Tag Archives: winner

Masterchef 4 Quick Recap: Finale (S4E25)

Hello! It’s Michael again. After talking to Ben, he told me that he would not be watching the last few episodes of MasterChef, so I took it upon my weary shoulders fingers to finish this season out for those of you that can’t live without the recaps. Expect a post from him in the near future about why he (and I most likely) will never watch MasterChef again.

For those of you that don’t know me, my name is Michael Chen, and I was part of the top 18 during Season 3 of MasterChef. Please follow me on my FacebookTwitter, as well as my website at www.mc3michael.com! Let’s get the usual legal disclaimer out of the way: (PLEASE NOTE: This blog contains the crazed rants of a former MasterChef survivor who has practically no inside knowledge of how this season was produced.  It’s not fit to be read by anyone.)

Finally, after what seems like forever, I click on the last episode of MasterChef on Hulu. This may honestly have been one of the most difficult episodes for me to watch. I will try to keep this brief.

The finale starts off, and we notice some things that are different this time compared to last year. There are large, stadium style TV screens mounted high up. And there are two risers filled with audience members. The initial thought was that it was the top 18, but there are way too many of them and the top 18 is later revealed to be in the balcony. Then there was the thought that it was the top 100, but A) there isn’t enough of them, B) there are no familiar faces, and no quotes/lines/comments from all of those colorful personalities, and C) I remember reading a comment on Facebook saying that it wasn’t the top 100, and that they were brought in. Seeing as how it’s HIGHLY unlikely that they brought in legitimate fans from the street (and even if they did, how the heck would they know what to do without watching the previous episodes/following the storylines), I would probably guess that they hired seat fillers (commonplace in other TV shows where they want it to appear like there is a large and engaging audience) to play the role of background cheerleaders. IF that’s the case (and I have no proof), then all I can say is this: LAME.

Then comes the big family reveal. It was a very sweet moment, but marred in my mind for one reason. Take a look at this comment from Adriana Crnjac (Natasha’s Mom):

Continue reading the rest of the finale blog on my website at www.mc3michael.com!

And there we have it. The end. Stay tuned for some words from Ben himself in a few days. Thanks for coming along for the ride over the last couple of episodes! Y’all are the only reason I put myself through 4 hours of torture every single week to make these happen :).

♥ MC3Michael

MasterChef recap: The Season 3 Finale

(Please Note: The opinions contained in this blog are only that…uneducated hyperbole from my brain, and they may have absolutely no basis in reality.  While I was on Season 2 of MasterChef, I have no inside information about how Season 3 is produced or judged, and my opinions should not be treated as fact.)

We’re down to Christine and Josh…our MasterChef finalists for Season 3.  And most of my fans have been commenting that it seemed like these two had been pre-selected for the finals for several episodes now.  They are both talented enough to be there…let’s get that straight.  In addition, Christine is inspirational, and even presented to us as a bit mystical to us, at time, in her complex and sightless relationship to food.  I’ve been assuming Christine would win MasterChef for quite some time now, and who better to pit her against than Josh, a brilliant and fiercely competitive, confident cook who has overtaken the role of pseudo villain since David Martinez left.  We haven’t had a real villain since Ryan was eliminated, and then narrowly missed winning his apron back against Josh in the win-your-apron-back challenge weeks ago.  But I begin this episode utterly confident that Christine will be the winner.  The audience’s opinion of Josh, in general, has been fairly negative since he won his apron back and his attitude became more harsh toward his fellow contestants.

I wonder if Josh knows, going into this challenge, that his chances of winning are incredibly remote, and not tied to his performance?  Last season, Christian Collins held the distinct honor of being an almost season-long villain.  After young Max, who was the same character that Ryan played this year, was eliminated, Christian SUDDENLY switched from being the lovable dad to the a–hole, and the audience hated him for it.  Of course, this was all done through editing.  Christian was the same goofy, pal-around-with-everyone, carefree, New-England-straightforward genius on day one that he was in the semi-finals.  But the night I got eliminated, he confided in me, “I know I’m not gonna win.  I’m the jerk.  The jerk never wins.  I’m just gonna make it as hard as possible for them to eliminate me.”

If you’re familiar with my blog, you know that I’m a harsh critic of reality TV.  I’ve been on reality TV 3 times, and I’m well aware of the symbiosis of reality and engineering that goes into making a show.  My friends at MasterChef are not pleased with my blog, but I hope they understand that my goal is simply to help the audience understand that what they are watching is no different from a scripted show, and to not drawn conclusions about the nature of reality TV contestants just from watching a show.  To automatically assume that Christian Collins or David Martinez are a–holes in real life, because they are edited that way on TV, is not only a shallow and foolish thing to do, it does actual damage…especially when viewers decide they are going to reach out to those contestants and hurl hate messages at them, which happened quite often to Christian and David.  To make a judgement call about whether a contestant is a skilled cook based upon what you see on the screen is also foolish.  Sometimes the judges are able to be completely honest about a particular dish…but sometimes they have to make criticisms that aren’t necessarily based in truth, to add to the suspense or to get rid of a contestant who’s time has come (even if they perform well in a challenge), in order to keep the story moving.  Likewise, they may sometimes have to overly-praise a mediocre dish.

