Tag Archives: Season 4

MasterChef 4 Recap: Children and Cheesecake (S4E5)

(PLEASE NOTE: This blog is not endorsed or approved by MasterChef or Fox, and they probably would rather you not read it.  The info contained in this blog is exclusively opinions from a former MasterChef survivor who has no inside knowledge of this season or how the show is produced.)

It’s time for the first group challenge of the season, and I remember back to my own first group challenge…feeding the lunch rush in the cafeteria at the LA Times building in downtown LA.  Hundreds and hundreds of people.  None of us had ever cooked for that many people before.  It seemed completely impossible, but somehow we pulled it off.

The show opens with the contestants on a school bus headed to an elementary school, where they learn they have to cook a healthy AND delicious lunch for 301 kids, and the kids will be the judges.  No small order.

Jessie and Jordan are our team captains this time, and they have to pick their teams.  This is where we get to see who the contestants think, at this point, are the strongest contenders, rather than whoever the producers have chosen to feature in the editing thus far.  And, in true form, it’s somewhat of a surprise to us…  Jessie picks first, and she picks Lynn.  Jordan was also going to pick Lynn first.  So it’s pretty obvious who everyone thinks is the strongest, even though Lynn hasn’t been positioned that way by the editing thus far.  So I think it’s a safe bet that Lynn is probably one of the most knowledgeable and capable cooks in the bunch, even if he’s never featured as such.  (And likely one of the friendliest, as well…that makes a huge impact in team challenges.  You want people who are nice and who you can work with.)

To round out her team, Jessie picks Bethy, Beth, Bime, Natasha, Bri, Luca, and Malcolm.

Jordan’s first pick is Savannah, because she’s a school teacher and understands kids, and goes on to select James, Eddie, Jonny, Krissi, Adriana, Howard, and Kathy.

Menus must be selected, and Jessie’s Red Team decides on teriyaki chicken, corn, and a strawberry crumble, while Jordan’s Blue Team will make spaghetti and meatballs, green beans, and apple crisp.

I’m having some horrible flashbacks to my own reality TV battles, cooking for kids.  The first was on Rachael Ray’s “So You Think You Can Cook?” back in 2007.  We were down to the top 3, and were taken to an elementary school to cook the lunch rush for 4th graders.  Officially, the kids were deciding the winner, but the school’s dietician also had some sway.  The protein I was assigned was tilapia, and the vegetables I had to use were zucchini and potato.  I did crunchy fish stix…breading the tilapia in whole wheat cracker crumbs, oven “fries,” and I turned the zucchini into cupcakes with strawberry frosting.  (A stroke of genius, if I do say so, myself!)  I was up against spaghetti with turkey meatballs, and chicken strips, so naturally I had the hardest sell.  The kids didn’t vote in as transparent a way as they do on MasterChef, where you can SEE how they are voting.  They filled out secret ballots which were tabulated by the producers, so WHO KNOWS what the real results were.  But I was axed.

So naturally, when the neighborhood children’s block party challenge came up on MasterChef, I was a bit nervous.  I know EXACTLY how picky kids are.  My sister’s youngest is an aspiring chef, and even HE won’t eat a thing he cooks…he wants McDonalds after he’s finished cooking.  My team ended up cooking chicken nugget sandwiches with homemade ranch dressing and sweet corn fritters with caramel sauce, while the opposing team made turkey burgers and apple slices with caramel sauce.  We won, despite some rants by Gordon that kids in America would never go for something called a “chicken nugget sandwich” and they’d prefer to eat something healthier.  (Sometimes that beautiful man lives on his own planet where it’s always Opposite Day.)

I gotta admit, Jordan’s team has the upper hand, at least in terms of the protein.  If they can pull off meatballs for 301 kids, they’ll easily win.  But that’s a LOTTA meatballs, and I immediately wondered how they’re gonna hand-roll 600 meatballs in an hour and 45 minutes.  At 15 seconds per meatball (a VERY fast pace), that’s 150 minutes of meatball rolling, and even if he devotes 6 of his 9 team members to that, that’s half an hour just to get the meatballs formed.  Then you gotta cook ’em, and that’s a LOT of meatballs to cook all the way through on the flat top.  Literally impossible.

The cooking begins, and both teams immediately have trouble.  Jordan’s team is discovering what I feared…there’s just not enough time to prep so many meatballs.  Jessie’s team has all their chicken crammed onto one of their two flat tops, and all the liquid cooking out is boiling the chicken, rather than searing it.  (Commercially produced chicken is “enhanced” with a “broth” of delicious sodium phosphate, generally up to 15% of its own weight, so when you cook it, that nasty stuff comes out in the pan.)  Jessie’s team is also having trouble getting their teriyaki “gravy” just right.

While the contestants are fixing their dishes, Gordon goes to hang out with the kids.  This may be the ONLY time the audience gets a true glimpse of what Gordon Ramsay is like when there aren’t any cameras around.  He becomes the big, fun, happy teddy bear that he truly is.  I love seeing Gordon interacting with kids.  He also learns an interesting lesson…kids don’t know what chicken teriyaki is, apparently.

Time is called and an ocean of screaming children are headed in a massive wave toward the contestants’ tables.  James remarks, “This is my nightmare.  This is the day I die.”  I know how he feels.

The kids taste the food and are typically picky.  One kid pouts, “The blue team’s green beans bent my fork.”  Jordan is out working the crowds and establishing rapport with the kids…which is EVERYTHING when you serve kids.  If they like you, they’ll vote for you, whether your food was good or not.  (We used this tactic to great advantage on my season.)

Jessie’s Red Team is having trouble keeping up, and some plates are not getting filled, which will probably mean automatic votes for Jordan’s Blue Team, which appear to be filling ALL the plates.  (That could be preferential editing, of course.)  The judges prefer the Red Team’s menu, but the editing is indicating that the kids prefer the Blue Team.  However, when it’s time to vote, it’s clearly the Red Team that wins.

I’m always intrigued by this method of kids’ voting.  When the kids run toward which team they like, the producers have absolutely NO control over the judging.  In most other group judging scenarios, they can retain control over results, but not when the kids run to their favorite team.  It must be a scary thing for them to NOT have control over the results, when they normally have careful control over them.

So Jordan’s Blue Team is headed to a pressure test, and Krissi is PISSED and naturally blames Jordan.  It’s always easiest to blame the leader.  Back in the MC kitchen, the judges reveal that only 6 of the 9 team members will participate in the pressure test, and Jordan gets to choose which 3 to save.  He picks Howard and James, and then Joe announces that he can choose to save himself, if he wants.

Increasingly, the producers are putting contestants in these unique moral experiments.  Part of me is very intrigued to see how people respond in such intense situations, but they often bring out the worst in people, unfortunately.  (And it’s also WILDLY unfair to break up a team for a pressure test and let some be safe.  The WHOLE TEAM should participate in the pressure test.  Every time.  Period.  This is a cooking show.  Not a strategy game.  People should be cooking.)

Jordan saves himself, naturally.  I wonder how many of his teammates would have made that same choice?  What would YOU have done?  As I’ve mentioned before, I’d pick whoever I thought would be MOST challenged by the pressure test, to give them the best chance of staying.  When my team lost the Hollywood Cocktail Party challenge, I could tell, based on the ingredients out in the kitchen, that the pressure test would be baking, so I asked my team who was least comfortable with baking, in order to decide who to save.  Personally, I can’t ever imagine saving myself above my teammates…I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.  That’s not because I’m a good person.  It’s because I’m a spineless coward and I’d be terrified to face them the next day knowing I had saved myself.

