MasterChef Season 3: Auditions

So I’ve been on the road for the past 3 weeks, and I missed the original airing of the MasterChef auditions.  After a frantic arrival back in Dallas with barely enough time to cook for FRANK on Saturday, I finally had time to sit down and get caught up before the show airs tonight!

The first thing that struck me was how much more “sensational” the show seems this season.  We’ve got the judges lifting up mystery boxes filled with cash, a blank cookbook, and something they seem to revere even MORE than the quarter-million and the cookbook: The Almighty MasterChef Trophy.

Huh?  Are these contestants REALLY supposed to get even more excited about a trophy than about a quarter-million or their own cookbook?  That seemed a little silly and anticlimactic to me.  But legacies have to start somewhere.  I wonder if the trophy is going to pass from winner to winner in future seasons, like the Stanley Cup, or whether each winner will get a trophy, like the Oscars.  Regardless…the whole trophy thing seemed kinda ridiculous and the excessive drama of its presentation doesn’t bode well for the rest of the season.

However, seeing those 100 contestants in that same filthy, grungy warehouse where I sat a year and a half ago, trembling and scared…it gave me the willies.  My heart went out to them…they’re just beginning to discover the realities and illusions of being a part of reality TV.

And we jump right in with Michael Chen as the first cook.  I confess…I know Michael pretty well.  We met when my season was airing and he started tweeting me and showing up at various appearances I made in Austin.  I was struck by his sincerity, and eventually his story unfolded for me.  Like many kids of Asian ethnicity whose parents emigrated here, he is expected by his family to over-achieve…to finish a degree that will lead to a high-profile and high-paying career, regardless of his own hopes and dreams.  I immediately thought of Seby Joseph from my season.  Seby was a high school student in the same situation, who practically ran away from home to be on MasterChef.  He lost his parents’ support after being on the show, and he moved to Austin after graduation to enter culinary school against their wishes.  I’m happy to report that Seby is doing very well in culinary school, and he and Michael have become friends.

Back to Michael…so after I learned that he was a meteorology student at A&M, but wanted to be a chef…a profession his parents were not thrilled about, I was really struck.  Then he started telling me stories about how his family was primarily only interested in the foods of their culture, and when Michael would spend hours perfecting an Italian or French or Mexican recipe, there wasn’t much interest in it at the dinner table.  I can’t imagine a kid continuing to pursue his passion in that kind of atmosphere.  Eventually Michael told me he was considering auditioning for MasterChef, though he said it might end up alienating himself further from his family.  You all know exactly what *I* encouraged him to do!  And, of course, I saw him at the auditions in Austin (and got a little inside scoop about what the producers thought about him afterward).  Secretly, I was totally confident that, not only would he be cast in the top 100, but he’d get an apron.  And, of course…he did!

Michael confided several things in me before he left to film the show.  First, he said that he was really bad on camera…nervous and stammering.  NOT what I saw last night!  I was actually VERY impressed by how confident, eloquent, and genuine he was on screen.  Second, he told me that he was gay.  This was not an easy thing for him to say.  I was one of the first people he had ever told.  As as a devout Christian from a devout family, it was something he had secretly struggled with for many years.  As I come from a devout family and was educated at a Christian university, I was probably a fairly appropriate person for him to talk to.  My own sexuality wasn’t addressed up front on my season of MasterChef, but I wanted him to know the very real possibility that his sexuality WOULD be brought up on the show, and that possibility should factor in his decision to go.

It ultimately became an important part of his decision to be on the show.  He knew that many young people in his situation were secretly struggling, and needed a role model to look up to.  (There aren’t many gay Christian role models on television.)  And if he had a chance to be that role model, and help out even one kid, he wanted to do it.  While most reality TV contestants make their decision to be on TV for fairly selfish reasons (like I did), it was so touching and compelling to hear Michael sound out his decision and ultimately decide to do it in hopes that he could help others.

Then he told me that he had decided to come out to his parents JUST before leaving to film the show.  That made me uneasy, but I kept my mouth shut and knew that only HE would know the right time.  (For those who are curious, I didn’t come out to my own parents until a few weeks before the show aired, at age 33, even though I’ve been with my partner for 10 years.  And I still didn’t feel like the time was “right” for them to know…but not knowing if my sexuality would be addressed in the final edit of the show meant that I had to.  It wouldn’t have been fair for them to learn this secret from the television rather than from me.  While they are most certainly STILL having a major spiritual struggle with it, I am lucky to have such wonderful and supportive parents, and they continually remind me that their love for me is the same as it ever was.)

Michael decided to be on the show and he came out to his parents on the car ride to the airport.  That takes guts.  I can’t IMAGINE the tension in that car.  But Michael has such courage to reveal that secret and then leave for Los Angeles to change his life!  And all that confidence totally came through when he walked in front of the judges.  I can’t tell you proud I was, watching all 3 judges lavish praise on him and hand him an apron.  I was crying buckets.  I am SO PROUD of Michael.  He’s an extraordinary kid with incredible talent and an amazing future ahead of him in the culinary world.  I can’t WAIT to see how he fares in the rest of the show!

