Tag Archives: S4E3

MasterChef 4 Recap: Potatoes and Langoustines (S4E4)

(PLEASE NOTE: This blog is not endorsed or approved by Fox or MasterChef.  All information contained in this blog is limited to my personal opinions and should not be treated as fact or “inside knowledge.”)

So our top 19 enter the MasterChef kitchen for the very first time.  (It’s 19 at this point, but a fan points out that there were actually 20 in the core group after the last series of eliminations…a “mystery guy” dressed in black who we’re not introduced to, and who does not enter the MasterChef kitchen.  Wonder what happened there!?)

Entering the MasterChef kitchen for the first time is hyped as one of the most stunning moments one can experience.  It was more terrifying than exciting for me.  It looks gleaming and perfect on screen, but the set itself looks very different when you’re on it.  First off, there’s a snarl of scaffolding and studio lights above you that you never see on screen.  And surrounding the studio on 2 sides are dozens of cameras, a massive crane camera, the production staff…so when you’re in there, it doesn’t look anything like what you see on your TV screen.  Another thing you don’t experience by watching…the heat.  This is a warehouse in LA that has been retrofitted into a television studio.  The a/c barely works, and you’ve got 19 ovens going (preheated to 350F before EVERY challenge so they are instantly ready), and studio lights blaring overhead.  The heat is overwhelming.

Right off the bat, my fave Sasha Foxx notices the new VIP section (added AFTER my season, dernit) and says, “I see a restaurant, a nice plush VIP section.  Cuz you know I’m a VIP-type girl so I’m familiar with those type of areas.”  She kills me.  There are VIP areas now both outside the studio and inside, so we can watch more cat fighting between contestants as they decompress before and after challenges.  That was implemented in season 3.  Our VIP section was a tent in the parking lot outside the studio, full of folding chairs, that was ice cold in the morning and evening, and blistering hot during the day.  Grf…

And it’s time for the first mystery box of the season.  I hated mystery boxes because, on MY season, we were limited exclusively to what was under the box…typically 7 or 8 ingredients.  In Season 3 they began implementing a “staples pantry” that could be used with any mystery box, which made me endlessly jealous.  Now the contestants, for EVERY mystery box challenge, have access to the following ingredients: heavy cream, eggs, butter, sugar, flour, fresh herbs, lemons, baking powder, vanilla bean, and some basic spices.  I can work with that!  But when you limit me to the 8 ingredients under the box and never give me any flour or eggs, my brain goes haywire.  At home, I ALWAYS have my staples.  Toss me a mystery box in my home kitchen, and I’ll make you a masterpiece, because I have all my staples.  So, for all you Season 3 and Season 4 peeps…you had it MADE.  In the OLD days of MasterChef, we had to scrape by…

Now it’s time to reveal what’s under the mystery box, and I just can’t tell you how excruciating it is in those moments before you lift it.  Because Ramsay LOVES to play tricks on you.  First he makes the cast guess what’s under the box, or volunteer what they HOPE is under there.  He drags it out for like 10 minutes until you’re ready to go insane.  What a jerk!  (Hahahaha…  Ramsay knows exactly how much I adore him, and I’d have done the same in his shoes, every single time.)  He also loves to say, “Be CAREFUL when you lift that box.  I don’t want anyone to get bit, because what’s under there is alive.”  I can’t count the number of times he said that.

And under the box is…4 ingredients only.  Bacon, a potato, a tomato, and some dark chocolate.  A VERY interesting box.  It made me laugh out loud when I saw it.  What a great first box!  A delicious prank, almost.  Really?!?  But how cool to see what everyone is gonna do with such a bare selection of ingredients.

Breakfast is my FAVORITE meal, I made it in many MasterChef challenges, and I make it almost every day at home.  (Granted…around noon.)  No question about it, this would be a breakfast challenge for me.  First thing, the tomato gets quartered and goes into a 400 degree oven with olive oil, s&p to cook down and concentrate those flavors.  Bacon is rendering in the pan to get that valuable fat.  Milk gets heated gently with lemon juice and salt to make paneer, a quick fresh cheese, which gets strained in a colander with a paper towel for the duration of the challenge…to be plated at the last minute.  The potato gets diced and goes into a pot of boiling water with a bit of baking powder in it.  This causes the starch granules on the outside of the potato to explode, setting up you for creating the crispiest potatoes you’ve ever had.  After a 2 minute blanch, the potatoes get strained and go back into an empty pot to dry them out, then in goes butter and bacon fat and it all gets stirred vigorously until each cube of potato is coated in sticky, pasty starch.  Then they go onto a baking sheet with olive oil and butter and into the 400F oven with the tomatoes to begin turning golden and impossibly crispy!  The chocolate is the most important part.  It goes into my mouth hole while I’m cooking.  The eggs get poached, of course.  Such an elegant and luxurious way to feature eggs, especially in a very simple dish with limited ingredients, because it turns into the richest sauce for those potatoes.  And even though poaching eggs is laughably simple (I have NO idea why people make such a big deal out of it), the perfect poached egg brings even Joe Bastianich to his knees.  The egg is, without a doubt, the most extraordinary ingredient known to mankind.  As the potatoes crisp up, I toss them with some garlic powder from the staples box and get them seasoned well.  The potatoes go on the plate with the roasted tomatoes from the oven, along with some fresh thyme.  A big nest of the fresh paneer, then the poached egg on top of it, finished with bacon crumbles.  That would have been MY mystery box.  And I’ll tuck into that any day!

