MasterChef 4 recap: Gordon’s Box and Boxes of Cupcakes (S4E6)

(PLEASE NOTE: This blog is not endorsed or approved by MasterChef or Fox, and they’d probably rather you didn’t read it.  The opinions contained within this blog post are my own pathetic, uneducated, and uninformed opinions and should not be treated as factual.  While I bore witness to the filming of the entire second season of MasterChef, I do not have any inside information about the filming of Season 4.  …well…not much, anyway…)

We’re back to the mystery box, and this time the contestants will be cooking alongside a famous chef.  There is much speculation over who it might be.  Bime is thinking Bobby Flay (who I had the privilege of cooking for in 2007 on the Rachael Ray Show) or Mario Batali or Anne Burrell.  Howard wonders if it’ll be Rachael Ray or Wolfgang Puck.  And…of course…it is Gordon Ramsay.  They pulled this prank on me in Season 2.  After winning the mystery box ground meat challenge with my Shepherd’s Pie, I went back into the MC pantry to learn my advantage.  Ramsay said, “Today you’ll be replicating a dish from the restaurant of one of the world’s greatest chefs.”  And I’m running through the list of greatest chefs alive…Grant Achatz, Alice Waters, Ferran Adria, Martin Picard, Carrie Nahabedian, Eric Ripert, Alain Ducasse, Jose Andres, Joel Robuchon, Guy Savoy, David Chang, Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller, Susan Spicer…and Gordon steps forward and offers his hand to me.  “Hello, Ben…I’m Gordon Ramsay.”

I’ve been hearing from fans recently who have intuited from my blogs that I don’t respect Ramsay as a chef, so let me set the record straight:

I think Gordon Ramsay is one of the most brilliant chefs alive.

Did I believe this when I left to go on MasterChef?  No.  I had never even watched more than a full episode of a Gordon Ramsay show.  (Because I DO NOT watch TV.  And neither should you.)  I landed on the MasterChef set thinking of Gordon Ramsay as an actor.  True, he might have once been a chef.  But if you think about all the TV shows Gordon has in production all around the world, does he EVER get time to cook any more?  Of course not.  He’s a star.  An actor.  So even if he WAS a great chef at one time…now he’s a TV personality.  So promised myself to take everything he said as sensational TV fluff.

And while Gordon DOES occasionally spout complete untruths with vehement conviction…(in an eggs Benedict challenge in my season, he asked me if I was flavoring my Hollandaise and I said, “No, Chef, only lemon juice and a little cayenne,” and he said, “But true Hollandaise has shallot and vinegar in it,” and I said, “No, Chef, that’s Bearnaise,” and he proceeded to scream at me, purple-faced, “Hollandaise has a reduction of vinegar and shallot in it, BenStahh, how dare you challenge me, who are you to know about classical cuisine”…yada yada…)…that’s all borne from the fact that, as a TV chef and judge, he has to fill an endless vacuum of television time with critiques and comments.  So sometimes, he’s just wrong, for the sake of a tantrum that the audience will love, because he has to come up with SOMETHING to be angry or excited about.  It’s the nature of making television.

I learned, over the 2 months that MasterChef was filmed, that Gordon Ramsay is actually something of a savant when it comes to cooking.  Sometimes I tell folks that I think he may border on Asperger Syndrome, in which a large portion of the brain that is normally given over to processing the infinitely complex nuances of social interaction, instead focuses itself on a different area…famously mathematics or memory recall…but I think, in Gordon’s case, it’s the culinary arts.  Sometimes, in social situations outside the studio, Gordon seems to me to be rehearsing a practiced set of responses that he has learned is appropriate.  But put ingredients and a stove in front of him, and he becomes this artist the likes of which I’ve NEVER seen in person, and probably exists in only a handful of humans at any given time.  And the audience is about to catch a glimpse of that, and I’m a little peeved that it took MasterChef so long to feature this.  It is high time Ramsay cooks alongside the MasterChef contestants.

Inside the mystery box is a TRULY stunning black cod fillet.  Cod is historically one of the most common and popular of the fishes, due it its mild flavored, steaky, white fillets, but is now in imminent danger of overfishing.  Also in the box are black and white sesame seeds, shiitake mushrooms, baby beets, fresh ginger root, cauliflower, soy sauce, rice vinegar, panko bread crumbs, and miso paste…a popular Japanese ingredient made from fermented soy beans that’s so delicious I can eat it by the spoonful.  Also in the box, but not announced, appear to be shallots, sugar snap peas, mixed fresh berries, long grain rice, and something that appears to be white chocolate, but may be hearts of palm, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, or some other similar round white disk.

I love the look on Ramsay’s face when he’s examining the box.  I secretly wonder if he knew the contents of the box before lifting it.  The jaded reality TV survivor in me says, “He’s had this menu planned out for a week, and has probably practiced it several times.”  The Gordon Ramsay lover in me says, “He refused to be told the contents of the box and he’s playing this game totally fair.”  Only Gordon and the producers know the answer.

I would do a miso-marinated cod fillet, crusted in panko and sesame seeds, on a crispy rice cake with oven-roasted cauliflower, beets pickled in rice vinegar, and beet green salad.

The constants have an hour, but Ramsay says he doesn’t need that much time… “Honestly, there’s no great rush,” so he strolls up to the balcony to take in an overview of the contestants, then he pours himself some tea, and only after more than half the time has expired does he waltz up to his station and start cooking.  While we never see “beauty shots” of the contestants cooking, we get plenty of mind-boggling shots of Gordon, who handles knives and pans as if they are an extension of his body.  I’m telling you folks, YOU cook more often than Gordon Ramsay does.  He spends more time on an airplane than anything else.  The fact that he still has this kind of finesse NOT being in a kitchen 10 hours a day is truly astounding.  I am filled with utter glee watching Ramsay cook.

And Graham FINALLY gets to poke fun at Gordon’s accent as he narrates his dish.  “Mint in the dressing…and bahhzill,” says Gordon.  Graham whispers to Joe, as if Gordon was a lowly MasterChef competitor, “Bahhzill is actually pronounced ‘BAY-sill’ here.  I think he’s gonna go for the ‘orr-ray-GAH-noe.’ ”  And Joe can’t resist chiming in, “Oh, but he has no ‘toe-MAHH-toes.'”  And I had to pause the DVR to laugh for about 10 solid minutes.  They could have gone on.  “Fill-it is pronounced ‘fill-EH’ here.”  And straight on until morning.  Good stuff.

Time is called, and the contestants are still scrambling to finish, having had an hour to prep, while Gordon has plated 2 full portions in less than 30 minutes.  His dish is sesame seed crusted black cod on a bed of “fragrant rice” which appears to have peanuts in it (didn’t see those in the box), with caramelized cauliflower, and a roasted peanut “misoooo” sauce.  The contestants get to taste…what a treat!

Only 3 folks are gonna get tasted, like usual, and there are some really beautiful plates.  But before they announce the top 3, they have a “worst plate of the day” to announce.  And this brings back memories.  Because in the first two mystery box challenges, the judges bestowed that “worst plate of the day” upon no other than…me.  First for my roasted salmon with balsamic strawberry reduction, and second for my rice pudding with peach stone white wine sauce and walnuts candied in salted caramel brulee.  Both of which were, according to them, the most revolting things ever cooked in the MasterChef kitchen.

Today’s dis-honor is bestowed upon Howard…who seems to be shaping up to be the BenStarr of this season.  In touch with his emotions, so eager to please the judges that he overextends himself beyond his abilities, and very, very attractive.  Ha ha ha ha ha…  No, Howard, if you’re reading this, it’s obvious to all of us that you know what you’re doing, you’re just being ridden hard by the judges.  They did that to me, too, and I know EXACTLY how you feel.

And, for the record, what’s wrong with raw fish?  The BEST way to eat fish is COMPLETELY stone cold raw.  The more heat you add to fish, the worse it becomes.  The NEXT best way to eat fish, (behind stone cold raw), is BARELY seared on the outside, so you get that nice browned crunch, and stone cold raw on the inside, so you get superior flavor and texture.  Joe gets a chance to throw a tantrum and chunk Howard’s plate in the trash, but that’s ALL for the camera, folks.  There’s nothing wrong with EVER plating raw fish, unless your menu reads “well done fish.”  The rarer the fish, the better.  (As long as it’s fresh.  And if it’s not, no amount of cooking will fix it.  Don’t ever cook fish that’s not fresh enough to eat raw.  And if it’s fresh enough to eat raw, you’d better eat it raw!  Or just barely kissed with heat.)

Back to the top 3…the first home cook has been “consistently in the middle of the pack” according to Joe, and it’s James!  My fellow Texan.  He’s got 3 fillets of pan seared crispy skin black cod with toasted sesame cauliflower puree and shittake mushroom salad with miso vinaigrette.  The cook on James’ cod is perfect.  “Moist and glistening” according to Joe, two adjectives that are shamefully repeated throughout the rest of the episode.  (I’m not entirely sure I want to refer to ANYTHING I eat as “moist and glistening.”)  Joe says he has a great salt/acid balance, which is the biggest trick any chef has to master.  If you taste a dish and it’s missing “something,” the amateur reaches for the salt.  The master chef reaches for the vinegar.  Good for James…I think this guy is pretty brilliant and I can’t wait to meet him.  (I almost did last weekend!  Blog about my Houston MasterChef trip coming soon…)

Next in the top 3 is a dish similar to Ramsay’s dish, and it’s Beth.  She’s got a sesame crusted, pan-seared black cod with caramelized beets and cauliflower, with miso vinaigrette.  And let me say first of all that her cauliflower just MAY be better than Ramsay’s.  (Forgive me, Gordon.)  She’s got 1…count it…1 piece of cauliflower on her plate, but it’s probably the single most beautiful piece of cauliflower I have EVER seen.  It is, for lack of better words in the English language, pure perfection.  It could be framed.  (But it’s TOO pretty to talk about, apparently, because it’s prettier than Gordon’s, so it doesn’t get attention.)  Beth apparently knows the secret to “glistening” cod, as well, according to Ramsay.  He goes further to say that Beth’s fish is “One of the best dishes I’ve ever tasted in this competition so far.”  WOW, Beth!

The final top 3 dish has a glaze that the judges liken to a glaze in one of the “best Japanese restaurants anywhere in the world, which is shocking considering this glaze was made by an Italian.”  Truly.  In fact, it’s one of the most shocking things I’ve EVER heard.  (Sarcasm inserted here…as if Italian people are genetically incapable of cooking Japenese food.)  So Luca heads down with his stunning plate of pan seared black cod (fillets carefully stacked in leaning-tower-of-Pisa fashion) with butter braised shiitake mushroom, and sugar snap peas on top of a puree that isn’t narrated for us.  There is much talk about Luca’s miso sauce, and I’d love to taste it.  Miso is yet another ingredient that packs an incredible umami punch.  “Umami” is the Japanese term for the 5th flavor that the human tongue can distinguish, in addition to salty, sweet, sour, and bitter.  In the English language, the best word we’ve come up for it is “savory.”  Discovered by Japanese scientists in the early 20th century, but still strangely not taught in Human Biology class in the US, the human tongue can distinguish only 5 flavors…the 4 taught in grade school (sweet, salty, sour, bitter) and the 5th type, glutamates.  (ALL other flavors are distinguished by the nose.)  Asian cuisine gave birth to the now-maligned flavor enhancer “monosodium glutamate” or MSG.  But there are natural sources of glutamates, particularly the byproducts of natural fermentation.  Miso is one of them.  As is fish sauce, Vegemite/Martmite, anchovy paste, soy sauce, “nutritional yeast,” Worcestershire sauce…  The skilled chef can combine these sources of intensely savory flavors into sauces that are supremely exquisite.  And Luca has apparently done this.  So congrats, Luca, for playing outside the Italian box and scoring big with the judges!

And the winner is…LUCA!  And he heads back into MasterChef kitchen to discover his advantage in the elimination challenge.  And this challenge will be all about dessert.  Again.  This MasterChef season has been very dessert heavy.  (I guess I was cast in the wrong season!)  He has a choice between cookies, cupcakes, and layer cakes (the example Gordon presents is frosted with a disgusting puke-green icing).  Luca is safe from elimination and doesn’t have to cook, and he chooses cupcakes as the challenge for his competitors.

I gotta take a second and say that, while I love to bake desserts and it’s probably what I’m best known for, I just don’t get the whole cupcake thing.  I don’t get Cupcake Wars.  I don’t get why people are so obsessed with them.  That is all.

In addition to Luca’s many challenges, he gets to steal a mixer from someone’s station.

