MasterChef 4 recap: Firefighters and Benedicts and the Return of Walmart (S4E7)

(PLEASE NOTE: This blog is not approved or endorsed by MasterChef or Fox, and they would probably you rather not read it.  The opinions contained in this blog are from a Season 2 competitor who witnessed the filming of virtually every episode of that season, but I have no inside knowledge of THIS season of MasterChef.  …well…at least I’m not sharing any!)

It’s group challenge day at Pasadena Centennial hall, with teams of 8 led by Bethy and Bime.  The teams will have 90 minutes to prepare a 10-ounce NY Strip steak, a sauce, and 2 side dishes for 101 off duty firefighters.  Bethy’s under special scrutiny because her father is a firefighter in Portland, and she needs to make him proud.

And then my biggest hope for this season of MasterChef is dashed.  Walmart returns to the show, and Graham and Joe wax poetic about how fabulous their ingredients are.  (I wonder when was the last time ANY of the 3 of them bought groceries at a Walmart?)

Before I go any further, I have to clarify that I, like apparently 60% of all Americans, am a Walmart shopper.  Along with its many evils, Walmart has done some amazing things, including bringing critical organic items, like organic cage-free eggs and organic milk, within the affordability range of just about anyone.  My relationship with Walmart is very similar to my relationship with MasterChef.  I don’t like the point they’ve come to: MasterChef becoming wildly sensational and focusing on drama rather than cooking…WalMart having run every small grocery market out of business in most areas of the country, so your only grocery options are Walmart or the breathtakingly pricey gourmet markets.  But I see such potential for good in both of them that I’m not standing up in complete protest/boycott.  Walmart single-handedly has the power to move every single farm in this country toward more sustainable, organic practices.  (And they ARE doing this, slowly but surely.)  MasterChef has the capability to inspire the next generation of chefs in this country, to educate its viewers about the importance of knowing where your food comes from, and to counteract the over-saturation of reality TV shows that highlight the worst in people and instead show teamwork, respect, integrity, and humanity.  (And they AREN’T doing this, but moving in the opposite direction rather rapidly.)  But they have potential, the both of them.  And if the people who hate them simply walk away in protest, the entities will do as they please.  Which is one reason I continue to blog critically about MasterChef AND Walmart, while maintaining objectivity and interaction with both.

Returning to Walmart…yes I shop there.  If I want to pay $3 for a head of cauliflower rather than $6, I have no other real options…it’s as simple as that.  One thing I do NOT buy at Walmart is meat, unless it’s bacon, or on very rare occasions, their all-natural Harvestland chicken, which is the only affordable chicken that is raised in a remotely humanitarian way.  The primary thing I get from Walmart is produce that I don’t have in my garden, staples like flour, sugar, and baking powder, and organic milk and eggs.  (And when my ladies start laying, I won’t have to buy eggs ever again.)  Nowadays I get most of my eggs from local farmers and my raw milk from Lucky Layla in Plano, so I don’t really go to Walmart that often any longer.

But what puzzles me about this endorsement is that one does not associate Walmart as a purveyor of premium ingredients, superb enough to be on a show called MasterChef.  No one is under the impression that the judges get their ingredients from there.  So when we see the judges raving about how great Walmart’s meat and produce are, it’s just…well…it’s laughable.  Walmart is the CHEAP place to get basic, mass-produced ingredients.  And for all the exclusivity the show spouts, their garish Walmart endorsement is in direct juxtaposition to that.  It’s just…well, it’s weird.

Now, I did learn that MasterChef is produced for a very specific audience, and chances are, you’re not among that audience if you follow me.  MasterChef is not made for foodies, for amateur or aspiring chefs, or for sophisticated eaters.  MasterChef is made for the folks in the middle of the nation who watch the Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo and Hell’s Kitchen, who are tuning in for tears and backstabbing and meltdowns, and who make their buying decisions based on what the television tells them.  Yes, there are fringe groups in the audience.  Like you and me.  But we make up such a tiny fraction of the overall audience that they don’t really CARE what we think about it.  (Because we’re not running out to buy those Walmart steaks, or those fancy pans they’ll be hyping in a few episodes.  We make our own decisions about what to buy.  We don’t trust the television.)  So we’re not important, in terms of the captive audience.  We are the minority.  I have less than 10,000 followers on Facebook.  Even Christine Ha, winner of season 3, who became an overnight sensation all around the world after winning despite being blind, has just shy of 66k followers (leaving ANY previous contestant far in the dust), while each episode has an average of between 5.5 and 6 million viewers.  That means that the biggest MasterChef star of all time (and probably for all eternity…I cannot fathom this year’s winner having such a devout following) has only attracted 1% of the show’s following.  Those are the us.  But we are small.  So don’t let it be a surprise to you when, several seasons from now, all the MasterChef contestants are living in a big house and we see more shots of them smoking and talking sh-t about each other, than we do of them cooking.  Because that’s what the massive majority of the audience wants.  It’s what they see on other shows.  It’s what they respond to, and what we have taught them to crave by producing such filth.