My best friend J-P loves to debate this issue with me.  He considers anyone who WOULDN’T save themselves as weak and foolish.  He believes it’s a competition, and you do whatever it takes to win.

To me, “winning” doesn’t necessarily mean getting the trophy.  It means acting with integrity, doing your best to help everyone, doing no harm to anyone, and performing to the top of your ability.  I guess therein lies the difference.

Krissi has some choice words for Jordan when he heads upstairs.  “Captain goes down with the ship,” she finishes.  I wonder if she would have saved herself if she was in the same position.  My gut tells me no.  I think she’s too stubborn to take the easy pass, and would stay and cook to prove a point.  I like Krissi.  I know some of you are turned off by her crassness.  But to me, she comes across as being VERY genuine…very real.  What you see is what you get.  She’s not keeping any secrets.  She’s not humoring anyone.  She grew up in a rough part of town, she struggles as a single mom every day, and she don’t take sh-t from no one.  I think her “rudeness” is more jokey than real, like Christian from my season.  Half the stuff he said that was edited as rude insults were actually jokes, pulled out of context.

So the pressure test is a cheesecake challenge.  I don’t know what it is about MasterChef pressure tests, but they are ALWAYS made for me.  If there was ever a show that was ONLY MasterChef pressure tests, I’d totally do it.  My best performances on MasterChef were always the pressure tests.  And this one would have been no different…except for one small thing.  You can’t bake a cheesecake in 90 minutes.  You can’t.  It’s impossible.  Don’t ever try it.  If you see a cheesecake recipe that says it can be accomplished in 90 minutes, look for a different one.  YOU CAN’T BAKE A GOOD CHEESECAKE IN 90 MINUTES.  Period.

Cheesecake needs to be baked low and slow to prevent it from cracking, to prevent the sides from rising and the center from sinking, and to result in a light, airy, moussey texture.  I bake my cheesecakes at 200 degrees for 6-8 hours.  The only faster way to properly bake a cheesecake is inside a water bath, which can be REALLY tricky with a springform pan, because the water can seep into the joints on the pan and soak the crust.  So you have to use a solid form pan when baking in a water bath, which means the cheesecake has to FULLY chill for several hours before you can remove it from the pan in one piece…

Are you getting that you can’t make cheesecake in 90 minutes?  It’s not possible.  At least not possible to make a PROPER cheesecake.  Commercial bakeries and the Cheesecake Factory add synthetic binders, like guar gum and xanthan gum, to their cheesecake batter to allow them to bake them more rapidly but still hold together.  The MasterChef contestants are baking thinner cheesecakes, but I can guarantee you the texture won’t be right.

You can also see many of them pouring the batter into the pans and there are big lumps in there.  This is another tricky aspect to cheesecake baking.  The batter has to be velvet smooth, which means extended beating, but on VERY low speed, because the more air you whip into the batter, the greater the chance that the cheesecake will rise high during the initial stages of baking as the air bubbles in the batter expand.  If you’re baking a high temperature (325-350 is VERY high for a cheesecake), the edges set quickly at that high level…but as the center of the cake bakes more slowly, it gives those air bubbles time to collapse, which causes the center of the cheesecake to fall.  (This is such a common error that we’re accustomed to seeing cheesecakes that look like that and consider it “normal.”  But it’s not right.  A proper cheesecake is perfectly flat across the top.  Some recipes then call for spreading a sour cream topping on to level everything out.  But that’s cheating.)

I’m not sure what pantry options were available, but I’d probably make my legendary pumpkin cranberry swirl cheesecake, or perhaps my chocolate espresso cheesecake.  I’ve never been wild about fresh fruit cheesecakes, for some reason.

Krissi is first for judging, and she admits in the beginning that the cheesecake fell.  That means too much air in the batter, too high a baking temp, and too little time in the oven.  (But, again, when you’ve only got 90 minutes, you can’t make a real cheesecake.)  Her cheesecake has raspberry topping and chocolate covered raspberry “bombs.”  I wonder if she tempered the chocolate covering the raspberries.  The chocolate is “sweating” which means the cheesecake was stored in the fridge (probably courtesy of the culinary team during the “beauty shot” phase) so it’s not possible to tell if the chocolate was tempered.  If it just came out of the fridge…the chocolate will be hard, regardless.  The judges love her cheesecake, and Joe says it has lots of “restraint.”  (Not quite sure what that means, but I’ll attempt to make my next cheesecake with restraint and see how it turns out.)

Jonny is next, with his pineapple “Foster” cheesecake.  I’m not entirely sure what he means by that, probably he flambeed the pineapple in rum or cognac, the way “Bananas Foster” is prepared, but the “Foster” in that title doesn’t refer to the preparation, it refers to the dude the dessert was named after.  Joe says his cheesecake is like a “lumberjack trying to do a pirouette” and is confused by the excess crust, and the pineapple, which has a “fibrous” texture that is detracting from the delicacy that a proper cheesecake should have.

Kathy is next, with her cheesecake topped with blueberry and blackberry compote.  Graham loves it, because she apparently put a decent amount of lemon in the batter, giving it a nice bite of acidity…VERY important in a rich dish like cheesecake.  (Thus the cranberries in my pumpkin cranberry cheesecake, and the heavy dose of espresso in the white chocolate espresso cheesecake.  You HAVE to have acidity in your cheesecake, or it’s so rich it’s hard to eat.)

Eddie presents his vanilla bean cheesecake with mixed berry compote, and he forgot to strain his berries after he cooked them, so the juice has drenched the cheesecake filling.  Still, the flavors are excellent, so he’s safe.

Savannah has a salted caramel cheesecake with hazelnut almond brittle and honey whipped cream.  Wow, Savannah!  Sounds amazing.  Unfortunately, her crust is too thick and the topping is too sweet, which she admits after tasting it.  Bravo for your honesty, girl.

Last up is Adriana, who has probably become my favorite after Sasha Foxx left.  She’s both adorable and stunning at the same time.  Her food always looks great to me, and she seems as sweet as honey.  Before he even tastes the cheesecake, Gordon lights into her for using guava paste rather than fresh fruit.  Apparently, Gordon has never even TASTED guava paste before.  (“There’s something really weird about canned guava,” he says.)  Guava paste is a STAPLE in Latin American cooking, from Mexico all the way south to Brasil and Argentina.  (I have about 4 pounds of it in my pantry right now.)  Adriana probably grew up with it.  It’s a VERY versatile ingredient, and it’s delicious.  Guavas have a very delicate flavor and are peppered with large round seeds that make it very challenging to eat a guava.  (You either have to swallow the hard seeds, or spit them out.)  So there’s no way to elegantly eat a guava.  Guava paste is the answer…the juices are strained out, the seeds discarded, and then they are cooked down and concentrated, and set with gelatin.  This results in an INTENSE guava flavor that you’d never get from fresh guava alone.  So in the sophisticated kitchen, guava paste is a SUPERIOR ingredient to fresh guava.  I’m completely flabbergasted that the judges aren’t familiar with it and are criticizing her for using a very quintessential Latin American ingredient.  But they find other things wrong with her cake…Joe says the crust is like sand.  (Another news flash…cheesecakes are often made with the traditional French pastry pâte sablée which directly translates as “sandy pastry.”  Michel Roux, Gordon’s big chef competition in the UK and the first chef there to get 3 Michelin stars, makes ALL his cheesecakes with sandy crust.)

Nevertheless, they axe Adriana.  Man…my favorites are not being treated kindly by the judges.  I’ll try to stop having favorites from now on, it’s apparently a curse.

Adriana Guillen, you were a breath of fresh air.  And I know a LOT of folks who would love to meet you and cook with you.  I hope our paths cross someday.

