Tag Archives: Christine Ha

A MasterChef Reunion in Houston

A perfect storm of events happened last weekend that resulted in my need to be in Houston for a few days.  (Mostly to visit a dear college friend who was having much of her liver out.)  Houston takes 2nd place to Austin as the best foodie city in Texas, though I don’t like to admit it.  Dallas runs 3rd, but soon we’ll be taking the top spot if things continue to go as they have been.  (I mean, with restaurants like FRANK, how can you be any other that the top?!?  Ha ha ha…)  So it’s not much of a surprise that so many MasterChef contestants live there, including the season 3 winner, Christine Ha, and my own MasterChef roomie, the culinary genius Alvin SchultzMichael Chen, who now lives in Dallas, was going down to arrange paperwork for a visit to China.  Also living there is Jason McConniel, or “JayMac” from season 2, and while he wasn’t featured heavily on the show, he’s a pretty interesting guy.  (He collaborates with Alvin on a regular basis, and he’s pioneering the urban farming scene in Houston.)  And season 4 Texan James Nelson also lives there.  So I was excited about a cross-generational MasterChef reunion.

I first arrived at Alvin’s place, and I’m embarrassed to say that, as often as Alvin has visited me in Dallas, this was my first visit to his home.  If you follow Alvin, you know that he’s a “freak-genius” (the term Gordon applied to him on season 2), and splits his culinary love affair between Modernist cuisine (which some people call “molecular gastronomy”) and the complete opposite end of the food spectrum…authentic “peasant food,” street food, the food of the people.

It shouldn’t have surprised me to see that his kitchen looks more like a science lab than a kitchen.  Here he is pulling off a carafe of liquid nitrogen to do an instant-freeze on ice cream in the Kitchenaid.  Look at that device to his right.  That’s a rotary evaporator, which he uses to make pure extracts and distillations.  Next to it, off camera to the right, is a cryovac…a high powered vacuum chamber that can be used for a variety of purposes, from instantly hydrating pasta dough, to sealing meat for cooking en sous vide, to pressure crushing vegetables and fruits to change their texture, or saturate their cells with a marinade or liquor.

It was “Sunday fish dinner” at Alvin’s place, where several of his foodie friends get together for a potluck consisting of dishes FAR more sophisticated than anything you’ll ever find on MasterChef.  Despite arriving very late, I was fed very well.  And put to bed.  And awakened to breakfast in bed.  Cold pizza.  But “Cold Pizza…Alvin Schultz style!”

As you know, Alvin loves to explore Modernist cuisine…the use of contemporary technology to transform ingredients into something new and extraordinary.  The star of this dish is an heirloom tomato sorbet…nothing but the juices of heirloom tomatoes, perfectly seasoned, and flash frozen with liquid nitrogen into the smoothest texture you can imagine.  Below it is dehydrated pepperoni “sand,” pizza crust “dust,” basil flowers, a foam of fresh mozzarella, and the rendered oil from the pepperoni.  It may not look like pizza, but it tastes like the freshest pizza you can imagine.  And yeah…he made that for me for breakfast.

Pho was for lunch, and that evening we met up with Michael, Alvin, and Jason in Houston’s bustling Chinatown for a sumptuous Chinese feast at Confucius Seafood, a family-style traditional Chinese restaurant.  And, of course, joining us was the woman, the legend, Christine Ha, along with her amazing hubby John.  Confucius is a neat place.  The tables are massive and seat 12-14, with a huge lazy susan turntable in the middle of the table, so that family-style plates can be brought from the kitchen and be easily accessed by all the diners.  We basically ordered “Feast #2” which was a sampling of the kitchen’s favorites, including Peking duck, chicken and jellyfish salad, Dungeness crab fried rice, crispy pork, whole roasted haddock, squid and scallop with cabbage…one by one, the plates arrived, and by the 10th or 15th, even Alvin’s eyes were registering disbelief and astonishment, as there seemed to be no end in sight.  12 of us stuffed ourselves silly and probably only got through 2/3rd of the food.

“You guys are ready for dessert, right?” Christine asked, cheerily.

I’m never ready for dessert, unless it’s what Christine described.  “Vietnamese ice.  They freeze blocks of green tea and stuff like that, and then shave it off in thin layers.  It’s really good.”  Frozen green tea sounded light enough to be the perfect nightcap, so we headed to Nu Cafe for this “thousand layer ice.”  The presentation was pretty impressive and definitely unforgettable.  And the texture was totally different than I expected…far firmer and more solid than normal shave ice.  It almost has the texture of lightly sauteed baby spinach, except that it melts on your tongue.  They serve it smothered in the sauce of your choice (sweetened condensed milk is the most popular) with any number of sides (here, mango and grass jelly).  That made it too desserty for me, I’d have preferred just the plate of ice.  But I’m a weirdo.

