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MasterChef 4 Recap: Auditions #1 and #2

(PLEASE NOTE: This blog is not endorsed or approved by Fox or MasterChef, and they would probably prefer you not read it.  The blog entry solely reflects my opinions about MasterChef, having been a former contestant.  I do not have any inside knowledge of how MasterChef is produced.)

Here I am, 2 weeks after the premier of MasterChef season 4, just beginning to blog about the season.  I promise things will be more prompt as we go forward!  (However, my DVR hiccuped on last week’s episodes, so that blog may be a few days’ delayed while I find someone with a copy.)

I have to admit, I was loath to start watching this season.  The farther I get away from my own MasterChef experience, the more hesitant I am to continue identifying, and thus defining, myself with the brand.  While, it’s true, they do introduce new and exciting twists each season that get more and more ridiculously complex, I have to admit…I’m a little bored.  Luckily, the fan base doesn’t seem to be, as I’ve been poked and pestered for my blog for the past 2 weeks!  So we’ll see how this season goes.

The opening format is exactly the same.  From thousands of live auditions around the country, 100 home cooks have been brought to Los Angeles, and in theory they are the “best of the best.”  (Many of them, however, have been cast specifically to be made fun of by the judges, since MasterChef does not film their live auditions like American Idol does.  So they can’t REALLY bring the 100 best-of-the-best to LA, because there will be no one for the audience to laugh at.  This necessitates that some folks get cast so that the judges can laugh them out of the studio.  To see what I think of this phenomenon, read my guest blog about How To Watch a MasterChef Premier on Celebration Generation, the website of Marie Porter, a contestant on this year’s MasterChef who contacted me for advice before she left to be on the show.  This blog will be VERY fascinating to you if you’re interested in behind the scenes stuff.)

The show basically starts with Joe Bastianich burning a bunch of money.  Fake money, of course, but they are sending a signal to the contestants that they should be here for the glory, not for the cash.  And the glory is apparently embodied in a holy icon that will “ensure your culinary legacy,” according to Graham…the coveted MasterChef trophy.

Folks…last year I laughed out loud when they revealed the trophy, and I did the same this year.  It’s really, really, REALLY hard for people to get excited about a trophy.  Okay…an Emmy or an Oscar, maybe.  (I shuddered when I held the Emmy that my friend John won for producing Rachael Ray a few years back.)  Sure, the contestants themselves are excited about it because it would mean that they won.  But I can’t be the only audience member who thinks, “Really?  A trophy?”  Personally, I think the trophy is ridiculous and cheap and should be ditched.  How about a winning CHEF’S HAT?!?

The judges send a very simple and clear message to the contestants: “We only care about 1 thing: what you put on the plate.”  Sadly, this isn’t true, with MasterChef or ANY other reality TV program, for that matter.  But it IS the mythology of the show, so we’re supposed to believe it.

Well…to debate myself…perhaps it IS true that the JUDGES only care about what the contestants put on the plate.  One day, decades from now, I would love to sit down to dinner at my place with Gordon, Graham, and Joe…long after MasterChef has stopped airing or has moved on to other judges…and chat about what the show did to them.  Because MasterChef must affect the judges as viscerally as it does the contestants.  There are times when Gordon may really hate a dish, but because of the story arc of the show, he has to “like” it for the camera.  There are times when a passionate young chef stands before Graham, reminding him of himself when he was paying his dues on the line, dreaming of that first Michelin star he could claim was his own…but Graham has to shoot down that contestant because the show’s story arc requires it.  And I wonder what that does to them, as humans.  Over the past few seasons, a few of the contestants who have more integrity than I do have “called them out” on this issue…asking them for their HONEST opinion, rather than their camera one.  Calling their integrity into question for perhaps compromising their own food passions and identities to bow to the will of a producer, rather than fight for someone they might otherwise truly believe in.  (As you might imagine, these moments will NEVER make it to the screen.)  As someone with no spine who avoids conflict and confrontation at every possible step, I could never be one of those people.  But I personally know a few who have, and my admiration for them is unending.

So perhaps the judges, in their private hearts, do truly care only about what is on the plate.  I think that, largely, the feedback we see from the judges is actually  honest.  But there are, no doubt, times when the judges have to say things they don’t truly believe, in order to keep the show moving in a direction that holds the viewership and is gripping and shocking and emotional for the audience.

I digress.

