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MasterChef Recap: Monti Gets the Boot

(Please note, this blog is not endorsed or approved by MasterChef and all information in this blog reflects uneducated opinion on my part.  I have no inside knowledge about how decisions are made on the production of MasterChef.)

It has been embarrassingly long since my last MasterChef recap.  In fact, Season 3 has ended already, and I still haven’t watched the finale.  I am 4 episodes behind.  So I will do my best to bash out these final 4 blogs as quickly as possible.

We’re down to the top 5, and this episode marks the episode where I was eliminated last season.  Still in the running are Monti, Josh, Frank, Christine, and Becky.  All are VERY solid cooks, each with their own strengths.

The Mystery Box this time has absolutely nothing underneath it.  In another twist that I’m VERY jealous of, the contestants get to take their box into the pantry and choose up to 15 ingredients “that can create a dish that says YOU on a plate” according to Bastianich.  And I’m throwing a little tantrum in my living room that they get to do that, and I didn’t.

But of course, it’s never that easy, and the judges then make the contestants pass their box to the contestant in front of them.  Still easier than a normal mystery box, in my opinion, because at least all the ingredients in the box were selected with a single, finished dish in mind, and you don’t end up getting something like scallops and bananas in the same box.  (Which I paired anyway.)  Becky FREAKS out…”Celery, Josh…really?!?”

Monti gets Christine’s box and gives us a line that tickles me pink.  “Fish sauce?  What the hell is fish sauce?  And why does it taste like death?”

As someone who has lived in Thailand, I know exactly what fish sauce is, and how amazing AND horrid it is.  I’ve blogged about it before, but fish sauce is basically made from all the fish from the net that are too small to be eaten.  They are basically pureed into a slurry, salted, and left in giant vats out in the sun to rot.  The liquid is drained off the solids, it is strained for clarity, and they add sugar to it…and that makes fish sauce, which is the staple ingredient for virtually EVERY single dish in southeast Asia, even breakfast and dessert.  I challenge you to find me a Thai recipe that doesn’t call for fish sauce.

When you open a bottle of fish sauce, your kitchen is filled with the putrid smell of rotting fish.  And you think, “This could never EVER be good to use in anything.”  But Thai food tastes flat and bland without it.  And once you add it to a dish, magic happens.  I’m so addicted to fish sauce that I even use it in my Italian tomato sauces (in place of anchovy paste, which the Italians are incredibly fond of using to add savory complexity to sauces).  Just don’t get any on your skin, ESPECIALLY not your nose.  One time in Montreal I was sniffing a jar at a Vietnamese restaurant to find out what was inside, and the jar accidentally touched my nose and all I could smell all day was rotting fish.  GROSS!

Only 3 of the 5 dishes get final tasting, and Becky isn’t one of them, possibly because she left her crispy chicken skin in the oven.  (Don’t worry, Becky…I know exactly how it feels to leave out your signature ingredient!)

Josh is selected, and he sticks to his Southern roots despite having Frank’s Italian ingredients, and makes a savory bread pudding with pork topped with crispy fried onions and fresh mozzarella, on a tomato sauce with sauteed beet greens.  (Frank was going to make a sausage sandwich.)  The judges love it, and it does look divine.

Monti gets into the top 3 with Christine’s ingredients, and she makes a Tom Kha soup, which is one of my favorite substances on the planet.  Tom is Thai for soup, and Kha is Thai for galangal, which is a ginger-like aromatic root that flavors this coconut-milk based soup, exploding with lime, lemongrass, and all those aromatics that make Thai food so incredible.  Miraculously, this is Monti’s first attempt at Tom Kha, and like a truly great chef, she lets her palate be her guide as she builds this soup…constantly tasting and adjusting, using her images of Christine as her inspiration.  The judges are incredibly impressed at this feat, and I am, too.

Christine has the final dish to be selected, and with Becky’s box she produced oven roasted chicken, roasted beet salad with goat cheese, and sauteed mushrooms, with a cream sauce and some fresh beet greens.  It’s a classic spread, and it looks incredible.

And the winner is Josh!  It’s his first mystery box win.  Be careful, Josh.  My first mystery box win was at this exact same point in the competition.  I won the advantage for the elimination challenge, which was also to replicate a dish from one of the judges’ restaurants.  And I got the boot.  So I’m automatically very nervous for Josh.