The standouts for me during this challenge were:

Jordan, with his spicy potato puree, “sundried” tomatoes (looks like he was cooking them in a pan to concentrate the juices), a quick sauce that plays on the flavors of mole, and a spicy bacon sauce.  Sounds interesting…like something Alvin Schultz would make.

Savannah, with her Spanish tortilla-inspired frittata and bacon tomato marmalade.  If you’re from Texas, like me, “tortilla” is a flat disk made of either flour or corn, that wraps up ingredients in a taco.  In Spain, however, “tortilla” is a dish of thinly sliced potatoes cooked with eggs.  She’s turning that into a frittata, an Italian omelet baked in a pan, which also often has potatoes in it.  I’d love to taste her bacon tomato marmalade!

Krissi, with her frittata that appears to have crispy potato hash baked into it.  Looks yummy.

(Pause here, because lots of folks are turning out frittatas.  Frittatas are one of the most fabulous ways to make a quick breakfast.  If you’re not familiar with how to make them, you just take WHATEVER THE HECK you have in your fridge…leftover chopped onions or peppers or squash, sliced tomatoes, potatoes cooked ANY way, some bacon or sausage or ham or chicken or ANY meat…leftover casserole…saute in a cast iron skillet in some bacon fat or butter…then pour in well-seasoned beaten eggs.  Stir it a bit, and then let it cook over medium heat until the eggs are cooked about halfway up from the bottom of the pan.  Then sprinkle some cheese on top and immediately transfer to the top 1/3 of a preheated 400F oven and let it cook until the eggs begin to puff up and the cheese is golden brown and crisp.  Remove it and let it sit for 5 minutes to settle, then slice and serve.  It’s like a quiche with no crust.  It’s effortless, a great way to use up leftovers, and really, really yummy.)

Natasha has blown my mind with her lemon tart that looks like it was just pulled off the shelf of a patisserie in Paris.  Ballsy, to throw together a tart in 1 hour and expect it to set up.  I wonder if she used cornstarch or flour to set the pastry cream, or if she used something molecular/Modernist?  Her whipped cream is scented with vanilla bean, and she has made a bacon chocolate ganache by emulsifying the rendered bacon fat into the chocolate.  (Bacon and chocolate go really well together…especially white chocolate.  You don’t have to search very far these days to find a gourmet chocolate bar with bacon in it.)  Though I will admit, I’m still not too keen on chocolate and citrus together.  I know it’s a popular combination, but it still makes me squeamish.

Bime‘s dish is very similar to what I’d have made, which makes me think I’d love to eat at his table.  And despite the fact that it’s a very humble dish, his plating makes it look INCREDIBLY sophisticated.  Bethy has apparently been a very busy bee and made both gnocchi AND bread across a 1 hour challenge, and I’m kinda upset we didn’t get to see the results.  That’s some crazy stuff right there, Bethy, I’m impressed.  Gordon seems worried about a few people, primarily Jonny, who has made chocolate mashed potatoes, and Howard, who hasn’t yet figured out what he’s making when Gordon takes a peek at his chocolate-covered bacon.  (Which IS popular, too, but if you don’t carefully temper that chocolate, it’s not going to set up around the bacon.  Chocolate has to be melted very precisely to a specific temperature for its crystals to link up and set back firmly to the point that it will be crisp at room temperature.)

Now it’s time for tasting, and that normally means only the top 3 dishes are featured and tasted…though the judges have been watching and tasting throughout the challenge.  The overview shows some VERY impressive plating amongst the top 19.  Each season, the food looks more and more professional.  (Plating was, and still is, my weakest point in the kitchen.)

The top 3 dishes belong to Bime, Natasha, and Krissi.  And somehow, a rivalry between Krissi and Natasha has already presented itself.  (On my season, people didn’t decide who they didn’t like for at least a few challenges!)  The producers LOVE it when contestants don’t get along, and they’re having Joe stoke the fire by telling Natasha to say “kiss my ass” to her competitors.

