(PLEASE NOTE: This blog is not approved or endorsed by MasterChef or Fox, and you probably shouldn’t read it. The opinions contained in this blog are merely the OPINIONS of a former MasterChef contestant who has no inside knowledge of how this season was produced.)
So our magical time machine transports us back from the longest-pressure-test-ever in Vegas back to the MasterChef kitchen, and apparently the contestants don’t know who was eliminated. (You can bet they all knew the likelihood of Luca being safe, though.) Krissi is worried that Kathy would be eliminated, and Kathy is her only friend left on the show. (Fascinatingly enough, a fellow contestant indicates that Kathy arrived to MasterChef with a very bold diva look, with big orange hair and giant hoop earrings, and before the signature dish round, the producers made her transform into something more mousey and less Kathy. They took her to have her hair colored, they took away her jewelry, and they made her wear baggy, drab clothes. What a shame that she couldn’t be herself!)
When Luca walks through the door, we see genuine despondence on Krissi’s face. Sorry, gal.
We also find out in this segment that Eddie is originally from Texas!! So even though he now lives in Georgia, I’m gonna consider him a Texan along with James.
The mystery box today is awesome…a bounty of bizarre ethnic ingredients with no English on the labels. And the judges aren’t going to tell the contestants what they are…they have to figure it out for themselves. I would actually like this mystery box, even though I normally hate them. Ethnic markets are where I do the majority of my shopping these days, and I love buying stuff with interesting packaging when I don’t have a clue what’s inside.
The box isn’t THAT bizarre, there are just a few items that are “out there.” I immediately see rambutan, which is one of my favorite fruits! It’s has a spiky outer shell, and a large, hard inner seed that is covered with a 1/2″ layer of fruit that has the consistency of a grape, and a beautiful, delicate, fragrant flavor. When I’m in Hawaii, the place where I always stay has rambutan trees and I just gorge myself.
It also looks like there’s a Chinese bitter melon (it looks like a cucumber), which is the milder of the 2 species of bitter melon and is GREAT sauteed with scrambled eggs and a little soy or curry paste. Bitter melon is used as a highly effective insulin regulator in other countries…in fact, in India, it’s practically the ONLY thing doctors prescribe to treat diabetes, and some Indian MD’s claim it can actually cure diabetes. If you enjoy or can tolerate bitter flavors and you are diabetic, you should check it out. Get the Chinese variety over the smaller, wartier Indian variety if you can. The Chinese type is less bitter:
I also see some sea beans or sea asparagus. I LOVE this stuff. I cook with it all the time when I’m in Hawaii because it’s so cheap there. Sea asparagus is a type of seaweed that is crunchy, juicy, succulent, and naturally salty. It is amazing raw in salads or lightly sauteed. Adrien Nieto and I put it into our Hawaii-Mexican fusion “guaca-poke,” which is a cross between guacamole and the Hawaiian staple poke (properly pronounced “POE-kay” though rampantly mispronounced “POE-kee” even in Hawaii). Poke is Hawaii’s version of ceviche, raw fish (often ahi tuna) marinated with soy and sesame and tossed with onions and sea asparagus or seaweed and a variety of other veggies. So Adrien and I make guaca-poke with raw cubed ahi, avocado, cilantro, fresh ginger, onion, garlic, sea asparagus, tomato, and lime juice. It’s DIVINE. If you ever see sea asparagus at your local market, you should try it. Good stuff:
There’s also an Okinawan purple sweet potato. I first encountered these in Hawaii, as well. The folks I stay with have an amazing farm, and they raise them…but they raise an heirloom variety that they “illegally” snuck into Hawaii in their pocket from a farm in North Carolina that grew a particularly sweet and healthy version. The Okinawan purple sweet potato isn’t actually a potato. It’s a member of the morning glory family that’s native to OUR continent, but became popular in Japanese cuisine when it was introduced over there, and THEN became popular here. They are one of the most healthy foods on the planet…absolutely packed full of antioxidants due to the anthocyanin pigments that give it color. (The same pigment is found in beets, blueberries, chard, rhubarb, etc.) You can find them at Asian markets, so give them a try. They’re not nearly as sweet as yams or American sweet potatoes. My Hawaiian friends make an amazing potato salad out of them:
There also appears to be baby bok choy or some sort of Asian cabbage. There are some tiny green globes that might be an Asian eggplant variety. These are the only things I identified just by looking. Later we learn there is a can of baby eels (!?!), elk flank steak, Chinese black moss (which Krissi says must be Chinese pubic hair!), mojama which is a Spanish delicacy of salted and sun dried tuna loin, a can of cod liver (an intense umami flavor, it could be used like fish sauce or anchovy paste), and lots more than don’t get narrated for us.
