Tag Archives: Ryan

MasterChef recap: Stacey gets robbed

Please note that my blog is not endorsed or approved by MasterChef and they would prefer you didn’t read it.  This blog contains opinion only.  I have no inside information about the judging process, only assumptions and uneducated guesses…

6 contestants are left, and today they get a day off.  They don’t have to cook.  Instead, the judges are offering a MasterChef first: previously eliminated contestants are coming back for a second chance.  Because, according to Gordon:  “It’s a shame for anyone to be judged solely on their worst moment and their worst dish.”

Yet, strangely, they’re not bringing back the entire top 18.  4 are not invited back, including my buddy Michael Chen.  While this is an interesting twist, it’s not incredibly fair to the existing top 6, and DEFINITELY not fair for people like Michael and Helene and David to be denied that second chance.

Ramsay touts, “Even the best chefs in the world can have a bad day.  Trust me, I’ve had thousands.”  Ramsay has been a chef for around 25 years, which means that if he’s not exaggerating, well over 10% of his days as a chef have been bad days.  (But we all know that Ramsay is as prone to hyperbole as I am.)  So I’m not gonna take him at his word on that comment!

So Stacey, Josh, Tali, Tanya, Cowboy Mike, Anna, Scott, and Ryan each get to go into the pantry and select a single ingredient.  All 8 ingredients will be compiled into a mystery box, and the winning 2 will go head-to-head for the chance to get back in the competition.

Ryan, the Flavor Elevator, heads back, intent on selecting a challenging ingredient, and returns with a Portobello mushroom.  (??)  Scott brings back an absolutely massive bone-in pork chop, and he slips in “stunning” just for Ramsay’s benefit.  LOVE IT!  Anna brings back celery.  Mike brings back condensed milk.  Tanya brings white wine vinegar.  Tali returns with chocolate.  Josh throws everyone for a loop when he places a pomegranate in the box.  And Stacey brings back heavy cream.  And that is undoubtedly the strangest mystery box in MasterChef history.  There is also a “staples” pantry which includes flour, milk, eggs, lemons, etc.

While my natural inclination would be toward dessert, probably a flourless chocolate cake with pomegranate reduction and whipped cream…my brain would get the best of me and convince me that was too simple, so I’d drop that pork chop into a brine while I prepared a stuffing with the mushroom and celery and bake some biscuits…then stuff the pork chop at 30 minutes, sear it on both sides to get it brown and crisp, then tuck it into the oven to finish, while I make a cream gravy from the pan drippings for the biscuit.  Probably serve it with a little salad of celery leaves and pomegranate.

Time starts and we see a fairly even split in the group between dessert and the pork chop.  We see the contestants dredging up old rivalries, particularly with Ryan, who features VERY prominently in this episode.  (Which is understandable…we haven’t had a REAL villain since he left.)

With this mystery box, EVERY contestant’s dish will be tasted, which is also a first.    Josh is up first with a chocolate mousse on pomegranate sauce with candied lemon peel.  It’s pretty sad looking, but the judges rave about its taste.  Anna’s pork chop is presented beautifully over sauteed mushrooms with a shaved celery and pomegranate salad, but the chop is overcooked.  Tali comes next with his chocolate pots de creme (basically chocolate pudding or mousse presented in a small cup) with pomegranate and celery foam.  Not quite sure about the celery foam, Tali, but I would DEFINITELY give it a taste.  I’ve had some very questionable ingredients served as dessert components that actually blew my mind, so I always keep a very open mind about dessert.  Joe blasts it for being too dense.  Scott’s stuffed pork chop with pickled celery and pomegranate sauce looks delicious, but his chop is a bit too pink on the inside.  Tanya is serving a beautifully seared pork chop on top of creamy mushroom ragout, topped with crispy fried celery.  Graham’s not too hot on the celery idea, but I think it sounds yummy.

Next up is Stacey, who has performed on a totally different level than anyone IN THE ENTIRE COMPETITION thus far.  In 60 minutes she MADE ricotta cheese from scratch (which takes me well over an hour to make, then another hour to drain), then stuffed the ricotta and roasted mushrooms into handmade pasta to make ravioli.  That’s served alongside a pan-roasted pork chop on top of roasted celery cream sauce.  This is an unthinkable amount of work to do across 60 minutes, and I’m literally staring at the screen with my mouth open.  Gordon is equally stunned: “Based on what you’ve done in the last 60 minutes, you’re back with a vengeance.  How you made ricotta, pasta, cream sauce, roasted pork chop in 60 minutes, I don’t know.  Wow.  Delicious.”

Cowboy Mike is up next, and he has also performed something of a feat.  He has made flan in 60 minutes.  That’s actually impossible.  He must have a time machine.  First you have to make caramel and the flan base.  Then it bakes for at least 45 minutes.  Then it has to have time to set up before you can unmold it.  I have NO clue how he did it…but he did it.  His chocolate flan sits beautifully in its own caramel sauce with a caramel shard sticking out the top.  It looks like it came right out of a Michelin-starred kitchen, and the taste is apparently just as good.  I am completely stymied.

Finally we’ve got Ryan, whose pan seared pork chop over mushroom and celery ragout sits atop a pomegranate gastrique.  (A gastrique is a sauce that starts out like caramel, by browning sugar in a pan, and then adding an acid like vinegar or citrus juice.)  It’s a fairly simple presentation considering some of his competitors, but the judges lavish praise on him and egg on the rivalry between Ryan and the contestants.

They immediately send home Scott, Tanya, Anna, and Tali.  Then they cut the two people who were OBVIOUSLY the best in the challenge: Cowboy Mike and Stacey.  Granted, I didn’t taste the dishes.  But I think it was completely and utterly obvious that Stacey and Mike performed superhuman miracles across 60 minutes, and the judges raved about both dishes.