You all know how I feel about this stuff.  In a competition, it’s ALWAYS best to retain your integrity.  It doesn’t make you a stronger competitor to intimidate or tease your fellow contestants.  It doesn’t increase your chances of winning to bicker and fight with your contestants.  It doesn’t make you a stronger competitor to brag out loud about who you can beat.  It doesn’t give you character points when you gloat over a fellow contestant’s failure.  All it does is make you look like a child.  The TRUE winner supports his fellow contestants and wants them to perform at the top of their abilities, so that if you win over them, you won fairly.  It’s only a good win when everyone plays at the top of their game.  I have no idea why America seems to love watching people berate themselves with this kind of disgusting, despicable behavior.  But the producers believe that’s what we want to see, so they encourage it.  And, more and more, they are deliberately casting people who they know will readily engage in such immature behavior with glee.  MasterChef is heading the way of Hell’s Kitchen, which is still about the most popular cooking show on TV these days, and for the life of me, I can’t imagine why.  I can barely sit through a Hell’s Kitchen commercial, much less a full episode.  But I am apparently the minority, so I’ll shut up…after I remind you not to hate on the contestants when they get bitchy with each other.  Much of this is encouraged by the producers, comments can be pulled out of context and edited in at other times that make them seem more volatile, and you can NEVER be the judge of someone’s character by watching how they are edited on reality TV.

The judges are as impressed as I am by Natasha’s tart.  Joe especially loves Krissi’s frittata and even says it’s as good as his MOTHER’S.  (Joe’s mother is the great television chef Lidia Bastianich, who was the Italian equivalent of Julia Child and brought Italian home cooking into the everday American kitchen.)  If Joe is a true Italian…and I believe he is…he would NEVER compare something to his mother’s cooking if it wasn’t truly that good.  That may be the best compliment I’ve ever heard Joe bestow in ANY MasterChef season.  Hearing him say a dish was so good he’d be proud to serve it in a restaurant is one thing.  But for an Italian to say, “That’s as good as my mother’s” is rarely, if ever, heard…especially not when your mother is one of the most famous Italian chefs alive.

And the winner is…Natasha.  Obviously.  A solid call.  While the other plates looked yummy and there was some definite finesse in plating (especially by Bime and a few others who didn’t make the top 3), Natasha pulled off some VERY sophisticated techniques across the hour…pastry crust, lemon curd, tempering chocolate emulsified with bacon fat.  Pretty darn impressive, Natasha.  EVEN if you are beautiful!  Ha ha ha… And you can stop saying that, by the way, we all know you’re beautiful, but a person’s beauty can be inversely proportionate to the number of times they tell us how beautiful they are!  It is QUITE obvious from your performance that you are a major contender for the title.  Not many people can whip up a picture-perfect pastry that quickly under that much pressure.

So Natasha heads back to the MasterChef pantry to find out her advantage for the next challenge, which is “sophisticated ingredients.”  The 3 ingredients are:

Langoustines – These tiny members of the lobster family look more like big shrimp or crawfish than a lobster.  For the life of me, I never understood the obsession with lobster.  Especially big lobsters.  Lobster meat is tough and relatively tasteless unless you drench it in garlic butter.  Claw meat is passably good, but lobster certainly doesn’t deserve its reputation as the most indulgent of seafoods.  Langoustines, however, are everything that lobster are not.  Tender, succulent, and delicious.  And challenging to cook, like ALL shellfish, as most people dramatically overcook them.  A minute or two of high heat is all that’s needed to cook shrimp, scallops, oysters, clams, mussels, and langoustines.  These little guys are ruinously expensive because they ONLY live in the cold waters of the Atlantic and North Sea in Europe.  Nowhere else.  So for them to make the big journey across the pond to your grocery store while still fresh means they’re gonna be pricey.

Veal Chops – One of the most controversial of meats, veal is simply young cow that has been slaughtered typically before it reaches 6 months of age.  The big controversy over veal that started in the 80s happened when photographs were released of a veal farm that tethered its calves so that they could barely move around, in an effort to keep the meat tender.  (Which is sorta silly…the meat is always gonna be tender in an animal that young, especially the normally-tender cuts like the tenderloin chop.  It’s only gonna be tough if you overcook it.)  Milk-fed veal tends to be very pale in color, almost like pork, and is the most common type found.  Progressive farmers are now raising “pastured veal” where the calves drink milk from their mother AND eat grass and grains along with their mother, resulting in darker meat and fuller flavor.  I was never crazy about veal because it simply doesn’t have that beef flavor I like.  It’s too mild, too tender, and TOO EXPENSIVE!  And if it bothers you that the calf was slaughtered at such an early age…don’t be.  Under most commercial agricultural conditions, it’s merciful to end a calf’s life before it goes to the feedlot to be crammed in with tens of thousands of other cows, fed only corn which its digestive system was never designed to eat, giving it constant gastric upset, before being slaughtered in an industrial factory.  To me, veal is FAR more humanely raised than beef.

Stilton – This king of British blues is one of the most expensive cheeses in the world and is produced exclusively by a handful of dairies in central England.  The name is officially protected, so if you’re not one of the five dairies that are recognized as a Stilton dairy, you have to call your cheese something else, even if it’s made by the exact same recipe.  (I’m making Stilton right now, it’s ageing in my cheese fridge, but if I sell it, I can’t legally call it Stilton.)  Stilton is a very pungent cheese, similar to Roquefort and Gorgonzola.  It is made by gently ladling curds from cow’s milk that have been inoculated with the bacteria penicillium roqueforti into a cylindrical mold and allowing gravity to gently squeeze the whey out of the curds over time.  Then the cheese is aged, and unlike many cheeses, Stilton is strongest and crumbliest when it’s younger, with the vast majority sold at 9 weeks of age.  Further ageing makes it softer and milder, both of which are unusual for hard cheeses.  The wheel Gordon presents has a market value of around $1,000.  (Anyone ready to get into cheese making?!?)  I’m actually LOVING making cheese at home.  It’s not easy, but it’s incredibly fulfilling.