Bookmark Adriana’s lovely website, where she has some amazing Mexican recipes which are primarily vegetarian.  Like her Facebook page, follow her on Twitter, and send her a message to wish her all the best!  And comment below about what YOU thought about this episode!

MasterChef 4 Recap: Potatoes and Langoustines (S4E4)

(PLEASE NOTE: This blog is not endorsed or approved by Fox or MasterChef.  All information contained in this blog is limited to my personal opinions and should not be treated as fact or “inside knowledge.”)

So our top 19 enter the MasterChef kitchen for the very first time.  (It’s 19 at this point, but a fan points out that there were actually 20 in the core group after the last series of eliminations…a “mystery guy” dressed in black who we’re not introduced to, and who does not enter the MasterChef kitchen.  Wonder what happened there!?)

Entering the MasterChef kitchen for the first time is hyped as one of the most stunning moments one can experience.  It was more terrifying than exciting for me.  It looks gleaming and perfect on screen, but the set itself looks very different when you’re on it.  First off, there’s a snarl of scaffolding and studio lights above you that you never see on screen.  And surrounding the studio on 2 sides are dozens of cameras, a massive crane camera, the production staff…so when you’re in there, it doesn’t look anything like what you see on your TV screen.  Another thing you don’t experience by watching…the heat.  This is a warehouse in LA that has been retrofitted into a television studio.  The a/c barely works, and you’ve got 19 ovens going (preheated to 350F before EVERY challenge so they are instantly ready), and studio lights blaring overhead.  The heat is overwhelming.

Right off the bat, my fave Sasha Foxx notices the new VIP section (added AFTER my season, dernit) and says, “I see a restaurant, a nice plush VIP section.  Cuz you know I’m a VIP-type girl so I’m familiar with those type of areas.”  She kills me.  There are VIP areas now both outside the studio and inside, so we can watch more cat fighting between contestants as they decompress before and after challenges.  That was implemented in season 3.  Our VIP section was a tent in the parking lot outside the studio, full of folding chairs, that was ice cold in the morning and evening, and blistering hot during the day.  Grf…

And it’s time for the first mystery box of the season.  I hated mystery boxes because, on MY season, we were limited exclusively to what was under the box…typically 7 or 8 ingredients.  In Season 3 they began implementing a “staples pantry” that could be used with any mystery box, which made me endlessly jealous.  Now the contestants, for EVERY mystery box challenge, have access to the following ingredients: heavy cream, eggs, butter, sugar, flour, fresh herbs, lemons, baking powder, vanilla bean, and some basic spices.  I can work with that!  But when you limit me to the 8 ingredients under the box and never give me any flour or eggs, my brain goes haywire.  At home, I ALWAYS have my staples.  Toss me a mystery box in my home kitchen, and I’ll make you a masterpiece, because I have all my staples.  So, for all you Season 3 and Season 4 peeps…you had it MADE.  In the OLD days of MasterChef, we had to scrape by…

Now it’s time to reveal what’s under the mystery box, and I just can’t tell you how excruciating it is in those moments before you lift it.  Because Ramsay LOVES to play tricks on you.  First he makes the cast guess what’s under the box, or volunteer what they HOPE is under there.  He drags it out for like 10 minutes until you’re ready to go insane.  What a jerk!  (Hahahaha…  Ramsay knows exactly how much I adore him, and I’d have done the same in his shoes, every single time.)  He also loves to say, “Be CAREFUL when you lift that box.  I don’t want anyone to get bit, because what’s under there is alive.”  I can’t count the number of times he said that.

And under the box is…4 ingredients only.  Bacon, a potato, a tomato, and some dark chocolate.  A VERY interesting box.  It made me laugh out loud when I saw it.  What a great first box!  A delicious prank, almost.  Really?!?  But how cool to see what everyone is gonna do with such a bare selection of ingredients.

Breakfast is my FAVORITE meal, I made it in many MasterChef challenges, and I make it almost every day at home.  (Granted…around noon.)  No question about it, this would be a breakfast challenge for me.  First thing, the tomato gets quartered and goes into a 400 degree oven with olive oil, s&p to cook down and concentrate those flavors.  Bacon is rendering in the pan to get that valuable fat.  Milk gets heated gently with lemon juice and salt to make paneer, a quick fresh cheese, which gets strained in a colander with a paper towel for the duration of the challenge…to be plated at the last minute.  The potato gets diced and goes into a pot of boiling water with a bit of baking powder in it.  This causes the starch granules on the outside of the potato to explode, setting up you for creating the crispiest potatoes you’ve ever had.  After a 2 minute blanch, the potatoes get strained and go back into an empty pot to dry them out, then in goes butter and bacon fat and it all gets stirred vigorously until each cube of potato is coated in sticky, pasty starch.  Then they go onto a baking sheet with olive oil and butter and into the 400F oven with the tomatoes to begin turning golden and impossibly crispy!  The chocolate is the most important part.  It goes into my mouth hole while I’m cooking.  The eggs get poached, of course.  Such an elegant and luxurious way to feature eggs, especially in a very simple dish with limited ingredients, because it turns into the richest sauce for those potatoes.  And even though poaching eggs is laughably simple (I have NO idea why people make such a big deal out of it), the perfect poached egg brings even Joe Bastianich to his knees.  The egg is, without a doubt, the most extraordinary ingredient known to mankind.  As the potatoes crisp up, I toss them with some garlic powder from the staples box and get them seasoned well.  The potatoes go on the plate with the roasted tomatoes from the oven, along with some fresh thyme.  A big nest of the fresh paneer, then the poached egg on top of it, finished with bacon crumbles.  That would have been MY mystery box.  And I’ll tuck into that any day!

The standouts for me during this challenge were:

Jordan, with his spicy potato puree, “sundried” tomatoes (looks like he was cooking them in a pan to concentrate the juices), a quick sauce that plays on the flavors of mole, and a spicy bacon sauce.  Sounds interesting…like something Alvin Schultz would make.

Savannah, with her Spanish tortilla-inspired frittata and bacon tomato marmalade.  If you’re from Texas, like me, “tortilla” is a flat disk made of either flour or corn, that wraps up ingredients in a taco.  In Spain, however, “tortilla” is a dish of thinly sliced potatoes cooked with eggs.  She’s turning that into a frittata, an Italian omelet baked in a pan, which also often has potatoes in it.  I’d love to taste her bacon tomato marmalade!

Krissi, with her frittata that appears to have crispy potato hash baked into it.  Looks yummy.

(Pause here, because lots of folks are turning out frittatas.  Frittatas are one of the most fabulous ways to make a quick breakfast.  If you’re not familiar with how to make them, you just take WHATEVER THE HECK you have in your fridge…leftover chopped onions or peppers or squash, sliced tomatoes, potatoes cooked ANY way, some bacon or sausage or ham or chicken or ANY meat…leftover casserole…saute in a cast iron skillet in some bacon fat or butter…then pour in well-seasoned beaten eggs.  Stir it a bit, and then let it cook over medium heat until the eggs are cooked about halfway up from the bottom of the pan.  Then sprinkle some cheese on top and immediately transfer to the top 1/3 of a preheated 400F oven and let it cook until the eggs begin to puff up and the cheese is golden brown and crisp.  Remove it and let it sit for 5 minutes to settle, then slice and serve.  It’s like a quiche with no crust.  It’s effortless, a great way to use up leftovers, and really, really yummy.)