Me 'n' Alvin, checking out these Walmart steaks

But I STILL feel like, even the folks in Wichita, Kansas who shop EXCLUSIVELY at Walmart are still laughing at the screen when the judges fawn over Walmart’s superb meat.  It’s just hard to take a culinary powerhouse seriously when they are pitching Walmart.  Perhaps the show hasn’t been able to court any other sponsors large enough to support the production budget.  Who knows?  But, MasterChef: NO ONE thinks this is appropriate, whether they love Walmart or hate it.  It’s just awkward and silly.

After all the hoopla from fans last year over the sponsorship, they have Joe specifically assure the audience: “We only use the freshest, top-of-the-line ingredients here on MasterChef.”  I wonder how hard it was for him to say that?  I wonder how many of HIS restaurants source from Walmart?  The funny thing is, their food suppliers may be the very same ones that supply produce and meat to Walmart, but a savvy restaurateur like Joe would NEVER allow the Walmart brand to be associated with his restaurants, because it’s considered cheap, massive, impersonal, low quality, and, in a word…common.  This is less about reality (Walmart’s steaks may be really awesome) and more about brand perception.  And by continuing to ladle Walmart onto our television plates, MasterChef is associating all those adjectives with itself.  Not a smart move for posterity, in my humble opinion.

Perhaps Gordon realizes this.  He doesn’t say “Walmart” even once during this episode, while it seems to be every 5th word out of Joe and Graham’s mouths.  I wonder if that’s in his contract?

*steps off the soapbox*

Team selection begins, and Bethy chooses first.  Again, it’s Lynn.  Always the first to be picked.  This guy’s a dark horse, I’m telling you.  Bethy rounds out her team with Jessie, James, Howard, Jonny, Savannah, and Krissi.

Bime’s first choice is Jordan, followed by Eddie, Luca, Natasha, Bri, Beth, and Kathy.

There’s a twist, and Beth has the chance to steal a member from Bime’s team, and “gift” one contestant to him.  Bethy steals Eddie, because he is Bime’s best griller.  And she gifts Krissi to him.

The teams will have 90 minutes to prep for service.  Bime’s Red Team is making mushrooms and cauliflower puree and a “reduction sauce.”  (Reducing enough liquid for 101 servings is gonna take time, folks.)  They are not going to season their steaks (at least not beyond salt and pepper) and will rely on their sauce to flavor the steak, which upsets Gordon, but Bime sticks with the plan.  (Gordon doesn’t always give appropriate advice.)  This menu was supposedly conceptualized communally.  Bethy designates the menu for her Blue Team: potato and red pepper hash, asparagus, and she appoints James to make the best sauce of his life, so he immediately begins working on TWO of the best sauces of his life: a balsamic reduction sauce, and a chimichurri (basically Argentine pesto.)  Gordon freaks out when he learns they are prepping 2 sauces and gets upset when Bethy is too busy COOKING to come over and participate in a for-drama argument.  (You go, girl!)