In the first 2 episodes, we are fully introduced to only 14 people, only 11 of which are awarded aprons.  We catch a glimpse of maybe 20 others, some of whom get aprons, and most of whom do not.  There’s a gal cooking with her own breast milk.  A man cooking with “roadkill.”  A rabbit farmer who brings the whole rabbit, fur and all.  (I actually would love to meet her, she seemed really interesting.)  Even a guy who is deep frying roaches…”giant waterbugs” is what he calls them.  That’s the “gentle” term we use in Texas for people who are terrified by our massive roaches here.  These folks were cast to shock the audience, but when they left for Los Angeles, they each fully believed they had a chance to win MasterChef and were being taken seriously by the casting folks.  So my heart goes out to them after these episodes aired.  It’s also entirely possible that the roach guy wanted to cook something else, but the producers found out that he has cooked with insects in the past, and they asked him to deep fry the roaches, rather than making something he’s truly passionate about.  (Yes, that happens, too…not everyone gets to cook exactly what they WANT to cook.)  So before you truly laugh these people off your television screen, remember that their life turned upside down during the long and arduous casting process, and the supremely stressful week of filming the signature dish round.  And they went home dejected, cheated, feeling like they were taken advantage of.  It’s part of the ugly side of reality TV, and it’s one reason I’m so allergic to it.  I was fortunate to have been treated wonderfully, both in the casting process, the judging, and the editing room, and for that, I will forever be grateful.  Not everyone is so lucky.

Highlights of the 14 folks who are featured in these 2 episodes:

Natasha Crnjac, the gorgeous 26 year old, stay-at-home mom from San Diego who is convinced that people are judging her worth as a cook by her model-looks.  (Sweetheart…did you watch the last 3 seasons?  Attractive women won EVERY season.  So your good looks are a head start, not a stumbling block!)  Her empanadas with steak chimichurri look divine.  (Chimichurri is an Argentinian sauce made from finely minced parsley and herbs, plus olive oil and vinegar.  There are as many versions as there are cooks who make it.  Natasha’s looks great.)  Something that struck me about her presentation was that she offered the judges an alcoholic beverage (beer) and they actually drank it.  That hasn’t happened in previous seasons, to my knowledge.  On my season, the great Alvin Schultz actually made a VERY unique cocktail to pair with his dish, but the judges refused it.  Natasha’s beer came from a 750ml bottle and it looked like a farmhouse ale or saison…I’d be interested to know what it was.  She gets 3 thumbs up.  Natasha has a really cool blog, Frisky Mama: From Diapers to Demiglace, I want to be heard…

Christine Kim, an adorable 19yo gal charms us with her irresistable personality and sweetness, and I was drooling over her kalbi duck lettuce wraps, but Gordon and Graham turn her down.  A shame, but perhaps her ethnicity and name were against her from the beginning.  Kalbi is the Korean word for “rib” and usually refers to a preparation of beef short ribs that are marinated extensively before being briefly cooked.  Christine has taken the flavors from the typical kalbi marinade and applied them to duck, which to me sounds like yummy in my tummy.  The youngest contestant this season at 19, I’m sad she didn’t get a chance to fight with the bigger fish.

Brian Kohler, a fellow Texan, shocks the judges by cooking beaver, which he apparently traps here?!?  I don’t typically think of beaver in the Dallas area, but he seems quite comfortable cooking it.  Reminds me of Bourdain‘s new show, Parts Unknown, and the episode in Quebec where one of the world’s greatest chefs, Martin Picard, cooks up beaver to Tony’s delight.  Brian’s got himself a pair of VERY intense eyes, and there’s no denying his passion.  Though I’m intrigued when he says he cooks “roadkill” for his family every day.  If, by roadkill, he means game meat, I’d LOVE to be a guest at his table!  Bravo for cooking beaver, including the tail, for the judges, and he squeaks by with a single no from Joe.  (Infinite diversity of potential jokes possible regarding Joe and beaver at this point, but I shall leave that to the imaginations of my dear readers!)

Jordan Roots, a 29yo delivery driver from Minneapolis, stuns us all with his immaculately-plated ancho chile tostada and his poignant story about losing his mother to brain cancer, and how he now wears the apron he had given his mother as a kid.  In a triumphant display of editing, we see a fully dimensional character in Jordan…some confidence and perhaps a hint of cockiness (“I’m not seeing much technique out there” he says), but tempered by a very private moment where he collapses in the hall to weep after getting his apron before facing the crowd.  Kudos to the editing team, I wish we could see this many dimensions from EVERY character on the show, for nobody is as one-dimensional as they are often portrayed to be.

