Tag Archives: perspective

MasterChef: One Year Later

Today is February 2, 2012.  Exactly one year ago on this day, I flew to Los Angeles to film MasterChef.  It was a cold day and Dallas was buried under a foot of ice.  A storm-of-a-century had descended on Texas the day before, and I awoke at 4am in hopes that I’d be able to make my 8am flight from Love Field.  I had foolishly parked the driver’s side of my car facing north, and it was coated in solid ice.  I poured hot water over it to melt the ice off the lock so I could get my key into it, but the lock mechanism was frozen solid and I couldn’t even get into my car.  This did not bode well.

I got out a big orange extension cord and strung it along the frozen driveway to the car, and used a hair dryer to try to thaw out the frozen lock mechanism.    After about 15 minutes, I realized, “If I’m having this much trouble just getting into my car, I seriously doubt the flight is even going to operate.”  As if by magic, my cell phone dinged a new text message from Southwest Airlines: “Your flight has been canceled.”

Paranoia struck.  “What if I get replaced with another contestant if I can’t get to LA today?”  It didn’t register in my brain that half the country was buried under this epic ice storm.  I had to get to LA.  Knowing that nobody from MasterChef in LA would be awake at this hour, I tried to go back to bed for a few hours, but all I could do was stare at the ceiling and fret.

At 10am (which was 8am Los Angeles time) I called MasterChef and told them I was stuck.  They said, “Don’t worry, half the cast is stuck.  Just call the airline and get on the next available flight.”  After a 2 hour hold time, Southwest informed me that the next flight with seats was 3 days out.  That just wasn’t going to work.

I drove the 6 miles from my front door to DFW airport.  It took an hour and a half.  Of course, the airport was deserted…precious few travelers were braving the ice.  Consequently, all the planes were going out with plenty of empty seats, so I grabbed one and got to LA several days before all the other Texas constants.  (I hoped that would score me brownie points.  They were impressed and a little confused, but no brownie points were awarded.)

Today, a full year after I left to be on MasterChef, I’m taking stock of my life and seeing how things have changed.

In a sense, very little has changed.  I still live in the same house in the same Dallas suburb, surrounded by my family and friends.  I still wake up around 10am most mornings, do some work on the computer, fix breakfast for whoever is in the house plus my neighbor Sharon…(it’s lunch for her)…then spend the afternoon blogging, working in the garden, DIY or building projects, doing a bit of income-producing work, grocery shopping, taking Oliver to the dog park, answering dozens of emails, investing time on any of the numerous projects I’ve going in the works, and visiting with neighbors.  I start dinner around 5 or 6, to serve around 8 for whomever shows up (various friends, neighbors, etc.)  My partner gets home around 11 and we spend some time playing with Oliver, catching up, having a night cap, and I head to bed around 1 or 2am.

Very little of that has changed.  That’s what I was doing 366 days ago.

Yet EVERYTHING has changed.  Friends, for one.  I have always been fortunate to be surrounded by an unusually large number of very close friends.  I call it my friendfamily.  People I’ve known for a decade or longer.  Who I communicate with every other day or so.  Who are every bit as important to me as my family.  Now that family is quite a bit larger.  New names and faces…Adrien, Tracy, Christian, JK (Jennie), Alejandra, Tony, Alvin, Christine, Derrick, Peanut (Esther), Jennifer…well, if I start naming all of them, your eyes will glass over and you’ll stop reading.  Not just acquaintances.  Not just friends.  Fellow survivors.  People I’d actually take a bullet for.

While we were together for only 2 months, and 366 days ago I didn’t know they even existed, we ate, lived, breathed, and endured one of the most frenetic, desperate, turbulent, trying experiences together.  You watch MasterChef and laugh, but we were biting our nails, pulling our hair out, and contemplating suicide and worse 18 hours a day for 2 months together.  We were completely isolated from friends and family and had no one to lean on but each other.  There is truly no way I can possibly communicate how stupendously stressful the reality TV experience is.  Severe sleep deprivation, extreme cold and heat, disgusting (and in many cases unhealthy) food at impractical hours, the inability to hear even a word of comfort and encouragement from any family or friend, the constant questioning of your life choices, the constant doubting of your intelligence, skill, and even your worth as a human being…  It’s like boot camp, maybe even worse.  One of the psychologists from the show mentioned to me that it has the same impact on the human mind as going to war.  You return home dazed and disillusioned, without the ability to reconnect to those you love who have missed you so much.  It takes time to learn how to function again in the normal world.  And the only ones who understand are the ones who lived through it with you.

So when I mention that I have new friends, I don’t mean some new and interesting people I’ve spent a little time with.  I mean they are fellow survivors of an indescribably traumatic experience, who I’d truly give my life for.  We are bonded.

That’s definitely the most noticeable difference.  But there are others.  Each time I go to the grocery store or a restaurant, every 10th person I pass looks at me with a flicker of confused recognition.  Every 20th comes up to me and says, “I know you from somewhere.”  Every 100th rushes up to me and embraces me and says, “I was rooting for you, you have no idea.  And my kids LOVE you.”

Every time I log into my inbox, instead of the most numerous emails being from friends, various stores I patronize, and spam, they are emails that begin with “I watched MasterChef and looked you up.”  Some of them continue “Thanks for being so fun to watch.”  Many continue, “I am struggling with an eating disorder,” or “I’ve recently been diagnosed with cancer,” or “We support this amazing project that you would probably find interesting,” or “I’m 8 years old and I wanna be a chef when I grow up.”  (For the record, I’ve received close to 20,000 emails since MasterChef began airing…I still haven’t been able to read them all, much less respond.  (Though someday I hope to be able to.)  But even if I spend only 5 minutes with each email (and many of them deserve much, much more) that’s well over 1,500 hours.  More than half a year of full 8-hour work days.

But keep them coming.  When I get frustrated with the money-hungry television executives…when I think to myself that I wish I had never auditioned for MasterChef…when I feel like giving everything up and going to live in a cave for the rest of my life…all I have to do is open my inbox and read about how many people were touched by the show, how much encouragement and inspiration it gave to so many of you…  And it keeps me going.

My future looks different, albeit much more uncertain, than it did 366 days ago.  I have development contracts with production companies.  I get emails and phone calls from very “important” people.  People who think I have a future in television.  But these people tell me that no matter how entertaining I am on screen, no matter how easily people connect with me…I still have to be able to prove to a network that I can hold an audience beyond the realm of MasterChef…that new people will be drawn to me who’ve never even heard of MasterChef.  And thus I spend my days meticulously documenting my life for those who are interested.  Here’s a picture of what I made for dinner.  Oh, you want the recipe?  Let me upload it to my website really fast.  Here’s me under a waterfall in Hawaii.  I just met a 13 year old homeless kid whose parents tossed him out like a piece of garbage.  I’m headed to Atlanta, anyone have restaurant recommendations?

(My managers tell me that one of the most important things a network is looking for is RESPONSIVENESS with fans, so if you’re one of the people who’s eager to see me back on your TV screen, the best way you can help me is to comment on my Facebook messages, retweet and respond to my tweets, but most of all…share my posts and videos with your friends.  The more buzz I can generate, the more interest a network will have.)

Another new thing in my life is gray hair!  Halfway through the filming of MasterChef, my hair had gotten so long and unruly that I bought a pair of clippers and cut my hair late one night in my room.  Underneath was a veritable FOREST of gray hair.  When I showed up on set the next day, everyone was shocked.  Luckily, because I was wearing my hats most of the time, they didn’t immediately have to take me to have my hair dyed to preserve continuity!  About half my hair has turned gray at the ripe age of 34.  Amazing what a little stress will do to you!  I embrace it, though.  (With any luck, people will be comparing me to Anderson Cooper in a few years!!!)

And there are projects galore in the works.  Jennie Kelley, one of my dearest MasterChef friends who also lives in Dallas, and I will soon be adding a bit of exciting, underground variety to the Dallas culinary scene.  More on that soon.  Due to new connections in Hawaii I hope to make some progress toward opening my sustainable guest farm there.  I’ll also be making some full-length episodes of a show I’ve wanted to make for years, and offering it to my fans on YouTube.  It will be filled with laughter and tears and warm fuzzy feelings, and will honor amazing people who have lived a life of quiet service to their families and communities.

And as we reach the 1 year mark, I get a few emails and tweets from people to the effect of, “You inspired me to audition for MasterChef myself, and while I can’t confirm anything, it looks like you may be watching me on TV this summer!”  In the coming weeks, 100 terrified, hopeful people will fly to LA, just like I did 1 year ago today, to start an adventure that will change their lives.  And I can’t wait to watch it happen!