Is this what they call cross-generation love?

We wrapped for the evening, as Michael and his boyfriend Stephen and I had a MasterChef-early time call for the morning: 430am.  Michael was taking us to fish for blue crabs, a ritual his family has enjoyed since he was a baby.  Neither Stephen nor I had fished for crabs before, and Michael insisted we needed to be there shortly after sunrise to catch the most crabs.  Personally, NO amount of crab is worth getting up at 430am for.  But friendships are, so I begrudgingly set my alarm.

We were on the Galveston/Bolivar ferry just after sunrise and I enjoyed teasing the seagulls on the short trip over to the Bolivar peninsula, to the Chen ancestral crabbing grounds, which we found surprisingly close to the ferry dock.  Unfortunately, I don’t have any pics of the crab fishing, because it was too much fun, and you don’t keep your phone in your pocket when you’re knee deep in coastal waters.  But here’s what you do:

You take a chicken leg, preferably a fairly pungent one that’s been sitting in a hot trunk for a few days, and tie a string very tightly around one end.  In your other hand, you hold a net.  You toss the chicken leg out into the water and you wait until you feel tugging on the end.  Then you gently drag the chicken leg toward your submerged net, which is lying on the sandy bottom.  Once you have the crab lured onto the net, you quickly lift the net, and the wiley crab is caught.  You transfer him to a cooler with the other angry crabs, and you lather, rinse, repeat.  It’s very easy and incredibly addictive…especially when you don’t get that massive blue crab just in the center of the net before you lift it, and you see your prize-winning monster crab teetering on the rim of the net and then plummeting back into the water.  (I tried to catch him again the rest of the day, but he was too cautious.)

We had a fairly decent haul, about 25 blue crabs of varying sizes, and we headed back to Christine’s house to watch Michael cook them up the traditional Chen way.  The smaller crabs were broken down, cleaned, and cooked with ginger and garlic and you basically just sucked their juices and nibbled the larger bits of meat.  The bigger crabs were steamed whole and enjoyed that way.  It was a veritable feast, and Christine can crack a crab with the best of them.  (Many jokes about the Flavor Elevator assigning her whole crab during her season thinking it would trip her up.)

We finished eating about 9pm, and were lounging on her floor watching MasterChef when Christine mentioned something to her hubby John about “kimchee fries.”  My ears perked up.

“Kimchee fries?  What’s THAT?!?”

She looked dumbfounded.  “Ben, you’ve never had kimchee fries?  It’s french fries topped with sauteed kimchee, pork belly, scallions, and a spicy cream sauce.”

And even though I had gorged myself on crab a few minutes before, I have a separate stomach for things like kimchee fries.

“Where do you get them?”

“Well, there are several food trucks that have them, but the best are from Chilantro.”


“Yeah, their name is like a mashup of kimchee and cilantro.  John, where are they tonight?  Look up their schedule.”

John jumped on the net and on Twitter, but it appeared that Chilantro is closed on a Tuesday night.  So Christine sends out a tweet to them saying that they had made MasterChefs who wanted kimchee fries sad because they were closed.  And they tweet back saying they are on their way to her house for a private tasting, all they need is the address.


So around 11, a full fledged food truck pulls up in front of Christine’s house:

They invite us on board for a tour, and let me tell you, this kitchen is as spotless as any I’ve seen.  Lots of folks seems dubious about the cleanliness of food trucks, but you can actually SEE the kitchen when you buy from a food truck, and you can’t do that at most restaurants.  And these days, the contemporary food trucks are run by this generation of rabidly-passionate young chefs, perhaps too “green” or too “artistic” to qualify for the massive financing required to start a brick-and-mortar restaurant with a full staff.  Food trucks are providing them with an affordable way to launch their careers and create experimental cuisine and take it directly to the people, rather than having to have the people come to them.  But it’s no walk in the park.  The chefs told me they’ve measured the temperature inside the truck kitchen at 160 degrees during the peak of Houston’s summer, and working an 8 hour shift in that will nearly kill you.  Chilantro is furthering the new Korean/Mexican fusion rage, which began in LA and has spread like wildfire across the country.  Their menu:

And specifically, the reason they had come:

And that may SOUND good…but when it comes out, hot and steaming, under your nose:

Image courtesy of John Suh

And then you actually put it into your mouth hole, and you look like this:

Ignore the open fly...apparently I REALLY love food.

