A Big Change

Hello Friends!

If you followed me on Facebook yesterday, you saw that I announced that “Big changes coming up….stay tuned for more details!!”. Well the time has finally come to share what that big change is :).

As some of you may know from my Facebook and Twitter posts, I have been working with the people at the Monkey King Noodle Company on and off over the past few weeks. The shop opened its doors only three weeks ago, and I have been helping out part-time, helping to expedite, streamline the execution of the product, tweak the recipes, interact with the customers, and also manage their social media. Andrew and the rest of the owners saw the value I added to the organization, and soon they were in talks to bring me on to more of a full-time leadership/managerial role.

They finally put together an offer, and today, after talking with the owner of the Kessler, I formally accepted the offer. My last day at the Kessler will be on November 2nd, for the Oak Cliff Music Festival. Between now and then, there will be a transition period where I will be slowly phasing myself out of the Kessler while training a potential replacement (if you are interested, contact me!). If you haven’t been to the Kessler yet and had a chance to try my famous Pork Belly Sliders and Crispy Brussels Sprouts, hurry up before it’s too late!

At the Monkey King Noodle Company, I will be the Head Chef/Kitchen Manager. I will have executive control of all the day-to-day kitchen operations, managing inventory, testing new products, standardizing recipes, staffing, and every other responsibility that comes with running a small, startup restaurant that has aspirations (and honestly, REAL potential) to become an empire. It’s a lot of responsibility, and I will get a small pay bump, but perhaps more importantly, in addition to the base compensation, I am being offered an equity plan that will allow me to have an increasing ownership stake in the business as well. This is HUGE for me, and if the MKNC lives us to the potential it truly has, then this could be my “big breakthrough” so to speak.


So tonight, I am drinking a big glass of one of my favorite wines and celebrating what the future holds for me. I am grateful to all the opportunities that the Kessler provided, and in fact the owners of the MKNC and I originally crossed paths at the Kessler a few months ago as my customers. However, those of you that are close to me and have talked to me personally understand that I feel the time has come to move on, and this opportunity seems to be the perfect fit for me to move forward in my career. Right now, I drink to my future at the MKNC, and I hope you will join me in wishing us the best of luck moving forward.

If you are in Dallas (or anywhere in Texas, really), come visit me at the MKNC! I honestly think that we have the best soup dumplings in town, our dumplings are absolutely killer, and you can’t get noodles any fresher than ones that are hand-pulled before your eyes. I think we have a great product, and under my leadership, I am confident that we can run a successful operation that gives Dallas the authentic, delicious Chinese street food it has been missing.

Please show your support by liking us on Facebook and following us on Twitter to get the skinny on the latest happenings. I can’t wait for y’all to see what we have in store :).



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From Ben Starr: MasterChef: A Farewell Perspective

Ben has finally given the scoop on why he will not watch MasterChef anymore. And I couldn’t agree with him more. Check out what he has to say here:

For those of you who’ve stuck around and read the recaps that the incredible Michael Chen has been writing about MasterChef since I left for Burning Man…thank you!  To be honest…I haven’t read them.  To be honest, I don’t watch TV at all.  And carving out time to watch MasterChef and blog about it, even though I have a history with it, has been an absolute nightmare.

Yes…I don’t watch TV.  It’s not because I’m some snob who’s too good for TV.  I just don’t have time for it.  It started with my parents…who didn’t really keep a functional TV around when I was a kid.  I didn’t grow up with it.  I filled my time with books, writing, cooking, working in the garden, and exploring the woods behind my grandparents’ house.  TV wasn’t part of my daily intake as a kid.  (In the same way that sugar and desserts weren’t part of my daily intake.)  So, as an adult, TV is about as interesting to me as dessert.  I’ll skip it in favor of the port and bleu cheese…thank you!

But, as the MasterChef brand grows, so does the audience for my blog.  And this year, apparently MORE people were reading who didn’t have a clue who the hell I was, and they were a bit miffed that I would choose to criticize the show for its choice to focus almost solely on conflict and strategy, rather than on food.  And, after I stopped blogging and Michael took over, there were apparently some outright tiffs from blog readers who branded me (and Michael, though I’m not sure they understood that he was blogging in my place) a bitter old man, biting the hand that fed me, spewing naught but negativity about the show.  Most of those folks weren’t on my MasterChef journey with me…they are newcomers to my “brand.”  So I’ll forgive them for thinking what they think.  And I must apologize to those who feel like Michael or I were telling you that you were shallow or ignorant for enjoying the show.  That was never our intent.

Now for once, it’s time for me to link to HIS blog! Read the rest of what he has to say on his website, benstarr.com!

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Masterchef 4 Quick Recap: Finale (S4E25)

Finally, after what seems like forever, I click on the last episode of MasterChef on Hulu. This may honestly have been one of the most difficult episodes for me to watch. I will try to keep this brief.

The finale starts off, and we notice some things that are different this time compared to last year. There are large, stadium style TV screens mounted high up. And there are two risers filled with audience members. The initial thought was that it was the top 18, but there are way too many of them and the top 18 is later revealed to be in the balcony. Then there was the thought that it was the top 100, but A) there isn’t enough of them, B) there are no familiar faces, and no quotes/lines/comments from all of those colorful personalities, and C) I remember reading a comment on Facebook saying that it wasn’t the top 100, and that they were brought in. Seeing as how it’s HIGHLY unlikely that they brought in legitimate fans from the street (and even if they did, how the heck would they know what to do without watching the previous episodes/following the storylines), I would probably guess that they hired seat fillers (commonplace in other TV shows where they want it to appear like there is a large and engaging audience) to play the role of background cheerleaders. IF that’s the case (and I have no proof), then all I can say is this: LAME.

Then comes the big family reveal. It was a very sweet moment, but marred in my mind for one reason. Take a look at this comment from Adriana Crnjac (Natasha’s Mom):

This message is from your mom.

It has been extremely difficult but I have restrained myself from posting any comments on any social media up to now.
Over the duration of MC4, I have read many kind and encouraging comments from your fans and supporters and would like to take this opportunity to extend my appreciation to all of them.
In total disbelief, I have also read some of the comments from haters who do not know the real you nor the scripting and editing on MC4 that contestants have alluded to through postings on the social media.

I am disclosing below what may come as a surprise to you, it has been bottling up in my chest since the 2-day duration taping of the finale back in April. I can not hold it any longer, I have to let go of it.

I was informed by a casting manager 2 days in advance of the taping of the finale that the producers, for financial reasons, had declined to fly your oldest brother in from France.
It felt like a stab with a dagger deep in my heart when I heard Gordon Ramsay during the taping announce, and to add insult to injury by special introduction, that Masterchef flew in 2 members of Luca’s family in from Italy for the finale. Yet, they deprived you of the same courtesy for just 1 family member.
Your brother Alen was present for the taping of the finale but what you may not know is that he flew into LA on his own accord.

The above described occurrence and evident favoritism led me to immediately suspect that MC4 may be rigged and that your performance in the finale may prove to be futile. I realized the distinct possibility that Luca was pre-determined to win.

Furthermore, I witnessed numerous occurrences during the course of the 2-day duration taping of the finale which strongly reinforces my suspicion. It is not appropriate nor will I disclose the details in this posting but I trust the right time and place will present itself in the near future for a full disclosure of my own personal experience with MC4 and the finale.

It is my understanding that all contestants signed stringent contracts and you probably can not nor do I expect any response on the above from you.

I know first-hand how seriously you took MC4, the preparation effort and the sacrificing choice to tear yourself from Robert and Diego. Robert was and continues to be an incredibly supportive husband making it all possible.

According to the elimination table on Wikipedia it appears you were the most consistent contestant on MC4. I congratulate you for your determination, perseverance and amazing journey. You have every reason to hold your head high and though you were declared the runner-up, you may have been the more deserving winner. Many others share the same sentiment.

Personally I hold no grudge against Luca. To the contrary I sincerely wish him the best of luck and may the Masterchef trophy open avenues to him in the future. I can not fault him for the possible misdeeds of others.

You have demonstrated on MC4 that you are a home cook with an incredible culinary talent and I wish you all the best in your future culinary endeavors. Good luck with a cookbook in the future too.

With lots of love, your mom.

These are powerful, heartfelt words. I would be LIVID after that incident where MC refused to fly out her brother and then flaunted the fact that they flew out TWO of Luca’s family members from Italy. Take a moment and ponder those words before you attack Natasha (or for that matter, ANYBODY). This is just a small but telling glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes.

As they announce the family members that they have flown in, I am surprised that they didn’t fly in Luca’s mother, who played such a touching role in his audition during Season 3.

The format for the finale this year is a little bit different. Apparently they will get one hour each to make a “stunning” appetizer, entree, and dessert. This is FAR simpler than the finale last year, where Josh and Christine had only two hours TOTAL to execute the three course meal. The amount of multitasking and organization required to work on three dishes at once is definitely challenge, and I can’t help but feel that the finalists have it easy this time around. Honestly, one hour for each course is a tremendous amount of time.

For those of you that are thinking that Natasha and Luca are coming up with their dishes on the spot as they spend their 10 minutes in the pantry, come on! You should know better. The contestants plan their menus extensively in the days before the finale, and even meet with Sandee the culinary manager to ensure that the ingredients they would like to use are present in the pantry (including foie gras, I mean, “duck liver”).

Let’s just go into the actual dishes. Both dishes sound a little bizarre to me. Natasha’s scallop with seaweed, couscous, and cauliflower puree just sounds like a bizarre combination. It’s a huge risk, and it doesn’t sound like there is much of a payoff. In my mind, I’m picturing those flavors and textures together and they go together “okay” at best. But then again I put cheddar cheese and apples together so what do I know???

Luca’s Seared Foie Gras (I’m just going to call it what it is) with toasted brioche and caramelized peaches sounds really simple. I’m really not convinced that the technique on display is all that impressive, considering that he has an HOUR to do…what exactly? Toast some bread? Caramelize some peaches? Sear some foie? Make a chutney? The only somewhat tricky thing is searing the foie, because you want it to be cooked through and melt-in-your-mouth luscious, but overcooking it will render it down to almost nothing since it is predominant fat. Still, it’s a fairly straightforward task that any cook with a moderate attention to detail can do, and certainly not something that I would expect Luca or Natasha to struggle with. I also question his use of Asian pear in the chutney. Asian pear has two distinct characteristics: its crispness and delicate sweetness, almost reminiscent of watermelon. I would NEVER eat Asian pear anyway but raw, or maybe in a sorbet (mmmmmmm, that sounds super refreshing). I’m not saying that it’s a cardinal sin to put it in a chutney, but there are way better fruits, and even other pears that would hold up much better in a chutney. ESPECIALLY if he was trying to make a tart, acidic chutney (like what he told Joe it was). It’s just an odd choice.

The judges love both of the dishes (they kinda have to at this point anyways). Luca’s appetizer is certainly rich, and with the tweak of one or two components it could be a KILLER dessert (dress up the brioche into french toast maybe, and turn the chutney into a fruit compote?). Foie is one of those incredible ingredients that can tie sweet to savory exceptionally well. The judges all love it, even though Gordon said that the foie should have been cooked a little bit more. The judges all love Natasha’s dish as well. Her scallops are cooked beautifully, and they seem to like the combination of components. On paper, it looks like Natasha has the advantage for this round.

We move on to the entrees, and Luca is doing short ribs in the pressure cooker with a tamarind glaze, served with mushrooms, truffle-sunchoke (potato-like starchy root) puree. The judges question his ability to get the meat done in time, but since I work with pressure cookers regularly, I know that the meat will be done in approximately 35 minutes so as long as he gets the meat in early, he should be fine. It sounds delicious. Natasha is doing monkfish (a protein that admittedly I have never tasted before). She rubs it with five spice, and wraps it in caul fat to sear it. Definitely a smart move. Graham tries to gross the audience out by holding up the sheet of caul fat and pointing out the fact that it’s stomach lining, but Natasha is unfazed. He says that this is something that nobody does, but I can already think of two separate instances where I have seen this EXACT same technique used with monkfish on cooking shows. She is serving the monkfish with mango infused rice with a coconut curry sauce. It sounds phenomenal as well.

Everything proceeds along with no major mishaps. They both finish the plates, and they both look beautiful.  Natasha’s portion perhaps looks a little small for an entree, and Graham criticized the monkfish for being too hot and spicy. Which is completely weird because five spice isn’t a particular spicy (in a peppery sort of way). It’s more sweet, with the cinnamon and star anise, than anything else. Perhaps he is talking about the curry sauce? Gordon says that the curry sauce needs coconut milk, even though I’m pretty certain that Natasha did in fact put coconut milk in the curry sauce (she did say it was a coconut curry after all). Perhaps he meant to say that there should have been more.

The feedback for Luca’s dish is really weird. Ramsay starts off by lamenting about how rich it is and how it can give somebody a heart attack, but then pulls it back into the positive on how it would be his last meal. My suspicion is that the dish was indeed very rich, and Ramsay started off in that area, before the production voices in his earpiece steered him back more towards the positive spectrum, since otherwise Natasha would have had a clear advantage. I don’t know how much butter or cream he put in the sunchoke truffle puree, but I can see why that could be a problem. It’s still an amazing dish though. I LOVE short ribs (they are favorite cut of meat). Give me those over a filet mignon ANY day of the week.

Dessert round time, and BOTH of the contestants are making panna cottas. Kind of a weird choice, since you don’t have much time to make and chill them in an hour (unless they used that blast chiller). Luca is making an incredibly odd sounding caprese panna cotta dessert, with basil panna cotta, tomato jam (caramelized in brown sugar), mascarpone cream, and….granulated sugar? (He later calls it “granulated basil”. This is definitely the WEIRDEST thing I’ve ever seen Luca make on the show, and I wonder if he chose to make this dish on his own or if the producers encouraged him to do something incredibly outside of the box. There are a few ingredients in this world that I do not think belong in desserts: mushrooms, any meat besides bacon or its equivalent, soy sauce/fish sauce, garlic/onions/alliums in general, basically anything that is intensely savory. Tomato probably falls close to that category, and unless it’s a SUPER sweet tomato, I can’t really picture myself conceptualizing a dessert and thinking to myself “I know just what that dessert needs! Some tomato!!” haha.

Natasha is making a yogurt panna cotta (sounds awfully like Graham’s dessert that one challenge) duo with coconut and lime, along with assorted garnishes including a passion fruit puree. This sounds really similar to Christine’s dessert last year, with many of the same flavors. In fact, the menus of Natasha and Luca have very similar characteristics to the menus of Christine and Josh. Christine had a lighter, more balanced menu, with lots of Asian flavors (same with Natasha). Josh had heavier, more classic dishes and while each dish may have been good on its own, putting the three of them into a menu progression may be excessive (similar to comments about Luca’s dishes so far, minus the dessert). It’s just an interesting thing to notice.

Luca starts to panic because he didn’t strain his panna cotta base. He starts to panic and insists that he needs to start over again. I am dumbfounded. Am I missing something? Why couldn’t he have, I dunno, STRAINED THE PANNA COTTA BASE right then and there instead of starting all over? Granted, I don’t make many panna cottas but I can’t think of a single reason that something as simple as that wouldn’t have solved the problem. Help me out guys? I mean even if he had dissolved the gelatin in it already or whatever, assuming the base wasn’t cold yet I feel like it would have been completely fine to just strain it out then and there. Maybe I’m just a complete fool that doesn’t know anything about panna cotta (which really is not much more than glorified creamy jello), but it seems like starting over from scratch would have been a waste.

Natasha’s lime panna cotta sets WAY too firm, so she decides not to use them (smart) and uses two of the coconut panna cotta portions instead.

The desserts are served, and while Natasha’s plate looks beautiful again (her presentations during the finale have been phenomenal), the panna cotta did look kinda small on the plate as a central component. Gordon points that out, wishing there were more.

Luca’s dessert is served, and it’s another awkward period of judging where I can’t tell if the judges ACTUALLY like it or not. Gordon again starts of with a bizarre statment that the dish is really more savory than sweet. For a dessert? Okay… Joe’s reaction is also peculiar, and honestly his advice to layer the stuff really doesn’t make much if any sense. It really isn’t very difficult to get a little bit of everything in one bite, Joe. You have this thing called a spoon. And if the basil panna cotta were on top, the presentation would be awful. All peculiarities aside, they claim that it works, and that they are impressed.

There really isn’t much else to say. Luca wins, and we are reminded of why he won in the first place. You just can’t dislike the guy. He’s too endearing of a figure. Similar to Christine last season, almost nobody has the heart to root against him, and so having him win was the perfect way to finish the season from a PR standpoint, because while there are certainly some disappointed Natasha fans, nobody is legitimately angry or upset. Contrast that with how crazy people would get is Krissi won. Now you see why she never had a chance to win, especially after being cast as the villain.

Natasha maintains her composure well in the aftermath after discovering that all of her sacrifice and hard work were for nothing, at least on paper. Perhaps she could sense that the victory was firmly in Luca’s grasp before the judging even started. I’ve gained a lot of respect for Natasha. especially after reading her mom’s heartfelt comments. It must be awful for a family member to see their loved ones get mistreated, not only by the producers but by the viewers via social media. She to me is clearly THE most talented cook in the competition, possibly ever. The food that she cooks is exotic, beautiful, creative, and I’m absolutely DYING to taste some of her food someday. Then again, she could fetch such high prices for it (especially if she opens shop out in California someday) that I probably couldn’t even afford it anyways :P.

As for Luca, he is also a phenomenal guy and great chef. A genuinely nice guy, and filled with so much enthusiasm. When I was planning my brunch with him, his texts were filled with enough exclamation marks to caption my reaction to watching a horror movie. He’s a tremendously likable guy, and I wish him all the best as the winner of the MasterChef crown. NOW is when your MasterChef journey truly begins. I LOVE classic Italian food, and can’t wait to try some of his too someday :).

And so ends my MasterChef journey. From this point out in the future, I will no longer keep up with the show on a regular basis. Not only has watching it become unenjoyable (who wastes their time watching a TV show they don’t like??), but it has become downright painful. I pushed through to the end because I wanted to have some closure on this season’s blogs. But honestly, aside from catching glimpses of stuff related to the show on social media and whatnot, I have no intention of following the show at all next season, ESPECIALLY if the rumor that the contestants will be housed in dorms with cameras (a la Hell’s Kitchen) pans out for added backstabbing and drama. I just can’t.

Some of you guys have been upset at me, saying the blog has become a place for show-bashing and that it makes you feel stupid for liking the show, and calling me and Ben hypocrites for benefiting so much from the show and now condemning it. And to respond to that, I simply point you to this comment from a fan.  (Small changes in brackets, because stating that nothing is real in this world is perhaps a slight exaggeration haha)

I have to honestly admit when I started out reading these comments and this blog, I was ready to bash Ben and you, Michael, about bashing Masterchef, but yet reaping the benefits of your popularity because of the show. I no longer feel like doing that. After what I read from Natasha’s mom, Masterchef deserves to be bashed, and I am almost in tears in regards to the cruelty of the world in regards to the almighty dollar. Why would they do that to Natasha’s brother? I don’t understand. Why would they take people’s dreams and reduce them to dollars? I don’t understand. Why would they continue to think the public is so stupid? I don’t understand. I don’t understand anything in [the reality tv] world anymore, and I think my days of being an avid reality tv fan are over. Nothing is real in [the reality tv] world

I will probably check out MC Juniors just out of sheer curiosity, but if it ends up being anything like regular MC then that won’t last long either. Future Season Fivers, feel free to contact me if you have any questions 🙂

Thank you all for coming along for the ride! It was a wild one, wasn’t it? I will continue to write blogs periodically to try and keep you guys entertained on other, less depressing subjects. I’m going to do my best to publish one a week: keep me accountable and pester me if I forget, please! :).

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Masterchef 4 Quick Recap: Back to the start and food fit for a King (S4E24)

Quick recap to cover last week’s episode of MasterChef. I’ll try not to go too much into the drama, because that takes up too much of my time and I’m really over it at this point. I’ve had enough, am sick and tired of it, and probably won’t ever watch MasterChef again after this season unless I’m extremely drunk or bored.

So we start off with another mystery box, and more sensationalist stuff about the prizes and how important they are. I wonder if the money that they display is actually real money, or “monopoly money”.

The challenge is to recreate their initial audition dish that won them the apron in the first place. Natasha made Hanger steak with chimichurri and empanadas. Luca has his broccoli rabe ravioli with parmigiano-reggiano sauce, and Jessie made the sea bass en croute.  It seems like an odd challenge to me that has more of a novelty factor than anything else. If the initial dishes were already so good and “masterchef quality”, how much can they do to really make it better?

Indeed, to me, none of the finished dishes are particularly impressive. Luca tried to elevate his dish by improving on the cheese sauce (which ends up failing) and garnishing with some tomato concasse (fancy named basically peeled and diced tomato flesh) and microgreens. Not really that impressive of an effort in terms of an “improvement”, but since the dish was solid to start with the judges still like it. When Gordon first went up to his station, tasted his cheese sauce, and said it tasted “weird”, that caused me to raise my eyebrows because vague feedback like that is usually prime fuel for the artificial drama engine. However, if Luca did end up simmering his cheese sauce, then that is a cause for concern. Cheese sauces should never really be brought above 170 degrees, especially a delicate cheese sauce like one that would be used to dress a ravioli. Cheese is full of proteins, and if you cook it at too high of a temperature, the proteins coagulate and press out all of the other stuff like moisture and fat. That is why you often see a shiny film of grease on top of a cheesy pizza. The sauce can become extremely grainy, greasy, and unpleasant to eat. Gordon raises a good point that if Luca really wanted to make a cheese sauce, folding it in to the sauce at the last minute until the cheese just barely melts is a good method.

Small but interesting sidenote that the judges’ feedback has been getting much more genuine. That tends to be the case in the later stages of the competition, as the “gimmicks” get weeded out. I find myself agreeing more and more with the actual feedback the judges are giving, for the most part at least.

Natasha’s dish for me looks the most impressive. I LOVE the plating. It’s extremely artistic, and takes you on a journey that guides you on how you should eat the dish, with the use of sauces as interludes. She did a pretty phenomenal job of tying two oddly paired components (skirt steak and empanadas), with one component leading to another. It makes sense, it’s beautiful to look at, and I think her dish truly showed the most improvement.

Jessie did her sea bass en croute again, and this time sliced it open to show off the (hopefully) perfectly cooked layers in the interior. It’s a smart but risky move, as if the knife wasn’t sharp enough it may have completely destroyed the delicate fish. She serves it with some mushrooms to help enhance the dish. A good effort, and the judges praise the dish, but it just didn’t seem like the changes that she (and the other contestants) made were all that difficult to execute. I’m not impressed.

Jessie is chosen as the winner, with Natasha in second and Luca in last. She gets the pick of three “king” ingredients to choose from: grana padano cheese, kobe beef tenderloin, or king crab. She picks an ingredient that she’s never worked with before (kobe beef) in hopes that Natasha will pick the cheese and leave Luca with the crab, which he has struggled with before. But Natasha plays to her own strength, picking the crab as the ingredient she wants to work for and leaving Luca with the easiest ingredient to work with.

Luca is making a veal cutlet stuffed with Grana Padano, braised radicchio, and frico. Frico sounds like a cheese lover’s dream. I want it in my mouthhole right now.

Natasha makes a chilled soba noodle salad with fresh vegetables and the king crab. It’s really a phenomenally easy dish to make as long as you cook the noodles and crab properly, cut the vegetables with the proper knife skills, and make a delicious vinaigrette. It’s a dish that can definitely show off the sweetness and savoriness of the crab. I wonder if she uses the “roe”, which to me is definitely the most flavorful part of the crab.

Jessie is marinating the kobe beef in an Asian marinade and serving it with some glass noodles and assorted Asian vegetables. She forgets the butter, and Natasha is in full on competition mode and doesn’t give her any. Jessies sounds like she got confused and expected there to be butter on her station, which would probably be the case with the staple pantry in a mystery box, but this isn’t a Mystery Box. Luca plays the nice guy and throws her a stick of butter, and Jessie is able to finish her dish. She leaves off the papaya salad.

Judges love Natasha’s dish. I’m sure it was a delicious dish that showed off the crab, but again as with the mystery box I’m not impressed with the technique or creativity behind the dish. From a culinary mind filled with as many incredible ideas as Natasha’s, I expected something a little more outside of the box.

Luca’s dish earns rave reviews. Graham mentions that there is a little bit too much cheese in the filling, and I agree. Grana padano is a rich and powerful cheese, and in the mini-roulade it looks like there is almost as much cheese as meat. Joe mentions that some acidity would be a nice contrast to the dish (though I don’t think a slaw is really the right answer). I agree with that sentiment (rich veal, rich stuffing, rich frico), though I wonder if the braised radicchio might have done the trick. Can’t taste though, so don’t know.

Jessie’s dish gets rave reviews, until Gordon steps up to the plate. He starts off positively, then as if flipping a switch, criticizes the noodles for being greasy (always a risk with glass noodles which absorb oil like a sponge), and asks to taste the salad. The judges apparently think the salad is the best thing since blast chillers were invented (which I don’t buy, judging by the less than convincing acting of Graham and Joe) then rip into her for leaving the salad off the plate.

Personally, I don’t think the salad should have been on the plate, ESPECIALLY  with the noodles. The flavors that Jessie put on the plate were a pretty classic blend of Chinese and Japanese flavors, and the salad is a distinctly Thai dish with thai flavors that don’t really meld with what she already has on the plate. Even if she took the noodles off and used the salad instead, the kobe beef with ponzu butter doesn’t really sound like it would pair well with a classic green papaya salad. She could have completely changed the marinade on the beef and gone with some thai chili, lemongrass, and fish sauce in a Vietnamese “shaking beef” style, but even then I think the judges would have criticized her dish for other reasons. I think Jessie had an idea of what she wanted her dish to be, and the green papaya salad, delicious as it may be, just didn’t fit into that idea. I completely support her decision to leave it off, though of course this is reality TV and they had to find something to knock her for and this was the ammunition that they needed.

Unsurprisingly, Jessie gets sent home. Ever since that last episode with the tiff with Krissi, her likability has plummeted and the producers have been setting her up for elimination. While a Luca-Jessie final was anticipated by many, it wasn’t really an option, especially if they had maintained Jessie’s goddess-like aura of do-no-wrong. The audience would be torn over who to root for, and no matter who wins a significant chunk of the viewers would be heavily disappointed. Now, it’s easier to achieve a satisfactory result, and if you have any sense about how reality TV works at this point it should be obvious who wins even with out actually watching the finale. Predictable, as always.

Though she wasn’t a character that I connected or identified with strongly, I still felt a strong twinge of compassion at seeing her tearful departure. Having been in that position myself, and gone through those emotions, I can’t help but feel sympathy. Despite the aura of perfection that has surrounded her much of the competition, Jessie is human after all and her disappointment at making it this far but falling short is understandable. I have nothing but the utmost respect for her and know that she will definitely have a bright future (perhaps as Paula Deen’s successor???).

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A Question of Ethics: The Death Penalty

Hello! For those of you anxiously waiting for the MasterChef recap, I’m afraid you will have to wait a little bit longer. I will shoot out a quick, condensed version to wrap up this season soon!

I was reading this story on CNN, and it forced me to ponder a question that I’ve been pondering on and off for YEARS: Is the death penalty ethical? Should I support its use or vote for its prohibition? Certain crimes are heinous beyond belief, and I can completely understand, and occasionally feel compelled to join in the chorus of voices calling for capital punishment and closure. There are certain times where I feel like society would truly be better off without certain individuals (and I’m not just talking about the asshole that cut me off on the highway today). People like Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, etc come to mind.

Other times, I think that capital punishment is terminating an individual’s potential to do good in society. I believe that all people, no matter how awful their past may be, have potential to benefit society in positive ways. By putting criminals to death, you are effectively saying that they were beyond redemption. Is it possible that hidden in the mind of an executed criminal is the potential spark that may lead to a cure for cancer, the key to the eradication of AIDS, the breakthrough that might enable the world to efficiently produce enough healthy, safe food to feed our ever growing population? Also, no justice system is ever “perfect”, and occasionally a court may order the execution of an innocent man. Is that a risk we should be willing to take?

These are questions that I honestly don’t know the answer to, and I don’t currently have a well formed opinion on this issue. I would love y’all’s feedback. Tell me why you support or reject the death penalty. Think about it from a spiritual/religious, moral/ethical, economic, psychological, social/societal, logistical, political, legal, etc. perspective. Please keep the discussion civil and respectful, and I look forward to listening to what you guys have to say (and playing the devil’s advocate if I feel like it haha).

Posted in Discussion, Fans, Friends, Politics | 15 Comments

Masterchef 4 Recap: Team Mystery Box and Chocolate (S4E23)

Disclaimer: I know who got eliminated, and I know who wins, so I apologize if my analysis is somewhat biased due to my spoiler knowledge. Call me out on it!

After a highly engineered elimination that saw poor James get the axe, this episode proves to be just as engineered and dramatic with the previews showing Krissi and Jessie getting into a huge catfight. It’s easy to see why Krissi’s and Jessie’s personalities clash. In a high school context (which strangely, was only about two years ago for me. feels like forever!!), Jessie is like a varsity cheerleader, gorgeous, popular, always smiling, while Krissi is the girl way down on the social ladder, loud, brassy, a little rough around the edges, not afraid to show her emotions. It’s a clash of personalities that promises a high school cafeteria-esque cat fight.

The episodes start and it’s revealed that while in the last episode, what was normally a “team challenge” was individual, this time what is usually an individual pressure test will become a “team challenge”. An odd choice, and I can’t help but think that they are doing this to build up the catfight that will inevitably unfold. Once again, Joe’s exaggerated acting and writhing face muscles crack me up. Luca gets to pick first, and exclaims that it’s the biggest advantage that he’s ever had. I personally think that winning a mystery box, earning immunity, and getting to assign stuff to your contestants is a much bigger advantage. Luca’s penchant for being extremely exaggerated and somewhat dramatic is probably what enhances his appeal to both the producers and audience, which combined with his cooking skills is what has gotten him so far in this “competition.”

Luca picks Natasha first, which isn’t a surprise to me. He clearly values her cooking abilities over any disagreements they may have had in the past. I honestly think that Natasha is the strongest cook in the whole competition. She and Adrien Nieto, of MasterChef Season 2, recently did a pop up, and looking at some of the instagram photos and descriptions of the dishes, what they put out was absolutely incredible. Way more stunningly sophisticated and creative than anything that I’ve seen out of the other three contestants, and possibly any contestant EVER in the history of MasterChef (aside from “freak genius” Alvin Schultz, also of Season 2). The menu that they put out could easily have been in some of the best restaurants in the country, and the $75 that they asked for it. If you ever have the chance to attend one of their pop-ups, don’t miss out!

That leaves Krissi and Jessie as a team. No surprise there. I can already foresee what is going to happen. They will start struggling as a team, get into a HUGE fight, cause the MULTITUDES of people that hate Krissi to hate her even more intensely, they will lose the challenge, go into the pressure test, where Jessie will beat Krissi, and 95% of the people watching MasterChef will do huge fist pumps and set off fireworks in celebration of the satisfaction of seeing Krissi get eliminated after being such a huge “asshole” this season and particularly in this episode through the fight with darling Jessie. Sound about right? Keep in mind that I am only about 3 minutes into this episode at the time of writing this paragraph. Hahaha.

Notice something: the clip of Natasha saying “we don’t care for each other one bit”. Who is she referring to? “Luca!” says the majority of people reading. But is she REALLY referring to Luca? Who’s to say that the interviewer didn’t ask the question about Jessie, or Krissi, and have the editors conveniently splice the audio in? Again, the saddest thing about watching this show is that I don’t trust anything that they try and get me to believe anymore.

OMG. I rewatched that clip of Luca saying “Natasha and I have this….????” 5 times and couldn’t figure out what he was saying. Over and over again, trying to figure it out, but all I heard was “Natasha and I have this drive for two sex.” ?????? Finally turned the captions on in Hulu, and it read “Natasha and I have this drive for success.” THAT makes a lot more sense. Still, you can’t help but love and laugh at Luca and his adorable accent.

And here come the smack talk. Jessie calling Krissi “the thing”? Ouch…. She says that Krissi has no concept of “team”, and I can understand why she might feel that way based on her big, brassy, independent personality. But as recently as the WP-24 challenge. I remember Krissi struggling with the shrimp and feeling awful because she was letting the team down. I also remember a sushi challenge a while back, where I don’t remember who she worked with (was it natasha?), but she knew she was weak in that area, and humbly followed her teammate’s every instruction, didn’t let her ego get in the way, and just worked amazingly as a team player. I hadn’t watched the majority of the episodes this season (I stopped early on and didn’t pick back up until recently to cover for Ben), so I can’t say much about those episodes, but I can say that Krissi is far from the self-centered impossible to work with deadweight that Jessie is making her seem like.

The mystery box is FILLED with amazing, luscious, fresh, decadent, luxurious ingredients. Fresh seafood, fine wines, a variety of gourmet produce, herbs, spices, seasonings. It’s basically a mini MasterChef pantry, so I don’t get why this was even in a “Mystery Box” setting. Why not just let the contestants loose in the pantry to gather the ingredients that they want to cook with instead? I doubt the results would have been much different.

Graham claims there is an ingredient from each state, which I HIGHLY doubt, but, eh, difficult to prove or disprove. It would be cool to see an actual list of what all the ingredients are. The eye can only catch so much… With 50 ingredients though, the possibilities are ENDLESS. I can’t even begin to try and figure out what I would try to make unless I was there to absorb it all.

Natasha and Luca have some interesting ideas flowing, while Natasha and Krissi are having problems early. Ramsay goes ahead and plays the popularity card on Krissi, and this is headed in a very negative direction very quickly. For the record, I think the idea of greens, lobster meat, and fried oysters is a weird combination that I would have shot down as well, but the shaved asparagus with lemon vinaigrette options sounds PHENOMENAL. With some butter poached lobster and a light grating of some sort of cheese, it would be an amazing appetizer salad. *drool*

LOL at the seafood medley salad. It does sound a bit old school (I’m picturing a whole bunch of canned seafood mixed with mayonnaise…blech). In practice though, I’m sure Luca and Natasha can execute it and make it delicious, but might I suggest renaming it to something less reminiscent of a stale Chinese buffet item? haha. The rest of the menu sounds very classic: Lamb with beets and goat cheese (wonder which state this is from?), strawberry tart. They might be criticized for playing it almost too safe.

It sounds like Krissi and Jessie ARE going to go with the lobster salad with shaved asparagus idea. Gordon criticizes the dressing for the lobster as not rich and citrusy enough. I personally don’t see a problem with a light vinaigrette as long as there is some richness element to the salad (like the cheese), or if it’s followed up by a heavier entree for balance. Gordon also criticizes the raw garlic used. Many prominent chefs have expressed dismay at the the use of raw garlic in a dish. Personally, I like it. It’s a foundation for MANY Chinese lengcai or cold dishes, like seaweed salad, chilled beef tendon salad (which I made for my initial MasterChef open casting call in austin), cold noodle salad, etc. I eat raw garlic mixed with sesame oil and chinese black vinegar in HEAPS with my dumplings. However, I might agree that too much raw garlic can easily overpower the delicateness of the lobster and the asparagus in the salad. The entree is going to be an herb crusted rack of lamb (no sides mentioned), and an apple tarte tatin/tart for dessert. A tart tatin is just an apple tart that has had the apples cooked and caramelized heavily before being baked “upside down” with the crust on top, inverted before serving. There’s not THAT much of a difference between the two, except with the tarte tatin the apples are pre-cooked for longer. Apparently there are green beans in the salad too, which I agree is a somewhat weird addition. Jessie says that she had no idea about the beans, and it sounds like they are kind of making stuff up as they go. Hopefully they get it all figured out.

When Graham and Joe come to Natasha and asking her questions, her response to the question “if you are Luca are in the pressure test, who is staying?” is DRIPPING with sarcasm to those that paid attention. It’s as if she were saying “What do you expect me to say, idiots?” If she says herself, she comes across as being arrogant and overconfident, but if she says Luca then she comes across as insecure and weak. Damned both ways.

Krissi is getting frustrated, because when she takes over the pie crust, she discovers that it isn’t chilled. Chilling is crucial to ensure a pie crust turns out flaky, and apparently by the time she realizes it there isn’t enough to chill it and bake it (say, what about that blast chiller that YALL GOT THIS SEASON HM?? *grumble*). She then asks Jessie if she knows how to make a crepe, and Jessie throws out some uncertain measurements with the most hilarious expression on her face that I’ve seen all season. It’s actually refreshing to see the producers edit in some of her emotions this episode rather than the perma-smile that they show her with. Krissi is struggling with the crepes, and repeatedly tells Jessie that she isn’t comfortable making them. Her first attempt in the pan looks like she didn’t use any oil/butter to grease it (crucial, even in a nonstick pan, to keep the crepes from sticking). At this point I’m just wondering why they didn’t swap places/tasks, but who knows what was actually going on then. Jessie quips “You better pick SOMETHING you can cook” and Krissi takes issue with the insinuation that she can’t cook anything, despite the pie crust issue being out of her control and her openness from the beginning that she wasn’t comfortable doing the crepes. Credit to her for not blowing up then and there, though you can almost see the steam whistling out of her ears, cartoon-style.

I also am kind of amused at the bleep patterns of MasterChef. Why are words like “shit” and “fuck” bleeped, but words like “bitch”, “damn”, “hell”, and I’m pretty sure even “bastard” have been left as is? Maybe it’s some weird FTC regulations, but it still strikes me as being a bit pointless to leave “bitch” in but bleep “fuck” out.

Krissi apparently leaves the kitchen to cool down, and that leaves Jessie with horrendous amount of finishing work. I can clearly understand Jessie’s frustration too. There just seems like a complete lack of communication. If I were Krissi, I would have simply said “Jessie, I can’t do these crepes. You come do these, get them knocked out, and I’ll go over there and help finish whatever it is that you are working on.” That’s all it would have taken to keep things moving forward. But the lack of communication leads to a dramatic escalation of the conflict, and while I don’t know the full situation, Krissi leaving is a huge setback to the “team” that has left Jessie virtually helpless as the bus is approaching to run her over.

Krissi heads back to the station after a few minutes, and makes a makeshift dessert with the caramelized apples, some whipped cream, and toasted macadamias. Definitely not a restaurant quality dessert, but like she said “It’s something”.

Luca and Natasha present their dishes. The starter is a lobster tail, a “barely cooked” (torched) trout, and a fried oyster. Not quite a seafood salad, and while the dish looks okay, I don’t really see a cohesiveness between the various elements. The individual components are executed well apparently, which is a saving grace. Personally, I would find the idea of a giant cooked lobster tail on a plate almost naked rather unappealing. Lobster by itself doesn’t have that much flavor, and the amount of garnish/sauce on the plate doesn’t look sufficient to support the lobster. And lobster is a protein that NEEDS support. So the balance is off, but the execution according to Joe is good.

The lamb entree looks cooked well, but once again the balance seems to be a bit off. The dish looks flat, both “height wise” and just in overall visual appearance. Some greens (char those beet greens on the stove and dress them with some lemon and olive oil!) would have enhanced the dish, and overall I just feel the mixture of lamb, beets, and parsnips is missing some elements to make it a balanced, cohesive dish. Gordon’s comments/criticisms actually mostly make sense. The beets did look just kinda thrown on there, without a real tie-in to the dish, and having them soak in that red wine jus due to how they plated the dish kinda destroys their character.

The dessert looks nice, and referring to it as a deconstructed strawberry tart is a good way to put it. The pastry cream does look quite thick (it did even as she was plating it, so the time spend between cooking and tasting wasn’t a factor here), so she might have used too much starch. It’s not a particularly impressive dessert, nor a particularly impressive meal as a whole from Luca and Natasha, and honestly I expected better from them.

Krissi and Jessie’s lobster appetizer looks stunning, and I would eat the shit out of that. Some crostini or other element (like the shaved asparagus originally discussed!!) to go with the beautiful lobster would have been great, but visually it has much greater appeal than Luca and Natasha’s dish. Joe gives similar feedback, saying “it’s just missing one thing”. Personally I actually like the lobster claw garnish to give it some height though…to each his own I guess.

Krissi and Jessie’s entree looks more composed as well. More balanced, more colorful, though I think it could have used more of the “red wine jus”. I don’t really see much if any of it on the plate. The lamb is not cooked properly, and Ramsay brings up a good point. Why does Krissi let other team members take over her station and not say anything until the judging portion? I think that Krissi realizes that she isn’t the most popular kid in the room, and when somebody criticizes her and wants to take over, she lets them rather than throwing a huge hissy fit and letting her ego get in the way and distracting from the task at hand. Then when the judges criticize the dish, she uses that moment to, in a way, say “I told you so.” I think it’s a case of somebody with a strong personality realizing that she is offending people, and overcompensating by being too meek and humble and NOT speaking up when she should. It’s a mistake, but I can relate to the decision to not speak up and make a scene and cast yourself as even more unpopular than you already were (I was extremely “unpopular” growing up). There were COUNTLESS moments like that for me in school all the time when I worked in groups, had a brilliant idea but was shot down by the more popular and highly regarded members in the group and just watched the group sink until I had my “I told you so” moment.

The dysfunction in the team becomes more apparent as they talk about the dish, and it all boils down to one thing for me. Lack of communication. Let me tell you something, guys. In ANY relationship, whether it be personal, professional, romantic, platonic, whatever, the key to having a successful relationship that is effective, mutually beneficial, and long lasting is to have an abundance of honest and open communication. I cannot stress this enough. I hate when people don’t say something, or flat out lying because they are afraid of offending people or being judged. I hate when people are too shy about something to speak up. I hate when people want something but are afraid to ask it. Too many times, people are so afraid of saving face and making themselves look bad that it’s almost like the forget how to communicate properly. Growing up in Asian culture, this was and IS a HUGE problem. So much of Asian culture is based on honor and looking good in other people’s eyes, which to me is complete and utter bullshit. Everybody should just be themselves, be open and proud of who they are, and if the people you’re with can’t handle that, find a new group of people to be with. It’s this kind of mindset that draws me to Krissi, who for the most part is unapologetically herself, fuck what the world thinks. Ironic that her lack of communication is what sunk the ship in the team challenge.

For once this episode, I actually completely agree with just about all of the feedback the judges have given thus far. The feedback does tend to be more genuine at the later stages of the competition.

Based on the food alone, it would SEEM like Krissi and Jessie had the edge. It seems better executed and more balanced overall. Based on team dynamics though, Luca and Natasha clearly had the edge. It will be interesting to see how the judges spin the decision. They pick Luca and Natasha, and leave Jessie and Krissi to duke it out in the pressure test. Jessie calls Krissi a cow over and over again, which to most people sounds like an insult in reference to her weight or intelligence. She claims on twitter that it’s a reference to “personality.” Regardless, she’s frustrated as well and I can understand her frustration, being left to do a lot of the work at the most crucial point in the challenge. But her perfect aura of perfection and positivity is losing its luster, and that may well be a sign of things to come.

Question for you guys, does Luca really hate Natasha? If you said yes, slap yourself on the wrist. Shame on you, haha.

The pressure test is reminiscent of the souffle pressure test from last season, where each judge had the contestant make them their “favorite” souffle, except this time with chocolate. The mousse is a gimme (I personally like a whipped cream mousse better than an egg white mousse), and the lava cake and souffle have all been done before on MasterChef multiple times. So this really isn’t that unusual or particularly difficult of a pressure test, except for getting the timing of the souffle and the lava cake to finish at the same time (although if they have the use of two ovens, even that should be less of an issue).

75 minutes is actually plenty of time in my opinion. I would bang out the mousse in 15 minutes and just have it chilling in the fridge until service time. An hour to make a molten lava cake and a chocolate souffle seems like adequate time. What do you guys think?

Time is called, and all the components seem to be on the plate with no visible disasters. Krissi does not have powdered sugar on her souffle, though I’m not entirely sure if that matters. Jessie constantly mentions how she added salt to her desserts, which is an important part of any chocolate dessert. Since chocolate has many savory flavors in addition to sweet flavors, some salt really helps enhance its profile. Since chocolate and salt is such a common combination, it would greatly surprise me if Krissi didn’t add salt to her desserts as well. Krissi’s souffle isn’t as tall as Jessie’s, which could be since she took hers out of the oven earlier and had more time for it to fall.  The center inside is steaming, but Natasha and Gordon both think it’s undercooked. I’m not actually 100% sure what a “properly cooked” souffle should be like. Should it still be at all runny and pudding like in the center? Should it be firm but moist? Hot (as in enough to burn your tongue) in the center, or just warm, like a medium rare steak?

Krissi’s mousse is much airier than Jessie’s (which looks a bit more like glossy ganache than fluffy mousse). She takes this one.

Jessie’s lava cake has more of a crust, and Krissi’s looks a little soggy.

Before we even go any further, lemme point your attention to the order of the dishes they tasted. In ANY best of X competition, with X being an odd number (3 and 5 are most common), 99% of the time the producers will engineer the results to have the scores be tied with one deciding vote for the winner. Why? For drama, of course. The judges started tasting down on stage left, and then went all the way to stage right to taste the mousse before finally going back to stage middle. Why the weird jump over there? Because somehow or another, the producers knew that Krissi’s molten lava cake was inferior to Jessie’s, and if they went in order, Jessie would have a 2-0 advantage and there wouldn’t even be any point in tasting the mousse. Keep in mind that the souffle HAS to be tasted first in order for it not to fall. In these types of situations the time between cooking and tasting is very minimal (the beauty shots are rushed and only take a minute or so) so that the souffles don’t lose their height.

Joe is extremely subdued while announcing the winner, a far cry from his usual animated gesticulations and facial expressions. I (and Krissi herself) can tell that she’s going home. It’s similar to my elimination, when Gordon said “the person leaving MasterChef is… and I’m sorry to say it….Michael.” Some contestants get to form a bond with certain judges, and I (and more so Ben Starr) had that with Gordon, and Krissi this season has that bond with Joe. So occasionally, just judging by the demeanor of the judges when announcing the eliminations, you can tell who’s going home.

Of course, I am sad but thoroughly unsurprised to see Krissi go home. I have made it no secret that Krissi has been one of my favorites throughout the season, because of her boldness, fearlessness, and unashamed determination to be herself in the face of being unpopular. She’s the kind of person that I would love as a friend, because I know she’s going to give it to me straight if I ask for her opinion on something. She’s got a great sense of humor, stands up for what she believes in, and while she (as well as EVERYBODY else) has made their fair share of mistakes on the show,  I still have nothing but respect for her and for how strong she has held up to the withering barrage of insults, hate, and threats coming her way from the true bullies, those that hide behind the wall of the internet’s distance and anonymity to launch their vitriol. Though she has clearly frustrated some of her co-competitors in the past, I feel like the majority of the contestants have grown to respect her strength, even those that have been portrayed to hate her like Bri and Natasha. I really hope to meet her someday.

Follow here on Twitter and Facebook, and please, spare her the vitriol.

What do y’all think? Are you happy Krissi went home? Which three course meal would YOU have eaten? Which chocolate dessert is YOUR favorite? Let me know down below….

Posted in MasterChef, TV, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 78 Comments

Masterchef 4 Recap: Paula Deen 2.0 and Fancy foods (S4E22)

Here we go, with part 2 of this week’s MasterChef!

Is it just me, or do the extensive recaps at the beginning of each episode (and even after each commercial break) come across as a bit excessive and unnecessary? Almost feels like cheap “filler” material to me, especially when the episodes play back to back like they did this week. I digress..

Random thing I noticed: In the “beauty shots” of the contestants at the beginning, everybody is showing off some sort of cooking skill except for Krissi, who just turns around and….stands there? Wonder why that was.

I’m actually somewhat looking forward to this episode, as I’m curious as to how the producers and editors portray Paula Deen (appearing for the 2nd season in a row…a bit weird), since the filming of the episode took place before all of the controversies tarnishing her reputation. She has largely stayed out of the public eye lately, so perhaps most of the public have forgotten the controversial events that unfolded earlier this year already.

Snorted upon hearing the Narrator call the event a “lunch party”. LOL.

Luca’s (slightly overly) dramatic reaction to seeing Paula Deen makes me smile. “I’m Italian, what do I know about SOW-thern food?” I actually find Southern food and Italian comfort food pretty similar, but maybe that’s just me. Maybe because I love them both so much…..

Each contestant has to cook for a table of 10 individually. They must each cook their assigned protein, along with two side. They are: Kentucky Chicken (I didn’t even know Kentucky had its own chicken, aside from KFC haha!), Alabama Pork Chops (…..), Georgia Shrimp (? not Florida?), Mississippi Catfish (makes sense..), and Gator Tail (No location given, though I guess Louisiana is presumed? I guess I don’t know enough about Southern food, because I had no idea that Kentucky was known for their chicken (aside from KFC), Alabama for their pork chops, or Georgia for their shrimp. Do y’all know those connections/associations?