Another heart warmer is Adriana Guillen, a strikingly beautiful 26yo college admissions rep, originally from Mexico.  As she cooks, her family is “late” to arrive (though miraculously they have a camera crew in the car with them), but they surprise her just before she wheels her cart in for judging.  She had already spoken of how her mother taught her to cook, and the moment when she bends down to embrace and kiss her mother really got the waterworks going for me.  Adriana makes a nopales soup with dried shrimp croutons.  Nopales are the green pads of the prickly pear cactus, and are a staple in authentic Mexican cooking.  It can be VERY challenging to cook with them because they are very mucilaginous, like okra, which can be used with stunning results in the hands of a capable cook (ie…a perfect gumbo), but can also spell a sticky, stringy disaster if you don’t know what you’re doing.  The color of her soup is a deep red, derived solely from a combination of chiles.  No tomatoes in the soup at all.  I would have dived RIGHT into that bowl.  And now we get some feedback from the judges that I truly believe is staged…Gordon strikes her down, not because of what is on her plate (what about the statement that that’s the ONLY thing you cared about?!?), but because he thinks she’s too sweet for the “fierce” competition.  Hell’s Kitchen is fierce.  MasterChef is not.  While the editing may highlight contention between contestants, the MasterChef cast is a family, there’s no denying that.  You can’t live the stress of the show without growing intimately close with your fellow contestants.  This is simply a way to stress us out, thinking how unfair it would be if her food was good enough for the competition, but the judges don’t think she can handle the heat.  Joe saves her, in the end.

Then we meet George Mastrosavas,  the 33yo pizza joint owner from Ohio.  His Greek wedding soup is offensive to Joe because he used butter rather than the Greek staple olive oil, and the judges don’t give him the apron, but Gordon basically forces him to finally propose to his girlfriend on camera, because he’s apparently been carrying around the engagement ring in his pocket for 6 months.  Initially I thought this was completely staged, but the look on his girlfriend Maria’s face when he tearfully pops the question couldn’t be faked even by Meryl Streep.  She is absolutely STUNNED.  Great television.

Krissi Biasiello is next, a 34 year old single mom and paralegal from Philly, struggling to make ends meet and sleeping on the couch in her 1 bedroom apartment.  She is very real, to me.  I wanna cook with her.  She talks about her son, who worships Gordon and dreams of becoming a chef.  She serves up a fontina-stuffed meatloaf florentine with “dreamy potatoes.”  I’m not crazy about meatloaf the way most Americans are, but hers looks delish.  Gordon brings in her son, who is just downright adorable (I hope he auditioned for MasterChef Junior) and he gets to meet his hero.  What a moment!  Krissi gets the apron.  Check our her wonderful blog The Rotund Chef.

Bime (Bee-mee) Cruz, a 35yo boxing coach from Mass, originally from Puerto Rico, immediately tells us about his 3 daughters, who are his inspiration for cooking.  Bime is a character, and his shrimp on a smashed plantain cake looks amazing.  Joe hates Bime, probably because Bime shows no fear of him.  (Joe, at least the character Joe, does NOT like people who aren’t afraid of him.)  Bime stares him down and says, “I’m your future rival, man.”  And that cemented their relationship.  Joe, in this bizarre and highly visible combination of fear, sheepishness, aggression, and defensiveness, insists that Bime is a “faker” and says that Bime cries “every 5 minutes.”  (I cried every 5 minutes, too…which did annoy Joe and he thought I was doing it for the camera, but when I dined at his unparalleled LA restaurant, Osteria Mozza, and tried the grilled octopus…which made me weep…I think he just might have found it endearing.  At least for a few seconds.)  Bime gets his apron, but I don’t see him and Joe holding hands any time soon.

