3 AM comes early for anyone, but it’s coming extremely early for us contestants. We’ve been playing these games and filming this show for weeks and weeks now. We are exhausted, mentally and physically. We’ve been under constant stress, anxiety, and pressure to name a few. We miss our families, our spouses, our children, our friends and our jobs. My oldest baby, Mikey (who is not quite a baby…but a 16-year-old young man), has been nominated for the running of homecoming prince back home. I’m spending my days trying to become the next MasterChef and at midnight searching websites for red and silver bow ties that I can order and have shipped to home so my son looks handsome for this important day…that I will miss. This week alone I’m struggling with missing family and life events, forgetting very important dates, and dealing with the guilt of even being here is getting to me.
When I’m packed onto a bus with the rest of the top 14 contestants 3 hours earlier than usual, I know there is going to be a field team challenge. Field challenges are challenges that take place outside of the MasterChef kitchen, and we always have to leave much earlier than usual because we travel further away than our regular set. Something people ask me all the time is, “Do you know where you are going beforehand on a team challenge?” We do not. We do not know when we get in the van. We do not know on the way to the field challenge. We do not know where we are going until we get there (and that is only if we can tell by our surroundings). As we are nearing our destination, all of the cast members are finally starting to wake up from the long road trip. Looking out the window, we are unusually surprised by our surroundings. Riding through the nearby town, you would think we were in an old western movie. We have arrived in Norco, California, also know as Horsetown, USA. No matter how much I describe this town in detail, you would have to see it to believe it. As per the city council, all architecture has a western theme. Not only are there 145 miles of horse trails throughout the town, but there are also hitching posts outside of most businesses in their parking lots, where you can tie up your horse. They ride their horses to the grocery store! I thought the small town I came from was rural, but Norco definitely has us beat!
When we turn off the road, we can tell we are on a horse ranch, but not just any horse ranch. There is also a huge arena set up for rodeos. I’m laughing on the inside to myself. I’ve traveled clear across the country, from Kentucky (who’s known for its horses), all the way to California, and here I am on a horse ranch in a town that’s even more country than the county in which I reside. I’m thinking in the moment what a small world it is. My mind is somewhat put to ease because I know this clientele. I KNOW country. I know what cattleman, ranchers, and cowboys like to eat, and from the looks of our environment, we are going to be feeding a group of people in one of those categories. When we find out that we will get to see a portion of a rodeo show, I’m shocked (well, kinda) that most of the cast has never seen anything like this. A lot of the contestants have never ridden a horse, and a few have never seen one up close in person. It’s easy to be in a huge place like Los Angeles, California and look at all of the things we DON’T have in a small town. I could name a hundred things, easy, that the city has that Breckinridge County, KY doesn’t have. But this place reminds me that the country has equally as many things of its own that the city will never have, horse farms being one of them. Something I view as normal is extremely unique and interesting to others.
We find out that we will be splitting into two groups of seven to cook for 101 cowboys. Like I said, I know what cowboys like to eat. What I am still nervous about is that this challenge isn’t going to just be about whether I can cook for a cowboy, but whether or not this interesting collection of personalities can cook for cowboys. I won’t sugar coat it; the last team challenge was rough. Every member of my team (and of the other team) were very skilled chefs. However, some personalities clashed, and some personalities took over. I’m really hoping this doesn’t happen today. It’s one thing to try and keep your own spirits up during this challenging time, but it’s another to try and stay positive when you are surrounded by others who are not. Shelly and Bri are picked as team captains. They were both in the bottom last week and Gordon tells them that this is their shot at redemption. This makes one thing very obvious to me. One of these captains is going to redeem themselves, and one of these captains is going home. Bri and Shelly are both super nice individuals. Shelly and I, as you may have read in a previous post, became good friends on this journey. From team challenges to even just working beside one another in the MasterChef kitchen, I know that we work well together and have each other’s best interest at heart. Shelly is loud, confident, and outspoken, all qualities that could make a great leader. Bri honestly couldn’t be any more different. She is quiet, reserved, soft spoken, and extremely friendly. I don’t think I’ve heard her utter one negative or unkind thing about anyone or anything. However, that doesn’t mean she won’t make a great captain. I think Bri will be great at listening to her team and delegating duties. She will trust her team. As long as she has members that will LISTEN to her, she will do well. Bri was a captain during her original season, and her team killed it! So, if I absolutely had to pick, I would choose Shelly as my captain, but that’s honestly because I am closer to Shelly, and I would be happy with Bri as well.
