MasterChef 3: Marines and Apple Pie

Today’s blog will be a bit different from previous ones.  Instead of watching MasterChef in the peace and quite of my own home, where I could take notes and give you a detailed blow-by-blow, last night I watched MasterChef at a watch party in the home of Christine Ha, along with Michael Chen.  It was loud and there was a lot of excitement and tension, so I didn’t get to follow the episode as closely as I’d have liked.  But Michael had told me it was going to be a heartfelt episode, and you all know I’ve been having a bit of trouble watching the show this season, so I figured it would be appropriate to watch with them.  And I was SO eager to meet Christine.

Some people you meet after seeing them on TV, and they’re quite a bit different.  Gordon Ramsay, for one.  Joe Bastianich, as well.  (To me, Graham, in person, seems exactly like he comes across on TV.)  From my season, people that you’d be surprised at the difference between the TV character and the real-life character would be Christian, Suzy, Esther, Jennie…

But the instant she greeted me at the door, I could tell that Christine was every bit the warm, intelligent, sensitive, caring person she seems like on TV.  (And quite a bit funnier and more witty than they portray her.)  I spent an hour feeling like I was basking in the glow of a VERY important celebrity, asking her questions and listening to stories.  For those who are curious, the autoimmune disorder that took her sight from her doesn’t ONLY affect her eyes.  She is under almost constant medical surveillance to make sure it does not strike any of her other body systems.  I know it was a tough decision to be on MasterChef for her, knowing it might potentially aggravate her condition.  But she was in good hands.

Christine is married to John, a super friendly guy (and craft brew aficionado!), and she is getting her Masters Degree in Creative Writing.  A fellow writer!  And the party filled up with grad students, mostly involved in literature, and it was just a really fascinating crowd.  Christian and Michael prepared tacos al carbon along with a grilled pineapple salsa and it was SO yummy.  I supplied my pumpkin carrot cake with cream cheese frosting and candied hazelnuts.  Initially I was worried about bringing it…sometimes I like to plan my menus all the way down to dessert and don’t want a guest to usurp the menu.  But Christine had replied, “Yes, please put cake into my mouth RIGHT NOW.”  So I brought it.  But I was so nervous, for some reason, I couldn’t eat much.

And the show begins with the first GROUP CHALLENGE! And the judges arrive in a giant field in an attack helicopter.  Several weeks ago I watched a new musical at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego called “No One Loves You” and it’s a musical about reality TV.  My dear friend who worked at the theatre insisted that I would enjoy it, so we went to see it.  At the climax of the play, when the reality TV show has reached it’s finale, the slimy host grimly announces, “And our 4 finalists are arriving at the studio in FOUR SEPARATE HELICOPTERS.”  WHAT IS IT with Reality TV and helicopters?!?  There was a helicopter in my season, too, but we didn’t see it…the judges arrived in it for one of the episodes, probably the first or last.  Personally, I think helicopters are ridiculously excessive.  Maybe that’s the point?

Group challenges, while always the toughest challenges on the show, were always my favorite.  And they will be my favorite to watch on the show this year.  Seeing people working together as a team brings out both TRUE team spirit and REAL dissonance between contestants.  David Martinez (whose nickname is apparently D-Mar) and Frank are team captains today and they go about assembling their teams.  This gives us a hint of who the contestants currently consider to be the “top dogs” and “bottom dogs.”

One by one, contestants are chosen, and Michael and Christine are still left in the pack.  Sitting there waiting to be picked for a MasterChef team brings back all that anxiety and self-doubt of middle school gym class when I always got picked last for basketball and football, so I know exactly how Michael and Christine are feeling.  My stomach sinks as we get down to the very last contestant, and it’s Christine.  Remember that you and I have been watching a carefully assembled and edited picture of what they’ve all been going through for weeks by this point, so while you and I have an image of Christine as being VERY accomplished and confident, that may not be the image her contestants have of her at this point.  Of course, she addresses Ramsay’s questions about being chosen last with tact and logic, and it doesn’t outwardly seem to bother her.  It MUST HAVE though.  What a blow to your self confidence.

The teams are assembled and they immediately have to select a menu to feed to 201 Marines who will be arriving shortly.  Feeding 201 people outdoors is NOT an easy task.  In fact, it’s almost impossible.  You’re not working in an equipped kitchen with sinks and ovens.  It’s hard to boil water, especially large amounts of it.  This would NOT have been an easy challenge and I don’t envy the contestants AT ALL.  Frank draws his menu inspiration from his roots and wants to serve the Marines a pasta salad.  Immediately I screamed at the screen.  Frank may not hang out with many Marines.  *chuckle*  It reminded me of our sausage challenge where we fed bikers in my season, and the sausage menu on my team was being thrown around as “sun dried tomatoes, feta cheese” and I screamed, “NO…BEER…BEER…BEER.”  Bikers do not want to eat sun dried tomatoes and feta.  Marines do not want to eat pasta salad.  BUT…Frank is being smart at choosing something that he is very confident with, and knows he can produce large volumes of quickly.  So I’ll definitely give him that.  David Martinez chooses what I believe is a more appropriate menu for Marines…thick cut pork chops and potatoes…but cooking 201 thick cut pork chops is a nearly insurmountable task on a limited grill space.  So he’s immediately placing his team at a tactical disadvantage, though if they can pull it off, they may be guaranteed a win.

The way we see the teams interacting is striking.  Frank’s team is working like a finely oiled machine.  People do the jobs he gives them.  Based on the judge’s input, he moves people around, and they immediately slip into efficient new roles.  On David’s team, things are chaotic and the girls, notably Becky, begin to assert leadership.  The Marines arrive, and boy are they hungry, and Frank’s got plenty of food to feed them, while David’s got raw pork chops and crunchy potatoes.  But somehow they pull it together and are able to serve with only a stray raw chop here and there.  (Personally I’d have butterflied those chops so they’d cook faster.  Yes, it would take up more grill space, but you’d get each serving off the grill faster.)