Blue Team is going to rub their steaks with spices for extra flavor.  This is a good time to discuss.  I know that many purists say that spices cover up the flavor of the beef, and in order to let the meat speak for itself, salt and pepper should be the ONLY flavorings.  I guess I don’t like beef enough, then, because I’ve GOT to have garlic on my steak, at the very least.  My normal steak seasoning is salt, black pepper, garlic and onion powder, and red pepper flake, and just a bit of sugar to help get a nice dark caramelization.  The extra bulk of the spices helps build an incredibly flavorful crust on the steak that you just don’t get with black pepper and salt alone.  And always, ALWAYS charcoal.  The only acceptable way of cooking steaks without charcoal is on a cast iron griddle or heavy skillet, full contact, 700 degrees if you can get it there.  You actually get a BETTER sear with full contact griddling than you do on a grill, but you lose out on the lovely flavor from the charcoal.  And it produces an absolutely insane amount of smoke, so if you’re doing it indoors, the windows better be open and the fans better be on!  Propane grills are useless for just about every purpose.  It’s NO different than using a pan or skillet on your stovetop.  There’s no additional flavor.  The only benefit is that it’s outside, so the smoke goes into the air instead of into your kitchen.  But I always giggle when I see these houses with massive $5k propane drop-in grills in their outdoor kitchens.  Charcoal is the ONLY way to go for the serious cook.  Period.  (And for the record, NY Strip is one of my FAVORITE cuts.  It comes from a muscle between the ribs and the sirloin, and that muscle gets a bit MORE work than the ribeye or tenderloin, meaning more flavor, but it’s still tender.)

Serving 101 steaks simultaneously is a big order, especially on a grill the size the contestants are given.  (Many group challenges are sorta set up for disaster, equipment-wise.)  I don’t get a very clear shot of it, but it looks like they can churn out about 25 steaks at a time on that thing, so if they’re cooking at max capacity, that’s 4 “flights” of steaks to grill.  (Keeping watch over 25 steaks simultaneously is no walk in the park, either.)  The steaks appear to be about an inch thick, maybe a bit more, and if they’re smart, they’ll cook every steak to medium.  Yes, wise folk prefer their steak more rare.  And yes, many prefer it more done.  But if you open up the can of worms of cooking steaks to order for 101 diners, you’ll pull every last one of your hairs out, and service will suffer.  So you cook everything to medium, which is the best compromise between both ends of the spectrum.  So each flight of steaks is gonna take about 10 minutes to cook (about 3 minutes per side, sorta depends on the steak, the meat and grill temperature, and the fat content), plus time for adding them to the grill, flipping, and pulling them off the grill.  (And they’re gonna have to sit in a single layer while they coast after coming off the grill…if you stack them, their residual heat and thermal mass will continue cooking them to well done.  So that’s a bit of a logistical nightmare they’re gonna have to plan for.)  Then you have to plan for a quick return to a screaming hot grill just before service to warm them back up, just 30 seconds per side and then straight onto the plate.  So we’re basically looking at about 45 minutes to an hour before steaks can start being served, and that requires planning ahead.  At less than 30 minutes to serving time, Bethy’s Blue Team still doesn’t have steaks on the grill, which is bad news.

To complicate matters, at only 15 minutes to service (theoretically…that’s just how it was edited), Bethy decides to pick James’s chimichurri over his balsamic reduction, which doesn’t give him much time to produce enough sauce for 101 steaks.  So Team Blue is in crunch mode in the last stretch.  But they pull through and begin sending out plates more quickly and efficiently than Team Red.

I watched this episode with Jennie and Alvin and when we saw the teams using that fancy sauce funnel to plate their sauce, Jennie and I both did a little scream of excitement, as that would be SUCH a relief at FRANK.  And Alvin looked at us with playful disdain in his eyes and says, “You guys don’t use a sauce funnel?  …  Amateurs.”

Joe discovers that some firefighters aren’t getting complete plates from Team Blue, and he has to take one plate back to the kitchen to be sauced.  Suddenly he is FURIOUS and decides to sauce ALL the steaks in his vicinity with copious amounts of his own saliva as he screams at the team.  (*gag*)

Bime’s Red Team is apparently having trouble getting out the plates due to “lack of teamwork” (which could just be editing…team challenges are always chaos for BOTH teams).

Service ends and voting begins, and it’s a blind voting process, so the teams can’t tell which team is getting the most votes.  (This also would make it much easier to manipulate the results…not that such a thing EVER happens on reality TV!)

And the winner, with 68 out of 101 votes, is Bethy’s Team Blue.  Bime’s Team Red is headed to the pressure test, and all hell breaks loose when they are cleaning up.  Luca tries to be rational with everyone, Beth breaks into tears and proclaims that the cauliflower puree was “disgusting,” and Natasha takes that very, very personally and lashes out.  Bri rushes to comfort Beth, but the attitude is flying faster than Bastianich spit.

Thankfully, we get a break from the drama with yet another commercial about a Walmart “steakover.”  Where ON EARTH did they find the host for those horrid commercials, he is awful.  They could have found one of their own employees who would look more natural on camera.

