MasterChef: Week 2

Wow… I’m just speechless. Reliving the MasterChef experience by watching it on TV is almost as stressful as womans health info when I was actually competing.

Making my signature dish is both fun and nerve-wracking.  There’s a strict time limit of 1 hour.  Not a second longer.  Luckily, my partner Christian, my neighbor Sharon, and my dear friend Monty have come to LA to root me on!  Having them standing in front of my cooking station while I cook calms me.  It makes it feel a little normal.  Unfortunately, while I want to be joking around with them while I cook, I honestly don’t even have enough time to do what I need to do to finish my fish tacos in the hour, so I have to keep my focus.  (Of course, with a few Julia Child impersonations thrown in!)

Before I know it, time is up and I have to stop.  Everything is finished.  My tortillas could be a bit thinner, but the brand of masa I’m working with is new to me.  Still, I’m fairly confident that everything is good.  I’ve tasted it all and it tastes good to me!  But I’m no Gordon Ramsay.

I push my cart through the first set of doors and down a looooooooong dark hallway.  I can see cameras following me in my peripheral vision.  After what seems like miles, I arrive at another set of truly massive doors.  They creak open and in the far distance I see 3 people sitting in a pool of light.  They must be half a mile away! I start pushing my cart, which rattles and clacks over each seam in the concrete floor.  Cl-clack, cl-clack, cl-clack, cl-clak.  My nerves are shot.

What am I thinking?  I don’t belong here!  Maybe I can turn around and run back, jump into Christian’s arms, and go home.  I look down at my pumpkin apron which my mother made me to wear on the show.  She wanted to be here to watch, but she has surgery next week.  Another thing which has kept me on edge.  But looking at the apron gives me enough of an edge over my fear that I keep walking.  Cl-clack, cl-clack, cl-clack.

Then Gordon Ramsay is talking to me.  GORDON F-ING RAMSAY.  Whose life am I in right now?  Certainly not mine.

I’m so nervous I assemble my tacos without my signature ingredient: crispy fried pumpkin strings.  They remain on my cart, abandoned.  Bastianich finds them.  Bastianich!  The man I am MOST terrified to meet.  He is nothing like I imagined.  Friendly.  Even tender, perhaps.  But honest, and doesn’t gloss over his opinions.  He laughs and shares the pumpkin with the other judges.  The result?

…three thumbs up…

Bastianich puts an apron around my neck.  Numb.  I can’t believe this is happening.  I got a MasterChef apron.  REALLY?  ME?

Ben Starr's MasterChef apron


I enter into the next round of eliminations with high hopes. I mean, after all, Gordon Ramsay, one of the most famous and finicky celebrity chefs in the world, has just asked me where I’ve been hiding for the past 10 years! That’s enough to make even the most stoic person feel a little proud of himself.

We’re standing there, the top 38, wondering what’s coming next and this giant truck spills tons and tons of apples on the ground. And we learn that we’re going to be peeling and slicing apples. “No problem,” I think. “I’ve baked hundreds of apple pies.”

90 minutes and 40 apples into the challenge, though, I’m starting to doubt myself. My hands are cramping. I’ve developed a blister at the spot where the knife contacts my index finger. I’m sweating. Panicking. And yet Gordon Ramsay keeps coming by, looking at my apples, and saying, “Keep slicing, Ben.” No criticism or praise. Just… “Keep slicing.”

All around me people are cutting themselves with these incredible sharp Global knives, sharper than anything I’ve ever imagined. Sharp like a razor blade. And I keep telling myself, “DON’T cut yourself, Ben, DON’T cut yourself. That’ll be the end.”

90 minutes in I start getting into a routine. Faster and more precise. But my vision is starting to blur. I’m exhausted. Then I see a speck of apple fuzz on my right hand. I move my left hand out, clumsily, from under the knife to brush off the fuzz, and in an instant, without even feeling it, blood swells from a tiny knick on my finger.

I think, “Maybe I can hide it from them.” But the blood keeps coming. This far into the competition, and I’ve blown it. I have to call for the medic.

Moments later I’m back slicing apples with a latex glove on my hand, and it just gets in the way and makes me slow and clumsy. And Gordon keeps telling me, “Keep chopping, Ben. Keep chopping.”

Why is he torturing me like this? Then, finally: “Ben. Stop.”

I breathe for the first time in what seems like a thousand years.

“If I find even one seed in your apples, I’m sending you home,” he says. But I have been diligent. He won’t find any seeds.

He doesn’t. And I join the others in the winner’s circle, hand cramping and blistered. Moments later, they rush us into a second challenge. Chicken. I can do this. I had chickens in my back yard for two years. I’ve butchered them. I can cook chicken. With biscuits, I decide. I can make a mean biscuit.

But there’s no baking powder.

HELLO! This is a cooking show, right? Where is the baking powder???

Stupidly I press on, sans baking powder, and end up with hard little rocks instead of biscuits. Even more stupidly, I put them on the plate. And my plate looks awful. I know the chicken will be delicious. Simmered very slowly in more than a cup of butter. How could that NOT taste good? But it looks ghastly. Presentation is NOT my strong suit.

Gordon calls me on the biscuit. “If you don’t have baking powder…DON’T MAKE A BISCUIT.” And I’ve just learned a valuable lesson on MasterChef. Don’t attempt the impossible. I might have just made my last mistake on the show.

From somewhere in his heart, Gordon summons some pity and sends me into the winner’s circle. And I promise myself to never, ever, ever attempt to make biscuits without baking powder.

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