Natasha’s advantage is that she doesn’t have to cook, and she gets to pick which ingredient everyone is cooking with.  Personally, I’d WANT to cook, and I’d pick Stilton.  Alvin Schultz, who watched this episode with me, said he’d do a Stilton souffle, which sounds amazing.  I would repeat a dish we served at FRANK during our Valentine’s Day chocolate feast…a savory chocolate hazelnut soup with Stilton croutons on top.  Bleu cheeses and dark chocolate are absolutely divine together.  If you’ve never tried them together, you must.  This pairing was a massive revelation for so many of our diners that weekend.

Natasha chooses langoustines, because she knows they are very easy to mess up, and at least the way it’s edited, she says she picks it specifically to toss Krissi out of the competition, because she thinks she’s not familiar with it.  Further, she gets to save one contestant from having to cook, and she chooses Savannah, because she’s confident she can beat her later on.

Each time I was called upon to “save” someone in MasterChef, I always picked the person I thought would be MOST disadvantaged by that challenge.  On MasterChef, one day you may be cooking with an ingredient you love, and the next you could be working with something you’re clueless about.  In that instance, it’s not fair for you to be eliminated simply because of unfamiliarity with the ingredient, especially if you’re a fabulous cook in every other challenge.  So rather than pick someone I thought I could beat later on, I picked someone I thought still deserved to be there, but who would be terrified of that particular challenge.  I feel like that’s the sportsman-like thing to do.  I’m a little fed up with contestants scheming to win…making selfish choices to keep themselves in the game.  That may be how the American game is played.  But it’s not the way the HUMAN game is played.  True, you may win MasterChef, or Survivor, or The Apprentice by being cut-throat, taking every advantage you can, and strategically trying to sabotage your contestants.  But you win with no dignity, and you only have the respect of other brutal, conniving people like yourself.  What is life with success, a title, and money…without the love and respect of your peers?  I’ll take last place with love ANY DAY OF THE WEEK.  Or how about winning with dignity and support for your fellow contestants?!?  What a novel idea!  (Natasha, this rant was not directed at you, dear, it’s a generic rant that I go off on EVERY time I watch reality TV, and it won’t be the last time I do it this MC season.)

Immediately I’m worried for my gal Sasha Foxx, who has never heard of langoustines and says, “What?  Alouaa hooa?”

The hour begins, and I’d be making langoustine red curry…red chili paste, shallots, coconut milk, lime leaves, lemongrass, fish sauce, scallion tops, maybe some baby eggplant if there was any in the pantry.  With a base of stock made from the langoustine shells, sauteed in olive oil and pressure cooked for 20 minutes.  Maybe with a side of pickled slaw with smoked langoustine meat, because curry is a quick fix.

Judging begins and we see 9 dishes out of the 17 that are cooked.  There’s simply not time in an episode to show 17 dishes being judged.  And on the day the challenge is filmed, think about this…once the dish is completed and time is called, the cast vacates the set so that each dish can be filmed and photographed “hot and fresh” before it begins to dry out, get cold, curdle, etc.  Let’s assume the crew is really efficient and takes only 3 minutes to film the “beauty shot” of each dish.  That’s 51 minutes of filming beauty shots.

After this is finished, the cast comes back onto the set for judging.  EVERY dish is evaluated in an elimination challenge, and each judge evaluates each dish.  Let’s give each judge 2 minutes for the dish (normally it takes longer), which means 6 minutes per dish…17 dishes takes 102 minutes.  So if you’re the unlucky last person to be tasted, your seafood dish has been sitting around for a MINIMUM of 2 and a half hours at room temperature.  And the judges still eat it.  Ah, the magic of television!

First up is Krissi with her langoustine mac and cheese.  Howard had really challenged her earlier, saying, “Shellfish doesn’t go with mac and cheese.”  Come on, Howard…I’ve eaten lobster mac and cheese in San Diego a dozen times!  It’s wildly popular, and incredibly delicious…I know you’ve seen it.  The judges love her version, but if you look closely, you can see through some of this TV magic, as her cheese sauce has solidified and gone grainy while sitting around.  (No way to prevent this, so I’m not knocking you Krissi, just pointing out that all dishes on MasterChef are tasted when they’re far past their prime.)  Alvin points out that Gordon makes “yet another reference to Krissi’s ass.”

Next is Jordan, whose VERY elegantly presented langoustine bisque has the judges stunned.

Howard is next up, and his salad of langoustine, grapefruit, and mango sounds lovely, but it’s so simple and small that it offends the judges and they refuse to eat it.  Gordon demands to know what he was doing for an hour, when he presents raw salad components that take moments to prep, langoustine which takes mere minutes to cook, and a dressing Howard wants to focus on, but that Gordon can’t find on the plate.  “You know I’m not a rabbit, but you feed me rabbit hutch food,” says Gordon.  Joe throws it away.

