MasterChef 3: Top 18 compete

So now we get down to the nitty-gritty…the top 18 are chosen and it’s time for them to enter the MasterChef kitchen for the first time.

We get a nice product placement shot of the MasterChef Global Knives right there at the beginning.  I will say that it was a treat working with the Global knives.  They’re like razor blades, they’re so sharp.  Those 3 knives retail as a set for $225.  Which might be a good deal, I don’t know.  I don’t own expensive knives.  Someone asked me about knives the other day, and I was quick to recommend the IKEA Slitbar series.  Full-tang, heavy, top-quality stainless steel knives with wood inlaid handles, and their all-purpose 6″ chef’s knife is…get ready for it…$19.99.  Their most expensive knife is their 8″ Damascus steel chef’s knife for $50.  I’ve owned these knives for years.  They’re so cheap I can own SEVERAL of each knife, I don’t have to worry about letting someone use them or tossing them in the dishwasher.  I hone them once a week, and they are FABULOUS.  I am every bit as efficient with a Slitbar as I am with a Global that costs 4 times as much.  So Check Them Out if you’re looking to raise your skill level in the kitchen by having a quality chef’s knife.  (Please note, I have no relationship with IKEA, they don’t even know I exist.  This is an honest endorsement that I don’t profit a cent from, I’m just trying to save YOU money.)

It’s the first Mystery Box, and if you read my blog last season, you know how much I HATE mystery boxes.  I don’t like being restricted to a specific set of ingredients.  Becky, who has caught my eye now (she’s so adorable!), does something that I also did with the first mystery box…she avoids the protein and heads for dessert.  I thought it was a stroke of genius when I did it, too.  It landed me in the “worst of the day” spot, so I was happy to see Becky avoid the same fate that I did for the same choice.

Then we’ve got a fire at Helene’s station.  Ramsay acts like it’s the end of the world when she giggles about it.  Don’t worry, Helene.  Tracy Kontos started a fire during the initial chicken challenge on my season (the same as your ground beef challenge), and Ramsay told her it was all gloom and doom for her and she wouldn’t last long, and she went all the way to #6.  Fires happen in kitchens.  That’s why EVERY kitchen should have a recently-tested fire extinguisher in it.  Does yours?!?

I was interested to see them put in a quick segment of the judges walking around and “looking” at each contestant’s station after the mystery box challenge ended.  I think that’s because of fan input.  Traditionally the judges only taste 3 of the mystery box dishes and leave the rest “untasted.”  I heard lots of complaints from fans last season about so many dishes being left untasted, so it’s nice to see the network including a bit more judges’ consideration for all the contestants on a mystery box challenge.  Do YOU feel better about it?!?

Our top 3 dishes for the mystery box are made by Ryan, Samantha, and Scott.  OH, but it’s a surprise and they’re actually the 3 WORST dishes!!!  Shock all around.  And I  feel ya, kids.  The first TWO mystery boxes, Ramsay recognized me, and I got all excited and rushed up to the judges’ station, only to have them tell me that I was the worst of the entire group.  He LOVES to make you think you’re the best, and then tell you that you’re the worst.  But the evil surprise is that someone is actually going to be eliminated, and heretofore mystery boxes have been “safe” challenges where no one is eliminated.

They eat Ryan’s soul for pairing bananas with duck breast, particularly Bastianich.  I wonder what he’d think of Ristorante Don Alfonso 1890, one of Italy’s best restaurants and holder of 2 Michelin stars, where they serve duck breast with a banana sauce?  All it takes is a simple Googling of “duck breast” and “banana” to find dozens of recipes that pair the two.  Again…the show is just building drama by having the judges declare something a “faux pas” when, in fact, it probably isn’t.  In a mystery box challenge last year, I paired scallops with bananas and they told me I was crazy.  (Somehow they still let me into the top 3 on that challenge.)  After getting home, I found out that Nana, one of Dallas’s finest restaurants, has a banana and scallop dish.  So the lesson to learn here is that, if you’re an aspiring chef, take the criticism you hear on MasterChef with a grain of salt.  MasterChef is an entertainment show, not a how-to lesson on cooking.  Just because the judges say “Don’t EVER DO THAT” does not mean it’s a cardinal rule of the kitchen.  Many of their harsh criticisms are delivered SOLELY to heighten drama for the audience.  But let’s face it, the show wouldn’t be NEARLY as riveting to watch without those moments, right?

Scott made profiteroles which the judges ridiculed as too simple and silly for a challenge.  Bastianich goes so far as to call him “Delusional.”  WHAT ARE THEY SMOKING?  Don’t they know how difficult profiteroles are to make?  More drama-dredging, no doubt.  Profiteroles were VERY ambitious, Scott.

