Masterchef 4 Recap: Mini-Judges and Noodle Soup (S4E21)

Hello! I’m back with my blog for the first part of the show from this Wednesday. Part two will be up soon! I hope you pour yourself a drink and enjoy this post, all 3600 words of it! Haha.

Right as this episode starts, the special guests are revealed to us: the judges’ kids!  Apparently they get to pick the ingredients that go into the first mystery box. It will be interesting to see how their personalities are, and how closely they resemble the on camera personalities of their respective parents. Kids are much more honest about their emotions and personalities, and through them we might get a glimpse at how the judges are around their families, away from the cameras, where they can truly be themselves.

One quip in the intro reel catches me slightly off guard, and that is the Ramsay’s son Jack asking Jessie if she has a boyfriend, followed by an encouraging high-five from Ramsay himself. MasterChef does not have a great record when it comes to treating women with respect, and with the ongoing allegations of sexual harassment going on, I’m a bit shocked that something like this (which comes across as being patronizing to me) made it to the final edit. Am I making a big deal out of nothing? Regardless, it would be interesting to me if MasterChef took one of the less compelling judges (I’m looking at you, Joe Bastianich) and replaced him with a female judge. Which female chef would you like to see join the show as a judge? It would be interesting to hear what y’all think :).

And of course, for an added injection of drama from Ramsay: “In the history of this competition, this is the most difficult decision that we have ever had to make”. How many times have you hear that or some variant of that before? To me, it’s so overused that it makes me roll me eyes every time I hear it.

I have to giggle once again at how hard Joe is trying to act. His face looks so strained. And those pauses between words? That is him pausing to receive the lines he has (either via earpiece or cue cards) and regurgitate each word out. Seriously, nothing against his character or his palate, but his acting skills are so horrible that MasterChef is just digging itself deeper into a hole credibility wise each time he opens his mouth.

I have to pause for a second when they finally show the staple pantry box with some sort of clarity. From what I can tell, it includes eggs, lemon, flour, rosemary, basil, mint, thyme, sage, a vial with what looks like a vanilla bean, a small mason jar of sugar (?), a small pitcher of cream or milk (?), an unidentifiable container with a metal lid of something, and eight vials of herbs and spices, which include red pepper, cinnamon, bay leaves, smoked paprika, and four more other items that weren’t shown. Of course, there is also kosher salt, telicherry peppercorns, and olive oil on each station. I’ve always been curious as to what the staple pantry included. Ours season didn’t have nearly as many flavoring agents (none of the herbs and spices), but a pretty similar stash otherwise (flour, eggs, butter [maybe that's what's in the little metal thing?], lemons, sugar, and maybe a few other things that I forgot). But Ben I believe said that on season 2, they didn’t even HAVE a staple pantry. So perhaps they are expanding the staple pantry season by season to give the contestants more options. Either way, it’s an interesting development. The staple pantry itself is almost enough stuff to cook a meal with!

Graham’s son (Conrad?) is SO adorable. I love how he just stays by the candy section. Hahahahahaha. Jack walks a lot like Gordon, but speaks in a heavier accent. Gordon spends so much time in America that I guess he’s picked up more of an American accent.

The list of ingredients: white chocolate chips, chocolate spread (aka “greeked” nutella), ketchup, peanut butter, coconut, mini marshmallows, baby pineapple, candy sprinkles (looks like Ramsay didn’t announce those), passionfruit (YUM!), bacon, American cheese slices (LOL……blech), maple syrup, bananas, blueberries, strawberries, and puff pastry. I guess the reason the sprinkles weren’t announced was because the kids were only supposed to grab 15 ingredients but there are 16 on the table. Regardless, I wonder who will be gutsy enough to go beyond the obvious and do something savory with the OVERLOAD of sweet stuff on the table.

If I had to think quickly, I would definitely candy the bacon in the maple syrup, and make a peanut butter custard with freshly made coconut milk (blitz the meat in a blender with some water, strain through fine cloth). I would caramelize the bananas with some sugar and spices in the staple pantry, and perhaps do a white chocolate mousse with the egg whites. Arrange it all in a puff pastry shell in a sort of “tart”. It’s tempting to try and incorporate the nutella, or some of the other fruits, but to me that would overcomplicate the dish and they don’t really go well with the peanut butter, banana, white chocolate, coconut, maple, and bacon, which I feel like complement each other in some way. What do y’all think? Would you eat a tart with peanut butter coconut custard, white chocolate mousse, topped with caramelized bananas and maple candied bacon? I would ;).

Natasha is doing a pancake trio layered with passionfruit. I’m nervous about the coconut pancake, because while the flavor sounds delicious, I’m not so sure about the somewhat gritty texture the raw coconut might impart. The appearance/presentation could be somewhat problematic as well. It will be interesting to see how she pulls it together.

Krissi is making banana cupcakes with peanut butter buttercream and a white chocolate sauce. I HATE buttercream with a passion. Way too cloyingly sweet and overwhelming for me. Give me a good, light whipped cream frosting or mousse anyday, but if there is enough peanut butter in the buttercream for the flavor to come through, then I might like it. The challenge for her is to not make everything too overwhelmingly sweet. Banana cakes/breads are usually really sweet on their own, and adding buttercream and a white chocolate sauce might push it too far. If the sugar use is judicious though, it sounds like it would be really delicious.

Jessie is making little tropical fruit tarts with vanilla cream. That to me sounds like a safe choice, with little to no creativity needed, and not much thinking outside of the box. If executed correctly though, fruit tart is one of my favorite desserts. I’m not sure about the chocolate drizzle on the edge of the plate to “elevate” it though. If it’s just kinda put on the plate without a real intention to incorporate it into the dish, I feel like it doesn’t serve a purpose.

Luca is making a white chocolate and pineapple napolean, with a passionfruit sauce. A solid sounding dish. It’s interesting to see him strain the pulp out of passionfruit, leaving the seeds behind. Passionfruit pulp is usually served whole, little crunchy seeds and all (remember Graham’s dish from last season that the contestants had to replicate?), but some people don’t like that texture so it might work in his favor. I laughed out loud at this: “As soon as I WIN the show, I’m going to start making kids.” He is so unintentionally hilarious. I picture him using the prize money to open a shop that cranks out kids, as if they were some sort of baked good. “Hot and fresh out of the oven!”

James is making white chocolate passionfruit turnovers with coconut whipped cream. Sounds tasty, but not sure if the presentation will be compelling enough to make it a “MasterChef level dish.” His turnovers look rather small and flat.

The kids start spouting some producer fed lines. Their acting is almost more compelling than Joe’s, ha ha. Jack seems to be the most composed kid, but as one of the oldest, and with a dad like Gordon, that’s hardly a surprise.

Apparently Jessie has changed her dish now to mini Napoleans. James has the oven open and seems to be checking on his turnovers (which look tasty). However, if they weren’t fully done, then opening the oven to check on them would be a BIG mistake since any opening or closing of the oven door during the making of puff pastry can drop the temperature and prevent the pastry from puffing up all the way. Krissi’s buttercream is melting, which is always a challenge when you have to bake, cool, frost, and decorate a cake in a strict time limit. Her cakes have also risen to giant pyramid peaks (which she trimmed down), which makes me worry that the texture of the cakes will not be uniform.

So Krissi is clearly out of the running. Natasha’s pancakes look delicious, and the appearance reminds me of Josh Marks’ carimanolas in the “Legs” challenge (Final 3). I’m a bit concerned the the judges might criticize her for doing 3 separate dishes rather than incorporating the ingredients into one spectacular dish. James’s turnovers look delicious, and the presentation is up to restaurant standards, but his whipped cream looks like it might have been overbeaten, or might have just sat too long before the “beauty shots” were taken. Luca’s Napolean looks okay at best, but the saucing at the bottom of the plate looks messy, and the filling doesn’t look particularly appetizing. Jessie’s Napoleans look pretty, but there seems to be a lot more of the puff pastry than the actual “filling”, so the balance might be off, unless she somehow hollowed out the puff pastry cylinders and was able to stuff more cream in.

The judges clearly disagree with me and think Luca’s looks spectacular (What about you guys?). The puff pastry is nicely puffed, and the amount of filling to pastry looks appropriate. It’s not a bad dish by any means. I think the judges are trying to drum up his successes and prepare him and the audience for a run to the final, and even the title. he is definitely the most marketable of the bunch, along with Jessie.

Jessie is clearly being in a more sexual light this episode, first with the singleness question from Jack, and the COMPLETELY RANDOM shot of her legs in heels as she approaches the podium. Blink and you missed it, but those that watch her for her looks (and I’m sure there are many), certainly appreciated it. She is definitely extremely attractive, but are moments like that really necessary? Anyways, the judges love her dish, and her position in the top is cemented, along with Luca.

