As the top 11, we are making a back entrance onto the MasterChef patio. The doors are locked, and we stand around wondering why we are outside. When the judges pull up on mopeds with GrubHub bags, it’s painstakingly obvious that we will be cooking take out. Gordon begins to ask what our favorite dishes from GrubHub are to order when we are home. He gets to me, and I tell him there is no GrubHub in my town. He looks at me with disbelief. The only food delivery service we have are the two pizza joints in town. But, when traveling out of town, I’ve become well versed in food delivery. (My town also has no Uber or Lyft, but I use these when traveling as well)!
The judges bring us into the kitchen and there are 9 take out bags in the front. Shanika and Bowen will be watching from the balcony as they won immunity in the Tag Team challenge. We are each to grab a bag from the front and whatever is inside, we must recreate. There are tons of intriguing dishes from ramen to tacos, and even Indian food. I open my container and I have…chicken and waffles. Don’t get me wrong, I love chicken and waffles. It’s a staple dish in many southern restaurants, and it’s definitely in my wheelhouse. I know how to make this dish. However, they are wanting us to reinvent this dish. If I’m told to reinvent chicken and waffles…I feel like there still needs to be a piece of chicken and a waffle on the plate (I mean, I’m sorry, but lobster and a crepe is NOT chicken and waffles to me).
With that being said, I decide to keep the integrity of the base of the dish and instead change the flavor profile. Cajun and southern pair fantastically together, so my game plan is to make Cajun chicken and waffles. I’m going to do a southern fried chicken with Cajun flavors throughout the egg wash and breading. I don’t want this dish to be overly sweet, so I’m doing a savory chive waffle, a spicy Cajun butter, and a hot honey sauce. I’m also pickling some red onions and bell peppers to give some acidity to the dish. As I head into the kitchen, I see that my only chicken choices are breast (which I’m not going to fry as it will be drier than I’d like) or whole chicken wings…and they are huge. I realize that I am going to have to use these huge wings, but to make the dish aesthetically pleasing, I’m going to have to separate these wings and butcher them to the right size….which will take a little time. Usually we have an hour for these challenges. Today our time has been cut down to 45 minutes, but it has to be done.
After I retrieve the groceries, I immediately get started on my chicken. It’s taking me precious minutes to cut this down, but I just get to work as fast as I can. The wings are also varying in size. One of them is almost double the size of the others…I’ll have to keep that in mind while cooking. The waffles are my other main concern. I want them crisp and crunchy on the outside, but soft and tender on the inside. There is one waffle maker in the MasterChef kitchen, and it’s a huge Belgian waffle maker. I’m wanting smaller, daintier waffles, so I know I have to play around with the batter to get them looking the way I want. I discover that I can make super small mounds of batter in the center of the waffle maker squares. As the batter spreads it forms beautiful circles.
My chicken is golden brown, but I know that these deep fryers run a little hot. When the color reaches perfection, I pop the wings in the oven to finish them off. This will ensure my crust doesn’t burn, but that my chicken also isn’t undercooked. All elements are coming together, and I begin to plate. That one HUGE wing is glaring at me from the baking sheet, and I know I will NOT use it. Being twice the size of the other wings, it is sure to be undercooked, so it doesn’t make the cut to be plated. The time runs out, and I’m proud of the dish in front of me. It’s beautiful, it’s delicious, it’s acidic, sweet, savory and crunchy – all the things I feel a dish needs to be complete! The judges come around and taste components of my dish and seem pleased. That huge wing I talked about, however, is still sitting on the baking sheet. It should have been thrown away, but since it was not, the judges tear it open. It’s a little undercooked…which I already knew…it’s double the size of the other wings (that’s why I would never put it on the plate)! I explain this to the judges, who seem to understand, but it still doesn’t look good. I’ve learned that in the MasterChef kitchen, if there Is something on your station that you’re not proud of or that isn’t worthy of being plated…THROW IT AWAY. If it is still sitting on your station, whether you plate it or not, it is up for grabs when it comes to judging (which is a little absurd, to be judged on something you wouldn’t serve, but it is what it is). I honestly think my dish may have had a shot at top 3, had I thrown away that giant wing. But alas, I didn’t, so it doesn’t matter!
The bottom three are called up and it’s Fred, Willie and POSSIBLY Derrick. Willie’s dish seemed really out of the box. I honestly think that he just overthought the “transforming” of the dish. He took the transformation a little too far and ended up making a dish less elevated than what he started with. The flavors sounded great, and he seemed to have put a ton of thought into it. But, when the judges tell you that they are concerned with the conceptualization of your dish during the cook, you may need to rethink it. Fred grabbed the spaghetti and meatballs to-go bag. I think I would have had a hard time reinventing this dish as well. Pot stickers was just a little too out of the box for the challenge. It’s not really something you would see on a menu and actually want to order. Derrick, on the other hand, was obviously not going to be in the bottom. He took a huge risk, and it was obvious that the dish would be cooked correctly. My only problem with his dish was that it in no way said “empanada” to me. Don’t get me wrong, I would order that dish any day of the week and happily eat it, it just wasn’t an empanada. It was, however, the most technical dish of the night that definitely showed the most skill.
Michael and Dara were also called up with top dishes. Michael’s ramen dish sounded absolutely amazing. Dara definitely knew her way around butter chicken, but if you notice, Derrick made the top by COMPLETELY changing his dish. It was no longer an empanada. Dara replicated the dish (amazingly) and was also in the top without transformation. It just goes to show that you never really know what the judges are looking for. Should you reinvent your dish like Derrick? Or should you replicate and perfect like Dara? We never really know until the judges make their decision.
A huge milestone is met today. Top 10. Top 10 is a huge accomplishment. This is no regular top ten, this is Top 10 of Back to Win, the best of the best. But…that means there are still 9 chefs to go through.