MasterChef: Season 12: Episode 5: “Spirit Challenge”

We’re down to top 19, and the pressure continues to build. I’m starting to notice the other competitors’ styles and trying to note any strengths or weaknesses. It’s obvious that Fred, Dara, and Amanda are dessert focused. Willie and Christian are definitely more homestyle, and Derrick is strictly fine dining. Noting these strengths and weaknesses are essential for things that are possible to come up like advantages, team challenges, or even tag teams.

Walking into the MasterChef kitchen, we immediately start to notice some major differences. The whole place is decorated to resemble Vegas. Each cooking station has a mystery box on it, and in the front of the room is a HUGE mystery box. When I say huge, I mean almost big enough for a car to be under! I still have no idea what is going on. You can feel the tension and excitement in the air. Even after Gordon looks at me and says, “Brandi, you’re going to love this one,” I still have no idea what to expect. I literally said to him, “What’s under there, a barrel of bourbon?” As the box begins to lift, you can see three sets of feet. Two sets are obviously Vegas show girls in their full getup, and the third set is definitely a man. Can you believe I still hadn’t registered who was under the box?!?! Seems pretty obvious right? It wasn’t until I saw the crossed arms with the full sets of tattoo sleeves that I realized it was Shaun O’Neale. Yes, the same Shaun O’Neale that I competed against during the entirety of season 7 of MasterChef. The same Shaun that I competed against in the season 7 finale….and unfortunately lost to. Standing in front of me was the season 7 MasterChef winner, the one person who had ever sent me home in the MasterChef kitchen. To top it off, I was the ONLY season 7 contestant in this competition. I think it’s safe to say that this competition was going to feel a little different for me than for all of my other competitors.

After the shock of Shaun being here, I realized we still had no idea what our mystery box challenge was. The judges tell us that under each box is a different “spirit,” so….alcohol. I start to think of the dozens of dishes I create with alcohol. I’m usually using some type in every meal I cook, even if I’m just making dinner for my kids. Seems easy right? Then I realize that I’m in the MasterChef kitchen and NOTHING is easy. There’s no telling what will be under my box. We are told to go pick out whatever station we want. I grab a station and start thinking about what could be under it. Of course, we all know I’d love it to be bourbon. I have more than a handful of signature dishes on my private chef menu that contain bourbon, but I also know there’s no way that I am going to get that lucky. We lift our boxes, and much to my dismay…..I see a bottle of LIMONCELLO. Limoncello? Really? The judges go around asking us what alcohol we have and Gordon chuckles when he gets to me and asks, “Brandi, are you a bourbon girl?” He knows I’m a bourbon girl. The last episode I created a dish with FOUR bourbon elements in it. He then asks what alcohol I have and if I am happy with it, to which I respond, “Limoncello….what even is this? Can I even catch it on fire, does it even have a high enough alcohol content?!” I realize quickly that I have offended Joe because, “Limoncello is a fine Italian dessert drink.” Great, so now I’m cooking with a crappy alcohol, I’ve offended Joe, it sounds like I have to make a DESSERT with a spirit I’ve never even tasted, and I have to cook for the MasterChef that sent me home….if I thought the last challenge was intimidating….honestly, at this point, I’m already thinking about what I need to pack when I get back to my room to head home.

As the clock starts, I realize I have to taste this drink BEFORE I can even plan what to cook and BEFORE I go into the pantry to collect ingredients. PINESOL and LEMONHEADS!!!! I kid you not. This stuff is atrocious, and I have to cook with it. Everything around me is telling me I have to make a dessert. Season 7 Brandi would have ran to the kitchen, grabbed sugar, flour, eggs, vanilla and all things dessert related. Well, season 12 Brandi spoke up and said, “You don’t have to make a dessert.” Duh, I cook savory meals with sweets ALL the time, it’s kind of my thing. I quickly shift my focus and realize I can so something to make this work. Fish goes great with lemon, and their are some beautiful salmon filets in the fridge. Sesame and soy are strong flavors that I think will help mask the Pinesol flavor. Bok choy goes great with lemon….and then I see these beautiful prawns. I have an excellent shrimp ceviche on my private dinner menu. Ceviche is full of citrus….limoncello is citrus. At this point I think, “Why the heck not, I’ll do both.”

