MasterChef: Week 1

I wake at 5am for my flight to Los Angeles to start my MasterChef journey!  I can barely open the front door to my house, though.  It faces north, and all night we’ve had ice falling from the sky.  My car is completely encased in an inch of ice…I can’t even get the key into the lock.  I finally melt through the ice with hot water, but the key simply won’t turn the lock.  It’s frozen solid.  I’ll have to get a hair dryer to warm the lock mechanism, but there’s no hair dryer in my house.  And the neighbor is sound asleep.

Then I realize that if I’m having this trouble getting into my car, imagine what’s going on at the airport!  I check the web.  Love Field is shut down.  DFW Airport has massive delays and cancellations.  My Southwest flight is cancelled, and the earliest they can get me out is tomorrow afternoon.  What if that jeopardizes my chances on the show?  I have to find a way to get to L.A.

Realizing there’s really no use doing anything until normal hours, I finally fall back asleep for a few hours of feckless and fitful dreaming.

At 9am I begin the 4 mile drive to DFW Airport, which takes me more than an hour because of ice on the road.  Abandoned cars litter the median, having slid off the road.  Dallas looks like a nuclear wasteland.  Luckily, few people are venturing to the airport for their flights, so I’m able to get a seat to LA almost as soon as I arrive.

A short cab ride from LAX and I arrive at the hotel.  I meet the casting agents, who will become my best friends over the coming days.  I meet the other contestants, from all across the country.  Everyone is so different, but we’re all here for one reason.  We love to cook.  And MasterChef thinks we each have a chance to win this competition.  It’s scary and exciting all at the same time.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been dropped into a scenario where I’m about to live and work with total strangers, knowing nobody, for an undetermined amount of time.  Everyone knows their goal is to beat everyone else and win the title.  So there’s a friendly but cautious decorum saturating our interactions with each other.  Over the coming days we do preliminary interviews introducing ourselves to the cameras and meeting the crew.

Alvin Schultz, Ben Starr's roommate on MasterChef season 2

Alvin smoking some Sailor Jerry rum in our hotel room with his "Smoking Gun"

My roomie and I get to know each other…Alvin Schultz from Houston.  A fellow Texan.  And a very cool guy.  Amongst his luggage is a homemade immersion circulator for “sous vide” cooking (cooking in a vacuum-sealed bag in a water bath at carefully controlled temps), an electric pressure cooker, a nitrogen-powered infuser which he uses to make Fresno-chili infused vodka cocktails with muddled pineapple (yum!), and a Smoking Gun, a device which produces concentrated wood smoke for culinary purposes (which he uses to make smoked rum cocktails).

It becomes apparent to me that if the rest of the contestants are like Alvin, my days at MasterChef may be numbered!  He has a vast body of culinary knowledge.  He’s brilliant.  And he’s friendly and generous.  While other contestants are in their rooms creatively using their irons and aluminum foil to make quesadillas and tortilla pizzas, Alvin is braising short ribs for us in the pressure cooker, poaching eggs in the circulator, and plying me with smoked and infused cocktail after cocktail.  I’m one lucky roomie.

A MasterChef contestant lives in this room (Christian Collins, to be precise!)

For a week, we do little but wait.  It takes a long time to cycle 100 contestants through interviews and evaluations, and many of my fellow Dallas contestants are still stuck in the epic blizzard.  We wait, sequestered to our hotel rooms unless we have an escort to leave.  People start to get antsy.

And after almost a week of waiting, we arrive at the studio where we’ll prepare our signature dishes for  Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliot, and Joe Bastianich.

The studio is an old furniture warehouse.  Grungy and dilapidated.  Filled with hundreds of thousands of dollars of camera, sound, and lighting equipment, and state-of-the-art kitchen stuff.  It’s exciting, but at this point I’ve been away from friends and family without contact for a week.  The pressure is really setting in.  I feel extremely lonely.  Luckily, I connect with someone in the line waiting to get into the studio…Renee Chodkowski from Michigan.  She has the kindest face I’ve ever seen.  She appears to be in her late 30s or early 40s, with a shock of pink hair falling across her forehead.  I ask her for a hug, and she wraps me in warmth and kindness.  I have just found a new best friend.

Waiting in line with the top 100 to enter the MasterChef studio for the first time

Waiting in line with the top 100 to enter the MasterChef studio for the first time

To watch the first 3 Signature Dish episodes, head to MasterChef’s website!

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