For those who would like to know more about Michael, in addition to his Facebook, you can follow him on Twitter at @MC3Michael, or check out his blog at MC3Michael.com

Next on my list of “ones to watch” is Monti Carlo.  Her gorgeous retro-style housewife look is what originally struck me.  Then they air her back-story and we see her as a struggling, unemployed single mom in LA.  LA is NOT the city in which to be an unemployed single parent.  Joe Bastianich says that he thinks she’s pulling a scam…trying to tug on heartstrings rather than being genuine.  Well, I think Joe was either being told to say that by the story writers, or is a terrible judge of character, because Monti’s sincerity and transparency was immediately apparent to me.  Having seen what it was like for Christine Corley, the single mom in my season, to be away from her child in a desperate attempt to better her life so she could give her child a better future, I immediately connected with Monti.  Her Shepherd’s Pie with a Cuban twist sounded divine and everything about her scream STAR QUALITY to me.  She’s definitely one to root for, as well as watch out for!  (Monti has just moved to Phoenix, which I think is a step up from LA where it’s SO HARD to get ahead.  So all of you Phoenix fans do your best to support her in whatever endeavors she takes up there!)

The next contestant to wow me is Samantha McNulty, a high school student.  (I’ve tried to find SOME link to her somewhere on the internet, but there’s nothing on Facebook, Twitter, and the only articles I found that mentioned her were either generic or had been removed.  Maybe because she’s so young?!?)  Anyway, Samantha makes a carrot cake for her audition, which immediately strikes me because of my own carrot cake fiasco on the show.  Samantha is adorable, precocious, and obviously very talented.  Her cake looks divine.  And the only reason they decide not to give her the apron is because they think she’s too young.  They tell her to come back next year.  COME ON!  Have you EVER seen ANYONE  come back the next year on a reality TV show?  It DOESN’T HAPPEN.  That’s a blow off.  On my season, they “GUARANTEED” a contestant an apron on season 3.  Did that contestant materialize this season?  Of course not.  Will Samantha show up next season?  I hope so, but my gut says no.  I know first hand, as a very sensitive person who does NOT deal well with conflict, exactly how traumatic reality TV competition can be.  But when her own parents told Gordon that she could handle it, and knowing how caring and sensitive the casting folks are on the show…she’d have been JUST FINE.  I would have been very eager to see how Samantha played out on the show, and I’m disappointed that the judges and producers didn’t give her a chance.  I sincerely hope that the exposure she got from this will help her launch a career…though seeing how hard it is to track her down disheartens me.

Then we’ve got Ryan Umane, the “flavor elevator,” a NYC kid who’s frankly adorable but quirky enough to give me pause.  What on EARTH are those pants, Ryan?!?  Though I should be the LAST person to give fashion critiques…the wardrobe department always winced when I walked on set each morning.  I have all the fashion sense of a “WalMart shopper on a lazy day.”  (Quote provided by my fashionable friend Ryan from Portland.)  One day I showed up on set in a bathrobe with sweat pants on underneath.  Ryan is apparently a kid from a family of means, as Gordon and Joe love to harass him for.  I’m not sure why that makes him deserve a harsher critique.  Kids don’t choose the family they’re born into.  Personally, I think Ryan’s food looks and sounds divine, despite the ring molds that Ramsay seems to hate.  (Funny, in other cases he gets very picky about elegant presentation, but he wants to gripe at Ryan for it?)  I sort of feel like they’re going to make Ryan into the BenStarr of this year, but we’ll have to see.  Regardless, I think he’s destined for the top of the heap…he’s got knowledge and skill, a bold, standout personality, and he’s very likeable.  (And I wonder how many pairs of those pants he has?!?)  Some people are comparing Ryan to Max, but I don’t see that at all.  Maybe only in socioeconomic background, but that’s where it ends.  Ryan is a jokester.  Sure…that attitude can be edited to appear cocky quite easily, but I’ve actually talked to Ryan on the phone a few times, and he’s not that kind of guy.  He’s smart, sweet, more than a bit silly, and I think he’s going to be the comic relief this season…but with skills to back it up.

Next up we’ve got Shami, a Seattle recruiter originally from Zimbabwe, and the first thing I see is multiple cast iron skillets on her stovetop.  GOOD GIRL!  She conforms to a standard recipe of her culture, and Ramsay slams her for it.  NOT characteristic, as Ramsay himself has traveled and studied widely in India and I would think he’d have a greater appreciate for Shami presenting something that truly represents her background.  I would most definitely have given her a thumbs up…the food sounded amazing, she has incredible screen presence…  My opinion?  Not giving Shami an apron was actually a huge, huge mistake.

