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MasterChef 4 recap: Burgers and Lobsters in Las Vegas (S4E8)

(PLEASE NOTE: This blog is not approved or endorsed by MasterChef or Fox, and you probably shouldn’t read it.  These are opinions from a former MasterChef season 2 contestant who officially has no inside knowledge of the making of this season.  …well, not officially, anyway.)

Because of the disastrous Eggs Benedict pressure test, the judges absolutely couldn’t come to a conclusion on which contestant to eliminate, so the ONLY option is to walk out the door of the MasterChef kitchen in Culver City, CA and into Gordon’s “BurGR” restaurant in Las Vegas, in the Planet Hollywood complex.  (I’ve actually overnighted in that hotel on backpacking trips before, I had NO CLUE Gordon had a restaurant there.  Maybe it wasn’t open when I stayed there.)

I have to pause for a moment and express my disdain for Las Vegas.  I think it embodies all the worst in America.  Excess indulgence in an environment that can’t afford it…neither in resources nor manpower.  The desert CANNOT support the megastructures and exponential visitors it receives in a year.  If you’ve been to Lake Mead and seen the alarmingly low water level, you know what I’m talking about.  Lake Mead, held back the by Hoover Dam, provides Vegas with its two lifebloods: water and electricity.  The lake has been consistently BELOW the drought level (which is 1125 feet above sea level…at its “full” level it should be 1229 feet, more than A HUNDRED FEET above that) since the late 1980s.  So the lake has been about 150 feet BELOW the level it should be for a long time.  If the lake level drops below 1050 feet, the Hoover Dam stops producing electricity.  (It reached 1082 feet in 2010.)  If the Hoover Dam loses electrical capability, not only will Las Vegas find itself without power, so will most of Southern California.  Scientists forecast that by 2021, the lake can no longer be used as a water supply.  But rather than focusing development of the world’s biggest resort city in a place where it actually might be SUSTAINABLE, such as the Great Lakes region (where there is plenty of water and power for such an indulgent city of excess), Vegas continues to expand, despite the city planners knowing that, come 2021, there will be NO water and NO power for the city.  Like…none.  Massive emergency plans are being developed for when this happens, including power plant construction and the development of pipelines to bring in water from far flung areas outside the drought-prone West, all of which will make the city even less sustainable than it is now, if such a thing is possible.

In addition to it being a stupendously irresponsible place to build a megacity, I find it to be very depressing.  Sure, the fabulous hotels and lights and fountains can be impressive at first.  But a walk through a casino at 6am, when the blaring desert sun is just piercing through the doors, and you smell the stale smoke and see the lifeless, desperate folks with hollow eyes still trying to eke out a win from the slot machine…a walk through the streets to chat with the homeless kids who moved out there to become prostitutes and now have HIV and a meth addiction…a visit to the crash pad where 10 hotel workers share a single bedroom and work two 8-hour shifts, 7 days a week at minimum wage to stay afloat and support their families in Mexico or the Philippines…your impression of Las Vegas will change.  (My method of travel tends to land me in situations where I’m exposed to this stuff, rather than the glitz and glamour of the tourist side of a destination.  Vegas is the single most depressing place I’ve ever visited, and I’ve traveled extensively in developing countries around the world.)

Vegas is a scourge and it should not exist.  Luckily, Mother Nature will take care of this for us in a decade or two!

So the four contestants in danger of elimination, Luca, Kathy, Natasha, and Beth, are led into Gordon’s restaurant to run the dinner service for the evening.  Gordon tells us that they average 860 burgers a night.  The burgers are not reported to be huge, so I’m assuming they are 1/4 pound patties, which means they’re blasting through 215 pounds of meat a night (about a cow every 2 nights), or more than 78,000 pounds of meat in a year.  That’s a LOT of meat!

They don’t make their menu available online, but you can read their reviews on Yelp and UrbanSpoon.  The burgers apparently run $15-$20 with no sides…most folks who make an evening of it end up spending about $75-$100 a person for their burger meal.  (Most of that is probably going to the wall of fire and the big portrait of Ramsay smiling down on his diner, and to help offset the hotels’ astronomical water and electricity bill!)

For tonight, the restaurant is closed to normal operation, and the contestants will be running it.  Brings back horrific memories of cooking at Gordon’s The London and at Joachim Splichal’s Patina during my season.  (For the record, Splichal is actually a certified MasterChef, and to my knowledge, none of the MasterChef judges are actually certified MasterChefs.)  You can’t imagine the pressure, cooking in a kitchen like this, renowned for producing world-class cuisine.  Very few MasterChef contestants have a clue how a restaurant kitchen really works.  I certainly didn’t.  It was a rude awakening, and made me realize that the last thing on earth I want to be is a chef.  I have to sit down with the people I cook for.  Not churn out carbon copy after carbon copy of the same plate each night, for all of eternity, never getting to even glimpse the folks I’m cooking for.

