Tag Archives: Phoenix

Mulligan’s Manor

This is not Sean. This photo is of a boy like Sean, who wasn't as lucky.

I want to tell you a story.  It’s about a boy.  I don’t know his real name.  That information is confidential.  So we’re just going to call him Sean.  He grew up in a conservative family in California.  Like all kids do, he loved his family, even if they were not perfect.  And for many years, he kept a secret from them.  A secret fundamental to his existence and identity.  Sean was a boy who was only attracted to other boys.  He couldn’t help it.  And he couldn’t explain it.  That’s just how he was naturally.

One day he couldn’t keep this a secret from his family any longer.  So he told them.  Expecting only what every kid expects from his family.  Their love and support.

Sean’s family didn’t understand.  And they did not like what Sean had to say.  They figured the problem could be solved by a good old fashioned spanking.  And when that didn’t seem to negate his sexual orientation, a stronger beating seemed in order.

When Sean woke up in the hospital with 100 staples in his back, he discovered that he didn’t have a family any more.  It wasn’t his decision.  The government had taken him away from his family for his own protection.  (And if ever there was a situation where a kid should be torn from his home for his own protection, this was it.)

Sean was relocated to live with extended family in Phoenix, but was physically abused by them, as well.  So he entered the group home system, living with other “troubled” kids whose parents “couldn’t handle them.”  In typical fashion, he was relocated from group home to group home.  He had 6 different “families” in 18 months.  He was picked on by the kids he lived with.  He was even picked on by some of the house parents in the homes.  Because he was different.  Gay, lesbian, and transgendered kids in the foster care system are at the bottom of the pack.  Sean had showed an interest in makeup at an early age, and this made him an easy target.

A home without judgement.

But Sean is a smart kid.  He wanted a place to truly call home, where he wouldn’t have to worry about hiding himself from his “siblings” and house parents.  He did his research…and he discovered Mulligan’s Manor…a group home of a very different sort.  It was started in November of 2011 by a woman named Jenny Diaz.  Jenny had a background in social work and cases of sexual abuse, and wanted to provide a safe place for some of the many children in her community who needed loving homes.  (There are over 7,000 children without families in the county where Phoenix is located.)  But within that unthinkable number are underdogs.  The kids that the rest of the kids pick on.  The kids that foster parents don’t want.  Gay and lesbian kids.  And kids who were born into bodies with a gender that they don’t feel belongs to them.  Jenny discovered through a bit of research that these kids, more than any others, have the most difficulty adjusting in group homes.  So she decided to take her own house…the house where she had raised her daughter Shannon…and turn it into a safe haven for THOSE kids.

Sean went to live at Mulligan’s Manor.  He found himself surrounded by kids who were like him.  Kids he could talk to without worrying about being beaten up.  Kids who would HELP him put on his makeup, if he felt like wearing it.  Perhaps most importantly, he was welcomed by house parents who showered love and acceptance on him.  Who assured him that he could tell them ANYTHING at all, and he would always be loved.  And who would give him lessons on applying makeup, if that’s what he wanted to do.

Also, Sean discovered that all his house brothers weren’t necessarily gay or transgendered.  Some of them were heterosexual.  Because Mulligan’s Manor is a place where kids learn from each other about acceptance.  To learn to be each others’ allies, rather than perpetuating separatism and discrimination.

Sean’s story is not unusual.  In the past 2 years, Mulligan’s Manor has been called “home” by 13 kids with similar stories.  Kids who might not have made it otherwise.  Like Evan.  (That’s also not his real name.)  Evan was in the foster care system as a toddler, and was eventually adopted in elementary school by a very conservative, devout family.  When he became a teenager, he confided in his parents that he was gay.  It did not go over well.  No longer welcome in his home, feeling persecuted and rejected by the only family he ever knew, Evan was found on the verge of suicide and was placed in a behavioral health clinic until the danger of suicide passed.  While he was there, a social worker told him about Mulligan’s Manor, which is now his home.  He has only been there for about a month, but he’s already teaching his house brothers how to play piano and sing.  And, ironically, the fact that he grew up with a steady adopted family (a rarity for kids in the system) has allowed him to share a level of stability and connection with his house brothers that they are not accustomed to.

