MasterChef Season 12: Episode 11: Vietnamese Challenge

We’re walking into the MasterChef kitchen today as the top 13. Our last challenge was the cowboy team challenge, which left me feeling pretty deflated. However, that was due to my voice not being heard (completely ignored) and lack of cooperation on our team. So, I’m coming into the cook today with the mindset of turning things around. There is a HUGE mystery box in the kitchen. From my previous experience, I know there could be anything under the box from a person to a giant tank full of live lobsters.

When the box is lifted and Christina Ha is under it, I get extremely excited. I started watching MasterChef at season 3. Christina was the most inspiring chef I had ever seen. Being blind, she had so many hurdles standing in her way and refused to let any of them stop her from her dream. I had taken on the same mindset when I first began my journey into the culinary field. The excitement starts to wear off when I think about Christina’s cuisine specialty…Vietnamese. Now, I am not going to sit here and tell you I’m an expert in Vietnamese cooking. I have VERY limited knowledge. What I do know of Vietnamese food or cooking is directly from watching Christina on season 3 and from the handful of times I’ve ever actually eaten Vietnamese cuisine. If you’re from a small rural town like me, maybe you can relate in that there are no Vietnamese restaurants, food, or ingredients in my town (actually in my entire county unless you want to count the garlic or cilantro). To get a Vietnamese meal you will be taking an hour plus drive to Louisville. So, I’m walking into this challenge brutally disadvantaged. I know what many of you are thinking: “Well, to be a MasterChef, you should be an expert in every cuisine.” There isn’t a single contestant standing in this room that’s an expert in EVERY culture or region’s cuisine. Heck, on our southern fusion challenge you could clearly tell that some of my cast mates had limited knowledge of how and what we cook in the south. I say all the time, “You can’t be good at everything,” and when it comes to cooking Vietnamese (and driving), my skills are pretty limited.

The only choice I have is to go with what I know and hope I don’t tear an entire culture’s cuisine to shreds. I don’t ever walk into this kitchen and try to impress the judges with a dish from a region I’m not familiar with out of respect…unless I’m told to. And today I have no choice but to cook Vietnamese. I can literally think of three dishes I know are from this region: spring rolls (and that was a disaster for Bri a few challenges ago), a banh mi (and I don’t think a sandwich will cut it), and a Vietnamese noodle dish that is topped with pork, crushed nuts and fresh herbs (I had no idea the correct name/pronunciation of this dish, but I looked it up for you, and it’s bun thit nurong). So…looks like I’m making a pork noodle dish!

We were given a mystery box of ELEVEN ingredients to work with and we have to use ALL of them. Four or five of these ingredients are EXTREMELY spicy, so balance is going to be essential for this dish. When choosing ingredients (most of which we already at our station), I mainly only need to grab the pork, a few things to season it with and the noodles. In the fridge I find pork belly. This is a protein I’m very familiar with. I served this in the appetizer round of the season 7 finale. It’s also on my private chef menu, so I make it for people often…just not in a Vietnamese style. Since I’m using pork belly, I know I’ll need a pressure cooker. When I first started using a pressure cooker, mine was a simple stove top pressure cooker like the ones in the MasterChef kitchen. I now have an amazing electric one that helps me control the temperature and even beeps if liquid is running low so there is no chance of burning. I do NOT have one of these in the kitchen tonight, so I know I have to watch my pork carefully.

Season 7 Finale Appetizer: Cast Iron Seared Pork Belly

I get my pork in first thing and start on the rest of my ingredients. I’m actually not too worried about the spice. I know how to balance flavors and use heat without overwhelming the dish. This fish sauce though…unfamiliar territory. But, it’s Christina’s favorite ingredient, so I can’t just hide it somewhere in the dish. She has to be able to identify it. I taste and smell the fish sauce and realize it’s packed full of flavor and quite salty. The spice could go really well with this if I balanced it with some sweetness. There are several chunks of palm sugar in our mystery box, so I think I can turn them into a syrup and use the fish sauce and peppers to create a sticky caramelized Vietnamese pork belly. I also have a ton of prep to do for this dish. It needs to be topped with tons of fresh herbs, pickled veggies and roasted peanuts…which means a lot of cutting.

As I’m zoned out chopping vegetables, I hear my pressure cooker and realize it is out of liquid. I start thinking what a tragic mistake it was to not have adjusted my liquid levels from an electric pressure cooker to a stovetop one….it needed extra liquid. However, when you’re neck deep in these challenges, sometimes you zone out, miss steps, and make dumb mistakes you would never do on a regular basis. I open my pressure cooker, fingers crossed, and as I guessed, my pork belly is burnt. Is it obliterated? No. The good thing about pork belly is that it has a huge layer of fat. I remove the pork belly and push the pressure cooker to the back burner. I quickly see that I can trim the burnt parts off and still have a great pork belly. I cut off the too crispy parts and taste what’s underneath. There is no detection of a burnt or acrid flavor, and the pork belly is super tender. Christian is in front of me and says he smells something burning. I look up and see that the burner I’ve pushed my pressure cooker to (which I have already taken my pork belly out of) is still turned on. So now I’ve burnt all of the spices and seasonings left in the pot to a huge black crisp (and I’m feeling extra sorry for whoever has to scrub this pot today).

