MasterChef Recap: Monti Gets the Boot

(Please note, this blog is not endorsed or approved by MasterChef and all information in this blog reflects uneducated opinion on my part.  I have no inside knowledge about how decisions are made on the production of MasterChef.)

It has been embarrassingly long since my last MasterChef recap.  In fact, Season 3 has ended already, and I still haven’t watched the finale.  I am 4 episodes behind.  So I will do my best to bash out these final 4 blogs as quickly as possible.

We’re down to the top 5, and this episode marks the episode where I was eliminated last season.  Still in the running are Monti, Josh, Frank, Christine, and Becky.  All are VERY solid cooks, each with their own strengths.

The Mystery Box this time has absolutely nothing underneath it.  In another twist that I’m VERY jealous of, the contestants get to take their box into the pantry and choose up to 15 ingredients “that can create a dish that says YOU on a plate” according to Bastianich.  And I’m throwing a little tantrum in my living room that they get to do that, and I didn’t.

But of course, it’s never that easy, and the judges then make the contestants pass their box to the contestant in front of them.  Still easier than a normal mystery box, in my opinion, because at least all the ingredients in the box were selected with a single, finished dish in mind, and you don’t end up getting something like scallops and bananas in the same box.  (Which I paired anyway.)  Becky FREAKS out…”Celery, Josh…really?!?”

Monti gets Christine’s box and gives us a line that tickles me pink.  “Fish sauce?  What the hell is fish sauce?  And why does it taste like death?”

As someone who has lived in Thailand, I know exactly what fish sauce is, and how amazing AND horrid it is.  I’ve blogged about it before, but fish sauce is basically made from all the fish from the net that are too small to be eaten.  They are basically pureed into a slurry, salted, and left in giant vats out in the sun to rot.  The liquid is drained off the solids, it is strained for clarity, and they add sugar to it…and that makes fish sauce, which is the staple ingredient for virtually EVERY single dish in southeast Asia, even breakfast and dessert.  I challenge you to find me a Thai recipe that doesn’t call for fish sauce.

When you open a bottle of fish sauce, your kitchen is filled with the putrid smell of rotting fish.  And you think, “This could never EVER be good to use in anything.”  But Thai food tastes flat and bland without it.  And once you add it to a dish, magic happens.  I’m so addicted to fish sauce that I even use it in my Italian tomato sauces (in place of anchovy paste, which the Italians are incredibly fond of using to add savory complexity to sauces).  Just don’t get any on your skin, ESPECIALLY not your nose.  One time in Montreal I was sniffing a jar at a Vietnamese restaurant to find out what was inside, and the jar accidentally touched my nose and all I could smell all day was rotting fish.  GROSS!

Only 3 of the 5 dishes get final tasting, and Becky isn’t one of them, possibly because she left her crispy chicken skin in the oven.  (Don’t worry, Becky…I know exactly how it feels to leave out your signature ingredient!)

Josh is selected, and he sticks to his Southern roots despite having Frank’s Italian ingredients, and makes a savory bread pudding with pork topped with crispy fried onions and fresh mozzarella, on a tomato sauce with sauteed beet greens.  (Frank was going to make a sausage sandwich.)  The judges love it, and it does look divine.

Monti gets into the top 3 with Christine’s ingredients, and she makes a Tom Kha soup, which is one of my favorite substances on the planet.  Tom is Thai for soup, and Kha is Thai for galangal, which is a ginger-like aromatic root that flavors this coconut-milk based soup, exploding with lime, lemongrass, and all those aromatics that make Thai food so incredible.  Miraculously, this is Monti’s first attempt at Tom Kha, and like a truly great chef, she lets her palate be her guide as she builds this soup…constantly tasting and adjusting, using her images of Christine as her inspiration.  The judges are incredibly impressed at this feat, and I am, too.

Christine has the final dish to be selected, and with Becky’s box she produced oven roasted chicken, roasted beet salad with goat cheese, and sauteed mushrooms, with a cream sauce and some fresh beet greens.  It’s a classic spread, and it looks incredible.

And the winner is Josh!  It’s his first mystery box win.  Be careful, Josh.  My first mystery box win was at this exact same point in the competition.  I won the advantage for the elimination challenge, which was also to replicate a dish from one of the judges’ restaurants.  And I got the boot.  So I’m automatically very nervous for Josh.

Back in the pantry, he’s presented with 3 dishes from Graham Elliott’s flagship restaurant in Chicago, each of which has been ordered by “3 of the  biggest names on this planet” according to Ramsay.  The first is one of Oprah’s favorite dishes: sweet corn bisque with red pepper jam and a cilantro marshmallow, which, excepting the marshmallow, sounds like dinner to me!  The second is NOT one of Jay Z’s 99 problems: Alaskan king crab with vanilla creme fraiche, pomegranate, edible flowers, and celery gelee.  (If that sounds ridiculously fancy to you, it does to me, as well, and it doesn’t look very appetizing either…the colors are bizarre, and I’m rarely in the mood to eat celery jelly.)  Josh is also surprised that Jay Z would eat a “froo froo lookin’ dish like that.”  The third is President Obama’s delight: white tuna sashimi with avocado mousse, passion fruit, and crispy plantain chips, garnished with cacao nibs (the fermented pod that is later processed into chocolate) and radish slices.

Personally, I’d choose the sweet corn bisque, because I think it has enough complexity that it might trip up the competition…especially with that darned marshmallow.  (I hate marshmallows, but I know how to make them.)  If it were up to me to choose one to eat, though, I’d order several plates of the white tuna sashimi.  Passion fruit is one of my favorite flavors and textures on the planet, and I love the idea of pairing it with raw tuna.  And I absolutely adore avocado mousse.  I was introduced to sweet avocado mousse by my partner’s grandmother, and in Brazil, avocado is NEVER used in a savory application…it is exclusively eaten as dessert.  That sounds a bit weird to most of us in the US who are accustomed to guacamole, and avocado sliced on our salads and sandwiches.  The white tuna dish is exceedingly simple, but Josh picks it anyway.  Only one element has to be cooked…the plantain chips.  The rest is careful slicing and portioning, and keeping a balance between the VERY minimal ingredients on the place.

The contestants are shown the plate and get to taste it.  Christine is very nervous about replicating the dish, especially since she can’t see it.  We get a sobering shot of her actually feeling the dish with her fingers to “see” it, so she knows where everything goes.  Her assistant is not allowed to help her with this.

Time starts, only 30 minutes of it, and everyone scrambles.  The first step is to heat the oil for frying the plantains, and to get the tuna steak into the freezer to firm it up for slicing.  (Josh and Monti, and perhaps others, don’t do this…big mistake.  For perfect slicing of fish, it needs to be a firmed in the freezer for a bit first.  I can see from watching Becky slice hers that she used the freezer to her advantage.)

Christine is first up, and her dish looks almost exactly like Graham’s, and it tastes that way, too.  Joe is really becoming intrigued by Christine at this point, and he waxes poetic about how the things he sees in his head when he drinks wine must be similar to the things Christine sees when she tastes food.  Joe suffers from a bit of camera shyness now and then, especially when he’s not furious enough to throw plates around and spit out food, but I can see the genuine intrigue in his eyes when he talks to Christine, and that’s refreshing to see in reality TV, especially from him.  Gordon is so amazed that he whispers to Christine, “Am I being punked?”  Christine is obviously proving how advanced her palate and instincts really are.

Monti is up next, and she is not at all satisfied with her product.  Her fish isn’t cut smoothly, her avocado mousse is diluted with cream, and her plantains are too thick.  Gordon praises her past performance and her ability to be creative on a budget, but says that she has missed the mark on this one.

Frank is up next, and his dish looks pretty darned close to Graham’s, and Graham praises him for it.

Becky follows, and receives criticism for ladling too much passion fruit onto the plate and for lack of visual impact.  She gets chastised extra hard for this, because as a food photographer, they expected a more precise presentation.

Last but not least, Josh presents his dish, having had the upper hand in selecting the dish and asking questions about it.  Josh has also decided to “improve” Graham’s dish with the addition of diced mango to help balance the sourness of the passion fruit.  Graham knocks him for it.  (As Monti said, “It would be totally stupid to try to add to Graham’s dish; the dude is, like, amazeballs.”)  He also plated 5 portions of tuna, rather than 4, and the portions weren’t equal…some were large, and some were small.  Graham says, “It looks like you had 10 minutes to make it, instead of 30.”  Joe says it’s under-seasoned and “misfired on all elements.”