Then there’s Jessie Lysiak, the pampered “southern Belle” from Social Circle, Georgia who is surreally beautiful and has a dreamy lifestyle as a yacht stewardess.  She serves up an impressive sea bass en croute, which is a fillet of fish baked inside a pastry shell…a challenging preparation for fish because the fish must be perfectly done and not overcooked, or undercooked, and the pastry must be crisp and perfect.  Gordon says something very puzzling to her about it.  He says her dish is stuck in the 1980s and he wished she’d brought something more contemporary.  “GORDON RAMSAY HAS LOST HIS MIND.” -Ben Starr, MC season 2.  Gordon has built his reputation on Beef Wellington, a beef tenderloin baked in pastry.  I really feel like that line came from him, rather than the control room, so I’m puzzled as to how his Beef Wellington is more contemporary than her Sea Bass en Croute.  Then Gordon does something unexpected…he leaves the room to return with 2 large fish, one of which he fillets and portions in front of her, and then asks her to perform the same…just to be sure she’s being honest about her proclivity for fishing.  She does it with a “Take that, Gordo” look in her eyes, and takes her apron triumphantly.  (I will never forget the moment, on MasterChef 2, when Gordon filleted a massive 3 foot long salmon in front of the cast.  It took him all of 30 seconds to flawlessly extract 2 perfect fillets from the salmon, leaving no waste.  That was a turning point in the show for me…the moment that I went from reacting to Gordon as if he was an actor, to reacting as if he was a chef.  Gordon IS an actor NOW, and can’t be in the kitchen very often any longer.  The fact that he could pull off that perfect filleting without doing it every day all day, just blew my mind.  He is truly a culinary savant.)

Along comes fellow Texan James Nelson, a 26yo who works in retail sales, and tells the story of losing both his parents recently, which he admits, in a moment of refreshing vulnerability, that this was a blow to his self esteem in the kitchen, since his parents were always championing his abilities.  He serves up a crispy pork belly with lentil hash, and reveals that his “food dream” (a new term we’re hearing left and right this season) is to open a gastropub.  For some bizarre reason, Joe and Gordon are insistent that the guy is too timid and has no fight in him and are hesitant to give him the apron.  They may be saying this for drama, or perhaps there was more in their un-aired conversations that convinced them of this, but the audience certainly isn’t viewing James that way.  They decide to give him the apron, much to Joe’s chagrin.  James sells his own line of spices, so check out the Bravado Spice Company!

Next we’ve got our big character for the season…our Felix Fang…our sex kitten.  The unforgettable Sasha Foxx, baby.  This 42yo gospel singer from Tuscaloosa is a goldmine of one-liners.  “I cook good, I look good, I smell good.  Everything I do, I do good, honey, you best believe that.”  She serves up fried cornish game hen with French crepes and orange maple glaze…and there’s bourbon in there somewhere.  “Put a little Sasha in your mouth, baby.”  Joe says: “That’s a lotta chicken.  And you’re a lotta woman,” and she replies, without a pause, “Mmmm hmmm…you told the truth about that.”  Gordon asks her, “What’s the secret behind your food?” and her reply, “I could turn around and you could really see what’s the secret behind me!”  Sasha gets her apron, and we get our first unforgettable character on MasterChef this season.  Though we all know someone like Sasha, and that passion runs in both directions…I could see her being a VERY polarizing, fierce contestant.

Next up is Rudy Reyes, and there’s just no easy way to watch this segment.  Rudy is a 35yo hero from San Diego who was severely burned in the bad fires there in the early 2000s.  Going door-to-door in his neighborhood to help people escape, he ended up in the hospital with burns over 75% of his body.  The kept him in an induced coma for 2 MONTHS, and he spent over a year in the hospital recovering.  And rather than lapse into lifelong depression over this, Rudy’s belief is “I’m blessed.  I’m here for a reason.”  After recovering, Rudy had to re-learn to do everything in his life.  Rudy is serving up one of my personal FAVORITE dishes.  When you travel throughout the American southwest, you’ll see painted signs in front of people’s homes advertising “Navajo tacos” or “Hopi tacos” or “Indian tacos.”  They consist of a massive round of fry bread (like a giant, savory sopapilla), stuffed with meat and cheese and veggies.  Rudy has a perfectly-golden fry bread that he’s topping with buffalo meat and lime salsa.  It’s not the most refined thing that has been presented to the judges, but I can be honest and say that I’d tuck into that before ANYTHING else I’ve seen thus far.  I LOVE Indian tacos.  More than life itself.  Joe and Gordon strike him down because the dish isn’t sophisticated enough and the buffalo meat was too dry…but Graham, who shares my appetite, is his only advocate.  I’m not sure what to think about Rudy’s experience at MasterChef.  Perhaps if they had given him an apron, the audience would have cried wolf on sensationalism, especially since the winner of last season, the incredible Christine Ha (whose cookbook just came out…get it!) was visually handicapped.  Or, perhaps, his food just wasn’t up to caliber, and they wanted to prove that the contest is ONLY about the food.  We won’t ever know, but we can thank Rudy for his incredible outlook on life, for sharing himself with us on the show, and take those inspirational feelings he struck in our hearts and do good things for more people more often.