Volunteers fixing up Mulligan's Manor before the arrival of their first kid

Because many of them have never experienced long-term love before landing at Mulligan’s.  Take Alex, for instance.  That IS his real name, because Alex just turned 18 and is no longer a ward of the state, so he can give authorization to use his real name.  Alex entered the state ward system at age 4, and before he landed at Mulligan’s at age 16, he had lived in 29 group homes.  That’s a new family every 6 months.  Can you imagine that lack of stability in your own childhood?  Alex has now graduated from high school and is interviewing for jobs.  He’s saving up to buy a car, and he’s applying to universities.  Shannon (the daughter of the founder, a former house parent at Mulligan’s, and their fundraising coordinator) had a chat with him recently about his experience at Mulligan’s, and he said something remarkable.  He had been in therapy continuously for much of his life.  But he said that it never seemed to work, because he couldn’t understand what the therapists were telling him.  Words like “love” and “trust” and “compassion” and “empathy” made no sense to him.  He had no frame of reference with which to understand them.  They were just words with memorized definitions.  But after a year at Mulligan’s, therapy started working for him.  Because, he said, for the first time in his life, he was experiencing love.  Love for others.  Others loving him.  And, most importantly, discovering how to love himself.

Alex, on his 18th birthday. (This is his real photo.)

I first encountered Mulligan’s Manor last summer at a fundraiser organized by my friend Donna Donahue.  Donna is one of those one-of-a-kind people that you never forget.  I had interacted with her, as a MasterChef fan, on Facebook and Twitter, and on one of my trips out west to LA, she said that if I was coming through Phoenix, I should stop for a drink and meet her.  Phoenix isn’t directly on the way to LA, it’s about a 100 mile detour.  But something told me I should meet Donna.  So I did.  And I became great friends with her and her husband Chuck.  Donna works at a nonprofit that supports at-risk youth in Phoenix, and she invited me to come help with a bake sale her kids were doing to raise money for the “No Kid Hungry” organization.  While we were setting up, a group of young gay kids came up and offered their assistance.  I assumed it was a youth support group, like the kind I was involved in after moving to the big city for the first time.  But I learned from their house-parent, Marcus, about Mulligan’s Manor.  The boys worked very hard at the bake sale.  They ran up and down the street, telling people about the delicious yummies for sale, and how 100% of the proceeds went to ending child hunger.

Volunteers at Mulligan's Manor, including the founder, Jenny Diaz

And at one point in the evening, I just sat down and cried.  Here were all these kids, disadvantaged to a supreme extent, working up a sweat to raise money for OTHER kids.  It was overwhelming.  I bought them all pizza from a famous Phoenix food truck and sat down at the table to listen to their stories.  And I tried to be a big boy and not cry.  But when you are looking at a beautiful, creative, hopeful, talented, articulate, extraordinary 13 year old boy with his whole life ahead of him, you wonder what kind of person would toss him out onto the street.  Don’t they see what I see?  Someone who deserves to be loved unconditionally?  Someone who can change the world if he wants to?

Donna was as surprised to see them show up at the fundraiser as I was.  The youth organization she works for isn’t related to Mulligan’s Manor.  But, in typical Donna fashion, she adopted the Mulligan’s boys as her pet project.  This past Christmas she took donations and was able to fill virtually every gift on every boy’s Christmas list.  She goes to the Manor to teach them cooking classes and just be a friend.  And they love her.

Green breakfast for the kids on St. Patty's

Mulligan’s isn’t your typical group home.  While licensed group homes can have up to 10 kids at a time, Mulligan’s tries to stay closer to 5, so the kids can build meaningful family connections with each other, have individualized attention and care, and be able to enjoy activities that kids in larger group homes don’t always get to, like personalized tutoring, field trips and weekend retreats.  While they definitely target gay, lesbian, transgendered, and questioning youth, those kids can be difficult to “find” in the system…because you learn early on to hide your sexuality to avoid rejection and violence.  But, at the same time, they also want to foster kids who identify as heterosexual because it’s important for these young gay kids to see supportive straight people as allies and friends.  No kid leaves Mulligan’s Manor until they turn 18, unless they need a higher level of medical or psychological care than the Manor staff can give them.  Mulligan’s Manor is their home.  Unless their natural home becomes a welcoming place for them again.

The ultimate goal at Mulligan’s is to reunite kids with their natural families.  Because people can change.  If parents prove eager to have their child back, and can prove to the state that they will provide a loving, nurturing, healthy environment…and if the kids come to learn that their families have had a change of heart and want to prove their love and acceptance…a kid can be reunited back home.  Unfortunately, this type of happy ending is far less likely than the kids “aging” out of the system at 18.  Which is why Mulligan’s is often the last group home a child ever has to be placed in…because they are there to stay, in an environment of love and acceptance.

This does not come without cost.  Mulligan’s Manor is supported primarily by donations.  And, as you can imagine, raising money for a charity that the public might view as a “gay charity” can be challenging.  They’ve had trouble making payroll for the already under-paid angels who devote their lives to helping these kids have a life of pride and success.

So this Saturday, July 13, they are hosting their first annual “Bowling for the Manor,” a fundraiser to bring awareness to the community and raise money so they can keep doing what they’re doing.  If you live in the Phoenix area, you can join the bowl-a-rama (either as a team or an individual), or win some great prizes from local businesses in their raffle.  Or place a bid at the silent auction for some really big prizes, like 2 tickets to anywhere Southwest Airlines flies, or a weekend getaway at the legendary Clarendon Hotel.

If you don’t live in Phoenix but your heart reaches out to these kids, who’ve endured so much, yet only want to be loved and to find their own special place in this big world, you can make a donation on their website.  Whether it’s $5 or $20 or $100 or more, it will do far more good for the world than that caramel macchiato you were gonna get tomorrow, or that new pair of shoes you’ve been thinking about.  And you’ll feel WAY better about yourself, knowing you’ve actually done something that helped change a kid’s life.

As I was finishing up this post, I texted Shannon because I realized I had completely forgotten to ask about the origins of the name “Mulligan’s Manor.”  I was imagining that the founder Jenny, Shannon’s mom, must have had a very special gay uncle named Mulligan, or something of the sort.  But Shannon set me straight.

It turns out I know very little about sports.  In golf, a “mulligan” is a second chance…the ability to do something over again without being penalized.  So many kids get penalized simply for being who they are, and absolutely nothing else.  Mulligan’s Manor is giving these kids that second chance…to become the extraordinary person they truly are, rather than be penalized for who they are not.

A mural at Mulligan's Manor. Each kid who lives there gets a flower with their name beside it. (Names removed because they are wards of the state.) In this way, each kid becomes forever part of the home that saved them.

Follow Mulligan’s Manor on Facebook to find out what their kids are up to.  Even if you’re broke as a joke, like I am at the moment, send them a few bucks at the very least.  Doing good for others feels WAY better than a midnight taco run.  And if you know of similar organizations or programs in your town, tell us about them in the comments below.  It’s heartening to hear about amazing people doing good for those who need it.  And for those of you doing the good work at Mulligan’s, I thank you from the very bottom of my heart.  You are truly changing the world for the better.

(I was unable to show you photos of any of the kids at Mulligan’s Manor other than Alex, because they are still minors and are considered wards of the state, and their identity is confidential.  Phoenix-area folks are welcomed to volunteer at the house and meet the kids.)

ADDENDUM:  After such an amazing response in the comments here and on Facebook, I’m gripped with the need to say that, as much time as I spend criticizing MasterChef for stooping to the lowest common denominator these days, none of you would have a clue who I am without MasterChef, and I’d have never inherited this AMAZING family of fans all over the world who care so deeply about the important things in life.  So they must be doing SOMETHING right, and as upset as I am over the directions they’ve taken, the fact is that they are still introducing genuine people to a larger audience who can, with YOUR help, make a difference in this world.  Thank you, all of you, for being amazing.

My Weekend with Monti and David

Last week I went to Phoenix to help out with a fundraiser for the Phoenix Children’s Hospital that was initiated by Monti Carlo.  I’ve been wanting to meet Monti for awhile, and when she invited me to help out, I was ecstatic.  To make things even more exciting, David Martinez and his wife were going to be helping out too.  (David is being spun as a fairly undesirable character on the show, so I was eager to meet him to see what he was REALLY like.)

On Wednesday night, I arrived at the airport for an 11pm flight to Phoenix on Spirit Airlines.  When I booked my ticket, I booked it to Phoenix.  When I printed my boarding pass, it said Phoenix.  The sign on the gate said, “Phoenix” and when we landed, the pilot said, “Welcome to Phoenix.”  When I walked off the airplane via steps directly onto the runway, and then walked into a tiny terminal with only 2 gates, I got VERY confused.  I walked up to the first person in an official-looking vest, and said, “I promise I only had 1 glass of wine on the plane, so please don’t think I’m drunk or crazy when I ask this, but…where the hell am I?”

The guy smiled and laughed.  “You’re at the Mesa Gateway airport.”

“Alllllllright.  And since I assumed I was flying into Phoenix, which is where I booked my rental car, how exactly would I get to the Phoenix airport?”

“Not really sure.  You might try a cab.”

“How much will that cost?”

“Oh, probably about a hundred dollars.”

I stared at him with my mouth open for a bit.  “How often do you get people like me in this situation…assuming that when they bought a ticket to Phoenix, they were actually going to fly there?”

“Oh, just about half the people from every plane that lands here.”

I looked around and, indeed, half the people from my flight were looking around in a confused way.  I dashed outside…at an airport this small, at midnight, I knew I’d have very limited options to get into town.  A whole cottage industry has apparently developed among locals who love to capitalize on travelers who have suddenly found themselves at the wrong airport, so some dude offered me a ride to Sky Harbor Airport for only $60!  How gracious of him.

As I forked over literally half my travel budget for the weekend and got in the car, I posted my predicament on Facebook and was IMMEDIATELY offered a ride by my fan Dana, who lives near that airport.  I shouldn’t have been in such a rush.  *sigh*

As I picked up my rental car, the guy at the counter said, “You’re a bit late!  What happened…did you fly into Mesa Gateway airport?”

“Yeah, how often does that happen?”

“ALL the time.”

Grf…  Spirit’s really got a racket going, but at least it’s benefitting the immediate local economy of the Mesa Gateway Airport.

At 1:30am I headed north toward Flagstaff.  I didn’t have to meet Monti until Thursday evening, and you all know I take any chance I can get to be in the wilderness.  For years, I’ve wanted to visit the Verde River hot springs, natural hot pools in the wilderness near Camp Verde, Arizona.  It’s about a 3 hour drive from Phoenix, much of it on rugged dirt roads in the Fossil Creek wilderness, so I didn’t arrive at the river until almost 4am.  Exhausted, I passed out in the back seat for a couple of hours until the sun rose and I couldn’t sleep anymore.  So I left the car and strolled to the banks of the river, which I would have to cross to reach the hot springs.  And this is what I saw:

During this time of year, the Verde River normally flows at around 90 cubic feet per second, and is shallow enough that you never get above your knees when you wade across.  However, this morning the river had decided to flood its banks and had peaked out just above 500 cubic feet per second.  Probably due to a massive monsoon rain the day before up in the watershed.  No Verde hot springs for me this time.  I was really, really frustrated, but I knew that nearby was legendary Fossil Creek and a dip in its crystalline waters would cheer me up.

Fossil Creek is a spring fed river that bursts from massive desert springs deep in the wilderness at a constant temperature of 72 degrees.  Most rivers in Arizona are fed from snowmelt and are rarely that warm, so it’s a treat to swim in Fossil Creek almost year round.  In the early 1900s, Fossil Creek was dammed and almost the entire flow of the creek was diverted to hydroelectric plants to supply nearby mining operations with electricity.  So for most of the 20th century, the entire ecosystem of the river was destroyed.  In 1999, the state of Arizona closed the power plants and decided to return the stream to its natural state, and the dam was removed.  In 2009, President Obama placed Fossil Creek on the Wild and Scenic Rivers list, so its natural flow can never be interfered with again.

Now Fossil Creek is an incredible place to swim and hike, with its huge flow of crystal clear water acting like an oasis in the desert, plunging over waterfalls and through deep swimming holes.  I spent the day lounging in the cool water and enjoying peace and tranquility…something I’ve been in desperate need of recently!

Eventually it was time to return to Phoenix, but I did so by way of Strawberry, AZ, a picturesque mountain village where the Strawberry Lodge serves up legendary pie.  The waitress recommended the buttermilk pie, and I gobbled it up.  Delicious, and HIGHLY recommended!

A few minutes north of Strawberry, I saw a photo pointing toward Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, and I had a couple of hours to spare, so I took a detour.  And boy, was it worth it!  The Tonto Bridge is the world’s largest natural bridge made out of travertine, or dissolved and redeposited limestone.  It’s like a giant cave formation, only not created in a cave, with a hole bored in it by a stream.  It’s so huge, it’s hard to describe.

Note the people in the center of the photo

The stream that deposited all that travertine over thousands of years and built the bridge still tumbles over the edge of it in a sparkling waterfall.

The stream the dug the hole in the waterfall still flows through the bottom of it and forms some wicked swimming holes, but unfortunately you’re not allowed to swim underneath the bridge.

The park is small but there is a lot to explore, including other waterfalls and caves:

Back in Phoenix, I checked into my hotel and headed over to meet the legendary Monti Carlo.  As I stood on her front porch, about to ring the doorbell, I couldn’t suppress a nervousness and the feeling that I was about to meet a celebrity.  I reached out and knocked, and moments later, the door opens and there she is, doing a little nervous dance saying, “I can’t believe you’re standing on my porch right now.”

And I think it hit us both at the same time how silly we both were.  NEITHER of us are celebrities, and we’re both in the exact same position.  So we giggled and over the course of about 5 seconds, became the bestest of friends.

Monti is a complex person.  She’s lived an incredibly hard life, from her childhood on a farm in Puerto Rico, to her life as a struggling stand-up comic.  This is what gives her that fierce drive that you can see just exploding out of her on the TV screen.  Instead of letting misfortune and difficulty transform her into a negative, pessimistic person, Monti looks back at her life and transforms it into comedy…she’s got incredible wit and timing, which explains those one-liners on MasterChef that leave us rolling on the floor.