Natasha has blown my mind with her lemon tart that looks like it was just pulled off the shelf of a patisserie in Paris.  Ballsy, to throw together a tart in 1 hour and expect it to set up.  I wonder if she used cornstarch or flour to set the pastry cream, or if she used something molecular/Modernist?  Her whipped cream is scented with vanilla bean, and she has made a bacon chocolate ganache by emulsifying the rendered bacon fat into the chocolate.  (Bacon and chocolate go really well together…especially white chocolate.  You don’t have to search very far these days to find a gourmet chocolate bar with bacon in it.)  Though I will admit, I’m still not too keen on chocolate and citrus together.  I know it’s a popular combination, but it still makes me squeamish.

Bime‘s dish is very similar to what I’d have made, which makes me think I’d love to eat at his table.  And despite the fact that it’s a very humble dish, his plating makes it look INCREDIBLY sophisticated.  Bethy has apparently been a very busy bee and made both gnocchi AND bread across a 1 hour challenge, and I’m kinda upset we didn’t get to see the results.  That’s some crazy stuff right there, Bethy, I’m impressed.  Gordon seems worried about a few people, primarily Jonny, who has made chocolate mashed potatoes, and Howard, who hasn’t yet figured out what he’s making when Gordon takes a peek at his chocolate-covered bacon.  (Which IS popular, too, but if you don’t carefully temper that chocolate, it’s not going to set up around the bacon.  Chocolate has to be melted very precisely to a specific temperature for its crystals to link up and set back firmly to the point that it will be crisp at room temperature.)

Now it’s time for tasting, and that normally means only the top 3 dishes are featured and tasted…though the judges have been watching and tasting throughout the challenge.  The overview shows some VERY impressive plating amongst the top 19.  Each season, the food looks more and more professional.  (Plating was, and still is, my weakest point in the kitchen.)

The top 3 dishes belong to Bime, Natasha, and Krissi.  And somehow, a rivalry between Krissi and Natasha has already presented itself.  (On my season, people didn’t decide who they didn’t like for at least a few challenges!)  The producers LOVE it when contestants don’t get along, and they’re having Joe stoke the fire by telling Natasha to say “kiss my ass” to her competitors.

You all know how I feel about this stuff.  In a competition, it’s ALWAYS best to retain your integrity.  It doesn’t make you a stronger competitor to intimidate or tease your fellow contestants.  It doesn’t increase your chances of winning to bicker and fight with your contestants.  It doesn’t make you a stronger competitor to brag out loud about who you can beat.  It doesn’t give you character points when you gloat over a fellow contestant’s failure.  All it does is make you look like a child.  The TRUE winner supports his fellow contestants and wants them to perform at the top of their abilities, so that if you win over them, you won fairly.  It’s only a good win when everyone plays at the top of their game.  I have no idea why America seems to love watching people berate themselves with this kind of disgusting, despicable behavior.  But the producers believe that’s what we want to see, so they encourage it.  And, more and more, they are deliberately casting people who they know will readily engage in such immature behavior with glee.  MasterChef is heading the way of Hell’s Kitchen, which is still about the most popular cooking show on TV these days, and for the life of me, I can’t imagine why.  I can barely sit through a Hell’s Kitchen commercial, much less a full episode.  But I am apparently the minority, so I’ll shut up…after I remind you not to hate on the contestants when they get bitchy with each other.  Much of this is encouraged by the producers, comments can be pulled out of context and edited in at other times that make them seem more volatile, and you can NEVER be the judge of someone’s character by watching how they are edited on reality TV.

The judges are as impressed as I am by Natasha’s tart.  Joe especially loves Krissi’s frittata and even says it’s as good as his MOTHER’S.  (Joe’s mother is the great television chef Lidia Bastianich, who was the Italian equivalent of Julia Child and brought Italian home cooking into the everday American kitchen.)  If Joe is a true Italian…and I believe he is…he would NEVER compare something to his mother’s cooking if it wasn’t truly that good.  That may be the best compliment I’ve ever heard Joe bestow in ANY MasterChef season.  Hearing him say a dish was so good he’d be proud to serve it in a restaurant is one thing.  But for an Italian to say, “That’s as good as my mother’s” is rarely, if ever, heard…especially not when your mother is one of the most famous Italian chefs alive.

And the winner is…Natasha.  Obviously.  A solid call.  While the other plates looked yummy and there was some definite finesse in plating (especially by Bime and a few others who didn’t make the top 3), Natasha pulled off some VERY sophisticated techniques across the hour…pastry crust, lemon curd, tempering chocolate emulsified with bacon fat.  Pretty darn impressive, Natasha.  EVEN if you are beautiful!  Ha ha ha… And you can stop saying that, by the way, we all know you’re beautiful, but a person’s beauty can be inversely proportionate to the number of times they tell us how beautiful they are!  It is QUITE obvious from your performance that you are a major contender for the title.  Not many people can whip up a picture-perfect pastry that quickly under that much pressure.

So Natasha heads back to the MasterChef pantry to find out her advantage for the next challenge, which is “sophisticated ingredients.”  The 3 ingredients are:

Langoustines – These tiny members of the lobster family look more like big shrimp or crawfish than a lobster.  For the life of me, I never understood the obsession with lobster.  Especially big lobsters.  Lobster meat is tough and relatively tasteless unless you drench it in garlic butter.  Claw meat is passably good, but lobster certainly doesn’t deserve its reputation as the most indulgent of seafoods.  Langoustines, however, are everything that lobster are not.  Tender, succulent, and delicious.  And challenging to cook, like ALL shellfish, as most people dramatically overcook them.  A minute or two of high heat is all that’s needed to cook shrimp, scallops, oysters, clams, mussels, and langoustines.  These little guys are ruinously expensive because they ONLY live in the cold waters of the Atlantic and North Sea in Europe.  Nowhere else.  So for them to make the big journey across the pond to your grocery store while still fresh means they’re gonna be pricey.

Veal Chops – One of the most controversial of meats, veal is simply young cow that has been slaughtered typically before it reaches 6 months of age.  The big controversy over veal that started in the 80s happened when photographs were released of a veal farm that tethered its calves so that they could barely move around, in an effort to keep the meat tender.  (Which is sorta silly…the meat is always gonna be tender in an animal that young, especially the normally-tender cuts like the tenderloin chop.  It’s only gonna be tough if you overcook it.)  Milk-fed veal tends to be very pale in color, almost like pork, and is the most common type found.  Progressive farmers are now raising “pastured veal” where the calves drink milk from their mother AND eat grass and grains along with their mother, resulting in darker meat and fuller flavor.  I was never crazy about veal because it simply doesn’t have that beef flavor I like.  It’s too mild, too tender, and TOO EXPENSIVE!  And if it bothers you that the calf was slaughtered at such an early age…don’t be.  Under most commercial agricultural conditions, it’s merciful to end a calf’s life before it goes to the feedlot to be crammed in with tens of thousands of other cows, fed only corn which its digestive system was never designed to eat, giving it constant gastric upset, before being slaughtered in an industrial factory.  To me, veal is FAR more humanely raised than beef.

Stilton – This king of British blues is one of the most expensive cheeses in the world and is produced exclusively by a handful of dairies in central England.  The name is officially protected, so if you’re not one of the five dairies that are recognized as a Stilton dairy, you have to call your cheese something else, even if it’s made by the exact same recipe.  (I’m making Stilton right now, it’s ageing in my cheese fridge, but if I sell it, I can’t legally call it Stilton.)  Stilton is a very pungent cheese, similar to Roquefort and Gorgonzola.  It is made by gently ladling curds from cow’s milk that have been inoculated with the bacteria penicillium roqueforti into a cylindrical mold and allowing gravity to gently squeeze the whey out of the curds over time.  Then the cheese is aged, and unlike many cheeses, Stilton is strongest and crumbliest when it’s younger, with the vast majority sold at 9 weeks of age.  Further ageing makes it softer and milder, both of which are unusual for hard cheeses.  The wheel Gordon presents has a market value of around $1,000.  (Anyone ready to get into cheese making?!?)  I’m actually LOVING making cheese at home.  It’s not easy, but it’s incredibly fulfilling.