So, as an audience watching reality TV, it’s best to just sit back and be entertained by it, rather than trying to make judgements about the contestants’ personality and skill.  Because you’re NOT watching a merit-based cooking competition.  You’re watching an elaborately crafted and manipulated piece of reality-inspired fiction.

Folks, if reality TV was left completely up to a contestant’s performance in a merit-based competition, it would be utterly boring for most of us to watch.  MasterChef doesn’t cast the most talented home cooks around the country.  (Most of them wouldn’t be very captivating to watch.)  MasterChef casts the most interesting home cooks around the country.  The top 18 that get selected have a VERY wide range of skills and knowledge.  They’re most definitely NOT the 18 most skilled out of the top 100.  Some of them are, to be sure.  Some of them are not…intentionally.  If the producers and judges left it entirely up to skill and talent and performance, we might end up with four monotonous 60-year old Italian guys who can make pasta with their eyes closed and toss a pizza in each hand.  (If you regularly read food blogs, you know that there are some truly brilliant home cooks out there who could cook the pants off ANY MasterChef contestant from any season.)

We NEED the expertise of the story producers, who hybridize the drama unfolding naturally in the MasterChef kitchen, with expert storytelling, to produce a show that is riveting and enjoyable for us to watch, full of characters we connect with (and despise), so that we have to tune in each week to see what happens.  If we just let MasterChef unfold naturally, it would be droll and insufferably boring.

And they’ve done a pretty superb job this year of guiding us to this point, where we’ve got two TRULY brilliant cooks…one of whom most of us love, the other of whom most of us respect but don’t adore, and now we’re going to watch them being pitted against each other in a final battle that most of us hope Christine will win, but are terrified because she’s up against a powerhouse who is 7 feet tall and has produced some of the most stunning dishes in MasterChef, as well as some of the worst.  That’s a PERFECT mix of volatile ingredients for a dynamite finale.

As usual, we’re given an overview of the finalists’ journeys to this point, then they bring in the other contestants, and, of course, the families of the finalists.  That always gets the waterworks going.  You can’t imagine how it feels for us to get to see family for the first time after 2 months of being completely sequestered from them, enduring terrifying and pressure-filled days with long hours, bad food, and fitful sleep.  Seeing Josh’s mom, who he spoke so fondly of in the last episode, holding him and telling him to follow his dreams is such a precious moment.  It’s delightful seeing Christine’s husband John dash to her side, and the excitement that Christine can’t hide.  I’ve had the distinct honor of staying with Christine and John, and hosting them in my home, and they are a truly amazing couple.

The MasterChef finale gives the two finalists the ability to design a 3 course menu with no holds barred.  Any ingredient they desire will be sourced and provided for them.  Any piece of equipment they need is at their disposal.  They have 2 hours to execute.  Literally, their imagination is the only limit.  This is really the only time we get to see ANY of the MasterChef contestants cook the way they’d cook at home for an important dinner party.

Josh’s menu is eclectic Southern, with butter poached lobster alongside sweet corn grits and sweet potato puree as a starter, a green curry rack of lamb for the main, and a bacon pecan pie with vanilla bean and cinnamon ice cream for dessert.

Christine’s menu is Asian influenced, with a Thai vegetable salad with shredded  green papaya for the appetizer, braised pork belly caramelized in coconut soda and fish sauce for the main, with dessert as a coconut lime sorbet with a ginger tuile (a delicate, crispy cookie).

Josh’s menu seems a bit more sophisticated, though there are rustic elements, like the pecan pie.  Christine’s menu is more traditional Asian peasant food, but elevated with techniques and ingredients to give it a bit more sophistication.

The courses are being tasted, and Josh’s lobster and grits appetizer is first.  The “pitfall” the judges point out is when Josh purees the lobster tail with the shell on.  The judges gasp in horror as he does this.  Joe says, “He’s gonna get all the iodine flavor from the shell in his sauce…  He might be ruining his dish right here.”  That’s an interesting comment, considering how the classic French method for preparing lobster bisque is to saute the shells in oil or butter, and then puree them endlessly.  The pureed shell helps to thicken the bisque as well as flavor it.  (See Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking for specific instructions to not throw ANY BIT OF THE LOBSTER in the trash, every last morsel, shell and all, goes into the final bisque.)  Any one of the 3 French masterchefs who judged the top 4 challenge would have screamed at Josh for NOT including the shells.  This is yet another example of misinformation being perpetuated by the judges to create drama and suspense, and give a potential window for a criticism that they can use to ensure that Josh does not win.

Ramsay remarks that the lobster is actually undercooked.  (Though it’s perfectly acceptable to eat undercooked, and even raw lobster, in many applications.)  In my opinion, lobster is perfect edible in any stage until it’s overcooked, when it becomes a rubber SuperBall.  Joe admits that he was wrong about the lobster shells.  (Maybe someone showed him Julia’s book between scenes!)

Christine’s first course is her Thai green papaya salad with jicama, carrot, crab, and shrimp, dressed with fish sauce vinaigrette.  I absolutely ADORE green papaya salad.  The texture of green papaya is extraordinary, crisp and light, yet dense at the same time.  I don’t run across green papaya in the market very often, but when I’m in a place like Hawaii where it’s hanging off every tree by the side of the road, I cook with it all the time.  Green papaya salad is one of my favorite dishes on earth, it’s an explosion of contrastive textures and flavors…it’s sweet, sour, and hot at the same time.  And the judges are impressed.  The only thing the judges ask for is more “luxuriousness” (ie…more crab), and Christine has been more traditional in her interpretation of the street salad.