This is definitely the coolest and most interesting Mystery Box in MasterChef history, I LOVE this challenge. And while many contestants play it VERY safe and stick to the elk and potatoes, I applaud all those who went way outside their comfort zone and used the weird stuff.
After looking at that box, knowing me, I would probably do a weird Asian-influenced breakfast. Purple sweet potato home fries with baby eggplant. Eggs scrambled with bitter melon and salt cured tuna (which is like gravlax or smoked salmon) with a bit of the cod liver, with lightly sauteed sea asparagus and crunchy fried baby eels on top. There’s just no reason to play it safe, even though that’s exactly what Graham said HE would do!
Jordon immediately starts tasting EVERYTHING to figure out what it is, which is the mark of a great chef.
FINALLY we see some actual footage of Lynn! He speaks with confidence and expertise. I want to see more. His plate of elk tartare is really stunningly plated, but the judges don’t put him in the top 3 because they say his dish is underseasoned. (That’s really the only attack they can give when a plate looks beautiful. Because we, the audience, can’t taste it, they can technically say whatever they want about it, which is how the show can create drama. Only Lynn knows whether his dish was underseasoned or not. My guess is that it was seasoned perfectly, and they’re deliberately keeping Lynn down to frustrate him and get some emotion out of his otherwise confident, stoic persona.)
The first selection for the top 3 is Eddie, who “played it safe” by searing the elk flank, making a sweet potato puree, and sauteing the greens with olive oil and lemon zest. The judges say it is simple but perfectly executed.
Next is Jordan, who really stepped outside his comfort zone and utilized all of the weird stuff. He has a “salad” of black moss and sea asparagus, salt cured tuna, sauteed greens, crispy baby eels, with purple sweet potato chips. I love it that, as he’s narrating his dish, he really doesn’t know WHAT it is. He just knows it tastes good. Very impressive, Jordan.
Finally, Bime comes forward with a lovely plated dish that is similar to Eddie’s but a little more dangerous. He has a sweet potato mash topped with baby eels and perfectly cooked elk flank.
The winner is, surprisingly, the guy who played it the safest…Eddie. (Great way to teach the contestants to step outside their comfort zone, producers! Ha ha ha…)
Eddie heads back to the pantry to discover the theme of the next challenge, which is: filled pasta. Definitely one of the more challenging things for a chef to produce. The judges present him with 3 types of filled pasta to choose from:
Agnolotti – (pronounced “an-yo-LO-tee”) These little pillows of stuffed pasta hail from the mountainous region of Piedmont in northwestern Italy. A really stunning place. The traditional filling is some type of meat and/or veggies (typically leftovers), and they are sauced with a lightly reduced beef stock, or a sage brown butter sauce.
Mezzaluna – (pronounced “met-zah-LOO-nah”) Translated as “half moon,” this pasta is obviously named for its shape. It can be stuffed with anything, but most often a cheese like ricotta and/or herbs. They are among the easiest of the filled pastas to make, you just cut circles of dough, spoon in a little filling, moisten the edges, fold the circle in half, and seal with a fork.
Caramelle – (pronounced “kah-dah-MELL-eh”) This one is kinda obvious in its naming origin, too. The shape of the pasta mimics a wrapped caramel candy. (Gordon says they call it the “bonbon pasta” in Italy…I’ve never heard of that.) It is typically stuffed with cheese, Gordon’s version is stuffed with mozzarella and sauced with a spicy tomato sauce (pomodoro or, if it’s really spicy, arrabbiata). It is the most “informal” and rustic of the 3 filled pastas…something you can make quickly at home…and would probably be the very simplest choice.
Eddie is safe from cooking, and he wants to choose the most challenging type of pasta for his competitors, so he picks the agnolotti. It is the most challenging to shape, and since it traditionally has a meat filling, it’s more complex than a cheese filling.
Last season Joe gave us a demonstration of how to shape tortellini, except that the camera never showed the final product once he had shaped it. (Contestants say he did it multiple times just to get a shot of him doing it correctly, but that the final result wasn’t pretty enough to show.) This season the producers aren’t making him do that again. Thank God. He has invited someone else to do the demonstration, and that someone is the queen of Italian American cooking…Joe’s Mom. The legendary Lidia Bastianich. She’s like the Julia Child of Italian food…she brought Italian home cooking to the American table via her appearances with Julia Child in the early 90s, to her 5 PBS shows in the late 90s. She also appeared as a judge on the FIRST MasterChef USA in 2000, which was on PBS at that time, did NOT have Gordon Ramsay, and was probably the kind of show that I WISH MasterChef was. Read about it on Wikipedia. In addition, Lidia is a highly successful restaurateur, with restaurants primarily in NYC but also in Kansas City and Pittsburgh, and she was one of the people who helped put celebrity chef Mario Batali on the map.
So Lidia waltzes in through the door and Krissi pees in her pants. (I peed in my pants, too, Krissi, when we had to cook for Lidia in a group challenge on my season.) She’s definitely a legend, and Krissi quips, “If Jesus came down and stood next to Lidia, I’d be like ‘What’s up, dude? LIDIA, HOW ARE YOU?!?”
Lidia didn’t grow up cooking. In fact, she wasn’t even the chef of her first restaurant…she learned to cook from the chef there after she gave birth to Joe’s sister. But extensive travel and study in Italy and Croatia, which is where the Bastianich family is from and where their vineyards are, turned her into an expert. In case you didn’t know, Joe was never pressured into joining the family restaurant business. He went to college, became a bond trader on Wall Street, but loved the food world so much that he walked away from that high-paying career and convinced his mom to help him start his first restaurant, Becco. So in a way, Joe is like many of the MasterChef contestants. He left the path his life was on to follow his dream. And while a lot of the MasterChef fans don’t care for Joe at all, there’s no doubt that he’s in the food business because he loves food. Sure, he had an easier ticket because of his mother’s success. But it’s no secret that Joe would be MORE wealthy than he currently is had he stayed on Wall Street. Instead, he followed his dream, and he has been very successful at it. He may not be a chef. But he’s a smart guy. He’s savvy. He’s shrewd. And his restaurants are incredible.
Back to Lidia…she’s going to give a demonstration on how to make agnolotti, but the twist is that Eddie gets to send 2 people out of the room, so that they don’t get to see the demo. Krissi shouts up at him, “I’ll kill you where you stand, Eddie.” Not because she needs to see the demo. Krissi is an accomplished Italian cook. But Lidia is her idol, and she wants to watch her cook.
Eddie is strategic about his decision. He wants to pick strong competitors who may not be experienced with pasta, to put them at the most disadvantage. He sends out Lynn, who has always wanted to learn agnolotti, and James, who says, “I’m not mad at him. He’s playing the game smart.”
And here we have encapsulated what I abhor about what MasterChef has become. It has become a game; a game where strategy is more important than cooking. And that may be the way the restaurant industry is. But people aren’t going to come to your restaurant if you’ve got great strategy on the plate. They come for the food, and if it’s good, they come back. This is not The Apprentice: Restaurateuring. This show is not about being a savvy, shrewd strategist. This is supposed to be a show about which home cooks have the potential to become a great chef. And while these “games” make the show interesting from a sociological standpoint, I hate them, and I’m about to stop watching.
Why does this have to be the evolution of EVERY reality TV show? Why did Survivor have to go from people actually surviving in the wilderness to alliances and strategies, scheming against every one of your fellow competitors, even your “friends,” to come out on top? This brings back up the comparison to Capitalism I made in an earlier MasterChef blog. This is the most disgusting, vile thing about America and Capitalism…it teaches us an “every man for himself” mindset. It encourages us to succeed AT ALL COSTS, even at the expense of those around us. It teaches us that the best decision is always one that’s in self-interest, even if it’s damaging to others.