Back in the pantry, he’s presented with 3 dishes from Graham Elliott’s flagship restaurant in Chicago, each of which has been ordered by “3 of the  biggest names on this planet” according to Ramsay.  The first is one of Oprah’s favorite dishes: sweet corn bisque with red pepper jam and a cilantro marshmallow, which, excepting the marshmallow, sounds like dinner to me!  The second is NOT one of Jay Z’s 99 problems: Alaskan king crab with vanilla creme fraiche, pomegranate, edible flowers, and celery gelee.  (If that sounds ridiculously fancy to you, it does to me, as well, and it doesn’t look very appetizing either…the colors are bizarre, and I’m rarely in the mood to eat celery jelly.)  Josh is also surprised that Jay Z would eat a “froo froo lookin’ dish like that.”  The third is President Obama’s delight: white tuna sashimi with avocado mousse, passion fruit, and crispy plantain chips, garnished with cacao nibs (the fermented pod that is later processed into chocolate) and radish slices.

Personally, I’d choose the sweet corn bisque, because I think it has enough complexity that it might trip up the competition…especially with that darned marshmallow.  (I hate marshmallows, but I know how to make them.)  If it were up to me to choose one to eat, though, I’d order several plates of the white tuna sashimi.  Passion fruit is one of my favorite flavors and textures on the planet, and I love the idea of pairing it with raw tuna.  And I absolutely adore avocado mousse.  I was introduced to sweet avocado mousse by my partner’s grandmother, and in Brazil, avocado is NEVER used in a savory application…it is exclusively eaten as dessert.  That sounds a bit weird to most of us in the US who are accustomed to guacamole, and avocado sliced on our salads and sandwiches.  The white tuna dish is exceedingly simple, but Josh picks it anyway.  Only one element has to be cooked…the plantain chips.  The rest is careful slicing and portioning, and keeping a balance between the VERY minimal ingredients on the place.

The contestants are shown the plate and get to taste it.  Christine is very nervous about replicating the dish, especially since she can’t see it.  We get a sobering shot of her actually feeling the dish with her fingers to “see” it, so she knows where everything goes.  Her assistant is not allowed to help her with this.

Time starts, only 30 minutes of it, and everyone scrambles.  The first step is to heat the oil for frying the plantains, and to get the tuna steak into the freezer to firm it up for slicing.  (Josh and Monti, and perhaps others, don’t do this…big mistake.  For perfect slicing of fish, it needs to be a firmed in the freezer for a bit first.  I can see from watching Becky slice hers that she used the freezer to her advantage.)

Christine is first up, and her dish looks almost exactly like Graham’s, and it tastes that way, too.  Joe is really becoming intrigued by Christine at this point, and he waxes poetic about how the things he sees in his head when he drinks wine must be similar to the things Christine sees when she tastes food.  Joe suffers from a bit of camera shyness now and then, especially when he’s not furious enough to throw plates around and spit out food, but I can see the genuine intrigue in his eyes when he talks to Christine, and that’s refreshing to see in reality TV, especially from him.  Gordon is so amazed that he whispers to Christine, “Am I being punked?”  Christine is obviously proving how advanced her palate and instincts really are.

Monti is up next, and she is not at all satisfied with her product.  Her fish isn’t cut smoothly, her avocado mousse is diluted with cream, and her plantains are too thick.  Gordon praises her past performance and her ability to be creative on a budget, but says that she has missed the mark on this one.

Frank is up next, and his dish looks pretty darned close to Graham’s, and Graham praises him for it.

Becky follows, and receives criticism for ladling too much passion fruit onto the plate and for lack of visual impact.  She gets chastised extra hard for this, because as a food photographer, they expected a more precise presentation.

Last but not least, Josh presents his dish, having had the upper hand in selecting the dish and asking questions about it.  Josh has also decided to “improve” Graham’s dish with the addition of diced mango to help balance the sourness of the passion fruit.  Graham knocks him for it.  (As Monti said, “It would be totally stupid to try to add to Graham’s dish; the dude is, like, amazeballs.”)  He also plated 5 portions of tuna, rather than 4, and the portions weren’t equal…some were large, and some were small.  Graham says, “It looks like you had 10 minutes to make it, instead of 30.”  Joe says it’s under-seasoned and “misfired on all elements.”

