My Weekend with Monti and David

Last week I went to Phoenix to help out with a fundraiser for the Phoenix Children’s Hospital that was initiated by Monti Carlo.  I’ve been wanting to meet Monti for awhile, and when she invited me to help out, I was ecstatic.  To make things even more exciting, David Martinez and his wife were going to be helping out too.  (David is being spun as a fairly undesirable character on the show, so I was eager to meet him to see what he was REALLY like.)

On Wednesday night, I arrived at the airport for an 11pm flight to Phoenix on Spirit Airlines.  When I booked my ticket, I booked it to Phoenix.  When I printed my boarding pass, it said Phoenix.  The sign on the gate said, “Phoenix” and when we landed, the pilot said, “Welcome to Phoenix.”  When I walked off the airplane via steps directly onto the runway, and then walked into a tiny terminal with only 2 gates, I got VERY confused.  I walked up to the first person in an official-looking vest, and said, “I promise I only had 1 glass of wine on the plane, so please don’t think I’m drunk or crazy when I ask this, but…where the hell am I?”

The guy smiled and laughed.  “You’re at the Mesa Gateway airport.”

“Alllllllright.  And since I assumed I was flying into Phoenix, which is where I booked my rental car, how exactly would I get to the Phoenix airport?”

“Not really sure.  You might try a cab.”

“How much will that cost?”

“Oh, probably about a hundred dollars.”

I stared at him with my mouth open for a bit.  “How often do you get people like me in this situation…assuming that when they bought a ticket to Phoenix, they were actually going to fly there?”

“Oh, just about half the people from every plane that lands here.”

I looked around and, indeed, half the people from my flight were looking around in a confused way.  I dashed outside…at an airport this small, at midnight, I knew I’d have very limited options to get into town.  A whole cottage industry has apparently developed among locals who love to capitalize on travelers who have suddenly found themselves at the wrong airport, so some dude offered me a ride to Sky Harbor Airport for only $60!  How gracious of him.

As I forked over literally half my travel budget for the weekend and got in the car, I posted my predicament on Facebook and was IMMEDIATELY offered a ride by my fan Dana, who lives near that airport.  I shouldn’t have been in such a rush.  *sigh*

As I picked up my rental car, the guy at the counter said, “You’re a bit late!  What happened…did you fly into Mesa Gateway airport?”

“Yeah, how often does that happen?”

“ALL the time.”

Grf…  Spirit’s really got a racket going, but at least it’s benefitting the immediate local economy of the Mesa Gateway Airport.

At 1:30am I headed north toward Flagstaff.  I didn’t have to meet Monti until Thursday evening, and you all know I take any chance I can get to be in the wilderness.  For years, I’ve wanted to visit the Verde River hot springs, natural hot pools in the wilderness near Camp Verde, Arizona.  It’s about a 3 hour drive from Phoenix, much of it on rugged dirt roads in the Fossil Creek wilderness, so I didn’t arrive at the river until almost 4am.  Exhausted, I passed out in the back seat for a couple of hours until the sun rose and I couldn’t sleep anymore.  So I left the car and strolled to the banks of the river, which I would have to cross to reach the hot springs.  And this is what I saw:

During this time of year, the Verde River normally flows at around 90 cubic feet per second, and is shallow enough that you never get above your knees when you wade across.  However, this morning the river had decided to flood its banks and had peaked out just above 500 cubic feet per second.  Probably due to a massive monsoon rain the day before up in the watershed.  No Verde hot springs for me this time.  I was really, really frustrated, but I knew that nearby was legendary Fossil Creek and a dip in its crystalline waters would cheer me up.

Fossil Creek is a spring fed river that bursts from massive desert springs deep in the wilderness at a constant temperature of 72 degrees.  Most rivers in Arizona are fed from snowmelt and are rarely that warm, so it’s a treat to swim in Fossil Creek almost year round.  In the early 1900s, Fossil Creek was dammed and almost the entire flow of the creek was diverted to hydroelectric plants to supply nearby mining operations with electricity.  So for most of the 20th century, the entire ecosystem of the river was destroyed.  In 1999, the state of Arizona closed the power plants and decided to return the stream to its natural state, and the dam was removed.  In 2009, President Obama placed Fossil Creek on the Wild and Scenic Rivers list, so its natural flow can never be interfered with again.