I’m extremely excited when I am chosen as first pick. Although I figured Shelly would want me on her team, I didn’t know I’d be the first one she would choose. They don’t show this in the episode, but they ask Shelly why she chose me first. She tells them that I’m a great chef, she knows I am a team player, and (what I believe to be the most important factor) that I know this clientele. I am pumped because this means that Shelly is going to listen to me and take my advice on the direction of the menu for this challenge. However, I’m instantly disappointed when her second pick is Christian. Don’t get me wrong – Christian is a great chef, but he and I had some friction in the last team challenge. I’m trying to stay positive, and I remind myself that Christian and I talked our issues through after the last team challenge. We both know how one another operate, and he knows that I don’t work well with yelling or animosity. As the pick continues, I notice our team is looking a WHOLE LOT like our last team challenge. Shelly and Bri are both picking almost exactly the same teams as our last challenge. I can see the frustration on Derek’s face. Derek announces that the captains might want to repick their picks, because he cooked 101 steaks during his season, and his team was victorious. I’m sitting over here thinking about how Shawn and I cooked 101 hangar steaks for Veterans, and how I also cooked 101 thick cut pork chops for farmers during Season 7. Most of us standing out here have had to cook 101 of something during these team challenges. Whatever he says helps to convince Bri that she needs to pick him next. When Shelly comments that Derek was not her next pick, I can tell that Derek is accurate in his assumption that Shelly not picking him is personal. It makes little sense to me because Derek was a team player on our last challenge. Another reason that she may not have chosen him is that she’d already picked Christian. Everyone knows Christian and Derek do not like each other. I can tell Shanika is frustrated that she’s one of the last two to be chosen, but I think it’s because the captains know that while she is a skilled chef, she doesn’t always play well with others in a team setting.
The only new members of our team are Emily and Shanika (which is kinda funny because everyone knows that didn’t get along during their season). I’m praying that everyone learned each other’s personalities the first time around and that we can work more cohesively as a team this challenge. When planning the menus, we’re told that both teams will be cooking steaks. This is a great protein for cowboys. They are meat and taters kinda people. Although I would’ve liked for our team to have the ribeye on our menu, the New York Strip can still work fine if cooked properly.
While choosing the menu, Shelly mentions that she wants our starch to be baked beans. I interject and say that this is not a good idea. People from the country wouldn’t serve baked beans as their main starch. They are considered to be more vegetable like and would accompany a main starch. What we need on our plate is POTATOES. The whole team is against me and said that we cooked potatoes on our last challenge. I told them these cowboys did not eat our potatoes – it doesn’t matter what we cooked last challenge. I tell them that each of these cowboys has a giant wooden box with the word “Taters” carved in the top (I have one of these in my own kitchen). The team doesn’t care. They don’t want to do potatoes. I suggest corn as the second side. They tell me that corn is a starch and we already have a starch, so I give up on the corn. Shelly tells us we’re making brussels sprouts, so I’m at least heard when I ask if we can add bacon to them. Our third side is going to be a cold apple slaw, but we still need to choose a sauce for the steak. Back in Kentucky, I make a delicious apricot bourbon BBQ sauce (I even made this sauce for my appetizer in the finale in Season 7, and the judges loved it). Honestly, I think they may think BBQ sauce is too mundane, then Shanika suggests a compound butter. The team loves the idea, and I immediately protest. I tell them that cowboys are going to pick up that chunk of butter, stick it in a roll and ask for BBQ sauce. I’m told by Christian that these are California cowboys – they aren’t like my Kentucky cowboys. My sauce idea is shut down, and we’re going with a compound butter.
I was literally chosen for this team because I cook for this clientele all the time. I may be the only person on my team (or heck, on both teams) that has ever cooked for a cowboy. No one on the time, including Shelly, my captain, is even considering any of my input. Our dish is now going to be a steak topped with butter, runny beans, runny slaw and brussels sprouts. We are going to have a plate of meat and runny vegetables. Although I know we are doomed from the start, I can only hope the other team completely destroys their dish so that we have a chance at winning. My spirits are even lower, because now I know where my input stands with the team. I know that no one is going to listen to me and that all of our personalities are clashing. Even though I’ve proven what I can do in the kitchen and have won every team challenge I have been on, I get shoved in the back of the kitchen to cut brussels sprouts. I know that my talents would be more beneficial elsewhere, but I decide to keep my head down, focus on the brussels sprouts and try to stay out of the drama. Christian and Willie will be cooking the steaks, and Willie will be solo on the beans. Amanda will be prepping the slaw, Shanika is making a compound butter, Emily and I will be making brussels sprouts and Shelly will go where needed as captain.
If you’ve ever cut brussels sprouts for roasting, you know that it is a long and tedious job. These brussels are huge and hard and are going to have to be quartered to cook in time. It would take one person every bit of 90 minutes to cut these brussels by themselves, and that’s going at a fast pace. Emily is getting our bacon in the oven, so I get to chopping. I can immediately see this is going to take too long and tell Shanika that when she is done with the butter, we could use help with the brussels. She implies that cutting brussels is the easiest job and that we shouldn’t need help, but I already know that making a compound butter shouldn’t take more than 15-20 minutes. People are already bickering; Christian is already yelling and Shelly’s new role as captain is personality manager. She is doing everything in her power to keep everyone calm and happy. She has no other choice. Because of this, she is unable to actually lead our team.