Luca presents his langoustine pasta, and the judges proclaim him a 1-trick pony for sticking to Italian yet again.  (I didn’t hear them proclaiming Whitney Miller a 1-trick pony when she stuck with what she knew in every challenge: simple, delicious Southern food.)  His langoustine is supposedly overcooked, but we can’t taste it, so there’s no telling if that’s legit, or for drama.

Lynn is next to present, with a really stunning dish that I’d LOVE to try.  Poached langoustine with lime beurre blanc (a sauce made from butter and wine), coconut, pine nuts, roasted beets, and a cripsy kale chip.  Way to show your fellow contestants how to maximize productivity during your hour, Lynn…that’s a LOT of complexity on the plate.  The judges agree.  Impressive, Lynn.

Next is Kathy, with boiled langoustine, yellow rice, and avocado.  Joe says it’s boring, but I’ve been intrigued by Kathy’s flavors thus far.  It was simple, but I’ll bet it was good.

Now comes my lovely Sasha Foxx, who’s gonna “keep it Southern with langoustine and cheese grits.”  The judges seem perplexed by the combination, though lobster and cheese grits, and shrimp and cheese grits, are staples throughout the South and are gooooooood.  Unfortunately, she’s plated the langoustine all broken down into little bits, which sort of destroys the elegance of this premium meat.  Gordon says, “Looks like someone pooped on the plate,” and says it “doesn’t taste nice at all.”  Joe thanks her for “nothing.”  Personally, I wonder what it tasted like, because Sasha can obviously cook Southern food, and my gut tells me it tasted great…it just may not have been the most elegant presentation.

Beautiful Jessie is next, and she has tempura fried her langoustine tails…which can be a dangerous move, as frying any premium meat is often considered the coursest, cheapest way to prepare it.  She presents it with shiitake mushrooms and rainbow chard, and the judges go nuts.  Joe says it’s one of the most delicious langoustines he’s ever tasted!

Next up is Malcolm, who presents stuffed langoustine tail on pasta.  Joe spits it out, and Gordon claims he broke a cardinal rule by stuffing the langoustine tail.  (I scanned through all my seminal culinary texts and couldn’t find this cardinal rule documented anywhere.  It’s perfectly fine to stuff langoustine tail.)  He clarifies later by saying that Malcolm didn’t understand the ingredient, so he shouldn’t have taken such a risk.

The judges declare the winner to be Jessie, with Jordan as a close runner up, making them the team leaders for the next challenge.  For the record, Lynne’s dish was the most intriguing to me.

The bottom 3 are Malcolm, Howard, and Sasha…and the blow falls to…Sasha Foxx.

She has entered the distinguish group of stunning women of color who have been the first to be eliminated on EVERY MasterChef season, from Avis White on Season 1, to Angel Moore-Soukkay on Season 2, to Samantha de Silva on Season 3.  (Bizarre coincidence, huh?  Thanks to fan Elliot Kim for noticing this.)

Sasha…no offense to any of the other contestants, but you were my favorite this season, and it’s hard for me to lose you this fast.  You were sassy, sexy, and wildly hysterical.  You’re the kind of woman who will ALWAYS have it all, because you love who you are, and you love life.  Follow Sasha on her non-MasterChef Twitter and like her Facebook page so you don’t miss anything from this one-in-a-million ladies.

BIG stuff coming in the next few weeks, including a series on where-are-they-now for former favorites from seasons 1-3, as well as a fascinating blog from a top-100 contestant who was persuaded to appear on MasterChef, rather than having to audition, because of a unique skill she possessed.  Subscribe to my blog in the upper right corner of your screen so you don’t miss a post!  And please comment below on what you thought about this episode!

MasterChef 4 Recap: Auditions #3

(PLEASE NOTE: This blog is not endorsed or approved by MasterChef or Fox, and they would probably prefer you don’t read it.  The opinions in this blog are only that…opinions.  While I was a contestant on MasterChef season 2, I have no inside knowledge of how it is produced.)

Now it’s time for the third and final round of signature dish challenges, and since we’ve only seen a handful of folks, I expected this episode to be crammed full of hopefuls vying for an apron.

And our first is Howard Simpson, a 26yo barback from San Diego and former assistant machine gunner in the US Army who served a year in Afghanistan.  He dedicates his performance to his army buddies who didn’t make it back.  I can’t imagine what it must be like for soldiers to experience battle.  I would love to talk to Howard about how his reality TV experience compared, psychologically, to his warfare experience.  A few psychologists I know have drawn some interesting comparisons and contrasts to the phenomena.  (Did you know there is a whole area of psychology specialty revolving around reality TV?  The show employs multiple psychologists whose primary goals are the mental and emotional health of the contestants…though they likely have “other” responsibilities.  Before being cast on ANY big reality TV show, contestants undergo rigorous psychological inventory so the producers will know what to expect from various contestants in a wide range of scenarios.)

I digress.