Now Fossil Creek is an incredible place to swim and hike, with its huge flow of crystal clear water acting like an oasis in the desert, plunging over waterfalls and through deep swimming holes.  I spent the day lounging in the cool water and enjoying peace and tranquility…something I’ve been in desperate need of recently!

Eventually it was time to return to Phoenix, but I did so by way of Strawberry, AZ, a picturesque mountain village where the Strawberry Lodge serves up legendary pie.  The waitress recommended the buttermilk pie, and I gobbled it up.  Delicious, and HIGHLY recommended!

A few minutes north of Strawberry, I saw a photo pointing toward Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, and I had a couple of hours to spare, so I took a detour.  And boy, was it worth it!  The Tonto Bridge is the world’s largest natural bridge made out of travertine, or dissolved and redeposited limestone.  It’s like a giant cave formation, only not created in a cave, with a hole bored in it by a stream.  It’s so huge, it’s hard to describe.

Note the people in the center of the photo

The stream that deposited all that travertine over thousands of years and built the bridge still tumbles over the edge of it in a sparkling waterfall.

The stream the dug the hole in the waterfall still flows through the bottom of it and forms some wicked swimming holes, but unfortunately you’re not allowed to swim underneath the bridge.

The park is small but there is a lot to explore, including other waterfalls and caves:

Back in Phoenix, I checked into my hotel and headed over to meet the legendary Monti Carlo.  As I stood on her front porch, about to ring the doorbell, I couldn’t suppress a nervousness and the feeling that I was about to meet a celebrity.  I reached out and knocked, and moments later, the door opens and there she is, doing a little nervous dance saying, “I can’t believe you’re standing on my porch right now.”

And I think it hit us both at the same time how silly we both were.  NEITHER of us are celebrities, and we’re both in the exact same position.  So we giggled and over the course of about 5 seconds, became the bestest of friends.

Monti is a complex person.  She’s lived an incredibly hard life, from her childhood on a farm in Puerto Rico, to her life as a struggling stand-up comic.  This is what gives her that fierce drive that you can see just exploding out of her on the TV screen.  Instead of letting misfortune and difficulty transform her into a negative, pessimistic person, Monti looks back at her life and transforms it into comedy…she’s got incredible wit and timing, which explains those one-liners on MasterChef that leave us rolling on the floor.

Some of my fans have commented doubtfully about Monti’s line “Kiss my Puerto Rican @ss.”  Monti was born and raised in Puerto Rico.  English is her second language, even though she speaks it more eloquently than most of us who claim it as a first language.  She’s as Latina as David Martinez is Latino.  She developed her classic, timeless look while she was on MasterChef, and it was refreshing to see her in “mommy clothes” when I arrived at her house, with her hair down, relaxed, and down to earth.  (She’s still just as gorgeous without the makeup and the hair pinned up, though!)

If there’s one flaw I can find with Monti, it’s that she doesn’t have a clue how stunning she really is.  She’s not totally buying all the praise being lavished on her by fans about her beauty, even though it’s 100% deserved.  She showed me some photos of herself as a teenage beauty queen, and I honestly believe she’s more of a stunner now, in her 30s, than she was back then.

Monti is a mommy now, and having a young child does tend to interfere with one’s romantic life.  She hasn’t been on a date in years, if you can believe it!  But her child comes first in her life, and that’s incredibly admirable.

Speaking of her child…YES!  Monti’s kid is, in fact, named Danger.  And boy, is it an appropriate name!  That kid is a like a box of weasels with rubber bands around their tails.  And just as smart as he can be.  He turned 3 a few days before I arrived, and he’s already reading.  BOOKS.  He read me a book cover-to-cover and I figured he must have just memorized it from having it read to him so many times, so I pulled one of Monti’s cookbooks off the shelf and he started reading it to me.  Monti lets him watch Japanese cartoons on YouTube, and he also speaks some Japanese.  It’s CRAZY how smart that kid is!  (And he’s been stealing Monti’s cell phone and calling me a few times a day since I got home.  He talks mostly about his toy cars and about alligators.)

Soon, David Martinez and his fabulous wife, B, arrived, after a 20 hour drive straight through from Chicago.  David is moving to Phoenix to get his PhD in Education at Arizona State University.  You may have read my other blurbs about David, but if you haven’t, you’d be surprised to learn that the real life David Martinez and the TV David mah-tu-NEZ, are two completely and utterly different people.  Sort of like Christian Collins from last year.  David is a scholar.  He has a Masters Degree in Education, and will be completing his PhD soon.  His passion is educational support for underprivileged minorities.  He worked for the state of Illinois in this capacity before going on MasterChef.  And his dissertation will deal with the concrete cost of educating minorities, as compared to the down-the-road cost of not educating them.  He has a passion for helping youth elevate themselves from their situations through education.  He is incredibly bright, witty, well-read, and easily one of the most articulate and intelligent people I’ve EVER met.

People have been heaping hate on David via his Facebook and Twitter, and stooping to insults about his race and his size, as well.  One Latina even said something to the effect of “I am ashamed that you are the face of the Latino community on television.”  So everyone is hereby going to STOP being mean to David Martinez.  He’s under MY PROTECTION NOW!

I was eager to meet David based on my own impressions from watching the show, as well as insights into his character from Michael, Tanya, and Christine.  Many of my fans have been wondering why he hasn’t been eliminated from the show yet, based on his performance.  And after talking to him for maybe 30 minutes, I knew the answer.  The guy is a brilliant cook.  He has more food knowledge than many chefs I’ve met.  And it must be obvious to the judges and the producers that this is the case…he just kept stumbling in many of his challenges.  (Though in some challenges, his dishes have been stellar.)  David described it to me this way:

“All artists run into a block, from writers to painters to chefs.  When chefs hit a block, they go wander around France or Italy or somewhere with a legendary cuisine, to get inspired.  It’s a crying shame that my block happened to play out on national television, with cameras in my face, judges in my face, in the heat of competition.”  MasterChef was not a format under which David thrived.  But a few minutes of listening to him talk about food, and then actually tasting his food soon after, made me realize that we’ve completely misunderstood David based on his appearance on the show.

David Martinez is hysterically funny, and when you put him and Monti in the same room, they have this comic energy that just boils over.  We went into the studio where Monti has her morning show and spent 5 hours on the air, and I was just in awe of these two.  They have an effortless stage chemistry that really belongs on the TV screen.  They fight like brother and sister, and in case you didn’t know, they became as close and brother and sister very quickly on the show.  So when you see them screaming at each other, it’s not out of hatred or rivalry…it’s out of that natural chemistry that siblings have that brings out the boxing gloves.

During the morning show, we took calls from fans all over the country and had a blast.  And Monti even devised an “Office Vending Machine Mystery Box Challenge” for us, that the staff at the radio station filmed.  It’s fun, check it out:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OEgQJhcL0yc&list=UUMk8j3uwr6m0-iTvEn5tndw&index=2&feature=plpp_video

Of course, David smeared both me and Monti under the table with his brilliant plating and genius conceptualization.  *giggle*  The judges were pretty harsh, though.

After a long morning on the radio, we were invited to lunch at Hana Japanese Eatery as guests of the owner, Lori.  Lori had recently met Monti and wanted to give us a taste of what she and her chefs (her mother and father-in-law) could do outside their regular menu.  I had eaten at Hana before, which most Phoenix folks consider to be one of the best sushi joints in town.  But the skill and vision of the chefs runs far beyond sushi.  Over a period of probably 3 hours, course after course arrived at the table, from the simplest yet freshest raw whole fish (which we plucked fillets from with our chopsticks, and then they whisked the bones back to the deep fryer and returned them so we could crunch on them with childish abandon), to complex shooters of monkfish liver, bonito flake, caviar, and Meyer lemon.