Yet they send Mike home, who had a perfect flan with stunning presentation, over Josh’s saggy, mushy chocolate mousse, which doesn’t require a fraction of the skill of a flan, and I’m wondering what he did with the rest of his time…chocolate mousse can be whipped together in 15 minutes.  And they send Stacey home, who made a pork chop just like Ryan did, but MADE RICOTTA CHEESE and then MADE ravioli to stuff the ricotta into.

I had been inching back into the illusion of the show over the past few episodes, as it seems that eliminations were fair and justified, not too engineered, and there wasn’t excessive overplay of the drama.  But this just shattered it all for me.  This is obviously a contrived attempt to get Josh back into the running, while introducing some drama with our ousted villain Ryan.  While I think that Josh is truly one of the best cooks in the group, the fact is that Cowboy Mike outperformed him in this challenge.  And while I like Ryan (unlike most of the audience), there’s no way in hell that his dish would EVER be ranked above someone who overshadowed him like Stacey did.  Her performance in this challenge was probably the most stunning of ANY performance I’ve seen thus far in all 3 seasons of MasterChef.

Long story short…Stacey just got robbed.  (Luckily, we just learned that Stacey has been hired as the executive chef for a restaurant in Kauai and will be moving to the island in early September…which marks, I believe, the FIRST executive chef hire in MasterChef history.  So she can justifiably laugh at the judges and producers and wave back at everyone from her executive chef seat in Hawaii!)

Whatever happens next is a bit irrelevant.  This is an obvious play to get Josh back in the competition, so he’s going to beat Ryan in the next challenge, whatever it is.  There is no way the audience will stand for Ryan triumphing over Josh.  But there will be plenty of moments where we’re all “worried” that Ryan will actually make it back into the competition.  I announced this out loud during the commercial break…let’s see if I’m right.

The head-to-head challenge is dessert…a fruit tart.  (Interesting…Josh has always excelled at dessert, and Ryan has always stumbled on it.)  True to my prediction, Ryan seems to perform flawlessly, while Josh is late getting his tart crust into the oven, so we are truly worried that Ryan is going to beat Josh.  Ryan’s presentation looks bakery-ready.  Josh’s, while more complex with more colors and fruit, looks rough and amateur.  Ryan’s tart is a traditional berry tart, but he’s chosen to put maraschino cherries in it, which is a BIZARRE choice.  Josh has decided to go tropical with his fruits (a nontraditional choice), but that’s exactly what I’d do.

For my pastry cream, I’d incorporate passion fruit, which has these exquisite crunchy little seeds which I would leave in for a surprising and delightful texture.  Passion fruit (or maracuja in Brasil, or lilikoi in Hawaii)  is my FAVORITE fruit…explosively sweet and tart in the same bite, with those crunchy edible seeds.  The top would be star fruit (my second favorite fruit, also called carambola), which is like a crispy sweet-tart; mango, which is soft, rich, and very sweet; and probably a raspberry here and there.  Raspberries aren’t tropical, but they are very similar to cloud berries and dew berries, which are tart red berries that grow in the mountains of tropical climes, and would add a nice burst of color.  Then everything would be glazed with a blood orange reduction.

To make things interesting, the top 6 contestants are actually the judges, and they’ll be doing a blind taste test.  And coincidentally, they unanimously select Josh as the winner.  Who on earth could have predicted that?!?

While I’m happy for Josh to have a second chance at the title, I feel like all this transpired because the producers regretted eliminating Josh so early.  I’m fairly sure they do test screening of footage in front of focus groups while the show is being filmed (I could be wrong about that) and discovered after Josh was gone that they had made a mistake.  The audience response to Josh’s elimination would certainly support that…all of you were VERY upset that he had been eliminated so early on.  No one really believed he was one of the worst chefs in the bunch, and many if not most of you thought he was the single most talented chef of all.

But, the formula of MasterChef is straightforward and rock-solid: a single bad performance across one challenge can bring down a titan.  I think it’s obvious to most of you that the MOST talented chefs did not win the first two seasons.  An incredibly strong chef who’s very capable of winning the title can have one screw up, and get eliminated because of it.  That’s the thrill of the format.  If it was REALLY about finding the single most talented chef, they would choose 18, and all 18 would compete across an entire series of challenges, and the person who performed the strongest across all of them would be named the winner.

But that’s not what MasterChef is.  It’s a reality TV show that is meant to be thrilling and suspenseful for the audience.  So there are eliminations.  (You’d never want to eliminate contestants if it was an ACTUAL search for talent, you’d want to pit ALL contestants across a wide variety of challenges to see who is best.)  So with this episode, the producers have done something very puzzling…they’ve allowed a previously eliminated contestant (who probably didn’t deserve to be eliminated in the grand scope of things) to slip through a door…even after an obviously sub-par performance where both Stacey and Cowboy Mike outperformed him…and get back in the running, in the spirit of a TRUE competition rather than the MasterChef reality TV formula…considering his OVERALL performance, rather than his performance in the actual challenge…which is also outside the normal MasterChef formula.

Bizarre…and I’m not sure what to think.

What do YOU think?  Please comment below:

MasterChef 3: Breakfast and Lava

(Please note that all opinions in this blog are exactly that…opinions. I have no inside knowledge about how this season was filmed.  My words should not be treated as fact, only as opinion.)

