Tag Archives: Salmon

MasterChef: Michelin Stars and Massive Salmon

We’re dropped off at the Walt Disney concert hall, a Frank Ghery monstrosity in downtown Los Angeles, and we can barely look at it because its curvilinear aluminum panels are gleaming like a mirror in the midday sun.  And my mind is flying from place to place…are we catering for the LA Philharmonic?  Making green room snacks for the cast of Wicked?

No, our destination is a restaurant within the Disney Concert complex.  Patina.  Probably the highest rated restaurant in Los Angeles.  This doesn’t bode well.

Ramsay announces that we…six AMATEURS…will be taking over the restaurant for the night.  The sous chef will show us 2 of the restaurant’s signature appetizers and 2 entrees, and then it will be up to us to come up with a dessert that parallels the restaurant’s menu.  And we…six amateurs…will run the restaurant IN ITS ENTIRETY for the night.

I’ve always thought Gordon Ramsay had a few screws loose.  Now I know that he has completely gone BONKERS.  This was a terrible, terrible decision.  None of us has the experience to step onto the line of a Michelin-starred restaurant, much less RUN the whole place.

Tracy and Suzy are team captains.  I adore and respect each of them, so I have NO preferences at this point.  Tracy picks Adrien first, and Suzy picks me first.

Wait a second…


Christian is standing right there, and whether or not you think he’s cocky, he is a BRILLIANT chef, and he has staged (or “interned”) in restaurants before.  He has the most experience out of ANY of the contestants.  If I had been a team captain, he’d have been my first choice.  WHAT IS SUZY THINKING?

Then Tracy chooses Jennifer.  Leaving Christian standing there by himself…the last person to be chosen.

Christian is a little bit puzzled by this, and he has a right to be.  I realize the audience isn’t ready to give their daughter to Christian as a bride.  But when you get right down to it…Christian is one of the strongest cooks here, he’s one of the only cooks who has actually SEEN the inside of commercial kitchen before.  This is HIS realm, if it’s anyone’s.  I am utterly baffled that he wasn’t chosen first.

Luckily, I “inherit” him onto Suzy’s team because he is the only one left.

We walk back into the kitchen, where the sous chef takes approximately 35 seconds to explain the preparation of each course to us.  I take notes and remember as much as I can.  Then I find out that most of our ingredients have already been prepped for us.  How hard can this possibly be?

Suzy puts me in charge of making our dessert, and she decides the dessert will be a trio of chocolate truffles.  Small, elegant, and befitting a restaurant this fancy.  I get to work tempering chocolate, when Ramsay comes over and throws a fit that I’m making truffles.

“BenStahh, the last thing someone wants to eat after a big dinner is a mouth full of chocolate.  It’s too rich.  And you’ll never get enough done in time.”

So it’s back to square one.  And Suzy decides we’re going to fall back on that dessert that has saved us more than once on MasterChef…berries.  Paired with a banana-flavored creme fraiche.  Embarassingly simple.  Tasty, to be sure.  Let’s just hope the Californians dining tonight have the same preferences as the Californians who’ve eaten at our team challenges before.

Suddenly the dining room is full and Gordon starts calling out orders.  He is performing the function of “expediter” which meant nothing to me before he started calling out table orders.

“Red Team, Four Top, 3 hamachi, 1 risotto, 1 scallop, 3 steaks: 2 medium, 1 medium rare.”

At this point, apparently we’re all supposed to call that order back to him to make sure we’ve understood it.  But I’m scrambling around, looking like an idiot, trying to figure out what the heck I’m supposed to do.  And I didn’t even really understand what he said in the first place.  This is my FIRST time in a real restaurant kitchen.  This is all new to me.

“BenStahh, are you even listening to me???  BenStahh doesn’t even care about his team, look at him.  He has no idea where he is.”

He’s right about that.  I’m clueless.

Eventually I get the hang of this bizarre ritual where the line echoes the call of the expediter.  But then things get more complex.

The preparation of each course has to be timed so that all the courses are finished at the exact same time.  Christian is making risotto and I’m making hamachi crudo (basically raw, marinated fish alongside some ridiculous apples, avocadoes, and toast cut into little O-rings with a line of mustard painted onto the plate using a ruler).  The risotto takes 23 minutes to prepare.  The hamachi takes about 2 minutes.  And if I prep it too early, it will get warm before it gets to the table, and raw fish needs to stay cold until that very last minute.