There was an egg white and dashi custard that was so delicate it evaporated on my tongue, hiding scallop and shrimp and crab meat.  There was tempura lobster tail with a salted black tea for dipping.  Altogether, it was one of the most stunning meals in my life.  So if you’re in Phoenix and want a meal that will blow your mind, go to Hana.  Ask for Lori, the owner, and tell her I sent you.  Tell her how much you’d like to spend on dinner, whether it’s $20 or $200.  And tell her to surprise you.  Trust her.  She and her chefs know WAY MORE than you do.  You don’t need to even look at the menu.  She will make sure you have a mind-boggling experience and leave full, regardless of your budget.  Hana is the kind of restaurant you don’t normally find in a place like Phoenix…they are truly world class.  To read more about Hana, check out my review on Yelp.

After a meal like that, a nap was in order, but not for too long, because we had to start cooking.  Our fundraiser for the Phoenix Children’s Hospital was the next day, and we had to bake some goodies for the raffle!  I got into Monti’s kitchen and started making my legendary Pumpkin Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting and Candied Hazelnuts, while David Martinez started on dinner.  He was making potato flautas with guacamole and salsa roja.  I ended up having to stop baking because it was so amazing watching him cook.  The different ways he prepares garlic alone could fill a book, shaving it, microplaning it, crushing it…each to extract a specific character of flavor from it.

(I forgot to mention earlier that David left MasterChef and went straight into the professional kitchen.  I think only he and Michael Chen did this from Season 3.  David has already interned or “staged” with most of Chicago’s top chefs and done restaurant takeovers that have attracted a huge following amongst the Chicago foodie community…and if you know anything about the food scene in this country, you know that Chicagoans probably have the most educated and sophisticated palates of any city.  David has been asked to personally cater events for several of Chicago’s pro sports teams.  I foresee David becoming one of the most successful chefs of his generation, in the same way I saw that for Adrien Nieto on my season.)

Soon the flautas were finished, and I’m going to pretend I didn’t keep count of how many of those little buggers I ate, because I literally gorged myself.  They were INCREDIBLE.  The first time I’d had flautas that weren’t stuffed with meat.  And I don’t think I can EVER go back.  His salsa was potent, and so good I could have eaten it with a spoon.  And guac?  Easily the best I’ve ever eaten.

I was up baking and cleaning until 3am, long after I forced Monti to get some sleep.  I slept in a bit the next morning while Monti baked her “I Hope He Chokes” caramel crunch apple pie, which is the pie she made that got her on MasterChef.  (Coincidentally, my pumpkin carrot cake is what got ME on MasterChef, and I later got to bake it on the show, as you well know!)  David baked a rustic peach tart and it looked and smelled so good it almost didn’t make it to the car.

And then we were headed to the fundraiser!  We had an incredible turnout, and I have to send a huge thank you to Dave and Busters, and Cold Stone Creamery, for sponsoring the event.  We raised almost $3000 to help kids in need at Phoenix Children’s, and Monti even got to chat with some of the kids she has met through volunteering at the hospital.  Monti has such a big, tender heart, and like me, she believes that the single greatest thing that can come out of MasterChef is the ability to use this exposure to help people in need.  CHECK IT OUT!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQsZIuBaR5k&list=UUMk8j3uwr6m0-iTvEn5tndw&index=1&feature=plpp_video

Photo courtesy of Dana Gibbons, 3DPhotoAZ.com

It was so amazing meeting the fans and visiting with the kids.  Dana, the amazing fan who offered me a ride from that bizarre little airport out in the middle of nowhere, actually showed up and took some wonderful photos.  If you’re in need of photography services, anything from weddings to pets, check our her business: 3D Photography.

We raffled off lots of great prizes, from a weekend in Sedona, to our own baked goodies.  Lori from Nana came to show her support, and bought WAY too many raffle tickets, and most of them went toward David’s peach gallette, which she thought looked too good to pass up.  And Fate was in her favor!  She couldn’t even wait to get it home, she and her friends devoured it right on the spot!

Exhausted and triumphant after a great fundraiser, Lori suggested we head over to a Thai restaurant nearby, Palee’s Crown, where the owner and chef is one of her mentors, Punee Plubprasit.  You can see her at the far back in this photo.  I am a Thai food connoisseur.  I’ve been to Thailand half a dozen times.   I’ve learned the ins and outs of Thai cuisine in the home kitchens of that amazing country.  But this woman churned out some masterpieces that literally blew my mind.  Unfortunately, after more than 40 years of cooking, Punee is hanging up her chef’s hat and the restaurant will change owners on August 15.  So you’ve got about a week to get there for some of the best Thai food on the planet, including Thailand!  Punee and David talked excitedly about teaching each other the cuisines of their culture, so hopefully some of Punee’s vast trove of knowledge will live on in David’s cuisine!

That night we drank wine and told stories and laughed like we were old friends, having met each other for the first time scarcely 48 hours before.  It’s amazing what shared experience does for people.

But the weekend wasn’t yet over.  Sunday we had been invited to Sweet Republic, an artisan ice cream joint in Scottsdale owned by Helen Yung.  Helen and her business partner are also new friends of Monti, and before September 11, they were high powered financial execs in Manhattan working a block from the World Trade Center.  That catastrophic event was a wake-up call for them both.  Helen went to culinary school, and they ended up in the ice cream business.  And boy, have they make their mark!  On Food Network’s Show The Best Thing I Ever Ate, the incomparable Alton Brown said that that best ice cream he had EVER tasted was from Sweet Republic.  So naturally…I was pretty excited.

We showed up bearing cupcakes and mini apple pies, and Helen plied us with decadent flavors like Honey Bleu Cheese, Cardamom (my favorite spice!), and a Dark Chocolate Sorbet with absolutely NO cream, so dark and bitter and intense that it completely changed the way I look at chocolate.  There’s plain old vanilla, too.  In fact, the first thing I tasted was their vanilla.  (Topped with a bit of candied wasabi root, naturally.)  And let me tell you…WHAT A VANILLA!

Helen, the owner, is in the background of this photo next to me.  You can see Danger in Monti’s lap.  Next to Monti is her sister, Marji.  And in the foreground is David’s amazing wife, B, who is originally from Germany.  (The story of how they met is great…she visited him at his frat house, which was like a normal frat house…an awful mess…and David cooked her a fabulous meal and they fell in love on the spot.)

Coincidentally, Donna won my cake at the raffle!

I left Sweet Republic to take my car back to Sky Harbor Airport, and then my wonderful fan-turned-friend family the Donahues drove half an hour from their home in Mesa to pick me up and take me back to their place for a feast.  Donna is a huge Gordon Ramsay fan, and has been cooking her way through Ramsay’s cookbooks (ie Julie and Julia).  You can follow her adventure on her blog.  Donna and I became Facebook friends after MasterChef, and I met her for the first time several months ago on my way to LA.  She and her husband Chuck are such good people, and boy, do they know how to throw a party!

Donna was making Ramsay’s pork tenderloin stroganoff for dinner, along with local craft brew and  Ramsay’s strawberry granitas, and her legendary Irish Cream cheesecake.  Her daughter Tara helped cook and clean up, also, and is a pretty darn good cook herself!  They had invited family members and several friends from the Phoenix foodie community.  It was all TO-DIE-FOR and we had a blast chatting life and food, and then a glorious hour of down-time while I lounged on her living room floor with her puppies and watched the Olympics.

One of their dinner guests, and a die hard local foodie Zach Garcia was kind enough to drive me to that bizarre little airport out in the middle of nowhere for my midnight flight home.  (Thanks so much, Zach!)

On the ride home, squished into a middle seat (and Spirit’s seats DO NOT RECLINE) I couldn’t help but think how at-home I had felt the entire weekend in Phoenix.  Meeting Monti and David and everyone else was such a refreshing, uplifting experience for me.  Thanks to everyone who showed their support for the Phoenix Children’s Hospital, and made me feel like family.

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