Okay, producers…really?  This is what we’ve descended to?  Now we’re going to actually let contestants penalize other contestants that they don’t like, by removing their most fundamental baking tool?  Granted, cookies, cupcakes, and cakes were baked LONG before there were electric mixers.  During the airing of my breakout episode in season 2 where I baked my now-famous pumpkin carrot cake with cream cheese frosting and candied hazelnuts, I actually baked the cake for a watch party in a home in Seattle that had NO electric mixer (hand or stand) and had to whip the egg whites by hand, cream the butter and sugar by hand, whip the frosting by hand…but still.  This is encouraging unfair advantage, animosity, and is basically promoting cheating.  As Marie Porter, a season 4 contestant who you don’t know because she wasn’t featured at all, so wisely said: “We need to be encouraging people to have empathy for each other… not training the masses to lack it.”  Some of you may love this surprising move by the producers.  Personally, it disgusts me.

Luca pulls the mixer from Jordan.  Luca says that it’s payback for Jordan saving himself in the previous team challenge pressure test.  (Is it ANYONE’s position but “God” to penalize someone for their transgressions?  I didn’t like Jordan’s decision any more than the next guy, but I’m in no position to punish him for his actions.)

Immediately, the group is divided into the over-achievers who are gonna make 50 different varieties of cupcakes in an hour and a half…and those amateur bakers who are gonna be lucky to churn out a single type of cupcake in that time.  If Jordan has baked alot, he probably knows that he can produce a perfect cupcake without having to whip egg whites or cream butter and sugar.  There are plenty of acceptable cupcake recipes where you simply stir the ingredients together and rely on the power of baking powder to give you a light-textured cupcake.  But he may be relying on education from the show which taught him the creamed-butter-and-sugar method…or the folding-in-whipped-egg-whites method.  But anyone who has ever made a box of storebought cupcakes knows that all you need to make a great cupcake is a bowl and a spoon.  Nevertheless, Jordan is frantically creaming butter and sugar together by hand, and Jordan…I know what a workout that is.  It’s not fun.

There’s a friendly-fire exchange between the two, and Luca reveals to us, “I’m not the joker everyone thinks I am.  I’m here for business.”

I have to pause at this moment and apologize to Luca, who I’m dead certain couldn’t care less about my blog and isn’t reading it, for knowing both the way the show is editing you, and for knowing what your fellow competitors think of you based on your actions on set.  One of the drawbacks to being a warm, welcoming personality is that, as soon as the show is finished filming, almost EVERY contestant contacts me to vent and decompress.  Luca couldn’t be more adorable when you watch the show.  Heck…even *I* want to marry the guy.  But the way he is edited, compared to how he allegedly behaved on set, are very, very, very different.  So if I’m a little extra harsh on you in my blogs, Luca, blame your fellow competitors!  Ha ha ha…

Howard is first to be judged, and he has Tahitian vanilla bean cupcakes with white chocolate buttercream.  Howard’s cupcakes are frosted appropriately, despite their lack of impact on the screen.  I’m fed up with the indulgent excess of frosting on television cupcakes.  Let’s exercise a bit of restraint, people!  Joe torments poor Howard at first, and we think he’s going home.  Then he reveals that Howard’s cupcakes are pretty much perfect.

Malcolm is next, whith his buttermilk cupcakes with mascarpone frosting and rum-banana cream.  Malcolm, you’re speaking my language with “buttermilk.”  It’s my favorite ingredient next to pumpkin, and I can’t live without it.  The instant I run out of buttermilk, I freak out.  I can’t cook without it.  One other pet peeve that I HAVE to stop and mention, because it’s a pervasive error that even professional chefs make: the pronunciation is “MAH-scar-PONE-eh.”  There is no other pronunciation.  Only that one.  Anyone who pronounces it “MAR-ska-pown” is in glaring error.  Slap anyone who says that.  It’s time we teach people that it’s not okay to say “expresso” (ahem, Joe) or “marscapone” or “sherbert” or “chee-POLE-tay.”  (If you think of any other rampantly mispronounced ingredients, please post them in the comments below.)  Graham notes that the texture isn’t quite right: “It looks and feels like they were made out of Saltines or something.”  Malcolm put the rum-banana cream on the inside of the cupcakes, and any time you stuff a cupcake before it’s baked, you’re walking a fine line.  Gordon tells Malcolm they’re “gross” because they have a weird tart/acid flavor on the inside.  (That could be just for the camera.  Malcolm could tell us.  On camera he claims the blame himself, which is incredibly noble.)

Bime is next, with his vanilla cupcakes.  He’s got 2 frosting presentations, one where chocolate frosting dominates, and one where vanilla frosting does.  His cupcake box looks pretty professional.  The judges are impressed.

Kathy is next, and she has gone all out.  She’s got 4 types of cupcakes…vanilla, vanilla with peanuts on the bottom, and vanilla with chocolate peanut butter on the bottom…and then apparently a 4th variety that doesn’t get narrated.  Her frosting is colorful, to say the least, but nothing that I’d consider out of the ordinary after a visit to any local bakery.  Joe is puzzled by her “flavors on the bottom” technique, and doesn’t like her frosting, but we don’t hear Graham or Gordon’s opinion.

Next up is Bethy, and she’s an overachiever, too!  Bethy’s got an infinite variety of cupcakes in her box.  One is a “Bananas Foster” cupcake with banana cream on the inside of the cupcake, with caramel and “MAR-sca-pone” frosting.  (Come on, Bethy, you’re smarter than that!)  One is a “Raspberry Limeade” cupcake with lime buttercream frosting.  (THAT sounds like a cupcake I would eat.  And I never eat cupcakes.)  One is an “Almond Chocolate Cupcake” with hazelnut liqueur and toasted hazelnuts.  Gordon is literally blown away by the presentation and the taste.

Jessie is next, and due to problems in the challenge, she had to start over…but without enough time to bake normal-sized cupcakes, she had to resort to a mini cupcake pan.  So when her box is opened, she has dwarf cupcakes hiding in the box, which Graham likens to the old “Whack-a-Mole” game.  Joe tries to challenge her on the size, and she boldly says, “There’s 12 there!”  Good girl.  Despite the diminutive size, Jessie has 2 different types of cupcakes: vanilla bean with cream cheese frosting, toasted hazelnuts, and while chocolate; and a chocolate coffee liqueur cupcake with cream cheese frosting and chocolate covered espresso beans.  The judges have a largely negative response, claiming a dry, dense texture.  (For the record, they look like every other cupcake I’ve seen cut open.)

Now the judges are dying to taste Jordan‘s cupcakes, which were made without any electrical support.  He’s got vanilla bean cupcakes with basil on the inside, and strangely enough, he’s also got this weird frosting I’m not familiar with called “MAR-sca-pown.”  (I am literally about to gouge my eyeballs out of their sockets with a chopstick if I hear that mispronunciation one more time.)  His cupcakes are topped with a miniature chocolate cayenne truffle, a slice of strawberry, and some basil chiffonade.  A VERY interesting play on flavors, and I can’t venture a guess as to how it would taste without actually tasting it.  (Jordan, please come to my house to make these cupcakes for me.  I promise you can use my Kitchenaid.)  Gordon invites Luca to taste the cupcakes before anyone, and he is an honest good sport.  “100% safe,” he says, “They are delicious.  Can I keep it?”  If you have a DVR, though, go back and compare the texture of Jordan’s cupcake to the textures of the cupcakes the judges complained about and called “dry.”  Indistinguishable texture.  They ALL look dense.  Another reason we can’t always be entirely certain that reality TV food critiques are totally genuine.  The audience can’t taste the food, so the critique can really be anything they want it to be.

The 2 best cupcake presentations will be team leaders in the next challenge, and the lucky winners are Bime and Bethy (who is deemed the ultimate winner).

This is an elimination challenge, and they have to axe someone.  The 3 worst are called forward: Malcolm, Kathy, and Jessie.  And after much agonizing reality TV angst…the axe falls to Malcolm.  And strangely enough, 2 out of 3 eliminations in the season thus far have been African Americans, all 3 were people of color.  Which I find very, very bizarre.

Cupcakes are tricky, and easy to misjudge based solely on appearance.  So I can’t say if Malcolm’s elimination is justified.  But I can say that we didn’t seen enough of Malcolm to really get to know him.  He hails from Jamaican descent, and I can without a doubt say that the Jamaican culture has produced some of the greatest cuisine in the Western Hemisphere, and I look forward to seeing what Malcolm shows us next.  Follow him on Twitter and like him on Facebook.

So I’m FINALLY caught up on MasterChef blogging, and I can assure you, there are exciting things to come, including my next installation of MasterChef: Where Are They Now?…featuring the astonishingly talented Sharone Hakman from season 1 of MasterChef.  Subscribe to my blog near the upper right corner of your screen so you don’t miss a thing, and chime in on the comments below to let me know what you thought of this episode!

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