MasterChef: Season 12: Episode 6: Coast Guard Team Challenge

Heading into the top 18, we all realize that 18 is an even number. There is always the risk of a team challenge when the numbers are even (we can be split evenly into two teams). Let me tell you about team challenges. They….are…..rough. There are A LOT of personalities in this competition. Yes, we can all cook, but can we all get along? Can we all communicate effectively? Can we all step up or step back when needed without letting our pride and egos in the way? Throw in a field challenge, (not in the MasterChef kitchen) where we are completely out of our element, and you have a recipe for…well, disaster. It’s not even, “Will things go wrong today?” but more like, “How many things will go wrong today?” Because things….will….go wrong. It doesn’t matter that we are all skillful chefs, we are being thrown into an unknown environment with make-shift kitchens, an unknown menu, no time to plan or prep, and 101 Coast Guards to feed in very little time. I cater HUGE events with 101 people times three. These things take TIME. And an hour or so is not the time I’m talking about. I’m talking about a week or more to get everything in order.

We are taken to an undisclosed location, but the water, ships, and “Coastguard” signs start to give it away. We are cooking for the Coast Guard. A tremendous honor under any other circumstance. The pressure we are feeling is tremendous, and the competition is actually the last thing on my mind right now. The pressure I’m feeling is that under all of these circumstances, we have to pull it together and create a beautiful meal, worthy enough to show our love and support to these coast guards who have given their time and energy into serving our country. I say it every time, but…talk about pressure. If you are seeing a recurring theme here, you better believe it. We are under constant stress and pressure. Pressure to succeed, pressure from the judges, pressure to put our best foot forward, and yes, pressure from you, the viewer, to be the best us we can be.

As crazy as it sounds, I don’t usually hate team challenges. With my background in education, I’m use to working in large groups with many different types of people. Heck, I taught children how to work in groups with different types of people. The way I look at it is, we all know how to cook, so I should be fine with whoever I get on my team…right? Gordon splits us up by seasons: seasons 1-7 are blue team, seasons 8-11 are the red team. I look around and see some strong chefs…and some even stronger personalities. I first notice we have both of the juniors. Some may see this as a disadvantage, I see it as an advantage. They are both quite capable, and unlike some other contestants, they are open to criticism and take direction without their feelings getting hurt. I feel as though they will be an asset to our team. We are told that we are able to choose our team captain and Christian steps up first and says he wants to do it. No one argues. As I said, I’ve been studying each of my competitors, both during the challenges and off camera. Christian has a very big personality. He is at times quiet and reserved, and at other times aggressive and abrasive. Now, I know what it means to be a team player, and I recognize that my captain is my boss today. But I wanted to get one thing straight, so as soon as Christian volunteered, I looked at him and said, “You’re my captain and I will do whatever you say(to a point), but SPEAK TO ME, DON’T YELL AT ME.” If you know me at all, I am not an abrasive person. Yes, I am headstrong, sometimes opinionated, and not afraid to speak my mind. But I never yell or belittle, and expect the same in return. I don’t “do” yelling.

Our team is tasked with creating a cod dish, and Christian decides that we will be taking the dish to New Orleans. I’m fine with that. I have plenty of Cajun dishes on my menu and am comfortable and familiar with the flavor profile. What I am not comfortable with is Christian trying to control every aspect of the dish. When I suggest a Cajun gastrique as our sauce, I’m met with looks of confusion from the rest of the team. Christian does NOT like the idea, and instead says we are doing a Cajun cream sauce. He’s the boss. I am tasked with creating the spice blend for the fish, seasoning the fish, and now Christian wants both him and I to each create a Cajun cream sauce and “see which one’s best.” I’m confused, because this is not a “battle of the sauces,” either make the cream sauce, or tell me to. But, Christian is the captain, so I make a cream sauce on my stove while he makes one on his. The team is unanimous in that they all agree my cream sauce has a better flavor. My captain tells me to go with my cream sauce. Christian goes into the competition planning on working on the fish on his own. Derrick and Shayne are on potatoes, Willie, Tommy, Dara, Amanda, and Shelly are all working on various vegetable elements.

Gordon and the judges come to check on our menu, and Gordon asks why the H*** we are making a cream sauce in 95 degree weather, and asks, “What happened to the Cajun gastrique?” Christian looks over at me and tells me to make the gastrique I had originally presented to the group. Now we are 15 minutes into the cook, and I’ve just been told I have to create a totally different sauce before the judges tasting (which is 15 minutes from now). A gastrique is a reduced sauce that is mainly vinegar based with some type of sugar component that needs time to reduce. Often times it is infused with various things like fruits or vegetables. I’m making an heirloom tomato and honey gastrique with apple cider vinegar and Cajun spices, and it needs TIME to reduce. I know I can’t make 101 servings in 15 minutes, so I start by making a very small pan, hoping it will reduce in time for the judges plate. As it is nearing time to let the judges taste a dish, Christian starts to scream for the sauce. I tell him that I can’t rush it, it has to reduce or it isn’t a gastrique. That wasn’t a good enough answer, so he continues to scream and holler and yell for the sauce. I very nicely tell him that I know this is how he works, but that he needs to stop hollering at me. Derrick is even telling Christian to stop yelling at me! It is making me uncomfortable and it is NOT helping the sauce get done any faster! For the judges plating, Dara and I even have to add a little corn starch slurry just to get a serving of sauce on the one plate (slurries do NOT go in a proper gastrique!)

