MasterChef recap: The Final Four

(Please note: This blog is not endorsed or approved by MasterChef, and they would prefer you not read it.  This blog reflects my own uneducated and uninformed opinions about Season 3 of MasterChef, and I have no inside knowledge about how the show is judged.)

We’ve got 4 contestants left: Christine (age 33), Becky (27), Frank (28), and Josh (24).  And I truly believe they are among the 4 most talented cooks in the top 18, so MasterChef has done a good job selecting their top 4.  Last season, the top 4 were Jennifer (34), Suzy (27), Christian (31), and Adrien (28).  In season 1, the top 4 were Whitney (22), Sheetal (37), David (27), and Lee (29).  But trust me, it is ENTIRELY coincidence that all 3 seasons have been perfectly gender split in the top 4, with no one older than their 30s.  *chuckle*

Traditionally, the top 4 is judged by a panel of celebrity chefs or notable food industry professionals, and this season will be no different.  Arriving in LA on the MasterChef private jet (??????) is chef Guy Savoy, recognized as one of the top French chefs in the world.  (His Paris restaurant, only one of several around the world, has 3 Michelin stars…the highest rating in the food world.  Ramsay’s flagship restaurant in Chelsea, UK also has 3 stars…his only restaurant to achieve that supreme honor.)  Gordon recognizes Savoy as being his culinary mentor…no small honor.  Next off the private MasterChef jet (???????) is chef Daniel Bouloud, also a respected chef with restaurants dotted across the planet, but his NYC restaurant, Daniel, is lauded by many as the best restaurant in the US.  My friend Bruno from Brazil had a $500 dinner there once, and said it was the best experience of his life.  Of course, Daniel has been awarded 3 Michelin stars.  And last off the MasterChef private jet (???????) is chef Alain Ducasse, probably the most famous of the 3…he’s held 21 Michelin stars, and THREE of his restaurants each held 3 stars at one time.  (Ducasse has a LEGION of restaurants and hotels around the world, the most famous of which is his flagship The Dorchester in London.)  So all 3 of these chefs have at least one 3-starred restaurant under their belt.

There are many entities in the world that rate restaurants.  If you think of the word Michelin as being associated with tires, you’re actually thinking of the correct entity.  Somehow Michelin tires got into the business of posting travel publications (the same way AAA does in the US, and doles out diamond ratings for hotels and restaurants, with 5 diamonds being the coveted top award), and this eventually led to the 1- 2- and 3-star tier.  The Michelin system is probably the most respected among the world’s rating entities, but it gets criticized heavily for favoring traditional French menus and being a bit snobbish against other cuisines.  (However, there ARE Michelin-starred sushi, Modernist, Mexican, and Indian restaurants, as well as others.)  The system is also infamous for preferential treatment toward restaurants in France, primarily, and the European continent in general, and being a bit more stingy in the US, but recently, being VERY lenient with its star ratings in Japan.  There has been much scandal over how up-to-date the Michelin ratings are.  While Michelin claims it has an army of restaurant reviewers across the globe and visits each restaurant every 18 months or more frequently, former employees have accused them of having far fewer reviewers than they claim, and that they visit restaurants to update ratings far less often than they claim.  You can be sure that Michelin has not visited nearly every restaurant in your city (if they’ve ever visited your city at all, which in the US isn’t likely).  They tend to gravitate toward restaurants and chefs that have notoriety in the press and in the food world at large.  If you’re curious, there are only 10 restaurants in the US with 3 Michelin stars.  7 of them are in New York (11 Madison Park, Per Se, Le Bernardin, Daniel, Jean Georges, Chef’s Table, and Masa), 1 in Chicago (Alinea), and 2 in California’s wine country (Meadowood, and the legendary French Laundry).

The fact that 3 such culinary powerhouses are together under one roof, alongside Gordon Ramsay, is an event in-and-of itself.  All 4 contestants had better be shaking in their boots.  Had I been standing there, I’d have torn off my apron, surrendered it to Ramsay, and slunk off to hide under a grimy LA freeway somewhere.  The palates of these 3 men are so elevated, so refined, they can smell every single ingredient in your dish when it enters the room.  Blindfolded, they could recite exactly how you prepared each ingredient, what step you added what component.  And then tell you why you did every single thing wrong.