Next there’s a run of rejections, including 2 of my buddies, Matt Orsini from Dallas and Marie Porter from Minneapolis.  The fact that these two flash before your eyes for only 1 second each (you probably don’t even remember them) is an example of the VAST impact that the show has on the lives of ALL its contestants.  Matt and Marie’s lives were turned completely upside down for MONTHS.  Their relationships were pushed to the breaking point.  They left income and family for an uncertain future.  And these life-changing struggles are documented on the show with a flippant 1 second rejection.  And believe it or not, almost HALF of the 100 contestants will not even get that 1 second.  They won’t be aired at all.  This is another reason to read my blog entry about how to watch a MasterChef premier, because there are lots of folks out there who feel used and thrown away by MasterChef…who feel that the process was entirely exploitative of them…and my no-so-silent hope for ALL of those contestants is to look at what MasterChef did for you.  It made you look at your life and wonder if you were on the right path.  It gave you the hope that you could leave a bigger mark on the world.  You DON’T need MasterChef to help you do that.  If you have that dream, you follow it.  Your loved ones may not understand at first.  Beg them to stick with you.  But if you feel like you can change the world, or make it a better place, because of your love for food, to sink back into the routine of your old life is giving up and throwing in the towel.  Be extraordinary!

Next to last is Eddie Jackson, a 42yo former NFL player from Georgia, who, after tossing the pigskin around with Joe and Graham (with Gordon, a former pro soccer player himself, poking fun at “American football”), serves up jerked meatloaf with ginger and coconut sweet potato mash.  “Jerking” is a Jamaican technique that refers to a highly-spiced meat that is smoked or grilled.  I’ve had it all over the Caribbean, and it makes me drool each time I smell it.  He gets the apron from Joe and Gordon, with Graham surprisingly abstaining.

And last, but certainly not least, is a familiar face from last year, Luca Manfe…the strapping 31yo restaurant manager from NYC with the accent that makes all the ladies (and some of the men!) go weak in the knees.  We were dead certain that Luca would get an apron last year, with his sexy Italian cooking, but he didn’t.  And you’ll remember that EVERY year the judges invite back contestants…some are even “guaranteed” an apron next season.  And do they ever return?  No.  Do I know why?  Not for sure.  I do know that a contestant from my season who didn’t get an apron returned for auditions for season 3 and was basically completely ignored by the casting folks, as if he wasn’t even there.  Typically, a contestant is not welcomed back after all the gossip amongst their fellow contestants who made it far enough to know many of the show’s secrets.  So it never surprised me that the contestants who were “guaranteed” an apron next season never showed up.  But Luca has…which is intriguing to say the least.  Especially after Bastianich says, “Had you won last year, we’d probably be partners already in a restaurant in NY.”  I had to pause the DVR after that remark.  Joe has never talked like this with a contestant…especially not during the signature dish round.  He has extended particularly talented top finalists an invitation to intern in his restaurants.  But NEVER mentioned partnering with a contestant in a restaurant endeavor.  Joe partners with chefs like Mario Batali.  This was very, very bizarre.  Luca serves up a broccoli raab ravioli which looks divine, nestled in a Pecorino cream sauce, which the judges all criticize for being too grainy.  Pecorino is an aged sheep’s milk cheese that is known for not melting, even when grated on top of a hot dish.  The finest Pecorinos are aged well, which makes them even harder to melt.  (Younger Pecorinos melt satisfactorily, but don’t have much flavor.)  So Luca definitely chose flavor over texture, and while the judges point out that the texture is sub-par he DOES get the apron, and is well on his way to HIS food dream…a restaurant in NYC with his name in big letters over the door.  “L-U-C-A”  I can see that…

We’ve got 1 more round of auditions before the top finalists are revealed, and my DVR hates me and didn’t record it.  So I’m headed to Houston tonight to meet up with Alvin, Christine, and Michael Chen, and hopefully I’ll be able to rustle up last week’s episodes so I can be caught up before Wednesday.  If you enjoy my blog, please subscribe near the top right corner of the screen to make sure you don’t miss ANY of the insanity of this season!  I’ll also be featuring “Where Are They Now?” posts about your favorite contestants, all the way back to Season 1.  Don’t miss it!  And please, by all means…share your opinions below!