Some of my fans have commented doubtfully about Monti’s line “Kiss my Puerto Rican @ss.”  Monti was born and raised in Puerto Rico.  English is her second language, even though she speaks it more eloquently than most of us who claim it as a first language.  She’s as Latina as David Martinez is Latino.  She developed her classic, timeless look while she was on MasterChef, and it was refreshing to see her in “mommy clothes” when I arrived at her house, with her hair down, relaxed, and down to earth.  (She’s still just as gorgeous without the makeup and the hair pinned up, though!)

If there’s one flaw I can find with Monti, it’s that she doesn’t have a clue how stunning she really is.  She’s not totally buying all the praise being lavished on her by fans about her beauty, even though it’s 100% deserved.  She showed me some photos of herself as a teenage beauty queen, and I honestly believe she’s more of a stunner now, in her 30s, than she was back then.

Monti is a mommy now, and having a young child does tend to interfere with one’s romantic life.  She hasn’t been on a date in years, if you can believe it!  But her child comes first in her life, and that’s incredibly admirable.

Speaking of her child…YES!  Monti’s kid is, in fact, named Danger.  And boy, is it an appropriate name!  That kid is a like a box of weasels with rubber bands around their tails.  And just as smart as he can be.  He turned 3 a few days before I arrived, and he’s already reading.  BOOKS.  He read me a book cover-to-cover and I figured he must have just memorized it from having it read to him so many times, so I pulled one of Monti’s cookbooks off the shelf and he started reading it to me.  Monti lets him watch Japanese cartoons on YouTube, and he also speaks some Japanese.  It’s CRAZY how smart that kid is!  (And he’s been stealing Monti’s cell phone and calling me a few times a day since I got home.  He talks mostly about his toy cars and about alligators.)

Soon, David Martinez and his fabulous wife, B, arrived, after a 20 hour drive straight through from Chicago.  David is moving to Phoenix to get his PhD in Education at Arizona State University.  You may have read my other blurbs about David, but if you haven’t, you’d be surprised to learn that the real life David Martinez and the TV David mah-tu-NEZ, are two completely and utterly different people.  Sort of like Christian Collins from last year.  David is a scholar.  He has a Masters Degree in Education, and will be completing his PhD soon.  His passion is educational support for underprivileged minorities.  He worked for the state of Illinois in this capacity before going on MasterChef.  And his dissertation will deal with the concrete cost of educating minorities, as compared to the down-the-road cost of not educating them.  He has a passion for helping youth elevate themselves from their situations through education.  He is incredibly bright, witty, well-read, and easily one of the most articulate and intelligent people I’ve EVER met.

People have been heaping hate on David via his Facebook and Twitter, and stooping to insults about his race and his size, as well.  One Latina even said something to the effect of “I am ashamed that you are the face of the Latino community on television.”  So everyone is hereby going to STOP being mean to David Martinez.  He’s under MY PROTECTION NOW!

I was eager to meet David based on my own impressions from watching the show, as well as insights into his character from Michael, Tanya, and Christine.  Many of my fans have been wondering why he hasn’t been eliminated from the show yet, based on his performance.  And after talking to him for maybe 30 minutes, I knew the answer.  The guy is a brilliant cook.  He has more food knowledge than many chefs I’ve met.  And it must be obvious to the judges and the producers that this is the case…he just kept stumbling in many of his challenges.  (Though in some challenges, his dishes have been stellar.)  David described it to me this way:

“All artists run into a block, from writers to painters to chefs.  When chefs hit a block, they go wander around France or Italy or somewhere with a legendary cuisine, to get inspired.  It’s a crying shame that my block happened to play out on national television, with cameras in my face, judges in my face, in the heat of competition.”  MasterChef was not a format under which David thrived.  But a few minutes of listening to him talk about food, and then actually tasting his food soon after, made me realize that we’ve completely misunderstood David based on his appearance on the show.

David Martinez is hysterically funny, and when you put him and Monti in the same room, they have this comic energy that just boils over.  We went into the studio where Monti has her morning show and spent 5 hours on the air, and I was just in awe of these two.  They have an effortless stage chemistry that really belongs on the TV screen.  They fight like brother and sister, and in case you didn’t know, they became as close and brother and sister very quickly on the show.  So when you see them screaming at each other, it’s not out of hatred or rivalry…it’s out of that natural chemistry that siblings have that brings out the boxing gloves.

During the morning show, we took calls from fans all over the country and had a blast.  And Monti even devised an “Office Vending Machine Mystery Box Challenge” for us, that the staff at the radio station filmed.  It’s fun, check it out:


Of course, David smeared both me and Monti under the table with his brilliant plating and genius conceptualization.  *giggle*  The judges were pretty harsh, though.

