MasterChef: Season12 Ep: 1- Apron Battles

The new season of Fox’s hit show “MasterChef: Back to Win” is all about second chances. That’s why 40 PREVIOUS CONTESTANTS (at least one from every season 1-11) were invited back for another chance to win. I’m Brandi Alexander (previously Brandi Mudd). If you don’t remember me, I was the elementary school teacher and mom with the big, crazy, curly blonde hair who fought her way to the season 7 finale but came up short finishing as runner up to DJ Shaun O’Neale. I’ve decided to give you guys the inside scoop this season, from Brandi’s point of view! There’s only so much MasterChef can fit into an hour a week, and trust me, it takes much longer to film, and everything just can’t be worked in! I’m a few weeks behind, so I’ll be catching up the first few episodes. After that, you can expect a post each week!

Episode 1-3 were apron battles, where 40 of us previous contestants battled one another for a chance at one of the 20 coveted MasterChef white aprons (and a chance to redeem ourselves). For the sake of monotony, I’m combining the audition battles into one post here, but this will mainly focus on my battle, because that’s the one I have the most information on!  It seems we all spent quarantine speculating on what dish we would have to make, and who we would be battling against. That’s right – we did NOT know the nature of our battles, or who they would be against, until they were announced in the kitchen. I honestly assumed we’d be grouped by similar menu items (ex: everyone who was cooking halibut may be paired together) or that we’d be paired by seasons (it made sense that half the cast couldn’t be from one season). I….was….wrong. A few speculated, but I never would have guessed that I’d be in a battle of the runner ups! That’s crazy, right!?!? To put all of the runner ups (with the exclusion of Sarah, not sure why she was placed in a different battle) against each other, meaning only HALF of them would be able to obtain an apron! I feel most of us believed (and probably so did the viewers at home before the battle) that if you made it to second place in your season, you had the skills to be a shoo-in when it came to getting an apron. I couldn’t think of a more intimidating group to be paired with. To become runner up, not only do you have to be talented, but you also have the most MasterChef experience. You stuck around and participated in more challenges than your competitors, so you had the most competition competence.

I had seen the finale of season 2, season 4 and season 6, so I knew very well what Adrien, Natasha and Derrick were capable of (these were the contestants I was battling against). I went into this battle with the same mindset and energy that carried me through season 7. I’d focus on myself. I wasn’t competing with these three amazing chefs beside me. I was competing with Brandi and doing my best to make sure that no matter what happened, Brandi put her best on the plate. During the battle I was completely zoned out. I wasn’t aware of much going on around me. I wasn’t checking on the other contestants’ progress or worrying about whether they were successful or not. I was just worried about this dish. I was tasked with creating my “Wild Card” dish, which I was actually quite excited about! Being from a rural area and farming community with lots of land for hunting, I can get my hands on some excellent deer meat! I thought venison was a great way to highlight my upscale southern cooking style. My dish was a cast iron seared (of course I had to use cast iron) venison loin with an acorn squash purée, blackberry veal demi glacé, pickled blackberries and roasted mushrooms. All of the produce on my plate was purposefully selected to be items that could be part of a deer’s diet, ensuring these items would pair well together (I was quite excited when Gordon noticed this!).

Most of the cook was going pretty smoothly, until Gordon decided to stop and talk to me for an extended amount of time near the end of the cook! I’m sure you can imagine, but the judges and cameras can be very distracting! While we were conversing, I was reducing my blackberry and red wine pan sauce. By the time Gordon left, I looked down at my sauce and realized I had over reduced it! There was no way I could finish it with the Demi glacé and butter, it would without a doubt be broken and unable to be plated. With less than six minutes to go, I had a decision to make: Would I nix the sauce and leave it off the plate? Or would I attempt to sauté shallots, reduce red wine, blackberries, garlic and fresh herbs, strain the reduction, add veal glacé and mix in all my butter (one tablespoon at a time!) while still trying to finish all other components of the dish…and still leave time for plating. The simple choice would be to leave off the sauce, make sure all other components were perfect, and give myself plenty of time to plate beautifully. But leaving the sauce off would result in an incomplete dish. So, what you don’t see on the TV is me scrambling to recreate this time consuming sauce, and plating with seconds to spare (my goal was to use the last 4 minutes solely for plating…I plated in maybe 75 seconds).

Coming into the competition in season 7, plating was my biggest weakness. I knew I had to show extreme improvement in this area to be able to continue in the competition. With shaking hands and no time, I plated a dish that overall, I was proud of. With more time the items would have been placed a little more carefully, the sauce would be a little cleaner, and my freeze dried blackberry garnish would have made the plate! But, looking down at this beautiful dish, I knew that apron battle Brandi from season 7 could have never dreamed of plating this beautifully. As the time ran out, I marveled and judged my own dish, and I still honestly had no idea what the three plates next to me from my competitors even looked like. Since I was right next to Derrick in the battle, I could hear a little of what he was saying to the judges and cameras during the cook, so I had heard terms like “uni,” “lobster,” and “squid ink.” The dish sounded EXPENSIVE. Here I was with ingredients like acorn squash, blackberries and venison, foods worth a fraction of the price. My entire plate and the cost of every ingredient on it didn’t add up to the cost of the single piece of uni on the top of Derrick’s dish. While we stood there being judged, I was standing next to Derrick and told him it was the “battle of the rich vs poor dish!” We had a good laugh about it. While Adrien was being judged, I first remember noting that his dish was beautiful, and the details of the components sounded delicious and skillful. After they cut into his steak and you could visibly see that it was still raw, my heart sank for him. I thought for sure he was getting an apron! His skills in the kitchen are no doubt amazing! And he is also just such an extremely nice guy. Seeing mess ups like this from any contestant is disheartening. Natasha’s plate was absolutely beautiful, but when she described her dish as a deconstructed cheesecake, I knew one of two things would happen. I have made A LOT of cheesecakes. They are the signature desserts on my private chef and catering menu. Making cheesecake is an art. It took me years to perfect my cheesecake recipe and cooking technique. I could make a cheesecake blindfolded now, but I would NEVER attempt to make one in 45 MINUTES! I knew Natasha’s dish would either blow the judges away, or come up short; there was no in between. Unfortunately, although she pulled out a beautiful (and delicious) dessert, I don’t think calling it a cheesecake was the right call. While the judges tasted and critiqued Derrick’s dish, I was definitely nervous. I knew that there were tons of expensive, high-quality ingredients on his plate, and for one second I started second guessing my decision to elevate simple southern ingredients. But that’s who I am! However, Derrick’s main critique was that he didn’t need to pile every expensive ingredient into one dish to impress the judges.