James gets chosen as the third dish, and depending on how he incorporated the white chocolate, I’m not sure his use of it in the filling is a good idea. White chocolate is another one of those delicate ingredients where if it gets heated up too much, it will start to separate and develop an unpleasant, grainy texture. That can easily happen, and from the beauty shots it looks like that may have happened around the edges, where the filling got exposed from the turnovers not being sealed tight. The plate as a whole looks beautiful though, and the judges rave about how the mint-blueberry puree helps elevate the dish. I completely agree. It’s interesting to note that Jessie left off her chocolate drizzle, which was probably for the better. James’s admission that the best bakers in this competition were Krissi and Natasha, who didn’t get their dishes chosen, is an interesting revelation.

Along with hyping up Luca and Jessie, the producers and editors are showing Krissi making weird faces in between the judges comments, to get people to dislike her more and make her eventual elimination that much more satisfying for the audience (and believe me, there is no chance in hell that she is winning). Keep in mind though guys, that those faces could have been made at ANY time during the filming of this challenge. Krissi is not a dumb woman, and she knows damn well that she flopped miserably in this challenge and that the 3 top dishes all clearly deserved to be up there more than her half-finished cake did. It’s entirely possible that those bewildered faces were probably made when the mystery box ingredients were being announced one by one, and just edited and spliced in to look like reactions to the praise the other contestants received. I could be completely wrong, but I like to think optimistically about people until I’m proven wrong. Her comment about the puff pastry was a little bit weird, but again, we don’t know the context and the judges COULD have provoked her by asking her a question first (and then having that part conveniently edited out). All speculation, of course. That’s one of the sad things about this show, that I can’t trust the messages the show is trying to send anymore, always second-guessing what is being shown. They ALWAYS have a way for you to believe ANYTHING about ANYBODY.

James wins the mystery box, and heads back into the pantry. He doesn’t have to cook, and automatically makes it to the final 4. The challenge for the rest of the contestants is to replicate the FINEST dishes each of the judges has ever tasted. Joe presents an extravagant seafood dish of shrimp, sea urchin (uni) custard, and caviar. Is it just me or does using a sea urchin as a serving bowl seem to be kinda dangerous?? haha.

Graham presents a softshell crab sandwich, and the earthquake monitors around the world must be going off again. That sandwich looks DIVINE. Interesting to see that’s Graham’s choice, considering how many different foods he must have eaten in his life, but the emotional aspect of certain foods should not be underestimated. It seems like it would be a much easier and more familiar dish for the contestants to execute.

Gordon’s favorite dish is a simple, humble, but exceptional Vietnamese pork noodle soup. I LOVE noodle soups of all kinds, from ramen, pho, and the assorted noodle soups that I ate in my childhood (tomato egg, fried scallion, meatball, always topped with plenty of chili oil). There comes another rumble from my stomach….

The most difficult dish to execute would definitely be the pork noodle soup, because to develop the deep, complex, “assault of flavor” (as James puts it) in the broth, you need TIME. And since I doubt the contestants will have more than an hour to 90 minutes for this challenge, that will be exceptionally difficult. The one that would be most unfamiliar to the contestants of course will be the seafood dish filled with exotic ingredients. I would be splitting hairs to choose between those two, but James picks the noodle soup. The contestants have 75 minutes to complete the challenge, which is darn near impossible.

I would run straight into the pantry and grab lots of lemongrass, basil, mint, star anise, garlic, onions, ginger, galangal, thai chilies, sugar, cilantro, coriander seed, fennel seed even, scallions, limes, kaffir lime leaves, carrot, fish sauce, cinnamon sticks, some dried mushrooms, whatever cut of bone in pork I can find, and anything else my palate picked up in the broth. I notice that some of the contestants have premade containers of broth/stock (those plastic containers you see in the baskets, which to be fair is probably the only way to turn out an acceptable product in 75 minutes. I would try and go the more traditional and less “cheat” route and use a pressure cooker to hopefully extract as much flavor as possible and speed things up.

Some of the contestants seem to be using lean cuts of pork, which is a big mistake. The pork in the soup looks moist and falling apart tender, and the only real way to do that in 75 minutes is to use a fatty cut with lots of connective tissue (like the shoulder) and pressure cook it for 30-45 minutes. I also catch Krissi adding powdered spices to her broth, which is also a big mistake since it can cloud the broth, make it gritty, and overwhelm the palate. ALWAYS use whole spices that can be strained out later when making Asian-style noodle broths.

Good for Luca for giving Natasha some garlic. Ben has talked this point to death already so I won’t dwell on it for much longer, but I’m happy that he did the right thing. Natasha (and later Jessie) however is also using powdered spices, which just makes me cringe a little. Perhaps there isn’t enough time to extract enough flavor from whole spices in the given amount of time, so the powdered spices are being used to pack more of a punch? Perhaps powdered versions of certain spices were all that were available? I would still stick with using my pressure cooker technique though.

I notice some of the contestants searing the meat. While not a bad idea by any means, I have NEVER seen a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup with seared meat by any means. I’m trying to think of one, but every single meat that I can recall is always poached or braised. From MasterChef Christine Ha herself, my ultimate authority on Vietnamese food, “The only time I ever sear meat for noodle soup is chicken for curry chicken.” Again, not necessarily a bad idea per se, but definitely not “traditional”, although without an Asian version of Joe Bastianich I doubt any of them will care.

I laughed again at Gordon talking about Krissi’s broth. “She’s got no garnish in there, and she has no pork in there, but it has a nice base to it.” That’s because her broth at that point is just the premade pork stock that the culinary team (Led by Sandy, whom I mentioned last time) whipped up! Just needed something to say, I guess.

Time is called, and all contestants finish this time. Natasha is up first, and her bowl looks nice. Interesting to hear Graham comment positively on the sear on the meat. The judges say the broth is a bit too sweet. Believe it or not, some sugar is used in most Vietnamese broths, just to add a tinge of sweetness and to mellow it out somewhat. Be too heavy-handed though and that sweetness can definitely become too noticeable.

Luca’s dish also looks great at first glance, perhaps even a bit better than Natasha’s. The judges rave about it (again mentioning the sear), and Ramsay and Luca both almost look like they are about to cry.

Jessie’s also looks great. I’m starting to think that the appearance of each soup is really unimportant, because realistically, each contestant could just take the premade pork stock, heat it up, dump it over the noodles, and as long as the garnishes on top are correct (not difficult if you pay attention), then the final product is going to look like a convincingly good replication of the initial dish. The flavor, smells, and textures are what is important, but that is something that none of the audience can experience or appreciate, so the judges are free to criticize or compliment each dish however they like and there is no real way for us at home to challenge the assumption that they are right.

Krissi is up last, and just based on the judges feedback hers seems to be the weakest. The judges are all surprising positive, complementing the “base” (beating a dead horse here!), and applaud her effort. Gordon shares a sincere moment of encouragement with Krissi, telling her that if she truly is bold and steps outside of her comfort zone rather than being intimidated from the start, then she has every chance of being as successful as everybody else.

If this competition were based purely on food, then Krissi should be going home. Not because her dish was bad necessarily, but it clearly wasn’t at Luca and Jessie’s level, and was probably below Natasha’s level (based on the judges’ feedback, of course).  However, Krissi gets to be safe, and we see a heartwarming moment between Krissi and Natasha as they hug goodbye and Krissi tells Natasha to give her son a hug. Still think they hate each other’s guts now? Just like Bri hated Krissi too, right?

And of course, they don’t send Natasha home either. Nobody is going home. Even if I didn’t see the spoilers on twitter and facebook, I would have guessed it already by this point. Krissi’s facial expression looks like mine at this point. I HATE having my emotions played with. That was the part I hate MOST about being on the show, having my emotions being treated like a pawn in the producer’s hands, to stir up drama and entertain the audience and put money into their pockets. Was that long, drawn out moment, filled with dramatic, sad music, the long monologue by Ramsay, and the roller coaster of emotions that Krissi and Natasha got put through, really necessary? Natasha is understandably EXTREMELY relieved, but from my position I feel furious at what the producers put her and Krissi through. It makes me sick. And poor James too. All of that effort, the thought that he was one step closer to the prize, for what? To be back in the exact same position he was in before the episode even started. It all just makes me a bit sick to my stomach.

And that wraps up the episode. A bizarre one for sure. Not a pleasant one for me to sit through and write about, so I hope that those of you that read it enjoyed it and had your thoughts provoked! Let me know what your thoughts are for this somewhat controversial episode down below.

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Masterchef 4 Recap: WP-24 and Calamari (S4E20)

First of all, if you are visiting from Ben Starr’s blog, Welcome! I hope you will stick around and check this place out for a bit :). On to the recap!

