Tag Archives: Graham

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:

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, ChristineHa.com.  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!