MasterChef Season 12: Episode 7: Vegan Challenge

The numbers are starting to dwindle, we are down to the top 17, which means challenge by challenge, there is less and less room for error. As I see the set up in the front of the kitchen, I realize we are going to get a demo. Sounds exciting right?!?! Well, we never know what we are getting out of a demo. It could just be a demonstration of a type of cuisine. Those are fun! We get to watch and learn from legends. Or…it could be a replication challenge, which is where we get about two or three minutes to watch a chef make a dish, somehow memorize every step they make, and then attempt to make the dish ourselves…stressful! When the judges come out and Gordon puts on his apron, I know we are getting some type of Ramsay demo! I remember the first time I saw Gordon cook, I was in complete shock and awe. I stood there thinking about the opportunity I had, and how hundreds of thousands of people would love to be standing where I am. This time around, I’m still excited to see what he will show us, but then the realization that this has become almost “normal” to me was shocking. Watching Gordon Ramsey cook just a few feet in front of me is not normal! This doesn’t just happen to anyone, and I’m reminded of just how fortunate I am to have this opportunity. That’s the great thing about participating in MasterChef, you aren’t just competing, you are literally learning from the best….and Gordon’s the best.

When Gordon announces that he “LOVES vegan food,” I can’t help but to giggle a little. Yes, Gordon has many vegan dishes in his restaurants, but he has also been filmed numerous times making “Gordon” comments about vegan food. However, I’m happy he is embracing all types of cuisine and helping the world see how versatile vegan cuisine can be. As Gordon began his demo, I was a little surprised that he was making his signature Beef Wellington vegan….meat is truly the star of that dish. The dish was beautiful and intricate, but there seemed like a WHOLE LOT of beets on the plate. And don’t get me wrong, I love beets, but I’m not sure how I feel about a baseball sized roasted beet wrapped in crepe and pastry, it seems as though it would be difficult to impart enough flavor all the way through the beet. I’m sure it was delicious, Gordon obviously knows what he is doing, but unfortunately we did not get to taste it!

Although I was intently watching Gordon, my mind was also racing trying to plan a vegan dish in my mind. I’m not going to lie and say I’m an expert in vegan cuisine. I was raised in the south, growing up eating food where even the vegetables have bacon grease in them. However, I love vegetables and have several vegan and vegetarian clients, so I’m not walking into this challenge blind. I am aware, however, that there are other contestants with much more expertise in this area than me. So, although I’m honestly not expecting to win this challenge, I know I have to put in some work to be up to par with some of the other contestants.

We all get extremely excited when we here that we are going to be going into a MasterChef garden to find our produce. If you know me at all, you know I love produce, so I can’t wait to see this garden! Running outside, it’s even better than expected….beautiful and abundant! The mushrooms look amazing, the kale is fresh and beautiful and the rainbow chard is so colorful it catches my eye. I’m also excited to see just about every herb you can imagine. Those of you that are familiar with my neck of the woods, or those of you from small towns, can probably relate to my excitement. Fresh herbs aren’t easy to find in your local grocery store! That is why I grow all my own!

Although I’m making a vegan dish, I want to showcase that vegan food can still be hearty and filling. I decide to do a creamy polenta, which are very similar to grits, but originated in Northern and Central Italy. It feels slightly risky to do an Italian dish (that usually contains butter and either cream or milk…neither of which I can use) because Joe Bastianich has a strong Italian lineage, and is basically an expert in Italian cuisine. But, I think I can replace the dairy with cashew milk and vegan butter. I chose cashew milk because I feel it is the creamiest of all nondairy milks, and I feel the flavor will pair well the rest of the dish. I still want my dish to have a “meaty” element to it, so I decide to top my polenta with red wine and herb braised mushrooms. I need a crunch, so I decide to fry raw garlic chips and bake some crispy lemon kale. For acidity and color I quick pickle some rainbow Swiss chard. I want a super fresh element as well, so I make a fresh herb oil emulsion.

As I get into the cook, I’m feeling pretty confident. I look over at the plating options and see a beautiful deep wide offset bowl that my dish will look beautiful in! (If I were smart, I would have went and snagged the bowls the moment I saw them). Halfway into the cook, I’m feeling pretty good. I taste my polenta, and I’m actually a little shocked because it tastes as though it contains heavy cream and butter (which I always add in any other circumstance). However, I see the judges approaching and I start to doubt myself and my polenta as I see Joe reach for a spoon and taste it. I hold my breath, try to read his facial expressions, and let out a sigh of relief when he tells me the polenta is delicious. I’m on cloud nine. I still have no expectation of winning this challenge, right next to me is Amanda who is extremely well versed in Vegan cuisine. But to tell you guys the truth, during every challenge, someone (or several contestants) is out of their comfort zone in terms of cuisine. Sometimes, depending on the challenge, your goal is to just make sure you don’t have the worst dish, or end up in the bottom three! But, as I’ve said before, I’m competing with myself. And right in this moment, I’m PROUD that this chef from a small southern town in Kentucky created a vegan polenta that earned Joe’s approval (which, as you know, isn’t always an easy thing to earn)!

Remember earlier I mentioned those gorgeous bowls I wanted to use? Well…they are gone. Another contestant has them….and I’m panicking a little because I HAVE to have some type of bowl for this dish, and the only thing left is a plain Jane regular white bowl that you might make a bowl of cereal in. At this point, I have no option but to take the bowl and deal with it. I continue to be frustrated while plating the dish because I know it isn’t going to look the way I envisioned it.

With seconds to go I drizzle my herb oil over my dish and feel a sigh of relief that the cook is over. Derrick is called up for top 3, and I wasn’t the least bit surprised. Being a private chef on the west coast, he probably has a billion vegan recipes he’s created for his clients. Bowen created a “scallop” and risotto dish, with mushrooms being used as scallops. It looked creative and delicious, but I probably would have just called the mushrooms “mushrooms” because, although I’m sure they were delicious, I doubt they tasted like scallops (nonetheless I would have happily eaten the dish).

Amanda has been cooking beside me during the challenge, and has also let me taste elements of her dish (mainly her falafel). It was delicious and packed with tons of fresh herbs. I knew for sure she was top three material with her dish. Although Derrick and Bowen’s dishes were more creative visually and conceptually, in the end it comes down to taste, and I knew Amanda’s tasted great, which earned her an immunity pin.

Now for the hard part. As I’ve told you before, the MasterChef kitchen is huge. Unless you see a contestant struggling right beside or in front of you, you don’t really know what’s going on in the kitchen. Shelly was close enough that I could see the struggle of her face during the challenge, and the look of pure disappointment when the time ran out. I wanted to leave my station and give her a hug. She ran out of time and half-hazardly threw her plate together.

Fred being called up was a complete surprise to me, because I know he cooks a ton of vegan cuisine. However, the competition can get to the best of us, and some days just aren’t your day. Fred can probably cook a hundred more vegan dishes than I can, but sometimes we just mess up. It’s just part of the competition…part of life. One thing I’d like to remind the viewers is that one dish, one performance, one test, one interview, one mistake, does not define who we are. Fred is an amazing chef!

Samantha was also called to the front, and I was a little confused about her dish to be honest. My grandmother has made potato cakes out of leftover mashed potatoes since I was a small child. They are delicious! But they aren’t a meal on their own, and aren’t something I would try to feed these judges. We had an ENTIRE garden of produce, and there wasn’t a drop of freshness or color on the plate. I think the potato cake could have been an impressive side element to a dish. If there was more going on on the plate, I think it would have been a nice addition, but it just missed the mark on what the judges were looking for. Looking back at the challenge, I myself would have taken a different route. We were given a GARDEN, and the base and bulk of my dish didn’t come from the garden. You see, this “game” is so tricky, because it’s not just about how your food tastes, it’s about a specific challenge being set up for you. You have to think strategically and play the game correctly. If you are given a garden, your plate should showcase a garden.

Another challenge down….down to 16. I live to fight another day. In all honesty, now is where we are all starting to feel the effects. The effects of leaving our homes. The effects of leaving our families. The effects of little sleep, constant stress, hotel room living, LONG work days on our feet, and uncertainty of where we will be or what we will doing from day to day. At this point, we are worn out. But, we’ve all done this before, and no, that does NOT make it easier, but this time we knew what to expect. Stress and exhaustion is part of the game that we all decided to play AGAIN. We’re already contemplating what tomorrow will bring….because no matter what, it isn’t going to be easy.