After a long morning on the radio, we were invited to lunch at Hana Japanese Eatery as guests of the owner, Lori.  Lori had recently met Monti and wanted to give us a taste of what she and her chefs (her mother and father-in-law) could do outside their regular menu.  I had eaten at Hana before, which most Phoenix folks consider to be one of the best sushi joints in town.  But the skill and vision of the chefs runs far beyond sushi.  Over a period of probably 3 hours, course after course arrived at the table, from the simplest yet freshest raw whole fish (which we plucked fillets from with our chopsticks, and then they whisked the bones back to the deep fryer and returned them so we could crunch on them with childish abandon), to complex shooters of monkfish liver, bonito flake, caviar, and Meyer lemon.

There was an egg white and dashi custard that was so delicate it evaporated on my tongue, hiding scallop and shrimp and crab meat.  There was tempura lobster tail with a salted black tea for dipping.  Altogether, it was one of the most stunning meals in my life.  So if you’re in Phoenix and want a meal that will blow your mind, go to Hana.  Ask for Lori, the owner, and tell her I sent you.  Tell her how much you’d like to spend on dinner, whether it’s $20 or $200.  And tell her to surprise you.  Trust her.  She and her chefs know WAY MORE than you do.  You don’t need to even look at the menu.  She will make sure you have a mind-boggling experience and leave full, regardless of your budget.  Hana is the kind of restaurant you don’t normally find in a place like Phoenix…they are truly world class.  To read more about Hana, check out my review on Yelp.

After a meal like that, a nap was in order, but not for too long, because we had to start cooking.  Our fundraiser for the Phoenix Children’s Hospital was the next day, and we had to bake some goodies for the raffle!  I got into Monti’s kitchen and started making my legendary Pumpkin Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting and Candied Hazelnuts, while David Martinez started on dinner.  He was making potato flautas with guacamole and salsa roja.  I ended up having to stop baking because it was so amazing watching him cook.  The different ways he prepares garlic alone could fill a book, shaving it, microplaning it, crushing it…each to extract a specific character of flavor from it.

(I forgot to mention earlier that David left MasterChef and went straight into the professional kitchen.  I think only he and Michael Chen did this from Season 3.  David has already interned or “staged” with most of Chicago’s top chefs and done restaurant takeovers that have attracted a huge following amongst the Chicago foodie community…and if you know anything about the food scene in this country, you know that Chicagoans probably have the most educated and sophisticated palates of any city.  David has been asked to personally cater events for several of Chicago’s pro sports teams.  I foresee David becoming one of the most successful chefs of his generation, in the same way I saw that for Adrien Nieto on my season.)

Soon the flautas were finished, and I’m going to pretend I didn’t keep count of how many of those little buggers I ate, because I literally gorged myself.  They were INCREDIBLE.  The first time I’d had flautas that weren’t stuffed with meat.  And I don’t think I can EVER go back.  His salsa was potent, and so good I could have eaten it with a spoon.  And guac?  Easily the best I’ve ever eaten.

I was up baking and cleaning until 3am, long after I forced Monti to get some sleep.  I slept in a bit the next morning while Monti baked her “I Hope He Chokes” caramel crunch apple pie, which is the pie she made that got her on MasterChef.  (Coincidentally, my pumpkin carrot cake is what got ME on MasterChef, and I later got to bake it on the show, as you well know!)  David baked a rustic peach tart and it looked and smelled so good it almost didn’t make it to the car.

And then we were headed to the fundraiser!  We had an incredible turnout, and I have to send a huge thank you to Dave and Busters, and Cold Stone Creamery, for sponsoring the event.  We raised almost $3000 to help kids in need at Phoenix Children’s, and Monti even got to chat with some of the kids she has met through volunteering at the hospital.  Monti has such a big, tender heart, and like me, she believes that the single greatest thing that can come out of MasterChef is the ability to use this exposure to help people in need.  CHECK IT OUT!


Photo courtesy of Dana Gibbons, 3DPhotoAZ.com

It was so amazing meeting the fans and visiting with the kids.  Dana, the amazing fan who offered me a ride from that bizarre little airport out in the middle of nowhere, actually showed up and took some wonderful photos.  If you’re in need of photography services, anything from weddings to pets, check our her business: 3D Photography.

We raffled off lots of great prizes, from a weekend in Sedona, to our own baked goodies.  Lori from Nana came to show her support, and bought WAY too many raffle tickets, and most of them went toward David’s peach gallette, which she thought looked too good to pass up.  And Fate was in her favor!  She couldn’t even wait to get it home, she and her friends devoured it right on the spot!

Exhausted and triumphant after a great fundraiser, Lori suggested we head over to a Thai restaurant nearby, Palee’s Crown, where the owner and chef is one of her mentors, Punee Plubprasit.  You can see her at the far back in this photo.  I am a Thai food connoisseur.  I’ve been to Thailand half a dozen times.   I’ve learned the ins and outs of Thai cuisine in the home kitchens of that amazing country.  But this woman churned out some masterpieces that literally blew my mind.  Unfortunately, after more than 40 years of cooking, Punee is hanging up her chef’s hat and the restaurant will change owners on August 15.  So you’ve got about a week to get there for some of the best Thai food on the planet, including Thailand!  Punee and David talked excitedly about teaching each other the cuisines of their culture, so hopefully some of Punee’s vast trove of knowledge will live on in David’s cuisine!

