MasterChef Recap: Urchins and Master-Baiting

(This blog is not endorsed or approved by MasterChef and consists entirely of my own uneducated opinions.  I have no inside knowledge about how eliminations are made, or how judging takes place, for either last season or this season.  My opinions should not be treated as fact, or as any more valid than your own!)

There’s only 9 left, and fans have been bugging me to predict a winner.  Predicting a winner is SUCH a complex task, because so much more goes into the selection than just who makes the best dish in the final round.

On one hand I’m tempted to say Becky, but she would follow the exact same formula of the winners from the last two years…a female winner with a strong Mystery Box performance throughout the season.  Becky is incredibly talented, and sophisticated in her cooking.  But I don’ t think it will be Becky.  Becky is who we EXPECT to win, because she’s being portrayed as the most skilled and knowledgeable cook in the group.  And that person NEVER wins in reality TV.  It wouldn’t be a surprise.

One one hand, I’m absolutely convinced that the winner will be a guy this year, since the previous 2 season-winners were girls.  I vacillate between Frank and Josh.  They are both incredibly talented guys, both very likeable…but my gut tells me that none of the guys left this season are strong enough CHARACTERS to pull a win and represent the brand for the next year.

Then you’ve got the “underdog” factor, and the MasterChef producers LOVE an underdog, as do we.  Whitney Miller certainly was the underdog from season 1, and she won it.  And while Jennifer Behm had a strong performance across last season, the producers tried very hard to spin a mostly-nonexistent rivalry between Christian and Jennifer so that we would feel empathy for Jennifer being bullied by Christian.  It’s so fulfilling for underdogs to win it all.  With that in mind, I’d imagine that either Monti or Christine, or possibly Stacey, would make winners that would really be lifted up and revered by the audience, and smothered in love.  And they all certainly have the skills AND personality to back up the title.

I originally predicted top 4 for Felix the moment I watched her signature dish performance, and I still believe she’ll land in the top 4.  But they haven’t been spinning her in the same light in recent episodes, so I not certain she’ll win it.  At this point in the editing process, I’m fairly certain the producers and editors already know who has won (I could be wrong about that), so the way they’re editing the story can be revealing.    The winner will probably have a few narrow brushes with possible elimination between now and the finals, for maximum suspense, but will otherwise turn out very strong dishes and probably won’t float in the middle any longer.  The next few episodes should be very telling.

Right now, with 9 left in the competition, I’m calling top 4 for Christine, Felix, Josh, and Frank…because historically the top 4 is evenly split by gender.  (In fact, the whole season tends to run VERY close to an even split by gender, to keep the audience engaged.  How likely do you think it is that the competition would NATURALLY transpire that way if it was entirely merit-based?)

I think a more appropriate top 4 would be Becky, Christine, Felix, and Josh.

However, as strong as the girls are this year, I’d actually be delighted to see Christine, Felix, Monti, and Stacey in the top 4.  I think that would be a fascinating battle to watch.

So, as you can tell, I’m indecisive and can’t make up my mind.

On to the challenge at hand!  The mystery box is lifted, and underneath is a sea urchin!!!  Much of the country is unfamiliar with this ingredient, because it’s expensive, it is highly perishable and must be eaten within a day or so of harvest, and, frankly, most people have no interest in eating something that looks like it will kill you if you come anywhere close to it.

However, the sex organs of both the male and female sea urchin, which commonly goes by its Japanese name “uni,” are one of nature’s most stunning and surprising delicacies.  Eaten TRULY fresh, it has a silken, creamy consistency and a briny, pungent flavor.  You won’t love your first bite, it will puzzle you.  You’ll have a second bite to try and figure it out.  And by your third bite, you’ll be hooked forever.

BUT…and that’s a really, really big BUT…if it’s not TOTALLY fresh, the flavor is like a rotten carcass doused in Lysol and the texture is like aged mucus.  Seriously.  So for those of you in the center of the country outside the culinary meccas like Chicago, I wouldn’t recommend trying it until you’re on vacation in a city on the ocean!