So we start off Monday’s episode with the judges waking up the contestants in their hotel room at 3:30am.  Just like Tanya, I am NOT a morning person.  They could have just kept on knocking at my door and if they’d bothered to get a key and barged in, they wouldn’t have been able to air the footage.  Ha ha ha…

The contestants are dragged to the commercial kitchen of the Radisson LAX to work the breakfast shift.  Monti later says that they cooked for the busiest hotel in the country, which is ludicrous, however what they’re about to do is no laughing matter: cook 260 breakfast orders to be delivered at specified times to hotel guests.  Each team gets 90 minutes to prep, service begins at 7am, and continues for 90 minutes.  (Wait…if they got up at 3:30 am and they have 90 minutes to prep before a 7am service, what happened to those extra 2 hours?!?  The kids must be ZOMBIES if there were 2 whole hours of stand-around-and-wait in the wee morning hours, like you often get on the set of a TV show…)  On the menu for prep is oatmeal, a fresh fruit plate, pancakes, egg white omelets, eggs Benedict, and a 2-egg plate cooked-to-order with meat and potatoes.  Each team has to fill 130 orders.

(For those who are curious, I’d have wanted to be on Christine’s team, and I’d want to be on the egg station.  Breakfast is my favorite meal, and eggs are one of my favorite ingredients.  I cook them EVERY morning of the week.  The pancake station would be my second choice, since I make pancakes several times a week.)

Christine won the crab challenge, so she chooses her team.  She picks Felix first, then goes onto pick Scott, Tanya, Mike, and Stacey, in that order.  Josh picks Becky first, then Frank, Anna, Monti, and David.  This leaves the awesome-twosome Ryan and Tali standing there as the final 2 picks.  This is an interesting point to address.

A contestant can approach a reality TV competition as a stand-alone power player, or decide to form an alliance that you think will somehow make you a stronger competitor, the long and short of it is that you’re going to have to work in a team environment on a regular basis.  And the more you alienate yourself as an individual, the less likely you are to get selected for a team, REGARDLESS of your cooking skills.  So while the judges have indicated that Ryan has definite skills and is a top contender…nobody wants him on their team.  So far the show hasn’t portrayed Tali’s skills as top-notch (though I think they’re eventually going to set him up for a big triumph, sort of like what happened to me), but he has aligned himself with Ryan as self-confessed “partners in crime” and therefore he inherits, by default, whatever social baggage Ryan is dragging around.

In my season, I definitely remember wanting to avoid being on a team with Christian.  This has NOTHING to do with his behavior off the set.  We were actually REALLY good friends off-camera, and I may be closer to him than anyone else from my season.  And he was obviously one of the most talented chefs in our season.  But he definitely has an intimidating energy, a dictatorial leadership style (which is normal for a chef and is often the easiest route to keeping a kitchen efficient), and ultimately I prefer being on a team where I feel less pressure.  Likewise, when I was a team captain, I selected people who I knew could get along with each other, not necessarily the most skilled chefs, because cohesive teamwork can far outperform a team composed of brilliantly-skilled chefs who can’t get along.  So it doesn’t surprise me in the least that Ryan and Tali land in the bottom for team selection.  Despite their skills in the kitchen…and despite the fact that everyone may adore them OFF camera, when it comes to competitive team challenges, smart leaders pick people who will get along with each other in the kitchen, in the heat of the moment.

Christine remarks (in an interview recorded later, obviously), “I don’t want either one of them on my team, so it’s pretty much choosing the lesser of two evils.”  So she chooses Ryan…likely because the judges have responded positively to his cooking, and haven’t been so praiseworthy of Tali’s.  Then they announce the inevitable twist…she can trade one of her team members out for any one of Josh’s.  (I’d have tried to pick Josh, actually, but I don’t think they’d have let me!)

Christine trades Ryan for Josh’s first pick: Becky.  A smart strategy, and we all agree with her.  But let us not forget that villain-branded Ryan also strategized very shrewdly when it came to doling out canned versus live crab to his competitors, and the audience hated him for it.  This is another example of an audience rushing to judge someone on television.  Christine’s remarks and strategies are no less divisive than Ryan’s.  But because we’ve been guided to LOVE Christine and HATE Ryan by the show, we attribute her remarks and decisions to smart leadership, whereas we attribute Ryan’s to being an a–hole.  Totally unfair, in my opinion.

Next on the team leaders’ list is to select an expediter for the team.  Again, I have ZERO experience with the restaurant kitchen, but the expediter’s role seems to be keeping the line on schedule as it cooks, and verifying the accuracy of plates as they are finished and ready to go out to the tables.  It’s a really important role.  In my season, when we got to the bottom 6 and had to run a Michelin-starred kitchen for a night, Ramsay played expediter to both teams.  He’d call out orders as they arrived, and we were supposed to call the order back to him to make sure we’d heard it properly, followed by a summary of the ENTIRE order for the night to make sure we were on track.  This was the most confusing and baffling ritual to me, it took me the entire night to figure it out and get it down properly.

Christine chooses Felix as her expediter.  Felix is a food runner at a restaurant in LA and should, in theory, be familiar with the role of expediter.  Josh chooses Monti as his expediter.  Both solid choices, in my opinion.  Then they go about assigning roles to their team members.

It’s deja vu all over again, as I see Josh pulling a Christian…immediately dictating tasks to his team members without any input from them.  Most professional chefs would do this, I assume.  They know the strengths and weaknesses of their team.  And Josh is so confident in his assignments that I assume he’s thought this through carefully.  Christine asks her team members what THEY WANT to do.  Which is exactly how *I* ran my team when we went head-to-head with Christian’s team in the Hollywood cocktail party challenge at Ramsay’s restaurant in Hollywood.  I believe that in order for a team member to truly excel, they have to have ownership of their task, and that comes from them REALLY wanting to fill that spot.  That may be a naive or amateur way to build a team, but it’s the way I feel most comfortable doing it.  (For the record…my team lost.)

