MasterChef recap: The Season 3 Finale

(Please Note: The opinions contained in this blog are only that…uneducated hyperbole from my brain, and they may have absolutely no basis in reality.  While I was on Season 2 of MasterChef, I have no inside information about how Season 3 is produced or judged, and my opinions should not be treated as fact.)

We’re down to Christine and Josh…our MasterChef finalists for Season 3.  And most of my fans have been commenting that it seemed like these two had been pre-selected for the finals for several episodes now.  They are both talented enough to be there…let’s get that straight.  In addition, Christine is inspirational, and even presented to us as a bit mystical to us, at time, in her complex and sightless relationship to food.  I’ve been assuming Christine would win MasterChef for quite some time now, and who better to pit her against than Josh, a brilliant and fiercely competitive, confident cook who has overtaken the role of pseudo villain since David Martinez left.  We haven’t had a real villain since Ryan was eliminated, and then narrowly missed winning his apron back against Josh in the win-your-apron-back challenge weeks ago.  But I begin this episode utterly confident that Christine will be the winner.  The audience’s opinion of Josh, in general, has been fairly negative since he won his apron back and his attitude became more harsh toward his fellow contestants.

I wonder if Josh knows, going into this challenge, that his chances of winning are incredibly remote, and not tied to his performance?  Last season, Christian Collins held the distinct honor of being an almost season-long villain.  After young Max, who was the same character that Ryan played this year, was eliminated, Christian SUDDENLY switched from being the lovable dad to the a–hole, and the audience hated him for it.  Of course, this was all done through editing.  Christian was the same goofy, pal-around-with-everyone, carefree, New-England-straightforward genius on day one that he was in the semi-finals.  But the night I got eliminated, he confided in me, “I know I’m not gonna win.  I’m the jerk.  The jerk never wins.  I’m just gonna make it as hard as possible for them to eliminate me.”

If you’re familiar with my blog, you know that I’m a harsh critic of reality TV.  I’ve been on reality TV 3 times, and I’m well aware of the symbiosis of reality and engineering that goes into making a show.  My friends at MasterChef are not pleased with my blog, but I hope they understand that my goal is simply to help the audience understand that what they are watching is no different from a scripted show, and to not drawn conclusions about the nature of reality TV contestants just from watching a show.  To automatically assume that Christian Collins or David Martinez are a–holes in real life, because they are edited that way on TV, is not only a shallow and foolish thing to do, it does actual damage…especially when viewers decide they are going to reach out to those contestants and hurl hate messages at them, which happened quite often to Christian and David.  To make a judgement call about whether a contestant is a skilled cook based upon what you see on the screen is also foolish.  Sometimes the judges are able to be completely honest about a particular dish…but sometimes they have to make criticisms that aren’t necessarily based in truth, to add to the suspense or to get rid of a contestant who’s time has come (even if they perform well in a challenge), in order to keep the story moving.  Likewise, they may sometimes have to overly-praise a mediocre dish.

So, as an audience watching reality TV, it’s best to just sit back and be entertained by it, rather than trying to make judgements about the contestants’ personality and skill.  Because you’re NOT watching a merit-based cooking competition.  You’re watching an elaborately crafted and manipulated piece of reality-inspired fiction.

Folks, if reality TV was left completely up to a contestant’s performance in a merit-based competition, it would be utterly boring for most of us to watch.  MasterChef doesn’t cast the most talented home cooks around the country.  (Most of them wouldn’t be very captivating to watch.)  MasterChef casts the most interesting home cooks around the country.  The top 18 that get selected have a VERY wide range of skills and knowledge.  They’re most definitely NOT the 18 most skilled out of the top 100.  Some of them are, to be sure.  Some of them are not…intentionally.  If the producers and judges left it entirely up to skill and talent and performance, we might end up with four monotonous 60-year old Italian guys who can make pasta with their eyes closed and toss a pizza in each hand.  (If you regularly read food blogs, you know that there are some truly brilliant home cooks out there who could cook the pants off ANY MasterChef contestant from any season.)