So I learn that I can call for a time-to-finish from Christian, and he hollers back “Ten minutes.”  So I wait 8 minutes while Gordon screams at me for not doing anything, and then I start to prep my hamachi.  Then, 2 minutes later, the hamachi is ready to go…but the risotto is not.

“Five more minutes.”

Now I get yelled at for having hamachi plated, warming, when the risotto isn’t ready.  I de-plate the hamachi and put it back on ice while I wait for the risotto.

Suddenly, the risotto is done, and I’m getting yelled at for not having the hamachi ready.

Is this REALLY the way a restaurant kitchen works?!?

Orders begin pouring in and my head is spinning.  But luckily we’re getting the rhythm down and things are moving a bit more smoothly.  Finally I am DONE with appetizers and can join Christian and Suzy in prepping entrees.

Since I did well on the scallop challenge, Suzy has me working the scallop entree.  It consists of a perfect rectangle of cauliflower couscous (basically just finely shredded cauliflower cooked in broth) and topped with finely shaved florets of white, yellow, green, and purple cauliflower, alongside two perfectly seared scallops, which are swimming in a foam of creme fraiche.

Okay, let’s stop right here for a second.

First of all, I would NEVER voluntarily go to a restaurant like this.  To me, food should not be too pretty to eat.  To me, sauces are poured on top of food, not painted in a perfect line across the plate using a ruler.  To me, couscous is made from wheat, cauliflower is white, and scallops do not swim in foam.

I am out of my element, and I am NOT enjoying it.  This is not the kind of food I cook.  The people out in the dining room are not the kind of people I cook for.  And if this is what it’s like being a chef…


To me, cooking is a way to connect with people.  People I care about.  And new friends that I will soon care about.  Cooking is what connects us to the earth.  Food should look like what it is, and taste like what it is.  This “high cuisine” stuff…and being stuck in the back of a restaurant where I can’t interact with people…this is NOT my cup of tea.

Somehow I make it through alive.  Suzy is a great team leader.  Like Christian, she has interned in restaurants before, so this experience is not a big shock for either of them.  For me, it is easily the most stressful and horrific night of my life.  And I feel sorry for them, being stuck on a team with me.  If our team loses, it will be ENTIRELY due to my inexperience and inabilty to adapt to the environment of the restaurant kitchen line.

Back in the MasterChef kitchen the next day, Gordon clues us in on the audience feedback.  I’m actually running a fever, my head is still spinning, and I’m feeling awful for Suzy and Christian.  I really do feel that if we’re the losing team, it will have been my weakness that dragged us there.

BUT!!!  Gordon announces that WE are the winners!  No pressure test for us!  I fly up the stairs to the balcony and sink onto the floor.  My head is burning.  And below me on the cutting floor are 3 people who I am closer to than I am with my own teammates…Tracy, Adrien, and Jennifer.

Gordon demonstrates how to fillet a massive salmon, and it takes him all of 2 minutes to produce perfect, boneless fillets with absolutely no wasted meat.  If I ever doubted Gordon Ramsay’s skill as a chef, those doubts are now gone.  Watching him work that knife is like watching a great artist paint.  He is incredibly talented.  I’m not sure how I would have fared in the competition.  I can fillet a catfish.  But I’ve never filleted a 50 pound catfish!

In 45 minutes each of my friends breaks down this fish into 10 equal portions, and cooks one of them.  Watching every second tick by is excruciating.  From the balcony, we see every mistake.  Every bead of sweat.  Every gasp and grimace and groan.

After time is called, salmon is tasted, carcasses are examined, and the judges tell Tracy to hit the road.  But not before offering her a year of culinary school and an open invitation to work in ANY of their restaurants.


Um…that’s HUGE.  Tracy hasn’t had quite as much exposure on the show as some of the rest of us, but that’s a tribute to exactly how talented she is.  I doubt Gordon would offer ME a job in his restaurant!