This is why I have decided I will NOT join MasterChef for a reunion or “all stars” show, if I’m invited to participate. I know that will make my fans upset. But just imagine that MasterChef season: since all the prior contestants already know how engineered the show is, that reunion show will be even more of a Hunger Games. It would come to the point where the producers would have ME singled out in front of the judges. And after all this criticizing and preaching I’ve been doing for the past 2 seasons, you can be certain that they’re thirsty for blood. They’ll put me in a position where I’m FORCED to do something cruel or mean to a contestant, like take away their mixer, prevent them from viewing a demonstration, or, in all likelihood…something worse. And I won’t do it. And there will be a big, nasty, awkward production halt. And I’ll leave the set and hitchhike home. And they’ll try to sue me for all the vast millions of dollars I have hidden under my mattress. And they’ll have to re-shoot the whole season without me, or stage some dramatic stunt to explain why I left. And it will be a stupendous mess.
(Or maybe they’re smarter than that and they know that the audience wouldn’t stand for them manipulating someone like me or Christine or Monti or Whitney, and instead they’ll put us in positions where we can help other contestants at our own expense, and the audience weeps and feels great, and we get to be the redemption scapegoat for the manipulations they’ve been spinning thus far.)
Regardless, I am completely, utterly disgusted by what this show has become. And the American audience is LOVING it. (Check the ratings.) It breaks my heart that this is the kind of television we have an appetite for. This is why I don’t watch TV. And NEITHER SHOULD YOU. Or at least watch GOOD TV, which is increasingly rare these days. TV that celebrates humanity, compassion, generosity, integrity, and empathy. TV that puts people in a position to be HUMAN, rather than selfishly, sadistically animalistic. Last season, even though the show had its nasty moments, we had this over-arching thread of good that Christine Ha and Monti Carlo brought to it. We hoped and we cried and we felt good things in our hearts for them. They were fighters and they were struggling. But they were never forced into a position where they had to hurt another contestant in order to gain benefit for themselves. This year, it’s all about the contestants sh-tting all over each other, scheming, scamming, to try to win by sabotaging their fellow competitors, rather than winning because they’re the best cook…where’s the goodness, Adeline and Robin and Elisabeth? I hope to God it’s coming. I’m not gonna make it much longer. I have far better things to do with my time…things that make more lives better than just my own.
*steps off the soapbox*
Lidia demonstrates agnolotti. The contestants make agnolotti. Krissi and Jessie are the best.
There are 4 on the bottom:
Jonny, for making butternut squash agnolotti with a maple cream sauce. (If you haven’t noticed, Italians are prone to resist modifications to their classic dishes. The Spanish and Dutch are completely the opposite. Personally, I’d be very interested to taste Jonny’s dish.)
Lynn, who didn’t get to see the demo and processed his filling too smooth in the food processor (rather than using the meat grinder for a more coarse texture). His delicious-sounding ricotta and short rib agnolotti with charred leek brown butter sauce is also proclaimed by the judges as underseasoned. (Again, that’s an easy faked criticism since WE can’t taste it. After being criticized in the mystery box for underseasoning, I GUARANTEE you Lynn didn’t also underseason this dish.)
Beth, for undercooking her agnolotti, which is stuffed with herbs, ricotta, watercress, and goat cheese. (DANG that sounds good.)
And Howard, for daring to be creative with the concept of agnolotti and seasoning his veggie, jalapeno and chicken filling with cumin. Lidia says, “Classics work and are appreciated time after time, otherwise they wouldn’t be called classics.” She is correct. But if no one ever innovated, cuisine would become stale. Innovation has led to dramatic improvements in cooking, like the sous vide technique, which yields near-miraculous results for cooking meat and fish. Joe, in traditional Italian fashion, doesn’t like the way Howard is talking to his mother, so he lights into him. Howard defends himself with the VERY acceptable question, “So you want 15 of the same dish up here every time?” But no human is allowed to question Joe Bastianich. He hisses: “The only thing worse than a cook who can’t boil is a narcissist in denial. Thank you for nothing.” Food in garbage. Howard goes home.
Please comment below, but I have to take a break from this nonsense because my blood pressure is through the roof. I’m going to go pet my chickens, (who just started laying this week!), pull weeds in my garden, pick blueberries and take them to my neighbors, and try to do SOMETHING good for the world to offset this temple of self-interest that MasterChef season 4 has become.