We NEED the expertise of the story producers, who hybridize the drama unfolding naturally in the MasterChef kitchen, with expert storytelling, to produce a show that is riveting and enjoyable for us to watch, full of characters we connect with (and despise), so that we have to tune in each week to see what happens.  If we just let MasterChef unfold naturally, it would be droll and insufferably boring.

And they’ve done a pretty superb job this year of guiding us to this point, where we’ve got two TRULY brilliant cooks…one of whom most of us love, the other of whom most of us respect but don’t adore, and now we’re going to watch them being pitted against each other in a final battle that most of us hope Christine will win, but are terrified because she’s up against a powerhouse who is 7 feet tall and has produced some of the most stunning dishes in MasterChef, as well as some of the worst.  That’s a PERFECT mix of volatile ingredients for a dynamite finale.

As usual, we’re given an overview of the finalists’ journeys to this point, then they bring in the other contestants, and, of course, the families of the finalists.  That always gets the waterworks going.  You can’t imagine how it feels for us to get to see family for the first time after 2 months of being completely sequestered from them, enduring terrifying and pressure-filled days with long hours, bad food, and fitful sleep.  Seeing Josh’s mom, who he spoke so fondly of in the last episode, holding him and telling him to follow his dreams is such a precious moment.  It’s delightful seeing Christine’s husband John dash to her side, and the excitement that Christine can’t hide.  I’ve had the distinct honor of staying with Christine and John, and hosting them in my home, and they are a truly amazing couple.

The MasterChef finale gives the two finalists the ability to design a 3 course menu with no holds barred.  Any ingredient they desire will be sourced and provided for them.  Any piece of equipment they need is at their disposal.  They have 2 hours to execute.  Literally, their imagination is the only limit.  This is really the only time we get to see ANY of the MasterChef contestants cook the way they’d cook at home for an important dinner party.

Josh’s menu is eclectic Southern, with butter poached lobster alongside sweet corn grits and sweet potato puree as a starter, a green curry rack of lamb for the main, and a bacon pecan pie with vanilla bean and cinnamon ice cream for dessert.

Christine’s menu is Asian influenced, with a Thai vegetable salad with shredded  green papaya for the appetizer, braised pork belly caramelized in coconut soda and fish sauce for the main, with dessert as a coconut lime sorbet with a ginger tuile (a delicate, crispy cookie).

Josh’s menu seems a bit more sophisticated, though there are rustic elements, like the pecan pie.  Christine’s menu is more traditional Asian peasant food, but elevated with techniques and ingredients to give it a bit more sophistication.

The courses are being tasted, and Josh’s lobster and grits appetizer is first.  The “pitfall” the judges point out is when Josh purees the lobster tail with the shell on.  The judges gasp in horror as he does this.  Joe says, “He’s gonna get all the iodine flavor from the shell in his sauce…  He might be ruining his dish right here.”  That’s an interesting comment, considering how the classic French method for preparing lobster bisque is to saute the shells in oil or butter, and then puree them endlessly.  The pureed shell helps to thicken the bisque as well as flavor it.  (See Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking for specific instructions to not throw ANY BIT OF THE LOBSTER in the trash, every last morsel, shell and all, goes into the final bisque.)  Any one of the 3 French masterchefs who judged the top 4 challenge would have screamed at Josh for NOT including the shells.  This is yet another example of misinformation being perpetuated by the judges to create drama and suspense, and give a potential window for a criticism that they can use to ensure that Josh does not win.

Ramsay remarks that the lobster is actually undercooked.  (Though it’s perfectly acceptable to eat undercooked, and even raw lobster, in many applications.)  In my opinion, lobster is perfect edible in any stage until it’s overcooked, when it becomes a rubber SuperBall.  Joe admits that he was wrong about the lobster shells.  (Maybe someone showed him Julia’s book between scenes!)