Graham says that BurGR normally operates with 13 chefs…the exec, 3 sous, and 9 line cooks.  Tonight it will only be the 4 contestants.  (Though, undoubtedly, they will serve a very restricted number of guests.)  Gordon will be filling the role of “expediter” which is basically the orchestral conductor for the kitchen.  He keeps everyone together and on pace.  He calls out the orders, so they know what to make.  He gathers the orders at the window and coordinates with waitstaff to get the right orders to the right table.  Luckily, things are a bit simplified because the contestants only have to produce a single type of burger over and over.  (When WE cooked at The London, we had to make 5 different mini-courses, and when we cooked at Patina, we had to replicate 4 of the executive chef’s complex dishes, to order.)

The judges assign the teams: Beth is cooking with Natasha (of course, after their spat over the cauliflower puree in the firefighter steak challenge), and Luca is cooking with Kathy.  Luca and Kathy definitely have the upper hand here.  Luca manages a restaurant, so he KNOWS how all this works.  (Which means, of course, that they’re going to lose.)

The teams have 1 hour of prep time, followed by 75 minutes of continuous service, to churn out a “signature burger” of their own invention.  (I’m curious as to why Walmart’s USDA Choice ground beef isn’t being used in Gordon’s restaurant?!?  No Steakover, Gordon?)  Luca designates an all-beef burger with caramelized onions, a sauce, and no cheese.  Kathy is worried, because she’s in touch with the predominant American obsession with cheese on a burger.  (I want my burger with cheese, too, Kathy!)  Beth wants theirs to be a “hangover burger” with Gruyere, crispy prosciutto, a sunny-side-up egg, with truffle aioli.  That’s got my mouth watering…it sounds AMAZING.  (I’ve noticed when I’ve posted burgers with fried eggs on Facebook, a lot of my fans are grossed out by that.  If you’ve never tried it, you have to.  It is DIVINE!)  Natasha is justifiably concerned about adding another cook-to-order feature to their burger.  They have to worry about not only the patties being done, but the eggs, as well.  And devoting real estate on the flat top to eggs, rather than burgers, is a risk.  But Natasha is strategically allowing Beth to make all the decisions (and immediately gave up the team leadership position to Beth) so that, if their team looses, she can say it wasn’t her fault.  Not a very admirable strategy, but a shrewd one.

The judges begin discussing the “pâté” or the meat mixture that should go into the perfect burger.  I’ve never heard burger mix called pâté before, pâté is usually a spreadable paste of cooked meat.  Perhaps “patty” came from pâté.  Who knows?  They all seem very insistent that burgers should not be adulterated with egg or breadcrumbs, because then you’re making meatloaf.  When I make burgers, which is not that often, I fold minced onion and garlic into the meat, along with lots of black pepper and a bit of chili powder and salt, and then I stuff them with bleu cheese.  That’s my favorite way to make a burger.  Gordon is VERY worried when Beth is adding egg to her pâté, but I think that’s just for the camera.  The egg isn’t going to change the flavor of the burger, just add richness.  He later has to intervene because they seem to be focusing more on their toppings rather than on the burger itself.  He projects that they’ll be losing.  (Which, of course, means they’ll win.  It’s so funny, Jennie Kelley can predict with almost 100% accuracy within the first 5 minutes of an episode who is going to win and who will be eliminated.  The editing can be very formulaic.)

Both teams have to abandon part of their plans.  The onions aren’t getting prepped fast enough, so Luca has to abandon his sauce to help Kathy with the caramelized onions.  The eggs aren’t manageable, so Beth and Natasha cancel them in favor of goat cheese and arugula with their crispy prosciutto.

Gordon designates a rule out-of-the-blue when service begins.  Once he calls for an order and one team’s order is up in the window, he will wait no longer than 60 seconds for the other team’s order before sending the food.  (In reality, this was probably announced to the teams during the “rules” meeting which happens before every challenge.  There’s all sorts of crazy legal mumbo jumbo that governs each challenge, and lawyers are brought in to explain the rules just before the challenge begins.  Most contestants, however, are too busy conceptualizing their menu and planning to actually listen to the rules.)  This makes things MUCH more complex for the teams, but since they’re producing the same plate over and over, it’s far easier than coordinating different kitchen lines producing different dishes that have to be up at the same time, which is what happens nightly in a restaurant kitchen.  Since working the line at The London and Patina, and discovering exactly what a miracle it is that an entire table’s food arrives simultaneously, I am always completely astounded when I dine out.

Beth has a priceless quote: “The kitchen during service is just fire and noise and the voice of Gordon Ramsay screaming.”  She’s right.  The expediter is the most important person in the kitchen, and Gordon is probably an excellent one in real life, but when the camera is on, he causes as much chaos as he does organization.  Yelling at someone to “get it together” has never, ever been effective at any point in the history of the human race.  People always know when things are chaotic that they need to get it together.  They just may not know HOW.  So screaming the obvious at the top of your lungs only adds to the frustration and confusion.  At one point, Beth and Natasha have an order in the window, and Kathy and Luca don’t have any patties done…they are still on the grill.  Ramsay is screaming at Luca as if that will make the patties cook faster.  All that’s doing is making Luca frustrated and helpless.  (Which you WANT on reality TV, and most certainly DO NOT WANT in a restaurant kitchen.)  Luca responds by plating rare burgers, and then Gordon lights into him for doing so, despite the fact that 5 seconds earlier, he was screaming for Luca to plate the burgers.

It’s no cakewalk over on Beth and Natasha’s team.  One of their buns gets burned in the salamander (the broiler), and Gordon STOPS them and screams at them.  (As if they were going to plate a charred bun, anyway.)  Hey, Gordon…they KNOW the bun is burned.  And they’re starting over.

Luca and Kathy’s burgers are coming back raw, and Gordon says they need to “Stop, rethink, and get a grip.”  This is an issue of time, and no amount of rethinking will help here.  Burgers take a certain amount of time to cook through.  If Luca can think above Einstein and perhaps devise some sort of time portal through which he can get a burger to cook faster, MAYBE rethinking will help here.  But Luca’s only got 2 choices when Gordon screams for a plate:  Plate a raw burger.  Or put nothing up.  (Some people LOVE rare burgers, so your chances of getting a vote in this situation seem to favor sending a raw burger over sending nothing.)  That’s my 2 cents.

The VIPs for the evening arrive, and of course it’s the other contestants.  Luca has learned from the previous events of the evening, and decides to rush the window with his orders, leaving Natasha and Beth without enough time in that 60 second window to keep up.  It works only for the final 4 burgers, so we know that Team N/B is automatically down 4 votes.  (Probably about as many as Team L/K lost to raw burgers, so in reality, they’re even.  VIP votes don’t count any more than the regular diners do.)

The results are revealed, with Beth and Natasha garnering the most votes.  We’re never told how many burgers they cooked, but the voting device is labeled in increments and it appears to be 30 chips on one side, and just under 25 chips on the other.  So I’m guessing they only served 50-60 burgers, as opposed to the 860 the restaurant normally puts out in a night.

In her relief, Natasha spouts that age old axiom, “I’m here for a competition, not to make friends.”  I wish that phrase was illegal.  It clearly displays what Capitalism has done to the American psyche.  This “win at the expense of everyone else” is the Achilles heel of Capitalism…which is certainly the best economic system we’ve got, but is far from perfect and CANNOT operate purely on its own, simply because of that statement.  Because when humanity is disregarded in favor of winning, evil things happen.  Lives are destroyed.  And that eventually brings EVERYTHING down.  (Capitalism may last a few centuries longer than Socialism or Communism, but it always ends up in the same place: Revolution by the Have Nots over the Have Everythings.)

Wow, that was a tangent!  But even in reality TV, I have a hard time acknowledging the humanity of ANY contestant who spouts this.  Though, in fairness, it has become such a standard phrase that I think most people just spout it without ACTUALLY THINKING about it.  (And I’ve heard that people are heaping hate on contestants like Natasha and Krissi…let’s be civilized, folks, and give them the benefit of the doubt.  You can NEVER judge someone’s character by how they are edited on reality TV.)

Again I return to the position that, if people entered a competition with personal integrity and compassion for their rivals, we would see a FAR more captivating and interesting competition.  I will ALWAYS share ingredients with a competitor…even if I have to rethink my dish and go without.  ESPECIALLY if that competitor has been mean to me previously.  I will ALWAYS stop what I’m doing to help someone in need, even if it means I lose.  Because, in the end, I don’t lose.  I win.  Because I gain the respect of the audience, the respect of my loved ones, and the most important respect of all…SELF RESPECT.  Sure, self respect doesn’t pay me $250k.  But that money will be vanished in a few years, anyway, and I’d be left with my lack of self respect, despised by the audience for competing selfishly, and my personal integrity in question by the people who love me the most.  What price are we to put on our humanity?  I keep returning to a phrase coined by Marie Porter, a contestant from this season’s top 100: “In today’s society, we need to be encouraging people to have empathy for each other… not training the masses to lack it.”  Which is exactly what the bulk of reality TV is doing…including, increasingly, MasterChef.

