All throughout my season, we kept waiting for the food truck challenge. Food trucks were all the rage throughout the country last year, and we just KNEW we’d have a food truck challenge. But they saved it for this season.
A few short years ago, most American’s wouldn’t be caught dead eating at a food truck. (Unless, perhaps, you lived in Manhattan, where sidewalk food carts provide lunch to probably half of New Yorkers.) Then, a “gourmet” food truck scene started to emerge in cities like Austin, Portland, Seattle, and Chicago.
Now, food trucks have become super trendy, alongside the meteoric rise of the “street taco,” which has become so ubiquitous that even fast food restaurant chains and luxe Mexican restaurants have “street tacos” on their menu. There are food truck roundups in every major city in the country. There are TV shows about racing food trucks. Food trucks line up outside museums and parks for special events. Some take credit cards, sell their own branded merchandise, and at some, you might find yourself spending $15-$20 for dinner, just like in a sit down restaurant with full service.
Fresh off her dessert challenge triumph, Stacey is the only specified team leader for the challenge, and she gets to hand-pick her team, as well as the 2 teams she’ll be competing against. (Another interesting twist for this season.) For her dream team, she picks Tali first, which surprises the judges, and probably most of us. However, I have this sneaking suspicion that Tali is being spun as an underdog in the beginning, and he’ll “catch his stride” later and go perhaps all the way to the final 4. The fact that Stacey chooses him first means she knows he can cook. (That, and she says that if they lose and go to the pressure test, she knows she can beat him. Crafty!) She rounds out her team with Frank and Becky, who seem to be top-dogs in the contest now.
Stacey picks team 2, which consists of Monti, who Stacey believes is her strongest competitor, and pairs her with David, because she knows they don’t get along and will be at odds. Again…clever. To these polar opposites she adds Anna and Tonya. This team nominates Anna to be the team leader, and Anna is chomping at the bit for her moment to shine.
Stacey has to choose one of the 3 colored trucks for her team, not knowing which cuisine is attached to which color. She picks Red, which means her team will be cooking Mexican food. (My favorite, and DEFINITELY the one I’d want to be on! However, California’s idea of Mexican food is a far cry from our Texas interpretations. Don’t get me wrong, I do love seafood tacos, but TexMex will knock CalMex outta the water any day of the week!) To Anna’s team she assigns Yellow, which ends up being American cuisine. This leaves Blue to Josh’s team, which is Indian food. Apparently this is one of Josh’s strengths. (The judges go so far as to say that no one on the show knows Indian food the way Josh does, flagrantly ignoring the fact that Tanya is the curry queen and has Indian roots.)
The teams have 90 minutes to prep and cook, and 90 minutes to serve their food, and this challenge is about volume. Their plates are set at $7 each, and whichever teams ends up with the most money wins. (Delightfully, all the proceeds are being donated to Save the Children, and Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Bravo, producers! Let’s see more of this in future seasons. In fact, I don’t see any reason why EVERY MasterChef challenge shouldn’t benefit a charity!)
Already, 2 of the teams have an advantage. The average Californian on the beach in Venice is probably accustomed to getting American food (burgers, hot dogs, etc) and Mexican food (tacos) from food trucks. But not necessarily Indian. So the Indian team has their work cut out for them.
Stacey suggests the Mexican menu should be a choice of a grilled veggie quesadilla, and carne asada tacos. Personally, I think that’s a REALLY solid choice. This is California, and if there’s one thing I learned while cooking there on MasterChef, it’s that PLENTY of people will spring for a light, vegetarian option. Becky and Tali usurp the quesadilla and suggest 2 tacos with a scoop of guacamole, but Stacey still insists (wisely) on the vegetarian option. This starts a huge argument about complexity vs flexibility and customer appeal…a battle all 3 teams will have to confront. Ramsay criticizes her for giving her team twice as much work with the vegetarian taco. I’d have TOTALLY IGNORED him. A vegetarian taco doesn’t take that much time to prep, and I think it’s CRITICAL to have a vegetarian choice on the beach in California. To stir up dissent on the team, Rasmay calls on Becky for her opinion, and Becky says she’d only do the carne asada taco if it was her team. Frank also sides with Becky, and Stacey gives in. Maybe their team was running out of time. But I think it was a mistake.