Now it’s time for a commercial break, and instead of a Walmart plug, we see a commercial that lets us know that viewers can actually order home delivery of dishes from the show.  This is something the producers had talked about during our season, but didn’t have time to pull it off.  This year they have paired with a company called Popup Pantry, which is a southern California company that does in-home delivery of gourmet meals that are mostly prepared, then flash frozen.  You heat them up at home, do final assembly, and then eat.  It’s an interesting concept.  Not something I think I’d patronize, myself, though.  If YOU ordered any of the meals from this season, please let us know in the comments, I’m interested to see how they turned out.  (They are currently offering the full menu from the finale, both contestant’s menus, for $80, including shipping.  At $40 a meal, that’s probably about what you’d pay at a fine dining establishment.  Though I’m not sure how the whole shipping of ice-cream works…)  Check the link out here.

It’s judging time, Christine is held up as the winner, while the bottom 3 are obviously Becky, Monti, and Josh.  Historically, the judges come down extra hard on contestants who had an advantage but did not excel.  That’s exactly what happened to me.  Fans remarked that on my elimination, there were others who had seemingly-worse dishes than me…but because I was able to get inside knowledge on how the dish was prepared, I was judged (deservingly) with an extra measure of strictness.  So I am dead certain at this point that Josh is going home.

It comes down to Josh and Monti.  And no matter how you cut it, Josh seems to be the obvious choice for elimination.  Monti has consistently impressed and surprised the judges, with only a few flops.  Josh has stellar highs and catastrophic lows, and is less consistent than Monti.  But normally the judges do not take past performance into consideration.  Even the strongest cook in the competition can get eliminated if they produce one bad dish.  And since Josh had inside knowledge and the upper hand, and STILL produced a dish that received more criticism from the judges than anyone else…he’s got to be the person leaving the MasterChef kitchen today.

But, of course, he’s not.  They’re sending Monti home.  Because she’s a lovable character that the audience has totally fallen for, and a MONSTER WAVE of sympathy and love will be showered upon her.  And Josh is the only polarizing character left in the show.  (Which probably means he’ll be in the finals, but absolutely MUST be in the top 4.)  It’s fairly apparent that Josh’s path to the final 4 was fairly set in stone, at least since he was glaringly selected to win back his lost apron when he was obviously out-cooked by both Stacey and Cowboy Mike in the win-your-apron-back challenge.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Josh is a bad cook.  He has produced some truly astounding stuff this season, and he could cook circles around me.  But I think it’s obvious that this elimination decision was engineered and not necessarily deserved.  No, I don’t think Monti is a better cook than Josh.  But I DO think she outcooked him in this challenge, just as he was outcooked in previous challenges and the true winners were not recognized.  He’s most definitely getting special treatment.  (But it’s reality TV…what’s new?)

This is the most painful elimination for me so far.  While I was shocked that Michael Chen was eliminated so early, taken completely by surprise when Tanya was double eliminated at the cusp of the top 10, shocked out of my gourd when Felix was eliminated, and absolutely FURIOUS when Stacey was both eliminated and then not given her apron back when she clearly outcooked everyone…this one is absolutely tragic for me.

Like the rest of you, I fell in love with Monti Carlo the instant she walked on camera.  I felt like I really knew her after a mere handful of episodes…she made me laugh and she made me cry within seconds of each other.

Then, with incredible fortune, I was able to TRULY become friends with Monti, when she invited me to help out with a fundraiser for the Phoenix Children’s Hospital alongside David Martinez.  And I discovered what a passionate, tender, vulnerable, brilliant, witty, hysterical, driven person she truly is in real life…one of the most likeable people I’ve ever met.  Monti’s heart is filled with love, and not only is she single-handedly scraping her living together to provide for her whirlwind-of-a-son, Danger…she also devotes boundless time and energy to help those less fortunate, especially underprivileged kids.  Monti Carlo has a heart of gold.

Watching her transformation over the past 2 months has been incredible.  Monti landed on the set of MasterChef fresh off a divorce, having only cooked for a few short years, wondering what to do with her life, doubting herself at every turn.  She faced constant criticism and underestimation from fellow contestants that she wasn’t sophisticated or creative or knowledgeable enough to be in the competition.  And slowly, miracle after miracle, she realized that she had incredible raw talent and brilliant instinct in the kitchen, and she won the admiration of an entire nation in the process.

Monti Carlo, I treasure your friendship and we have many incredible memories to make in the future.  It’s no coincidence that you and I, who so many fans draw comparisons between, were both 5th-chef-out.  If you ask me, it’s a darn good spot to be eliminated in.  And now I share it with good company.

If you know what’s good for you, you’ll like her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, and subscribe to her blog on her fabulous website Slap Yo Momma.

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:


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!


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.