That's the ocean surging at the bottom of the blowhole. Don't try this at home.

Uni is so delicious that, on a recent trip to Hawaii with Adrien and Christian from my season, Christian risked life and limb climbing down into an urchin-infested blowhole to get us all a snack!  Christian has also fed me uni at his house in Gloucester.  This man LOVES his uni.

While uni is only recently trendy in American restaurants, it is much-loved historically in Asia and the Mediterranean (the Italians call it “ricci”).  Most uni is served raw with condiments like lemon juice or soy.  But it can be added to cream sauces to make them rich and briny.  It can be cooked, but excessive cooking destroys its flavor, so it’s best to add it to a dish at the very end.  If you press the uni through a strainer to pop the individual particles, it basically melts like butter.

The contestants are in awe of the spiny urchin under their box.  Tali murmers, “It looks beautiful.  It kinda represents me in this moment right now.”  Ramsay warns them that some of the spines are poisonous…not true with the particular species of urchin they are cooking with.  However, it’s entirely possible for the spines to pierce the skin, if not handled gently, and if they break off inside you, they can cause a nasty protein infection, just like coral.

Uni is a fairly obscure ingredient, so I’m pretty sure the contestants receive a bit more education from Ramsay than we see before the challenge begins.  But we see him cut open the urchin through its mouth and remove the gonads, which are bright orange and referred to as “corals.”  They are not eggs or “roe” as they are often erroneously called.  But who wants to say that they’re eating gonads?

Ramsay says that he would make a fresh pasta, with half the uni in the pasta dough, and the other half in the sauce on top, along with fresh lobster.  (Uni is really only a flavoring ingredient, it’s not substantial enough to be a protein.)  Pairing uni with pasta is very common in Italy.  Graham says he would do some simple marinated vegetables, a seared scallop, and frothed uni sauce on top.

Becky shucks her uni bare handed, which impressed the judges, instead of using the provided spine-proof gloves.  (But the spines aren’t RAZOR sharp, you’d have to hit them pretty hard for them to pierce the skin.)

At the end of the hour, there are some very interesting dishes.  The most intriguing to me is actually Tali’s.  He’s got an “uni shooter” with a raw egg yolk, uni, watermelon, radish sprouts, and tequila…and let me tell you, that sounds GOOD!  But he doesn’t make it to the top 3.  The top 3 are:

Felix, and her uni risotto with peas and ginger, pearl onions, sake, and yuzu (which is an Asian citrus that is unique among all citruses because it can grow in cold climates like Japan).  The judges are each literally blown away by the risotto.  It sounds yummy to me, but one of Ramsay’s favorite sayings is “Fusion is confusion” and Felix definitely took a risk with this hybrid Japanese/Italian dish.

Josh is next with his first top-3 Mystery Box dish, much to Tali’s chagrin who says “Josh.  Seriously?  There’s no innovation.  I didn’t see anyone with my type of dish, because it’s never been done.”  (More on Tali later.)  Josh has made a delicate egg pasta with rock shrimp and an uni cream sauce, with uni corals on top.  Joe asks him if he knows what type of pasta he made.  Josh doesn’t know the name, so Joe proceeds to give him a lengthy lesson on how to pronounce “taglialini.”  As adamant as he was that Josh pronounce it properly, I was screaming “EXPRESSO, EXPRESSO, EXPRESSO!!!” at the screen!  (Joe, I offer you your own words: “You need to be able to say it if you’re going to cook it.”)  He then reveals that he serves taglialini ricci at his own restaurant, where Mario Batali is the executive chef, and is very impressed that Josh was intuitive enough to use that exact pasta to pair with uni.  I can tell that Joe is skeptical and thinks that maybe Josh looked up a recipe, but if he’s truly following his instincts and continues performing this way, I believe Joe will offer Josh a job in one of his restaurants.  Joe really likes Josh.  (Then Josh walks back to stand by Felix and he’s like 2 FEET taller than she is!  MAN he’s tall!)

