MasterChef: Shepherds Pie and Venison Backstrap

Today will be the last mystery box of MasterChef. After today, the final 4 will be announced and will go head-to-head in the semi finals. I have not won a single mystery box in this entire competition. And when I analyze my competitors, this is what I think:

Christian – Sure, he may be a little cocky at times, but he has a right to be. He has overcome major obstacles in his life. He is now a proud father of a young son, with another child on the way. He lives a few blocks from the ocean and literally provides for his family by foraging from the sea. He is the most skilled cook among us…whether or not you like me saying that.

Adrien – I have thought from the first day of MasterChef that Adrien would win. He may not have skills to match Christian, but he has spirit and creativity by the truck full. When he talks about food, he gets so emotional and so intense. Adrien LIVES food. And even though he’s had a few disasters in the MasterChef kitchen, he has produced some of the most stunning food in this contest. He has that magic combination of soul AND skill that wins over people, and wins competitions.

Jennifer – I have cooked next to Jenn almost this entire competition. She is calm, collected, focused, and she knows her food. On the outside she may look like a beauty queen…she WAS Miss Delaware…but on the inside she has this down-to-earth, tell-it-like-it-ish, almost tomboyish flair that makes being with her a breath of fresh air. She’s won more mystery boxes than any other contestant. She knows her stuff.

Suzy – Oh, Suzy! She is this adorable little package of sugar and salt. You can tell just by listening to Suzy that she has always been a straight-A student. And this bleeds over into her study of cooking. She knows classical cuisine inside and out. And like her or not, she’s good.

When I look around at my 4 fellow competitors, I realize that I am, in fact, the weakest cook here. The competition has come down to skill at gourmet cuisine, and this is something I have very little experience with. My family couldn’t afford to eat out when I was young. As a struggling adult, I also couldn’t afford to dine well…I only had enough money to cook at home. I haven’t been exposed to “cuisine.” Even in my extensive travels, I end up in the kitchen in the homes where I stay with local families, cooking with them. But it’s still all common, down-home cooking that I know, whether that happens to be down-home Mexican, down-home Indian, down-home Italian, or down-home Texan. And this competition isn’t about who in America makes the best down-home food. It’s about who has the makings of a MasterChef inside them.

So I have my work cut out for me if I’m going to stay in this competition.

We lift the mystery box, and there sits ground meat. Beef, veal, and pork, to be exact. With numerous veggies. And Worcestershire Sauce. (Can anyone ACTUALLY correctly pronounce Worcestershire? I’ve BEEN to Worcestershire, in western England, and they seem to pronounce it WUSS-ster-sher.)

And I think back to the very first day I cooked for Gordon Ramsay. He asked me about my travels and about how many different types of cuisine I could cook. Then he asked me, “Can you cook British food?”

I looked him in the eye and said, “I’ll make you a Shepherd’s Pie and let you decide.”

Before me sit all the ingredients to make Shepherd’s Pie. Well, except for the most important ingredient…ground lamb. But I’ve got ground veal, which will substitute nicely. So here we go, Chef Ramsay. I’m keeping my promise.

I’ve never made Shepherd’s Pie before. I know what it is…browned meat and cooked veggies swimming in a dark saucy so rich and decadent it makes your hair stand on end, capped with tender mashed potatoes, and baked until nicely browned.

I reduce a full bottle of red wine and a quart of beef stock until it’s syrupy and thick. I cook carrots, celery, onions, garlic, and peas individually, to make sure each one is perfectly done…still a bit crunchy, but cooked. I brown the ground beef and ground veal until they have a nice crispy crust on the outside, but retain enough moisture to be tender. Then it all comes together. I spread soft, garlicky mashed potatoes on top, brush it lightly with egg wash so it browns nicely, and put it in the oven. When it comes out, it looks perfect. I finish it with a drizzle of reduced red wine, beef stock, and Worcestershire sauce.

And it’s good enough to win me my first mystery box challenge on MasterChef! (Sorry, Suzy…she also made Shepherd’s Pie and announced to the camera that mine couldn’t possibly be as good as hers! Though I think she said it this way: “Ben is making Shepherds Pie, too, which is like showing up to prom and some other girl is wearing the same dress. I don’t think Ben will look as good in that dress as I do.” Well, I guess I looked at least passably good in that dress, because I got my first win!!!)

I follow the judges back into the pantry as they congratulate me on my first mystery box win, and Gordon tells me I’ve become a top contender for the title of MasterChef.

In the pantry, Gordon announces that a celebrity chef with 12 Michelin stars has prepared three dishes, and I will choose one of them to replicate. As he rails on about how successful this celebrity chef is, my mind races… Who could it be? Mario Batali? Thomas Keller? Bobby Flay?

Then Gordon steps off the podium and walks in front of me, extending his hand. “Hi, BenStahh, I’m Gordon Ramsasy.”

This guy is nuts. I have developed such an affection for Gordon Ramsay. I think we’d be great friends in another life.