I am really sad to see Tracy go.  I am close to all the MasterChef contestants, but perhaps closer to Tracy than anyone else.  Watching her tears and screams when she was eliminated proved to me that she wanted to win this contest more than anyone else here.

But Tracy has gone on to stellar things in the months since the show.  Check out her blog at http://tracykontos.com

This is NOT the last time you’ll hear about Tracy!

MasterChef: Week 3

“And the worst dish today belongs to…Ben Starr.”

WHAT??? The WORST dish of the day?

Well, I guess someone has to be the worst…

Wait a minute…backtrack.

18 of us. From 100 finalists. From 30,000 who auditioned. That feels cool. And we enter the MasterChef kitchen for the first time, each of us thinking we’re going to take this competition. It’s a far cry from the dark, dusty warehouse where we cooked our signature dishes.

But scarcely time to absorb the wonders around us before we realize there’s a giant cedar box sitting at each of our kitchen stations. The dreaded Mystery Box. I remember these from watching last season.

We lift the box and the first thing I see is a giant slab of salmon. Not nice, deep red, thin fillets…the sign of true wild-caught salmon. Fat orange fillets. Farm raised salmon. Alas, it’s not yet time for the salmon run in the Pacific Northwest, so we’re having to cook with farmed salmon. *sigh*

Salmon. Okay, let’s face it. I’m a Texan. From deep West Texas. If it ain’t catfish or bass or crappie, we don’t touch it. Right?

Well, Seattle has become a second home to me, so I can cook a mean salmon fillet.

What else?  There are also strawberries. Balsamic vinegar. Pistachios. Fennel. These are things I love. I can make this work. Strawberry balsamic reduction? Sounds good. And fennel cakes crusted with pistachios. Winning combo. Not what I’d cook at home, but these people around me are brilliant…I have to do something to compete.

The time goes by too fast, but I finish. I make a second fillet just to taste and make sure everything is fine. It is. Tastes great. I’m golden.

“…and the worst dish today, by far, was the dish belonging to…BEN STARR.”

WHAT??? This has to be some sick joke. Really? You can make that decision without even tasting my dish, Gordon? Are you serious?

It’s not some sick joke. I’m the worst of the bunch. Thank God this isn’t an elimination round.

No time for self-pity, though, because it’s time for the next round. French.

No worries for me on this one. I love France. Last fall I rented a 400-year-old farmhouse with friends in a medieval village in Brittany and spent the entire week buying amazing local meats and veggies and wine and just cooking all day long. The French gave birth to the best cuisine on the planet. Anyone who truly loves food has studied French cooking, if only from the great Julia Child’s textbooks that got America out of the microwave TV dinner box and back into the kitchen.

Quiche it will be, I decide. I make quiche several times a month. I can show them my baking skills. Roasted red pepper and goat cheese quiche. With an olive oil crust…the kind my mom makes. With herbs baked right into the crust. That’ll make up for my offensive salmon.

Gordon tastes it. He’s not so sure he wants to come over to my house for breakfast.  “And you made your pastry with olive oil? That’s a crime.  Pastry is always made with butter.”

Sorry, Gordon.  Not the way my momma makes it!  Olive oil crust is delicious, flaky, tender, and a trillion times healthier for you.  And it tastes GREAT with quiche.

Graham tastes it…he DEFINITELY wants to come over for breakfast.

“You’re invited any time,” I say.

Joe Bastianich…the toughest critic of all…tastes it. Despite my major transgression of making a pastry crust with olive oil rather than butter, he goes for it.  “Of course you like it Joe,” says Gordon.  “You were surrounded by olive oil in the womb.”

I’m not the best in this round. But I’m not the worst. I’m safe. I will live to see another MasterChef day.

Mark gets the boot for adding raw flour to his mashed potatoes to make them thicker. That’s a shame. The French eat their mashed potatoes at practically the consistency of soup. He shouldn’t have worried. Angel gets the boot for a tart-gone-wrong. That’s sad. I really liked Angel. She brought a lot of spice and attitude and sass to the group. I feel like her time ended too early.

But mine, thankfully, hasn’t ended yet. And I’d better get my butt in gear, or I’ll be on the chopping block soon.


Check back after Tuesday’s episode for more!  The week is only half done!