MasterChef: And Then There Were 4

Well…that was weird.

Up to this point, watching MasterChef was unusual because I had LIVED every moment they showed on camera.  Now I’m just watching my friends on TV, and have no idea what to expect.  It’s kinda weird.

My first impression is…Christian seems different in this episode.  And I am wondering if it’s just because they have more time to show other aspects of his character, or if he is actually appearing the same to the audience, and my own perception is different because I was no longer competing against him in this episode.  Regardless, I am happy that they are showing a bit more dimension in Christian’s character.  I realize that largely the audience dislikes Christian, but as I’ve said before, I really like and respect him.  He has had to fight for EVERYTHING in his life, his job, his home, his son…even his own life and freedom.  That has produced a very strong, authoritative personality, and while that does rub some people the wrong way, I have a soft spot in my heart for Christian.

Suzy was the winner last week, so she gets to choose her team mate, as well as automatically default the two people she doesn’t pick to be the opposing team.  Had I been in her shoes, I’d have picked Adrien without hesitation.  And I’ve have given him complete creative control of the menu, and cooked whatever he wanted me to cook.  I don’t blame Suzy for picking Christian.  He IS the strongest cook in the bunch.  But Suzy and Christian also both have the strongest personalities in the bunch, and teamwork is critical across such a short time limit.

So the challenge is to represent America before MasterChef judges from other countries.  While the MasterChef phenomenon is new to the US (this is only its second season here), it is wildly popular across the world.  It’s the single most popular show in Australia and India, like American Idol is here, and the finale episode in those countries is like the Super Bowl is here.  So it’s really an honor for the contestants to cook for these judges.

And, like Suzy, my first instinct would have been Thanksgiving.  Of all our holidays, none really scream “America” like Thanksgiving.  We invented it.  And it is deeply tied to food.  So many people are asking me what I’d have cooked, and I’ll confess that I’d have struggled with this challenge…as I’d probably struggle with every challenge from here to the finals.  I am NOT a gourmet person.

Regardless, I’d have gravitated toward the duck, just like Suzy and Christian did.  I love duck.  I’d do a rosemary roasted duck breast with a pan gravy.  Then a mash of roasted autumn root veggies: parsnips, sweet potatoes, and rutabagas.  In my family we always use my grandmother’s cornbread dressing recipe, and while it’s not gourmet, it’s delicious, so I’d have served that up, too…fragrant with sage.  And I’d probably serve a delicate salad on top of the duck breast, maybe arugula, chestnuts, and cranberries, with pumpkin vinaigrette.

90 minutes it not a lot of time to cook gourmet for 6 people, so I was impressed with what the contestants did across that time limit.  From the concepts, I’d have picked Suzy and Christian to win.  From the visual impact, I’d have picked Adrien and Jennifer.  But ultimately it comes down to taste, and I didn’t taste either dish.  So I can’t make a judgment of their ultimate decision, which is that Adrien and Jennifer won the challenge, and Suzy and Christian are headed to the pressure test.

It was uncomfortable watching Christian and Suzy argue about the outcome of their dinner.  Harsh words make me uncomfortable, but that’s the result of two conflicting personalities in the kitchen.  Other team leaders in the past have endeavored to avoid this situation, like Tracy when she picked Adrien and Jennifer for the challenge at Patina, despite knowing Christian had more skill and experience in a restaurant kitchen.  I think, ultimately, it may always be the best decision to go with compatibility and team players over talent and skill.

Christian and Suzy are thrown into a pressure test, and it’s lemon meringue pie!  Immediately I feel a twinge of jealousy…I would do SO WELL in this challenge.  And then I worry for Christian.  He’s just not a dessert guy, and I doubt he’s ever made a lemon meringue pie before.  On the other end, Suzy is the dessert queen and has probably made dozens of them.  Christian has his work cut out for him.

90 minutes is NOT enough time to make a lemon meringue pie.  The time limits on MasterChef have ALWAYS been challenging.  2 hours to make a 6 layer cake?!?  But it’s just impossible to make lemon meringue pie in 90 minutes.  It takes 90 minutes just to properly prepare a butter pie pastry for baking, and then you have to bake it for 15 minutes while you make your lemon curd, then cool it down while your lemon curd is cooling, fill it, THEN make your meringue and bake the whole thing for another 15 minutes, then let it cool completely to room temp before cutting and serving it.  It’s about a 3 hour process to do correctly.

My impressions of the finished dishes?  I’d have dived into Christian’s first, surprisingly.  The meringue had that mountainous look, tall and beautiful, and perfectly browned.  Suzy attempted meringue peaks, which are very impressive if pulled off correctly, but there just wasn’t enough meringue there, and the peaks barely stood up above the edge of the crust.  And while the tops of the peaks were browned, the rest of the meringue seemed very underdone…that’s what happens when you bake a meringue at temps that are too high.  Meringue needs to be baked at lower temps, more slowly, so it cooks all the way through before browning on top.  But with a time limit looming over you, that might be impossible.

Of course I didn’t taste either pie, so I can’t say whether the judges were justified in eliminating Suzy.  But that’s the call they made.

It struck me that Suzy suddenly appeared so meek and cowering upon her elimination.  She had been so confident and joyful throughout the competition.  She asked permission to shake their hands.

Suzy…last week Ramsay KISSED ME ON THE FACE.  You don’t need permission to go up and HUG them, much less shake their hand!

Like he had with me last week, Ramsay’s face was glowing when he put his arm around Suzy.  You can tell he really likes Suzy.  So do I.  I believe I earned Suzy’s trust enough to see a side of her that her fellow contestants didn’t see.  The side of the girl who really wants to impress her family who have incredibly high expectations of her.  The side of the girl that knows she knows a lot about cooking, but worries if she knows enough.  The side of the girl that wants to take the title, but also wants to be loved and admired by her fellow contestants.  The side of the girl whose face reacts before her brain does…and those facial expressions brought so much laughter and joy to all of us, including the viewers, for the last two months.

I’m sad for Suzy.  She really wanted the title of MasterChef.  I’m not sure there’s another contestant left in the game as resourceful as Suzy.  Whether she gets the title and the $250k to start her own food truck in Chicago, she’s gonna find a way to start that food truck.  This time next year, if you’re vacationing in Chicago, you’ll smell the fragrant Indian spices a few blocks before you see her in the window of her food truck, handing out paper bowls filled with the most delicious curry you’ll ever eat.  And that smile…that incomparable Suzy smile…as she chats and laughs with her customers.  Suzy is one of a kind.  Not perfect.  None of us are.  But truly one of the most delightful people I’ve ever met.

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