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:

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