Thanks to my friends and family who have endured a VERY crazy year with me.  Thanks to Gordon, Joe, and Graham, and especially to the production crew who make MasterChef, for being so wonderful in helping us all through such a challenging time.  Thanks to Suzy and Erryn and Giuseppe and Mark and Angel and Max and Kayla and Donna and Shawn and Bryce and RENEE and (…here I go again…) and ALL the wonderful new family members I have from MasterChef.  You have enriched my life beyond description.

MasterChef has not made me rich, at least in monetary terms.  In fact, I’m quite a bit more financially unstable now than I was 366 days ago.  (As are most of the contestants from the show INCLUDING the winner!)  But the whole experience has blessed me with INCREDIBLE wealth in the form of a treasure trove of wonderful new friends, and a host of the most interesting, friendly, and interactive fans any F-list celebrity could ever hope to ask for.  That’s YOU I’m talking about, by the way.  Thank YOU!

A Post-Masterchef Perspective

I have just spent the past 5 hours reading a fraction of the 949 tweets, 549 emails, and 1752 Facebook messages that have been posted in the 300 minutes since MasterChef finished airing on the East Coast.  (Update, as of 11pm August 10, about 24 hours after the show has ended, my email inbox has over 7000 emails in it.)

Before tonight, I believe I have successfully responded to everyone who has reached out to me on the internet.  That’s important to me.  If someone has taken the time to email me, it’s my obligation to respond personally.

Bear with me.  7000 messages may take me a few days!

But there are some things I feel the need to share with everyone.  The fact that I’ve received 7000 messages in the 24 hours since I was eliminated on MasterChef is important.

Let me start by saying that I ABHOR reality television.  It’s stupendously ironic that I decided to be on it.  (My friends will never forgive me!)  But I truly believe that Reality TV brings out the worst in good people.  I can, without hesitation, say that I’d move next door to Christian Collins and be quite happy to grow old as his best friend.  Christian is a GOOD man.  But millions of people hate him now, which is unwarranted and  unjust.

I went on Reality TV to prove that a contestant can have dignity, generosity, integrity, and a love for his fellow contestants, and STILL be interesting to watch.  And the fact that I’ve had such an overwhelming response from the MasterChef audience proves exactly that.

In the past two months, I have recieved emails from homeless people, from teenage girls suffering from eating disorders, from parents who lost children in the terrorist attacks in Norway, from rape victims who hadn’t told another living soul about their attack, from people with terminal cancer who have preciously numbered days.  And in the past two months I have received emails from teenagers who, in a suicidal moment, found inspiration from a moment on MasterChef, and from 11 year olds practicing molecular gastronomy for their science projects, and from children who want grow up to elevate dignity in developing countries by elevating the level of food that is provided by humanitarian efforts, and from retired octogenarians who had never learned to cook but were inspired by the show to start learning after 80 years, and from single moms who had been feeding their kids fast food every night of the week who have been inspired by MasterChef to get in the kitchen, instead, and make them something with her own two hands.  And this doesn’t even scratch the surface.

Cooking may be a chore for some people.  It may be a rare escape for others.  It may be a salary for some.  It may terrify others.  But cooking is the most powerful ritual we share, as humans.  This has been made evident to me by the fact that I can be presented with a box of ingredients, and a camera records me cooking it, and then hundreds of people pour out their soul to me in emails after watching it.

I learned many things on MasterChef.  First and foremost, I gained the friendship of dozens of incredibly talented people.  As an adult, the “lifelong friendship” phenomenon grows increasingly scarce.  It’s hard to make new friends who love and understand you the way your family does, and the way your friends who’ve known you since you were a kid do.  I suddenly found myself in a room with 100 nervous contestants, listing to lectures about how we were the finest home cooks in the country…and some of those 100 I grew very, very close to.  Renee, Donna, Risa, Seby, Pauline, Shawn, Christine Wendell, Kayla and Kala, Michelle.  These are names you don’t know, which is sad, because they each had a unique culinary brilliance, and in the two weeks we were all together filming the first “signature dish” portion of MasterChef, we became so close.

Then there were 18.  And the pressure quadrupled.  And we all became that much closer.  You each saw carefully crafted characters, selectively drawn from the hours and hours of footage from people like Max and Christian and Esther and Suzy…who attracted so much criticism, but who are each delightful, adorable people.  (And I’m not just saying that to be nice.)  Never forget that when you watch TV, you are watching caricatures.  Do you REALLY think Joe Bastianich would have a loving wife and kids who adore him, if all he was was someone who attacked and complained about everything?  People are never one-dimensional.  Don’t think you can sum up a person based on how they are edited on a TV show.