Man.  I’ve had a few impressive spins on topped fries.  Of course, for years I’ve been a fan of traditional Quebecois “poutine” which is fries with melted squeaky cheese curds and brown gravy.  Then I discovered “carne asada fries” at Peace Burger in Grapevine, TX, fries topped with grilled beef, queso, guacamole, and jalapenos.  And then, even though it’s not on the menu, I force the poor kitchen staff at Rooster’s Roadhouse in Denton, TX to regularly make me fries topped with smoked brisket and queso and onions.  But this…this is something entirely new.  And as crazy as I am for kimchee (it’s one of my FAVORITE things), it just took this whole concept of topped fries so far over the top, I don’t think I’ll ever come down from it.

Chilantro makes other things, of course.  Amazing tacos.  A pork burger with a sunny-side-up egg on top.  (ANY burger is better with a fried egg!  Shoot, a fried egg on the kimchee fries would be even MORE epic!)  So you lucky sods in Houston and Austin can find their trucks around town.  Follow their Austin Twitter or Austin Facebook or Houston Twitter or Houston Facebook to get their schedule, or check out their website.  Go support these AMAZINGLY creative chefs.  You’ll curse me after you taste those kimchee fries, because you’ll be craving them at 2am every night.  (Luck for you, they’re usually open until 3am on weekends.)

Seriously, THANK YOU to Chilantro Houston for packing up the truck in the middle of the night to deliver a private tasting to us measly little MasterChef survivors.  Fans were saying it must have been super cool for you guys to meet us, particularly Christine.  For the record, I am flabbergasted that you would think so highly of us to bust out the truck in the middle of the night and chug way out to the burbs, and you made us feel like LEGITIMATE celebrities:

Image Courtesy of John Suh

We staggered upstairs, stuffed out of our minds, feeling like rockstars that such a bad-ss food truck would come in the middle of the night at Christine’s beckoning, and we laughed until our sides hurt.

And, for an instant, I waxed poetic about the fact that none of us would know each other had our lives not been star-crossed by MasterChef.  What a miracle.

Thank you, Alvin, Michael, Jason, and Christine and John for an amazing weekend.  We ALMOST got to see James from Season 4, but he had a wedding and a big catering event that week.  Next time, James!

MasterChef 3: Marines and Apple Pie

Today’s blog will be a bit different from previous ones.  Instead of watching MasterChef in the peace and quite of my own home, where I could take notes and give you a detailed blow-by-blow, last night I watched MasterChef at a watch party in the home of Christine Ha, along with Michael Chen.  It was loud and there was a lot of excitement and tension, so I didn’t get to follow the episode as closely as I’d have liked.  But Michael had told me it was going to be a heartfelt episode, and you all know I’ve been having a bit of trouble watching the show this season, so I figured it would be appropriate to watch with them.  And I was SO eager to meet Christine.

Some people you meet after seeing them on TV, and they’re quite a bit different.  Gordon Ramsay, for one.  Joe Bastianich, as well.  (To me, Graham, in person, seems exactly like he comes across on TV.)  From my season, people that you’d be surprised at the difference between the TV character and the real-life character would be Christian, Suzy, Esther, Jennie…

But the instant she greeted me at the door, I could tell that Christine was every bit the warm, intelligent, sensitive, caring person she seems like on TV.  (And quite a bit funnier and more witty than they portray her.)  I spent an hour feeling like I was basking in the glow of a VERY important celebrity, asking her questions and listening to stories.  For those who are curious, the autoimmune disorder that took her sight from her doesn’t ONLY affect her eyes.  She is under almost constant medical surveillance to make sure it does not strike any of her other body systems.  I know it was a tough decision to be on MasterChef for her, knowing it might potentially aggravate her condition.  But she was in good hands.

Christine is married to John, a super friendly guy (and craft brew aficionado!), and she is getting her Masters Degree in Creative Writing.  A fellow writer!  And the party filled up with grad students, mostly involved in literature, and it was just a really fascinating crowd.  Christian and Michael prepared tacos al carbon along with a grilled pineapple salsa and it was SO yummy.  I supplied my pumpkin carrot cake with cream cheese frosting and candied hazelnuts.  Initially I was worried about bringing it…sometimes I like to plan my menus all the way down to dessert and don’t want a guest to usurp the menu.  But Christine had replied, “Yes, please put cake into my mouth RIGHT NOW.”  So I brought it.  But I was so nervous, for some reason, I couldn’t eat much.