Anna suggest a slider trio with fries on the side for the American team. I confess, I don’t get sliders. If I’m in the mood for a burger, I want a burger. Not a miniature copy of a burger. And certainly not 3 miniature copies. That’s too much bun and not enough meat. GIVE ME A BURGER. Apologies to all of you who love sliders. (When I landed on the MasterChef set last year, I had never even heard of sliders.) Her teammates argue her down to 2 sliders in favor of simplicity and efficiency, and then David and Monti begin fighting over whether the side should be French fries or potato chips. I’d have sided with Monti on that one…you prep the fries by frying them at 325FF until they’re limp and cooked through, and then those fries can sit around all day until a quick 2 minute fry at 375F just before serving. I know from first-hand experience that making potato chips in bulk, while they don’t take long to fry, can be a nightmare and end up chewy and limp and greasy and disgusting…and really need to be double fried anyway, just like French fries, for optimum crispness. I would NOT attempt to churn out buckets of homemade potato chips for a crowd. But Anna chooses David’s chips. Gordon bounces over to stir up trouble, and chastises the team for offering 2 different types of sliders and says they should go for one. (Again, how hard is it to prep 2 different sets of toppings to give your customers something unique and diverse?) But he successfully convinces them to dumb down their menu, as well, to 2 Texas-style sliders, both exactly the same. (Hey, I have a great idea…how about serving a BURGER instead?!?)
Josh’s Indian team decides to go with Christine’s recipe for Chicken Tikka Masala, which is roasted or sauteed chicken in a rich, spicy tomato sauce. Cowboy Mike laments, “I don’t really know what we’re cooking, some kind of chicken tiki taki or taki maki, or something.” But we all know how brilliant Christine is with flavors, so even though I project that Indian food will be a harder sell for them than burgers or tacos, they’ve got a chance to present some explosive flavor that could easily overshadow the competition.
The hungry crowds begin to gather, and the American team doesn’t have ANY burger patties on the grill yet. Luckily, tiny slider patties cook more quickly than a single burger patty. However, they end up taking up MORE space on the grill than a burger patty. So each serving requires more real estate. Not a good situation when you’re moments from serving and nothing’s on the grill yet. I’d have gotten patties on the grill during the very first 5 minutes of prep time, cooked up ALL the patties, and then had them ready for a final high-temp sear for a few seconds just before serving. Gordon thinks it’s a great idea to sit there at the truck window and yell at them…because that’s OBVIOUSLY going to help matters. (Like they don’t know they need to get their burgers on the grill, like, an hour ago!)
Before serving time, we get another lovely reminder that Walmart is the official grocer for MasterChef, and another poorly-made commercial about a crowd thinking they’re being served ultra-premium steaks, only to discover that they are, in fact, Walmart steaks. In tiny letters below a man flashing “2 thumbs up” we see, “Real customers are chosen and compensated for their time and participation,” meaning these are already people who shop at Walmart and they got paid to say what they said. (However, as I’ve said before, I DO shop at Walmart and they DO, in fact, have the best beef of any grocery store in my immediate area. I’m just not sure that Walmart projects the kind of elite image that MasterChef is trying to brand for itself.)
The crowds are let loose on the trucks, and everyone who goes to the American truck for sliders is told they’ll have to wait. (I’m certain many of them bailed for tacos or tikka masala.) David, as the grill master, is responsible for getting patties out as quickly as possible, and Gordon quickly discovers that he’s churning them out TOO fast. At least one is raw. (But where one is raw…and I mean ice cold raw in the middle…there are probably others.) David deflects responsibility and says that the real problem is that the girls can’t assemble burgers as fast as he can cook them. (Which doesn’t make that much sense to me.) Still, I know that pressure…being so far behind, he’s eager to get those babies off the grill as soon as possible so they can serve their customers.
The line for tacos dwindles, probably because Stacey’s team is serving so efficiently that the line gets processed quickly. They’re so on top of things that Stacey has time to go out and recruit people from the nearby skate park and direct them to their line-less taco truck.
Time is called, and the tills are tallied. And the winner is…(commercial break).
The winner, having sold $798 worth of food, or 114 meals, is, unsurprisingly…Stacey’s taco team. It’s really, really hard to beat the reputation and demand for street tacos. In second place, with 108 meals served, is Josh’s tikka masala team. Anna’s slider team only served 86 meals. That could have been because they got off to a late start and because the patties weren’t coming off the grill fast enough. Or it could have been because people didn’t wanna eat 2 miniature burgers and chips, when on either side of them they had tacos and spicy Indian food to choose from. While they start fighting over who’s fault it is, Anna proves herself a leader by stating, “It was my responsibility, as the leader, to get you [probably David] going sooner. Bottom line, I’m responsible. I’m the team captain.”
Ultimately, though $2156 gets donated to charity. Which is WAY more important than anything else. And if MasterChef could generate that kind of money with each group challenge, they could be donating well over $20k each year. TAKE NOTE, Fox and producers! That’s a big chance to give back.
Joe reveals that the next pressure test is about tortellini. And for the first time in MasterChef, Joe cooks. Sort of. He shows us how to assemble the perfect tortellini. (Though I’m dead certain everything was prepped for him by someone else.) And we don’t actually see his final ravioli after he forms it. Interesting.