Now it’s time for a commercial break, and instead of a Walmart plug, we see a commercial that lets us know that viewers can actually order home delivery of dishes from the show.  This is something the producers had talked about during our season, but didn’t have time to pull it off.  This year they have paired with a company called Popup Pantry, which is a southern California company that does in-home delivery of gourmet meals that are mostly prepared, then flash frozen.  You heat them up at home, do final assembly, and then eat.  It’s an interesting concept.  Not something I think I’d patronize, myself, though.  If YOU ordered any of the meals from this season, please let us know in the comments, I’m interested to see how they turned out.  (They are currently offering the full menu from the finale, both contestant’s menus, for $80, including shipping.  At $40 a meal, that’s probably about what you’d pay at a fine dining establishment.  Though I’m not sure how the whole shipping of ice-cream works…)  Check the link out here.

It’s judging time, Christine is held up as the winner, while the bottom 3 are obviously Becky, Monti, and Josh.  Historically, the judges come down extra hard on contestants who had an advantage but did not excel.  That’s exactly what happened to me.  Fans remarked that on my elimination, there were others who had seemingly-worse dishes than me…but because I was able to get inside knowledge on how the dish was prepared, I was judged (deservingly) with an extra measure of strictness.  So I am dead certain at this point that Josh is going home.

It comes down to Josh and Monti.  And no matter how you cut it, Josh seems to be the obvious choice for elimination.  Monti has consistently impressed and surprised the judges, with only a few flops.  Josh has stellar highs and catastrophic lows, and is less consistent than Monti.  But normally the judges do not take past performance into consideration.  Even the strongest cook in the competition can get eliminated if they produce one bad dish.  And since Josh had inside knowledge and the upper hand, and STILL produced a dish that received more criticism from the judges than anyone else…he’s got to be the person leaving the MasterChef kitchen today.

But, of course, he’s not.  They’re sending Monti home.  Because she’s a lovable character that the audience has totally fallen for, and a MONSTER WAVE of sympathy and love will be showered upon her.  And Josh is the only polarizing character left in the show.  (Which probably means he’ll be in the finals, but absolutely MUST be in the top 4.)  It’s fairly apparent that Josh’s path to the final 4 was fairly set in stone, at least since he was glaringly selected to win back his lost apron when he was obviously out-cooked by both Stacey and Cowboy Mike in the win-your-apron-back challenge.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Josh is a bad cook.  He has produced some truly astounding stuff this season, and he could cook circles around me.  But I think it’s obvious that this elimination decision was engineered and not necessarily deserved.  No, I don’t think Monti is a better cook than Josh.  But I DO think she outcooked him in this challenge, just as he was outcooked in previous challenges and the true winners were not recognized.  He’s most definitely getting special treatment.  (But it’s reality TV…what’s new?)

This is the most painful elimination for me so far.  While I was shocked that Michael Chen was eliminated so early, taken completely by surprise when Tanya was double eliminated at the cusp of the top 10, shocked out of my gourd when Felix was eliminated, and absolutely FURIOUS when Stacey was both eliminated and then not given her apron back when she clearly outcooked everyone…this one is absolutely tragic for me.

Like the rest of you, I fell in love with Monti Carlo the instant she walked on camera.  I felt like I really knew her after a mere handful of episodes…she made me laugh and she made me cry within seconds of each other.

Then, with incredible fortune, I was able to TRULY become friends with Monti, when she invited me to help out with a fundraiser for the Phoenix Children’s Hospital alongside David Martinez.  And I discovered what a passionate, tender, vulnerable, brilliant, witty, hysterical, driven person she truly is in real life…one of the most likeable people I’ve ever met.  Monti’s heart is filled with love, and not only is she single-handedly scraping her living together to provide for her whirlwind-of-a-son, Danger…she also devotes boundless time and energy to help those less fortunate, especially underprivileged kids.  Monti Carlo has a heart of gold.

Watching her transformation over the past 2 months has been incredible.  Monti landed on the set of MasterChef fresh off a divorce, having only cooked for a few short years, wondering what to do with her life, doubting herself at every turn.  She faced constant criticism and underestimation from fellow contestants that she wasn’t sophisticated or creative or knowledgeable enough to be in the competition.  And slowly, miracle after miracle, she realized that she had incredible raw talent and brilliant instinct in the kitchen, and she won the admiration of an entire nation in the process.

Monti Carlo, I treasure your friendship and we have many incredible memories to make in the future.  It’s no coincidence that you and I, who so many fans draw comparisons between, were both 5th-chef-out.  If you ask me, it’s a darn good spot to be eliminated in.  And now I share it with good company.

If you know what’s good for you, you’ll like her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, and subscribe to her blog on her fabulous website Slap Yo Momma.

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