MasterChef: Kid’s Block Party and Cheese Souffles

It’s time for another team challenge, and when we get dropped off in this Stepford-like neighborhood, with its perfect hedges and gabled houses, and see that big “MasterChef Block Party” sign, I figure it’s gonna be a barbecue challenge.

THANK GOD!  I’m not a cocky person, but NOBODY left on the show could stand up to a Texan in a BBQ challenge, right?

We walk up to the judges, though, and there are a bunch of children’s toys scattered about, and Graham is doing crazy tricks with a hula hoop…and I think that we’re about to be thrown for a loop.

Ramsay says that we’re going to be cooking for the pickiest judges thus far in the competition.

(Seriously…they could find pickier people than Gordon Ramsay or Joe Bastianich?  Come on!)

And then comes the catch:

Children.

More than 200 of them, to be exact.  We are cooking miniature sandwiches and side dishes for more than 200 children, and THEY will be the SOLE decision makers in which team wins.

Coincidentally, the two team captains, Christian and Christine, are the only parents in the group.  But I’ve got 6 amazing nieces and nephews, and I know EXACTLY how picky kids can be.  So I’m completely and utterly freaked out.

Christine picks me second, and I’m VERY happy to be on her team.  Christine and I have been on the same team together since the beginning of MasterChef.  She and I “get” each other.  And we work really well together.  I’m excited for Christine, who seems to be continuously underestimated by everyone, to get a chance to shine.  And to be honest…I’d imagine Christine’s 2 year old boy Logan probably has a palate that’s more in line with the average American child…whereas Christian’s boy Evan is probably quite accustomed to eating octopus and lobster and mussels, and whatever else Christian can forage from the Atlantic Ocean four blocks downhill from his house!  (Lucky kid!)

The teams are split along fairly familiar lines, and it’s Christine, Suzy, Tracy, and me against Christian, Derrick, Adrien, and Jennifer.

Wait a second…Christian HATES Jennifer.  Why did he pick her?  That was outta left field.  We’ll have to see where that leads.

We quickly come to a consensus on our menu.  If there’s one thing kids in this country love more than anything else, it’s chicken nuggets.  They are easily the top selling children’s food item in restaurants coast to coast.  So we decide on a breaded chicken nugget sandwich.  And for the side dish, since we can’t do potatoes, we’ll do little fried corn fritters…sweet and savory…with a caramel dipping sauce.  It’s like dessert, but it’s made out of a vegetable, so maybe the parents will be happy.

My first task is to make Ranch dressing.  Because kids will eat ANYTHING if it’s covered in Ranch, right?  I toss together buttermilk, sour cream, powdered onion, garlic, chives, lemon juice and vinegar, salt and pepper, and sugar, until it tastes just right.  Then it’s off to the corn fritters.

Suzy and Christine are working on assembling the patties, but we haven’t yet come to a consensus on how they’re going to be cooked.  Our options are deep frying, pan frying, and grilling.  And our decision is to cook 3 identical patties 3 different ways and taste to see which is best (probably deep fried), juxtaposed against which is healthiest (grilled).  Whatever the healthiest option is that the kids will still love, that’s the option we’ll choose.

Unfortunately, Ramsay comes over before we’ve had a chance to finish all 3 cooking methods, and he interprets our lack of a decision as a failure of Christine’s leadership.  He just WON’T listen to us, he wants an answer NOW as to how the chicken is to be cooked.

Then he gets all bent out of shape about the fact that it’s a chicken nugget sandwich.  He says he’s never even heard of a chicken nugget sandwich.

HELLO?!?!?  Have you NEVER set foot in a restaurant in the United States?  EVERY restaurant has a breaded chicken sandwich on the kid’s menu AND on the adult menu.

He yells at Christine that it’s a terrible idea, and kids aren’t going to want to eat that.  And Christine is starting to freak out.

I have to do something.  And I’m flat-out angry at Ramsay’s naivete concerning the diet of the average American child.

So I yell at him.

“Chef, you are NOT a 4 year old American child.”

“Yes, but I have 4 children, BenStarr, how many children do you have?”

“Chef, your children are the kids of one of the world’s greatest chefs.  They DO NOT have the same palate as suburban Californian kids who have two working parents.”

This leads to a heated fight about the state of child nutrition in the U.S.  And I will be the FIRST person to say that the situation is deplorable.  If I had kids, they wouldn’t EVER be allowed to set foot in a fast food restaurant, ALL of their meals would be homemade and organic, and they’d never EVER taste trans fats or high fructose corn syrup.  Period.