Time starts and both expediters create a chalk board that will guide the team through the service while everyone begins to cook.  The first problem to arise is when Gordon chastises Christine’s team for not making enough Hollandaise.  Immediately I spot one of those moments where the judges are interfering with the teams to heighten drama.  Tanya is trying to explain that they made enough Hollandaise for the first half of the orders, and they’ll make a fresh batch as they get closer to serving time for the later orders.  Ramsay claims that Hollandaise cannot be made to order and that you have to make it all ahead of time.  He’s both wrong and right.  TRUE Hollandaise can’t sit around for 3 hours waiting to be served.  Period.  It will curdle or break.  This is why most restaurants do not serve authentic Hollandaise, and instead serve a reconstituted mixture that approximates it, and can be made ahead of time in quantity and served whenever.  It usually contains emulsifiers that help it remain stable so that it doesn’t break down or curdle, and it’s certainly not made by whisking butter into egg yolks.  But both teams are apparently making Hollandaise the traditional way, which takes about 20 minutes, and it’s a VERY wise idea not to make it for the enter service ahead of time because, by the time you reach the second half of service, your Hollandaise will be clumpy or runny and separated.  But I’ll bet a million bucks that Christine’s team was operating too efficiently and they needed some drama.  I hope Tanya ignored that comment and stuck with her plan to make a second batch later on…appropriately timed, of course, so they don’t run out of the first batch!

Prep times draws to a close and we see the expediters begin their prominent roles.  And Monti really starts to shine as she’s screaming in both English and Spanish, keeping her team on track and meshing fluidly with the servers.  But from what we’re shown of Felix, she’s taking ownership of too much, not delegating responsibility, and so the team is lagging in their service times.

Service time begins and the roles reverse.  Monti and Josh start arguing, and people stop looking at Monti’s board and start asking her for everything.  Eventually Felix finds her voice and things start running more smoothly for Christine’s team.  There are snags.  A plate from Josh’s team comes back with a hair…something that happened in our season and there was MUCH debate over where it actually came from.  Christine’s team runs out of Hollandaise so Felix gets creative and starts drizzling it on in a lattice pattern.  It looks nice to me, but Ramsay wants it “napeed” to completely cover the egg.  So they have to wait for Tanya’s second batch to be ready.  (But guaranteed, their late-service Hollandaise tasted better than the other team’s because it was freshly-made and not clotted…and we get a VERY obvious shot of clotted Hollandaise being plated by the other team.)

There’s a bit of probably-manufactured drama at the end when Felix is out in the server’s hall and doesn’t hear Ramsay call time.  After the teams have stopped, she dashes back into the kitchen to finish the final order, and Ramsay screams at her for cheating.  She’s obviously completely confused and didn’t hear that time had been called, and she says it.  But Ramsay decalcifies her spine with more criticism and she crumbles.  “This is so much harder than I thought it was gonna be” she sobs to the camera.  “I wish that I was better…telling everyone what to do, instead of trying to do everything on my own…if we lost today, it would be my fault.”

My heart just shreds for her.  I know EXACTLY how she feels.  In our challenge at Patina, I was on a team with Suzy and Christian, who both had actual restaurant kitchen experience.  I was standing there looking like a deer in the headlights the ENTIRE service, and Suzy and Christian carried everything.  I was a wreck until the pressure test, knowing that if our team had lost, it would be ENTIRELY my fault.  Carrying that guilt is no fun.  I feel for ya, Felix.

Likewise, I cannot IMAGINE how Christine must have felt as team leader during this challenge.  She had to rely entirely on her teammates to tell her if enough food was being prepped and if things were moving on schedule.

The votes are announced, and Christine’s team wins with “60%” of the vote, and Josh’s team loses with only “40%” of the vote.  So Josh and his teammates are headed to a pressure test.

MasterChef is doing a lot more “behind the scenes” stuff this year, letting the contestants sit around and talk about each other and their situation…  I feel like we’ll see more and more of this as the show evolves, and it wouldn’t surprise me to eventually see the contestants in communal housing, catching their interactions with each other at night.  The mainstream audience seems to want this kinda stuff, and if they continue to indicate this, they’ll get it.  So we see some pre-pressure test griping, and then they go in to learn their fate: a perfect molten chocolate lava cake in 45 minutes.  Not an easy task…(unless you have a microwave!  More on that later…)

The judges each select 3 contestants to be safe from the pressure test, and the safe ones are David, Frank, and Josh….OH WAIT!  Ramsay’s pulling another favorite trick and finishes, “Josh, you’re NOT safe…the person who’s safe is MONTI!”  So we’ve got Ryan, Tali, Josh, and Anna baking molten chocolate lava cakes.

Let’s chat about molten lava cakes for a second.  Done the way they’re doing it on MasterChef, you’re basically serving a cake that’s raw on the inside, so that when you slice into it, the raw cake batter oozes out onto the plate.  That’s not for me…raw cake batter is completely and utterly unappealing to me.  I make my chocolate lava cakes with an actual center of REAL chocolate that melts out when you cut into it, instead of a mixture of raw egg, flour, butter, and chocolate.  Additionally, I make mine in the microwave, like many restaurants do, because it’s fast and dependable.  Baking many things, including bread, in the microwave is actually ENTIRELY possibly.  My microwave is an invaluable asset in my kitchen.  I do not understand people who get their panties in a wad when they find out a restaurant has a microwave.  It has its place.

My recipe for molten chocolate lava cake takes 5 minutes from start to finish, with almost no dirty dishes, and once you figure out the sweet-spot cooking time for your own microwave, you’ll be able to churn these out with absolute perfection 100% of the time.   Check out the recipe!

Unfortunately, the contestants aren’t provided a microwave, and they all choose to use the raw-batter method, rather than the actual molten CHOCOLATE center method.  This method can definitely be accomplished in the conventional oven, but it requires large chunks of chocolate (they’re given chocolate chips), or making solid chocolate truffles and chilling them beforehand, and in the 45 minute time limit, they really don’t have time to do that.