And the show begins with the first GROUP CHALLENGE! And the judges arrive in a giant field in an attack helicopter.  Several weeks ago I watched a new musical at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego called “No One Loves You” and it’s a musical about reality TV.  My dear friend who worked at the theatre insisted that I would enjoy it, so we went to see it.  At the climax of the play, when the reality TV show has reached it’s finale, the slimy host grimly announces, “And our 4 finalists are arriving at the studio in FOUR SEPARATE HELICOPTERS.”  WHAT IS IT with Reality TV and helicopters?!?  There was a helicopter in my season, too, but we didn’t see it…the judges arrived in it for one of the episodes, probably the first or last.  Personally, I think helicopters are ridiculously excessive.  Maybe that’s the point?

Group challenges, while always the toughest challenges on the show, were always my favorite.  And they will be my favorite to watch on the show this year.  Seeing people working together as a team brings out both TRUE team spirit and REAL dissonance between contestants.  David Martinez (whose nickname is apparently D-Mar) and Frank are team captains today and they go about assembling their teams.  This gives us a hint of who the contestants currently consider to be the “top dogs” and “bottom dogs.”

One by one, contestants are chosen, and Michael and Christine are still left in the pack.  Sitting there waiting to be picked for a MasterChef team brings back all that anxiety and self-doubt of middle school gym class when I always got picked last for basketball and football, so I know exactly how Michael and Christine are feeling.  My stomach sinks as we get down to the very last contestant, and it’s Christine.  Remember that you and I have been watching a carefully assembled and edited picture of what they’ve all been going through for weeks by this point, so while you and I have an image of Christine as being VERY accomplished and confident, that may not be the image her contestants have of her at this point.  Of course, she addresses Ramsay’s questions about being chosen last with tact and logic, and it doesn’t outwardly seem to bother her.  It MUST HAVE though.  What a blow to your self confidence.

The teams are assembled and they immediately have to select a menu to feed to 201 Marines who will be arriving shortly.  Feeding 201 people outdoors is NOT an easy task.  In fact, it’s almost impossible.  You’re not working in an equipped kitchen with sinks and ovens.  It’s hard to boil water, especially large amounts of it.  This would NOT have been an easy challenge and I don’t envy the contestants AT ALL.  Frank draws his menu inspiration from his roots and wants to serve the Marines a pasta salad.  Immediately I screamed at the screen.  Frank may not hang out with many Marines.  *chuckle*  It reminded me of our sausage challenge where we fed bikers in my season, and the sausage menu on my team was being thrown around as “sun dried tomatoes, feta cheese” and I screamed, “NO…BEER…BEER…BEER.”  Bikers do not want to eat sun dried tomatoes and feta.  Marines do not want to eat pasta salad.  BUT…Frank is being smart at choosing something that he is very confident with, and knows he can produce large volumes of quickly.  So I’ll definitely give him that.  David Martinez chooses what I believe is a more appropriate menu for Marines…thick cut pork chops and potatoes…but cooking 201 thick cut pork chops is a nearly insurmountable task on a limited grill space.  So he’s immediately placing his team at a tactical disadvantage, though if they can pull it off, they may be guaranteed a win.

The way we see the teams interacting is striking.  Frank’s team is working like a finely oiled machine.  People do the jobs he gives them.  Based on the judge’s input, he moves people around, and they immediately slip into efficient new roles.  On David’s team, things are chaotic and the girls, notably Becky, begin to assert leadership.  The Marines arrive, and boy are they hungry, and Frank’s got plenty of food to feed them, while David’s got raw pork chops and crunchy potatoes.  But somehow they pull it together and are able to serve with only a stray raw chop here and there.  (Personally I’d have butterflied those chops so they’d cook faster.  Yes, it would take up more grill space, but you’d get each serving off the grill faster.)

The Marines vote, and David’s team wins.  Which is like a stab in the heart for me, because so many of my “kids” are on Frank’s team.  And now they’re gonna have to go to a pressure test.

Pressure tests were my favorite part of MasterChef, but that was a coincidence.  They always seemed to choose things I was good at.  That’s probably coincidental because of all the challenges in Season 1, the pressure tests were the ones I’d have excelled in.  The pressure test today is apple pie.  Another one I’d have been super stoked about.  I bake apple pies all the time…usually in a cast iron skillet.  I’d have done another excited WHOOP, when I heard the challenge.

But the crunch is 75 minutes to bake the pie.  And that’s just NOT enough time.  I bake my apple pies for 45 minutes, leaving only 30 to make the pastry, peel and slice the apples (which usually takes me 45 minutes alone), and cook them down for the filling.  This is NOT going to be easy.