Once again, we are back at 6 contestants (I almost clicked on the wrong episode on Hulu when I tried to watch it!). This time, it’s another team challenge, one that is notorious for driving contestants up the wall. I foresee a lot of Gordon Ramsay screaming at the contestants to get a grip, which as Ben has mentioned in previous blogs, is the WORST way that you can get a kitchen back on track. From my experience working and staging in many excellent, busy restaurants, the best kitchens run off of quiet, efficient communication. Any amount of screaming just frazzles everybody and causes chaos, rather than accomplishing its purpose of getting a station back on track.

So we get to the intro, and see a shot of poor Krissi on the verge of hyperventilating and throwing up at the thought of being up on top of a skyscraper. The judges arrive on a helicopter (WTF is with helicopters and reality TV? Such an overused gimmick), and inform the contestants that today is they are going to take over WD-40 WP24 (seriously though, did anybody elase instinctively think about the magical lubricant/solvent?). While not personally familiar with the restaurant, Wolfgang Puck is one of the most well known chefs in the country, so it will be a challenge for the contestants to produce food that is worthy of his enormous reputation.

It cracks me up to hear Bri talk about Krissi, knowing the kind of sisterly love-hate relationship they have in real life.

This challenge is right up my alley. I’m very familiar with traditional Chinese food, and the techniques used to prepare the dishes. how many Western cuisines intentionally “cook” eggs into a sauce to form little egg drop ribbons? Just the sight of that brings back many food memories from growing up.

Shumai are a variant of Chinese dumplings. They have an exposed top, and are always steamed. The skin more closely resembles a thin, delicate wonton skin than a sturdy, slightly chewy dumpling skin. The shumai looks like the most difficult dish to execute, because the contestants have to make the sauce (which can be delicate with the starch slurry and the egg), prep and wrap the shumai into the proper shape (which required finger dexterity), and keep track of the orders in the steamer, making sure each shumai stays in for precisely 7 minutes (overcooking will lead to a mushy wrapper, undercooking will lead to Ramsay’s favorite word: RAAAAAAAWWWWWRR).

The lobster lettuce wraps look like a breeze. Toss lobster in flour, shake off excess, fry for the proper amount of time, and the rest is just cold salad ingredients and sauce.

As for the Chili Shrimp, it looks like the sauce is premade already. It’s apparent like a lot of the kitchen prep has already been done for the contestants, which certainly makes things easier for them. There are a few keys to stir frying: A sizzling hot wok to actually sear and stir fry the food rather than boiling it, a good coating of oil on the bottom/sides of the wok to prevent sticking, even knife cuts to ensure even cooking times (add ingredients in order from longest to shortest cook time), and constant motion (whether via tossing or a spatula) to ensure all the stuff in the wok gets cooked evenly. It’s really not that difficult ;).

The stir fry beef uses the same technique, but I notice one of my favorite ingredients in the wok: Garlic Chive Stalks! These are the central flowering stalks of the Garlic Chive, and if picked before they get tough and stringy, are DELICIOUS. Sweet, chivey, oniony, garlicky, tender and juicy. Saute some of that with bacon and garlic and you have one of my favorite things on the planet. I just wiped some drool from my mouth. If you have a well stocked Asian grocery store around, you may be able to find them for $3-4 a pound. WELL worth it.

From the beginning, it seems like the blue team is at a disadvantage, with the previously mentioned vegetarian issue and the fact that this kind of food is probably as far away from Krissi’s cooking style as possible. Which just makes me further convinced that they are going to win.

Sure enough, an undercooked shumai gets sent back. I have a beef with the mention of a “raw scallop shumai”. Pretty much every single properly cooked seared scallop you have ever had was probably raw (barely warm) in the middle. Cooking them through leads to another favorite phrase of Ramsay’s (“They’s RUBBER!!”). As long as the rest of the filling (which looks like it might be precooked anyways) and wrapper are cooked and warm, there is nothing wrong with that dish. I could be completely wrong, and the filling could have been stone cold in the center, but I smell bullshit, a gimmick to frazzle the red team, and Joe’s overly dramatic acting (oh my GOD it’s COMPLETELY raw) doesn’t help matters.

I don’t know if any of the rest of you caught this, but Krissi is the only only contestant that doesn’t have a wok to cook with. She’s using a regular pan on an regular burner, so no wonder she’s having trouble cooking the prawns properly. A heavy bottomed stainless steel saute pan handles and cooks way differently than a wok (and the flames under the wok seem to be MUCH more powerful than a regular burner too), so it’s unsurprising that she is having difficulty replicating the example that she was shown. Completely understandable. I wonder if they intentionally put Krissi in that position (it looks like there are only 3 true wok-stations), knowing that she was least familiar with Chinese food, just to induce a meltdown).

Now if you rewatch the episode, notice something. Pause right after Ramsay’s tirade of “what do you mean the whole round????” and you will notice a female with short blond hair coming up and adding some garnish to the window. Who’s that? That’s not somebody on the Red OR the Blue team. That amazing woman’s name is Sandee, and she is the culinary director of MasterChef. She and her team do ALL of the cooking behind the scenes, from the example plates in the MasterChef kitchen, to stocking the MasterChef pantry, etc. It looks like the culinary team is helping the contestants with this challenge also, which again, makes it that much easier for the contestants ;).

Naturally, Krissi is falling further behind because her cooking setup can’t compete with the wok station’s. The smart thing for Bri to do would be to move her onto a station with an actual wok, but at this point Krissi is morally dejected and about ready to go home. Say this about her: she at least has the humility to know when she truly is making mistakes and dragging the team down.

So Graham finally comes to save the day, and WHAT DO YOU KNOW. HE’S TEACHING HER ON AN ACTUAL WOK OVER AN ACTUAL HIGH FLAME. Amazing how that makes things SO much easier! To be fair, you can stir fry in just about any conditions (I use a dinky little frying pan and electric stove in my apartment!), but for somebody like Krissi that has no experience doing that and was relying on watching the demonstration to base her technique (which used the full setup), spending all that time trying to turn out an identical product with a completely different set of tools must have been frustrating and pretty much impossible for somebody that has no experience. It would almost be as if I was teaching somebody how to make aioli (emulsion of egg yolks and oil) in a blender, and then handing them a bowl and a whisk and telling them to replicate it. Can somebody that is familiar with how to make aioli do it with a bowl and a whisk? Absolutely. Is it a tall task to ask somebody who just saw aioli being made in the first time (with the vitamix) to replicate with a bowl an whisk, over and over again, throughout the course of a dinner service? You betcha. Granted, my analogy is far from perfect, but I don’t envy her at all. And the sad thing is, most people watching probably didn’t even notice that difference (did you???), and instinctively bash on Krissi for being a terrible cook.

So the challenge finishes, and the blue team limps to the finish line. It’s not looking good for them at that point. Cooking in a professional kitchen is stressful for any home cook. If you compare this year’s restaurant takeover with previous seasons (Patina, with from Season 2 and Hatfields, from Season 3), it seems like this challenge was a little bit easier in terms of the scope and the menu. Season 4 contestants, feel free to comment down below and roast me, but that’s just something I noticed. Or maybe it’s just my familiarity with Asian food, haha!

Back to the challenge, at least based on how this was edited, it seemed like Natasha did a much better job leader her team, and Bri seemed much more passive. One of the rare moments of weakness that Bri has shown (or the producers have allowed to be shown) thus far this season.

The contestants file into the MasterChef kitchen to learn their fate. Joe gives a shpiel about how “we talked to EVERY customer, and tasted EVERYTHING you made.” Raise your hand if you believe that! *looks around*. Anyways, the red team wins, unsurprising considering their only hiccup was a shumai that got sent back, and even that is somewhat questionable. So it’s up to the blue team to try and save themselves from elimination. After some more attempts at injecting drama by the producers, it’s revealed that their pressure test challenge is to produce a perfect plate of…crispy fried calamari.

I F&(*^#$ LOVE CALAMARI. It’s my absolute favorite appetizer to order at any restaurant that offers it. When I was filming season 3 of MasterChef, one of the best items that the hotel restaurant offered was a plate of fried calamari and rock shrimp (well executed, too!). At 10 bucks, it was pretty cheap, and I would get it EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. I love the light, crispy batter, the tender, sweet, savory squid (ESPECIALLY the tentacles, haha! Extra crunch!), the light squeeze of bright lemon on top, and the zesty, tart, chunky tomato sauce to balance it all out. SO GOOD. I’m sorry, USGS. That 9.0 magnitude vibration you registered was NOT a devastating earthquake, it was just my stomach rumbling while I was typing out that paragraph.

Krissi instantly looks happy, and for good reason. I’m sure she is VERY familiar with calamari, and makes it at home all the time. She will probably be successful, although familiarity with a dish has been the downfall of many a contestant in the past. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. It’s interesting to see Bri’s quick and nonchalant “yes” to answer Graham’s question of whether they have had it before.

The most difficult part of this challenge is probably cleaning the squid. I’ve never actually cleaned squid before, but I know it involves separating the head from the body, removing the “quill”, ink sac, skin, and other internal organs, and scraping the mucus off the meat. The breading and the marinara sauce are pretty hard to screw up, and as long as the squid isn’t overcooked, it’s smooth sailing.

Everybody seems to do a good job starting off. Krissi is apparently clueless as to how to clean her squid, and it looks like she is tempted to cut it open to remove the guts (rather than using her fingers or utensils to scrape them out. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but the calamari can no longer be sliced into the classic rings, which is more aesthetic than technical but you can bet the judges will knock her for that if that’s what ends up happening.

Ramsay comes over for his usual interrogation, and again, the focus is on Bri’s vegetarianism. All of a sudden, Bri doesn’t eat calamari again. Do they expect us to forget the fact that 30 seconds ago Bri gave a loud and confident yes to having eaten calamari, and looks completely comfortable cleaning and preparing the squid? Some people may say that she might have had it before she turned into a vegetarian (which was when, right when the show started filming? Ha ha), but I find the whole Bri is a vegetarian thing way overused and less believable every time I hear it.

Some of the contestants are having trouble maintaining the proper oil temperature on the stove, which can definitely be a challenge. You have to bring the oil up to temperature, lower the heat to maintain that temperature, and raise it again when you add food to compensate for the drop in temperature, and then lower it again when the correct temperature is once again achieved. Look away, or be occupied with something else for a few moments, and you may have smoking, overheated oil (EXTREMELY dangerous), or oil that isn’t hot enough to cook food properly, leaving you with a soggy, greasy mess.

Bri’s calamari have too much breading. Breading acts like an insulator to protect the food it coats from the aggressive heat of the oil and prevent it from overcooking, but too much will insulate the food too much and prevent it from cooking thoroughly, which apparently was the case. Adding the lemon to the marinara is a little bit unusual, but by no means a cardinal sin (perhaps she tasted the sauce and felt like it needed more acidity? who knows?).

Krissi’s calamari is notable because the breading is smooth and shiny. This happens when the outer layer of the breading is a liquid batter (think corn dog, or beer battered fish). The exception is tempura batter, which is such a thin, light, and airy batter that it still fries up extremely crispy If the outer layer is something dry, whether it be breadcrumbs, cornmeal, or just plain old flour (like old fashioned fried chicken), the breading tends to look more rippled or even “grainy”. I personally like most breaded and fried savory foods to have the second kind of breading, because it usually is lighter and crispier. The exceptions of course are a nice beer battered fish and corn dogs. Batter fried foods can be really heavy, bready, and greasy. Not characteristics I typically want in my food. Unfortunately that is how Krissi’s calamari comes out. Remember what I said earlier? Maybe her son doesn’t like calamari. She nails her marinara though, of course.

James’s calamari looks the most delicious, but apparently he has a bland marinara sauce. His tomatoes shouldn’t taste any more like the can than anybody else’s (unless there was something different about his can), but No olive oil, no herbs certainly doesn’t help things.

In the judges’ words, it’s too close to call. Ramsay threatens to send them all home (which of course won’t ever happen), but Luca smiles and lets out a “wouldn’t that be nice!”. Now is it just me, or is Luca getting a little bit sassier and cockier now? He’s too likeable of a character for the audience to knock him for it, but it’s interesting whether the producers let that aspect show through more in the upcoming episodes. He’s definitely a VERY strong contender to win.

James’s calamari is the best (I agree), so he’s safe. It’s left to Bri and Krissi, and Bri  gets the axe for the second time. She is surprisingly level headed during her elimination, with no tears or any real negative emotion (didn’t she say that she would never forgive herself just seconds ago? odd). But we catch a glimpse of the friendship between Bri and Krissi again at the end.

I didn’t actually watch the “redemption” episode, but just seeing from tweets and Ben’s previous blog posts, I knew exactly what happened. During the redemption from my season, everybody that actually used their brains while watching that episode could see that it was a huge scheme by the producers to bring Josh back (everybody that participated in the “redemption” agreed). This year seems more of the same, with the picking of the contestants even more arbitrary with three seemingly random contestants. Raise your hand if you think that each judge actually realistically selected “their favorite contestant”. *looks around*. So to me it seemed like Bri was brought back with a specific purpose, which is why I’m a little bit surprised to see her eliminated. Perhaps the producers FINALLY saw that this vegetarianism thing was really becoming a big liability to the credibility of the show? (As if things like Walmart and all the strategic drama didn’t do a good enough job already).

All the controversy about the legitimacy of her as a contestant and her vegetarianism aside, Bri is definitely one of the most talented cooks to ever be on the show, and obviously she has gone far, having received numerous job offers at Michelin starred restaurants all over the country, and accepting one in New York (which shall remain unnamed at her employer’s request). I want to make it clear that Bri doesn’t deserve ANY hate for her role this season. If you should be upset at anybody, it should be at the producers for allowing this show to become this scripted, drama-filled game of culinary Survivor rather than a true cooking competition. I have nothing for respect for Bri and her talent and skills in the kitchen, and look forward to trying her food someday. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter!

Please discuss and let me know what your reactions are down below! I’d love to know your thoughts, and always respond to every comment that is posted.

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21st Birthday Trip!

I’m turning 21 soon! As a present to myself, I want to take a mini-vacation (3-4 days) somewhere. Any suggestions? Want to host me? :) Only limitation is that it has to be a city that American Airlines flies to.

Let me know in the comments down below!

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Happy 36th to Ben Starr!

This post is to celebrate the birthday of one of my absolute dearest friends, Ben Starr.

Around this time two summers ago, I was doing what a typical kid does in his post-high school, pre-college summer: a whole lotta nothing. Naturally, I filled my time with watching a lot of shows on Hulu. One of the shows I started following closely was a cooking show that I had only paid attention to briefly in its inaugural season: MasterChef. The one character on that show that had more charisma and attracted my attention more than any of the other contestants (including Jennifer, who won), was none other than Ben Starr. He was by FAR the most entertaining character. Having just learned the ropes on how to use twitter (at that time on my old account @michaeljcchen), I followed him and a few of the other MC2 contestants and quickly saw how approachable he was as well. Regularly responding to fans’ questions (I asked a couple myself), meeting with fans and posting pictures with them, and just overall interacting with him. I still viewed him as a big time celebrity, and yet….he didn’t carry himself like one. One day, as I was sitting around dilly-dallying in my summer doldrums, I came across a tweet saying that he was going to be at BBQ Outfitters in Austin the next day at 1 pm. Purely on a whim, I asked him if he minded me stopping by and saying hi while he was there, and in typical Ben Starr fashion, he extended his welcoming (cyber) arms and told me to come on down. I didn’t think much of it, thinking that he either said it out of politeness or that there were going to be so many people there that I would barely catch a glimpse of him. I went to bed and didn’t give it a second thought.

The next day I woke up and settled into my usual routine of boredom (who hasn’t been there in the summers as a high school student??). All of a sudden, I remembered the interactions with Ben Starr, and did a quick google search of where BBQ outfitters was. Surprise, it was only roughly 10 minutes from my house. I looked at the clock: 12:00 noon. I figured that I might as well give it a shot. Went downstairs, had lunch, grabbed my motorcycle helmet, and told my mom I was going to meet a cooking celebrity before waltzing out the door.

I pulled into the lot of the place and first noticed the lack of cars…and people. Was this the right place? I walked into the store. Nobody. I looked around…this was BBQ outfitters, and it was 1 pm…where are the throngs of adoring fans? A sales associate asked if I needed any help, and I brushed her off, telling her that I was just “looking around”. As I neared the back of the store though, my ears perked up. I heard the unmistakable, expressive voice of Ben Starr in an office in the back, having an animated conversations (is there any other type with Ben?) with one of the representatives from the store. I tried to contain my excitement by reading a cookbook and updating my facebook status. About half an hour later, their meeting concludes, and I get my first live look at this “celebrity”. Though I knew next to nothing about him outside of the show, I knew that he was popular and famous and that shot lightning bolts of excitement through my body. We made eye contact, smiled, and he walked over to introduce himself. “You’re……Michael, right?” “Yep! And obviously..you’re Ben Starr!” We both had a bit of a chuckle after that. We chatted briefly, I asked him about MasterChef, we took a picture together, all of the typical things that you do when you meet a celebrity. I also talked about how I occasionally liked to cook, and Ben immediately asked if I was thinking about trying out. “Oh….no no no, not me. I’m too young, too inexperienced, not ready. Besides, I have school to worry about, and my parents would KILL me.” He told me not to worry and just to give it a shot, and that the show might host an audition in Austin and I should go if they did. I nervously told him that I would consider it. He then proceeded to hand me one of his business cards, told me to send him an email when I had the chance, and that if I was ever in Dallas, to drop by for dinner anytime. Heart pounding, I looked down at the card. ALL of his contact information was on there. Phone number, personal email address, physical address, EVERYTHING. Now keep in mind for a teenager that saw Ben as a mega-celebrity, this was JAW-DROPPING stuff. I could stalk, harass, annoy, and basically be a giant pain in the ass if I were a crazy fan. Now, luckily for him, I wasn’t, but I did immediately go home and google his address just so I had an idea where he lived ;).

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This is the awkward picture that we took when we first met and I was still starstruck. Yes, I have the horrible habit of closing my eyes in photos >.>

After posting this picture on facebook and basking in my friends’ jealousy, I didn’t connect with Ben again until the open casting call in Austin rolled around. From following him on social media, I found out that he was going to be at the casting call. As I waited in line, holding my beef tendon salad (sounds strange, but tastes DELICIOUS), he went along one by one and chatted with EVERY contestant. As soon as he got to me, his eyes lit up and immediately recognized me. We chatted very briefly, and he told me to come find him again after the audition was over.

The audition process itself was an intense process, and once I got the callback, I stepped outside and promptly collapsed into Ben’s arms (I wasn’t even that much of a “huggy” person at that time!). I told him about my audition, and he told me to email him with any questions that I had.

Here is the very first email I EVER sent Ben. By this point I was in full out MasterChef preparation mode:

Hey Ben!

I don’t know if we know each other well enough to be considered “friends” yet, but I will just pretend for now :).
What should I be doing in the time between now and February, when the list will be announced?  Should I just be burying myself in cookbooks and testing out recipes, or take it easy?
Also, do you have any idea how many people are usually still in the running at this stage in the competition? I want to know what realistically my chances are, as I’ll need to talk to my college department about the possibility of needing to take an extended break.
Over the Winter break, I would LOVE for a chance to cook with you, but I know that you are a busy (but poor) man that is scurrying all around the country for assorted engagements. If you are ever in Austin in December/January and happen to have the time, please lemme know :).
Thanks for being so personable and friendly! Hope to follow in your footsteps someday (as unlikely as it may be haha).
Best regards,
Michael Chen

And so began PAGES and PAGES of long email conversations. If I had measured the time it would have taken Ben to write everything that he ended up writing, it would have been measured in DAYS instead of hours.

Since that email, here is an abbreviated version of how our friendship has evolved since then.

  • He was one of the first people I came out to, and passed no judgement on either my sexuality of my religious beliefs.
  • During the casting process, when it became apparent that I needed to go to ATLANTA for my psych eval (mandatory in every TV show), Ben personally took me in for a night, drove me all the way to Atlanta, paid for all the gas, the hotel, and most of the food, took me on a mini vacation/detour to Baton Rouge where I met his good friend Cory, and kept me entertained/answered my incessantly annoying questions the ENTIRE 30 hour road trip until he dropped me off at my front door in Austin. I was completely flabbergasted that he would do something like that for me (and you should be too!), but it was definitely one of the most memorable road trips I have ever taken. It was also the FIRST time in my life that I had every hung out candidly with two openly gay guys (him and Cory), and the whole time I was just struck by how fun, how not creepy, and how at ease I was. It was truly an enlightening experience.
  • After the show, Ben and I met and decompressed in a way that only fellow reality-tv contestants could. I was miserable and depressed and lonely and confused and Ben helped snap me out of it and set me on the right path.
  • When I got “fired” from Barley Swine (ironically for standing up to bullying) and felt like a worthless failure, it was Ben that gave me the encouragement to continue.
  • When I got offered the chance to go to Canada and cook, it was Ben who gave me a kick in the ass and told me that he wouldn’t ever speak to me again if I didn’t go and take advantage of this opportunity.
  • It was through Ben that I was introduced into a wonderful circle of some of the coolest people on the planet: His partner Christian, who is also now a dear friend of mine with whom I can have endless talks about cars, airplanes, boys, and chocolate with (and to whom I owe my AMAZING flight benefits and my several trips in First Class haha). His roommate, Chris, whose snarky cynicism is at once both profoundly irritating and endearing. His neighbor, Sharon, a retired flight attendant, who is filled with more personality than anybody her age has a right to have. The amazing, lovely, life-filled Jennie Kelley, who lights up every room she walks into. Also, JP, Jacques, Karen, Ma, Angela, Bruno, Melissa, Raspberry/Ryan, and countless other people that have made my life so much more interesting.
  • It was Ben who let me live with him for over a month after I got back from Canada, who cooked brunch and dinner for me EVERY DAY during that span, who drove me around before I bought a car, who connected me with Jennie who connected me with the job at the Kessler, who transformed me from a dog-fearer to an absolute dog-lover.
  • It’s Ben that I go to with all of my boy troubles. When I meet a boy that I like, my first thought is “I should introduce him to Ben and see what he thinks”.
  • In an emergency, Ben is always the first person I reach out to. When my car broke down, Ben was the person that I called (He immediately drove 45 minutes to come and rescue me as I was having a panic attack).
  • It is Ben that will call me out with the harsh truth when I need to hear it. “You’re coming across as way too negative. You sound like a cocky, arrogant asshole.”
  • Plus many many many many many many more things. It would not surprise me one bit if Ben has invested a few thousand dollars, directly or indirectly, in making my life better over the past year or so, not to mention the hours and hours of time.

So in short (This is where the TL:DR people can skip to), thank you, Ben Starr, for everything that you have done for me. I love you so much.* This is probably the most cliche thing to say, but I can’t think of any better thing to say except that you’ve been the best, greatest, most incredible, friend, mentor, supporter, and teacher I could have ever asked for. You have been there for me through EVERYTHING I’ve been through for the past year or so, and I can never, ever thank and appreciate you enough. You have changed me dramatically from the meek, shy, awkward kid to the guy that is now confident enough to be myself and to pursue my dreams and my passions. I owe so much of who I am today because of you, and I couldn’t be happier. Even though I know you don’t care much about birthdays, I hope you have an AWESOME 36th, and I’m thrilled that I can spend it with you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

*Disclaimer:  I have heard some rumors, and some of you may genuinely be curious about how close Ben and I are. Though we are both gay, we have never had a romantic or sexual relationship of ANY kind. Our friendship has been strictly platonic. Ben has been nothing but respectful and I trust him more than I trust anybody.

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MasterChef: Firefighters, Vegas, Lidia, and Glee (7-10)

I’ll be honest, I don’t have that much to say about these episodes. After reading Ben’s writeup about the Firefighters and Vegas episodes, I seriously considered whether to even watch the two episodes since his blog basically told me everything relevant about the episodes.

MasterChef is getting painful for me to watch. It’s painful to see the horrendous, thinly veiled product placement bits (ahem, Walmart). It’s painful to see the angry, nasty divisions that come between the contestants. It’s painful to see contestants that I have a soft spot for go home. It’s painful for me to think about the kind of pressure the contestants are under. It’s painful for me to see the hate some contestants get because a comment they said in an interview was taken out of context, spliced into the segment at a certain time in order to portray them a certain way. Most of all, it’s painful to see all of this going on primarily for the six figure salaries of the TV producers and executives.

Yes, I shop at Walmart. It and stores like it (Kroger, Fiesta, etc.) are the only place I can get groceries off of my $400/week income. Would I prefer to shop at Central Market (see my review of my local CM, which I LOVE, here), where I source most of the ingredients for the Kessler? Of course! Even though CM has pretty reasonable prices on some items, when I’m shopping for a household of two (Stephen and I), on a budget that small, I have to visit the big name grocery stores. It’s the only place I can get a week’s worth of groceries for $30. But I would never associate any of those stores with exceptional quality (Maybe sprouts though, which I also LOVE for meat and produce), that deserve the accolades of famous chefs like Gordon, Graham, and Joe.

I don’t have much to say about the challenge itself (just the usual deal), but the whole spat at the end was extremely disheartening. EXTREMELY disheartening. I couldn’t help but be brought back to being at Camp Pendleton last year at the end of our absolutely DEVASTATING loss in the Marine challenge (made even more devastating in hindsight because it’s what put me in the pressure test and ultimately sent us home). But it’s the reaction from our team that was memorable for me, and ultimately made me the friends that I still have today. We were all absolutely crushed and devastated, since we had performed absolutely beautifully. Everybody did his/her job flawlessly, things were clicking like a well oiled machine, I even caught several pieces of raw chicken as quality control and prevented them from being sent out (likely preventing a Ramsay meltdown upon discovery), and our teamwork and communication was impeccable. But we still lost, because our menu wasn’t up to par. But rather than point fingers and cuss each other out, we all shouldered the blame. Christine was devastated that she couldn’t help the team more in the challenge, relegated (along with me) to chopping vegetables the entire time. She did a damn good job, but trust me, it is demoralizing to be doing such a simple task while the rest of the team is frantically running around doing EVERYTHING else. I was devastated after taking so much flak from the grill, and also for not being able to help more (I chopped vegetables with Christine for most of the time after I was kicked off the grill, then was a floater for a bit). Scott was doing his best to cheer me up, saying that me catching the raw chicken and not letting it go out was a crucial role that saved us from more trouble (probably right). Frank was off to the side, with moist eyes and a lump in his throat, battling the emotions of leading a fantastic team but failing in making the menu decisions. Christine was starting to weep from overwhelming emotion and frustration (poor thing, having to go through all of that while not being able to see…can’t imagine). Meanwhile, the cameras were trying to zoom in and get a good angle of Christine’s weeping, the the interviewers are already weaving through us asking whose fault it is. In the midst of this, a reaction of anger, divisiveness, blame, and frustration would be extremely understandable. But rather than do that, we chose to RESPECT our teammates. Each and every single one of us had earned the respect of the other members of our team, even though there were clearly strong performers (Tanya, Felix, Scott, Stacey), and those that had minor issues (Me, Christine, Frank, Tali).

Contrast that with the scene after the Red team after the loss. Beth criticizes the cauliflower puree (I agree that it sounded a little…weird…especially with cumin?), and Natasha just goes NUCLEAR. Natasha is a strong cook who clearly takes pride in her food, but doesn’t really like to be criticized. That can totally come back to bite her, but her reaction is understandable. I wouldn’t have felt good if my food was criticized as disgusting, but lashing out in such a violent and equally if not more insulting manner does not seem like the right thing to do. In the words of Ben Starr, the attitude is flying “faster than Bastianich spit”, and it’s stomach turning to watch. 

Plus, I am getting absolutely SICK of these “twists”, “advantages,” or whatever the hell else you want to call them. This whole saving people thing drives me NUTS. It demeans this as a “competition” so much. It first got widespread use during our season, and when our losing team was presented with that offer, we were not having any of it. It wasn’t until 30 minutes later, with the judges basically screaming that we were all idiots, cowards, and foolish bastards and threatening to send us all home that Stacey finally cracked under the pressure and accepted the pass, weeping the whole way up the stairs. Now, it’s being tossed around every challenge like candy, and the contestants (and audiences?) are gobbling it up, while it really is just a giant drama engine that goes under the guise of “strategy”. If the producers want to make a show about strategy, maybe they should make “MasterChessPlayer” instead of “MasterChef.” Or a show on Mafia. Omg, I love that game. But this is supposed to be a cooking show on finding the best home cook in America, and each little “twist” further invalidates its credibility as a legitimate competition. Anybody that is watching with their mind engaged can see that the producers have their fingers behind every little detail in each outcome. When the mystery box winner gets immunity (and it doesn’t ALWAYS happen actually), it’s because the producers want the contestant to make it to the team challenge. When Bime was automatically saved by the judges rather than them giving him the chance to save himself, it was because the producers WANTED him safe and were afraid that he wouldn’t choose to save himself if given the option. Blind versus open voting in team challenges. And don’t even get me started on the whole bottom-four-going-to-vegas thing…..

I don’t have much to say about the rest of the challenge. I will say that I think Natasha’s dish is pretty clearly the worst in my mind (Mayonnaise plus broken egg). From experience making emulsions pretty frequently at the Kessler, I can say that the reason for her overly-thick sauce is too much oil, not vinegar. To make one of my signature sauces, I make mayonnaise (simply egg yolks, a little bit of acid, salt, and oil). The more OIL I add, the thicker it gets. Right when it looks about as thick as Natasha’s mayo-daise, I add a second-water based sauce (similar properties to vinegar), and it THINS out the sauce. Not criticizing her culinary knowledge (looking at her beautiful plates on twitter/instagram, it’s clear that she is a much better cook than me), but it was likely a slip of the tongue, common when faced with the nerves associated with looking a judge in the eye with a bad dish that you cooked in front of you. I just didn’t want any of you guys out there trying to make an emulsion sauce (mayo/hollandaise) and adding vinegar instead of oil to thicken it up.

On any other day, Natasha should have been sent home. But it’s her lucky day, since the producers had plans months in advance to host this particular pressure test/challenge in Vegas, and her poor performance happened to fall on this one. Ultimately, Kathy goes home, and I feel terrible for her. I feel like she was taken advantage of greatly during the process of being on the show, and wish her all the best. I honestly think her poached lobster was better than Luca’s, but the judges chose to criticize her based on something we cannot judge from home (the level of acidity in the salad), and since Luca is a much more endearing character that is essential to keep around, he stays and Kathy goes home. I still predict to see him in the top 5, if not the finals.

The ethnic food mystery box is interesting. I would have loved to know what all the ingredients were, but I don’t think we were ever presented with a full list (anybody know it?). I snorted at the Chinese pubic hair comment, and laughed at the judges playing with it (that’s the stuff that I don’t mind seeing, as it’s silly, fun, and doesn’t impact the competition aspect!)

I find it cool that Lynn is featured more. He’s an intriguing character, not just for racial reasons, but his food really does look stunning. I am pretty shocked that his dish didn’t get chosen for the top 3. I highly doubt the judges tasted his finished tartare (since it was probably seasoned/plated with only a few minutes to spare), so their criticism of his dish for being underseasoned without actually tasting the finished product seemed dubious at best. I’m not a fan of tartare, and don’t enjoy eating it, but his plate looked absolutely stunning.

Again, we have more of this advantage bullshit of people not being allowed to see. All for drama, and naught for the spirit of the competition. I’m furious.

I’m thrilled to see Lidia Bastianich, as I respect her a lot and her shows always leave me drooling. She seems like a phenomenal person that really loves food, and is a kind, grandmotherly figure.

Lynn struggles, but his dish sounds DIVINE. Short rib pasta with charred leek sauce? YES PLEASE. Undoubtedly, if he had gotten the “lesson”, he would have done extremely well.

Meanwhile, Krissi is quickly being made out to be a villain, a la Ryan from last season. I like Krissi, her brass sassiness, and her willingness to be open and honest, and her “fuck you” attitude to anybody that stands in her way. She’s a strong woman, a strong character, and very polarizing. I like her because I feel that she is REAL in a competition that has started to seem more and more FAKE.

And Howard, I feel for him terribly. With his whole monologue, and his boldness in talking back to Joe, I was rooting for him every single step of the way. It’s a classic “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. You duplicate the dish, and you get criticized for being boring and unoriginal. You put your own spin, and get nailed for being disrespectful to the roots of the dish (something Joe is prone to saying, especially about Italian dishes). I think his dish sounds tasty. Is it something that would be served in a “traditional” Italian restaurant? Absolutely not. But is is creative, thinking outside of the box, and it uses Italian techniques with Mexican ingredients. It’s really not even that much of a stretch, and the flavors actually seem to go fairly well together, if executed properly. Similar to me last season, he made some minor mistakes in execution (sauce?), but ultimately gets knocked out for being unconventional.

What also INFURIATED me was how Joe gave him so much crap for no reason, and started attacking him personally for “getting misty-eyed”. This one-way verbal slaughter of Howard screamed only one thing at me: Bully. I give him a lot of credit for staying strong and not breaking down. But if it were me on the stage, I would have either broken down into tears of rage or I would have had a shouting match with Joe Bastianich that would go down in MasterChef history. If there is one that I will not stand for, it is witnessing bullying of any sort, whether it happens to me or others, whether between kids or “adults”. It makes my blood boil, and I will ALWAYS speak out against it when I see it. It’s gotten me in trouble in the past, most notably getting me kicked out of Barley Swine, when I lashed out against the demeaning treatment I got there, but after getting mistreated for so many years of my life, I don’t let that stuff go down with out a fight.

So to Joe Bastianich, or the producers that were feeding lines to him, Shame on you.

Jane Lynch was undoubtedly told how to split the teams up. She is a phenomenal actress though, and did a good job of playing along with the game. Krissi clearly has what I perceive as the weaker team, though it’s not by her choice. Especially since she starts off doing so well, it’s clear that her team will lose (the previews for the rest of the episode also say as much…)..

The amount of blood and gore they showed when Jessie cut herself was a little excessive. Do we really need that many close-up shots of blood GUSHING out of her cut finger? AND GORDON WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING WITH THE TIP OF THE FINGER. Major gross, and unnecessary. I feel AWFUL for her. Tanya from our season nearly sliced off her thumb on a mandoline on the first day of Auditions, and had to spend most of the rest of her time there with antibiotic cream and a finger “condom” on. I imagine it will be the same with Jessie, which will make upcoming challenges much more difficult. Could that injury lead to her downfall in a future challenge that requires finger dexterity? Who knows. I have her pinned as a top 5 contestant as well, but the injury could complicate matters.

And again, I have zero faith in this blind voting thing. Disclaimer: the following are just my opinions, not facts that I have ANY proof of. I think that the margin of the final score tally was completely made up to engineer drama. I think that the blue team did lose (too many chicken plates were unservable for various reasons), but that the margin was enhanced for additional shock factor to the team and to encourage more fighting. I also think that the tallies for each individual dish were made up. I think the fried chicken WAS in fact the weak part of the menu (Spicy latin fried chicken with jalapeno ranch sounds SO much more delicious than just plain buttermilk fried chicken, not to mention the lapses in execution and raw chicken), and the judges switched the numbers around just to see how Krissi would use her passes. I applaud Krissi for standing strong and doing what SHE felt like was right, and not letting the judges get in her way. In her mind, Bime still screwed up the most with the chicken, and she for the most part did a good job with leading the team during prep and most of service, which are both reasonable, and as a result made Bime stay and sent herself upstairs. She’s a woman that plays by her own emotions, which, while it may not be the most “honorable”, earns my respect for being honest with her actions.

Now watching these close ups of Bime struggling and Krissi laughing instantly reminds me of the live crab challenge last season with Christine struggling and Ryan laughing. Editors can make it a cruel world for the contestants sometimes, and I feel like that was definitely the case. On the other hand, it can be difficult not to laugh when a contestant makes a silly mistake and frantically tries to fix it. I picture myself up on the balcony, watching Bime frantically trying to figure out how why his custard isn’t thickening by adding TEN tablespoons of cream of tartar, and even trying to put it in the freezer to get it to firm up. On any other show, it would have been a comedic sight, like watching a cartoon character trying to run, legs frantically whirling in a circle, while their belt loop is caught on a doorknob and being unable to figure out what’s going on. I don’t think her laughter was malicious, and I think the editing really gave her the short end of the stick, similar to Ryan last season, who I continually assert is a REALLY COOL GUY. At any rate, the social media attacks on her and her son are extremely rude, and I give her tons of props for not letting it bother her publicly, even though it must suck to read through that and I’m sure she hugs her kids a little tighter at night after reading those comments about what a horrible an example she is setting for her kids.

Slight aside, even I had to be called out by my fellow contestants last season to stop giggling so much during the judging of the other contestants dishes. For me, I laugh whenever I am feeling a particular emotion, whether it be happiness, nervousness, embarrassment, etc. So when the judging was going on, and I was nervous as hell waiting for my turn and the results, I would laugh excessively about each and every thing the judges said about the dishes, especially the bad things, as a way to relieve my own tensions. My fellow contestants gave me a wise warning that if I did that too much and they caught it on tape, I could be edited to look bad on TV. Very thoughtful of them to remind me, and something for you to consider.

No way or getting around it, Bime deserved to go home with his pie. But then again, I thought the same about Scott’s pie last season haha. But I think it was time for Bime to head home, so off he goes.

I will definitely watch next week’s MasterChef because my close friend Christine is on it, (and the challenge looks interesting….cooking blind? I bet that will only last for 5 minutes before the judges let them off the hook. too much liability….). But after that, I don’t know. My desire to watch it (and blog about it) has diminished significantly. The only proper way to watch MasterChef without going crazy (especially for an ex-contestant) is simply mindlessly, which makes it difficult to form complex thoughts and write a blog on them. I’m extremely ambivalent, and perhaps will make a final decision in another episode or two. What are your thoughts?

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A rare treat: Flying First Class internationally on an American Airlines 777-200ER

After jumping through multiple hoops, and losing several years of my life from the stress of juggling travel and flights (including booking a last minute red-eye to Denver the night before I was set to leave), I finally got what I was waiting for: a coveted First Class boarding pass for a transpacific flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Shanghai (PVG) in a Flagship Suite.

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(Note: The above seat was the one next to mine. I couldn’t get a good shot of the whole suite from the aisle without looking like a complete dork with my camera).

It is truly a special experience when you walk into the door of the giant 777, and instead of turning right like the business and coach travelers, you get to be one of the exclusive few that turn left. Each “seat” was its own little suite, and the amount of space you get is pretty enourmous, especially for somebody that has spent all of his life (until recently, thanks to an amazing friend that works for AA) riding in coach.

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On my seat were several packages. A package of soft slippers; an amenity kit with skincare products, a pen, cleansing wipes, toiletries, and a case that doubled as a tablet case; a sleeping package with pillows, sheets, and a thin blanket, and a thick, soft duvet. I can already tell that sleeping is going to be heavenly!

Within 5 minutes, a smiling flight attendant came by and presented me with the dinner menu, and it is indeed impressive, something you might find in upscale restaurant.

Soon after, one flight attendant came through with a cart of newspapers and pajamas (I gladly took a pair of soft PJs). Not more than a minute or two after that, another flight attendant came by and dropped off a set of BOSE Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones at each seat (they are HEAVENLY….can’t hear anything except what you want to hear).

Now, there are so many buttons and latches on the seat that a novice would truly have difficulty figuring it out. What does this latch do? *thunk* Oh…..hope that didn’t damage anything….what does this button do? *screen pops out of the table* Uhh……let’s try reclining my seat *nothing happens*. It took me some time and I had to watch the instructional video for the seat via the little screen before I could figure out how to operate it.

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Soon, the purser (lead flight attendant) came by to take my order for dinner and drinks. I ordered a Jack and Coke as my pre-meal drink, the smoked salmon app, corn chowder, seasonal salad with sour cream and herb dressing, and bacon wrapped shrimp with a dessert to be chosen after the meal. I also ordered a wine flight to taste before my meal. The Jack and coke was SUPER strong. As in, probably the glass was just about full of Jack, with just a splash of coke. All of the wines were great, but since I was eating a pretty “light” (as in, no red meat) meal, I chose a classic: a delicious, fruity, and only lightly sweet classy champagne to go with my meal. The drinks came out with a pre-dinner snack of warm, premium mixed nuts (no peanuts!) that had a delicious, delicate crunch.

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The place settings were also really impressive. Real white linen tablecloth, placemats, and these awesome looking water cups.The attention to detailed showed in how the salt and pepper shakers were carefully sealed with a plastic sticker to keep them from spilling everywhere.

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I also thought the shape of the water glass was super cool.

And then came the food. Even though the previous flight attendant on the DEN-LAX leg had pumped me full of treats, I was ravenous. We all received an amuse bouche of chilled shrimp and grits, which was actually really delicious. Perfectly cooked and seasoned shrimp.

Next they came around with an artisan bead basket. I chose a focaccia, which was piping hot. It had a wonderful, rich crust, and came with high-quality, intensely flavorful butter.

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The smoked salmon appetizer came out, and it was delicious. It was very well balanced, with the subtle smokiness of the salmon pairing well with the richness of the cream cheese and the delicate sweetness of the blinis. It came served with these little olive-looking things with long stems (I can never remember their name…somebody refresh me?), which were a nice contrast. The salmon wasn’t too salty, nor too fishy, and as somebody that doesn’t even usually particularly smoked salmon I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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However, the menu started to take a little bit of a downturn, as the next course of corn chowder was thoroughly disappointing. It came in a bowl, and had a dried film on top, a telltale sign of improper reheating. Despite the menu indicating it would be served with a spicy red pepper sauce, I saw nothing of the sort (When I mentioned it to the purser, he said that it was mixed in with the soup. And yet, the soup didn’t even have a hint of spice). It also had an overwhelming umami flavor, which leads to my suspicion of MSG use as a shortcut to developing actual complex flavors. The unfortunate comparison that I had to draw make was its similarity to just a reheated bowl of canned soup.

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The salad course was also a little disappointing. The “seasonal mixed greens” were simply some romaine, raddichio, and spinach. The greens were extremely crisp and fresh. The salad was topped with some sort of Greek skewer, with feta, tomato, cucumber, and olive. The Greek aspect of the salad had me searching for onions, as I don’t think I’ve ever had a Greek salad that didn’t have fresh red onion in it. Alas, there was none. The “sour cream and herb” dressing really just tasted like a bland ranch.

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At this point I was getting pretty full, but was still looking forward to snow crab and shitake mushroom-stuffed bacon-wrapped shrimp. Seriously, doesn’t that sound amazing? Alas, it also turned out underwhelming, with chewy, overcooked bacon wrapped shrimp that had no detectable hint of either snow crab or mushrooms. Another case of in-flight reheating gone wrong, I guess. It was served with some sort of sweet corn sauce, which, despite having a slightly alarming bright yellow color, was actually quite delicious with the shrimp (shrimp and grits, anyone?). The broccolini it was served with was well cooked and crisp-tender, and while the shiso rice had the perfect light and fluffy texture, it too fell short in the flavor department.

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Thoroughly stuffed, exhausted from a lack of sleep, and getting hit by the cocktails, wine flight, and champagne I was having, I felt like I was on the verge of passing out. However, the meal was not finished yet, as I was presented with a dessert menu. I skipped over the heavier sundaes (made with Ben and Jerry’s!), and stuck with a lighter fruit salad with sorbet. The scoop of sorbet came out ROCK hard (must have been pre-scooped and then re-frozen), but the fruit was delicious and sweet. The blueberries in the mix were MASSIVE. A couple of sips of an INTENSE port to go with it, and finally I was done feasting and ready for sleep.