Christine’s first course is her Thai green papaya salad with jicama, carrot, crab, and shrimp, dressed with fish sauce vinaigrette.  I absolutely ADORE green papaya salad.  The texture of green papaya is extraordinary, crisp and light, yet dense at the same time.  I don’t run across green papaya in the market very often, but when I’m in a place like Hawaii where it’s hanging off every tree by the side of the road, I cook with it all the time.  Green papaya salad is one of my favorite dishes on earth, it’s an explosion of contrastive textures and flavors…it’s sweet, sour, and hot at the same time.  And the judges are impressed.  The only thing the judges ask for is more “luxuriousness” (ie…more crab), and Christine has been more traditional in her interpretation of the street salad.

The judges argue over the winner…Graham and Gordon prefer Josh’s appetizer, while Joe points out that it may have been well conceptualized and well plated, but he didn’t properly cook the meat, which means it was a failed execution, and he prefers Christine’s.  I certainly don’t argue that Josh’s was more complex, with more technique required for each element.  Of course, if you put both in front of me and asked me which one I’d eat, I’d invariably pick Christine’s salad.

Josh serves his main course, a stunning rack of lamb seared with green curry on a parsnip puree with spring veggies.  The lamb is cooked perfectly, but Gordon says that Josh has confused his seasons by plating spring vegetables like peas with parsnips, which are a cool season root vegetable.  Everything tastes and looks beautiful, but there was an error in conceptualization.  Joe disagrees and states that the spring lamb, the summer peas, the autumn carrots, and the winter parsnips is akin to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on a plate and praises him for it.  (A little hyperbolic and dramatic, but how can I accuse ANYONE of being hyperbolic and dramatic?!?!)

Christine presents her braised pork belly that’s been caramelized in coconut soda, on a bed of rice with a pan sauce, with a crispy kale salad and fried maitake mushrooms and Asian pickled red onion and daikon radish, all topped with a fried quail egg.  Pork belly is one of those ingredients that restaurants love, because it’s cheap (it’s just uncured bacon) but incredibly delicious, and they can dress it up and sell it for $20 a plate and make huge profit margins on it.  And people just can’t get enough pork belly.  Gordon immediately has reservations that the dish isn’t sophisticated enough for MasterChef.  (They delivered the same criticism to Adrien last season, who also cooked pork belly in the pressure cooker for his main course.)  However, at plenty of other times in the runs of ALL seasons, the judges criticize contestants for relying on premium ingredients, thinking the ingredients’ reputation alone will impress the palate.  So this is another bait-and-switch criticism…they’re trying to make us worry that Christine’s not going to win it.  If a 3-star Michelin restaurant can charge $75 for a plate of beef heart, which costs $1.49 a pound but is expertly cooked and delicious, there are NO RULES that say a MasterChef contestant can’t use offal or cheaper cuts of meat, provided they nail the preparation.  In fact, it’s probably an even better indication of their potential future as a chef.  Rack of lamb can cost upwards of $30 a pound.  Pork belly?  I’ve never seen it higher than $3, and usually it’s half that.  Josh is walking away from this course with a much narrower profit margin than Christine.

Gordon changes his mind about his earlier comments when he tastes the pork belly, and suddenly the green papaya starter is redeemed, and the pork belly is divine.  Joe wants more acid on the plate, and Graham wants a presentation that looks as impressive as Josh’s did.  And ultimately the judges are split on their decision about whose was the best.

Josh’s dessert is this bacon pecan pie that he’s been teasing us with all episode.  I’d eat the heck outta that.  I am fairly new to bacon desserts, even though they’ve been trendy for several years, but bacon seems to be a perfect compliment to pecan pie.  (If you wanna try an incredible bacon dessert, check out my bacon white chocolate chip cookie recipe.  And if you’d like my version of pecan pie, check out my pumpkin bourbon pecan pie recipe or my more traditional pecan pie with no corn syrup recipe that uses a bourbon, maple, and honey reduction instead of manufactured corn syrup.

Graham complains that Josh’s crust is a bit oily…maybe the bacon he layered on top of the crust wasn’t rendered well enough…but the vanilla bean and cinnamon ice cream is perfect.  Joe also goes nuts for the ice cream, and Gordon agrees, but says that he can’t detect any bacon in the pie at all.  (I’d have probably used the rendered bacon fat to make the crust, and liberally sprinkled bacon throughout the filling.)

Christine’s dessert brings the meal full circle back to the cold, with her coconut lime sorbet (Doesn’t that sound so refreshing?!?) with a ginger tuile cookie on top.  Graham is disappointed that the coconut is the dominant flavor rather than the lime.  Gordon is incredibly impressed by how beautifully the light sorbet follows the heavy, rich pork belly.

In my opinion, Josh’s menu showed a bit more advanced technique, the presentations were more impressive, but the menu wasn’t very cohesive.  Pecan pie with lobster and lamb?  Christine’s dishes were more rustic, and not as complex, but her menu made sense and flowed flawlessly from course to course.  And while I grew up with Southern cuisine, I honestly believe that southeast Asian cuisine is the most complex, advanced, perfect cuisine on the planet, and requires a much more sophisticated understanding of flavor and texture, and an even, balanced hand, to pull off correctly.  While I was certain Christine was going to win for the past few episodes (and obviously already knew she had won before writing this blog, since I’m almost a week late on it), I still believe that she deserves the win tonight.

Do the judges agree with me?

YES!  Christine wins, and has a complete meltdown.  She can’t even speak.  Josh, his voice heavy with emotion, praises Christine and reasserts his determine to succeed with his goals of starting a cooking school and publishing a cookbook.

And abruptly, the show, and season, are over.

Watching this season has been a roller coaster for me.  In the beginning I was pretty jaded, and disgusted with what appeared to me to be VERY heavy engineering and manipulation from the producers, and it seemed like the contestants were being pushed to throw each other under the bus and talk negatively about each other.  I almost quit watching.

Then, after a few episodes, I started connecting to the contestants.  I already knew Michael and Tanya before they left to be on the show.  And through them, I met Christine.  Then Monti and David came into my life.  Then I shared an incredible 24 hours with Stacey, followed by a crazy evening with Felix.  Ultimately, there’s no way for me to divorce myself from what I know about this season behind-the-scenes, just as there’s no way I can speak objectively about my own season.  I know, care for, and truly LOVE many of the people whose lives were changed by MasterChef this year.

So, rather than spend another moment discussing reality TV and the MasterChef format, I must digress (or, perhaps, progress) to discussing what MasterChef means to the people who give up months of their lives to be on it.

When fans contact me who want to be on the show, I always describe it to them as a blessing and a curse.  MasterChef is easily the worst thing that ever happened to me.  During the filming of the show, I was more miserable, lonely, dejected, depressed, even suicidal than I’ve ever been at any point in my life.  I doubted and hated myself at every turn.  I was thrilled and relieved to be eliminated, which is the exact opposite of what I thought I should feel.

The show aired, and my life lost all semblance of privacy.  Now I have to share everything thing I cook, everything I eat, everything about my life in public forums like Facebook and Twitter.  I can’t get through the grocery store without having to take a photo on each aisle.  Every day I get a dozen requests to help out with charity events or projects, and as much as I want to, I just don’t have the time (or money) to help even a fraction of them all.

If I want to capitalize on the exposure, it’s up to me and only me.  No one else is ready to finance and support trips and projects, or pilots for a potential TV show.  All that has to come out of my pocket, out of my brain, and I have to coordinate it.  I am more poverty-stricken now, in the aftermath of MasterChef, than I’ve ever been in my life, because every penny I can scrounge gets used for self promotion.  Of course, there’s a legion of folks ready to step in if I “make it big” and claim their piece of me and get involved at that point.  The entire reality TV engine is shamefully exploitative and manipulative, with profit and ratings as the primary goal.


And that’s a really, really big “but…”

Now I have this big, warm family of friends I never knew before MasterChef.  And everyone knows, the older you get, the less often you make truly meaningful, life-long connections with other people.  MasterChef is the catalyst for a ridiculously large number of friends who have become so precious to me that I can’t imagine life without them.

And look what we’ve done together!

Monti and David and I have helped raised money for disadvantaged kids who need medical help.

Through my dear fans-turned-friends in Hawaii Cristy Kessler and Liz Zivanov, Tracy and Jennifer and Adrien and Christian and I have been to able help support homeless kids and homeless families and raise awareness about the astronomical homeless problem in Hawaii.

And my dear, sweet Jennie Kelley and I have taken our separate life-long passions and turned them into this extraordinary underground restaurant experience, FRANK, that happens twice a month and gathers 18 fascinating souls around a communal table for an evening of celebration and fellowship.

A day doesn’t go by when my phone doesn’t ring with a call or a text from someone from some season of MasterChef.  Someone who has just had a breakthrough in the kitchen, or someone who has a question about an ingredient, or someone who needs a comforting word with a challenging situation.  And these relationships that came out of MasterChef have enriched my life in a way that’s practically inconceivable at my age.

People from the top 100 of MasterChef who didn’t even get aprons have been given the courage and connections to leave the drudgery of their former lives and start restaurants, catering companies, bakeries, or start selling artisan products, and follow their dreams for a change.

And every single day, even a year after MasterChef, I get emails from fans.  And they run the gamut from “Just letting you know I love you!” to “I lost my mom this year and you inspired me to learn how to cook like she used to cook for me” to “I’m anorexic and have a horrible relationship with food…but watching how much you love food has helped me recover.”  They just don’t stop coming.  And the fact that, through the lens of MasterChef, people have connected to us and it has made their lives better, has also made OUR lives better.  So while MasterChef is easily the worst thing that has ever happened to most of it…it’s also most definitely the best.

I can’t speak highly enough of Christine Ha, and I offer my sincerest congratulations to her on her big win.  Christine has captured the heart of an entire nation.  We’ve watched her battle self-doubt throughout this season.  (And she hasn’t won that battle yet…even now she is still wrestling with judges’ decision and still wonders if her talent warrants the title.)

Christine…it does.  You have accomplished culinary miracles this season, at the same time as inspiring and moving millions of viewers.  Even without sight, you can cook circles around most of us.

The prize money Christine has won will be invested in her culinary future…she has big plans for restaurants and cafes.  You can keep track of her progress on her centralized website,  Here you can link to any of her blogs, including The Blind Cook, where she’s been food blogging since long before MasterChef.  Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

And if you’d like to be part of the utter insanity that is MasterChef, they are accepting pre-applications for season 4!  Click here to get registered.  A few bits of advice…go to the open call, even if you have to travel.  Getting cast off a video submission isn’t that likely.  And take your lesson about casting from my blog…don’t cook something that you think is going to really impress them.  Cook something that MEANS SOMETHING TO YOU.  MasterChef isn’t casting chefs.  They’re casting characters.  Talk about yourself.  Tell them WHY you cook.  Who is your inspiration?  And why are you ready to change your life?  Because, if MasterChef does anything, it changes your life.

Thanks for following me on this exhausting journey here with season 3.  And for those contestants from all seasons who read my blog, thanks for enduring what you endured.  And always focus on the good things MasterChef has brought you.  And never forget that you’ve been given the gift of exposure that you can use to help others.  And we can help others more effectively together than alone.  Use this opportunity to do as much good for the world as you can.

Please, please, please comment below.  Let’s hear your thoughts on the whole season, the results, and the larger picture of MasterChef’s role in our culture.  And just because my MasterChef recaps have stopped, doesn’t mean the story is over!  Subscribe to my blog in the upper right corner of your screen to get stories about my travels all over the world, often with MasterChef contestants.

The adventure continues!


55 responses to “MasterChef recap: The Season 3 Finale