With only 15 minutes left to go in the challenge, there are still 2 pies that aren’t even in the oven yet.  Christine’s is one of them.  And I’m on pins and needles.  When Christine pulls her pie from the oven, she can’t tell if it’s done because she can’t see it.  She has to rely on her assistant to tell her what the color looks like, but still, after only about 15 minutes of baking, she’s really nervous.

She approaches the judges station and her confidence melts away.  And WE still haven’t seen her pie!  Ramsay begins one of his famous questions that you can’t tell is praise or condemnation…and then he reveals that her pie is perfect.  And Ramsay’s soft side pours out, which I can tell is totally genuine…he tells Christine to have faith in herself.  She BELONGS in the competition.  And she’s just pulled off a miracle.  It was a beautiful moment, and Christine’s friends are all misty eyed, and it strikes me that her experience in this moment must be very different than ours.  Of course she’s feeling all the things she felt when the challenge was transpiring, but she must have some frustration when watching the show and all her friends take a breath in unison, or begin to weep.  I feel like I’m experiencing something very profound.

The bottom 3 in the challenge are Scott, Michael, and Tanya.  Two of them are the two contestants I actually know.  I’m just SICK.  That’s a 66% chance that one of my friends is going home tonight.  Tanya gets a pass, leaving it to Michael and Scott.  Scott’s top pastry crumbled when he tried to roll it out.  (In that situation, I’d get the pie into the oven without a top, and prepare a brown sugar, cinnamon and butter crumble topping, which can be added at any time during backing.)  He crumbled up the pastry crust and scattered it on top, sort of like a cobbler, but when it came out of the oven it was still pale, so he got out the butane torch, which basically blackened the crust bits.  Michael took a bold and unconventional approach by scattering cheddar cheese on top of his crust for a crunchy cheesy top.  The judges aren’t entirely sure of this…but Michael’s in good company.  Martha Stewart does this, and there are dozens of recipes on the internet for apple pie with cheddar cheese crust.  But his filling is unusually dark, and the judges don’t like the liquid in the bottom of his pie.  (I cook the apples on the stovetop, then strain off the juices and reduce them until they’re almost caramel, then return them to the apples.)

At this point, I’m thinking the judges are going to send home Scott, but I’m still nervous.  Gordon seems a little upset as he starts to reveal who’s going home, which worries me.  I can tell that he has a fondness for Michael.

He says the name, and I scream at the TV and watch in horror as Michael takes off his apron and leaves the MasterChef kitchen.  Then I turn around, and Michael has his face buried in his hands and he’s crying.  This is from a kid who, when he left for MasterChef, told me that he hadn’t cried in public since he was a baby.  His hand is clutching Christine’s.  The room is silent.  I walk over and throw my arms around him and hold him.

It’s never easy to be eliminated from MasterChef.  But Michael is one of those bright young kids with sky-high ambition.  He risked his relationship with his family and his scholarship at Texas A&M to be on the show.  He wanted to prove to the world, but mostly to his family, that he has the skill and talent to be one of the great chefs of his generation.

But more importantly, Michael chose to go on MasterChef to share his story and become a role model for young gay Christians struggling with their faith, in a world where role models are hard to come by.  And he knew it would take time for all that to come out on the show.  Now his time has been cut short.  I know exactly how heartbreaking it is for him to leave the competition this early.  But there are no words appropriate for this moment, not “You did a great job” or “I thought your pie wasn’t the worst.”  Those only make it worse.  So I’m silent and I just hold the kid.

For those who are curious, Michael has been VERY busy since leaving MasterChef.  He’s been interning at two of the most respected restaurants in Austin, working his butt off on the line, learning as much as he can, and proving to the chefs and restauranteurs that he’s cut out for more responsibility.  He’s eager to help out in a charity capacity and hopes that opportunities to support at-risk youth will come his way.  (They will.)

I could not be more proud of Michael.  He took a lot of risks to be on the show.  He has an incredibly bright future, and I consider myself so fortunate to be his friend and to help out in any way I can.  YOU can help him out by following him on Facebook and Twitter, and checking in with his blog:




It was a good week on MasterChef.  I hope the contestants learned a valuable lesson about supporting each other throughout the show, because you never know when you’ll have to work together and rely on each other in a group challenge.  And tonight…another episode!

HUGE thanks to Christine and John for inviting me into their home.  That probably wasn’t easy, my blog has apparently made me a polarizing figure in the MasterChef upper echelon.  But ultimately I am here to support the contestants, and I know exactly what kind of impact Christine’s story is going to have.  It has certainly captured my heart.  So it was an incredible honor to meet her.  Thank you Christine.  Thank you Michael.  I love you both!