Now that the apron battles are over, the competition can really get going! Walking into the MasterChef kitchen as part of the top 20, a sense of pride was washed over all of us. It took bravery, guts, and skill to get to this point. Being in the top 20 is an accomplishment all in itself. But, for me, and I’m sure it was like this for some of the other 19, the time to be proud was over. Just making it to top 20 wasn’t enough for me (If you’re not first, your last! I know…this isn’t true, it’s something I’m working on! lol). Now is when the real work started. No matter how well you do in this competition, there is never time for celebrating. Every time you stop to catch your breath, there is always something bigger coming…like the next challenge. And as Gordon always says, “Someone is going home tonight,” and you never want it to be you. I’m standing in the kitchen before the first challenge, honestly worried beyond measure. Season 7 was tough* enough, but we all know that the bar is going to be set even higher this season. We all have A LOT more experience than we had the first time we walked in this kitchen, and we all know expectations are going to be crazy high this time around (and you have to admit, yes YOU, the viewer, that your expectations are higher this time around as well). The world has seen what we are capable of, and now the judges are expecting MORE. The world is expecting MORE. Heck, even we are expecting more out of ourselves. It’s a lot of pressure to live up to. But pressure is the name of the game in the MasterChef kitchen.
As a movie drop screen is brought down in the kitchen, I start to hypothesize what we could be getting ready to watch. As they showed each of us contestants during our original “failing dish” that sent us home the first time, which was arguably each of us at one of our most vulnerable moments, floods of emotions rushed through me. How do they think of these challenges?!?!?! **Hey guys, let’s show them all the video of being sent home, get them all emotional, and then make them recreate the dish that’s traumatized them since they left the first time** Yes, it was traumatizing. Living it the first time, watching it air the first time, and now watching it again right before we cook. But what’s even worse is having to cook it again! Ok, I get the challenge. It’s to be expected. If we can’t overcome what sent us home the first time, then what are we even doing back? However, the playing field is NOT even. Some people were sent home on a steak, some on pasta, some on a dessert, etc. But I was sent home (as well as Derrick and Dara) during a finale. That means that not only am I recreating a dish that haunts me, but I’m recreating what I think is the hardest thing you could ever have to cook in the MasterChef kitchen…a FINALE DESSERT. ****Recap: During the season 7 finale my menu was as follows: Appetizer Round- Apricot Bourbon BBQ cast iron seared pork belly with a sweet potato pure and raw rhubarb/rainbow swiss chard salad; Entree- Cast iron seared duck breast with a blackberry veal demi glace and ramp hushpuppies; Dessert- Cornmeal Madeleines with bourbon glazed peaches, fresh peach compote, white chocolate mousse, bourbon caramel and candied pecans**** Who in the world puts cornmeal in madeleines? No one…that’s who. While an intrinsically beautiful dessert, the cookies just didn’t work, so this was the dish that I would have to reinvent for the challenge.
I had a full plate entering this challenge, and my first step was to eliminate the madeleines! I wanted to keep all other components and integrity of the dish. but the star of the show had to change! I decided to go with a fresh peach galette. This would be accompanied by a fresh peach compote, my signature bourbon caramel (which Christina Tosi said she wanted to lick off the plate), a white chocolate vanilla bean whipped cream, and bourbon candied pecans. I went into the cook feeling confident. Although there were tons of components to my dish, I knew if I used my time wisely, I could put this dish together in an hour. Well that plan went right out the door when they told us the new norm for the competition would be to create THREE plates each challenge instead of one. Some components of dishes, like purees or roasted vegetables, don’t require too much effort to just make a little more and have enough for three plates. Not my dish. This meant that I would need to double my dough recipe (thank you mental math) roll out dough for three galettes, intricately slice three times the amount of peaches, delicately assemble three time consuming desserts, and get them all in the oven in enough time to cook. A galette, when assembled correctly, is a work of art. It’s different from your regular pie where the fillings can be half-hazardly dumped into a pie shell, but intricately arranged on a dough base instead. I started to panic wondering if I was going to have enough time to pull this off. Welp, no backing out now!
The challenge begins by RUNNING into the pantry to collect ingredients. Yes, running is necessary (and I’m not a runner) because the clock has already begun ticking. The pressure here is making sure you grab every little thing you are going to need, because who has time to go all the way back for more ingredients? After grabbing, hopefully, everything I needed, I rushed back and began by making my butter based crust. Ideally I would let this rest for an hour or so, but I had to settle on maybe 10 minutes. Next I needed to get my caramel going; positive note here, I’d made it enough times to do so with my eyes closed. However, I noticed I had forgotten an ingredient. From my perspective…the most important ingredient…BOURBON!!! No big deal, let’s just take 2 or 3 of my precious minutes and use all of my energy to run back and forth again! I then got my peaches sliced with the help of my old enemy, the mandolin (trust me, it’s the most dangerous tool in the kitchen). And, as you can see in clips of the video, I cut my finger minutes into the cook. However, it was with a knife, not the mandolin (we have to celebrate little victories). Luckily, no blood got on my dough, or any other ingredients. With shaking hands (and a finger bandaged) I began to roll my crust and started to assemble my galettes. It was taking too long. The judges reaffirmed my fears by asking me if I would get them in the oven in time. I threw them in the oven (later than I would have liked) and hoped they would be done on time.
