The MasterChef Finale!

I CONFESS!!!

I haven’t yet watched the 2 hours of the MasterChef finale. Sue me. I hosted a finale watch party at my favorite local restaurant last night, and more than 500 fans showed up who wanted to meet me, ask questions about the show, taste my pumpkin carrot cake, and while MasterChef was airing in the background and people across the restaurant were cheering, I didn’t get to watch it.

BUT…as you probably saw…I was there watching it when it happened. So my blog today will be from the perspective of someone who watched the ENTIRE cooking process for both challenges, not the distilled edit that aired.

And then there were 3. Christian, Adrien, and Jennifer. Based on their individual performances and personalities, it is NOT surprising at all that they are the top 3. If all 3 perform at the top of their game through the end of the competition, the judges could easily go for any of them. Here’s why:

Christian is the most skilled chef left in this contest. He has restaurant kitchen experience, though not as a chef. He has confidence and the personality that would let him command an efficient workforce in the kitchen. When I look at all 3, Christian is the one I could see as en executive chef TOMORROW. The judges could choose him, though it might be an unpopular decision for the nation, because he is executive chef material over the short term.

Adrien doesn’t quite have the skill level that Christian has. But his strength is in his vision of food, what it is now, and what it can become. He has an unmatched passion for food. And while I see Christian’s passion manifested in perfect technique, I see Adrien’s passion is so great that it can’t be defined or pinned down to anything. That type of passion is nearly impossible to capture on camera, so I feel like the audience doesn’t see it the way his fellow competitors and the judges do. And you can see the roots of his culinary passion lie in his family and his ethnic roots, whereas Christian’s passion derives from his struggle to survive and provide for his son.

Jennifer is a blend between the two. She is immensely likable. You can’t look at her without wanting to give her a hug and buy her a beer. She has an incredible knowledge about food, particularly seafood, and the food she cooks isn’t so high-gourmet that it’s unapproachable. Everything Jennifer has made so far in this competition is something that ANY American would feel comfortable sitting down to. She and I share the passion for that category of cuisine that so often gets labeled “Soul Food” or “Comfort Food” or “Farmhouse Food” or “Peasant Food,” but her skill level and eye for presentation gives her a step up on me. I believe American would rejoice in a Jennifer victory because she represents the best our country can offer…intelligent, shrewd, strong, beautiful talent.

In the semi finals the one dish that leaps off the cooking stations to me is Adrien’s octopus, or “pulpo.” It’s a crying shame that more Americans haven’t tasted properly cooked octopus. It may sound disgusting to you, but it is one of the most incredibly succulent meats I have EVER tasted in my life…when it’s cooked properly. (The first time I tasted grilled octopus, I cried. I know you’ve seen lots of tears from me on MasterChef, but it’s not often that tasting something moves me to tears. Octopus does.) And most of the time, it’s not. Adrien’s got it down…he beats the living daylights out of the octopus to tenderize it, then he pressure cooks it, then he grills it. And if I had to pick one thing prepared by Jennifer, Christian, or Adrien, it would have been the octopus.

The judges agree, and are completely impressed that Adrien could pull off octopus in such a time limit. In Joe Bastianich’s restaurants (which have Mario Batali as the executive chef), it takes them almost 24 hours to prepare octopus for the dinner serving.

And the surprise elimination is…CHRISTIAN! I think the nation may have let out a simultaneous sigh of relief and whoop of joy when this happened. That breaks my heart a little, because Christian is a great guy. He’s a fighter, like Christine. You may have thought that he was there at MasterChef out of his own conceit, but I know the guy personally, and he was there for his son. To help give his son a better life. That got wrapped up in his defiant attitude and temper, and it came across to all of you as supreme cockiness. But Christian was there because of his son, Evan, and his second child-on-the-way. And while I won’t lie…it’s VERY intimidating to be competing against Christian in the MasterChef kitchen, I am genuinely sad to see him go.

That leaves Adrien and Jennifer in the finals. This is a bit of a surprise to me. I either expected Jennifer and Christian, or Adrien and Christian. Not Jennifer and Adrien. I love them both. So does America. Whoever wins, we will feel conflicted because we liked BOTH of them!

Out come the families. Jennifer has been fighting on MasterChef for her little nephew, who she loves like a son, and to see her face light up when he runs up and throws his arms around her neck just lets loose my waterworks. To me, there is nothing more beautiful than the love a family has for each other.

And then Adrien’s family comes out. I remembered meeting them during the Signature Dish challenge MONTHS before this point, and I was so moved by his abuelita (grandmother) who blessed him before he cooked and told him to let his passion guide his every move. (And now I’m crying again as I write this!)

My own grandmothers inspired me at age 4 to start cooking. To me, cooking is the most sacred family ritual of all. And to see his abuelita kiss him on the cheek and tell him again that she is overflowing with pride and to trust his heart in the kitchen is overwhelming. I don’t think I stopped crying for an hour after seeing that, and I probably won’t stop crying now until I finish this blog!