The judges claim the contestants have time to bake several cakes in succession so they can figure out the timing with the oven for a perfect cake, but in reality, that’s not practical.  As your batter sits, it will continue to warm (or cool), so your perfect baking time will vary depending on the temperature of the batter when it goes into the oven.  To determine when it’s done, you have to have a solid surface that doesn’t jiggle when you shake it, but if you leave it in a few minutes too long, the cake will cook all the way through (which a cake SHOULD do anyway) and become a solid chocolate cake, rather than a cake with a raw oozy center.  (*gag*)  Plus, as you open and close the door, entering and removing cakes, your cooking time will change.  So really…this challenge is about experience.  Which one of these contestants can recognize when a cake is underdone enough to be raw in the center, but done enough to hold together around all the edges?

Anna is the winner, her cake oozes perfectly when she cuts into it.  Josh’s cake is also nearly perfect, so they are both safe.  And that leaves the “partners in crime” standing alone before the judges, and we get to wonder who is gonna get sent home.  I was speculating Tali, since I feel like they’ve got a good “villain” in Ryan and won’t be ready to send him packing this early.  Plus, the judges have fairly consistently praised Ryan, and fairly consistently criticized Tali, so I expected him to get the boot.

BUT…Tali’s cake held together, and Ryan’s collapsed.  The judges claim Tali’s was floury and cold in the center, but I have my suspicions about that.  Culinarily speaking, I think Ryan’s was clearly the bottom of the heap, and they needed a “close call” to make things suspenseful, so they made Tali’s out to sound worse than it probably was.  (Again…entirely my opinion, MasterChef HATES seeing me speculate like this, but I honestly believe that’s how it plays out.  However, that is entirely an opinion and is backed up by nothing other than my 3 stints on reality TV over the past 5 years, and the VERY rare times when I actually watch it.  I do not have any “inside” knowledge of how the judging process actually takes place.)

Christine makes a comment that she’d prefer if BOTH of them got sent home.  And again, we smile with her.  If Ryan or David had said the same thing, we’d have crucified them for it.  Don’t let yourself be played into negatively judging people, folks!  It’s perfectly normal, in a competitive situation, to want certain people to be out of the competition.  And it’s as acceptable for Ryan to talk about it as it is for Christine to.

The judges pull an interesting experiment, similar to what they did on my season, and they tell Ryan and Tali that one of them KNOWS their cake was the worst, and that person should step up and surrender their apron.  It’s a really interesting social conundrum to put someone in, especially when this is a self-confessed “partnership in crime” by both of them.  I wonder how long the decision ACTUALLY took?

We only see a tense moment pass before Ryan tugs off his apron and walks forward to leave the show.

Since that moment, Ryan has been INUNDATED with hate messages on Facebook and Twitter.  I won’t even consider putting some of the hateful comments on here as an example.  And that makes me wonder what kind of hatred MasterChef fans harbor that they would actually seek out Ryan on the internet to tell him what a bad person he is.  Did they not watch the same episode I did?  Ryan exhibited incredible integrity by giving up his apron.  Obviously he was desperate to win.  He made that very clear.  This was not an easy decision for him.  But it was the RIGHT decision, and he knew it.  And he made it, because when it comes down to it…Ryan’s not a bad person.  Even Anna and Tanya make that clear, with comments praising him, and tears when he leaves.  Ryan was a competitive goofball who was willingly playing into a role the show was crafting for him.  Every time he made a devious comment, I just giggled.  He’s obviously just a big kid clowning around on the show, but he has definitely skills in the kitchen, and a soft heart that knows when the time has come for a responsible decision….llike complimenting Christine for an amazing dish, or giving up apron when it was time to leave.

I am sad to see Ryan go.  I was hoping his whimsical villainry would be the only nastiness I had to watch on this season.  But, just like his archetype Max from season 2, he left the show early, and another villain will have to rise.  Who will it be, do you think?  My vote is on David Martinez…he’s talented (which equates to intimidation), he’s obviously frustrated for being picked late in the team challenge, and he’s not afraid to say exactly what’s going on in his mind (unlike me, I’m far too much of a scaredy cat to actually say what I think about some people!)

But we’ve got more coming up…stay tuned!

MasterChef 3: Offal and Crab

Before I get into last night’s episode, there were a few noteworthy things I wanted to chat about from the Marines and Pie episode.  I didn’t take notes on that episode because I was watching at Christine’s house, along side Michael, who got eliminated at the end of that show.

I’ve noticed a lot of harassment on Ryan’s Facebook and Twitter…people telling him what a waste of human life he is, and comments along those lines.  Most of them started when, during the Marine challenge, he murmured to his teammate Monti “Since we don’t have any food ready for these guys, now might be the time for you to flash them a nip.”  People are screaming “sexual harassment” at him, and I myself lost at least one follower who proclaimed, “Since you seem to think sexual harassment is funny, Ben, I unfollowed you.”

Folks…you mustn’t forget that you’re watching television.  It’s not real.  I can tell you first-hand that after weeks of tense challenges, the entire cast is tossing around innuendo and snide comments right and left at each other, mostly for fun…to decompress.  I know for a fact that Ryan gets teased by the female members of the cast for his “bromance” with Tali.  Just because one clip of a silly joke gets aired doesn’t mean you should get your panties in a wad.  I guarantee you that Ryan gets as much hell behind the scenes as anyone else…probably more, in fact.  But more on Ryan later…

The thing that really strikes me in that episode was in the pressure test challenge, when Frank is informed that, if he wants to, he can go up to the balcony and not cook during the challenge.  He basically tells the judges to shove it, that he will stand with his team in the pressure test.  That’s the mark of a GREAT leader, I was SO proud of him.  Then the judges say that he can keep ONE of his team members safe, and again Frank proves his amazing integrity by saying that Felix should be saved, because she is the one who said the Italian pasta salad wouldn’t be appropriate for Marines and that they should make macaroni and cheese and BBQ chicken instead.  Holding up a team member for criticizing the leader takes guts.  So the judges offer Felix the chance to play it safe and avoid the challenge.  She then tells the judges exactly where they can shove it, and that she’s cooking with her team, too.