The judges argue over the winner…Graham and Gordon prefer Josh’s appetizer, while Joe points out that it may have been well conceptualized and well plated, but he didn’t properly cook the meat, which means it was a failed execution, and he prefers Christine’s.  I certainly don’t argue that Josh’s was more complex, with more technique required for each element.  Of course, if you put both in front of me and asked me which one I’d eat, I’d invariably pick Christine’s salad.

Josh serves his main course, a stunning rack of lamb seared with green curry on a parsnip puree with spring veggies.  The lamb is cooked perfectly, but Gordon says that Josh has confused his seasons by plating spring vegetables like peas with parsnips, which are a cool season root vegetable.  Everything tastes and looks beautiful, but there was an error in conceptualization.  Joe disagrees and states that the spring lamb, the summer peas, the autumn carrots, and the winter parsnips is akin to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on a plate and praises him for it.  (A little hyperbolic and dramatic, but how can I accuse ANYONE of being hyperbolic and dramatic?!?!)

Christine presents her braised pork belly that’s been caramelized in coconut soda, on a bed of rice with a pan sauce, with a crispy kale salad and fried maitake mushrooms and Asian pickled red onion and daikon radish, all topped with a fried quail egg.  Pork belly is one of those ingredients that restaurants love, because it’s cheap (it’s just uncured bacon) but incredibly delicious, and they can dress it up and sell it for $20 a plate and make huge profit margins on it.  And people just can’t get enough pork belly.  Gordon immediately has reservations that the dish isn’t sophisticated enough for MasterChef.  (They delivered the same criticism to Adrien last season, who also cooked pork belly in the pressure cooker for his main course.)  However, at plenty of other times in the runs of ALL seasons, the judges criticize contestants for relying on premium ingredients, thinking the ingredients’ reputation alone will impress the palate.  So this is another bait-and-switch criticism…they’re trying to make us worry that Christine’s not going to win it.  If a 3-star Michelin restaurant can charge $75 for a plate of beef heart, which costs $1.49 a pound but is expertly cooked and delicious, there are NO RULES that say a MasterChef contestant can’t use offal or cheaper cuts of meat, provided they nail the preparation.  In fact, it’s probably an even better indication of their potential future as a chef.  Rack of lamb can cost upwards of $30 a pound.  Pork belly?  I’ve never seen it higher than $3, and usually it’s half that.  Josh is walking away from this course with a much narrower profit margin than Christine.

Gordon changes his mind about his earlier comments when he tastes the pork belly, and suddenly the green papaya starter is redeemed, and the pork belly is divine.  Joe wants more acid on the plate, and Graham wants a presentation that looks as impressive as Josh’s did.  And ultimately the judges are split on their decision about whose was the best.

Josh’s dessert is this bacon pecan pie that he’s been teasing us with all episode.  I’d eat the heck outta that.  I am fairly new to bacon desserts, even though they’ve been trendy for several years, but bacon seems to be a perfect compliment to pecan pie.  (If you wanna try an incredible bacon dessert, check out my bacon white chocolate chip cookie recipe.  And if you’d like my version of pecan pie, check out my pumpkin bourbon pecan pie recipe or my more traditional pecan pie with no corn syrup recipe that uses a bourbon, maple, and honey reduction instead of manufactured corn syrup.

Graham complains that Josh’s crust is a bit oily…maybe the bacon he layered on top of the crust wasn’t rendered well enough…but the vanilla bean and cinnamon ice cream is perfect.  Joe also goes nuts for the ice cream, and Gordon agrees, but says that he can’t detect any bacon in the pie at all.  (I’d have probably used the rendered bacon fat to make the crust, and liberally sprinkled bacon throughout the filling.)

Christine’s dessert brings the meal full circle back to the cold, with her coconut lime sorbet (Doesn’t that sound so refreshing?!?) with a ginger tuile cookie on top.  Graham is disappointed that the coconut is the dominant flavor rather than the lime.  Gordon is incredibly impressed by how beautifully the light sorbet follows the heavy, rich pork belly.

In my opinion, Josh’s menu showed a bit more advanced technique, the presentations were more impressive, but the menu wasn’t very cohesive.  Pecan pie with lobster and lamb?  Christine’s dishes were more rustic, and not as complex, but her menu made sense and flowed flawlessly from course to course.  And while I grew up with Southern cuisine, I honestly believe that southeast Asian cuisine is the most complex, advanced, perfect cuisine on the planet, and requires a much more sophisticated understanding of flavor and texture, and an even, balanced hand, to pull off correctly.  While I was certain Christine was going to win for the past few episodes (and obviously already knew she had won before writing this blog, since I’m almost a week late on it), I still believe that she deserves the win tonight.

Do the judges agree with me?

YES!  Christine wins, and has a complete meltdown.  She can’t even speak.  Josh, his voice heavy with emotion, praises Christine and reasserts his determine to succeed with his goals of starting a cooking school and publishing a cookbook.

And abruptly, the show, and season, are over.

Watching this season has been a roller coaster for me.  In the beginning I was pretty jaded, and disgusted with what appeared to me to be VERY heavy engineering and manipulation from the producers, and it seemed like the contestants were being pushed to throw each other under the bus and talk negatively about each other.  I almost quit watching.

Then, after a few episodes, I started connecting to the contestants.  I already knew Michael and Tanya before they left to be on the show.  And through them, I met Christine.  Then Monti and David came into my life.  Then I shared an incredible 24 hours with Stacey, followed by a crazy evening with Felix.  Ultimately, there’s no way for me to divorce myself from what I know about this season behind-the-scenes, just as there’s no way I can speak objectively about my own season.  I know, care for, and truly LOVE many of the people whose lives were changed by MasterChef this year.

So, rather than spend another moment discussing reality TV and the MasterChef format, I must digress (or, perhaps, progress) to discussing what MasterChef means to the people who give up months of their lives to be on it.

When fans contact me who want to be on the show, I always describe it to them as a blessing and a curse.  MasterChef is easily the worst thing that ever happened to me.  During the filming of the show, I was more miserable, lonely, dejected, depressed, even suicidal than I’ve ever been at any point in my life.  I doubted and hated myself at every turn.  I was thrilled and relieved to be eliminated, which is the exact opposite of what I thought I should feel.

The show aired, and my life lost all semblance of privacy.  Now I have to share everything thing I cook, everything I eat, everything about my life in public forums like Facebook and Twitter.  I can’t get through the grocery store without having to take a photo on each aisle.  Every day I get a dozen requests to help out with charity events or projects, and as much as I want to, I just don’t have the time (or money) to help even a fraction of them all.

If I want to capitalize on the exposure, it’s up to me and only me.  No one else is ready to finance and support trips and projects, or pilots for a potential TV show.  All that has to come out of my pocket, out of my brain, and I have to coordinate it.  I am more poverty-stricken now, in the aftermath of MasterChef, than I’ve ever been in my life, because every penny I can scrounge gets used for self promotion.  Of course, there’s a legion of folks ready to step in if I “make it big” and claim their piece of me and get involved at that point.  The entire reality TV engine is shamefully exploitative and manipulative, with profit and ratings as the primary goal.


And that’s a really, really big “but…”

Now I have this big, warm family of friends I never knew before MasterChef.  And everyone knows, the older you get, the less often you make truly meaningful, life-long connections with other people.  MasterChef is the catalyst for a ridiculously large number of friends who have become so precious to me that I can’t imagine life without them.

And look what we’ve done together!

Monti and David and I have helped raised money for disadvantaged kids who need medical help.

Through my dear fans-turned-friends in Hawaii Cristy Kessler and Liz Zivanov, Tracy and Jennifer and Adrien and Christian and I have been to able help support homeless kids and homeless families and raise awareness about the astronomical homeless problem in Hawaii.

And my dear, sweet Jennie Kelley and I have taken our separate life-long passions and turned them into this extraordinary underground restaurant experience, FRANK, that happens twice a month and gathers 18 fascinating souls around a communal table for an evening of celebration and fellowship.

A day doesn’t go by when my phone doesn’t ring with a call or a text from someone from some season of MasterChef.  Someone who has just had a breakthrough in the kitchen, or someone who has a question about an ingredient, or someone who needs a comforting word with a challenging situation.  And these relationships that came out of MasterChef have enriched my life in a way that’s practically inconceivable at my age.

People from the top 100 of MasterChef who didn’t even get aprons have been given the courage and connections to leave the drudgery of their former lives and start restaurants, catering companies, bakeries, or start selling artisan products, and follow their dreams for a change.

And every single day, even a year after MasterChef, I get emails from fans.  And they run the gamut from “Just letting you know I love you!” to “I lost my mom this year and you inspired me to learn how to cook like she used to cook for me” to “I’m anorexic and have a horrible relationship with food…but watching how much you love food has helped me recover.”  They just don’t stop coming.  And the fact that, through the lens of MasterChef, people have connected to us and it has made their lives better, has also made OUR lives better.  So while MasterChef is easily the worst thing that has ever happened to most of it…it’s also most definitely the best.

I can’t speak highly enough of Christine Ha, and I offer my sincerest congratulations to her on her big win.  Christine has captured the heart of an entire nation.  We’ve watched her battle self-doubt throughout this season.  (And she hasn’t won that battle yet…even now she is still wrestling with judges’ decision and still wonders if her talent warrants the title.)

Christine…it does.  You have accomplished culinary miracles this season, at the same time as inspiring and moving millions of viewers.  Even without sight, you can cook circles around most of us.

The prize money Christine has won will be invested in her culinary future…she has big plans for restaurants and cafes.  You can keep track of her progress on her centralized website, ChristineHa.com.  Here you can link to any of her blogs, including The Blind Cook, where she’s been food blogging since long before MasterChef.  Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

And if you’d like to be part of the utter insanity that is MasterChef, they are accepting pre-applications for season 4!  Click here to get registered.  A few bits of advice…go to the open call, even if you have to travel.  Getting cast off a video submission isn’t that likely.  And take your lesson about casting from my blog…don’t cook something that you think is going to really impress them.  Cook something that MEANS SOMETHING TO YOU.  MasterChef isn’t casting chefs.  They’re casting characters.  Talk about yourself.  Tell them WHY you cook.  Who is your inspiration?  And why are you ready to change your life?  Because, if MasterChef does anything, it changes your life.

Thanks for following me on this exhausting journey here with season 3.  And for those contestants from all seasons who read my blog, thanks for enduring what you endured.  And always focus on the good things MasterChef has brought you.  And never forget that you’ve been given the gift of exposure that you can use to help others.  And we can help others more effectively together than alone.  Use this opportunity to do as much good for the world as you can.

Please, please, please comment below.  Let’s hear your thoughts on the whole season, the results, and the larger picture of MasterChef’s role in our culture.  And just because my MasterChef recaps have stopped, doesn’t mean the story is over!  Subscribe to my blog in the upper right corner of your screen to get stories about my travels all over the world, often with MasterChef contestants.

The adventure continues!


MasterChef recap: Michelin Stars and Walmart Steaks

(Please note that my blog is not endorsed or approved by MasterChef or Walmart, and that they would probably both prefer you not read it.  The information below consists solely of uneducated opinions and assumptions and should not be considered factual.  I have no inside information on how MasterChef is judged or produced.)

Please also note that, since we’re down to 6 contestants, each one of them has their own website (except for Josh).  So instead of linking to social media pages, when you see a clickable name, it’s going to their individual websites, which are incredible places for photos, recipes, personal information, etc.  So VISIT THEM!

After a long hiatus due to the Olympics, MasterChef is finally back for one episode per week (Tuesdays) until a MasterChef is crowned.  (Er…trophied.)  And in today’s challenge we’re seeing exactly replicas of challenges from season 2.  The group challenge is 3 against 3 in a Michelin-starred restaurant: Hatfield’s.

Before I recap what happens in this season, I have to mention that in my season when we did our group challenge at the Michelin-starred Patina, it was one of the biggest epiphanies of my life.  I realized that being a restaurant chef is actually my deepest, darkest, most terrifying nightmare, and that if I was ever so unfortunate as to be employed as a restaurant chef, I don’t know how long I’d last before ending it all on the point of a very dull knife.

There are 2 broad types of people who love to cook: those who thrill to the challenge of multiple orders coming together at the same instant and whizzing out the door and that’s the end of it/next order please, and those whose fascination actually begins when the food hits the table and what happens to the people when they get it.  And it was never clear to me in my mind that I don’t love cooking because I love to cook…I love cooking because of what food means to people, and how it brings them together.  I’d rather be a highway construction worker in the middle of a Texas summer than be a restaurant chef.  Because you never get to connect with the people you’re feeding.  It’s only about the mathematical and artistic channels that result in a perfectly-presented plate of food at exactly the right time, and to me, that holds absolutely NO interest whatsoever.

This is why FRANK is such a wonderful outlet for me.  I get to cook alongside someone I really care about, Jennie Kelley.  And then we put those plates of food down in front of the people who have come to dine with us, and we get to talk to them about it.  And we get to see the magical way that food transforms perfect strangers into new best friends.  This is another beef I have with restaurants.  The vast majority use party seating…you arrive at the restaurant with your party, and your party sits at a table, insulated from everyone else dining.  Ever craned your neck toward the next table to see what they were eating?  Ever wanted to ASK them how it was, but felt it was a breach of tact?  I hate that.  I want to sit next to everyone at the restaurant, talk about the food, and talk about life.  Make new friends.  So the conventional restaurant world is most certainly NOT for me.

Nor is Hatfield’s, the restaurant where this group challenge will take place.  Hatfield’s is the kind of restaurant that will allow you to bring your own wine if you wish (as EVERY restaurant should), but will charge you $30 for the 30 second task of opening the bottle for you.  (That’s just highway robbery, folks.)  I realize that restaurants have an overhead, and that the 300% markup on wine is one of the ways they pay their bills…but a $30 corkage fee?  Come on.

So our team leaders are Becky and Frank…who, quite honestly, I feel are the 2 best cooks left in the game.  (But as we all know, reality TV competitions are NOT merit-based competitions…the most appropriate winner wins, not the most skilled.)

Becky surprises the judges by choosing Christine first.  Bastianich definitely has reservations about the pick, and says he would have put Christine working the coat closet.  While that’s harsh, he is a restaurateur and he has a point.  The kitchen line is a place that has to work with perfect efficiency, and Christine’s lack of sight is definitely going to hinder the productivity of her team.  And she knows it.  However, we also know that Christine has the best palate in the group, and can help ensure that everything tastes flawless before it goes out.  (Still, the majority of food prep is already handled in the afternoon by the prep cooks…the sauces are made, the vegetables sliced and diced…everything is already prepped for the final cook and plating.  So there’s not a HUGE amount of flavor tweaking that can be done.)

Frank’s first pick is David Martinez, which is also a surprise for most of us.  However, if you’ve read my previous blogs, you know that David is actually a BRILLIANT cook, and that’s clear to anyone who spends 10 minutes talking food with him…he’s just been struggling under the competitive format of the show.  Frank knows exactly how knowledgeable and skills David is, and it’s proof to the audience that the David you’ve seen thus far in MasterChef is NOT the real David that his fellow competitors know.

Becky’s final choice is Monti, which means Josh goes to Frank, leading to girls-against-boys in the kitchen!  FASCINATING!  I was a bit surprised that Becky picked Monti, since she has been somewhat disparaging about Monti’s skills throughout the competition.  But it’s a fabulous team.  If I were picking teams, I’d have put Monti, David, and Christine on a team, because I think they all have a very tight dynamic that complements each other, and Frank, Becky, and Josh on a team.  You’ve probably got a bit more skill and refinement in the Frank/Becky/Josh team, but you’ve also got some leadership issues since everyone will be eager to lead.  I think that would be an intriguing challenge to watch.

I’ve remarked a few times about how massively tall Josh is, but when we get the lineup of all 6 contestants, it’s truly ASTOUNDING how tall Josh is.  His Facebook profile says he’s 7 feet tall!  I mean, look at this:

So it’s boys-against-girls, and the contestants head back into the kitchen where the chef-owners (the Hatfields) are going to demonstrate how to make 2 appetizers and 2 entrees.  Season 3 got off easy…in season 2 we had to do all that, and in addition we had to conceptualize and prepare from scratch a dessert, as well, all in the same prep time!

The courses are much more interesting this season.  (I didn’t care for the electric green risotto, the weird scallops, etc. from last season.)  This season the appetizers are a croque madam with butter-fried bread, hamachi (the Japanese word for yellowtail) and thick-cut prosciutto, topped with a quail egg; and a handmade agnolotti (a stuffed pasta like ravioli) stuffed with ricotta and peas, sauteed in butter.  The entrees are baked branzino (European sea bass) topped with fried capers and parsley, dried apricots, and roasted almonds, on a bed of green beans with celery root puree.  (If you’ve never had celery root, or celeriac, you gotta try it, it’s incredible!)  And a double venison chop which they don’t describe, but which appears to sit atop Brussels sprouts, turnip puree, and perhaps a beet puree, finished with red wine sauce and radish sprouts.

The teams have 2 hours to prep, and we’re immediately led to believe that Monti has lost her hearing because she has to ask Becky to speak louder.  Keep in mind that you are hearing the direct feed recorded from the contestant’s microphones…a commercial kitchen is DEAFENINGLY loud, with industrial vents roaring like jet engines, convection ovens that sound like vacuum cleaners, dishes clanking, line cooks hollering to coordinate.  The sound team for the show has to work very hard to be able to isolate just the voices of the contestants.  So it’s not weird for Monti to have trouble hearing.  Christine’s hearing is probably a bit more acute than yours and mine, anyway.

While Frank’s team seems to be leading in terms of prep, as the dinner guests start to arrive, things break down and a plastic oil bottle melts onto the flat top, and the beurre blanc (white wine butter sauce) is boiling, unattended.  The narrator is careful to tell us right after this that the judges will make the final decision about which team wins based on who has the most impressive performance.  And while they will take feedback from the diners and chef/owners into account, ultimately they will have the final say.  To me, this immediately indicates that the girls are going to win, but that things will take another turn or two before that happens.  I certainly expect the girls to win, because I don’t think the show is ready to dump any of the 3 girls, whereas they’ve been prepping both Josh and David to leave for the last few episodes.

Service begins and we get a glimpse into the bizarre world of the restaurant kitchen.  The “expediter” (in this case, Gordon), receives orders typed into the computer by the waiters, and he calls out the orders to each team.  The team is supposed to respond by repeating the order to him to ensure that it’s correct, and then repeating the entire evening’s orders to each other so they’re all on the same page.  I would never, ever be able to do this, I’m far too scatterbrained.  In the Patina challenge last season, I basically stood there with my mouth open, staring around like an idiot, for the majority of the challenge, because none of it made any sense to me.  It certainly wasn’t cooking that was going on…it was some bizarre ritual from another universe.

The girls are leading the service with prompt appetizers, while the boys are struggling with the butter-fried bread portion of the croque madame.  It’s really tough to deep-fry bread in butter perfectly…if the butter isn’t hot enough, the bread just gets soggy and butter-drenched.  But butter burns and becomes bitter and acrid very quickly over high heat.  So there’s a perfect balance that must be struck, and Josh is having trouble striking it.

(By the way, I recognized someone in the dining room, commenting on the food.  You know who you are if you’re reading this!)

30 minutes into service, the boys still don’t have any appetizers on the table, so Frank takes over the bread station.  Then, to complicate matters, the VIP table where the chef/owners are sitting has requested both appetizers from both teams to be delivered at the same time, which means Frank and Becky have to coordinate their cooking.  The girls are up to speed, but the boys need extra time, which means the girls’ appetizers will have to sit around getting cold (or over-cooked) while they wait for the boys.  Then the boys’ appetizers are fresh and hot, while the girls’ have been sitting around for 15 minutes, when the dishes are delivered to the table…a stupendously unfair situation.  The girls have a better agnolotti, while the boys have a better croque madame.  When the main courses are tasted by the chef/owners, the boys win on both accounts…the girls didn’t have enough sauce on their Branzino, and their venison was overcooked.

Finally, dinner service ends, and I know exactly how relieved the contestants are.  Last season, I felt like I had given birth.  Every cell in my body ached.  I was drenched in sweat from the sweltering, humid kitchen.  Burnt on both arms from the blasting heat of the flat top.  Frazzled by how many dishes I had mindlessly and frantically churned out.  Luckily, the judges poured us a bottle of Moet, which helped soothe us a bit.