Howard is a likeable guy, and SO is his dish: a bourbon peach blackberry cobbler.  Graham is pleasantly surprised to see Howard add panko bread crumbs to his graham cracker crust to make it more crispy, which is absolutely genius.  (I’m gonna steal that one…thanks, Howard!)  Graham is a big yes, but Gordon is “struggling with the amount of bourbon in it.”  Ummmm…is that a possibility?  Really?  “Too much bourbon,” does not compute.  Systems overloading…  Perhaps it wasn’t ENOUGH bourbon, because Gordon gives him a no, leaving it up to Joe.  And Joe wants to take a walk.  ???  Perhaps there was more to the interview that didn’t make it to the final edit…because this walk was unprompted and very bizarre.  However, Joe meets Howard’s grandmother, who is STONE-FACED and doesn’t look like she’s going to take ANY bullroar from Joe.  You go, Grandma!  Joe gives the apron to Howard.  I like Howard.  I like to see a man’s man…soldier…bartender…unafraid to show his emotions.  (You all know how much I love to show my emotions!)

Next up is Jonny Blanchard, a 28yo carpenter from Mass.  Jonny is doing something VERY dangerous…making a wacked-out dish the judges have never even dreamed of: lobster cracker jacks.  Yes…that’s right.  Caramel corn with lobster and coconut.  The priceless look on Gordon and Graham’s faces after they taste it says it all.  It’s genius and it works.  That look can’t be faked, it is totally genuine.  I had that look the first time I was served lobster and vanilla by a 12-year old chef in Austin named Maggie.  Maggie is one of the most extraordinary humans I’ve ever met…outside of excelling in school, she raises money for children’s charities around the globe, constantly experiments with new techniques and ingredients in her home kitchen, and is fondly recognized by all of Austin’s top chefs when she saunters through the door of their restaurants as if she was born in a restaurant kitchen.  Click HERE to read about my eye-opening experience meeting this future-game-changer of the culinary world.

12yo chef Maggie Culley plating a vanilla-infused cold lobster salad

But back to Jonny, he knows his dish is good, and seeing those “light bulb just turned on” looks on Gordon and Graham’s faces must have been exhilarating for him.  To be honest, it sounds like the kind of dish Graham would serve in his namesake restaurant, and the idea that you might inspire a chef like Graham Elliot to new creative heights is just absolutely MASSIVE.  Massive like the joke Graham pulls when Jonny says to him, “You’re much smaller than I thought you would be,” and Graham says, “Yeah, the camera adds about 180 pounds.”  It’s not surprising to us that Jonny gets 3 thumbs up and is the final contestant to win an apron.

But…wait…there are still probably 50 folks we haven’t even seen?!?  Of course, there’s no time to show 100 contestants being judged on their signature dishes.  (Knock, knock, MasterChef…let’s start with 30!  Then we’ve got less lives shattered, less expense and logistics on your end, and the audience can see everyone.)  It’s just heartbreaking for folks to spend 6 months of their life doing NOTHING but the MasterChef audition and filming process, exciting and stressing out their family, potentially losing them a job, causing them to invest no small amount of money in the effort to portray themselves as a good candidate (and travel to the audition site, and travel to the medical and psychological evaluation site, etc.), to not even appear in the final product.

Case in point: Jenn Thomas.  I met Jenn on the set of Rachael Ray’s “Hey Can You Cook” in 2007.  We were 2 of 5 contestants, all very naive about the “realness” of reality TV, chauffeured in a stretch limo to the chef’s table at The View on Times Square, where we sat down to dinner with Rachael Ray…all very bewildered, confused, and feeling like rockstars.  Jenn beat the pants off us all and took the title.  America fell in love with her and her story.  How she had overcome an eating disorder by changing her relationship with food through cooking.  How she loves to help busy families learn to cook delicious, healthy, inexpensive meals quickly and easily at home, rather than resorting to fast food.  She has become a well known food personality in the Ohio scene, and is buddies with the likes of Michael Symon.  And this year, when she was going through a rough patch in her life, I suggested that she audition for MasterChef.  I knew she would get cast.  She’s a perfect MasterChef candidate.  Attractive, great story, bubbly personality…and she can cook.

She got cast.  She even got an apron!  But her presence on the show extended to a half second shot of her with her game-face on before the lamb challenge in the last half of this episode.

And she’s certainly not the only one.  I’ve been contacted by someone with an INCREDIBLY unique story, who was invited to appear on MasterChef as a contestant, rather than auditioning.  Her story will appear in a subsequent blog, because she has a powerful message to America about food that I feel is critically important to share.  But, after being courted to appear on the show completely outside the audition process, and going to great and risky lengths to do so, we never caught a single glimpse of her.  (Actually, she might have appeared in a commercial, now that I think of it.)  So look forward to that blog very soon…you’ll be KEENLY interested in it.  (Subscribe to my blog now on the upper right corner of your screen to make sure you don’t miss it!)