I went into the bathroom to change into my pajamas. Unfortunately, the first class bathroom is the same size as the rest of the bathrooms on the plane, that is to say, TINY. I had trouble getting my clothes off and PJs on without dipping them into the toilet or the wet sink. Ew.

I came out and could barely contain my glee as I pushed the button on my seat that turned it into a fully flat bed. I made myself a nest out of the sheets and blankets, put on my noise canceling headphones, and promptly passed out for the next 5 hours. I woke up to use the bathroom, saw that it was approximately noon in Shanghai, and as I wasn’t as exhausted (or tipsy), decided to stay up for a bit. Somehow, my stomach decided that it wanted more food (WHY do you do this to meeeeeee), so I went ahead and had a cheese plate (from the self-serve snack bar) and some dim sum. The cheese plate was excellent. There wasn’t a description of the cheeses, but the first one I had was some kind of infused cheese (brown veins running through it) that was intensely nutty and delicious. The second was an aged white cheddar, and the third was some kind of soft, creamy cheese with a fuzzy white rind (kinda like a brie, but more intense) that also had some sort of infusion to it. They were all delicious, and the fruit on the tray was extremely sweet and fresh. I’m just now starting to understand the pairings of fruits/wine with cheese, and as I alternated bites of intense cheese with sweet, juicy grapes, my mouth was in heaven.

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The dim sum also suffered from poor airplane-reheating syndrome, but was about as good as what you could expect 35,000 feet up in the sky. The shumai was actually extremely tasty. I had a coffee along with it to hopefully keep me awake, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it actually had some substance in contrast to the watery, weak coffee I had earlier in the day on the Frontier Airlines flight.

One big weakness with the flight was the extremely poor in flight entertainment (IFE) system. The system is slow and pixelated, and the options are limited and outdated. After browsing it briefly, I got sleepy again and promptly flattened out my seat and went back to bed.

I awoke just in time for the light, pre-arrival meal. It started off with a light salad with sesame dressing, and I had a choice of Pumpkin Bisque or chilled Sesame Chicken w/salad. With the memory of the previous soup fresh on my mind, I chose the chilled Sesame Chicken with plum vinaigrette salad. Both salads were fresh and crisp, and the chicken looked like it had been baked and crusted with abundant sesame seeds.

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For dessert, I had some fresh fruit, a chocolate chip cookie, and a strawberry sundae made with BJ, er, I mean Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. I was stuffed beyond belief but still finished it all, because it was all so good. To go along with dessert, I had a coffee with Bailey’s.

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Soon, this luxurious flight was drawing to a close. I changed out of my comfy pajamas, raised my seat back up, and sipped on some last minute celebratory champagne and sparkling water.

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The flight attendant handed out one last treat as the plane descended towards Shanghai.

Once on the ground, I grabbed everything they would let me take as a souvenir, including my menu and the pajamas, and quickly exited the aircraft.

The flight was an incredible experience. The service, especially from the purser (who by my best guess is a gay man in his early late 30s-early 40s) was fantastic, though the other flight attendant (a middle aged Asian lady) in the First Class cabin was a little bit more curt and less warm. Would I ever pay $12,500 for it? Absolutely not. Not even if I won the lottery. But with my connections in American Airlines, I hope to experience it as often as I possibly can J.

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MC4 Episodes 5-6

Brief thoughts in chronological order:

Oh god I hate school buses. So many bad memories.

 

I love Krissi’s honesty.

 

Graham makes a hilarious, but totally believable school bus driver.

 

Joe is still a terrible actor.

 

Lynn (AKA MC4Michael haha) gets picked first. That says something about his perceived strength.

 

Since when is impeccable plating important for kids?

 

Krissi AKA MC4David

 

Kathy seems to be very underestimated.

 

I would rather eat the Blue team’s menu. Meatballs + Marinara is so much more kid-friendly. Chicken teriyaki and corn just don’t seem to make sense together. Though meatballs could very well be difficult to execute for 300 kids.

 

Cooking turkey meatballs thoroughly on the grill will make them way too dry. Making a meat sauce seems like a much better idea.

 

@MC4Jason is hilarious.

 

Joe: “It’s either one or the other”. No duh….lol

 

All in all, that was a surprisingly straightforward challenge.

 

I’d have to agree with the blame being on Jordan’s shoulders. Didn’t really see any real screw-ups by the team members individually.

 

Moar drama! Who will be “safe”?

 

And of course, because the blame resides almost unanimously on Jordan, the drama point is to see whether Jordan will be selfish and incur the wrath of his teammates by saving himself.

 

“I’m not the captain of a ship, I’m the captain of a team that’s no longer a team” Fair enough…

 

Cheesecake in 90 minutes is pretty much impossible. But then again, that is the point.

 

What’s with all the elimination challenges being desserts???

 

OMG I thought that cheesecake with the brittle on top had a fried chicken drumstick in it.

 

It’s true that pineapple on top of the cheesecake make it hard to cut.

 

Adriana did NOT deserve to go home. Guava paste is something so commonly used in so many cuisines, and them knocking her for using it was ridiculous.

 

Ahhh, chef gets to cook with the contestants this year (last year it was graham). Would have loved to be a part of that. Will joe participate next year??? Hmm…for some reason I highly doubt it.

 

Did Howard really guess Rachael Ray -______-       

 

I would make a poached black cod topped with ginger and some sort of onion (are chives/green onions/shallots/anything similar included in the staple pantry? Who knows?) with a rich soy-miso broth with charred beet greens and a velvety cauliflower puree.

 

Hahahahahahaha the whole thing with Chef Ramsay is pretty funny, I must say.

 

LOL Bri good one!

 

Oh my god this is cracking me up so hard haha.

 

Seriously, do the judges actually expect somebody to say “yes, it was a fluke. I actually suck at cooking.”???

 

Good job Beth! She seems sweet, and I hope she does well.

 

Oh god that layer cake looks ghastly. Confetti cake (from a box???) plus a nasty looking green frosting….ew. If a contestant turned in a cake like that they would have been smacked down.

 

HAHAHAHA “He’s European, therefore unpredictable @MC4James” line of the night so far.

 

Did Howard just say “Tenetian vanilla bean cupcake?” #snort

 

Note to Howard, it’s “Tahitian vanilla, not Tenetian.” But then again, Joe is the king of “expresso” so no wonder he doesn’t care.

 

I am pretty sure that this is the first time I’ve ever heard Gordon Ramsay call something “gross”. Not an adjective that I thought was in his vocabulary.

 

Bethy’s cupcakes look STUNNING.

I actually had a chance to preview this episode before it aired courtesy of Christine’s celebrity power (she gets the episodes days ahead of the general public to give her enough time to write her blog). The first thought I had about the first episode was that it was…bland. Unexciting. It just seemed to follow the script of every team challenge. Some mistakes in judgment, some mistakes in execution, editing to make it look like a dead heat, free passes in the pressure test to generate drama, some feedback/criticism, somebody goes home. So predictable *yawn*.

One thing worth noting is that it seems like in this episode, all of the judges feedback was actually accurate. I pretty much agreed with their criticisms, from the meatballs, to the chicken issues, so their assessment of who would be more popular (spaghetti), to their criticisms of the cheesecake (pineapple hard to cut, caramel too sweet, too much crust on some, etc). Of course, there were things here and there (ripping on Adriana for using guava paste, really????), but overall the episode stood out for having some pretty realistic feedback. I’m a bit sad that Adriana went home. Like Ben, it seems like all of my favorites are dropping like flies. I’m not telling you who my next favorite is…….

Finally, we get to mystery box #2. I love the ingredients under this box. They are all things that I like to work with. This episode just had me chuckling the whole time, from Gordon’s mockery of the time limit to the whole mixer removal thing . Makes no sense in the context of a cooking competition to see who’s the best cook, but definitely makes for interesting TV.

A bit confused as to why Jessie no longer had big cake tins. Couldn’t she have just reused the ones that she just took the cupcakes out of? Overall though, I am impressed, though MasterChef’s newfound obsession with desserts is a little bit annoying. Correct me if I’m wrong, but hasn’t the number of dessert challenges increased dramatically over the seasons?

The hardest part of this challenge would be having enough time to let the cakes cool so that they can all be frosted. Clearly, the appearance of the cakes sets apart those that have experience baking and decorating with those that do not. Unfortunately, it is Malcolm that goes home.

Overall, I feel like MasterChef is getting a bit too predictable. The show keeps on throwing us the same tricks over and over to try and attract viewers and ratings, but it just doesn’t really do it for me. 

We will see what next week brings. It’s highly possible that I have just become much too familiar with the show.

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