Back in the MasterChef kitchen, the judges make the announcement that, despite the fact that the boys’ dishes were better received by the chef/owners, the girls are actually the winners because their teamwork was smoother and more prompt.  Joe apologizes to Christine for underestimating her.  The girls head upstairs, while we wait for whatever twist the judges are going to throw at the boys.

They ask Frank a theoretical question: who would he save if he was given the chance, including himself?  Theorizing, Frank says he would save Josh, because he did an “excellent job.”  We, of course, were really only shown Josh continually unable to nail the bread frying until Frank had to take over for him, so Josh must have pulled through later in the service and it wasn’t shown to us.  (Either that, or he feels confident he can beat David in a pressure test and doesn’t wanna go up against Josh.)  Ramsay asks him why he wouldn’t choose to save himself, and he replies, “I felt like I was playing catchup the whole, I really don’t deserve to be up on that balcony.”

Now they tell him that Frank DOES, in fact, have the ability to save an individual, including himself.  After an excruciating pause, he says, “I know I said I’d send Josh up there, but I gotta go upstairs, guys.”

This IS a competition, folks.  While I’d have never saved myself in a million years (mostly out of cowardice, not nobility), Frank is a brilliant, shrewd competitor and he made the smart decision to save himself.  I know some people are gonna hate him for that, but Frank is so darn likeable, and I understand his decision…although I could never have made it myself.

The judges reveal the Pressure Test ingredient, and it’s deja vu yet again.  3 filet mignon steaks.  JUST like the pressure test last season between Max and Christine.  Only this time, instead of having to nail, rare, medium, and well done, they will have to nail rare, medium rare, and well done.  (I guess the challenge designers ran out of ideas?!?)

Graham announces that each contestant has GENEROUSLY been provided 3 “stunning, USDA Choice filet steaks” provided by Walmart “which sells the highest quality Choice steak.”  They go on to say that only 1 in 6 steaks is good enough to be a Walmart steak.  This weekend, Alvin Schultz and I headed over to Walmart to check out this supposedly-stunning steak:

Lots of my fans commented on this photo and said that Walmart has the worst beef they’ve found in any grocery store.  To be fair, Walmart has only recently chosen to start selling USDA Choice steaks, rather than USDA Select (the lowest quality you can normally find in the grocery store).  So if you are one of those people, you probably haven’t yet experienced the new, higher-quality steaks, and Walmart has specifically chosen MasterChef as their venue to make this annoucement.  So…there are now BETTER steaks at Walmart.  However, they also still carry their lower-grade Select quality, as well.  And they are really hyping this idea that “Now Walmart sells the best beef in America” when you can get USDA Choice steaks at any grocery store in the country.

I also have to admit, the steak they showed on MasterChef didn’t look like a normal tenderloin to me.  Here it is, next to a NORMAL-looking tenderloin:

Beef quality is graded by the USDA based upon the amount of intramuscular fat found distributed throughout the meat fibers, called “marbling.”  The more fat, the more tender, juicy, and delicious the steak will be, and thus, the higher grade and the most expensive.  In the photo above, you can see liberal veins of fat running through the steak on the right…this is excellent marbling.  The steak on the left doesn’t look very appealing to me, I would not buy it.

(Side note: the vast majority of beef sold in the US comes from cattle that are raised in the pasture on grass, and then sent to a “finishing lot” where they are fed only corn, which their digestive systems are not designed to process, but which causes massive, rapid fat gain.  The side effects of this unnatural diet to the cow are not pleasant…they become incredible gassy because their digestive systems can’t handle the concentrated sugars from the corn [which dumps ridiculous amounts of methane into the atmosphere] and instead of pooping their normal, solid, somewhat wholesome earthy-smelling cow patties, they instead only have diarrhea.  And if you’ve ever driven past a finishing lot, you know exactly how it smells.  This runoff is downright toxic and feed lots have difficulty containing it.  But this is how “premium” beef is produced.  If you have access to grass-fed, pastured beef, and can afford it, spring for it.  It tastes totally different.  The fat is yellow, rather than abnormally white.  The taste is rich, hearty, and meaty.  We are one of the only countries that produce cattle via this concentrated industrial feedlot system.  The best beef in the world is produced in South America and Japan, where the cattle are pastured and grass fed their whole lives.  America has VAST pastureland and certainly has the ability to produce healthy, happy, grass-fed cattle.  But we converted to the industrial system during the great World Wars because our brightest and best were sent to the front lines, leaving fewer hands to work the cattle…so gathering them together in one place meant more cattle could be raised with fewer people.  Now we have an employment crisis in this country, too many people don’t have work.  Anyone wanna become a cowboy and tend to some free-range cattle in a grassy meadow in Montana somewhere?!?)

Seriously, you probably have more choices than you realize when it comes to beef.  Check out your farmer’s markets, and get on Craigslist.  You and your neighbors might be able to go in on half of a local, grass-fed cow, have it processed and delivered right to your door, for LESS than the price of buying the same thing at Walmart’s already-low prices.  Your money stays in the community, you get a vastly superior product for less out-of-pocket expense, and the animal you are eating led a much better life.  You just might need to get a cheap chest freezer for your garage, because you’re getting 100 pounds of beef delivered!