So Kathy and Luca have to endure yet ANOTHER challenge in this endless pressure test that has spread across almost 2 episodes.  They will be working with “one of the most expensive, luxurious ingredients in the entire world.”  Alvin and Jennie and I immediately shout “FOIE” at the same time.  (Foie gras, the engorged, fatty livers of ducks or geese that have gorged, or been force-fed, food.)  The sale of foie gras has recently been outlawed in California due to its controversial production, so it would make perfect sense that they would cook with it in Vegas, where it is legal and graces the menus of many restaurants there.

For the record, lobster is not even close to being one of the most expensive ingredients in the world.  In most places, lobster can be found live for $10-$15 a pound.  (Foie is closer to $50.)  Visit any gourmet fish market and you’ll see the fish fillets for most species priced up to twice the price for lobster.  (I bought swordfish on sale the other day for $24.99 a pound.  Sushi grade ahi tuna?  Fuggetabouddit.)  But lobster, at least to the masses, has an air of sophistication about it.

Personally, I could care less about these roaches of the sea.  I find their meat to be flavorless and often tough.  (Especially the coveted big lobsters.)  Give me king crab legs over lobster tail ANY day of the week.  Or properly cooked octopus.  Or a scallop seared to perfection.  But if I have to eat lobster, I want it to be small, when the meat is still tender.

NOT a world record lobster, just a big one.

For the record, the largest lobster ever officially documented was caught off Nova Scotia.  It weighed 44 pounds and was 3 1/2 feet long.  I cannot imagine how tough that meat was!  On my season, the behemoths we worked with were only around 4 pounds, which is still a BIG lobster, but resulted in tail meat that was just too tough, no matter how gently you cooked it.

Graham reveals a full butter poached lobster, meat completely removed from the shell, and tells us that 6 million lobsters are devoured in Vegas each year.  (If that statistic is correct, that’s about 15% of the average domestic lobster catch, FYI.)  Luca and Kathy will have 45 minutes to present a shell-less butter poached lobster with a small salad.  Pie.

Lobster doesn’t take long to cook.  First you dispatch the lobster.  If you don’t like the idea of a direct kill, you can put the lobster in the freezer for an hour, which doesn’t kill it, but puts it in a coma.  According to conventional knowledge, the most humane way to dispatch them is what Luca and Kathy both do, split it right between the eyes, severing an important nerve.  (Though some scientists say that this doesn’t kill the lobster, since, as an insect…okay “arthropod”… it has no central brain.)  It also allows the poaching water to flood the lobster’s body cavity, diluting the flavor.

Then, you do a quick water poach to help the meat pull away from the shell.  A few minutes, max, then chill it immediately in a water bath to stop the cooking.  Then you twist off the tail and carefully peel away the shell.  Cracking out the claw meat is the toughest part, especially on a big lobster.  In Season 2 I spent almost 20 minutes trying to get a perfectly intact claw out of the shell, and once I had it plated (seconds before time was called) I realized how humorous that GIANT claw looked, it practically covered my entire bowl of red curry and draped off each side of the bowl.  The claw shell is the thickest part of the whole lobster.  The contestants are also supposed to take out the knuckle meat, which can be tricky, but if you have a lobster cracker, careful use of this tool can make it easier to do than the claw, by gently cracking it all over, like peeling an egg.

Here’s a video of mine on how to grill a lobster:

Once the meat is out, it’s time for the butter poach, which first involves emulsifying butter into simmering water, then, if you’re smart, adding the juices from the lobster’s body cavity (and any roe/eggs and possibly the green organ called the “tomalley”) to the poaching liquid to flavor it, in addition to salting it.  Then you gently poach the meat at below-simmering temps (160F is perfect).  Then you toss together your salad, and you’re done.

Both contestants plate their lobster, and both have imperfections.  Kathy’s lobster is perfectly cooked: “glistening inside” (there’s that word again…gross), but the knuckles were a bit too raggedly removed from the shell for Gordon’s taste.  Her salad is too acidic.  Joe shows a rare tender moment with Kathy, saying she has one of the biggest hearts they’ve ever seen.  (Too bad they didn’t edit this into the show.  I would LOVE to have seen more of Kathy.)

Luca’s lobster is presented perfectly, but the meat is too pale…that means his water wasn’t at a full rolling boil for the first poach, or he removed it too quickly.  Luckily, his lobster is also “glistening.”

It’s close, but the axe falls to Kathy.  Joe continues to show us his soft side, as he admits to being wrong about Kathy when he first judged her.  Gordon offers her the opportunity to stage (pronounced “stahhhhzh,” basically an unpaid intern) at one of his NY restaurants.  A cool offer, to be sure, but he’s not giving her a job, he’s getting free labor out of it.  It will be interesting to see if Kathy takes him up on that offer.  That’s an EXCELLENT way to learn first-hand, and looks amazing on a resume.

Kathy, we didn’t see enough of you, unfortunately.  I would have loved to have seen more.  You can follow Kathy on Twitter and Facebook, and wish her all the best!

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