So the tears start welling up, and MasterChef is redeeming itself as a show.  Well, I should rephrase that.  The CONTESTANTS are redeeming my previously harsh and negative thoughts about the show.

Frank is forced to choose again, and he picks Scott, who doesn’t even blink before he tells the judges he’s staying and cooking.

Ramsay seems perplexed by this.  WHY?!?  Has all the backstabbing and selfishness of Hell’s Kitchen caused him to lose all faith in humanity?  Yes, these people are in a competition to win, but they are HUMAN.  And living through their experience as a team has bonded them.  They have a little thing called “integrity” and Ramsay shouldn’t be annoyed by it.  He should praise the contestants for their gumption and stubborn integrity.  (Secretly, I think he admires it.)

Frank is forced to choose yet again, and he calls out Stacey.  And one of the most raw moments I’ve ever seen on television unfolds.  She immediately bursts into tears and says with anger, “I’m gonna feel like such an a–hole if I go up there.”  I’m dead certain there was more time involved while she struggled with her decision, but we don’t get to see it.  Finally she apologizes to her teammates and says she’s going to take the pass and go upstairs.  And you can see the agony written all over her face as she climbs the stairs to safety.

There’s no actor in the world that can replicate what we saw on Stacey’s face.  I do NOT envy her that decision.  Ultimately I have to respect her for it.  She’s a fighter and is desperately trying to change her life after her battle with alcoholism.  It’s actually a much easier decision to stay and cook, especially after 3 of your teammates have set that precedent.  I’ll bet she didn’t sleep a wink that night, kicking herself over and over for making that decision, but realizing that it may have saved her in the long run.  That’s real, gritty stuff, folks.  Brilliant episode, and I was incredibly moved by it.  Not to mention when my buddy Michael Chen was eliminated, which caused me to scream long and loud at the TV.

But it’s a new day, and a new episode.  And we’re starting with that AWFUL mystery box, which you know I hate.  And when the contestants lift that box, I’m actually jealous for the first time in the history of MasterChef mystery boxes.  It’s full of offal.  Organ meats.  Veal brains, lamb hearts, bull testicles, pig kidneys, chicken livers, cow tongue, veal sweetbreads (thymus gland), tripe (stomach lining), even a whole sheep’s head.  The audience cringes, and some of the contestants do, too!

Says Tanya with disgust, “There’s BALLS, a brain, a massive tongue…”

Not everyone is horrified though!  Felix gives us a gem: “The only thing that Chinese people don’t eat that has legs is CHAIRS!”  (She is, of course, Chinese.)
Becky‘s right there with her, and she beams “It’s going to be offally good!”

(The contestants this year are infinitely funnier than we were last year.)

Organ meats do tend to strike fear in the hearts of the average American.  These are the organs that normally get thrown away, or sold for pennies to various ethnic communities which revere them as delicacies.  Which is why I’m so puzzled (yet somewhat delighted) by the new offal movement in fine dining restaurants around the country, where these extremely inexpensive “waste” cuts are dressed up and put on a menu at $32.  Seriously…look up some menus at San Francisco, Chicago, and NYC’s finest restaurants and I guarantee you you’ll find sweetbreads and tripe and heart and tongue and bone marrow.  So in a few years, that trendiness will trickle down to the rest of American tables, and heart and brain and kidney will cost $14 a pound instead of $2.

It has long been known that organ meats are healthier for us than muscle meats.  They contain more vitamins and trace minerals, as well as have much more pungent flavors than regular meat.  Like most kids, I grew up HATING liver and kidney and gizzards, and would have been HORRIFIED if my mother had ever cooked brains or tongue or a whole head.  But after traveling the world for a decade, where offal is MORE prevalent than muscle meat, I developed a fondness, even a craving for it.  And especially since it causes such a response of disgust in most people, I LOVE cooking it and forcing people to take just one taste…and then they discover how delicious it really is.  (Some of you may recall the pig’s head that I smoked a month ago…SO many people on my Facebook were just horrified and disgusted when I cooked and ate it…some were even offended that I’d cook and eat the head.  What are we supposed to do with it?  Throw it away?  That’s disrespectful to the animal that gave its life for us to eat it!)  So I welcome this new trend called “nose-to-tail” eating, and more and more restaurants are buying whole animal carcasses and doing their own butchering, so that nothing is wasted.

I’d have been THRILLED to get this mystery box.  Lots of you were asking what I’d cook, and I’d definitely head in the direction of tapas…multiple small bites, which is sort of what Becky ended up doing.

I don’t know what all was in the limited pantry provided so I can’t give you an exact menu, but I’d sear off a sweetbread in butter…those things are meltingly tender provided you don’t overcook them.  I’d do a chicken liver sauteed in garlic and shallot (one of my favorite things on earth!).  I’d deep fry strips of cow testicle in a cornbread batter.  Here in Texas we call those “mountain oysters” and they’re DIVINE!  Monti decides to do the same thing and as she’s slicing into the truly GIANT testis, Graham and Joe walk by and ask her about it, and she says, “While I’m cutting this testicle, all I can think of is my ex-husband. Does that make me sound so Bobbit?”  And the look on Joe’s face is priceless as the color drains away and he imagines the slicing…  I’d stick the tongue in the freezer until the last minute, then shave off thin slices and sear them a few seconds on each side on cast iron…HEAVENLY if you’ve never tried it.  And probably present a little bite of scrambled egg and scrambled brain.  Appropriate sauces when needed, but the organ meats have SUCH flavor and texture on their own, they don’t really need sides or sauces.  A variety of offal bites…that’s definitely what I’d do.  TOO MUCH good stuff under that box to only pick one.