Ultimately they send home Samantha for her sweet potato/rhubarb puree and eggplant Napoleon.  The presentation was lovely, I thought.  But her duck was raw, which is a cardinal sin.  Samantha, it’s never fun to be the first person eliminated, especially when the elimination was unexpected.  I feel for you.

And FELIX FANG is the winner of the first mystery box!  (I think I predicted final 4 for her in my first blog, didn’t I?)  She has a Chinese 5 Spice seared duck breast on kale with a pan sauce, accompanied by eggplant and sweet potato chips.  (I know first-hand how hard it is to make crispy eggplant on a time limit, you have to salt the eggplant and let it sit, then press the excess liquid out, otherwise the eggplant just soaks up the oil like a sponge and it stays soggy.)  For those of you who’ve always heard about Chinese 5 Spice but don’t know what it is, it’s just a combination of cinnamon, clove, star anise (which has a licorice-like flavor), fennel seed (more licorice), and Sichuan pepper (like a combo of clove and black pepper).  It just makes it more convenient to use rather than adding the spices individually…sort of like chili powder which usually has garlic, cumin, and several types of chilis in it.

I’m really liking Felix.  She has an incredible look, an amazing personality…AND she can cook.  I heard rumors that she was the object of desire for most of the male contestants, and I also heard rumors that she has a wicked tattoo.  With a name like Felix Fang, she’s on my list!  That, AND she hails from the Puna region of the Big Island of Hawaii, which is where I’m trying to move to start my farm!  I can tell we’re gonna be buddies.

As winner of the mystery box, Felix gets to choose from 3 different “Chef’s Worst Nightmares” dishes: Risotto, Clam Chowder, and Beef Wellington.  Risotto and Clam Chowder are simple dishes, but rely on technique and skill to pull them off perfectly.  Beef Wellington is Ramsay’s signature dish, one which I think is a little ridiculous in its complexity and presentation.  (Does our food REALLY need to be that complex?  Can’t we just have a steak, sauteed mushrooms, and some bread on the side?)  Felix chooses the risotto and the judges not only excuse her from competing, but limit the contestants to only 45 minutes for their risotto.  NO wiggle room.

We see some pretty complex additions to risotto, which traditionally is a simple dish: short grain (usually Arborio) rice sauteed in butter or oil, then cooked slowly through staggered additions of hot stock or other liquid.  Constant stirring breaks off bits of starch from the rice and gives the final dish a creamy texture, whether any dairy was used or not.  It often has a specific added flavor ingredient (often mushrooms) dispersed throughout, and often gets finished with cheese.  But some of the contestants are tossing in everything from whole asparagus spears to gooseberries.

Tali gives a priceless quote at the beginning of the challenge.  “[In the pantry] …there was xanthan gum, tapioca maltodextrin, sodium alginate…pretty much everything you need to make awesome risotto.”  Tali, Tali, Tali…didn’t you learn anything from my supremely awesome roomie Alvin Schultz last season?!?  The judges seem to HATE molecular gastronomy (or as the molecular folks prefer to call it “Modernist Cuisine.”)  True…Graham uses it in his restaurant in Chicago.  But Gordon and Joe have a healthy disgust for it.  All future molecular contestants on MasterChef heed this warning: When you use modernist techniques on MasterChef, you take your fate into your own hands. Alvin was one of the most skilled and talented chefs of our season.  (Tali may have been, for this season.)  But the molecular thing is like a death warrant.

I am struck by Christine, the blind contestant, and her pantry experience.  I remember flailing around that pantry with the clock ticking, grabbing everything useful I could see.  Christine has to ask her assistant, “Do you see shallots?  Do you see onions?”  She can’t be inspired by what she finds in the pantry, because she doesn’t have time to have her assistant list off everything.  Some folks are saying that the producers are giving Christine an unfair advantage by the fact that she has an assistant.  Let me say this:  If they FORCED me to have an assistant that I had to give instructions to constantly, I’d quit.  That’s a massive waste of time.  I can’t think of a SINGLE advantage Christine has over the rest of the contestants in terms of the framework of the competition.  Her palate may be superior, but that doesn’t help when you’ve got a time limit looming over your head, and you have to rely on SOMEONE ELSE to choose the right tomatoes, the right kind of cheese, etc.  Again, watching Christine make her selections and cook is hypnotic to me.  She goes about things in such a different way.  I can’t wait to meet her.

Then it’s tasting time, and of course we don’t see everyone’s dishes get tasted.  I was practically ignored in terms of tasting in the final edits of the first half of my season.  So don’t worry Michael and Tanya and everyone else we didn’t see…your time will come!  The judges are most intrigued by David‘s and Frank‘s risottos.  They expected it from David…he’s Italian, though he cleverly diverged from tradition by adding guajillo peppers (a Mexican ingredient).  Bastianich could have slammed him for that, since he despises all departure from Italian tradition, but I guess he was instructed not to lose his temper and save it for later.  (Boy did he!)  David takes a very unique risk by using veal stock (which can land you with a much-too-rich risotto) along with gooseberries and poblano peppers (which, naturally, would counter balance richness with their sweet/tangy/spicy flavors).  I haven’t talked much about David, but I was REALLY moved by his spunk in the audition when he, through tears, yelled passionately that everyone on Earth deserved to eat amazing food and when you can’t afford to eat it at restaurants, you just gotta learn to make it yourself.  I couldn’t agree more.  Frank has got talent, drive, and attitude…though like Ryan, that attitude can lead to comments that leave a bad taste in the audience’s mouth.  (Even when you are criticizing another contestant for attitude, that can imply nasty attitude on your end, as well!)  My droll and stereotypical philosophy is “If you can’t say anything nice…”  (you know the rest)

And we do end up seeing some sneaky alliances being whispered between David and Dave, and Ryan and Tali.  I laughed, I thought it was so silly.  Alliances get you nowhere on MasterChef.  The producers have all the power and authority, anyway.  All it does is make you look a little silly to those of us watching.  Cook your best.  Support ALL your fellow contestants.  Then the audience and the judges will love you, as will your fellow contestants.

The judges poke at Monti for having all her veggies on top of the risotto in big chunks, rather than dispersed throughout.  And the waterworks begin.  But before you start to label Monti as being as tearful as BenStarr was last season, you should know something she revealed to me on Twitter yesterday: “People keep asking why I cry so much during this show. The truth is, I’m allergic to pans.”  I adore that girl, she’s hysterical.

And Bastianich’s fury is unleashed EARLY upon Helene.  He carries her beautifully seared scallop, wrapped thoughtfully in burdock root (which I’ve never tried, by the way), around the kitchen, veins standing out on his forehead, and then dumps it into the trash.  (Helene, I thought the presentation was whimsical and delightful.)  Then he spits out Dave’s risotto because of sand from unwashed morel mushrooms.  I can tell he’s going to be doing a lot of spitting this season.

There’s quite a bit of rage regarding undercooked risotto aimed throughout the cast.  I’ll say this…I tasted risotto twice on my season…once from Jennifer (whose risotto was praised by Ramsay, who forced Christian to taste it as an example of a “perfect” risotto) and once at Patina, one of LA’s only Michelin starred restaurants, and which we were forced to run for a night.  BOTH times, the risotto was crispy.  Not al dente.  Crispy.  Both were praised by Ramsay as pure perfection.  I’m not sure whether that’s TV schtick or genuine feedback (now can you tell how frustrating it is to be on MasterChef?!?)  So apparently last year it was fashionable to have undercooked, crispy rice in your risotto.  But not this year.  Take note!

In the end, the 3 on the chopping block are Tali (for his xanthan-maltodextrine-alginate risotto), Helene (for the inexcusable crime of wrapping scallops in a burdock root basket), and Dave (for sandy mushrooms).  And they send home Dave with the lesson that you must ALWAYS wash your wild mushrooms, otherwise you might have too much sand in your risotto.

I’m gonna do my best to last through the end of the season.  I LOVE the contestants…they are the best part of the show.  And the one redeeming thing about my 2 months of torture while filming MasterChef was the fact that I came out of it with an AMAZING new family of people I adore.  I know for a fact this happened with the cast this year, so I’m hoping to see those friendships emerge on screen.  But there’s a reason why I don’t watch television, particularly reality television, and being an outsider this year leaves me little connection to the show except for the two friends I have who are on it.  Most of my friends were sending me text messages last year “Will you PLEASE get kicked off this show so I can stop watching it,” and that frustrated me because I was SO intent on watching last season.  Turns out, it was just part of the healing process, the catharsis needed to put such a traumatic experience behind me.  Watching this season is excruciating…not only because I sympathize first-hand with the contestants, but also because most reality TV is, at its heart, sensational and contrived.

I’m hoping we’ll see some more tender, uplifting moments soon, or I might not make it!  But for now, I love the group they’ve selected, and there are going to be some CRAZY challenges coming down the pipe, I’m sure.  I can’t wait to see what happens!

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