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MasterChef Behind the Scenes: Meet Rebecca

This is Rebecca O’Connor.  She is a full-time author and has published 12 books, everything from fiction and short stories to manuals for bird owners and scientific works on endangered animals.  Rebecca is also a professional bird trainer, and has been a presenter at many of the country’s finest animal shows, including Disney’s Animal Kingdom.  In particular, she is a falconer, meaning she keeps wild falcon companions who hunt for food, which she cooks and eats.  (I guess you can already tell that we are peas in a pod.)

I first learned about Rebecca when she commented on one of my first MasterChef season 4 recaps.  Her comment caught my eye, because Rebecca was on MasterChef this season…though we didn’t see her.  In fact, Rebecca’s falcon, Anakin, was on MasterChef, as well…and we didn’t see him, either.  I remember an emu.  I remember lots of sheep.  Some roaches…oh, excuse me, giant water bugs.  But not a falcon.

The more I chatted with Rebecca, the more compelling her story became.  Because Rebecca didn’t audition for MasterChef.  Never in her life did she have the intention of being on the show.  Granted, she’s definitely a foodie who loves to cook and has VERY passionate beliefs about our food system in America.  But if you asked her a year ago, “Would you like to be on MasterChef?” she might have laughed you out of her kitchen.

Rebecca was sought out to be a contestant on MasterChef, primarily because of her reputation in falconry.  And, in fact, it took quite a bit of convincing to get her to appear on the show.  This is not a new phenomenon.  Some contestants from Season 3 were “recruited” to be on the show, rather than being selected from the pool of candidates at the auditions.  (I’m not going to tell you who, but the answers would most definitely surprise you.)  Even on my season, the guy who plated sushi on the naked woman was bragging to us that the producers sought him out, signed special contracts with him, and he didn’t have to audition.  (It should be noted here that I do not know factually if ANY of the things I’ve just said are true.  Naked Sushi Guy could have been making all that up.  I didn’t participate in the filming of Seasons 3 or 4, and I wasn’t present when Rebecca or any other recruited contestant was being “cast.”)  But my friends who were cast on Season 4 know Rebecca and back up her story, so I am sharing it here for all of who you thirst for behind-the-scenes information about the show.

Rebecca is a delight, and I can’t wait to meet her in California.  She freely answered some questions of mine, and I tried not to lead her in any particular direction about the show.  I just wanted to know her story, and how her MasterChef experience impacted her life.

Photo by Peter Phun Photography

-Tell us about your falconry.

“Birds of prey are animals not people. Of course they are individuals and have emotions, but we don’t talk the same language. My job is to help them do their job and make sure they trust me enough that they are willing to come back to me after owning the sky and being able to go where they please. I love my current falcon, Anakin. I’m not so sure he loves me back, but we understand each other and deeply trust one another. It is a relationship based on 10 years of obtaining wild meals. Nature is brutal and I have to trust that he will make the decisions that allow me to bring him home every day we hunt. I am constantly amazed by the hunt, terrified by the close calls and relieved by his successes.  I wrote a memoir, LIFT, which delves into this relationship.”

-How were you first contacted about being on MasterChef?

“I received an email from casting asking about bringing a bird onto the set of a cooking show. I get a lot of emails like this, so I didn’t think much of it. I just wanted to help if I could. I only had a few weeks to prepare, however.”

-Were you familiar at all with MasterChef before they contacted you?

“I was very familiar with MasterChef, but was not told that the show was MasterChef. I was just told it was a cooking show on a major network. I’m an internet sleuth and figured it out eventually on my own, AFTER I said I would see what I could do. Even then, I thought they were just looking for some ‘flair’ in the auditions and thought it was awesome they there were looking so outside of the box.”

-What were you thinking and feeling before you left to be on the show?

“I was terrified before I went on the show. I wasn’t really prepped for the fact that I would be cooking for the judges. Honestly, I figured I was going to be doing something fun for the audition reel. I didn’t think I was really competing…and then I got a call the night before I left that I needed to bring something for ‘Culinary’ to taste and approve… I’m a great cook and have catered parties for over a decade, but this wasn’t an agreed prerequisite for filming. The idea of being berated for my cooking on national TV makes my stomach turn. Sure… make me the crazy bird lady, but [then] berate me for my cooking. Ugh.”

-When you arrived on set and began to meet your fellow contestants, what were you thinking?

“All I could think of as I met contestants was that I was a fraud. I love cooking. Don’t get me wrong. I took this very seriously and did the best I could to prepare in the six weeks I was given. The contestants I met though…this was their lives. They were here to make their dreams come true. I was here because I had been talked into it and thought I might have an opportunity to share a message that was important to me. People who I would obviously buy a drink, ask questions of and probably be friends with were asking me questions like, ‘What is your food dream? How is this going to change your life? How excited are you to be here?’ And I honestly felt like a cockroach, like I should find a dark place to hide until everyone went to bed.”

-How were you treated by your fellow contestants, particularly if any of them knew that you didn’t audition and were invited to be on the show?

“Mostly I didn’t tell anyone I had been invited. I stayed in my room with my falcon and thought about leaving. I had made a commitment though, so I stayed. And I did my best to avoid conversations with everyone else. I focused on the falcon and pretended like if I took my eyes off of him something terrible might happen.”

-Describe your experience cooking your signature dish, and what the judges said about it.

“I actually had a really delightful experience cooking my signature dish. I cooked a ‘Hitchcock Stroganoff’ which was all bird meat in a stroganoff.”  [Ben: “GENIUS!!!  The BIRDS!”]  “Obviously, it wasn’t the prettiest dish or the most compelling, but I really just wanted to make something delicious with a great story and to try to be worthy of a few minutes of camera time. (Which I thought was what was being asked of me.) I was so out of my mind scared when I was cooking. Fortunately, my best cooking buddy was there with me and Sarah and I had a glass of wine together while I pulled my dish into some semblance of edible. Really, what I was terrified about was the falcon. We were five hours behind schedule. He hadn’t eaten. It was 8pm when I went before the judges — and he’s not a f-cking bat. Falcons don’t hunt at 8pm OR on a soundstage.

“I should have trusted my bird. He was awesome, flying around the judges’ room and landing on my cutting board when I called him down. I LOVE THAT BIRD. This isn’t a Hollywood falcon. This is the peregrine that has been putting ducks on my table for dinner…often Christmas dinner for 10 years. He rocks. He’s a better reality TV star than I will ever be. And the judges were very understanding of dealing with animals and broke character to tell me to take my time and not stress out the bird when I needed to manage him and set him up for the cooking shot. I didn’t care how my dish turned out after that. I was thrilled that the falcon flew perfectly, seemed to be okay with the ridiculous thing I had just asked him to do and I hadn’t held up production.

“I was so relieved when I didn’t get an apron. It was an awesome moment all the same. All the judges said ‘yay’ to the falcon and ‘nay’ to me. So I asked if the falcon could have an apron. Gordon said… ‘Can your falcon have an apron?? He SHAT ON MY COOKING STATION!’  Which he did. So, you know, maybe the falcon didn’t deserve an apron. Who can argue with that??”

-What is your impression of the judges?

“Gordon was amazing, honestly. He asked if he could look at the falcon and interacted with him in a way that tells me he must have dealt with birds of prey before. I think he was sincere in his admiration and I admired the man for having so much interest in the bird. He told me that I was obviously in love with falcons…but also obviously in love with cumin. He washed my excess cumin down by asking for a swig of the wine glass that was on my cart. I wish I had footage of that. Who can say that Gordon Ramsay touched their falcon and drank their wine??

“And Graham thought the stroganoff was dry, but was so very kind and talked a great deal about what it meant to be so connected to your food. Graham and Gordon both asked honest and insightful question about falconry and made me feel at ease.

“And Joe was… you know. He was Joe.”

  -Ha ha ha…  Describe the filming experience with your falcon.  As an expert, what kind of impact did this filming have on your falcon?

“Honestly, I’m a falconer, not an animal wrangler. When I was first approached I asked why they didn’t just hire an animal wrangler. Hollywood relies on professional animal wranglers to bring animals to the set and ensure they are not exploited or abused. My licensing as a falconer is stringent and a bit a tenuous. People do not understand falconry. They often think it is a blood sport and many many organizations want my art to be illegal. Being paid to be on TV is illegal if you use a bird that is on a falconry license. I wasn’t paid and so it wasn’t illegal, but I would have never pushed the limits of the law had I known that it would be waste of my time. So many hours of my life were wasted working on this project for free, and I now realize I exploited the piece of my life that was most valuable to me, thinking it would be worth it to share my passion. No one [watching the show] learned a damn thing about falconry, though. I feel stupid and ashamed. I grew up in Southern California. I should have known better. My bird belongs in the field hunting and my job is make sure I don’t waste his efforts.”

-Did you have any contact with MasterChef after you left the set?

“No I have not. They were a pervasive presence in my life for almost two months. In fact, they made me miserable with their demands and then we filmed and I ceased to exist.”

-What were you expecting your segment on the show to contain?

“Honestly, I figured there would be three seconds of the falcon on the cutting board somewhere in the promos or the segues. I would have loved that. A short segment talking about falconry and being connected with your food would have been awesome, but ask anyone I know. I said all along that I might just end up on the cutting room floor.”

-When you didn’t appear at all on the final edit, how did you feel?

“I was encouraged to throw a hometown viewing party by FOX, so I was… well, I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I was devastated. I knew better, but I was still hoping for the best. I mean, my friends and family kept saying that they wouldn’t go through all that trouble to recruit a falcon just to cut the segment. But. They did.”

-What message would you send to your fellow top 100 contestants, knowing what you know now?

“It’s television. I knew that going in. I knew better than most people did. I’m a writer and I grew up in So Cal. I’m a dumbass. It’s my fault my “feelings got hurt” and I wasted my time. That’s not what I’m sorry about. I’m sorry that I supported something that takes advantage of people who don’t know this the way I did. If you didn’t move on, it doesn’t mean a damn thing. Whatever casting told you, it means nothing. Being on MasterChef is amazing. Use it. Don’t get hung up on how you got there. Don’t get hung up on why you didn’t go forward. It’s television. A television is a piece of furniture and you are an amazing person.

-What message would you send to passionate home cooks who think MasterChef is the way to put themselves on the map?

“It’s just TV, baby. And when it’s done they own you. Trust me. I’ve seen the paperwork. You don’t want to be owned. If you want to be a successful chef in your own right, then do the work. Your way is the best way.

“If you want to win the lottery, then buy a lottery ticket. And  if what you want is to be on TV, well, good on ya. Make it happen. MasterChef is a good place to start trying.”

-You indicated to me that the way you were convinced to be on the show is that you’d be able to deliver a message you believe is important to the American people.  What is that message?

“If my segment had aired, what I would have wanted to say to the audience is that food is hard won. It doesn’t make a difference if you’re a vegetarian or an omnivore. At the end of the day, something died so you could live. Don’t waste it. Treat every meal you make as if ruining a dish is wasting life, because it is. And we all ruin meals, but most of us don’t regret it the way we should. Don’t just create amazing dishes… make them worth the sacrifice.”

[Ben:  Wow.  I read this paragraph about 50 times in a row, taking it in.  This is visceral stuff, people.]

-How have you and your falcon recovered from the MasterChef experience?

“I’m indignant for my falcon, if not furious, but he doesn’t care. He’s a falcon. He probably had no idea that Gordon Ramsay stroked his toes. I wish he did. At least we’d have something to talk about… Me though? Well. I have no problem with storytelling. I do that for a living, but I’m horrified by the fact that this show presents itself as ‘reality’. It’s an awesome show. It’s fun. But it’s a soap opera. I wish the industry would figure out how to compensate and protect non-actors on reality television. I don’t hate the product. I hate the dishonesty. I was a component in a fiction that convinces people that it’s reality. And people who had no idea they were a piece of someone’s storytelling have their dreams destroyed. That sucks. Casting lied to me and they likely lie to everyone. I should have guessed that.”

-What is next for you, Rebecca?

“For me? I’ve promised my family never to partake in reality TV again. This ordeal was even harder on my family than it was on me and I feel really bad about that. And I have stories to write– stories that do and don’t have to do with MasterChef. And I have a falcon to fly and hopes of cooking amazing duck dinners where the wine flows and the white lies told over the dining room table bring laughter and no tears. Joy. That’s what’s next.”

It would be foolish of me to “wrap up” this interview with any personal insight, because Rebecca’s words are so beautiful.  Follow her on Twitter and Flickr, check out her books, and enjoy her amazing website.  And let me know what you think about this post: