes he creates.
Sadly, the execution of his squirrel fish was just slightly off, meaning he didn't make it to the dessert round of the challenge.
In a moment between rounds, Melissa took Eric aside to praise his work in the challenge in a heart-warming but tear-jerkingly beautiful moment.
"I wanted it to be the best version you could have made it, and I know you know that," she said.
"But to stand up on a platform like this, globally, and be able to speak Mandarin and to be able to cook it legit, it's going to matter to a lot of people like us. A lot."
"It's worth it. So much more than you think. So just know that, okay?"
Despite not winning the apron and his second chance back in the competition, Eric beamed for the rest of the challenge, having connected so strongly with Mel through his food in not just this challenge but throughout his time in the competition.
Speaking to 10 play following his elimination last week, Eric spoke about the way his love for regional Chinese cuisine evolved.
"As a kid, you venture out and think things that you're not used to are interesting. It was only when, as I got a little bit older, I realised how special and important it made me feel and how it was the food I love."
"I'm really happy that people are embracing this style and the food that I'm trying to make on the show... traditional representations of Chinese food"
Amplifying the cuisine-based food he loves on a global platform like MasterChef Australia and encouraging more Australians to venture out and try these recipes, Eric said his time on the show was just the beginning, promising to keep working on videos and reels highlighting the recipes he's so passionate about.
Follow Eric on Instagram @e_mao_
Watch the new season of MasterChef Australia, Sunday to Thursday at 7.30 on 10 or watch on demand on 10 play