As it’s a mystery box, the judges only select 3 dishes to taste, and their selections are:

Becky, for her trio of chicken liver pate on toast, grilled sweetbreads with balsamic and shiitake mushroom, and fried sweetbreads.  Ryan, for his sweetbreads cooked in bacon fat with shallot curry oil.  And Christine, for her deep fried panko crusted sweetbreads with bok choy and a dipping sauce.  (Can you tell that sweetbreads are trendy right now?)

The judges pick Ryan.  Of course, I didn’t taste any of the dishes, but I’d have picked Becky’s, simply because she mastered 3 totally different preparations, and the other two mastered one.  But I think it was time to pick Ryan, because he’s about to prove to us that he is this year’s pseudo villain…at least the FIRST villain.  Inevitably a different one arises later, the formula is almost always the same.  (Remember Max from last season, replaced by Christian when Max left?)  So Max was a SMART choice by the judges in terms of the show’s plot.

Ryan discovers that the theme for the challenge is “Fresh versus Convenience” and he’s given a choice between 3 ingredients which can be VERY expensive fresh, but reasonably cheap canned:  tuna (a single bluefin tuna fish sold at the Tokyo Tsukiji fish market this January for $736,000…yet we all know how cheap a can of tuna is), ham (Spanish dry-cured Iberico hams can go for $96 a pound, which approaches $3000 for a single ham…yet potted ham is only cents for a can), and crab (the judges touted that one of the giant Dungeness crabs like they had on offer can retail for $60 each…but a can of crab meat, while probably the most expensive of the canned meats, is only a few dollars).  Not only is he excused from the challenge, Ryan gets to pick which protein the contestants will use…he chooses crab…, and he gets to specify WHICH 7 contestants will use live crab, and which 7 will use canned.

He immediately begins to strategize, making his decisions with the intent to destroy ALL his fellow competitors with the exception of his so-called “partner in crime” Tali.  He gives live crab to the people he thinks will not be able to deal with it, including Christine (who he believes can’t see well enough to effectively crack open the crab and take out the meat), Tanya, Scott, David, Mike, and Helene.  (Of course he thinks highly of Tali and knows that giving him a live crab is an advantage that will allow Tali to win the challenge.)  He gives canned crab to those he feels are his real competitors who might excel with fresh crab, including Monti, Becky, Stacey, Felix, Frank, Joshua, and Anna.

More one-liner gems arise as the contestants discover their fate and must shop for ingredients.  Monti mumbles “I hope Ryan gets crabs!” and then “What kinda guy gives live crab to a blind chick?”  Meanwhile, Christine is told by her assistant that the live crab is scuttling around in her shopping cart, and Christine whispers, “Can I just beat it with my cane?”

Back at their stations, dishes begin to emerge that make me REALLY REALLY hungry.  Crab is one of my favorite meats.  I like it WAY better than lobster.

Ultimately, the 2 best dishes are awarded to Josh, with his Thai-style crab trio (using canned crab!!) and Christine‘s fresh crab ceviche.  We get our first good glimpse of Joshua’s skill and personality as he tells Christine how sexy her ceviche is, and I giggled.  He’s a funny guy, let’s see more of him.  And our pseudo-villain grimaces from the balcony…his plot to foil Christine by making her cook and shell a live crab backfired.
I have to mention here that, if I had been judging and the dishes tasted as good as they looked, I’d have actually given the win to Monti, who made a VERY inventive Scotch egg.  Normally a Scotch egg is a soft-boiled egg, wrapped in sausage, rolled in breadcrumbs, and deep fried.  It’s the ULTIMATE bar food, and it can be incredibly hard to pull off because peeling a soft-boiled egg is really tricky, and the egg has to be undercooked enough that deep frying it doesn’t totally solidify the yolk.  Monti gets all wickedly creative and basically makes a crab sausage, instead of pork, and her egg looks DIVINE!  The judges agree, they just didn’t give her the win.  I probably would have.  That was easily the most creative dish of the day.  Kudos, Monti, I can’t WAIT to cook with you!!!

When Christine is before the judges, we get another amazing moment that pulls us away from the sensationalism of the show, as Christine reveals that she doesn’t know what the judges actually look like, and she’s been trying to get her fellow contestants to describe them.  Graham makes a crack, “Okay, well I’m tall and thin, and Joe is short and fat.”  But again I am struck…of course it might be an advantage to NOT be privy to Bastianich’s stares of icy cold death, but so much of my experience as a contestant on the show was seeing the judge’s facial expressions as they tasted my food, as they critiqued me.  I’m SUCH a visual person.  I can’t imagine what Christine’s show experience must be like.

And this time, instead of 3 worst-dishes, the judges announce there will be 4!  Frank is pulled to the front because they think that he has limited range and is always falling back on his Italian roots…his crab pasta had TOO much crab in it, apparently.  (Is there such a thing as TOO MUCH CRAB?!?)  Helene is brought down for her Maryland-style fresh crab soup, which ended up so thick it was more like a jambalaya, and the judges said she had managed to make fresh crab taste like canned.  Cowboy Mike is down front for his crab bisque, also from fresh crab, and the criticism was that he destroyed the integrity of the meat by pureeing it…rendering it the same as canned.  And Tali, Ryan’s partner in crime, lands down front for his paprika crab legs, which the judges have to peel and eat themselves.  And since they don’t have crab picking utensils, they don’t even get to taste it.  Joe asks him where the backfin meat is, which is the most delicate of all crab morsels, located inside the main shell.  Tali says it was processed into the sauce at the bottom of the bowl.  Tali, you struck me with your comment about how you feel like you’re speaking a different language than the judges, and that they don’t “get” you.  It’s so crazy…I said literally the EXACT same thing, word for word, dozens of times in my interviews early on in my season.  I hope you hit your stride and that the judges start understanding your culinary expression…and that you start getting the chance to really shine and express yourself in a way you’re proud of.  I know EXACTLY how that feels…

The judges ultimately decide to send Helene home.  (I can’t make a call on which dish seems the worst or best out of the 4.  None of them actually look bad to me.)  I’m sad to see Helene go.  I had just begun to discover what a unique person she is.  She has a Masters degree in Nutrition and is a health coach.  As a child, she was so obese she had to get around in a wheelchair.  (Now, as you saw, she’s a stunning, slender, gorgeous woman who also models for a living.)  You can find out more about Helene on her superb website, http://www.heleneskitchen.com.