I was fortunate to host Audrey McGinnis at FRANK last Saturday, and she told me all about her signature dish audition before I actually watched it.  Anyone with the balls to bake a cake in 1 hour for MasterChef is braver than I am.  Audrey has a cake business here in Dallas, so if you’re looking for an amazing cake for a special occasion, you should contact her.  Audrey’s got personality oozing from every pore.  For her audition, she brought handmade candy sculptures of each of the 3 judges to top the 3 cakes she baked for her audition.  NO cake is going to cool and firm up enough in an hour to hold a statue upright, and Audrey immediately fessed up to the judges as she was walking up, “Today I’m serving you a HOT MESS!  But it’s gonna taste amazing.”  I love that!  That kind of confidence and foresight will take her a long way on MasterChef.  Audrey is truly delightful and I’m so glad MasterChef brought us together!  (And the salted caramel she brought to me at FRANK is DIVINE!!!)

Of course, the person everyone is talking about this season is Christine Ha, the blind cook.  Christine immediately strikes me with her eloquence and poise.  I can tell we’ve got a smart cookie here.  Reality TV producers tend to shy away from highly intelligent contestants because they tend to figure out quickly the sneaky little ways that the show is engineered and manipulated, and tend to have the guts to speak up about it on camera.  So part of me is actually surprised to see them give Christine an apron for that reason alone.  Her food looks superb, and her choice not to serve a sub-par component of her dish is shrewd.  But she’s both the kind of contestant a reality TV producer dreams of and is terrified of.  The audience is going to immediately love her because of her courage and resourcefulness despite her disability.  But she’s also the kind of contestant that realizes EXACTLY how un-real Reality TV is, and is the kind of person who might call shenanigans on it.  I personally cannot WAIT to see how Christine fares the competition, and I applaud the producers for casting her.  Michael became good friends with her over the course of the show, and it turns out that Christian and I actually have a mutual friend, so I can’t wait to get to know her and taste her cooking.  As long as she plays the role of a contestant and doesn’t become jaded by the “unreal reality” of it, she is definitely a contender for the top.  Watching her cook is hypnotic!

Oh, FELIX, FELIX, FELIX!  Michael told me I would fall in love with you, and it took only about 2 seconds.  She reminds me of a movie star, I just can’t think of which one.  Felix is a fireball.  I hate using that word because they used it on the show, but that’s really just the best way to describe her.  Sassy and saucy and confident, oozing sexiness from every pore…  Oh, and she can apparently cook, too!  When Felix came on screen I stopped taking notes, and I rewound her segment several times.  I LOVE how she takes-on Bastianich.  But I also love her vulnerability and tenderness when her apron is on the line.  Felix is the kind of person who makes COMPELLING TV and the producers are SUPER lucky that she came out to audition.  I’m going to predict final 4 for this one!

Cowboy Mike rides in on a horse, which surprisingly isn’t the most glaring tactic for grabbing attention this season.  (I think the guy with the toothless monkey wins that award.)  I can tell Mike’s not entirely comfortable in front of the camera, and that makes me like him all the more interesting to me.  His venison with haricots verts (that’s “green beans” for 99.9999% of cowboys in the US) look quite sophisticated and probably shouldn’t have come out of a saddlebag.  He’d have earned an apron regardless of the horse, regardless of the story of his sister’s tragedy…he can obviously cook, and he’s good-looking with a rich voice that could earn him a highly paid job doing voice-overs for film previews and commercials.  Hopefully we’ll get over the adopted cowboy stereotype that the producers are obviously encouraging, and find out more about who Mike REALLY is and what all he can cook.

If I don’t start to wrap things up, you’re going to stop reading, so I’ll mention one more standout from the group…Craig.  Craig should have gotten an apron.  He’s hysterically funny and obviously a talented cook.  His eggplant rollatini was making my mouth water.  But ultimately, we’re all shrewd enough to realize that we’re watching Reality TV, not a cooking competition…a large part of the casting decision is based on personality, and Craig had it in abundance.  I’m really bummed I won’t be seeing more of him this season.

38ish aprons were handed out, I believe, and you didn’t see all of the winners.  One of the ones you didn’t see, but will soon be introduced to, is Tanya Noble.  I met Tanya at MasterChef auditions in Austin and I immediately thought…this girl’s going right to the top.  Tanya has an amazing culinary identity from her self-proclaimed gypsy background.  She’s got an incredibly bold, bright personality.  And I’m a bit miffed that I only caught a 1 second glimpse of her getting her apron.  However, the producers are probably saving her introduction for a big moment in the next episode, so I can’t wait to see it.  Tanya’s another one to watch.  She embraces the “culturally confused food” logo on her website, tonyanoble.com, and I think she’s going to be the Alejandra of this season.  Big, bold, multi-ethnic flavors, emotions right there on her sleeve…I can’t wait!

It’s going to be bizarre watching this season unfold.  No, I do not know the winner, as some of my other season-mates do.  I don’t WANT to know!  I want to let everything unfold and be a complete surprise.  I want to make predictions without ANY inside knowledge.  So if you happen to know…keep your mouth shut and let the rest of us enjoy this season as it happens!  There’s a great group of fascinating and talented cooks in the bunch.  Can’t wait for tonight!!!

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