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MasterChef 4 recap: Eggs and Salmon (S4E18)

(PLEASE NOTE: This blog contains the maniacal ravings of a Season 2 survivor with [practically] no inside knowledge of how this season was produced.  It should be treated as opinion only, and isn’t fit to be read by anyone.)

We’re down to 6…but are we?  Apparently, the producers are pulling another surprise comeback, but this one is just bizarre.  Each of the judges has invited back one formerly-eliminated contestant.  Gordon selects Bri to come back, Joe brings back Lynn, and Graham selects Bime.

This is weird, folks.  If I had been a recently eliminated contestant like Eddie, I’d be furious.  All 3 of these contestants were eliminated before him, but now THEY get a chance to win back their spot, but HE doesn’t?  Of course…that’s assuming that MasterChef is real, which it most certainly is not.  It was at this same point last season that I basically threw in the towel of ever being able to watch MasterChef seriously again…  These moves remove ALL suspension of disbelief that this is actually a contest.  They prove, plain as day, that the producers are completely manipulating the results of the show for dramatic effect.

From one perspective, it’s not fair to allow ANY eliminated contestant to come back.  However, the theoretical format of MasterChef isn’t fair at all…the strongest competitor can get eliminated on a single challenge of the only thing (s)he’s weak on, and while (s)he may be stronger in 99% of challenges than ALL the other contestants, a single falter can get them eliminated.  That’s not fair to begin with.  (The PROPER format for a cooking competition like this is for EVERY contestant to stay the ENTIRE season and participate in EVERY challenge, and the overall winner of the most challenges wins that ‘coveted’ MasterChef trophy.  But then there’s no suspense from episode to episode, so you stop watching.  So you can thank the short attention span of the American audience for driving reality TV to the engineered elimination format.)

But making this comeback colossally unfair is this subjective selection of 3 contestants, rather than the LAST 3 eliminated.

Now that we’re stuck with this infinitely bizarre choice, I personally think Lynn is the most talented sophisticated cook (perhaps in the whole competition), so I’d be interested in seeing him come back most of all.

The contestants are told they have 5 minutes to shop in the MasterChef pantry, and when they dash back, they discover that the only ingredient in the pantry is eggs.  Millions of eggs.  And this challenge will be about producing the perfect sunny-side up egg.

To a lot of folks, this would be a terrifying challenge.  I mean, even a short order cook at a diner usually doesn’t get it right.  To others, this challenge is offensively elementary.  (I mean…it’s really, REALLY easy to cook a sunny side up egg once you know how to do it.)  My 5 year old nephew can do it.

But my first qualm is with Graham saying, “No burned edges.”  Well, eggs don’t really burn unless you’ve got no clue what you’re doing, what he means is, “No browned edges.”  This is one of my biggest gripes with the common chef attitude about cooking eggs.  Eggs brown up just like meat at proper temperatures.  Which means added flavor and texture.  I am fed up with sallow, pale omelets and fried eggs.  I cook ALL my eggs at high temperature so their surface is crusty and caramelized, and they are INFINITELY more delicious this way than when they are cooked at such low temps that they never brown.  However, cooking them with high heat means VERY narrow margins between over-easy and over-hard, so you have to manage your heat and time very well when cooking that way.

Cooking with lower heat that doesn’t brown the egg gives you WAY more wiggle room, and making a sunny side up egg this way is as easy as falling off a log.  And the contestants have 15 minutes to cook as many sunny side up eggs as they can, with 12 nonstick skillets and 2 stoves.

The very first egg from my backyard flock, and the lady who laid it.