And the battle begins. Adrien’s menu is inspired by his Mexican heritage, and having been eating Mexican food almost daily (even since I was in the womb), HIS menu has me the most excited. He has also chosen to highlight the flavors of “mole” (pronounced MO-lay), a Mexican sauce that is just about my favorite substance in the world…spicy smoked chilies, dark bitter chocolate, warm spices like cinnamon, tangy onion and garlic. It’s impossible to make a mole in less than half a day, but Adrien is melding the flavors that belong to mole amongst his menu.

Jennifer is taking a risky by attacking a VERY sophisticated menu centered around quail. Any Texan starts drooling when quail is sizzling in a cast iron skillet, but the master chefs around the state know how finicky quail is. It’s a game bird. It’s got no fat. And it’s so tiny that it overcooks in an instant. And Jenn is using many different cooking applications to finish her quail. That makes me nervous for her. If she pulls off her menu, I believe the judges will lean in her favor. Even though Adrien’s taking some pretty big risks…short ribs are notoriously difficult to cook quickly…his menu is simple, which actually appeals to me MORE than a complex, sophisticated menu. But this competition is about skill, and if Jennifer pulls it off, she will have shown them more skill across her menu.

Having watched them both cook is fascinating. Adrien moves with precision and deftness. His station is completely clean and orderly the entire time. He doesn’t have a hint of panic or frustration on his face. He looks like a chef. Jennifer’s station looks like mine always did! Ingredients and pans everywhere, and she is moving so fast it’s hard to see her sometimes. She looks nervous. She is fighting for her life. (But this was an intentional choice to serve a menu this complex…there’s no way her cooking could have had the focused, methodical pace that Adrien had.)

We don’t see the tasting. We don’t hear the judges’ critiques. (YOU actually heard them, I still haven’t!) But there we all are, waiting in a big group with the families and Adrien and Jennifer.

The judges bestow the title of “chef” upon both of them. This is a great honor. Part of me feels so ridiculous when someone refers to me as a “chef” just because I was on MasterChef. I don’t yet deserve that honor. But Adrien and Jennifer have impressed the judges so much, that title is granted to them. The judges further honor them by trading places…placing Jenn and Adrien on the MasterChef stage, and the judges take their place amongst the rest of us.

Everyone’s heart is flipflopping inside their chest. We each want BOTH contestants to win, we adore them both so much. But the title can’t be shared.

And the title goes to…

Jennifer. And her eyes become pressure washers as her family surrounds her to rejoice. And Adrien’s shoulders slump as his family gathers around him in support.

I am so conflicted in this moment. I couldn’t be happier for Jenn. But Adrien looks defeated and despondent. WHY?!?!?! He has just shown the nation that someone with no formal training can produce a stunning dish worthy of being served in ANY of Rick Bayless’s restaurants. (Bayless is the nation’s foremost ultra-gourmet Mexican chef.) He has blown us away, week to week, with his inspired dishes, a few of which backfired but from which he came back with a vengeance. To me, any restaurateur in the country would jump to hire Adrien after this kind of performance. Yet he seems crushed.

But that’s exactly Adrien. His passion comes from his heart, not his mind. Mountainous highs and Death Valley lows. Tonight I will sit him down, smack him back to reality, and let him realize that this is the best of all possible outcomes. Jennifer will be swept from TV station to media appearance and will be bogged down writing a cookbook for the next year. Adrien can walk out the door tomorrow and start a restaurant. BOTH of them have received incredible reward from this experience.

But not as big a reward as me. Selfishly, I have claimed these 100 contestants, 3 judges, and massive crew as my second family. I have made so many dear friendships from this experience. My skills as a cook have blossomed. The response from my fans has humbled and overwhelmed me. And I’ve realized that I have a higher purpose than just cooking for my friends and family.

Next week I travel to Los Angeles to meet with people so powerful that I’m shocked they’d take the time to even mention my name. But the outpouring of support and love from fans of the show has somehow put my name in their radar.

As I investigate the possibility of a future in television, I ask you…my friends, my family, my fans…to keep me in your thoughts and prayers. I had no idea that I had the ability to connect with you all so deeply through a TV screen. The fact that I was just one of a hundred, and still accomplished that, means I can touch thousands more if I have the right people behind me. I commit to each and every one of you that, should I be fortunate enough to work in television again, it will be in the service of others. To spread love, joy, compassion, and generosity as best I know how.

This is a big, scary time for me. As it’s a big, scary time for so many in our country. But we truly are the greatest country in the world, and we will band together and pull through the tough times, as we always have in the past.

Do something great for someone today. Not for me. Not for yourself. But for them. Bake someone cookies. Leave a $20 tip, even if it hurts your wallet. Send a hand-written letter to an old friend you haven’t talked to in a few years. Call your parents and tell them how much you love them and how much they mean to you.

Changing the world is a big task. But it starts with small ones. Let’s start from there together!

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