Tag Archives: Stacey

Burning Man 2012: The Pilgrimage

If you’ve been following me since my season of MasterChef aired last summer, you know how fanatical I am about the Burning Man festival.  Trying to describe this event is practically impossible.  Each summer 60,000 people from all over the world assemble on a dry desert lake bed in northern Nevada and build a city dedicated to “radical self expression.”  For the week that this city exists, it is filled with incredible art, dazzling performances, and workshops on everything from solar power to shamanic healing to community development.  Money is not allowed in this city.  Everything is free.  And the experience perpetuates itself through a “culture of gifting,” where you are expected to contribute to the city in whatever way you can.  If you’re a penniless artist, the city will offer you an art grant, and your contribution is a work of art.  If you’re a massage therapist, you’re expected to gift random massages to tired-looking people on the street, or to set up a massage booth several hours a day.  If you’re a wealthy dot-com magnate, you bring a massive dance club and bar, or a restaurant, or you sponsor tickets for those who can’t afford them.

This was my fourth year at Burning Man, and I can’t really imagine my life without it.  Immersing yourself in a city that completely rejects our societal norms…gender roles…decorum and formality and pomp and circumstance…is incredibly refreshing.  At Burning Man, you are expected to be completely and utterly yourself.  No one is going to criticize you for looking and acting however you want.  Burning Man is a place of supreme acceptance, peace, and joy.

But it’s no easy task getting there.  I left for Burning Man 6 days before its gates opened.  2 days before that, though, I was cooking up a storm.  I smoked 2 pork shoulders.  I turned 2 briskets into beef jerky.  And I made GALLONS of hummus and babaganouj (smoked eggplant and sesame dip).  I froze everything, put it into 2 coffin-sized coolers along with all my gear for a month, and headed west.

I made a small detour to visit my parents, way out in Snyder, Texas.  Since MasterChef, I don’t get to visit them as often as I used to because my schedule is so busy.  Mom made a delicious breakfast of farm eggs, blueberry pancakes, and fresh raw goat milk.  Delicious!

All too soon, back to the road.  I wanted to make Tucson that night, so I could arrive in Phoenix for lunch with the incomparable Monti Carlo, so that I could arrive in Apple Valley, CA in time for dinner with Stacey.  By the time I arrived at Monti’s house, though, she was in tears, frantically cooking.

“What’s wrong, sweetheart?”

“My watch party is tonight and all these people are coming…”

But I could tell that wasn’t what was bothering her.  I gave her that “tell me what’s REALLY wrong” look.

“Tonight’s my night to go.”

I felt like such a terrible friend at that moment.  Here I am, rushing to get to Stacey’s house, and tonight is a really big, scary night for Monti.  The night she gets eliminated from MasterChef.

“I have to stay, then,” I said.

“Are you crazy, dude?!?  Stacey’s husband just went deep sea fishing and has pounds and pounds of tuna for you guys to eat.  You have to go.  I’ll be fine.”

We chatted about Burning Man for a bit and I convinced her that she HAD to come next year.  We’re gonna have a MasterChef camp with a full kitchen and have mystery box challenges, and feed the good people of Burning Man INCREDIBLE food.  That cheered her up a bit, but I still felt like a dirtbag when I drove off.

It’s about 6 hours from Monti’s house to Stacey’s house, through the barren Mojave Desert.  Stacey lives (…or, rather, lived) in Apple Valley, California.  A tiny village (by California standards) that most people have never heard of.  But *I* know it well, as it’s the closest town to the Deep Creek hot springs…an extraordinary set of wilderness hot springs in a wild canyon, only a few short hours from Los Angeles.  I’ve soaked there so often, it’s entirely possible that I been there at the same time Stacey was there…even a decade ago, when she was still in high school.  She and her friends frequented the hot springs back then, which is when I was soaking there most frequently.  How crazy is that?!?

Stacey lives (er…lived) at the end of a long dirt road, smack dab up against a big granite mountain, in one of the coolest houses I’ve ever seen.  Small, cozy, eclectic, absolutely FILLED with fresh produce.  Stacey manages a farmer’s market, so she’s always bringing home gifts from the farmers.  Her decorations are literally almost entirely edible.  Lemons and avocados were stuffed in every available corner of every room, even the bathroom.