Starting the cook, I’m feeling confident in my dish, but I’m flooded with emotion. The last dish I had to make was the dish that sent me home. Today, I’m cooking for the person who sent me home. Talk about intimidating. At this point, I feel personally attacked lol. However, if you didn’t watch season 7, or if you have forgotten, Shaun and I were great friends. He was actually the first friend I made while filming, and all the way to the end, we were supportive of each other. Heck, the night before the last battle of the finale, we ate dinner together. We both knew it would be hard to lose, but were comforted in the fact that if either one of us won, we felt that both of us deserved it. So Shaun was NOT my archnemesis here to torture me lol, but I was intimidated and honestly wanted to do great in this challenge because I was representing season 7 on my own.

The judges come to my station and things are going pretty smoothly. My salmon is crisping nicely, my bok choy is caramelized beautifully, and my prawns are soaking in citrus. I stop from the cook to give Shaun a big hug and the judges start asking about my dish. They are intrigued at my choice to steer away from dessert, but Gordon is somewhat baffled by the ceviche addition on my plate. I knew it sounded crazy, but I knew the flavors were going to work. I pushed what Gordon said out of my head and decided to stick with my gut and finish my dish the way I had planned. During the judges tasting, they were all impressed with the crisp on my fish, the visible medium rare, and the flavor of the glaze and ceviche mixture. Going into actual judging, I didn’t know what to expect for top dishes, like ALWAYS, I’ve been zoned out and know very little about the competitors and their dishes around me. I am, however, not afraid of going home at this point.

Diagonal from me is Cate, and I started this battle envious of her because SHE GOT THE BOURBON. The possibilities were endless, and I knew she was sure to pull out an amazing dish. Then I saw her cakes. Once again, my heart broke for her, they were visibly raw. Cate is an amazing chef and has this bright, bubbly, exciting personality that you just can’t help but to want to be around. However, she would for sure be in the bottom today. Hearing the judges talk to Tommy, sounds like he had a miss with the Scotch. It sounds like he really just doesn’t drink Scotch or know what to do with it, so he went with the butterscotch route. Sounds pretty reasonable, but I just don’t think his dish played out the way that he hoped, and the color of the dish and plate ended up being a little off putting.

As the top 3 are called up, I remember thinking how impressive it was that Fred was making phyllo from scratch in under an hour; I didn’t even know that was possible. It seemed as though he definitely deserved to be up there. Christian’s dish looked crispy and delicious, and coconut shrimp is definitely something I would want to eat, but the accompaniments seemed kind of like a last second thought with the undressed microgreens (a little lemon goes a long way). As my name is called up, I’m beyond excited. This is the feeling I have missed. To create a beautiful plate and for my hard work to be recognized. The cook on the fish was perfect, the limoncello was very balanced, and believe it or not the cabbage was the star of my plate! (I get super excited when people love my vegetables). Gordon’s only critique is that he feels the prawns don’t belong on the dish. What you don’t hear is Aaron Sanchez speaking up and saying that this pairing is prevalent in Latin cuisine, and that he finds the ceviche delicious and pleasant. AARON SANCHEZ LIKED MY CEVICHE. If you guys only knew how afraid I was to put ceviche in front of a RENOWNED MEXICAN CHEF AND RESTAURANT OWNER, and have him like it, then you would understand my excitement in this moment. Fred, with his homemade phyllo, wins the immunity pin. Although getting the pin and the win would have been amazing, I’m honestly just happy to be standing on the balcony and away from the possibility of getting sent home today.

As expected, Cate and Tommy were called up to the bottom three. Dara apparently struggled as well. Her spirit was rum, and the main rum component was supposed to be a rum caramel sauce. It seemed to have crystalized, and there is no saving caramel after that happens. This meant that the only rum component on her dish was a brushing of a rum syrup on her cakes that the judges said looked like “mini pancakes.” Overall, it seemed as though they felt her dish was underwhelming, but not enough errors to be sent home. I think we all knew that Cate was leaving on this dish. One thing you can’t do is serve a raw cake in the MasterChef kitchen. My heart broke for her, but she left the kitchen with grace and that beautiful ear to ear smile she always had. When a bright, fun personality leaves the competition, that’s one less bright, bubbly person to help keep your spirits up throughout the remainder of the competition.

I had put my all into this Limoncello curveball, and not only had I survived when I thought I would not, but thrived instead. But, as I always say, there’s no time for celebration, because what’s coming…..none of us could ever be prepared for.