Stacey rounds out the three, and she looks truly dumbfounded.  She has made sushi, and I’m surprised she’s the only one who did.  Sushi is how uni got introduced to America.  She’s got a rock shrimp roll with uni on top, and an uni aioli to dress both the rolls and a small salad on the side.  You can’t just suddenly make sushi if you’ve never done it before.  Your rice has to be cooked in such a way that it will stick together to make a roll.  You have to be comfortable with the whole rolling and cutting process so that you end up with perfect, beautiful slices.  And Stacey’s rolls are as perfect as they come.  And Gordon is blown away by them.

There can only be one winner, and Felix says that if they call Stacey’s name, she’ll shoot herself in the head.  It’s your lucky day, Felix…you don’t have to commit suicide!  Because Felix IS the winner.  But you could tell in Stacey’s eyes how badly she wanted to win.  Stacey has SUCH an expressive face, I can read her emotions loud and clear without her even having to speak.  I love that.

Felix heads back into the pantry to discover 9 fresh fish on ice, and she has to assign each fish to one of her competitors.  She takes halibut for herself (which surprises the judges because it’s a fairly complex fish), then she assigns the two hardest fishes to her 2 biggest competitors: rockfish (which is hard to fillet because of all the bones) to Becky, and the John Dory (which is spiny and tricky to fillet) to Monti.  (When Monti is introduced to her fish, she says, “I see my name next to another name.  John Doryyyyyy.  But it’s not a dude.  It’s a fish.  With big lips.  And a huuuuuge tongue.”  Monti’s quips will NEVER get old.)

She gives Frank the catfish because she thinks he probably hasn’t worked with it before.  Arctic char, an easy, steaky fish, goes to Tali.  David Martinez gets the best fish up there…the yellowtail tuna.  (That’s the fish I would have picked.)  And Christine gets the salmon, probably the easiest and most familiar fish, because Felix loves Christine.  Josh gets sardines, a nightmare to fillet because they’re so small.

Time starts and the contestants start to fillet their fishes and figure out what they’re like and how to prepare them.  This would be a particularly tricky challenge if you’re not actually familiar with that particular fish.  You have to grocery shop before you can even cut into it, cook off a bit, and taste it.  So the smart cook would get enough versatile ingredients to go in any of several directions based on what the fish tastes like and its texture.

I’d have definitely picked the yellowtail, and I’d probably do a Hawaiian/Mexican hybrid that I call “poke-mole” (pronounced “pokay-molay”).  Adrien Nieto birthed this brilliant fusion dish in Hawaii this winter.  Hawaiian “poke” is a dish of raw fish with Asian ingredients like ginger, seaweed, and sesame.  Adrien spun that into something like ceviche and guacamole by adding avocado and cilantro, and let me tell you…it is TO DIE FOR.  So the yellowtail gets marinated in sesame oil, lime juice, a splash of soy, and is tossed with fresh seaweed, onion, garlic, avocado, cilantro, and toasted sesame seeds.  And I’d make some homemade tortillas and fry them crisp to serve it on.  YUM!

Felix is up first, and she has poached her halibut (in butter, perhaps?) and served it on a square bed of bamboo rice (traditional short grain rice soaked in bamboo juice, which gives it a pale green color and a floral aroma), with asparagus and a lemon and green apple sauce.  It SOUNDS beautiful, and I love the colors.  But the judges say her halibut is overcooked.  (Halibut overcooks very easily, you have to be careful with it.)  And Joe bites her face off for taking a harder fish when she could have taken an easy, superior fish for herself.  Graham even throws some sass at her by saying, “Do you feel good that, well at least I challenged myself and made a pretty crappy halibut dish?”  Ouch.  But I think they’re being a bit overly dramatic.