And then, of course, there was Stacey.  Her personality on the show was so big and bold, that I was completely taken aback by how tiny she is.  She must weigh 80 pounds soaking wet.  But one of the brightest and most joyful souls I’ve ever met.  The first thing she did was shove a bowl of poke into my arms.  THEN she hugged me.  (Poke is pronounced “PO-kay” and it’s a Hawaiian specialty of raw fish marinated with soy and citrus, mixed with a variety of ingredients like onion, seaweed, sesame seeds, etc.  It’s one of my favorite things in all the world.)

Her fridge and several coolers were overflowing with fresh tuna and other fish that her hubby Mike and his buddies had caught.  And Stacey pulled out the stops and created a menu based entirely around raw fish.  Take a look:

The party was going in full force out in her backyard, which is easily the coolest entertaining space I’ve seen.  Funky, hippy, Bohemian, southwestern shabby chic.  I felt right at home.

Stacey and Mike love to entertain, and I enjoyed reading her “Party Rules” board:

She has a pond where rosemary (a desert plant) and ginger (a tropical plant) are growing side-by-side.  Over in the corner is her extensive container garden:

Stacey lives next door to her parents, who are delightful people.  Their backyard is also incredible, with a huge waterfall, and an outdoor kitchen to rival anything I’ve ever seen.   Stacey is Italian, so her family obviously has to have a pizza oven, and this one puts my little homemade oven to shame:

After a tour, we were back in the kitchen cooking and eating.  One of Stacey’s favorite things to make is sushi.  (Ironic, because she was eliminated from MasterChef after a sushi challenge.)  Her spicy tuna rolls were absolutely divine.

We literally gorged on raw fish.  MasterChef was playing in the background, but I wanted to watch Monti’s farewell episode in private rather than a party setting, so I ignored it.  We talked long into the night about how MasterChef had changed our lives.  Stacey and I felt like we’d known each other all our lives…I felt so connected to her so quickly.  She and Mike are definitely my kinda people.  Eventually I drifted off to sleep on her couch, and I awoke the next morning to this:

If that’s not being pampered, I don’t what what is!  It’s a plate of cheeses, fruit, and nuts, and on the side is a serving of poke, underneath of which is a shot of smoked tomato water.  !!!  Lucky me!

It was a busy morning.  Stacey was canning her homemade barbeque sauce, which I was lucky enough to taste (and then get a pint of!).  Stacey puts even more ingredients in her sauce than I do.  Her base is smoked tomatoes, which is totally genius.  And one of her many “secret” spices is fenugreek.  Her sauce is EASILY the most complex and delicious I’ve ever tasted.

In addition to BBQ sauce, there was a whole yellowtail left from the night before, and it had to be dealt with.  Stacey stuffed it full of lemons from her grandmother’s tree and herbs from her garden, filled the body cavity with aromatics, and Mike smoked it out back.  While it was smoking, though, Stacey had plans.

“See that mountain behind the house?  Let’s climb it!”

I strapped on my hiking boots and she and I headed for the hills.  20 minutes later (it seemed MUCH longer), we topped out about 800 feet above her house on the pinnacle of the granite crag.  I had been driving for 2 days, and it felt so good to use by body for a change.  But by the time we got back down, we were sweating like crazy, so we plunged into her parents’ saltwater pool and talked about her impending move to the Hawaiian island of Kauai, where she’s going to start a restaurant and sell her BBQ sauce and several other artisan items in the farmers’ market.  She was sad to leave this incredible place that she and Mike have truly made their own.  But excited to be moving to a place exploding with life and abundance, where life moves at a slower pace, and where food and the land are considered sacred.

I was sad to leave Stacey’s house.  We spent barely 20 hours together, but I had grown incredibly fond of her and Mike both.  There are some people you meet in this world who share the same soul…the same ideals.  I am so excited to visit Stacey in Kauai (where she already is!) and see how she’s putting down her new Hawaiian roots!  Follow Stacey’s adventure here.

Then I drove into Los Angeles to meet…FELIX!  I don’t think ANY contestant this year on MasterChef was more intriguing to be from the start.  I absolutely adored Felix.  I don’t think they featured her enough, and I don’t think she was eliminated fairly.  From talking to my friends from this season, they all just raved about Felix and what a unique person she is.

Moments after arriving at her West Hollywood apartment, she had a katana at my throat.  *giggle*

Felix is a fascinating girl.  Hysterically funny with one of the most expressive faces I’ve ever seen.  She’s sexy and brassy and bold, but at the same time, shy and quiet and diminutive.  Felix has been working as a food runner at one of LA’s most famous fine-dining restaurants for awhile, and has just been promoted to a server, which means the potential for a BIG increase in pay.  So I’m really happy for her.  Of course, she wants to be in the kitchen, and with her determination, she’ll be there in no time.  But she’s such a people person, like me, I’m not sure being cooped up in a commercial kitchen is for her.  Maybe she should be doing underground dinners, like Jennie Kelley and I are with FRANK, where she can interact with the people she’s cooking for…

Felix and Tanya and I met up with my sweet little Peanut (Esther, from my season) and had dinner in Korea Town.  Tanya has been living in LA, staging (the culinary equivalent of interning) at restaurants and has now gotten a paid job at a bakery.  Tanya, like David Martinez and Michael Chen, plunged head-first into the culinary world after MasterChef ended, and is serious about turning her passion for food into her career.  I’m so proud of her!

It was fun having this little cross-season dinner.  Esther hasn’t had time to watch the current season, so she had no idea who Tanya and Felix were.  But they shared the same intense experience that Esther and I did, and Tanya and Felix are very close, like Esther and I are.

After dinner, I got to meet Felix’s adorable boyfriend.  They’ve known each other for years, since they both lived in Puna…the southeastern district of the Big Island of Hawaii, which is where I’m trying to move to start my farm.  They are an adorable couple.  But all too early, I had to leave for San Diego, because the clock was ticking, and I still had to cook a week’s worth of food for 30 people before Burning Man.

In San Diego I met up with my dearest friends Nate and Sandy.  I’ve known them for 17 years, since college.  They just gave birth to their first child scarcely a month before I arrived, and for some reason they decided to play host to our “base camp” for Burning Man this year…as if they didn’t have their hands full with baby!  Normally they go to Burning Man with us, but certainly not this year.  Though it was a bit of torture for them, watching us all get ready for the event, knowing they weren’t going.

My dear friend Raspberry, who I’ve known for more than a decade, and my best buddy Monty (my old college roomie) arrived in town from the Pacific Northwest, and the first order of business upon arrival was hair dyeing.  At Burning Man, if you look “normal,” you’re probably not expressing yourself radically.  So for the past 3 years, I’ve dyed my hair some crazy color, and Raspberry decided to join me this year.  (Raspberry isn’t his real name, but we call each other Raspberry because of a random connection to Carol Channing’s character in the film Thoroughly Modern Millie…long story.)  So we started the laborious transformation which first requires bleaching your hair until it’s almost white.


After that, it’s 2 hours of heating the shocking color into your bleached hair, followed by careful washing, followed by an apple cider vinegar soak to raise the pH and seal in the color.  And you end up with this:

Early the next morning, it was grocery shopping time.  Buying enough food, beer, snacks, and camping supplies for 30 people for a week is no small matter.  This was the bill at the FIRST stop:

And that was just the first.  I spent well over $2,000 that morning.  Then we went to the extraordinary home belonging to my friends Mark and Elaine to start cooking.  We had to make Pad Thai, sesame noodles, chicken salad, chicken with saffron rice,  pasta salad, braised cabbage, beans…and then freeze it all with dry ice.  Thankfully, Elaine and Raspberry are both superb cooks, so we made short time of it.  Mark and Elaine’s kids even got involved.

Mark and Elaine are my kinda folks.  They grow much of their own food, they have an AMAZING chicken coop filled with layers, and their kids have incredibly broad palates.  (They were scarfing down my vinegary braised cabbage like it was candy.)  When we were finished, I was able to introduce the kids to the wonders of dry ice…I remember being so mesmerized by it when I was a kid.

With food cooked and frozen solid and our massive infrastructure loaded into the 22′ truck, we headed north to Reno, stopping along the way to pick up my new friend Denis.  I met Denis on my last trip out west, 3 months ago, at a hot spring just south of Yellowstone.  (Blog coming soon.)  He’s one of the more fascinating people I’ve met.  He started college when he was 16, in a quadruple major program: Mathematics, Economics, Russian, and Ceramic Arts.  (???)  After 4 years of intense study, he needed a break, so he had spent the past year working in California’s Youth Conservation Corps, building trails and fighting fires in the wilderness.  Denis is the biggest social butterfly I’ve ever met, so when he decided to come to Burning Man with us, I knew it was going to be an amazing experience for him.  Especially since he would turn 21 during the event!

Sunday morning we rendezvoused with a large contingent from our camp for breakfast at Peg’s Glorified Ham and Eggs, my favorite eatery in Reno.  Promise me that you will NEVER visit Reno without eating there.  They have 3 locations around this VERY small town, and each of them are jam packed every day of the week.  Peg’s is legendary for huge portions…in fact they serve most of their entrees inside a massive skillet.  Denis is legendary for packing away food, so he ordered the full 1-pound ham steak, 3 eggs, hash browns, cabbage slaw, fried bananas, and a thick slice of cantaloupe.  3 minutes after it arrived, it was gone:

And that wasn’t all.  I could only stuff HALF my tamale skillet into my stomach, so Denis finished mine.  And then Raspberry needed help with his plate.  Denis basically polished off about 8 pounds of food for breakfast…a good thing because as much as he was about to bounce around Burning Man, missing half the meals in camp, he’d need all the calories he could get!

After breakfast, a few hours to gather last-minute supplies, and then it was off to Burning Man…about a 2 hour drive northeast of Reno in the high desert.  The route passes Pyramid Lake, a massive inland sea named for a natural rock formation near the shore.  This is the home of the Pyramid Lake tribe, who have lived in this desert for centuries.

Your eyes are weary, and my fingers are sore.  And we have YET to arrive at Burning Man.  So I’ll let you off the hook for now, and pick back up again tomorrow.  I have amazing stories and images and videos about Burning Man to share with you, and perhaps an even more amazing account of the long journey home afterward.  So why don’t you go ahead and subscribe to my blog in the upper right corner of this page, to make sure you don’t miss another post!

MasterChef Recap: Southern Queens and Sushi Teams

We’re down to only 7.  And the mystery box on the stage is big enough to house an entire cow or side of beef.  And had the commercials not spoiled it, I’d have NO clue that it was a mere human standing inside.  I’m conflicted about the spoiling of the mystery box surprise…I’d have been FAR more excited to be wondering what was inside, than to be wondering why on earth the mystery box is so freakin’ big if Paul Deen is hiding inside it.  Maybe she’s stretched out on a sofa being fanned by pool boys?!?  I know they’ll probably get more viewers by broadcasting Paula’s participation ahead of time…but it really did ruin the surprise.

So here we have the legendary Paula Deen to emcee the next Mystery Box challenge.  Just like Rachael Ray, Paula tends to elicit a fairly dramatic response among TV viewers…you either love her, or you hate her.

I, for one, love Paula Deen.  I think she’s a great TV personality.  She’s fun to watch, her recipes are good, and she embodies the small food entrepreneur success story.  At age 39 after a messy divorce, she moved to Savannah with only $200 in her pocket and started a sandwich catering company.  And look where she is now!  She has an empire, and she is loved by so many.

She comes under very pointed criticism from folks like Anthony Bourdain for promoting traditional Southern cooking, which includes large concentrations of butter (for which she is known), sugar, and saturated fats.  But let us not forget that the great Julia Child championed the butter-drenched, cream-enriched, sugary-sweet French cuisine to the world, and single handedly got people back into the kitchen in this country, after the TV dinner became king in the aftermath of World War II.  I don’t hear Bordain condemning Julia!  I have ZERO problem with Paula’s style of cooking, provided enough education is included to let people who are otherwise unaware, that you shouldn’t put a stick of butter in EVERY recipe.  Just the special ones!

“Why Paul Deen?” is what everyone has been asking me.  She’s not necessarily known for sophisticated cuisine.  Well, the simple answer is: Walmart.  That’s an assumption on my part, but Paula does sell a line of cookware at Walmart (some of which is enameled cast iron, and it’s of pretty decent quality for its price!), and you can’t walk inside the kitchen section of Walmart without seeing Paula’s bright smile all around you.  So it was a natural assumption to think that her appearance is somehow connected to the big Walmart sponsorship.  But I could be wrong.

At any rate, when the mystery box rises and Paula appears from beneath it, you can tell, even if YOU don’t like Paula Deen, that the contestants are peeing their pants with excitement.  I would have been, too.  Bawling my eyes out.  Paula is a legend to me, and the ability to be able to cook for her would have been extraordinary.  My style of cooking is closer to hers than to ANY other celebrity chef I’ve cooked for, including Rachael Ray and Bobby Flay.

Paula has hand picked the mystery box ingredients for this challenge, and let me tell you…while I normally hate Mystery Box challenges, this one would have been CAKE for me: a whole chicken, green tomatoes, collard greens, okra, grits, blackberries, hot sauce, pepper jelly, bacon, cream cheese, red potatoes, onion, garlic, brown sugar, and, of course…butter.  And who knows what else?  I have a suspicion that there is a mystery box pantry this year where the contestants have access to staples like flour, eggs, etc. because Paula said she’d love to see fried chicken, which can’t be done without flour, and there was no flour under the box.  Also, Becky makes biscuits, which we all know can’t be done without flour.  So I’d love to know the list of ingredients in the staples kitchen!

Paula has another surprise…she tells the contestants to open their cabinets and inside is a photo of their family, and a letter.  I cannot tell you how much more powerful this moment was for the contestants than what you saw on the screen.  At this point they’ve been away from home for over a month without being able to talk to their family.  The stress is unimaginable.  The sense of loneliness is overwhelming.  I remember getting a letter from my partner, with photos of my friends and family and Oliver in it, the morning before a challenge in late February.  And I just completely lost it for 2 hours, bawling my eyes out.  I was SO homesick.  And when we, as an audience, get to hear some things in the letters and see the contestants reactions…this is genuine and heartfelt and I WANT MORE OF IT.

Christine’s husband John, who is such an amazing person and actually helped me finish this website, mentioned in his letter that Christine has already accomplished “more in life than most people with no obstacles.”  We catch a glimpse of Frank’s daughter and immediately we re-imagine Frank as a father.  (I wish that had happened last year with Christian.)  Becky and Felix both have heartwarming letters from their parents.  Felix’s parents live in Puna, the district on the Big Island of Hawaii where I want to start my farm, and in their letter we discover that she hasn’t seen them in over a year.  Monti’s face as she embraces the photo of her son, Danger, is priceless.  I wouldn’t have minded if half this episode was taken up with the contestants reading their letters from home and talking about their families.

Time starts, and this would be my menu…fried chicken (leg and thigh), buttermilk biscuits with crispy chicken skin cracklins, collard greens with bacon, fried okra and fried green tomatoes (if there’s no cornmeal in the staples pantry, I’d use grits for the breading), and a little blackberry cobbler with cream cheese in the crust.  And yes, that can all be done in an hour!

The top 3 dishes are:

Becky, with her oven-roasted chicken and biscuits, fried green tomatoes, and pan gravy, with a cream cheese and pepper jelly sauce.

Frank, who departed from the Southern palate with his chicken roulade.  A roulade is just a method of presentation where the ingredients are layered and then rolled.  His roulade has peppers and onions, bacon, chicken, and chicken skin on the outside, and MAN does it look GOOOOD.  He made a chutney with the green tomato and red pepper, and it was served with spicy potato fries.  His spicy fries get the best of Paula and she coughs a little, but declares that she loves it.

And David Martinez, who has a truly stunning dish.  Roasted red pepper grits…and I’m not a big fan of grits, but these sound superb…pan roasted chicken breast with some sort of glaze, and crispy fried onion strings.  Paula jumps on Gordon for saying that grits can normally be “bland and boring,” and it’s funny to see how fast Paula shut him up!  I don’t normally imagine Gordon blushing at being chastised by anyone, but Paula certainly got his goat!!!

And they award the top dish to Frank, for taking basic Southern-style ingredients and churning out a sophisticated, New American style dish.  I didn’t taste, but the dish *I* wanted to eat the most was actually David’s.

Paula kisses the contestants goodbye, and Frank heads to the pantry to learn his advantage, and thus begins the most insane elimination challenge I’ve EVER seen on MasterChef: the sushi tag-team.  Frank gets to pair up the remaining 6 contestants in teams to prepare sushi.  The team never works together simultaneously…they work in 5 minute shifts.  And they have to replicate a large plate of food, including tempura battered vegetables; ahi, yellowtail, salmon, and shrimp nigiri sushi (where the fish fillet sits on top of a pillow of rice); and a California roll, which is an inside-out sushi roll where the veggies and fish are in the center, wrapped in nori (seaweed paper), with the rice on the OUTSIDE, then sprinkled with tobika caviar (eggs of the flying fish, which are bright orange).

This is probably the ONLY challenge I’d have actually wanted to sit out.  Sushi is an incredibly complex cuisine.  Sushi chefs train for literally DECADES before they are permitted to work unsupervised.  While there’s very little cookery involved, the knife work for the fish slicing, and the rolling are not things you can just improvise.  And to complicate matters, Frank was clever in his assignments to choose teams that would have the highest risk for failure.  Becky and David are together, Felix and Monti, and Christine and Stacey.

Luckily, Felix and Christine both have practical sushi experience.  Becky and Stacey, living in southern California, probably eat a fair amount of sushi.  And David says that he is confident as well.  Monti confesses that she’s clueless.  And this bizarre dynamic of the tag-team procedure is definitely going to throw people for a loop.

What follows is the most nail-biting challenge I’ve seen in MasterChef.  Arguments, desperation…and I can’t even imagine how Christine must feel not being able to SEE what Stacey is doing.  If Stacey says, “Am I doing this right?” Christine can’t answer.  They are definitely at the disadvantage in this challenge.

At the end, Monti and Felix have a complete plate that’s actually really impressive.  Monti says, “Felix finished 14 pieces of sushi in 4 minutes and 45 seconds.  That’s about as impressed as I’ve ever been with anybody.”  The other teams aren’t quite so lucky.  David and Becky have a plate that appears to be mostly complete, but Gordon picks through everything and finds wasabi under some fish, not under others, messy cuts, no dipping sauce for the tempura, and David takes blame for much of it.  Christine and Stacey didn’t complete their California roll, which is a glaring omission, and Stacey is sick about it.  The cut on their nigiri is definitely superior to David and Becky, but their shrimp is raw.  Gordon declares it the worst performance they’ve both had in MasterChef.

So we know that Stacey and Christine are on the chopping block.

Not a fun moment.  I love both of these girls, and I know how hard it is for them to be sitting there, facing elimination, feeling like if the other gets eliminated, they’re both at fault.  Since Christine was responsible for the biggest items to get on the plate, the nigiri, Stacey is eliminated.  And Christine is deeply upset about it.  Even Christine’s helper is weeping.  Stacey was so loved by the contestants.

We are given tidbits about the contestants’ lives in the first episode of signature dishes, but we tend to forget these as the contest moves on and we become more familiar with their personalities.  Do you remember that Stacey, 2 years ago, was drinking a liter of vodka a day?  She went through rehab and has been stone cold sober since May of 2010.  Do you remember that the judges sent her out without an apron, but Joe reconsidered and staked his reputation on her?  And she lasted to number 7.  Stacey is a fighter, and a talented one at that.  I shed some tears watching her leave.

But, like always, MasterChef isn’t the end for Stacey.  She’s being considered for an executive chef position at a restaurant on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.  So maybe, in a few short years, we’ll be neighbors!  I can’t wait to meet Stacey in August on my LA trip, because I know that she’s truly one of the most special and amazing souls in this year’s MasterChef lineup.  You blew me away Stacey!

Follow Stacey on Twitter and Facebook if you’d like to keep track of her journey!  And PLEASE comment below!