As she is awaiting her fate, Helene makes a striking comment.  “I’m not trusting my heart.  I’m doing what I think THEY want, and it’s not okay.”  I had that same epiphany halfway through my season.  You may remember, I was always landing at the bottom of challenges in the beginning of MasterChef.  And it’s because everyone around me was producing this sophisticated, well-conceptualized restaurant cuisine.  And I’m a HOME COOK.  I cook family style farmhouse and comfort foods from all over the world.  Not anything that could ever be considered “sophisticated.”  But I figured I had to compete at THEIR game, since this is, after all, MasterChef.  I didn’t heed the example of Whitney Miller from season one, who won the competition with her simple, honest, Southern food.  Ultimately the judges and producers WANT YOU TO BE YOURSELF.  They want the food on your plate to be a true representation of who YOU are.  And when I finally got that catfish…and then got to bake my pumpkin carrot cake…I realized that I had to keep being my own weird self in the kitchen if I was going to do well.  And I was able to do that all the way up until the venison replication challenge, when I had to stop using the techniques that *I* would use on venison (which I’ve cooked a hundred times), and use a “sophisticated, well-conceptualized” Ramsay-technique of a gentle butter poach for venison (I’ve never poached red meat in butter before)…and that was my ticket home.  When I had to stop being myself in the kitchen.  So I feel you, Helene.  I think it’s sad that you didn’t get a second chance to truly show us YOUR style of cooking on the show.  But I know you will make waves and will touch many people on your journey.  I wish you all the best!

Lo and behold, 3 of the 4 “worst” dishes in this episode utilized the live, fresh crab, rather than the canned!  This can be an important lesson for all of us who don’t live in a place where meats are plentiful in their fresh form.  The canned and packaged versions of meats CAN, in fact, produce a superior final product than their fresh counterparts.  By the time crab gets to Dallas, it’s not truly fresh enough to have superior texture and flavor…unless you pay a pretty penny for it at a super-luxe gourmet market where it was flown in the day it was caught.  I almost NEVER use fresh live crab when I cook in Dallas.  The canned crab is ACTUALLY BETTER.  This is because most types of fish and shellfish begin to degrade VERY rapidly once they are caught.  Some types absolutely MUST be either flash frozen, or cooked within 48 hours of being caught, or they’re just plain gross.  So don’t shy away from seafood marked “previously frozen.”  That previously-frozen scallop may actually taste WAY better when you cook it than the “fresh, never frozen” scallop next to it that costs twice as much and was caught 7 days ago.  That’s because the frozen scallop was flash-frozen on the boat within an hour of being caught.

Now, when I’m in Seattle and it’s Dungeness crab season and Pike Place Market is brimming with live, cheap crab, you can bet that I’m going for live, at that point!  But many, if not most, home-cook recipes can substitute canned crab and still be stunning.  (Just make sure you pick through the meat…even though it’s canned crab it may still have shell and cartilage bits in it.)

Before closing, I want to discuss Ryan some more.  Now that the audience has pegged him as the villain, people are heaping insults on him in the social media world.  First of all, I’m not seeing the villain thing.  Ryan is a goofball.  I honestly don’t believe a single “mean” thing he says.  I think he’s acting.  I don’t think he’s being himself.  I think Ryan is a sensitive, slightly-awkward kid who never felt like he belonged in any crowd in school, so he ended up being the class clown, because that was the way he could get affirmation and attention.  I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am.  When he tries to be evil and conspiring, I actually laugh out loud.  And trust me, when I see a villain being evil on Reality TV, my stomach gets sick and I wanna vomit.  Ryan doesn’t elicit that response.  He just makes me laugh.  He’s a silly kid.  I like him.

Yes, he made some very bold moves, especially when assigning a live crab to a blind contestant.  However, Christine knew that all MasterChef contestants end up working with live shellfish…she was going to have to work with it at some point.  (And, as we saw, she excelled with the live crab…that ceviche was something that COULD NOT have been done with canned crab.)  And there was actually a VERY real moment when Ryan was asked to taste Christine’s ceviche, and he looked at her with soft, genuine eyes and said, “It’s really yummy, Christine, congratulations.”  And that was the most heart-felt thing we’ve seen from Ryan all season.  And I BELIEVED that.

So let’s back off Ryan a little.  (Does being mean to someone you think is mean actually solve anything?!?)  I’ve screamed until I’m deaf for the past year that you can’t ever pass judgement on someone just by watching them on a reality TV show.  Christian, last year’s super-villain, is one of the kindest, most generous people I’ve met anywhere in the world.  That’s not up for debate, it’s the truth.  So please realize before you decide to hate someone that you’re seeing a character that’s being carefully cultivated by the show so that it’s entertaining for us.  And IT IS ENTERTAINING!!!  I thoroughly enjoyed this episode.  If Ryan is the worst villain we have to deal with this year, I’ll breeze right through the season loving every minute of this class-clown’s attempt at playing the bad guy.  And the contestants will be VERY lucky if he’s the most intimidating cook they have to face.  (As much as I adore Christian, it was VERY intimidating cooking against him.)

GREAT episode, I laughed my way through, I saw great food being cooked, I didn’t feel like the judges were interfering with the contestants, as they so often do in group challenges…  For me, this was a model MasterChef episode.  GOOD JOB everyone!