That night we drank wine and told stories and laughed like we were old friends, having met each other for the first time scarcely 48 hours before.  It’s amazing what shared experience does for people.

But the weekend wasn’t yet over.  Sunday we had been invited to Sweet Republic, an artisan ice cream joint in Scottsdale owned by Helen Yung.  Helen and her business partner are also new friends of Monti, and before September 11, they were high powered financial execs in Manhattan working a block from the World Trade Center.  That catastrophic event was a wake-up call for them both.  Helen went to culinary school, and they ended up in the ice cream business.  And boy, have they make their mark!  On Food Network’s Show The Best Thing I Ever Ate, the incomparable Alton Brown said that that best ice cream he had EVER tasted was from Sweet Republic.  So naturally…I was pretty excited.

We showed up bearing cupcakes and mini apple pies, and Helen plied us with decadent flavors like Honey Bleu Cheese, Cardamom (my favorite spice!), and a Dark Chocolate Sorbet with absolutely NO cream, so dark and bitter and intense that it completely changed the way I look at chocolate.  There’s plain old vanilla, too.  In fact, the first thing I tasted was their vanilla.  (Topped with a bit of candied wasabi root, naturally.)  And let me tell you…WHAT A VANILLA!

Helen, the owner, is in the background of this photo next to me.  You can see Danger in Monti’s lap.  Next to Monti is her sister, Marji.  And in the foreground is David’s amazing wife, B, who is originally from Germany.  (The story of how they met is great…she visited him at his frat house, which was like a normal frat house…an awful mess…and David cooked her a fabulous meal and they fell in love on the spot.)

Coincidentally, Donna won my cake at the raffle!

I left Sweet Republic to take my car back to Sky Harbor Airport, and then my wonderful fan-turned-friend family the Donahues drove half an hour from their home in Mesa to pick me up and take me back to their place for a feast.  Donna is a huge Gordon Ramsay fan, and has been cooking her way through Ramsay’s cookbooks (ie Julie and Julia).  You can follow her adventure on her blog.  Donna and I became Facebook friends after MasterChef, and I met her for the first time several months ago on my way to LA.  She and her husband Chuck are such good people, and boy, do they know how to throw a party!

Donna was making Ramsay’s pork tenderloin stroganoff for dinner, along with local craft brew and  Ramsay’s strawberry granitas, and her legendary Irish Cream cheesecake.  Her daughter Tara helped cook and clean up, also, and is a pretty darn good cook herself!  They had invited family members and several friends from the Phoenix foodie community.  It was all TO-DIE-FOR and we had a blast chatting life and food, and then a glorious hour of down-time while I lounged on her living room floor with her puppies and watched the Olympics.

One of their dinner guests, and a die hard local foodie Zach Garcia was kind enough to drive me to that bizarre little airport out in the middle of nowhere for my midnight flight home.  (Thanks so much, Zach!)

On the ride home, squished into a middle seat (and Spirit’s seats DO NOT RECLINE) I couldn’t help but think how at-home I had felt the entire weekend in Phoenix.  Meeting Monti and David and everyone else was such a refreshing, uplifting experience for me.  Thanks to everyone who showed their support for the Phoenix Children’s Hospital, and made me feel like family.

MasterChef: David’s Response

If you haven’t yet read my blog about the last episode of MasterChef, you might wanna check it out!  I’m about an hour from posting my blog about my weekend in Phoenix with Monti Carlo and David Martinez, but David just submitted a response to my blog about that episode, and it was so raw and powerful, I just had to share it.  Thank you, David, for your eloquent response…it really moved me:

“Where do I start? Thank you all for the support, thank you to Ben Starr for a great weekend, and being amazing enough to write this. Thank you to “Monti” for being an incredible big sister that I so desperately have needed for 32 years. I am a sensitive person, I didn’t realize how sensitive until I met Monti. I needed someone like that in my life. My older brothers taught me to be tough, stand up strong and open doors at the break of hinges. I didn’t realize that assuaging doors open is easier. Thank you to Masterchef and its entire team for allowing me to showcase my skill on center stage. I have been so scared to go into a commercial kitchen because, I went to school. I am deeply in debt and felt scared to not use those pieces of paper I own. I am no longer scared and for that I am grateful. Finally thank you to all the harshest of the harsh critics. It took me a long time to figure out why I was doing so bad on the show and in reading all of the horrible comments, and I do mean horrible, I found out the reason. Its simple really. I have been cooking since I was six. I have since then put out plate after plate of great food. It was time to grow, just like a teenager we all go through our growing pains and it is too bad mine have so far played out on camera. I was blocked by my own ability to think outside of my kitchen. Every chef goes through chefs block, when it happens to the best, they go to the south of France, or Finland, or Bornio. Me, I sat on a stage wilting under the intense scrutiny of the camera unable to hide my errors. I was tired, hung over, over caffeinated and under appreciated. I will not lie it was my lowest culinary point.

