MasterChef: Harleys, Sausage, and Steak

So we get in the van and we drive and drive and drive. We pull over for a bit. Then we drive some more. Where the heck are we going? I guess it doesn’t matter. We’re driving the Pacific Coast Highway along the rugged beaches and coastline north of Los Angeles through Malibu toward Santa Barbara. After weeks of being stuck in hotel rooms and cavernous studios filled with cameras and bright lights, overheated by 18 ovens running at once, I am so thankful to be seeing trees and mountains and ocean.

They drop us off at Point Mugu, a spectacular tower of rock rising from the Pacific Ocean at the end of a long, beautiful beach. We climb up a sand dune, and there’s a Harley sitting on a platform. Bikers. We’re cooking for bikers.

I may be a scrawny, nerdy guy in a ridiculous hat, but give me bikers to cook for any day over food critics. Throw away the foie gras and truffles and reductions and gastriques…I cook for normal people every day. And bikers are my kinda people. The challenge is homemade sausage. I’ve made patty sausage from scratch at home, but never “cased” sausage, which is apparently the theme of the challenge.

Esther and Tracy are the team captains today. I’d be happy on either team…I adore both of those girls. But Esther starts to choose people I’m really close to for her team, so it soon becomes apparent that I’m itching to be on Team Red. And she picks me, so I’m happy. We’ve got Derrick, the guy who made chorizo (a Mexican-style sausage) for his signature dish. We’ve got Adrien, who is brilliant on the grill. We’ve got Christine, whose audition video showed her Dad skinning a squirrel, and who makes deer sausage each season with her family. We’ve got Jennie, from Dallas, who is creative and efficient, who brings a calm, collected spirit to the team, and who I work with really well. And we’ve got Max.

Oh, Max! I get asked about Max more than any other aspect of MasterChef. Everyone wants to know if he’s really the kind of person he seems like on TV. All I’m going to tell you is that Max is cleverly filling a role that needs to be filled. Obviously, if everyone is abuzz about him, he’s doing something right! And I’ll say this in his favor…virtually all of us find Max to be charming and adorable, in a little brother sorta way. It’s not that bad to be on a team with him.

Now we’ve got 90 minutes to make a hundred sausages, along with a topping, to serve in a bun to hungry bikers. And while I’m excited about cooking for bikers, I’m a little nervous about producing a hundred cased sausages in that time limit.

But what kind of sausages? Derrick tosses out the idea of a spicy sausage like his signature chorizo. I couldn’t agree more. Then someone mentions an avocado cream sauce. And now I’ve gotta open my mouth.

“Guys, we’re cooking for bikers. Bikers don’t want avocado cream sauce.”

“Well, what do they want, then?”

“Beer. Bikers want beer. The beer needs to be in the sausage. It needs to be cooked in beer. And we should do grilled onions and peppers, drenched in beer.”

Beer in virtually everything. I may not own a Harley, but I’ve biked on 3 continents. And if there’s one thing that bikers around the world share, it’s a love of beer. Esther goes with it.

Wisely, she puts Derrick in charge of mixing the sausage, and Christine in charge of casing it. But as we start putting our test sausages on the grill, they split open and spill out everywhere. And no matter what Christine and Max change on the casing technique, the sausages still aren’t holding together.

Finally, with only 15 minutes before the bikers arrive, I suggest abandoning the casing. It’s getting us nowhere. Why can’t we do sausage patties on the grill?

Chef Ramsay gives us the thumbs up on patties, and every hand flies into the sausage bowl to assemble patties. They go onto the double grill, and on the flat top griddle. And the bikers arrive, and our patties aren’t even ready to flip. Team Blue has perfect cased sausages, and they’re serving them up fast and furious. A line is forming for Team Red, and we’re not ready.

Finally, we’re handing out Spicy Beer Sausage with Drunken Onions and Peppers, and the votes start to come in. Red. Red. Red. Red. Blue. Red. Red. Red. Notice a theme here? Even without cased sausages, our sandwich tastes better. But we can’t keep up with demand. And Team Blue has changed their recipe now that they know our tastes better.

Gradually Team Blue pulls ahead, and they end up winning by 10 votes. Which means we’re headed to a pressure test. My first pressure test on the show.

But back in the studio, Ramsay announces that only two of us will be competing. He wants Esther to name the two weakest team members.

OUCH! I’m so glad I’m not a team leader at this moment. I don’t know what I’d say…I’d probably say, “Me, and myself, chef!” I’m not good at pointing out weakness.

Esther picks Max and Christine, who were in charge of the casing. Ramsay says the judges agree with her choice, but offer her the choice to save one of them by taking their place in the pressure test…or to walk upstairs and remain safe from elimination.

I can’t believe what I’m hearing at this point. Our team has been torn to shreds, and now Esther is singled out and asked whether she’ll follow her integrity or her competitiveness. That’s some pretty intense stuff.

Esther heads upstairs, leaving Max and Christine to battle it out over a challenge to cook 3 steaks perfectly: rare, medium, and well done. Max looks like a professional chef, methodical and cool. Christine is alternating between hysterical laughing, and fits of sobbing, and 15 minutes into the 30 minute challenge, she hasn’t even started cooking her steaks yet. I’m really worried for her.

Then all of a sudden, meat is sizzling on the stove top and in the oven, and Christine pulls together 3 gorgeous steaks. And despite her panic and total loss of control over her emotions, Christine has cooked better than calm, cool, collected Max. I’m beginning to see that Christine performs best under extreme pressure, like the dessert challenge where she tossed out her plan with only 10 minutes to go and made a new dessert. She may be scattered, but she’s one tough cookie.

Part of me feels very guilty that I wasn’t down there cooking with my team. But Max is headed home, we’re down to 13 contestants from 100, and I’m still in it! Wish me luck next week!

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