I’m back here, ya know, just cuttin’ brussels, and Shelly comes to me with a spoonful of beans and tells me to taste them. She says they are supposed to be BBQ baked beans, and they are not sweet enough. I tell her the beans taste good, but if BBQ is what she is going for and this is to be the sweet element of the dish, then I agree. They don’t taste like BBQ beans. Willie is heading to the grill to help Christian cook steaks, so Shelly pulls me from my station and tells me to fix the baked beans. I ask Willie how much brown sugar, ketchup and Worcestershire (3 typical components of a BBQ sauce) he used. He tells me none of any of the three. I taste each pot of his beans and start adding these three ingredients. Gordon arrives as I am dumping a cup of brown sugar into an enormous pot of beans. A cup is a perfectly reasonable amount for this amount of servings. He yells at me and tells me that I should taste the beans for, and I tell him I tasted them right before he walked over. That was obviously the wrong response. You don’t argue with Gordon. You don’t contradict anything Gordon says. You put your head down, say “yes, Chef” and take the fall. The alternative is much worse.
Chef Aaron comes by and starts to get onto me because I have the beans spread out in so many pots and tells me they should all be poured together. I didn’t make these beans. I didn’t put these beans in all these pots. These aren’t my beans!!! However, I’ve learned not to argue with the judges, so I just say, “yes, Chef” and start pouring all the beans into two large pots and return to my brussels station. Gordon comes around the corner screaming, “Brandi, why the f*** are you back there now?” I tell him that this is my station. This is where I’ve been all night until my captain asked me to fix the beans. He shakes his head and storms off. I have now been yelled at three times for three things that I didn’t do or have any control over…YES, CHEF.
I hear Christian yelling at Shelly in the front. She has told him that he needs to poke the steaks with his finger and make sure they are not raw. Christian does not like being told what to do and tells Shelly that he knows how to cook a f***ing steak. Oh boy. The judges come to taste our first plate, and the critique is all over the place. Gordon tells us that our compound butter has no flavor, and the only herb he can identify is parsley, which has no flavor. He tells us the only thing right on the plate are the beans, even though he yelled at me for them being too sweet just minutes before. Emily and Amanda are pulled from brussels from plating. As predicted, I’m left alone with the brussels and cannot get enough cut. I tell Shelly that I’m struggling and that I need some help. I hear Shanika say that she’s sick and tired of hearing about these brussels. Shanika is still working on the butter. For an hour solid, she has been working on a compound butter. Mind you, the butter is already made. Her job consists of chopping garlic and herbs in a food processor and blending them with butter in another food processor. This job should’ve been done a long time ago, but I’m the needy one because I can’t get 150 lbs of brussels chopped by myself. I didn’t hear her at the time, but I noticed her in the episode saying that she better not see me crying again. All I know is that karma can make you eat your words and at one point or another, all of these contestants are going to buckle under the pressure and cry. It’s not a if…it’s a when.
Christian, who knows how to cook a f***ing steak, doesn’t have much to say other than, “yes, Chef” when Joe brings back a raw New York Strip from our team. We’re also out of coleslaw. We have steaks, beans and a bunch of bland butter waiting at the front, but we don’t have any slaw that takes five minutes to prep. I’m still just back here cutting brussels. Want to know why I’m stull cutting brussels when we don’t need anymore? Because I’m told by my team that we need more and I need to cut more (another thing that I get yelled at about). I told you guys before, I’m a very empathetic person. The environment that I am in is toxic. Everyone is angry, and I feel completely defeated and undervalued. I’ve been yelled at at least five times for doing things that I didn’t actually do or that I was specifically told to do. I’m hot (didn’t know I was going on a horse ranch when I put on a flannel), I’m exhausted, I’m in a toxic atmosphere, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I got sent home if our team loses (I’ve already gotten in trouble for a million things I didn’t do today, might as well be sent home, right?).
As the challenge ends and we meet the cowboys, I learn that the other team cooked potatoes…and corn…and BBQ sauce for their dish. Who’d have thunk it? They actually cooked a cowboy meal. While watching the episode, you can hear from the crowd that the only thing they liked about our meal was our sides. It is blatantly obvious that our team was slaughtered and unsurprising when they announce that the red team has won. I know someone on my team is about to go home and I start to get nervous, until I remember that this entire episode is about redemption. Bri had redeemed herself and Shelly had not. If given a different set of team members, Shelly would’ve been an amazing captain. She should not have had to put all of her time and energy into managing personalities. She did the best she could with the personalities that she chose. However, so much time was dedicated towards behavior that she was unable to effectively lead our team.
Although I’m glad I’m still in the running, my heart hurts that Shelly is going home. It seems that each challenge, I lose a close friend. Being across the country without your family, friends and any time of support system, friendships made while we are here are extremely important. Sometimes they are the only thing that gets us through the day. Shelly was such a sweet person who always helped to lift my mood. Saying that I’m sad to see her go is an understatement.
And then there were 13. On one hand, it seems as though we’ve been in this competition for an eternity, and on the other, it feels as though the numbers are dropping too quickly. We have a long bus ride home to feel relieved that we are still in this competition, but after that, the relief is over and anxiety about tomorrow sets in. Who knows what we’ll have to do in the next challenge? But as you know…it ain’t gonna be easy.