Where to go next, ah yes the rice. What a contentious issue huh. Will you or wont you. Fact is early on in the competition we all decided that by hook or crook we wanted the best to continue. We decided we would play this game straight. We decided as a collective that when a person left we would mourn their exit as a friend. We decided that no matter what, we would help each other out, because if you go home it should be by your own hand, not by game play. It was the only way to play this game, you can thank all of us for this. I would walk around and often say, it doesn’t matter if I give you the exact recipe, if you cant execute, you will go home, “by your own hand.” Josh on camera did not raise his hand, in reality he didn’t, he kept his hand down, but guess what, I know, for a fact, 100% because I trust Josh, and I know Josh, that no matter who was missing that rice, if he had it, no matter if he had his hand up or down, he would have given up the rice. At the end of the day, as you saw on camera, according to the court of marsupials, it didn’t matter. My dish was “inedible.” I have never argued one of their decisions, that dish was not perfect, but by no means was it the worst. I stand behind that dish 100% even now. Salt agave caramel, rice pudding with cardamom, clove, cinnamon is a classic combo. Candied pepitas, come on, sounds great. I liked it but I am not part of the opossum Party.

I didn’t taste Felix’s dish, I frankly didn’t even look at it. Do I think I deserved to go home though, no, no way, not that day. If there was ever a day I should have been eliminated, it was the double elimination day. See above all else here is the thing, I wanted the best to continue, I am not a judge though and since I didn’t go home some weeks back, I assumed I didn’t have the worst dish.

The popular opinion is that I should have been sent home because I forgot my rice. How could I squandered this advantage. The show is Masterchef though, not Masterchef advantage taker. I did forget my rice but, would I have sat there and made nothing. No way. I would have made a granita, liquado, atole, corn pudding, corn muffins with a caramel center, corn lava cake, corn tamales with a cinnamon sugar sauce, corn churros. There were dozens and dozens of things I could have made with my basket. Why then did I run around asking for rice? Thats a story for another day.

Finally, Dayvid Mahtines vs David Martinez. These are two completely different people. The former is a shell, a soft person with low moral standard, a person who seems to trip and fall into golden circumstances. The former is a weak cook with little to no skill. Vastly empty cerebral fissures who can not put a coherent thought together. Blubbering, often whining, seemingly interesting and little to no fire inside. The former is a petty, self loathing character.

The latter is intelligent, full of self assurance, confident but never cocky. Little to no fear of the unknown or or failure because of the lesson. The latter walks through live with purpose never looking back on a decision. The latter makes things happen and doesn’t wait until something falls in his lap. The latter has strength and poise, and a fire in his belly for the things he loves, mainly food and music. The latter is well spoken, versed in language and etiquette. Fighter, lover, kind heart and forged in the fire of life.

People who have met me like Tim and Ben are lucky because they get to see behind the looking glass. They get to see behind the camera. When they taste the food they understand why it is an utter disappointment to me why I fell so short. The times I’ve gotten to talk to them it was a blast. I will not defend my time on the show so far because really that isn’t me, I don’t consider that a person, I consider that a character I inadvertently played. Im fine with that. What I will say is how that character affected David Martinez is very real. The harsh criticisms, the untimely jokes, and most of all the utter surprise when people realize I can really cook. I didnt get on because of my good looks, or my awesome smile. I got on because I put out solid food. I went into commercial kitchens and ground out a path. I have a good time on line, and I will continue to have a good time, even while studying for my PhD.

So whats next well we are in the top six. I moved to Phoenix and am wrapping up some last minute media stuff in Chicago. I start school August 23rd and arrive on August 20th for my permanent stay. I will apply at some restaurants and set up my first supper club. It will be a taste of Chicago dinner. I will save and hopefully in a year open my own place in Tempe. I will continue to cook until I reach my culinary goal. As for now I was so moved by the response to this article I had to write something. Thanks Ben and thank you all.”

David, I treasure our new friendship and can’t wait to see what wonders you unleash upon the lucky Phoenix metro area.  And I can’t wait to eat those PHENOMENAL flautas again!!!

Follow David Martinez on Twitter at @FromFireToTable and @MC3David and on Facebook at facebook.com/MC3David and make sure to check out his blog at fromfiretotable.com