The judges taste our plate and the fish is raw. You can’t be the captain AND cook all of the protein yourself. At this point, I’m now the sauce maker and I’m in charge of helping Christian cook all of the cod. We also have a lot of mashed potatoes to make. I make mashed potatoes at large catering events and it is a job. Derrick and Shayne were on the right track with three pots of potatoes going. You also have to remember that we are on makeshift equipment, and the wind is blowing, so it is going to take longer to cook a pot of potatoes. Christian comes to check on the potatoes and thinks the idea of using three pots is crazy, and dumps all of the HOT potatoes into COLD water. it’s obvious that the potatoes will take even longer to cook. Now that I am on the fish with Christian, I go to ask him how long he cooked his fish for and what the judges had to say about the dish (they usually just have this conversation with the captain and his job is to come back and relay it to us). I don’t know yet that his fish was raw, and I know the judges are looking for consistency, so I’m trying to make sure Christian and my fish are basically the same. Instead of answering my question, Christian starts to scream at me, “It’s fish, don’t you know how to cook fish? You said you know how to cook fish.” This is where I about lost it. What you don’t see, off camera, is me putting my foot down and telling Christian that I will not be spoken to like this anymore. I’m not going to sit back while he screams at me. I’m over here BUSTING MY BUTT working on sooo many details of this dish, (the whole team is working like crazy) that the last thing I need is someone screaming at me and asking me if I even know how to cook fish?!?!

Christian got the memo, and not only did he apologize to the whole team, but apologized to me individually off camera. I don’t think Christian went into the challenge planning to yell at all of us. I believe that the job of captain is a hefty one. It’s a double edged sword in that you can either look amazing by bringing your team to victory, or, as the captain, you can go down with your ship. I think he was honestly just afraid to not be assertive. Afraid he wouldn’t be seen as a viable captain and be respected by us if he didn’t assert himself. Although you do need to assert yourself in a leadership role, the aggression is completely unnecessary.

It’s time for the Coast Guard to start rolling in! Christian and I have some beautiful seared pieces of cod ready to plate, my sauce has just finished reducing and I’m pouring it into a serving deli for the plating team. Everything looks great…….and we have NO POTATOES. This beautifully intricate dish with all of these amazing components and not a single scoop of mashed potatoes to put on our plate….embarrassing. Team challenges are out of some contestants realm of normalcy. Many of these competitors are either restaurant chefs or private chefs. Usually, a private chef is making high-end, fancy pants meals. I know this because I am a private chef. There’s no reason for a private chef to make 100 servings of mashed potatoes. However, I am also a caterer, and making large batches of potatoes is kind of the norm. Shelly also has plenty of background in making massive amounts of food. When s*** is hitting the fan with the mashed potatoes, she quickly jumps in to give tips and tricks and helps to save the day. I’m honestly not sure we would have gotten any potatoes on the plate if Shelly hadn’t intervened and helped everyone pull it together.

When we FINALLY get the potatoes, you can see that our dish is coming together. The flavor profile is in depth, the colors on the plate are beautiful, it’s light and refreshing on this hot day, and I am proud of what we are putting forward. Out of 101 plates, only one piece of fish was sent back to our kitchen. Of course, we would want zero plates sent back. But to me, being thrown in an unknown environment, with a makeshift kitchen, and a group of people you have never worked with, all while being critiqued by these three judges, I’d say one plate sent back was a major victory. As we were brought out to see the Coast Guard members we were feeding, it was easy to look up and think that there was no way that we had fed ALL of these people…but we did! As of now, we have NO idea what happened on the red side, but some of the members are looking a little defeated. When the smoke comes out BLUE, we are ecstatic! No one on our team is in danger of going home, which means we live to fight another day in the MasterChef kitchen.

As the Coast Guard clears out, Gordon begins to congratulate the blue team, and then begins to inform us of what was going on over on the red side. First, and foremost, there was a lack of communication. Where there was screaming and aggression on our side, there was just little to no talking and communicating on the red. Alejandro also made a HUGE ERROR when he dropped an entire tray of steaks on the ground, he picked them up and still put them on the grill. Now, we all know this is a no-no. These judges are CONSTANTLY watching us, as well as a full production team and gobs of cameras! I don’t know how Alejandro thought he could get by with that, or if he truly thought it would be fine (he said he thought that the heat from the grill would kill the bacteria). Honestly, the heat is going to kill the bacteria, but it’s not going to get rid of the dirt, grass, rocks and debris stuck on the sides of the steak. Would you go into a restaurant and accept and pay for a steak that the chef dropped on the floor and still cooked? Probably not. So, this was definitely not a shocker when Gordon announced Alejandro as the person leaving the competition.

I’ve had gobs of people say that this episode gave them anxiety. I reply with, “Try living it!” The entire day was chaos and stress. Watching the episode air brought back so much anxiety from the day. Even typing this days after airing, I still get anxiety while reliving some of these parts for you. We made it through the day, we did our best to honor an important group of people….and then there were 17. After a hot and exhausting day, we needed to get a shower, get in bed, and get some rest, because, as I’ve told you time and time again, there is no time for celebrating. Whatever is coming next, will be just as challenging!