All this is to say that many, many lives were turned upside down in the 6-month process of casting and filming the 100-odd minutes that just flashed before our eyes.  And we didn’t even see half of those folks.  So bear the gravity of this in mind when you watch future episodes of MasterChef.  And check out my blog that further explores this phenomenon HERE.

Now it’s time to narrow the crowd, and normally that happens in its own 2-part episode that begins with a knife skills challenge, and completes with a cooking challenge.  But the last 2 seasons have been different, with MasterChef doing a very odd mass-elimination based on a single cooking challenge with little or no tasting.

The feature protein in this challenge is lamb, and we see Gordon picking up a little, bleating lamb, which instantly wins the hearts of us all.  I grew up raising sheep.  (And it follows naturally that I grew up eating lamb.)  This protein is still considered a rare indulgence in the US due to its expense and relative rarity, but in countries like Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and throughout South America, Africa, and the Middle East, lamb is like chicken.  An everyday meat.  Lamb has a very distinctive flavor, and it’s one of my favorite meats to work with.

The warehouse door opens, and an OCEAN of sheep floods the studio, stepping and pooping on the contestants’ feet, and bewildering most of them.  (I would have turned into a laughing, gleeful 6 year old had I been there, and hugged most of the bleaters.)  I’m sure many of the contestants were instantly terrified, wondering if they would have to do the butchering.  (Remember darling Suzy Singh on season 2 saying, “I hope we get to butcher a chicken on national television!”)  That won’t ever happen on a major TV show in this country, due to our disturbing distance from the food chain, which makes me a little sad.  But the contestants don’t have to worry…the slaughtering and breaking down has already been done for them, and virtually EVERY part of the lamb is available for their use in the pantry.  That is truly a dream!  They have an hour to produce a “stunning” lamb dish, and as quickly as they are running to the pantry, knocking each other to the ground, they are excited.

There are 2 comparatively popular cuts of lamb in the US: leg of lamb, and bone-in lamb chops or loin rack.  So that’s what I expect most people to fall back on, and many do.  Personally, I would sit back for a minute or two and watch what everyone else was grabbing, and then grab what NOBODY grabbed…like the lamb heads!  (Lamb tongue carpaccio, anyone?  How about braised lamb tongue tacos?)  A cut becoming more popular in modern restaurants in the US now is lamb breast.  Tony Scruggs smoked some lamb breasts for me last time I visited him, and they were divine!

Lots of folks are using sweetbreads in their preparations.  Another increasingly-popular organ meat, sweetbreads are the thymus gland…an organ that is involved in the immune system.  While veal sweetbreads are far and away the most popular in US, lamb sweetbreads are stronger in flavor and delicious…IF prepared properly.  If not, they are mushy and slimy and nearly inedible.  The best way to prep sweetbreads involves pressing them for an extended period of time to remove excess moisture, which the contestants don’t have time to do.

45 minutes into the hour-long competition, they send Joe around to start taking aprons away from people who they can tell, just by watching, aren’t good enough.  (Which is interesting because, in many past seasons, the judges have commented on how a cook can seem frantic, confused, and scattered during the cooking process, but triumph in the end.  Noteworthy among these is the season 2 finale, when Jennier Behm‘s cooking station looked like a hurricane had blown through it and Gordon remarked at how worried he was that she seemed “all over the place,” but she triumphed over Adrien Nieto, whose tempered, methodical, calm, professional cooking methods were being fawned over by the judges.)  This whole challenge is just a way to quickly ditch the contestants they don’t want in the core group, regardless of their skill.

Once time is called, the contestants are divided into 3 groups.  One group is mass-eliminated.  (My friend Jenn was among that group.)  No tasting.  No real evaluation at all besides a random walk-by from the judges every now and then.  They’ll try to convince you that the judges can tell, just by watching a contestant for a few seconds, whether or not they can cook.  And that may hold some merit.  But for a contestant struggling with a foreign protein, or who has just had an unexpected glitch…(their station mate is hogging the sink so they can’t get water, for example)…a momentary hiccup can be very deceiving about their overall skill level.

One group is passed directly on to the finalist group, also without tasting or any real evaluation.  The remaining 8 are forced to be “randomly” paired with another contestant, one of whom will be eliminated, and one of whom will pass on.  Is this luck of the draw?  Or have the judges carefully selected these 8 from the 30-odd apron holders, conspired about how to pair them up based on their dishes, and that’s how this transpired?  This is an incredibly odd choice by the producers, and when they made it last year, I almost quit watching.  It’s the single most transparent moment when we realize that the top contestants have ALREADY been picked, probably before the cooking even began, and they just need to get rid of the rest.  At least with the knife skills challenge, there’s a facade of skill.  But this…I hope they get rid of this next year.  It just angers the audience that these contestants are thrown out with barely no consideration, and makes the show look really, really fake.  I was expecting it this year because they did it last year, but it really left a bad taste in my mouth, and according to your comments last year and this year, you don’t like it either.  There’s a simple solution, MasterChef: cast 30 rather than 100, and whoever gets an apron is a finalist.  (Heck, film the REAL auditions so you can show the folks who cook with crickets and breast milk, and give us a few glimpses of that, like American Idol does.  But there’s NO REASON to cast a HUNDRED people, and do so much destructive damage to people’s lives, and then don’t even show them on TV!)  With only 30 hopefuls, the audience gets to see everyone, the contestants’ personal sacrifices are justified because they all get airtime, and the audience stops suspecting the show is faked because of these utterly bizarre, seemingly-arbitrary mass eliminations.  VERY SIMPLE.