Let’s chat eggs, shall we?  One of my favorite subjects, obviously, as I have 11 chickens living in my back yard.  Actually, a proper article on eggs would be an entire book, so let’s just talk about frying eggs.  This is the ONLY application in my kitchen that I use a nonstick skillet for.  If your cabinets are filled with nonstick skillets, donate them to Goodwill and get those outta there.  They’re bad for you, for one.  At high temperatures, the nonstick coating begins to break down at the molecular level and release carcinogens into the air.  (Enough that it can kill your pet parrot dead in a few seconds.)  WebMD and Good Housekeeping tell us, under the authority of a food science professor, that as long as you don’t heat nonstick pans above 500 degrees, you’re fine.  Still…I don’t really wanna be cooking on a surface that becomes carcinogenic “only” at a certain temps.  ?!?  So many years ago, I ditched all my expensive nonstick, except for a single 8″ omelet pan that is used only for cooking eggs.  And I never looked back.  Nonstick is a HORRIBLE cooking surface, in terms of performance.  If you prefer sacrificing flavor for ease of cleaning, you might as well just buy all your food in the frozen section and heat it in the microwave.  Ditch your nonstick and fill your cabinets with cast iron, and clad stainless steel pans with copper cores.

To make the perfect sunny side up egg the way the judges want you to, preheat your nonstick pan over medium-low to medium heat (depending on how hot your stove is).  When you can feel the warmth coming gently from the surface after a few minutes (or have a surface temp around 275F if you have one of those nifty infra-red thermometers), the pan is ready.  Give it a spritz with spray oil, or brush it lightly with melted butter or bacon fat.  Crack your eggs into the pan…or for better control, crack them first into a bowl so you can remove any bits of shell and ensure the egg isn’t rotten or with a bloody yolk.  (A red spot or flake here and there is fine.)  Let the egg bubble gently and keep an eye on the white right around the yolk.  Once that white is completely solidified and is no longer translucent, tilt the pan toward your serving plate and gently shake the egg loose and onto the plate.  Then salt and pepper and serve.

To make a BETTER sunny side up egg, heat the pan surface to 350F or so.  This will give you some caramelization on the bottom of the egg for extra flavor and texture, and the white should cook through in under a minute.

Eggs from my backyard chickens, looking radically different in the pan from storebought eggs

A side note for those of you who are curious…my backyard eggs from my chickens have a white that’s VERY different from commercially available cage-free, organic eggs.  (Well,the yolks are also very different.)  The white has 2 dramatically distinct parts, the normal “runny” white that spreads out in the pan when you crack it (of which there is VERY little in my eggs), and a layer of VERY thick white that encases the yolk.  This white is SO thick that it even forms a layer ON TOP of the yolk as it cooks, so my backyard eggs don’t work well for sunny side up eggs, because there’s still raw white sitting on top of the yolk, and if I cook it long enough for all the white to solidify, the yolks are cooked solid all the way through.  I’m assuming this is because I typically eat the eggs the day they are laid, whereas as a storebought egg may be a week or two from being laid, or more.  The whites break down and become runnier as the egg ages, but my delicious backyard eggs never sit around for that long before being eaten or gifted to neighbors, friends, and family.

I’ve also noticed quite a difference between the whites and yolks of eggs from the different breeds I have.  The Black Australorps lay eggs with almost no runny white at all.  (The eggs in this photo are from my Australorps.)  While the eggs from the Wyandottes have more runny white and less thick white.  The eggs you get at the store are laid by White Leghorns (pronounced “LEG-urns”), if they’re white, or Rhode Island Reds (or sometimes Hampshires), if they’re brown.  So eggs from those chickens are the only eggs that the vast majority of Americans are familiar with.  But there are HUNDREDS of breeds of chicken, and each lay eggs with their own unique qualities.  And chickens which forage for their food lay eggs that differ dramatically by season, based on what their diet is.  In a culinary-wise country, like France, they know which breeds and seasons are best for which applications.  For example, spring egg yolks from Crevecour hens make the best custard.  Whites from fall Faverolles hens are best for making meringue.  But in our industrialized food production system, we move toward something called “monoculture” where we only raise 1 variety of something (which has often been selectively bred or genetically modified to maximize production) so other types of chickens, pigs, tomatoes, watermelons, etc. are becoming increasingly rare.  Monoculture is bad news.  Variety is always best.