The producers are really manipulating the pressure tests this season.  It makes it more intriguing and suspenseful for the audience, but it’s also a way for them to protect people they’re not ready to get rid of yet.  The judges save Bime, and give him the chance to save someone else, and Bime chooses Jordan, leaving the 6 remaining team members to battle it out in a pressure test repeated from my season: Eggs Benedict.

I rocked this challenge on my season.  I make Eggs Benedict all the time.  (But I ALWAYS make the English muffins from scratch.)  Graham says: “I can tell you for a fact that Eggs Benedict is an incredibly difficult, highly technical dish to perfect.”  I’m sorry Graham…I HAVE to disagree.  And I’m an amateur.  Anyone can poach an egg.  A 6-year-old can poach an egg perfectly.  It’s not about skill or luck.  It’s about watching the clock.  Period.  It takes less than 4 minutes to poach an egg perfectly.  And people always do it the wrong way.  The keys to a perfect poach are water that is BELOW the simmer.  Just sending up a few bubbles.  ABSOLUTELY NEVER at a full boil.  And don’t stir it, for Heaven’s sake, that just sends the white flying everywhere when it’s supposed to do the opposite.  Use the freshest eggs you can find, that’s the biggest secret.  (If they are old, crack them into a slotted spoon and let the really loose white drain off before you put them in the water.)  Crack the egg just above the surface of the water and let the egg slip into it…or crack them into a small cup and slowly pour them into the perfectly still water.  Nudge them gently with a spoon to make sure they don’t stick to the bottom.  3 minutes and 45 seconds later, remove them to an ice bath to stop the cooking.  That simple.  You don’t need to bother with vinegar…I know I used to champion that method, along with the pre-poach that Julia Child suggested.  But after poaching HUNDREDS of eggs for FRANK, I can tell you that you don’t need it.  Slip the raw, cracked egg into still, hot water for 3:45.  Perfection every single time.  The other tasks, which are also mostly mundane, are griddling the muffin (unless you make them from scratch, like I do), griddling the meat…and then, the ONLY potential pitfall, the Hollandaise.

Gordon says he’d use the first 10 minutes for Hollandaise.  Another ridiculous remark.  Hollandaise MUST be served right after it’s made, unless it contains a stabilizer to keep it together over long periods.  The only practical way for a home cook to hold Hollandaise for 20 minutes is to pour it into a thermos (which I doubt they are provided).  Letting it sit at room temp, it will congeal, thicken, and possibly separate or “break,” requiring a last minute step to fix it.  Hollandaise should ALWAYS be prepared JUST before serving.  (Gordon knows that…he’s either trying to mislead the contestants or isn’t thinking at the moment.  Or maybe in his restaurants they use a Modernist approach to Hollandaise using stabilizers, or use a dry mix where you just add water, which is honestly what most restaurants do.)

The savvy contestant will poach 2 of the 5 eggs they are given RIGHT off the bat.  You can hold poached eggs in cold water for DAYS, then reheat them just before serving in hot water.  (And on MasterChef, it doesn’t really matter if you reheat them, because they’re not going to be eaten for an hour, anyway.)  10 minutes later, you begin to prep the ingredients for the Hollandaise.  You clarify the butter (or you cut the butter into cubes and get it in the fridge, if you’re making a whole-butter Hollandaise like I did).  You juice the lemons.  You separate all 3 eggs, but hold back 1 yolk for emergencies.  You whisk 2 egg yolks with salt and a bit of lemon juice to acidulate and get some air into them.  You prepare your water bath.  (OR you just be smart and get out the blender.  With a blender, it takes SECONDS to make perfectly-emulsified Hollandaise.  But no one has the balls to take this shortcut.  If they had, they SHOULD be applauded, but they open themselves up to illegitimate criticism from the judges for “cheating.”  I didn’t see anyone attacking the contestants for using a stand mixer to make cupcakes, which is most definitely “cheating!”  Jordan was consider to be at a disadvantage because he didn’t have a mixer.  Same thing here, EVERYONE should be busting out the blenders.)  You get a griddle surface ready for last-minute griddling of the muffin and meat.  You make the Hollandaise, giving yourself a few extra minutes to fix it if it breaks.  Then you griddle the muffins and meat for a minute per side, get them on the plate with the egg, and top with Hollandaise.  It doesn’t even take 30 minutes.  (I can make EB for 12, making the muffins FROM SCRATCH, in 45 minutes.  I did it last Sunday for neighbor Sharon’s birthday.  This is NOT a hard challenge.)