First pair is Malcom and Seymira.  Malcom has lamb 3 ways: sausage with mustard, a grilled chop, and a lamb loin salad.  His plating is great.  Seymira has prepared Cotelettes d’Agneau (the French term for lamb chops) with chermoula, a flavorful north African sauce made with preserved lemons, along with “Casablanca couscous.”  Man, it looks and sounds amazing!  The judges love her sauce and the cook on the lamb, but says the couscous is under-seasoned.  So Malcom gets through.  (Check our Seymira’s cool YouTube cooking channel A Ma Mode Cuisine!  I really like her, she loves bold flavor.)

Next pair is Jonny and Brian.  Jonny’s got lamb rangoon (lamb in wonton wrappers), tzaziki coleslaw (mint, yogurt, cucumber sauce), red bell pepper garlic oil, and what sounded like juniper oil.  Texas boy Brian has prepared southwest liver and onions with boysenberry sauce, and cactus salad.  Brian immediately wants the judges to know that he believes his dish is better than Jonny’s, and you should just never do that on MasterChef.  Being presumptuous will get you eliminated no matter how great your food is.  (And it’s a great way to get Bastianich’s temper to flare!)    Gordon tells Brian that the plating method for his boysenberry sauce looks like he slaughtered the lamb on the plate, and Brian  responds that it’s the most beautiful dish he has ever plated in his entire life.  Unsurprisingly, they send Brian home, and Jonny is through.

Then we’ve got Nancy and Bri.  Nancy has a lamb chop with roasted red pepper puree, artichokes, and cauliflower mint puree.  Joe says, “There’s too much garlic.”  For an Italian, this statement is almost scandalous.  (For the record, there is no such thing as too much garlic.  I rarely use LESS than an entire bulb of garlic in any sauce or dish, and I’ve never once heard that statement uttered.)  Also, they say her puree is too grainy…always a challenge with cauliflower.  You have to puree it with a stabilizer, like cream, and leave it in the food processor forever to get it smooth.  Bri, a vegetarian, was in for a challenge, as she has never cooked with lamb before…and probably very rarely with other red meats that are similar.  She has lamb 4 ways and is hoping that 1 of them will be good enough to get her through.  The judges agree, and send Nancy home.  I haven’t really talked about Bri yet, but I adore her.  I was a theatre nerd, too.  She’s my kinda people.

Last but not least, we’ve got Luca and Beth.  Luca has a roulade (meat that has been flattened, stuffed, rolled up, and roasted) of lamb loin stuffed with sweetbreads, with endive and goat cheese.  Sounds incredible.  But Gordon says it’s a dangerous choice (?!?) and they criticize him for NOT playing safe.  (If he had made pasta, they’d have criticized him for playing safe.  That’s just the way it goes on MasterChef.  Early on, the judges criticized me for trying to make the same kind of “fancy bistro” food my competitors were making, rather than rely on my traditional and international “peasant cooking” roots.  They told me to cook what I know.  After the judges had seen me do a lot of baking in challenges, when I started baking a cornbread for the pork challenge, Gordon rolled his eyes and say, “Why are you baking again?” and I said, “Am I not supposed to play to my strengths now?  Earlier, you told me to.”)  Beth has what looks to be the most unique and stunning dish of any we saw: lamb loin roasted in hay (hay smoking or roasting gives a striking, sweet, grassy flavor to meat and is one of the single best ways of preparing lamb), buttermilk fried sweetbreads, apricot chutney, mint, and celeriac rutabaga puree.  This dish really stunned me (maybe more than ANY dish I’ve seen on ANY MasterChef episode), and Beth seems like an extraordinary person.  I most definitely want to meet her.

The judges pass Beth through, leaving Luca trembling before them.  His eyes can’t mask his emotion, and we’re all feeling that sick pit-of-the-stomach feeling for him, about to be eliminated this early on, after not making it last year.  (In this exact same spot, in the chicken challenge in season 2, I stood there before the judges, having offered up a truly horrible plate of food that should have gotten me eliminated.  I plated biscuits that were made with NO leavening because there wasn’t any in the pantry!)  But it’s another MasterChef tease, and Luca is passed through, and I know EXACTLY how he feels, saying he had a heart attack, because after lots of hemming and hawing, the judges passed me through, as well, and I could barely stand.  (Actually, if I recall correctly, I downright collapsed on the floor of the warehouse.)

So we’ve got top 19 this year!  And next episode, these folks will enter the real MasterChef kitchen for the first time.

I HOPE to get that blog posted before the episodes air tonight, so I’ll be all caught up.  But as you can tell, I’m kinda verbose, and it takes me a bit to bang one of these out.  See you soon!