I have a complex relationship with children and cooking-based reality TV.  When I did Rachael Ray’s So You Think You Can Cook in 2007, I was eliminated in a challenge where we had to cook in a school cafeteria for kids.  Half the judging was done by the kids, and the other half was done by a dietician.  The protein I was assigned was tilapia, and the veggie I was assigned was zucchini.  COME ON!  So I made healthy oven-baked crispy fish sticks, and zucchini muffins with cream cheese frosting.  I did pretty darn well considering what I had to work with.  But in the end, kids are always going to choose chicken and over fish, and I got the boot.

And trust me…even though Christine and Christian are parents, I guarantee you that I’m every bit as concerned over the sate of child nutrition in this country.  Kids are eating chips and soda for lunch at school.  If it was up to me, I’d place child nutrition above war, farm subsidies, even INFRASTRUCTURE.  Kids can’t grow, learn, and thrive if their bodies aren’t properly nourished.  If I had the voice that Jamie Oliver has, I’d be ALL OVER this country, coast to coast, preaching better nutrition for kids, teaching kids to cook so they can expand their palates and make their own healthy decisions.

But today our fate on MasterChef is going to be decided by children.  Today is not the day to attempt to change the dietary choices that American children make.  Today is the day to cook EXACTLY what American kids eat when they go to a restaurant.

And what American kids eat when they go to a restaurant is CHICKEN NUGGET SANDWICHES.  So thank you for your input, Chef, and please leave us alone now.  Thank you.

We determine that the pan fried nugget tastes best, but there’s no way we can pan fry 200 of them in time for the arrival of the kids, so it’s gotta be the grilled nugget.  At least Ramsay will get the benefit of knowing that the healthiest of all possible options is being used for the nugget.

We get back to work, and I’m stirring up corn fritter batter…cornmeal, flour, eggs, fresh corn shaved from the cob, buttermilk, salt, and sugar.  My deep fryer is having trouble coming to temperature because the wind keeps blowing it out, so we move it into the garage and the situation rapidly improves.

But before we know it, 200 kids are screaming and flailing about, demanding food.  And our grill only holds 50 patties at a time, so those disappear immediately and then we’ve got 150 hungry kids screaming “Burgers! Burgers! Burgers!”

Luckily that gives us a chance to interact with the kids a bit…you know, play some games, and tell them how much better our chicken nugget sandwich is than the Blue Team’s nasty turkey burger.  Selling your food properly is half the game, right?

And eventually, all the kids get served.  When it comes time for judging, Ramsay tells the kids to run to whatever team cooked the best food. And an absolutely massive wave of children peels off from the horde and heads to our team.

After the official count, our votes outnumbered Christian’s team 2 to 1!  No pressure test for us, baby!  And I can’t tell you how good that feels, because I’ve been in the last 3 pressure tests…and while I’ve been lucky that the last 3 fell perfectly into my comfort zone…there’s no telling when they’ll change things up and have me cooking something I’ve never even heard of.

Back in the MasterChef kitchen, Christian’s team learns that they’re going to be making cheese souffles.  Well…I love souffles and make a darn good one, so I’d have felt comfortable in that pressure test, too.  But I’m safe, so I get to sit back and observe.

The tension between Jennifer and Christian is starting to really take over the kitchen now, and the two of them spend half their cooking time talking to the cameras about how much they can’t stand the other one.

90 minutes later, each of the 4 contestants has turned out a beautiful, perfect souffle, and we’re wondering who on earth they’re going to send home.

First, Jennifer is sent upstairs, safe.  Then Derrick.  That leaves only Christian and Adrien.  These are the two guys I would, without hesitation, label as the two best cooks in the entire competition.  The tension is palpable.

“Adrien, take your apron…upstairs, you’re safe.”

!!!

???

Does that mean…?  No…it’s not possible that Christian would be eliminated.  As much as his fellow contestants may get annoyed with his arrogance (he said he was going to name his first restaurant Arrogance, for Heaven’s sake), we all secretly think he’s the best cook here.  There’s NO way they’d eliminate him how.  But he’s the only one left down there.  So he’s gotta be going home.

“Christian…you haven’t baked a lot of souffles.  We didn’t expect you to excel in this pressure test.”

Here it is…they’re about to send him packing…

“Take your apron…upstairs!  Because all 4 of you turned out perfect souffles, and we literally could not find a flaw with any of them.  NO ONE IS ELIMINATED!”

And it takes me a few moments to pick my jaw up off the floor, because I’m still reeling from thinking that they were going to eliminate the strongest cook in the competition, and now I have to process the fact that NO ONE has been eliminated in a pressure test.

What does that mean?

Does that mean that, tomorrow, they’ll do a double elimination?

That would be TOTALLY unfair.  The winning team is safe from elimination.  It’s not fair if we get subjected to an EXTRA elimination because the judges couldn’t determine which souffle was least-perfect.

But alas, the contestants don’t make up the rules.  So we all go to sleep that night wondering if a double elimination awaits us tomorrow.  Something tells me it’s not going to be a very restful night…

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