Beth is as confident as I was, because she also makes Eggs Benedict ALL the time at home.  (Typically, when they air that, it means that person is going to be eliminated.  When they aired me whooping with excitement when they announced it was Eggs Benedict, all my fans posted on Facebook, “NOOOOOO! That means you’re going home!”)

Adorable Bri admits that she has NEVER successfully poached an egg.  (Which, again, often portends great success in a challenge, because the producers LOVE to surprise us!)  Natasha is confident and is being smart by saving the sauce for the end, but Gordon tries to test her resolve by chastising her for waiting.

Krissi has hit a stumbling block as her Hollandaise has broken.  We catch a shot of her discarding her sauce, which is the LAST thing you do when your Hollandaise breaks or separates.  You get out a second bowl.  You crack your 5th and final yolk into the bowl, add a few drops of lemon, and whisk it like crazy, then you slowly whisk in your broken sauce.  60 seconds later, your Hollandaise is repaired.  Easy as pie.  (And that’s PROBABLY what she’s doing, but it’s edited to make us think she’s “starting over.”)  But the thing I love about Krissi is that she is ALWAYS composed.  She’s under extreme stress trying to get out a second mini-batch of Hollandaise, and she’s collected and focused, not frazzled or panicking.  That’s impressive.

Time is called, and the Benedicts are brought forth.  Kathy’s Benedict is perfect from the egg down, but there’s not enough Hollandaise.  For the record, Gordon likes his egg COMPLETELY covered with sauce, so that it’s not visible.  I always plate with a draping of sauce across the egg, so you have the contrast of the white with the golden sauce, but that’s not MasterChef quality.  So be forewarned, should you ever have to serve Eggs Benedict to Gordon Ramsay!

Luca’s eggs are undercooked.  It IS possible to underpoach an egg, if the white is still a bit runny.  The white needs to be solid all the way through, and the yolks needs to be molten but thickened.  (Underpoached eggs are REALLY tricky to work with because they’re so delicate.)

Natasha’s plate is disturbing.  One of her eggs has busted and leaked yolk all over the plate, and her Hollandaise was beaten too long, with too much butter and too little yolk, and it turned into Mayonnaise.  (She says it’s from too much vinegar, which might have contributed to the problem, but it’s the yolk-to-fat ratio that distinguishes Hollandaise to Mayonnaise.  Half a cup of butter can be emulsified into 3 yolks to make Hollandaise, while a full cup of oil can be emulsified into a single yolk to make Mayonnaise.)

Despite her confidence, Beth’s plate is also a mess.  She’s never broken a Hollandaise in her life, but hers is broken today, and her eggs are “slightly undercooked.”  She doesn’t make any excuses.  “I know, it’s awful.”  Good integrity, Beth.

Despite her inexperience with the dish, Bri’s Benedict is pretty perfectly executed, and is the most impressive of anyone in terms of plating.  And Krissi pulled through and plated enough Hollandaise, and she’s golden.

We get an EXTRA long shot of the judges deliberating on what to do, because 4 were so bad, they can’t decide who to eliminate.  Obviously Krissi and Bri are safe, but Beth, Natasha, Luca, and Kathy are on the chopping block.  Gordon says, “It was too close to call,” so after a brief scare when we think they are ALL being eliminated, it’s time for them to face off in the most dramatically over-extended pressure test in MasterChef history, which will take up a FULL ADDITIONAL episode, including a trip to Las Vegas, to determine which of these 4 needs to go home.  (This was obviously planned from the very beginning from a production standpoint…I’m curious what would have happened had only 2 of the contestants performed poorly, and 4 excelled.  But the producers have a sneaky little way of getting a fair idea of who will perform well and who will perform poorly on any given kitchen task.  I just can’t tell you what it is.  *wink*)

Please post your comments on the episode below, and if you’re not already subscribed, get yourself on my email list in the upper right corner of this page.  Lots of cool stuff coming down the pipe, including more Where Are They Nows from previous seasons, and an exclusive interview with a top-100 contestant who was ASKED to be on the show, rather than having to audition, but who doesn’t appear on the cast list and never appeared in the final edit.  You’ll love her story.

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