It’s actually ludicrous that these men have been assembled to judge an amateur cooking competition, no matter how skilled these contestants are.  In fact, it would be ludicrous for these men to judge a competition of professional chefs.  I can’t imagine what price tag it took to get them there.  (But if MasterChef REALLY has a branded private jet, apparently production costs aren’t a concern.  How about better food for the contestants, or nightly massages?!?!)  Ha ha ha…

This is definitely the “biggest” thing that has EVER happened in MasterChef.

The contestants are being split into teams of 2, and since Christine had the best replication of Graham’s dish in the last episode, she gets to choose her teammate, which automatically designates the opposing team.  And she chooses Becky, leaving Frank and Josh together, who actually have some tension since Frank, in a previous pressure test, originally selected Josh to be safe, but re-decided and saved himself instead.

So it’s boys-against-girls, and the teams get to conceptualize any menu they like from a sumptuous pantry.  They also have a liberal time limit…90 minutes until they serve their appetizer, 30 minutes after that they serve the main, and 30 minutes after that, the dessert.  So, basically…2 and a half hours.  What a joy that would be!  The only thing that could tarnish that kind of opportunity is having to please 3 of the most legendary and successful chefs on the planet, in addition to Ramsay, Elliott, and Bastianich.

I’m predicting a win for the girls.  Becky is so fabulous at plating (because of her food photographer’s eye), and Christine is so incredible at combining and balancing flavors.  Frank is the strongest on his team, but Josh believes that he, himself, is the strongest, and also has a dominant attitude in team challenges, so there’s definitely going to be some head butting.  But, of course, historically in MasterChef, the team you expect to win never does.  However, I’m betting that either Becky or Frank will be eliminated today, and they’re on opposing teams, so perhaps the best team will, in fact win, because if either team lands in the pressure test, they can eliminate who they need to.

After 90 minutes, the 3 powerhouse chefs stride into the MasterChef kitchen, stopping the action.  And we even see a gawk of disbelief on Ramsay’s face, seeing the 3 of them standing there, dominating the room.  It’s absurd enough seeing these truly world-class master chefs in the “MasterChef” kitchen.  Which makes it even MORE absurd when, less than a second later, we are reminded that MasterChef is sponsored by Walmart.  (If you’ve been keeping up with my blog, you know that I have both affection and disdain for Walmart…I DO shop there, because they do, in fact, have the best produce of any grocery store in my area unless I go to the very expensive upscale markets, which I can’t afford, and Walmart IS paving the way for bringing organic products to an affordable level for those of us who have to pinch every penny.  But still…if there’s ONE THING Walmart screams, it’s CHEAP.  Not “haute cuisine.”)

What would I have cooked?  I already answered that question.  I wouldn’t have.  Honestly.  I don’t cook that kind of cuisine for that kind of audience.  I can admire and appreciate fine cuisine, but I’ll take a street taco over a plate of haute cuisine ANY DAY OF THE WEEK.  Call me common.  Call me course.  I prefer humble food with explosive flavor and universal appeal.

The appetizers are served.  The girls serve a Thai-style broth to be poured over a plate filled with raw seafood.  The hot broth cooks the seafood gently and barely…the way seafood is supposed to be cooked.  Ducasse believes the broth should be reduced, to concentrate the flavors and increase the salinity, but Bouloud loves the delicate preparation of letting the broth just kiss the raw seafood with warmth before eating.  The boys serve a terrine, which to me is the most ridiculous of all fine-cuisine preparations, and I cannot fathom why people enjoy it.  A terrine is basically a savory jelly that holds ingredients inside, and the boys are serving spring veggies inside their terrine: asparagus and baby carrot, with a mousse of spot prawns (giant shrimp blended into a smooth paste…again, not my cup of tea), pea puree, and dressed microgreens (salad greens beyond the sprout stage, but which haven’t grown more than their second set of leaves).  Ducasse says the portion size is too small, Bouloud says that the choice of carrot and asparagus wasn’t dynamic enough but the veggies were properly cooked, and Savoy agrees that the cook on the vegetables is nice, but there’s just too much bland jelly surrounding them, and the greens are too heavily dressed.  So the first course definitely goes to the girls.

Next up is the main, and both teams are scrambling to assemble them with only seconds left.  Becky didn’t get all their rice cakes plated, which is a HUGE blow, since some of the judges will have different components on their plates.  The girls present a pan-seared duck breast with dark Hoisin sauce, Chinese broccoli, pickled daikon, and some of the judges get a crispy bamboo rice cake.  (Bamboo rice isn’t a type of rice, it’s a preparation.  Short grain rice is soaked in the juice pressed from young bamboo stalks, and the chlorophyll turns it bright green and adds a floral aroma to the rice.)  Savoy complains that the duck skin isn’t crispy enough, and the rice cake is too sweet.  Bouloud is justifiably offended that there is no rice cake on his plate and wonders if they dropped it on the floor.  The boys put up a stunning main…lamb saddle (which is both loins from the lamb butchered out and then bound together with string…it is the most decadent and expensive cut of lamb) wrapped in prosciutto and stuffed with dried fruit, served with Israeli couscous (little balls of pasta, considerably larger than the tiny specks of traditional couscous) and roasted baby root vegetables, with a yogurt sauce.  Bouloud say that the loin is perfect.  (That’s HUGE!)  Ducasse also praises the loin for perfect seasoning and unique presentation, and Savoy likes the dried fruit filling.  So the boys have clearly won the main course.

In our commercial break, we learn that the MasterChef Enthusiast Classes taught at Le Cordon Bleu campuses around the country are back again this year.  These are a series of cooking classes specifically designed for the home cook, and I was able to participate in a few of them last year.  They are lots of fun, and sometimes contestants from the show pop by to say hi.  You can learn more on this page, and I was a little surprised to find a video of myself on that page, teaching a class on pumpkin bread!  You find the funniest things on the internet…

Dessert will decide the winner for today, of course…as it always does in MasterChef.  (Funny how it ALWAYS gets split between the first and second course, so you can’t tell who is going to win until the last course is tasted.)  Josh is NOT happy when Frank takes over the plating and is apparently haphazardly adding drops of a green sauce all over the plate.  They run out of time, and Josh says, “It looks like 6 different people plated those plates.”  You’d think 2 and a half hours would be enough time to get a perfect dessert on the plate, but when you’re cooking for judges like these, you’ve gotta churn out something truly stunning, and I certainly wouldn’t wanna do it!

The girls serve a tropical verrine…which is the French word for a trifle…a layered desert with fruit, cake and cream.  Their verrine starts with a guava coulis (the French term for a thick puree of fruit), followed by a coconut cake, then diced tropical fruit which has apparently been macerated (which means to lightly sugar the fruit to draw out its juices and let it marinate in its own juice), then a coconut cream, topped with a coconut tuile (thin crisp cookie) and passion fruit and baby mint.  It’s pretty stunning.  The boys are serving a white chocolate mousse, rhubarb poached in verjus (the juice pressed from sour grapes), roasted strawberries (a preparation I’ve never considered), and a strawberry powder (not sure how they did that, perhaps a modernist technique), with sauces of balsamic and basil.  Poor Bouloud again bemoans the fact that he is missing components that others have, but while he doesn’t think it’s very pretty, he says every bite is pleasant.  Ducasse just doesn’t like it at all.  Bastianich, on the other hands, calls it “explosive”…if you can get a bit of every flavor in the same bite, but later calls it “an argument on a plate.”

I would have LOVED to hear the unedited stream of conversation between all 6 judges…to me, that would have been one of the most fascinating moments of all 3 seasons combined.  But overall, I’m INCREDIBLY impressed by the dishes put out by both teams.  Bouloud delivers the message, and the girls have won.

Which means that Frank must be going home.  Because Josh is the only polarizing character left.  Becky is a LITTLE bit polarizing, but she’s also sweet as a button (like Suzy from last year…a little bit of sweet, and a little bit of sour, together in one adorable package).  And while I think Frank may actually be the most skilled cook of the entire bunch, I can’t imagine them eliminating Josh just yet.  He’s incredibly skilled, but his over-confidence and careless attitude toward his fellow contestants means it’s easy for the audience to dislike him.  He would be a PERFECT addition for the finals.  Whoever wins against him will make it very fulfilling for the audience, even Becky.

The pressure test, which is supposedly unparalleled in MasterChef history, is, in fact, a cheese souffle…just like the pressure test last season when NO one got eliminated.  BUT, as with everything this season, there’s a twist.  Because Bastianich doesn’t want a cheese souffle…he wants a raspberry souffle delivered at the exact same time as Gordon’s cheese souffle.  And, of course, Graham’s not going to sit there and watch Joe and Gordon eat souffles by themselves.  He wants a dark chocolate souffle delivered at the exact same time, also.

Now THAT’S a pressure test.  3 different souffles that have to be served simultaneously.  One of them is a savory souffle, which typically has a bechamel base of flour and milk, while the sweet souffles are usually a creme anglaise base, thickened with cornstarch.  The flavoring ingredients will change the cooking time for each souffle…the cheese will cook more slowly than the chocolate.  But cooking lore tells you that you can’t open the oven door while a souffle is being cooked, or it will fall.  (The truth is that once you close the oven door, it will rise back again.  You can actually bake a souffle, take it out of the oven, let it fall, put it in the fridge, and when you’re ready to serve again, put it back into the oven and it will rise a second time.)

So that would be MY failsafe.  I’d cook each souffle until it was done, remove it to the countertop, and 5 minutes before serving, place them all back into the oven to puff.  However, since this challenge is being spun as “all about the timing,” the producers and judges could easily fall back on cooking lore and say, “You can’t do that, it doesn’t work” and eliminate you anyway.  Or, they could spin you as a freak-genius who has discovered some brand-new method for souffle making (even though restaurants do it all the time), and worship you.  Ah, the pitfalls of reality TV!

And while souffles are actually WAY easier to make than most people think, making 3 different ones in an hour and serving simultaneously is a pretty tough challenge.  At least the contestants have 2 ovens and 2 mixers at their disposal.

The biggest challenge in making the perfect souffle is making sure your egg whites are just a hair below stiff peaks.  Whites move from stiff peaks to curdled in an instant.  And curdled whites will not give you the perfect rise in ANY application, from a cake to a souffle.  If you’ve read my blog about the 20 Essential Kitchen Skills for a home cook, you’ll know that properly beating whites is a crucial technique to master.

Both Frank and Josh are going for “serve the first time outta the oven,” which is going to make their lives much harder.  However, it’s definitely a gamble doing the “second puff” method if the other contestant isn’t doing it.  Souffles are also challenging from a production perspective, because you want the camera to see the souffles big and puffed and beautiful out of the oven, and they only stay that way for a minute or less, unless “Modernist” stabilizers are incorporated into the base.  So there can’t be ANY production breaks from the time the buzzer rings, until judging is finished…and judging has to be short and sweet.

Virtually all the souffles appear to be under-done, a bit more like puddings than souffles, except for Josh’s raspberry souffle.  However, many sophisticated palates like a moist, soft souffle in the center.  Frank is named the winner of the cheese souffle.  Josh gets the win for the raspberry.  So again, the final course is the deciding factor.  (Shock!)  But we all know that Frank is going home, so the winning chocolate souffle must go to Josh.  (Personally, I think Frank’s chocolate souffle looked far better than Josh’s.)

So now we’re saying goodbye to Frank, whether he REALLY made better souffles than Josh or not.  I’m curious to know if Frank believes he was outcooked or agrees with the decision.  (For the record, I TOTALLY agreed with my own elimination and believe it was truly justified.  But I know many contestants believe their eliminations were engineered, and in many cases, I agree with them.)

I’ve said before, I think Frank is one of the best, if not the single best cook, in the competition this year.  I didn’t warm up to him until a few episodes had passed, but eventually I found him incredibly charming, likeable, and there’s no doubting his skills.  He departs the MasterChef kitchen (after predicting Becky for the win) with such grace and dignity and warmth and optimism and a big smile on his face…it’s impossible not to adore him.

Frank was a stockbroker before MasterChef (and reaching that level at such an early age is a clear indication of his intelligence and drive).  While I’ve never chatted with Frank, I know from his fellow contestants that he’s a charcuterie expert, which means he cures meats at home…making sausage and bacon and guanciale and copa and prosciutto, and it’s his dream to open a sausage restaurant in NYC.  With his brilliant entrepreneurial mind, I have absolutely NO DOUBT that we’ll all be able to eat at his place sooner rather than later.

Frank has a stunning website, Foodenomics, with incredible photography and recipes.  You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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