MasterChef Season 12: Episode 8: Southern Fusion

We are the top 16 walking into the kitchen today, and honey, it gets scarier, stressful and more intense each day. The challenges get harder and harder, and the pressure builds day by day. I tell people all the time: cooking is only one element of this competition. Of course, it’s the focus and the most important! You wouldn’t be standing here in a white apron for the second time if you didn’t know your way around the kitchen. The other half of this competition is having the ability to survive….to thrive….in this bizarre, stressful, fantasy reality. I know those words contradict each other, but we are literally living in a fantasy world with crazy schedules, early call times, constant pressure, high expectations, unknowing what we will be doing or where we will be from day to day. We are away from home, our families, our jobs and lives, but this fantasy world….it is our reality for now.

Upon entering the kitchen, we see huge flags from dozens of countries hanging all over the kitchen, and it’s very clear we will have to cook from various global cuisines today. This creates instant anxiety, because not a single contestant in this competes well versed in every culture’s food. I instantly start thinking of what I would cook based on various fags and panic looking at some, because I do not have experience in several. Of course, there’s even more to the challenge. We meet our guest judge, Tiffany Derry, and I’m excited because I know she specializes in southern cuisine. The demo table is also set up, and I notice there is a place for two chefs! Gordon begins to talk about fusion dishes, and I panic again. Now, I cook fusion dishes. I have several dishes on my menu that combine southern cooking with Latin, Italian, and even Asian cuisine. But now I’m thinking I may get stuck with two cuisines I’m unfamiliar with and have no idea how to combine them!!! Like, really, what am I going to do if they ask me to make a dish fusing Indian and Israeli food together!!!

Since Tiffany is a southern cook and Gordon is a British chef, they are fusing their two specialties together. These two cuisines make sense to me. I could totally make a Cajun fish and chips dish with no problem, but these are two cuisines I’m familiar with!

***Funny side story. After Gordon makes his Cajun remoulade in place of tartar sauce, he brings the bowl to us to taste. Now, this season is being filmed during a Covid pandemic, and there are Covid safety team members all over the set at all times. Gordon walks over to me with the bowl and the spoon that he just tasted the remoulade with and hands it to me. What do you do if Gordon Ramsay gives you something he just created to taste? You taste it! So, I stick the spoon he ate from straight in my mouth and taste the sauce!! Immediately after, spoons are rushed in for the other contestants to take so that they can taste the sauce next. I guess I should have waited and asked for a spoon…but it was GORDON RAMSAY telling me to taste something. What was I supposed to do…decline??

After the demo, it is revealed that we are making southern fusion dishes. I feel a little relief. At least I will know one of the cuisines I am fusing today. My next thought is, “Please don’t be India.” I’ll tell you why I’m thinking this. I’m unfamiliar with cooking Indian food, and I’m honestly very intimidated with the thought of trying to combine an unfamiliar flavor profile with southern food. The last thing I want to do is disgrace an entire country’s cuisine. Indian food is delicious. I just don’t know how to cook it! And of course, while drawing flags from the globe, I pull the Indian flag! Did I manifest this? Is the universe testing me!?!? After my initial shock, I start to look at the positive side. This will be a chance for me to challenge myself. If I can get through this…I can get through anything.

I’m assuming most of the contestants, especially those not as well versed in southern cuisine, will be frying something. If you know anything about the south, we deep fry anything and everything. My cooking style is “upscale southern.” I like to take simple southern ingredients and show people how they can be turned into something more than what you would normally find in a southern restaurant. So, I know I don’t want to fry anything. Southern BBQ plates come to mind. You get your BBQ pulled pork or brisket, a side of sweet potato fries and some coleslaw. I decide I want to do a play on that. I’m familiar with a few Indian dishes that have highlighted goat meat. Now, there is no goat meat in the MasterChef kitchen, but there is lamb, and that feels like my best bet.

The dish I’m planning in my head is an Indian spiced lamb chop with tamarind BBQ, a sweet potato bacon curry, and a cardamom spiced slaw. I have no idea if this is going to work, but it sounds like something I would like to eat, so I decide to go for it. While gathering my ingredients, I notice that there isn’t quite enough lamb. I shout to ask culinary if they have anymore, and I’m told they will run some more lamb out. So, I gather the rest of my ingredients and head back to my station to cook. I know I need to get my lamb rub made and my curry started (cooking a curry in 45 minutes is super risky). Gordon comes to talk to me and suggests it may be close to time to start cooking my lamb. I tell him I can’t, I don’t have enough, I’m waiting for more lamb to be brought! There must have been some confusion, because I don’t think there was any extra lamb. I’m panicking a little because I don’t have time to come up with a new plan, and I don’t have enough lamb!

Thankfully, Bowen had way more lamb than he needed to make his dish. Next thing I know, Gordon is picking up a piece of lamb from Bowen’s station and bringing to me! I at least have enough meat now! Things go pretty smoothly throughout the cook – my flavors are tasting great, and when I cut into the lamb, it is perfect. As the judges come around to taste the dishes, Chef Tiffany asks if I am afraid my curry will be too spicy. Since it contains sweet potatoes, I’m confident the sugar content in the potatoes will balance out the spice. She tastes my curry and tells me it is delicious! The judges also taste my BBQ and all love it.

At this point, I feel confident enough that I’m not fearing the bottom three, and I think there’s maybe even a chance I could be called up in top three. Christian, Emily, and Shelly are called up for top three. Christian’s dish sounds delicious. I’d order it, and I would eat it. I’m slightly jealous that he pulled the Jamaican flag. Jamaican flavors are quite frequently fused with southern dishes in the south. Emily’s dish looked and sounded delicious, but I honestly had a hard time seeing the southern element on her plate. I’m assuming the addition of corn was what made the dish “southern,” but other than that, I’m not seeing much southern technique or ingredients. Shelly pulled the Spain flag, so fried catfish seemed to be an appropriate was to showcase southern cuisine, and the Patatas Bravas helped pull the Spain element in. Shelly is such a sweet soul! We became fast friends throughout this journey, and I was happy to see her in the top 3! Christian’s chicken dish wins him the immunity pin. He’s started to look like a serious competitor (not that he didn’t before, honestly everyone here is competition, he’s just really stepping up to the plate now).

The bottom three was rough to witness. Bri’s peanut gravy was not at all cohesive with her dish. Bri is an amazing chef and skilled plater, but southern food is definitely not her specialty. But everyone knows gravy is as southern as it gets! Maybe the spring rolls would have worked if she fried the shrimp for her southern element and made a traditional peanut sauce for the rolls. Bowen is called up and they are not happy about his lack of butchering skills with the lamb. Southern food isn’t exactly in Bowen’s specialty skill set either. I believe he was just out of his element. Shayne being called up broke my heart. We became very close. He was such a good-hearted person and a real gentleman. He even insisted on helping me carry in my armloads of wardrobe every day on set. He reminded me of home. I’ll admit I became very teary-eyed upon his elimination. He was a breath of fresh air to have around, and I was really going to miss him.

Well, I ehxhaled a sigh of relief that I survived a challenge I was sure would send me home. But…the relief only lasts a second because we immediately start to imagine what could be coming next. And the next challenge…shew, it’s gonna be a doozy.