It should be noted here that NO ONE…and I mean NO ONE…makes their tortellini by hand. Each tortellini is a single bite of food. To prep enough tortellini by hand for an entire restaurant’s nightly service would take weeks. All tortellini is machine-formed these days. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not a good exercise to learn to make it by hand!
This challenge also brings back fond memories of Christmas dinners with my partner Christian and his Brasilian/Italian family. Their family tradition derives from a common northern Italian Christmas tradition…which is to eat cappelletti in a light chicken broth. Cappelletti is the same thing as tortellini, for all intents and purposes, but the filling is generally chicken with cheese, whereas tortellini is usually either beef or pork and cheese, or sometimes just cheese. Christian’s mom and grandma would make a light but explosively flavored broth with chicken and nutmeg, they would gently simmer the cappelletti in the broth for a minute or two, and then we’d eat it with GOBS of parmigiano cheese on top.
The first step is, of course, to make the pasta dough. The judges attack David Martinez for having “fat fingers” and kneading his pasta directly on the stainless steel surface. Joe says David knows nothing about pasta because “Pasta needs to be in a warm and gentle environment.” Traditionally, pasta IS made on a wooden board. (Because there were no stainless steel boards until the last half of the 20th century.) But what Joe is neglecting to tell you is that psta dough MUST rest in a cool (NOT warm) place to allow the gluten to relax, or the dough will tear while rolling. There is nothing wrong with kneading pasta on a stainless steel surface and it may, in fact, lower your relaxation time, thus allowing you to roll it out more quickly.
The judges, particularly Joe, attack Anna for making her pasta dough in the food processor. I wonder what Joe would say to his mother, Lidia Bastianich, one of the most famous Italian celebrity chefs in the country, born and raised in Italy, who taught American-born Joe everything he knows about Italian food, and WHO TAUGHT THE COUNTRY THAT THE BEST WAY TO MAKE PASTA IS IN THE FOOD PROCESSOR. It’s on her website. In her cookbooks. More sensationalist gossip from the judges with NO foundation in truth! It’s perfectly acceptable to make pasta dough in the food processor. YES, the vigorous mixing tightens the gluten. But it lets you get your dough finished and relaxing in the fridge quickly while you worry about your filling. It was actually a smart move for Anna to do that.
Personally, I make my pasta dough in my Kitchenaid stand mixer. If I’m rolling it, I finish the kneading by hand for a few minutes (as you also do after making it in the food processor). If I’m extruding it, I never knead the stuff by hand at all.
Now the contestants are forming their tortellini and we get a shot of David’s pasta sheet being rolled out and it’s absolutely GORGEOUS. (Kudos, David.) And since his self proclaimed “sausage fingers” aren’t dainty enough to handle the forming delicately, he’s using the plastic thermometer cover to ensure that the filling is wrapped neatly by the pasta and that all the air is pressed out. VERY clever and resourceful, David.
Graham asks Tanya a barrage of questions and she starts to lose it. She proclaims that she’s ready to give up, but Graham comforts her in a way that neither of the other judges can and gets her to believe in herself. He says that Tanya has more heart than ANY of the contestants, and that cooking with love is SO much more important than cooking with skill. I couldn’t agree more, Graham. That’s probably the ONLY reason I did as well as I did last season.
At Anna’s station, there’s crisis. She has pricked through the pasta layer to press out all the air from her filling, which basically creates a hole for the water to flood and dilute the filling. Then the burner under her broth isn’t lit, and with only moments to go, she realizes that her tortellini aren’t cooking.
Tasting begins, and Bastianich follows tradition by removing tortellini from the broth, dumping it out onto the table and cutting it in half first to look at the filling. … (That was a joke, people.) Not surprisingly, Anna’s pasta isn’t cooked all the way through because her burner wasn’t on. Tanya’s tortellini aren’t formed beautifully enough. Monti’s aren’t pretty, either, but they apparently taste good. David’s are gorgeous, and taste just as good.
So Monti and David are safe, and Tanya and Anna are on the chopping block. And my heart’s thumping 800 miles an hour, because Tanya is a good friend of mine, and my other friend on the show, Michael Chen, was eliminated a couple of weeks ago, and I’m scared I’m going to lose Tanya now. But Anna is so sweet, I don’t want to lose her, either.
And after the commercial break, where we catch of glimpse of my darling Tracy from last season, the decision is…Anna. In a rich MasterChef tradition, the team leader gets the boot during the ensuing pressure test. One of these days I’m going to calculate how often this happens…or maybe Wikipedia has already done it for me. But they LOVE to eliminate fallen team leaders, and contestants who’ve just won challenges.
Anna is a peach. Her blog is The Brave Apron and she want to start a catering company with her husband, AJ, who she competed against for an apron back during the auditions. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, because she’s got big things coming!