I’ve also created a spicy salty sauce for my noodles…about three servings of it…because that’s all I need is three servings, right? I get my noodles in with only around 6 or 7 minutes to go. They cook very quickly, and I don’t want them to be mush for the judges, so I wait until close to the end of the challenge. What I don’t do is pay attention to how many servings of noodles are in this package. I just dump them all into my boiling water and cook the whole thing! After I drain my noodles and put them in a bowl, I take this beautiful sauce and pour it over the noodles. After pouring the sauce I realize I have enough noodles in this bowl to feed an army (more like 10 people, but that feels like an army compared to three right now). I immediately know I’m screwed. Three servings of sauce is not enough for 10 servings of noodles. I might as well not even have a sauce because the judges will not be able to identify it at this point. I’m now panicking, and with the clock ticking, I’m scrambling to decide what to do. There is no time to make a new sauce. And with me standing here brainstorming, I now have even less time to plate.

With seconds to go, I’m scooping handfuls of basically unsauced noodles into three bowls. All of my toppings are planned to be intricately arranged atop my dish, each nestled in their own decorative corner of the bowl. Do I have time for that? Absolutely not! I do manage, however, to get all of my toppings into the bowl….it just looked as though my then 11 month old daughter had plated it herself. The dish looks a mess. If you look at my dish pictured at the top of this post, you will notice chopped peanuts are haphazardly thrown onto the dish. my veggies and bean sprouts are cattywampus. You’d think, considering the start of the cook, I’d be worried about my pork, but it tastes great. It’s those bland noodles and awkwardly placed toppings I’m worried about. When the time ends, the judges take a walk around. Upon entering my station, Gordon looks into my pressure cooker (the one I left to burn) and asks if my pork belly came out of it? I tell him that yes, I cooked my pork belly in the pressure cooker. I then tried to explain how I burned the pot EVEN more after the cook, but I’m not making sense and I’m not sure he even believes me. If you could have seen the bottom of this pot (I wish I had a picture), you’d know that my pork belly would be solid black and basically disintegrated if it had stayed in as long as the rest of those ingredients.

I hear Bri called to the front for bottom three. I can see a giant piece of salmon on her plate. Like I said, I know very little about Vietnamese cuisine, but I have not seen a Vietnamese dish this focused on salmon in my limited experience. Joe picks up the piece of salmon and says there basically isn’t a dish without the protein. I’m not shocked at all that I get called up after Bri. The judges, rightfully so, are worried about my pork belly as I walk up. As I set my dish in front of them, they can see the pork has a nice color and is caramelized nicely, but there are other glaring issues on the plate. When they taste it, of course they ask where the sauce is. There no longer is a sauce, just SUPER lightly dressed noodles….and who wants to eat a bowl of dry noodles? Not me. Gordon is explaining the pork to Christina and tells her it has a nice color and caramelization. Even in my humiliating moment, I notice and love the fact that Gordon is so descriptive with Christina. People have a lot of opinions about Gordon Ramsay, but what I can tell you is that he is a very kind and compassionate person. He cares about each of the contestants (he just has an odd way of showing it sometimes), and Christina was standing in our shoes once. When Christina tastes my dish, she tells me she loves the pork belly and that the flavors are spot on….and that, of course, the noodles are dry and bland. I know this already. Either I made too little sauce, or too many noodles, but either way, there is no point in explaining this error to the judges because it makes absolutely no difference. I screwed up the noodles, they taste like they have no sauce…so they don’t have a sauce.

Emily is called up after me. She’s made a pork salad, and I’m a little confused. I’ve never seen pork on a salad, but I also have never eaten a Vietnamese salad so I’m sure it must be a thing if that’s what she decided to cook. ***Emily told me later that her experience in Vietnamese cooking was very limited as well. She has a Vietnamese restaurant close to where she lives, and this pork salad is what she orders every time. So…like me, she was trying to replicate what little experience she had. I would have done the same thing I’m sure.*** I’m not happy to be standing in the bottom, but it’s not because I could be sent home. I know there is still a chance of me leaving today, but I also know that the judges enjoyed the flavor of several elements of my dish. Bri, however, did not receive much positive feedback from her dish and has been in the bottom three several times. What I am more stressed about is the entire situation. I messed up, right? Everybody messes up, right? The difference is, I’m not just falling on my face, I’m doing it in front of an entire nation. I’m living this torture in this moment, I’ll be thinking about this for months, and then I relive it when the episode airs. It honestly has taken me a few days after this episode aired to be able to sit down and watch it. I didn’t want to watch it at all, but I committed to writing this blog and needed to be back in the moment. I already knew what to expect after the bombardment of social media tweets and online discussion threads about Brandi’s burnt pork belly. It’s exhausting to be working your butt off in these situations and have gobs of online communities judging you and talking about you from their computers. It’s mentally draining. But there’s also so much support. So many people, from my town, to all the way across the country, reach out after and offer kind words of compassion. All I can do is try to hear the good over the bad screaming in the background.

Bri went home. I survived the day. I’m glad I’m not going home, but I didn’t come here just to survive. I feel as though I’ve been jumping hurdles in a marathon, and I just need a drink of water. With only 12 of us left, the numbers are getting slim…and the challenges more challenging. We can only imagine what will be thrown at us next….and it’s gonna be a wild one.