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!

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