As the judges tasted my dish, so many emotions and memories flooded my brain. Yes, competing on MasterChef is an incredible, once in a lifetime opportunity, but the feeling of vulnerability while being judged by three professionals is hard to even begin to try to explain. Not only are we being judged by them, but we are being judged by YOU: the viewers! To make a meal and mess up on a regular basis is one thing, but to fall on your face on NATIONAL television is a whole other level of devastation. Before eating my food, the judges critiqued the appearance of my dish, and my heart swelled with pride when Gordon observed that my plating skills had DRASTICALLY improved since season 7. He even asked me if I had “gone posh on him,” which made me giggle because I would not call myself posh…at all. The cook on the venison was perfect, the play on savory and sweet with the pickled blackberries paid off, and aside from a disagreement between Aaron and Gordon on whether my purée was perfect or a little “too creamy,” I was feeling pretty confident in my dish. If I didn’t get an apron right now, yes, I would be devastated, but I would be proud of the dish I placed before them and of the compliments I received. Although I was feeling pretty good about my chances of getting an apron, I was shocked when Gordon handed me the FIRST apron and announced my dish as the clear front-runner of the battle! I was elated and beyond proud of myself. After getting my apron, I anticipated that Derrick would be getting the other one of the two in the battle. It seemed his dish showed the most skill and had the fewest mistakes of the remaining three. I was correct and we were both excited leaving the room as winners, but I would be lying if I said my heart didn’t sink a little for my other two competitors.

The remaining battles were exciting to watch because I was filled with relief that I had obtained mine! I planned to watch the rest as closely as possible, because I needed to size up my competition and see what I was up against. The remaining contestants were grouped in various ways. Some were grouped by their season, some were grouped by their personalities, and honestly, I forget or didn’t catch how some were grouped (I had a lot going on in my mind!). I happened to be the only person from season 7 competing! This meant a few things. One: it meant that I was kind of on my own this season, without any old friends/cast mates to vent to, confide in, or cheer on. But it also meant that I basically had no emotional ties to these people (yet). I had met several of them previously from other MasterChef related events, but I had no close personal ties to them. Believe it or not, we form strong bonds as MasterChef contestants, and it’s hard to see a good friend get sent home. That was one obstacle I wouldn’t have to overcome starting this battle. However, over the course of a few days I had gotten to know some of these contestants and was rooting for several! As a former teacher, I was always rooting for another teacher or former teacher in a battle! It’s such an inspiration for children to see these teachers chasing their dreams! I was bummed when Daniel (Danny) didn’t receive an apron and was also very disappointed that Jaimee from season 7 didn’t get an apron. She was such a ray of sunshine, passionate about her culinary dreams, and her signature dish sounded amazing! The junior battle, as I’m sure it was for the viewers as well, was one of the most exciting to watch. These young adults, to me, show extreme bravery in showing up to compete with the regular MasterChef contestants. Although some regarded them as the underdogs, the only disadvantage I thought about was that they had a totally different first MasterChef experience than the rest of us. MasterChef Junior, although equally challenging, consisted of shorter filming days due to child labor laws, and they also had a parent or caregiver accompanying them on set through the whole process (a person there for emotional support that they could depend on). Aside from that, I told everyone that they were the ones to watch out for. Yes, they are young, but they are young and HUNGRY. These kids were fierce, and in some ways, they were the perfect students. As a former teacher, I knew these contestants would be more open to critiques, would listen to the judges’ vast array of knowledge, and would be more open to trying new things. Over the previous few days, I had gotten to know Shayne the Train pretty well. Being from Texas, he was a sweet and funny southern boy who reminded me of home, and in some ways, reminded me of my own kids! We had formed a friendship, so I was rooting for him and was so happy when he received an apron! I noted Dara’s diverse skill set and culinary education and knew she would be one to keep an eye out for. Stephen Lee, from season 6, was also one I had my eye on to make it far in this competition. His dishes seemed so complex and innovative, while somehow being simple in essence of ingredients at the same time. I had watched season 6 closely (it was the one right before I auditioned the first time) and pegged him as major competition. As the battles dwindled to an end, celebration and rest time was over. Receiving an apron was an accomplishment on its own, but now the real battle was about to begin, and it was only going to get harder!

***One last thing I’d like to add: To every single past contestant who came out to battle for an apron, whether you received one or not, I am so PROUD of you. It took a tremendous amount of courage to even be able to show up for this season. The toll these competitions take on you emotionally is tremendous. The first time we all competed, we were home cooks who were just happy to be there! This time is different. This time we are almost all in full time culinary careers, with restaurants, catering businesses, private chef gigs or food trucks. This time, our culinary reputations are on the line. To show up AGAIN for all the world to judge you, you’ve got to have guts. So congratulations to all 40 participants, who found the gumption to show up and compete again!!