Monti is next, and Felix gave her the difficult John Dory, expecting her to get eliminated.  Her John Dory fillet looks stunning, and it’s served on asparagus with a roasted almond sauce.  Her fillet is apparently perfectly cooked.

Frank brings up his Indian-style fried catfish with eggplant in a sauce of garam masala (a traditional blend of Indian spices), coconut milk, and leek.  Here in the US we’re accustomed to deep frying our catfish, and it’s one of the only ways this fatty, muddy fish tastes good.  But in Asia, the catfish is revered…there are hundreds of varieties, and they are often served in complex broths and sauces, and Frank’s is apparently brilliant.

Becky had the rock fish, another difficult fish to cook because of all the little bones, but she has a gorgeous skin-on fillet of rock fish on top of celery root puree, with an interesting sauce of Chardonnay emulsified with egg yolks.  The judges are impressed.

David Martinez is next, and he’s got a thick fillet of yellowtail tuna with a firey sauce that’s almost too much for Gordon to handle, alongside aioli potatoes and a red cabbage and red onion slaw.  Bastianich complains that the yellowtail is completely raw (after Gordon just mentioned that yellowtail is so beautiful you can eat it raw), but his presentation style was hinging on a cooked fillet.  (Regardless, please don’t EVER cook tuna all the way through.  It should be served medium at the most.)

Tali is next, with arctic char cooked en sous vide.  (Sous vide means “in a vacuum” and it’s a popular cooking technique in high-end restaurants these days…you place a cut of meat in a vacuum-sealed bag and immerse it in a carefully controlled water bath so that it cooks very slowly and precisely.)  Sous vide can be a BRILLIANT technique for red meats and organ meats and duck, but it’s not a common technique for fish.  And Joe, who abhors Modernist cuisine, just devours his soul.  “You think you’re going to impress us with things like sous vide…emulsify…”  To be fair, the sous vide technique was probably a wrong choice for the arctic char, but some of the best meat I’ve eaten in my entire life was made with the sous vide technique.  Tali’s lentils are overcooked, the char doesn’t taste good, and Joe tells Tali, “You’ve consistently disappointed us.”  Gordon follows up with, “You’re misinterpreting the competition.  It’s Master Chef.  Not Master Bait.”  Nice pun, Gordon.  But he’s referring to Tali’s tendency to give sound bytes like, “I think the judges struggle with understanding my flavors.  They can’t see the beauty and the genius that is my food,” and “It’s frustrating when chef Ramsay interrupts me in the middle of my creative genius explosion.  It’s kind of like interrupting a master artist like Picasso.”

I should pause here and say that Tali is a popular person in his life back home.  I think these masturbatory phrases are probably being coaxed out of him.  I can easily imagine the person interviewing him saying, “Tali, you’re just so brilliant.  *I* get your food.  But I get so frustrated when the judges don’t get what you’re trying to do.  Talk about that for me.”  And Tali replies, “Why don’t they see the genius that is right in front of them?”  Of course, that’s entirely speculation.  But if I’ve tried to teach you all ONE thing about reality TV, it’s that you can’t make character judgements based on what you see on TV.  There are lots of tricky little ways for producers to get the sound bites they want, so that characters are lovable, annoying, and fun for us to watch.

Last up is Christine, whose salmon is actually a mess, and she knows it.  Before the judges even taste it, she says that Felix gave her the salmon as a favor to help her, but she screwed it up.  Her salmon is overcooked, and it’s panko crusted, but the bread crumbs aren’t cooked.  So she must have baked or pan fried the fish and THEN rolled it in breadcrumbs.  Graham points out that everything on the plate is the same color: the overcooked salmon, the bread crumbs, and the rice.  This is definitely Christine’s weakest performance in the show thus far, and I’m getting worried for her.  The judges are very surprised and disappointed, as are her fellow contestants.  Monti says, “I’ve never seen Christine do anything that’s not perfect.”  I had PLENTY of off days on the show, Christine, I know it can happen and I know how it feels to feel like you’ve disappointed EVERYONE in the room.