The relationships I have developed with my fellow 18 finalists have changed the spectrum of my life.  In the short months since the filming of MasterChef wrapped, I’ve been to NY and LA to visit friends from the show, and I’ve entertained no less than 6 in my own home.

MasterChef not only changed us by bringing important, dear, new friends into our lives.  It changed our lives.  Many of the top 100 have left their former careers to pursue their own individual culinary passions.  I plan to highlight some of these new ventures in my blog in the coming weeks.

MasterChef has been a potent inspiration for not only the 100 semi finalists, but for the audience as well.  I’ve received emails from literally hundreds of people who have set foot in the kitchen for the very first time, inspired by the show.

I don’t know where my MasterChef experience will ultimately lead me.  I hope I can spend a few years working in television, but only in a capacity that helps people and builds them up.  You can help me do this by staying in touch.  Email me.  Tell me what you’re up to.  Visit my site and read my blog to see what I’ve been up to.  Tell your friends about me.  If you have a brilliant TV show idea, email it to me.  The more a network discovers that we have formed a community, the more interest they will have in representing us.

I do hope, one day, to achieve my dream of opening a sustainable guest farm, cafe, and microbrewery in Hawaii.  Then I can welcome guests from all over the world who want to share in the joys of food, family, and the earth.  You can read more about it by clicking MY DREAM at the top of your screen.

But for now, it’s my hope that I can share with you a few quick things that I feel everyone on the planet should understand:

*Our planet is beautiful.  Get OUTSIDE and see it.  Sleep in a hammock.  Watch the sunset.  See the Grand Canyon.  (Or better yet, Grand Gulch.)  Take a farm road rather than a freeway.  Go off the beaten path.

*Our planet is fragile.  Recycle.  Compost.  These things don’t require much more effort than tossing something in the trash.  But if we will ALL do it, we’ll make a huge difference.

*Know where your meat comes from.  A life is taken each time you sit down to eat meat.  Respect that.  Understand the conditions that many industrially-raised meat animals endure.  Every living creature on earth deserves a life of dignity.  And while I’m no vegetarian, I believe that a meat animal can live a happy, fulfilled life, before it fulfills its purpose on the food chain.  Knowing where your meat comes from will make you choose better sources of meat.  Not only does it taste better, it lived better.

*Know where your fruits and veggies come from.  That lettuce you’re eating may have been driven 1500 miles from an industrial farm to land on your dinner plate, when a family farmer 50 miles away is struggling to sell his lettuce.  Ask your grocer to label his produce with its origin.  Tell him you want to see more local crops in the store.  The market gets what the market asks for.  And if the market demands local, it will get local.  This will rebuild our local economies, which are the backbone of America.

*Know WHEN your fruits and veggies come from.  Ever eat a peach in January?  Not only was it expensive, it had no taste.  Because it was picked green in another hemisphere and put on a boat to a port, and trucked hundreds of miles to land in your grocery store.  Eat seasonally.  Look FORWARD to the local peach harvest in July, when peaches are cheapest because they traveled the shortest distance to get from the tree to your mouth.  Then look forward to it for another 11 months until it comes again.

*Support local restaurants, especially ones that support local farms.  Get out of the chains, and get into the family-run places.  The food is fresher.  It has more soul.  And the money stays in your community.

*Investigate local co-ops that buy from local farms.  These are also called CSA’s, or Community Supported Agriculture.  This is a way to get local, organic produce for CHEAPER than what it costs in the grocery store, while supporting local family-run organic farms.  (It’s often cheaper even than buying non-organic produce from the grocery store.)  Check http://www.localharvest.org/csa/ to get started.

*And finally…  Cook.  Restaurants are great.  Without them, chefs wouldn’t have jobs!  But there is no meal better than the one you cook yourself for people you love.  Even if you set the kitchen on fire (which I’ve done), or end up with a blackened, burnt mess (which I’ve done), the laughter and joy you and your family and friends will share is worth more than a meal at the finest restaurant in the world.  (Which, coincidentally, closed last week.  Sorry, folks!)

Thank you for sharing this MasterChef journey with me.  It was only the first step of something far more important to come.  Stick with me!  I’ll try to make sure you never regret it!

As for tonight…I am BURIED in love, from every angle.  This is an incredible thing to feel.  Everyone in the world should feel this loved at least once.  It is a life-changing experience.