The pressure is on, and I get super excited when I see each contestant has 3 cast iron skillets on the stove in front of them!  Cast iron is the ONLY WAY TO COOK STEAK.  Indoors, at least.  Charcoal grilling is lovely outside when weather permits.  Please don’t ever, ever cook a steak on a propane grill, there’s no point.  It’s comparatively uneven heat with no flavor benefit.  Cook it inside on cast iron where the entire surface of the meat gets in contact with the searing hot cooking surface, or put a cast iron griddle on your propane grill outside.

The trickiest steak to cook for David and Josh is, obviously, the well-done steak.  Here’s how I cook a well-done steak, though I always have to cook it against my will:  liberally season the steak with lots of kosher salt, plus garlic powder and coarsely cracked black pepper, and let it sit in a bowl on the countertop for an hour.  Juices will run out into the bowl.  Keep them.  On a screaming hot cast iron skillet, give the steak a pre-sear in olive oil for 1 minute per side.  Then place the skillet into a 400F oven, tenting the steak loosely with foil to retain moisture.  Flip the steak gently every 5 minutes until it has the right feel to it.  (Take your left hand, unless you’re a leftie in which case use your right, and hold your ring fingertip to the tip of your thumb.  Feel the pad of muscle at the base of your thumb.  That is the FINAL texture for a medium well steak.  But by the time we’re finished with this steak, it will be well done.)  Remove the steak from the oven.  Rub some freshly chopped garlic and fresh thyme on both sides of the steak, and drop it into another screaming hot cast iron skillet with some olive oil and a bit of butter, along with the juices that ran out of the meat when it was resting before cooking.  Sear it for 2 minutes per side.  Then remove it to a cooling rack, place a pat of butter on top, and tent it VERY lightly with foil so that it can breathe and the crust you built doesn’t get soggy, and let it rest for 5 minutes.  Return any juices that drop out to the top of the steak.  Then serve it.  I don’t know why anyone would ever wanna eat a well-done steak, but that’s how you do it.

David makes a scary choice to cook his well-done steak entirely on the stovetop.  This can result in a very dry steak.  But knowing that there’s a good chance that the steaks will not be spot-on temperature for both contestants, the judges are careful to state that appropriate seasoning can make up for incorrect temperature.  And tasting begins.

David’s rare steak is medium rare, but has “aggressive garlic flavor” which Bastianich says might be difficult for someone to eat.  (I don’t understand anything about that statement…in fact, I don’t know what “too much garlic” even means.  I’ve never found that threshold.)  Josh’s rare steak is spot on, and he pats himself on the back for it.

David’s medium rare steak has an uneven sear and is just beyond medium temperature, but has great flavor and moisture, according to Graham.  Josh’s medium rare has a flawless sear, but is medium in temp and lacking in flavor.

Ramsay can tell from a gentle squeeze of both well-done steaks that both are undercooked.  David’s is just over medium, with a perfect sear.  Josh’s under medium, and seasoned nicely.

At this point, you’d imagine that Josh is going home.  Josh won the first steak.  David won the second.  Coming down to the well-done, David was closer to the temp than Josh, so he probably won the well-done by an inch.

But the judges and producers have the final say, and Josh is staying, and David’s heading home.  With grace, optimism, and dignity, and the same likeability that he had when we were first introduced to him months ago.  Graham offers David a job in one of his restaurants, which further attests to the fact that we only rarely glimpsed David’s skill and vision on the show, but the judges saw it through-and-through.

Ramsay asks David who is going to win MasterChef, and David gives a heartfelt and overwhelmingly genuine endorsement to Frank, who’s obviously tearing up.  (Is this the first time we’ve seen Frank cry?)  David leaves the show with eloquent words, “With great risk comes reward, and if you love something, you should fight for it tooth and nail.  Life is a journey and you can’t worry about your mistakes…  I think people will see big things of me in the future.”

David flew home from MasterChef and immediately dove into the commercial kitchen.  All that anxiety, fear, and frustration I experience in the commercial kitchen?  David CRAVES it.  In the few months since the show was filmed, he has interned (or “staged”) with many of Chicago’s top chefs…the kind of chefs that can run circles around Graham.  David has done popup restaurants that have attracted a devout following among Chicago’s foodie culture, which is among the most robust in the world.  He’s been invited to cook for the Bears and the Cubs and at international events hosted in the Windy City.

As I type, David is completing a move to Phoenix, where he will work on his PhD in Education at Arizona State.  His life’s second passion is educating underprivileged minorities, and he hopes to continue to work in both this vein, and in the kitchen, in the future.  He has grand plans for his culinary future in Phoenix, and I was fortunate to be present when several of Phoenix’s movers-and-shakers in the restaurant world welcomed him to their city with open arms.

I feel fortunate to call David Martinez my friend.  We’ve spent barely over 48 hours together, but I feel like he’s an old friend.  He and his wife B are amazing human beings, and I can’t wait to see David’s thumbprint on this country.  Not only will he create culinary magic, many young aspiring minorities who could never hope to afford a higher education will be able to because of David’s efforts.

Please follow David on Twitter, “like” him on Facebook, and visit his incredible blog, From Fire to Table.  And please comment and share below!!!