The judges announce that Monti’s dish was second-best of the day, and Frank’s was the best.  So they’re going to be team captains in the next group challenge.

And the 3 at the bottom are David Martinez, Tali, and Christine.  They ask Christine to step forward, and the elimination music begins to play, tugging at our heartstrings as she weeps.  In a moment of raw vulnerability, Christine says, “If I go home today, I should still be really proud of myself…and I totally am.  But I’m not here to just be an inspiration, you know?  I wanna be taken seriously.”

This is heavy stuff.  And I understand her.  So many times throughout the competition, I looked around at everyone and saw how much better they were than me.  And I thought, “I’m not still here because of my cooking skills.  WHY do they still have me here?  Because they want me to represent the gay community?  Because they like my silly hats?  Because they enjoy the way I can articulate and narrate the story so they don’t have to pay that terrible, cheesy announcer as much?”  But my continued presence on the show was eating at me.  I knew I wasn’t there because of my cooking skill.  But I really, really wanted to be.

That has to be dramatically escalated in Christine’s mind.  I know for a fact that she wondered every night if they were just keeping her around because she was an inspirational figure and the audience would like her.  Those are scary things to think about.

And of course we all love Christine, but even if she wasn’t blind, we would still love her.  Because she is bright, intelligent, articulate, sweet, straightforward, and GENUINELY one of the best cooks in the competition.  But is this her last day in the competition?

Gordon heaps praise upon her exactly as he does before an elimination.  And my heart is racing in my chest.

“Christine…your time…in MasterChef………………………….(an even longer Ramsay pause than normal)……………………………….is not over.”

And we get another shot of laughter through tears (my favorite emotion) as she says, “I know I have to step up my game because it’s getting down to the nitty gritty, and everyone is really good.”  And then, with perfect genuineness, she admits, “I’m nervous about how I compare to everyone else.”

I am intensely curious as to how many other contestants have asked that question in front of the camera.  I know I asked it a thousand times.  I wonder if Tali or David ever said that?  If so, it would never be aired.  It is moments like these that, when the producers choose to reveal them to us, we really see the humanity in a character.  I love Christine.

That leaves David and Tali.  And it’s a tough call.  I honestly believe that Tali is probably the superior cook in terms of knowledge and skill.  I really don’t believe his dishes were as bad as the judges have consistently said they were.  I believe he was playing the scapegoat for Gordon and Joe’s hatred of Modernist (or Molecular) gastronomy, just like Alvin Schultz was last season.  (And believe me, Alvin was one of, if not THE SINGLE BEST cook from last season.  Period.)  But Tali plays in Tali world, he doesn’t start arguments, he doesn’t fight back when he receives criticism.  And that makes him less valuable to the story than David.  So I knew, before they even said it, that Tali was going home and David was staying.  Despite a typical Ramsay hyperbole, “David, that was the worst disaster I’ve seen in all of Yellowtail history.”

I will miss Tali.  I’ve been amused by his sound bytes of stupendous ego…they make me laugh because they’re so preposterous they can’t be entirely genuine.  Tali’s dishes were consistently COMPLETELY out of the spectrum of tradition, which I like seeing.  He marches to the beat of his own drum.  He combines flavors recklessly and with complete disregard for convention.  And, historically, these people can, indeed, turn out to be truly great artists, scientists, and scholars.  And oftentimes, their brilliance is overlooked by their generation and isn’t truly understood and respected until they have passed on.  I’m not saying this is necessarily the case with Tali.  But I am saying that I enjoy seeing these characters on TV.  They puzzle me.  And they challenge my mind.

David is safe to see another MasterChef day, and it’s down to 8.  Who will be the next to go?!?

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