I taste 3 incredible dishes. Each one is a signature dish at Gordon’s signature restaurant in London. Each one costs more than $50 at his restaurant. And they are each so incredible, I start crying just from the taste. Crispy, tender duck. Flaky halibut. And then…my favorite…venison tenderloin. I had been begging the judges for venison tenderloin this entire competition. I doubt most of my competitors have cooked with venison before. I’m from Texas, I’ve cooked venison a hundred times. Venison it is.

But it’s not a simple dish. There are thinly shaved parsnip chips. A creamy puree of parsnip. Braised red cabbage with roasted beets, and a giant square of Portabella mushroom that’s been cooked delicately in butter. And a fragrant red wine sauce. This will not be easy.

I’m allowed to ask 3 questions about the dish, and I throw my first one in the garbage. I had heard Gordon say “beets” but not cabbage, and while I was tasting the cabbage, thinking it was beets, I just couldn’t figure out how he got beets to taste like cabbage. “It’s not beets,” is his answer. “It’s cabbage.”

Strike 1.

My next question is about his parsnip puree. Parsnips are one of my favorite vegetables. They are white carrots, and each bite of parsnip tastes like all the carrots in the world smacked into your mouth. But the puree was SO creamy…I never imagined you could get parsnips to cook down so smooth and creamy.

“They’re simmered with milk, pureed, and then finished with reduced cream.”

That’s good to know.

My last question is about the venison tenderloin. When I cook backstrap at home, I sear the loin on a flaming hot cast iron skillet to develop a nice crust all over the outside, and then take it off when it’s still very rare and cool inside. To me, that’s the only way to eat venison.

But Ramsay’s venison doesn’t look seared. The outside is barely gray, not black at all, and the inside is a perfect uniform pink (medium rare) all the way through with no gradation in color. I have NO clue how he could pull off that kind of uniform cook.

“The venison is warmed gently in butter, almost like being poached. Then it’s finished off with a very delicate sear in the pan, moving it constantly so the heat doesn’t penetrate farther than the outside.”

And my 3 questions are over. But I have a good head start. The other contestants don’t get to ask any questions. They have to guess.

Time begins and I prep my dish. I’m not worried about ANY of the side dishes…they all seem straightforward to me. The venison is what I’m worried about. I’ve never “warmed” venison in butter before. How long should I warm it? What temperature should the butter be? How do I know when it’s ready? I’m against the use of thermometers, because they leave a hole that allows all your juices to escape.

I warm the butter on the stovetop until it’s melted and is about 200 degrees. Then I slip the venison tenderloin into the butter, cover it with foil, and let it sit.

At 5 minutes to serving, I take out the tenderloin and cut into it. I was totally nervous, having never cooked with this method before. And…the venison is pinkish grey all the way through. Overcooked. Ruined.

In fact, the judges are displeased with EVERYONE’s replication except for Suzy, who has done justice to this challenging dish even though it’s the first time she’s ever cooked with venison. But I was the one who had insider knowledge about how to properly cook this dish. And I still managed to screw it up. If anyone deserves to go home tonight…it’s me.

The judges feel the same way. But Gordon says that I have delighted them and that they feel I have a future in food television. They each embrace me, and Gordon plants a big kiss on my cheek.

Now how many people can say they’ve been KISSED by Gordon Ramsay?!?

I leave filled with joy and optimism. It is my time to go. I am outmatched by my competitors in skill, but not in heart. Heart helps win competitions, but not by itself!

I will readily admit that I hate watching television. Particularly reality television. I think it brings out the worst in people. When I made the decision to go on MasterChef, I did it deliberately because I wanted to send a message to TV producers that reality TV contestants don’t have to be mean, backstabbing, or conceited in order to be interesting to an audience.

Only YOU can say whether I accomplished that goal!

Thanks for watching MasterChef, keep watching until the end! My money’s on Adrien!

3 Responses to MasterChef: Shepherds Pie and Venison Backstrap

  1. yes you accomplished that goal!, love your hats by the way :), say hi to your mom!

  2. Hi Ben,
    I am Chamali, all the way from Sri Lanka. Have you ever been here?
    I just finished watching the episode you described…. long long time after it initially aired I know but its only recently I got hooked into watching masterchef. I just had to comment after reading this specially the final bit about reality television. And oh. my. god!!!! You are so RIGHT!!! I didnot like season 2 much because of all the rivalry going on…. season one was much better in that aspect cuz there was rivalry but nothing this intense.

    You were a delight to watch, and I must tell you that at least in my humble opinion you accomplished your goal. You were awesomely, crazily entertaining and you didn’t have to talk smack about your fellow contestants to be that way. I really hoped you’d be there till the end… but that was not the case. It was sad to see you go Ben Starr but its awesome to see that you have done so well after the competition.

    Cheers

    • Chamali, thank you so much for your sweet comment! If you didn’t enjoy the rivalry for season 2, you should not watch ANY more seasons of MasterChef! This last season, season 4, was ONLY about rivalry. There was almost no cooking at all. The show has become very sad. *sigh*

      Thanks again for your wonderful message. I have never been to Sri Lanka, but I hope to visit. It is high on my list. I’ve been fortunate to experience eastern India and I want to return!

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