Natasha’s advantage is that she doesn’t have to cook, and she gets to pick which ingredient everyone is cooking with.  Personally, I’d WANT to cook, and I’d pick Stilton.  Alvin Schultz, who watched this episode with me, said he’d do a Stilton souffle, which sounds amazing.  I would repeat a dish we served at FRANK during our Valentine’s Day chocolate feast…a savory chocolate hazelnut soup with Stilton croutons on top.  Bleu cheeses and dark chocolate are absolutely divine together.  If you’ve never tried them together, you must.  This pairing was a massive revelation for so many of our diners that weekend.

Natasha chooses langoustines, because she knows they are very easy to mess up, and at least the way it’s edited, she says she picks it specifically to toss Krissi out of the competition, because she thinks she’s not familiar with it.  Further, she gets to save one contestant from having to cook, and she chooses Savannah, because she’s confident she can beat her later on.

Each time I was called upon to “save” someone in MasterChef, I always picked the person I thought would be MOST disadvantaged by that challenge.  On MasterChef, one day you may be cooking with an ingredient you love, and the next you could be working with something you’re clueless about.  In that instance, it’s not fair for you to be eliminated simply because of unfamiliarity with the ingredient, especially if you’re a fabulous cook in every other challenge.  So rather than pick someone I thought I could beat later on, I picked someone I thought still deserved to be there, but who would be terrified of that particular challenge.  I feel like that’s the sportsman-like thing to do.  I’m a little fed up with contestants scheming to win…making selfish choices to keep themselves in the game.  That may be how the American game is played.  But it’s not the way the HUMAN game is played.  True, you may win MasterChef, or Survivor, or The Apprentice by being cut-throat, taking every advantage you can, and strategically trying to sabotage your contestants.  But you win with no dignity, and you only have the respect of other brutal, conniving people like yourself.  What is life with success, a title, and money…without the love and respect of your peers?  I’ll take last place with love ANY DAY OF THE WEEK.  Or how about winning with dignity and support for your fellow contestants?!?  What a novel idea!  (Natasha, this rant was not directed at you, dear, it’s a generic rant that I go off on EVERY time I watch reality TV, and it won’t be the last time I do it this MC season.)

Immediately I’m worried for my gal Sasha Foxx, who has never heard of langoustines and says, “What?  Alouaa hooa?”

The hour begins, and I’d be making langoustine red curry…red chili paste, shallots, coconut milk, lime leaves, lemongrass, fish sauce, scallion tops, maybe some baby eggplant if there was any in the pantry.  With a base of stock made from the langoustine shells, sauteed in olive oil and pressure cooked for 20 minutes.  Maybe with a side of pickled slaw with smoked langoustine meat, because curry is a quick fix.

Judging begins and we see 9 dishes out of the 17 that are cooked.  There’s simply not time in an episode to show 17 dishes being judged.  And on the day the challenge is filmed, think about this…once the dish is completed and time is called, the cast vacates the set so that each dish can be filmed and photographed “hot and fresh” before it begins to dry out, get cold, curdle, etc.  Let’s assume the crew is really efficient and takes only 3 minutes to film the “beauty shot” of each dish.  That’s 51 minutes of filming beauty shots.

After this is finished, the cast comes back onto the set for judging.  EVERY dish is evaluated in an elimination challenge, and each judge evaluates each dish.  Let’s give each judge 2 minutes for the dish (normally it takes longer), which means 6 minutes per dish…17 dishes takes 102 minutes.  So if you’re the unlucky last person to be tasted, your seafood dish has been sitting around for a MINIMUM of 2 and a half hours at room temperature.  And the judges still eat it.  Ah, the magic of television!

First up is Krissi with her langoustine mac and cheese.  Howard had really challenged her earlier, saying, “Shellfish doesn’t go with mac and cheese.”  Come on, Howard…I’ve eaten lobster mac and cheese in San Diego a dozen times!  It’s wildly popular, and incredibly delicious…I know you’ve seen it.  The judges love her version, but if you look closely, you can see through some of this TV magic, as her cheese sauce has solidified and gone grainy while sitting around.  (No way to prevent this, so I’m not knocking you Krissi, just pointing out that all dishes on MasterChef are tasted when they’re far past their prime.)  Alvin points out that Gordon makes “yet another reference to Krissi’s ass.”

Next is Jordan, whose VERY elegantly presented langoustine bisque has the judges stunned.

Howard is next up, and his salad of langoustine, grapefruit, and mango sounds lovely, but it’s so simple and small that it offends the judges and they refuse to eat it.  Gordon demands to know what he was doing for an hour, when he presents raw salad components that take moments to prep, langoustine which takes mere minutes to cook, and a dressing Howard wants to focus on, but that Gordon can’t find on the plate.  “You know I’m not a rabbit, but you feed me rabbit hutch food,” says Gordon.  Joe throws it away.

Luca presents his langoustine pasta, and the judges proclaim him a 1-trick pony for sticking to Italian yet again.  (I didn’t hear them proclaiming Whitney Miller a 1-trick pony when she stuck with what she knew in every challenge: simple, delicious Southern food.)  His langoustine is supposedly overcooked, but we can’t taste it, so there’s no telling if that’s legit, or for drama.

Lynn is next to present, with a really stunning dish that I’d LOVE to try.  Poached langoustine with lime beurre blanc (a sauce made from butter and wine), coconut, pine nuts, roasted beets, and a cripsy kale chip.  Way to show your fellow contestants how to maximize productivity during your hour, Lynn…that’s a LOT of complexity on the plate.  The judges agree.  Impressive, Lynn.

Next is Kathy, with boiled langoustine, yellow rice, and avocado.  Joe says it’s boring, but I’ve been intrigued by Kathy’s flavors thus far.  It was simple, but I’ll bet it was good.

Now comes my lovely Sasha Foxx, who’s gonna “keep it Southern with langoustine and cheese grits.”  The judges seem perplexed by the combination, though lobster and cheese grits, and shrimp and cheese grits, are staples throughout the South and are gooooooood.  Unfortunately, she’s plated the langoustine all broken down into little bits, which sort of destroys the elegance of this premium meat.  Gordon says, “Looks like someone pooped on the plate,” and says it “doesn’t taste nice at all.”  Joe thanks her for “nothing.”  Personally, I wonder what it tasted like, because Sasha can obviously cook Southern food, and my gut tells me it tasted great…it just may not have been the most elegant presentation.

Beautiful Jessie is next, and she has tempura fried her langoustine tails…which can be a dangerous move, as frying any premium meat is often considered the coursest, cheapest way to prepare it.  She presents it with shiitake mushrooms and rainbow chard, and the judges go nuts.  Joe says it’s one of the most delicious langoustines he’s ever tasted!

Next up is Malcolm, who presents stuffed langoustine tail on pasta.  Joe spits it out, and Gordon claims he broke a cardinal rule by stuffing the langoustine tail.  (I scanned through all my seminal culinary texts and couldn’t find this cardinal rule documented anywhere.  It’s perfectly fine to stuff langoustine tail.)  He clarifies later by saying that Malcolm didn’t understand the ingredient, so he shouldn’t have taken such a risk.

The judges declare the winner to be Jessie, with Jordan as a close runner up, making them the team leaders for the next challenge.  For the record, Lynne’s dish was the most intriguing to me.

The bottom 3 are Malcolm, Howard, and Sasha…and the blow falls to…Sasha Foxx.

She has entered the distinguish group of stunning women of color who have been the first to be eliminated on EVERY MasterChef season, from Avis White on Season 1, to Angel Moore-Soukkay on Season 2, to Samantha de Silva on Season 3.  (Bizarre coincidence, huh?  Thanks to fan Elliot Kim for noticing this.)

Sasha…no offense to any of the other contestants, but you were my favorite this season, and it’s hard for me to lose you this fast.  You were sassy, sexy, and wildly hysterical.  You’re the kind of woman who will ALWAYS have it all, because you love who you are, and you love life.  Follow Sasha on her non-MasterChef Twitter and like her Facebook page so you don’t miss anything from this one-in-a-million ladies.

BIG stuff coming in the next few weeks, including a series on where-are-they-now for former favorites from seasons 1-3, as well as a fascinating blog from a top-100 contestant who was persuaded to appear on MasterChef, rather than having to audition, because of a unique skill she possessed.  Subscribe to my blog in the upper right corner of your screen so you don’t miss a post!  And please comment below on what you thought about this episode!

MasterChef 4 Recap: Auditions #1 and #2

(PLEASE NOTE: This blog is not endorsed or approved by Fox or MasterChef, and they would probably prefer you not read it.  The blog entry solely reflects my opinions about MasterChef, having been a former contestant.  I do not have any inside knowledge of how MasterChef is produced.)

Here I am, 2 weeks after the premier of MasterChef season 4, just beginning to blog about the season.  I promise things will be more prompt as we go forward!  (However, my DVR hiccuped on last week’s episodes, so that blog may be a few days’ delayed while I find someone with a copy.)

I have to admit, I was loath to start watching this season.  The farther I get away from my own MasterChef experience, the more hesitant I am to continue identifying, and thus defining, myself with the brand.  While, it’s true, they do introduce new and exciting twists each season that get more and more ridiculously complex, I have to admit…I’m a little bored.  Luckily, the fan base doesn’t seem to be, as I’ve been poked and pestered for my blog for the past 2 weeks!  So we’ll see how this season goes.

The opening format is exactly the same.  From thousands of live auditions around the country, 100 home cooks have been brought to Los Angeles, and in theory they are the “best of the best.”  (Many of them, however, have been cast specifically to be made fun of by the judges, since MasterChef does not film their live auditions like American Idol does.  So they can’t REALLY bring the 100 best-of-the-best to LA, because there will be no one for the audience to laugh at.  This necessitates that some folks get cast so that the judges can laugh them out of the studio.  To see what I think of this phenomenon, read my guest blog about How To Watch a MasterChef Premier on Celebration Generation, the website of Marie Porter, a contestant on this year’s MasterChef who contacted me for advice before she left to be on the show.  This blog will be VERY fascinating to you if you’re interested in behind the scenes stuff.)

The show basically starts with Joe Bastianich burning a bunch of money.  Fake money, of course, but they are sending a signal to the contestants that they should be here for the glory, not for the cash.  And the glory is apparently embodied in a holy icon that will “ensure your culinary legacy,” according to Graham…the coveted MasterChef trophy.

Folks…last year I laughed out loud when they revealed the trophy, and I did the same this year.  It’s really, really, REALLY hard for people to get excited about a trophy.  Okay…an Emmy or an Oscar, maybe.  (I shuddered when I held the Emmy that my friend John won for producing Rachael Ray a few years back.)  Sure, the contestants themselves are excited about it because it would mean that they won.  But I can’t be the only audience member who thinks, “Really?  A trophy?”  Personally, I think the trophy is ridiculous and cheap and should be ditched.  How about a winning CHEF’S HAT?!?

The judges send a very simple and clear message to the contestants: “We only care about 1 thing: what you put on the plate.”  Sadly, this isn’t true, with MasterChef or ANY other reality TV program, for that matter.  But it IS the mythology of the show, so we’re supposed to believe it.

Well…to debate myself…perhaps it IS true that the JUDGES only care about what the contestants put on the plate.  One day, decades from now, I would love to sit down to dinner at my place with Gordon, Graham, and Joe…long after MasterChef has stopped airing or has moved on to other judges…and chat about what the show did to them.  Because MasterChef must affect the judges as viscerally as it does the contestants.  There are times when Gordon may really hate a dish, but because of the story arc of the show, he has to “like” it for the camera.  There are times when a passionate young chef stands before Graham, reminding him of himself when he was paying his dues on the line, dreaming of that first Michelin star he could claim was his own…but Graham has to shoot down that contestant because the show’s story arc requires it.  And I wonder what that does to them, as humans.  Over the past few seasons, a few of the contestants who have more integrity than I do have “called them out” on this issue…asking them for their HONEST opinion, rather than their camera one.  Calling their integrity into question for perhaps compromising their own food passions and identities to bow to the will of a producer, rather than fight for someone they might otherwise truly believe in.  (As you might imagine, these moments will NEVER make it to the screen.)  As someone with no spine who avoids conflict and confrontation at every possible step, I could never be one of those people.  But I personally know a few who have, and my admiration for them is unending.

So perhaps the judges, in their private hearts, do truly care only about what is on the plate.  I think that, largely, the feedback we see from the judges is actually  honest.  But there are, no doubt, times when the judges have to say things they don’t truly believe, in order to keep the show moving in a direction that holds the viewership and is gripping and shocking and emotional for the audience.

I digress.

In the first 2 episodes, we are fully introduced to only 14 people, only 11 of which are awarded aprons.  We catch a glimpse of maybe 20 others, some of whom get aprons, and most of whom do not.  There’s a gal cooking with her own breast milk.  A man cooking with “roadkill.”  A rabbit farmer who brings the whole rabbit, fur and all.  (I actually would love to meet her, she seemed really interesting.)  Even a guy who is deep frying roaches…”giant waterbugs” is what he calls them.  That’s the “gentle” term we use in Texas for people who are terrified by our massive roaches here.  These folks were cast to shock the audience, but when they left for Los Angeles, they each fully believed they had a chance to win MasterChef and were being taken seriously by the casting folks.  So my heart goes out to them after these episodes aired.  It’s also entirely possible that the roach guy wanted to cook something else, but the producers found out that he has cooked with insects in the past, and they asked him to deep fry the roaches, rather than making something he’s truly passionate about.  (Yes, that happens, too…not everyone gets to cook exactly what they WANT to cook.)  So before you truly laugh these people off your television screen, remember that their life turned upside down during the long and arduous casting process, and the supremely stressful week of filming the signature dish round.  And they went home dejected, cheated, feeling like they were taken advantage of.  It’s part of the ugly side of reality TV, and it’s one reason I’m so allergic to it.  I was fortunate to have been treated wonderfully, both in the casting process, the judging, and the editing room, and for that, I will forever be grateful.  Not everyone is so lucky.

Highlights of the 14 folks who are featured in these 2 episodes:

Natasha Crnjac, the gorgeous 26 year old, stay-at-home mom from San Diego who is convinced that people are judging her worth as a cook by her model-looks.  (Sweetheart…did you watch the last 3 seasons?  Attractive women won EVERY season.  So your good looks are a head start, not a stumbling block!)  Her empanadas with steak chimichurri look divine.  (Chimichurri is an Argentinian sauce made from finely minced parsley and herbs, plus olive oil and vinegar.  There are as many versions as there are cooks who make it.  Natasha’s looks great.)  Something that struck me about her presentation was that she offered the judges an alcoholic beverage (beer) and they actually drank it.  That hasn’t happened in previous seasons, to my knowledge.  On my season, the great Alvin Schultz actually made a VERY unique cocktail to pair with his dish, but the judges refused it.  Natasha’s beer came from a 750ml bottle and it looked like a farmhouse ale or saison…I’d be interested to know what it was.  She gets 3 thumbs up.  Natasha has a really cool blog, Frisky Mama: From Diapers to Demiglace, I want to be heard…

Christine Kim, an adorable 19yo gal charms us with her irresistable personality and sweetness, and I was drooling over her kalbi duck lettuce wraps, but Gordon and Graham turn her down.  A shame, but perhaps her ethnicity and name were against her from the beginning.  Kalbi is the Korean word for “rib” and usually refers to a preparation of beef short ribs that are marinated extensively before being briefly cooked.  Christine has taken the flavors from the typical kalbi marinade and applied them to duck, which to me sounds like yummy in my tummy.  The youngest contestant this season at 19, I’m sad she didn’t get a chance to fight with the bigger fish.

Brian Kohler, a fellow Texan, shocks the judges by cooking beaver, which he apparently traps here?!?  I don’t typically think of beaver in the Dallas area, but he seems quite comfortable cooking it.  Reminds me of Bourdain‘s new show, Parts Unknown, and the episode in Quebec where one of the world’s greatest chefs, Martin Picard, cooks up beaver to Tony’s delight.  Brian’s got himself a pair of VERY intense eyes, and there’s no denying his passion.  Though I’m intrigued when he says he cooks “roadkill” for his family every day.  If, by roadkill, he means game meat, I’d LOVE to be a guest at his table!  Bravo for cooking beaver, including the tail, for the judges, and he squeaks by with a single no from Joe.  (Infinite diversity of potential jokes possible regarding Joe and beaver at this point, but I shall leave that to the imaginations of my dear readers!)

Jordan Roots, a 29yo delivery driver from Minneapolis, stuns us all with his immaculately-plated ancho chile tostada and his poignant story about losing his mother to brain cancer, and how he now wears the apron he had given his mother as a kid.  In a triumphant display of editing, we see a fully dimensional character in Jordan…some confidence and perhaps a hint of cockiness (“I’m not seeing much technique out there” he says), but tempered by a very private moment where he collapses in the hall to weep after getting his apron before facing the crowd.  Kudos to the editing team, I wish we could see this many dimensions from EVERY character on the show, for nobody is as one-dimensional as they are often portrayed to be.

Another heart warmer is Adriana Guillen, a strikingly beautiful 26yo college admissions rep, originally from Mexico.  As she cooks, her family is “late” to arrive (though miraculously they have a camera crew in the car with them), but they surprise her just before she wheels her cart in for judging.  She had already spoken of how her mother taught her to cook, and the moment when she bends down to embrace and kiss her mother really got the waterworks going for me.  Adriana makes a nopales soup with dried shrimp croutons.  Nopales are the green pads of the prickly pear cactus, and are a staple in authentic Mexican cooking.  It can be VERY challenging to cook with them because they are very mucilaginous, like okra, which can be used with stunning results in the hands of a capable cook (ie…a perfect gumbo), but can also spell a sticky, stringy disaster if you don’t know what you’re doing.  The color of her soup is a deep red, derived solely from a combination of chiles.  No tomatoes in the soup at all.  I would have dived RIGHT into that bowl.  And now we get some feedback from the judges that I truly believe is staged…Gordon strikes her down, not because of what is on her plate (what about the statement that that’s the ONLY thing you cared about?!?), but because he thinks she’s too sweet for the “fierce” competition.  Hell’s Kitchen is fierce.  MasterChef is not.  While the editing may highlight contention between contestants, the MasterChef cast is a family, there’s no denying that.  You can’t live the stress of the show without growing intimately close with your fellow contestants.  This is simply a way to stress us out, thinking how unfair it would be if her food was good enough for the competition, but the judges don’t think she can handle the heat.  Joe saves her, in the end.

Then we meet George Mastrosavas,  the 33yo pizza joint owner from Ohio.  His Greek wedding soup is offensive to Joe because he used butter rather than the Greek staple olive oil, and the judges don’t give him the apron, but Gordon basically forces him to finally propose to his girlfriend on camera, because he’s apparently been carrying around the engagement ring in his pocket for 6 months.  Initially I thought this was completely staged, but the look on his girlfriend Maria’s face when he tearfully pops the question couldn’t be faked even by Meryl Streep.  She is absolutely STUNNED.  Great television.

Krissi Biasiello is next, a 34 year old single mom and paralegal from Philly, struggling to make ends meet and sleeping on the couch in her 1 bedroom apartment.  She is very real, to me.  I wanna cook with her.  She talks about her son, who worships Gordon and dreams of becoming a chef.  She serves up a fontina-stuffed meatloaf florentine with “dreamy potatoes.”  I’m not crazy about meatloaf the way most Americans are, but hers looks delish.  Gordon brings in her son, who is just downright adorable (I hope he auditioned for MasterChef Junior) and he gets to meet his hero.  What a moment!  Krissi gets the apron.  Check our her wonderful blog The Rotund Chef.

Bime (Bee-mee) Cruz, a 35yo boxing coach from Mass, originally from Puerto Rico, immediately tells us about his 3 daughters, who are his inspiration for cooking.  Bime is a character, and his shrimp on a smashed plantain cake looks amazing.  Joe hates Bime, probably because Bime shows no fear of him.  (Joe, at least the character Joe, does NOT like people who aren’t afraid of him.)  Bime stares him down and says, “I’m your future rival, man.”  And that cemented their relationship.  Joe, in this bizarre and highly visible combination of fear, sheepishness, aggression, and defensiveness, insists that Bime is a “faker” and says that Bime cries “every 5 minutes.”  (I cried every 5 minutes, too…which did annoy Joe and he thought I was doing it for the camera, but when I dined at his unparalleled LA restaurant, Osteria Mozza, and tried the grilled octopus…which made me weep…I think he just might have found it endearing.  At least for a few seconds.)  Bime gets his apron, but I don’t see him and Joe holding hands any time soon.

Then there’s Jessie Lysiak, the pampered “southern Belle” from Social Circle, Georgia who is surreally beautiful and has a dreamy lifestyle as a yacht stewardess.  She serves up an impressive sea bass en croute, which is a fillet of fish baked inside a pastry shell…a challenging preparation for fish because the fish must be perfectly done and not overcooked, or undercooked, and the pastry must be crisp and perfect.  Gordon says something very puzzling to her about it.  He says her dish is stuck in the 1980s and he wished she’d brought something more contemporary.  “GORDON RAMSAY HAS LOST HIS MIND.” -Ben Starr, MC season 2.  Gordon has built his reputation on Beef Wellington, a beef tenderloin baked in pastry.  I really feel like that line came from him, rather than the control room, so I’m puzzled as to how his Beef Wellington is more contemporary than her Sea Bass en Croute.  Then Gordon does something unexpected…he leaves the room to return with 2 large fish, one of which he fillets and portions in front of her, and then asks her to perform the same…just to be sure she’s being honest about her proclivity for fishing.  She does it with a “Take that, Gordo” look in her eyes, and takes her apron triumphantly.  (I will never forget the moment, on MasterChef 2, when Gordon filleted a massive 3 foot long salmon in front of the cast.  It took him all of 30 seconds to flawlessly extract 2 perfect fillets from the salmon, leaving no waste.  That was a turning point in the show for me…the moment that I went from reacting to Gordon as if he was an actor, to reacting as if he was a chef.  Gordon IS an actor NOW, and can’t be in the kitchen very often any longer.  The fact that he could pull off that perfect filleting without doing it every day all day, just blew my mind.  He is truly a culinary savant.)

Along comes fellow Texan James Nelson, a 26yo who works in retail sales, and tells the story of losing both his parents recently, which he admits, in a moment of refreshing vulnerability, that this was a blow to his self esteem in the kitchen, since his parents were always championing his abilities.  He serves up a crispy pork belly with lentil hash, and reveals that his “food dream” (a new term we’re hearing left and right this season) is to open a gastropub.  For some bizarre reason, Joe and Gordon are insistent that the guy is too timid and has no fight in him and are hesitant to give him the apron.  They may be saying this for drama, or perhaps there was more in their un-aired conversations that convinced them of this, but the audience certainly isn’t viewing James that way.  They decide to give him the apron, much to Joe’s chagrin.  James sells his own line of spices, so check out the Bravado Spice Company!

Next we’ve got our big character for the season…our Felix Fang…our sex kitten.  The unforgettable Sasha Foxx, baby.  This 42yo gospel singer from Tuscaloosa is a goldmine of one-liners.  “I cook good, I look good, I smell good.  Everything I do, I do good, honey, you best believe that.”  She serves up fried cornish game hen with French crepes and orange maple glaze…and there’s bourbon in there somewhere.  “Put a little Sasha in your mouth, baby.”  Joe says: “That’s a lotta chicken.  And you’re a lotta woman,” and she replies, without a pause, “Mmmm hmmm…you told the truth about that.”  Gordon asks her, “What’s the secret behind your food?” and her reply, “I could turn around and you could really see what’s the secret behind me!”  Sasha gets her apron, and we get our first unforgettable character on MasterChef this season.  Though we all know someone like Sasha, and that passion runs in both directions…I could see her being a VERY polarizing, fierce contestant.

Next up is Rudy Reyes, and there’s just no easy way to watch this segment.  Rudy is a 35yo hero from San Diego who was severely burned in the bad fires there in the early 2000s.  Going door-to-door in his neighborhood to help people escape, he ended up in the hospital with burns over 75% of his body.  The kept him in an induced coma for 2 MONTHS, and he spent over a year in the hospital recovering.  And rather than lapse into lifelong depression over this, Rudy’s belief is “I’m blessed.  I’m here for a reason.”  After recovering, Rudy had to re-learn to do everything in his life.  Rudy is serving up one of my personal FAVORITE dishes.  When you travel throughout the American southwest, you’ll see painted signs in front of people’s homes advertising “Navajo tacos” or “Hopi tacos” or “Indian tacos.”  They consist of a massive round of fry bread (like a giant, savory sopapilla), stuffed with meat and cheese and veggies.  Rudy has a perfectly-golden fry bread that he’s topping with buffalo meat and lime salsa.  It’s not the most refined thing that has been presented to the judges, but I can be honest and say that I’d tuck into that before ANYTHING else I’ve seen thus far.  I LOVE Indian tacos.  More than life itself.  Joe and Gordon strike him down because the dish isn’t sophisticated enough and the buffalo meat was too dry…but Graham, who shares my appetite, is his only advocate.  I’m not sure what to think about Rudy’s experience at MasterChef.  Perhaps if they had given him an apron, the audience would have cried wolf on sensationalism, especially since the winner of last season, the incredible Christine Ha (whose cookbook just came out…get it!) was visually handicapped.  Or, perhaps, his food just wasn’t up to caliber, and they wanted to prove that the contest is ONLY about the food.  We won’t ever know, but we can thank Rudy for his incredible outlook on life, for sharing himself with us on the show, and take those inspirational feelings he struck in our hearts and do good things for more people more often.

Next there’s a run of rejections, including 2 of my buddies, Matt Orsini from Dallas and Marie Porter from Minneapolis.  The fact that these two flash before your eyes for only 1 second each (you probably don’t even remember them) is an example of the VAST impact that the show has on the lives of ALL its contestants.  Matt and Marie’s lives were turned completely upside down for MONTHS.  Their relationships were pushed to the breaking point.  They left income and family for an uncertain future.  And these life-changing struggles are documented on the show with a flippant 1 second rejection.  And believe it or not, almost HALF of the 100 contestants will not even get that 1 second.  They won’t be aired at all.  This is another reason to read my blog entry about how to watch a MasterChef premier, because there are lots of folks out there who feel used and thrown away by MasterChef…who feel that the process was entirely exploitative of them…and my no-so-silent hope for ALL of those contestants is to look at what MasterChef did for you.  It made you look at your life and wonder if you were on the right path.  It gave you the hope that you could leave a bigger mark on the world.  You DON’T need MasterChef to help you do that.  If you have that dream, you follow it.  Your loved ones may not understand at first.  Beg them to stick with you.  But if you feel like you can change the world, or make it a better place, because of your love for food, to sink back into the routine of your old life is giving up and throwing in the towel.  Be extraordinary!

Next to last is Eddie Jackson, a 42yo former NFL player from Georgia, who, after tossing the pigskin around with Joe and Graham (with Gordon, a former pro soccer player himself, poking fun at “American football”), serves up jerked meatloaf with ginger and coconut sweet potato mash.  “Jerking” is a Jamaican technique that refers to a highly-spiced meat that is smoked or grilled.  I’ve had it all over the Caribbean, and it makes me drool each time I smell it.  He gets the apron from Joe and Gordon, with Graham surprisingly abstaining.

And last, but certainly not least, is a familiar face from last year, Luca Manfe…the strapping 31yo restaurant manager from NYC with the accent that makes all the ladies (and some of the men!) go weak in the knees.  We were dead certain that Luca would get an apron last year, with his sexy Italian cooking, but he didn’t.  And you’ll remember that EVERY year the judges invite back contestants…some are even “guaranteed” an apron next season.  And do they ever return?  No.  Do I know why?  Not for sure.  I do know that a contestant from my season who didn’t get an apron returned for auditions for season 3 and was basically completely ignored by the casting folks, as if he wasn’t even there.  Typically, a contestant is not welcomed back after all the gossip amongst their fellow contestants who made it far enough to know many of the show’s secrets.  So it never surprised me that the contestants who were “guaranteed” an apron next season never showed up.  But Luca has…which is intriguing to say the least.  Especially after Bastianich says, “Had you won last year, we’d probably be partners already in a restaurant in NY.”  I had to pause the DVR after that remark.  Joe has never talked like this with a contestant…especially not during the signature dish round.  He has extended particularly talented top finalists an invitation to intern in his restaurants.  But NEVER mentioned partnering with a contestant in a restaurant endeavor.  Joe partners with chefs like Mario Batali.  This was very, very bizarre.  Luca serves up a broccoli raab ravioli which looks divine, nestled in a Pecorino cream sauce, which the judges all criticize for being too grainy.  Pecorino is an aged sheep’s milk cheese that is known for not melting, even when grated on top of a hot dish.  The finest Pecorinos are aged well, which makes them even harder to melt.  (Younger Pecorinos melt satisfactorily, but don’t have much flavor.)  So Luca definitely chose flavor over texture, and while the judges point out that the texture is sub-par he DOES get the apron, and is well on his way to HIS food dream…a restaurant in NYC with his name in big letters over the door.  “L-U-C-A”  I can see that…

We’ve got 1 more round of auditions before the top finalists are revealed, and my DVR hates me and didn’t record it.  So I’m headed to Houston tonight to meet up with Alvin, Christine, and Michael Chen, and hopefully I’ll be able to rustle up last week’s episodes so I can be caught up before Wednesday.  If you enjoy my blog, please subscribe near the top right corner of the screen to make sure you don’t miss ANY of the insanity of this season!  I’ll also be featuring “Where Are They Now?” posts about your favorite contestants, all the way back to Season 1.  Don’t miss it!  And please, by all means…share your opinions below!