The Marines vote, and David’s team wins.  Which is like a stab in the heart for me, because so many of my “kids” are on Frank’s team.  And now they’re gonna have to go to a pressure test.

Pressure tests were my favorite part of MasterChef, but that was a coincidence.  They always seemed to choose things I was good at.  That’s probably coincidental because of all the challenges in Season 1, the pressure tests were the ones I’d have excelled in.  The pressure test today is apple pie.  Another one I’d have been super stoked about.  I bake apple pies all the time…usually in a cast iron skillet.  I’d have done another excited WHOOP, when I heard the challenge.

But the crunch is 75 minutes to bake the pie.  And that’s just NOT enough time.  I bake my apple pies for 45 minutes, leaving only 30 to make the pastry, peel and slice the apples (which usually takes me 45 minutes alone), and cook them down for the filling.  This is NOT going to be easy.

With only 15 minutes left to go in the challenge, there are still 2 pies that aren’t even in the oven yet.  Christine’s is one of them.  And I’m on pins and needles.  When Christine pulls her pie from the oven, she can’t tell if it’s done because she can’t see it.  She has to rely on her assistant to tell her what the color looks like, but still, after only about 15 minutes of baking, she’s really nervous.

She approaches the judges station and her confidence melts away.  And WE still haven’t seen her pie!  Ramsay begins one of his famous questions that you can’t tell is praise or condemnation…and then he reveals that her pie is perfect.  And Ramsay’s soft side pours out, which I can tell is totally genuine…he tells Christine to have faith in herself.  She BELONGS in the competition.  And she’s just pulled off a miracle.  It was a beautiful moment, and Christine’s friends are all misty eyed, and it strikes me that her experience in this moment must be very different than ours.  Of course she’s feeling all the things she felt when the challenge was transpiring, but she must have some frustration when watching the show and all her friends take a breath in unison, or begin to weep.  I feel like I’m experiencing something very profound.

The bottom 3 in the challenge are Scott, Michael, and Tanya.  Two of them are the two contestants I actually know.  I’m just SICK.  That’s a 66% chance that one of my friends is going home tonight.  Tanya gets a pass, leaving it to Michael and Scott.  Scott’s top pastry crumbled when he tried to roll it out.  (In that situation, I’d get the pie into the oven without a top, and prepare a brown sugar, cinnamon and butter crumble topping, which can be added at any time during backing.)  He crumbled up the pastry crust and scattered it on top, sort of like a cobbler, but when it came out of the oven it was still pale, so he got out the butane torch, which basically blackened the crust bits.  Michael took a bold and unconventional approach by scattering cheddar cheese on top of his crust for a crunchy cheesy top.  The judges aren’t entirely sure of this…but Michael’s in good company.  Martha Stewart does this, and there are dozens of recipes on the internet for apple pie with cheddar cheese crust.  But his filling is unusually dark, and the judges don’t like the liquid in the bottom of his pie.  (I cook the apples on the stovetop, then strain off the juices and reduce them until they’re almost caramel, then return them to the apples.)

At this point, I’m thinking the judges are going to send home Scott, but I’m still nervous.  Gordon seems a little upset as he starts to reveal who’s going home, which worries me.  I can tell that he has a fondness for Michael.

He says the name, and I scream at the TV and watch in horror as Michael takes off his apron and leaves the MasterChef kitchen.  Then I turn around, and Michael has his face buried in his hands and he’s crying.  This is from a kid who, when he left for MasterChef, told me that he hadn’t cried in public since he was a baby.  His hand is clutching Christine’s.  The room is silent.  I walk over and throw my arms around him and hold him.

It’s never easy to be eliminated from MasterChef.  But Michael is one of those bright young kids with sky-high ambition.  He risked his relationship with his family and his scholarship at Texas A&M to be on the show.  He wanted to prove to the world, but mostly to his family, that he has the skill and talent to be one of the great chefs of his generation.

But more importantly, Michael chose to go on MasterChef to share his story and become a role model for young gay Christians struggling with their faith, in a world where role models are hard to come by.  And he knew it would take time for all that to come out on the show.  Now his time has been cut short.  I know exactly how heartbreaking it is for him to leave the competition this early.  But there are no words appropriate for this moment, not “You did a great job” or “I thought your pie wasn’t the worst.”  Those only make it worse.  So I’m silent and I just hold the kid.

For those who are curious, Michael has been VERY busy since leaving MasterChef.  He’s been interning at two of the most respected restaurants in Austin, working his butt off on the line, learning as much as he can, and proving to the chefs and restauranteurs that he’s cut out for more responsibility.  He’s eager to help out in a charity capacity and hopes that opportunities to support at-risk youth will come his way.  (They will.)

I could not be more proud of Michael.  He took a lot of risks to be on the show.  He has an incredibly bright future, and I consider myself so fortunate to be his friend and to help out in any way I can.  YOU can help him out by following him on Facebook and Twitter, and checking in with his blog:

It was a good week on MasterChef.  I hope the contestants learned a valuable lesson about supporting each other throughout the show, because you never know when you’ll have to work together and rely on each other in a group challenge.  And tonight…another episode!

HUGE thanks to Christine and John for inviting me into their home.  That probably wasn’t easy, my blog has apparently made me a polarizing figure in the MasterChef upper echelon.  But ultimately I am here to support the contestants, and I know exactly what kind of impact Christine’s story is going to have.  It has certainly captured my heart.  So it was an incredible honor to meet her.  Thank you Christine.  Thank you Michael.  I love you both!

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