Some things can be rushed in the kitchen, but baking is not one of them. There was no way I would serve a galette with raw dough, so whether or not they had time to cook determined whether or not they would make it on the plate (Yes, I had already decided I would give the judges an incomplete plate before I gave them an inedible component). Trying to push the galettes out of my mind, I continued on with the remainder of the dish. I still had the caramel to finish (which I needed in order to bake the pecans), a white chocolate vanilla whip cream to mix, pecans to bake, and intricate plating to do. With all of these other components complete, I checked my galettes….still not done. With minutes remaining in the cook (you can’t expect me to remember the exact amount, there’s a lot going on lol), I go ahead and start with my plating. The galettes are the last things to go on the plates, so I started painting my caramel on the plate and piping my creams and sauces with the MAIN COMPONENT of my dish still in the oven. If this dish sent me home….again….I didn’t know if I would mentally recover. With a minute (or maybe less to spare), I pull the galettes from the oven and breathe a sigh of relief that they are cooked through. With seconds to spare, each galette makes it to the plate and I throw my hands in the air.
The end of each challenge brings a flood of emotions. First, whether you did well or not, relief. Relief that you survived, because honestly, sometimes it feels like you won’t survive the hour. I’m sure that sounds ridiculous to someone on the outside, I mean, we aren’t going to die right? Well, our brains tell us that could be a possibility. Secondly, either a sense of accomplishment if you are pleased with the dish, or a sense of failure if things didn’t turn out as you planned. I’m happy to say that accomplishment was the feeling I felt today. With more time (because you could ALWAYS do more with more time) my peaches would have been placed better (and there probably would have been more of them), the plating would be a little cleaner, and a few more pecans would have made it to the plate. However, I looked down and thought, “Now this is the dish I should have made in the season 7 finale.” Not only did I feel pride for doing well in this challenge, but I also had just overcame the fear of a dish that had haunted me for 6 years. I can say I went into the judges’ tasting not being afraid I would go home. Like in the apron battle, I had little awareness of what was going on around me. It’s like I zone out and I’m on a completely different planet by myself when I’m cooking here. A few contestants tell me how beautiful my dish is, one being Gabe, and I can see the look of disappointment on his face. He tells me he thinks he’s going home. As I said before, it’s hard to see anyone not prosper in this kitchen. My heart hurt for him, and I hoped he’d be able to hang on. Viewers may not realize, but the MasterChef kitchen is so large and long, that I have absolutely no idea about what is going on in most of the kitchen, so hearing the judging is a surprise to us as well. I felt a sense of relief when Gordon told me, three times, that my plate was beautiful and well executed.
Hearing the judges initial critiques, it’s pretty obvious that Stephen, Tommy, and Gabe will be in the bottom. Stephen was tasked with making panna cotta. Not a super complex dessert on its own, but throw in limited time to cool and set and it gets challenging! I always give my panna cotta at least four hours to set in the fridge. You also don’t know if your gelatin measurements are correct until it has completely cooled, so Stephen had no time to correct any errors. His gelatin measurements were definitely off, as no setting at all happened to his panna cotta. I had gotten to know Stephen in the time we had spent here, and he was an amazing, unique person. He was always extremely nice and supportive to me, and I had honestly seen him as one of my biggest competitors. Gabe had spoke his concerns to me, and the judges reaffirmed his fears. Joe even making a comment about Gordon’s investment in Gabe (Gordon paid for culinary school for him). This broke my heart because I know Gabe was already feeling as though he let someone down in this moment, and Gabe is an amazingly talented chef. Tommy had struggled with his sliders as well, one of his dishes not having top buns, as well as some other errors. I’ve read fans saying, “Why didn’t he just put two burgers on each plate?” or “How can you mess up something as simple as a burger?” or “You really gave Gordon the plate missing buns?” but you guys just don’t know. You don’t know the amount of pressure each of us is under. WE ALL MAKE MISTAKES. Every single one of us. Not just here, but in the world. Gordon, Joe and Aaron have made mistakes. You, reading this right now, have made mistakes. The difference is, the entire world isn’t watching you…and judging you…while you make them. Talk about pressure.
As Stephen’s panna cotta was complete liquid pouring out of the container by the judges onto his plate, I knew in my heart he would be sent home. I felt terrible for him, but it also scared the crap out of me. For a front runner like Stephen (who I saw as one of my biggest competitors) to go home on the first challenge, I knew I needed to be afraid. It didn’t matter if you were a runner up the last time you were here, or if you finished in 17th place. This was a whole brand new competition, and even though you hear the judges say it every season, the expectations really were tremendously higher. There is no room for error. And in this moment, there is no time for me to celebrate, only to anticipate what will be thrown at me next. Because, rest assured, it will be just as tough…or tougher.