The challenge begins and ends rather immediately, and judging begins with Joe throwing away 2 of Lynn’s eggs because they were undercooked.  (He throws the entire plate into the garbage, shattering it.  That’s not wasteful at all, Joe.)  Then he throws away the PROPERLY cooked eggs with br0wned edges…that’s how they’re supposed to be cooked.  More broken plates.  By the time Joe has finished breaking plates, Lynn has 8 perfect eggs left.

Now it’s time to break some of Bri’s plates, and she ends up with 13.  Bime is last, and of his 32 eggs, at least 9 are acceptable, once again bouncing Lynn from the MasterChef kitchen.

Now Bri and Bime will battle to win back their apron by breaking down and cooking 7 portions of Alaskan king salmon, asparagus, and potatoes, and serving them with Hollandaise sauce.

The judges present 2 beautiful salmon that they claim are line-caught off the coast of Alaska and cost $500 each.  That’s a pricey salmon!  Whole wild king salmon on the west coast usually costs between $12 and $16 a pound, which means this salmon must weigh 30-40 pounds, or it was sorely over-valued!

The challenge ends and the plates are delivered to the remaining 6 MasterChef contestants, plus Joe.  We see some shots of fillets with that white stuff squeezed out of the sides.  That’s not fat, as most people think.  It’s a combination of proteins called “albumin.”  The more you cook salmon, the more gets squeezed out.  You can minimize this by brining the salmon for 10 minutes…use 1 Tablespoon of kosher salt per cup of water.  This technique works for ALL steaky fishes, which all exude albumin, but because most of them have white flesh, it’s less noticeable.

The contestants place their votes for the best salmon, and miraculously, it comes down to 3 for Bri and 3 for Bime.  Funny how that ALWAYS works, right?  Without fail.  It ALWAYS comes down to the last vote in every scenario like this.  I mean, those odds are so good, you could bet on them every single time.

The last vote goes to Bri, and she regains her apron to bring the finalist count back up to 7.  It’s lovely to see Bri come back…she’s one of my favorites.  There is, however, a rumor mill that Bri is actually a hired actress and not a real contestant.  (Her social media indicates she’s been friends with upper-level producers BEFORE the show was filmed.)  And she’s been working as a pastry chef in LA since the show filmed, and has been offered a job as a pastry chef at Thomas Keller’s legendary NYC artisan bakery Bouchon.  Such offers have NEVER been bestowed on an amateur chef from MasterChef before…in fact, such an offer is practically unheard of in ALL of competitive food television, including shows with professional chefs.  Which sorta leads me to think that Bri is a professional pastry chef (and her college theatre background is merely how she’s being labeled on the show), and the producers know her well enough to know what a perfect addition she would be to the cast this year.  Her character on the show may, in fact, all be an act.  Check out her professional acting portfolio shots: http://www.starnow.com/brikozior/photos/2216100/#!photo-2216112

(Thanks to fan Nick Shiraef for finding those.  They’re actually great photos, Bri!  But certainly nothing like the pale, geeky vegetarian we’re seeing on MasterChef.  Some people are saying she’s actually not vegetarian at all, which would explain why she cooks meat so well!)

Again…all this is merely rumor.  But more than one MC contestant from previous seasons were beginning to doubt the authenticity of her spot as an actual contestant BEFORE these rumors and Facebook photos started flying around, so it’s certainly not unthinkable.  (UPDATE: Bri has sent me a comment via her Facebook account that she would like included here, so you can read her side of the story in the comments below.)

But one thing is certain…Bri’s character on the show is totally adorable, and I’ll be glad to see more of it, whether it actually represents her authentic self or not.

Let me know what you thought of this episode on the comments below, and relish these last few blog posts, because once I hit the road for Burning Man on the 17th, I won’t be watching or blogging about MasterChef until AFTER the show has finished airing, when I get back in late September!  Only one blog left until then…

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: