Tag Archives: Top 100

MasterChef: Week 3

“And the worst dish today belongs to…Ben Starr.”

WHAT??? The WORST dish of the day?

Well, I guess someone has to be the worst…

Wait a minute…backtrack.

18 of us. From 100 finalists. From 30,000 who auditioned. That feels cool. And we enter the MasterChef kitchen for the first time, each of us thinking we’re going to take this competition. It’s a far cry from the dark, dusty warehouse where we cooked our signature dishes.

But scarcely time to absorb the wonders around us before we realize there’s a giant cedar box sitting at each of our kitchen stations. The dreaded Mystery Box. I remember these from watching last season.

We lift the box and the first thing I see is a giant slab of salmon. Not nice, deep red, thin fillets…the sign of true wild-caught salmon. Fat orange fillets. Farm raised salmon. Alas, it’s not yet time for the salmon run in the Pacific Northwest, so we’re having to cook with farmed salmon. *sigh*

Salmon. Okay, let’s face it. I’m a Texan. From deep West Texas. If it ain’t catfish or bass or crappie, we don’t touch it. Right?

Well, Seattle has become a second home to me, so I can cook a mean salmon fillet.

What else?  There are also strawberries. Balsamic vinegar. Pistachios. Fennel. These are things I love. I can make this work. Strawberry balsamic reduction? Sounds good. And fennel cakes crusted with pistachios. Winning combo. Not what I’d cook at home, but these people around me are brilliant…I have to do something to compete.

The time goes by too fast, but I finish. I make a second fillet just to taste and make sure everything is fine. It is. Tastes great. I’m golden.

“…and the worst dish today, by far, was the dish belonging to…BEN STARR.”

WHAT??? This has to be some sick joke. Really? You can make that decision without even tasting my dish, Gordon? Are you serious?

It’s not some sick joke. I’m the worst of the bunch. Thank God this isn’t an elimination round.

No time for self-pity, though, because it’s time for the next round. French.

No worries for me on this one. I love France. Last fall I rented a 400-year-old farmhouse with friends in a medieval village in Brittany and spent the entire week buying amazing local meats and veggies and wine and just cooking all day long. The French gave birth to the best cuisine on the planet. Anyone who truly loves food has studied French cooking, if only from the great Julia Child’s textbooks that got America out of the microwave TV dinner box and back into the kitchen.

Quiche it will be, I decide. I make quiche several times a month. I can show them my baking skills. Roasted red pepper and goat cheese quiche. With an olive oil crust…the kind my mom makes. With herbs baked right into the crust. That’ll make up for my offensive salmon.

Gordon tastes it. He’s not so sure he wants to come over to my house for breakfast.  “And you made your pastry with olive oil? That’s a crime.  Pastry is always made with butter.”

Sorry, Gordon.  Not the way my momma makes it!  Olive oil crust is delicious, flaky, tender, and a trillion times healthier for you.  And it tastes GREAT with quiche.

Graham tastes it…he DEFINITELY wants to come over for breakfast.

“You’re invited any time,” I say.

Joe Bastianich…the toughest critic of all…tastes it. Despite my major transgression of making a pastry crust with olive oil rather than butter, he goes for it.  “Of course you like it Joe,” says Gordon.  “You were surrounded by olive oil in the womb.”

I’m not the best in this round. But I’m not the worst. I’m safe. I will live to see another MasterChef day.

Mark gets the boot for adding raw flour to his mashed potatoes to make them thicker. That’s a shame. The French eat their mashed potatoes at practically the consistency of soup. He shouldn’t have worried. Angel gets the boot for a tart-gone-wrong. That’s sad. I really liked Angel. She brought a lot of spice and attitude and sass to the group. I feel like her time ended too early.

But mine, thankfully, hasn’t ended yet. And I’d better get my butt in gear, or I’ll be on the chopping block soon.


Check back after Tuesday’s episode for more!  The week is only half done!

MasterChef: Week 2

Wow… I’m just speechless. Reliving the MasterChef experience by watching it on TV is almost as stressful as womans health info when I was actually competing.

Making my signature dish is both fun and nerve-wracking.  There’s a strict time limit of 1 hour.  Not a second longer.  Luckily, my partner Christian, my neighbor Sharon, and my dear friend Monty have come to LA to root me on!  Having them standing in front of my cooking station while I cook calms me.  It makes it feel a little normal.  Unfortunately, while I want to be joking around with them while I cook, I honestly don’t even have enough time to do what I need to do to finish my fish tacos in the hour, so I have to keep my focus.  (Of course, with a few Julia Child impersonations thrown in!)

Before I know it, time is up and I have to stop.  Everything is finished.  My tortillas could be a bit thinner, but the brand of masa I’m working with is new to me.  Still, I’m fairly confident that everything is good.  I’ve tasted it all and it tastes good to me!  But I’m no Gordon Ramsay.

I push my cart through the first set of doors and down a looooooooong dark hallway.  I can see cameras following me in my peripheral vision.  After what seems like miles, I arrive at another set of truly massive doors.  They creak open and in the far distance I see 3 people sitting in a pool of light.  They must be half a mile away! I start pushing my cart, which rattles and clacks over each seam in the concrete floor.  Cl-clack, cl-clack, cl-clack, cl-clak.  My nerves are shot.

What am I thinking?  I don’t belong here!  Maybe I can turn around and run back, jump into Christian’s arms, and go home.  I look down at my pumpkin apron which my mother made me to wear on the show.  She wanted to be here to watch, but she has surgery next week.  Another thing which has kept me on edge.  But looking at the apron gives me enough of an edge over my fear that I keep walking.  Cl-clack, cl-clack, cl-clack.

Then Gordon Ramsay is talking to me.  GORDON F-ING RAMSAY.  Whose life am I in right now?  Certainly not mine.

I’m so nervous I assemble my tacos without my signature ingredient: crispy fried pumpkin strings.  They remain on my cart, abandoned.  Bastianich finds them.  Bastianich!  The man I am MOST terrified to meet.  He is nothing like I imagined.  Friendly.  Even tender, perhaps.  But honest, and doesn’t gloss over his opinions.  He laughs and shares the pumpkin with the other judges.  The result?

…three thumbs up…

Bastianich puts an apron around my neck.  Numb.  I can’t believe this is happening.  I got a MasterChef apron.  REALLY?  ME?

Ben Starr's MasterChef apron


I enter into the next round of eliminations with high hopes. I mean, after all, Gordon Ramsay, one of the most famous and finicky celebrity chefs in the world, has just asked me where I’ve been hiding for the past 10 years! That’s enough to make even the most stoic person feel a little proud of himself.

We’re standing there, the top 38, wondering what’s coming next and this giant truck spills tons and tons of apples on the ground. And we learn that we’re going to be peeling and slicing apples. “No problem,” I think. “I’ve baked hundreds of apple pies.”

90 minutes and 40 apples into the challenge, though, I’m starting to doubt myself. My hands are cramping. I’ve developed a blister at the spot where the knife contacts my index finger. I’m sweating. Panicking. And yet Gordon Ramsay keeps coming by, looking at my apples, and saying, “Keep slicing, Ben.” No criticism or praise. Just… “Keep slicing.”

All around me people are cutting themselves with these incredible sharp Global knives, sharper than anything I’ve ever imagined. Sharp like a razor blade. And I keep telling myself, “DON’T cut yourself, Ben, DON’T cut yourself. That’ll be the end.”

90 minutes in I start getting into a routine. Faster and more precise. But my vision is starting to blur. I’m exhausted. Then I see a speck of apple fuzz on my right hand. I move my left hand out, clumsily, from under the knife to brush off the fuzz, and in an instant, without even feeling it, blood swells from a tiny knick on my finger.

I think, “Maybe I can hide it from them.” But the blood keeps coming. This far into the competition, and I’ve blown it. I have to call for the medic.

Moments later I’m back slicing apples with a latex glove on my hand, and it just gets in the way and makes me slow and clumsy. And Gordon keeps telling me, “Keep chopping, Ben. Keep chopping.”

Why is he torturing me like this? Then, finally: “Ben. Stop.”

I breathe for the first time in what seems like a thousand years.

“If I find even one seed in your apples, I’m sending you home,” he says. But I have been diligent. He won’t find any seeds.

He doesn’t. And I join the others in the winner’s circle, hand cramping and blistered. Moments later, they rush us into a second challenge. Chicken. I can do this. I had chickens in my back yard for two years. I’ve butchered them. I can cook chicken. With biscuits, I decide. I can make a mean biscuit.

But there’s no baking powder.

HELLO! This is a cooking show, right? Where is the baking powder???

Stupidly I press on, sans baking powder, and end up with hard little rocks instead of biscuits. Even more stupidly, I put them on the plate. And my plate looks awful. I know the chicken will be delicious. Simmered very slowly in more than a cup of butter. How could that NOT taste good? But it looks ghastly. Presentation is NOT my strong suit.

Gordon calls me on the biscuit. “If you don’t have baking powder…DON’T MAKE A BISCUIT.” And I’ve just learned a valuable lesson on MasterChef. Don’t attempt the impossible. I might have just made my last mistake on the show.

From somewhere in his heart, Gordon summons some pity and sends me into the winner’s circle. And I promise myself to never, ever, ever attempt to make biscuits without baking powder.

MasterChef: Week 1

I wake at 5am for my flight to Los Angeles to start my MasterChef journey!  I can barely open the front door to my house, though.  It faces north, and all night we’ve had ice falling from the sky.  My car is completely encased in an inch of ice…I can’t even get the key into the lock.  I finally melt through the ice with hot water, but the key simply won’t turn the lock.  It’s frozen solid.  I’ll have to get a hair dryer to warm the lock mechanism, but there’s no hair dryer in my house.  And the neighbor is sound asleep.

Then I realize that if I’m having this trouble getting into my car, imagine what’s going on at the airport!  I check the web.  Love Field is shut down.  DFW Airport has massive delays and cancellations.  My Southwest flight is cancelled, and the earliest they can get me out is tomorrow afternoon.  What if that jeopardizes my chances on the show?  I have to find a way to get to L.A.

Realizing there’s really no use doing anything until normal hours, I finally fall back asleep for a few hours of feckless and fitful dreaming.

At 9am I begin the 4 mile drive to DFW Airport, which takes me more than an hour because of ice on the road.  Abandoned cars litter the median, having slid off the road.  Dallas looks like a nuclear wasteland.  Luckily, few people are venturing to the airport for their flights, so I’m able to get a seat to LA almost as soon as I arrive.

A short cab ride from LAX and I arrive at the hotel.  I meet the casting agents, who will become my best friends over the coming days.  I meet the other contestants, from all across the country.  Everyone is so different, but we’re all here for one reason.  We love to cook.  And MasterChef thinks we each have a chance to win this competition.  It’s scary and exciting all at the same time.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been dropped into a scenario where I’m about to live and work with total strangers, knowing nobody, for an undetermined amount of time.  Everyone knows their goal is to beat everyone else and win the title.  So there’s a friendly but cautious decorum saturating our interactions with each other.  Over the coming days we do preliminary interviews introducing ourselves to the cameras and meeting the crew.

Alvin Schultz, Ben Starr's roommate on MasterChef season 2

Alvin smoking some Sailor Jerry rum in our hotel room with his "Smoking Gun"

My roomie and I get to know each other…Alvin Schultz from Houston.  A fellow Texan.  And a very cool guy.  Amongst his luggage is a homemade immersion circulator for “sous vide” cooking (cooking in a vacuum-sealed bag in a water bath at carefully controlled temps), an electric pressure cooker, a nitrogen-powered infuser which he uses to make Fresno-chili infused vodka cocktails with muddled pineapple (yum!), and a Smoking Gun, a device which produces concentrated wood smoke for culinary purposes (which he uses to make smoked rum cocktails).

It becomes apparent to me that if the rest of the contestants are like Alvin, my days at MasterChef may be numbered!  He has a vast body of culinary knowledge.  He’s brilliant.  And he’s friendly and generous.  While other contestants are in their rooms creatively using their irons and aluminum foil to make quesadillas and tortilla pizzas, Alvin is braising short ribs for us in the pressure cooker, poaching eggs in the circulator, and plying me with smoked and infused cocktail after cocktail.  I’m one lucky roomie.

A MasterChef contestant lives in this room (Christian Collins, to be precise!)

For a week, we do little but wait.  It takes a long time to cycle 100 contestants through interviews and evaluations, and many of my fellow Dallas contestants are still stuck in the epic blizzard.  We wait, sequestered to our hotel rooms unless we have an escort to leave.  People start to get antsy.

And after almost a week of waiting, we arrive at the studio where we’ll prepare our signature dishes for  Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliot, and Joe Bastianich.

The studio is an old furniture warehouse.  Grungy and dilapidated.  Filled with hundreds of thousands of dollars of camera, sound, and lighting equipment, and state-of-the-art kitchen stuff.  It’s exciting, but at this point I’ve been away from friends and family without contact for a week.  The pressure is really setting in.  I feel extremely lonely.  Luckily, I connect with someone in the line waiting to get into the studio…Renee Chodkowski from Michigan.  She has the kindest face I’ve ever seen.  She appears to be in her late 30s or early 40s, with a shock of pink hair falling across her forehead.  I ask her for a hug, and she wraps me in warmth and kindness.  I have just found a new best friend.

Waiting in line with the top 100 to enter the MasterChef studio for the first time

Waiting in line with the top 100 to enter the MasterChef studio for the first time

To watch the first 3 Signature Dish episodes, head to MasterChef’s website!