Luca won last challenge and gets to pick who gets what protein. He picks pork chops for himself, an easy choice given its ties to both Southern and Italian cooking, and assigns catfish to Natasha, alligator to Jessie, shrimp to Krissi, and chicken to James. I forsee a lot of deep frying in the future of this challenge…

Luca starts off by pounding out the pork chop to tenderize it. It’s a very traditional Italian thing to do, but I don’t know if a pounded pork chop is very traditional in Southern cuisine. I personally like my pork chops unpounded.  Juicy, firm, but tender. Krissi’s shrimp come already peeled with the tail on, which is disappointing because I would have loved to see her use the INTENSELY flavorful shells in her dish. James has a tasty looking marinade going on his chicken, which looks like it’s a skinless, but bone-in breast cut. Krissi is putting lime zest on her shrimp, which definitely sounds bright and delicious, but again is not something I typically associate with classic Southern food. Jessie is soaking her alligator tails in what looks like buttermilk, a smart move and exactly what I would have done. I’ve never cooked alligator in my life, but the only way I’ve ever had it is fried or in a sausage. The meat is like a cross between chicken, fish, and shrimp. Very delicate and flavorful but easy to overcook. Natasha is breaking down some huge, gorgeous catfish fillets, and is apparently breaking down some cabbage for coleslaw. I LOVE catfish fillets, because it’s mild, sweet, and delicate but is super rich and moist from being a fattier fish. Catfish nuggets though (from the belly)….blech.

The judges check in with Luca, and it looks like he is preparing a breadcrumb mixture to crust the pork chops in. A very European thing to do. Southern….perhaps not so much. However, there’s nothing WRONG with that technique, and the product may very well turn out to be delicious. He’s making a sweet potato puree by boiling the sweet potato in what looks like flavored milk, which may be a mistake. Milk shouldn’t really ever be boiled, since you risk curdling it (you can see some small clumps already as he stirs it). This applies to most dairy, except heavy cream, which has enough fat to stabilize it. The judges overlook that, however, for the time being. Lastly, he is also serving brussels sprouts with bacon (YUM!).

Natasha is still working on her catfish and coleslaw. Her second side is still a mystery for the time being.

Krissi is doing ENOURMOUS, gorgeous, steak-like fried green tomatoes. If executed properly, it could serve as a unique base for her dish. Classic ingredient, classic technique. It looks like she will serve them with her citrus marinated shrimp and some collard greens. Lime zest aside, looks like a classic and delicious combination.

Jessie is frying her alligator tails and serving it with Andouille sausage mac and cheese (drooooooool), and sauteed green beans. Another classic Southern combination of flavors and ingredients.

Everybody seems to think that James is going to do well, which instinctively makes me think that he will flunk this challenge. A lesson in the predictability of reality TV: whenever somebody is EXPECTED to do well, they will MOST likely fail.

James is doing a grilled bourbon barbecue-sauce glazed chicken, and immediately I’m a little concerned. Cooking chicken through on the grill takes a LONG time, and you do not want Gordon to catch a raw chicken breast (or an overcooked one either, for that matter). Furthermore, glazing something on the grill with a sugary sauce can cause the sauce to burn and the meat to stick. Lastly, most of the diners are probably expecting a delicious, old fashioned fried chicken, which is pretty darn hard to beat in the mind of a southerner, so if you are going to barbecue chicken instead of fry it, it’d better be some seriously tasty chicken. He’s serving it with some delicious looking black eyed peas and honey glazed carrots. Another classic combination, but I’m not sold on the barbecued chicken idea.

And of course, James all of a sudden is worried that his chicken isn’t going to cook in time. In a surprising twist, Natasha is actually grilling her catfish (???). Grilling fish with any marinade is extremely tricky, even with a well oiled grill, because the wet marinade tends to caramelize and stick, even buttermilk. The best way to grill a fish filet is to pat it extremely dry, season with salt and pepper, oil it generously, and place it onto a hot grill (or use a cedar plank). Putting a piece of fish with marinade onto a grill is a recipe for disaster, and it’s the second time it’s happened this season.

James continues to have trouble nailing the temperatures on the chicken. The time is called to serve.

Jessie serves her plate. The food all looks tasty, but the plate/portions seem a bit small. Luca serves his plates, and I’m curious as to how many of the words coming out of his mouth that the diners actually understood. His presentation is a little bit sloppy, but the plate looks tasty. I wonder what that sauce on the pork is? And the pork chop doesn’t actually look like it’s pounded out very much at all, so he must not have pounded it as hard as I had originally thought (get your mind out of the gutter!). Krissi’s plate is classic, presented well, but once again I feel like perhaps the portions are a bit small for a full meal, especially for southerners who are known to eat a lot. Natasha’s second side is potatoes au gratin, but on the sample plate there is only one round of (delicious looking) potato instead of the casserole that one might expect. The plate as a whole looks a bit boring and plain. Keep in mind that I’m passing judgements on these dishes by appearance only, since I can’t taste them. Take my opinions with a grain of salt, haha :).

I’m going to pause and do a very Ben-Starr-esque thing. The correct pronounciation for Andouille is anDUee, not andouLEE. Similar to rouille (ru-EE, a mayonnaise like sauce). Similar to Spanish when which the “ll” has a soft “y” sound.

James presents his dish, and to me it looks the least appetizing due to the weird shape of the chicken breasts and the complete lack of green on the plate. Even a simple sprinkle of parsley over the top would dramatically enhance the visual appeal of his plate in my opinion. Another thing to note is that his plate lacks textural contrast (everything can probably be characterized as “soft”). A great plate of food to me has 3 essential aspects: contrasting flavors (sweet balanced with salty, richness balanced with acidity, etc), contrasting colors, and contrasting textures. James is missing on 2 of the 3, but we will see what kind of feedback the diners give.

The diners enjoy Jessie’s gator and Krissi’s shrimp, and one diner raves about her perfectly executed green tomato. Luca’s plate is also well received, with one diner going as far as rating it a 11 out of 10. Ramsay finds an undercooked piece of chicken on James’s table, and I brace for inevitable “It’s RAWWWWWWR” tirade, which thankfully doesn’t come. It’s a huge setback though, which all but guarantees James’s place in the bottom 3. Natasha’s fish is also undercooked, and you can tell by how it doesn’t flake very easily when the diner prods at it. It’s not as much of a “deadly” mistake, so no dramatic return to the grill for Natasha, but it also cements her place in the bottom 3 of this challenge. It will be interesting to see who joins her and James, since the other 3 all seemed to be received so well.

The judges sit at the round rectangular table, and Joe knocks James for serving such a large piece of chicken. I scoff at that reasoning, since it’s not like James had a pic on the product he was working with. He had no choice but to serve the chicken that was given to him, but he should have cooked it properly. They say Natasha’s catfish should have been fried, and based on the prep steps she took I would tend to agree. So the top two are down to Krissi, Jessie, and Luca, and based on appearance alone I would have chosen Krissi and Jessie. Of course I’m wrong, and Paula chooses Luca and Jessie. Two quick notes: I’m AMAZED that they didn’t try to do a cliffhanger over a commercial break, and I think the producers chose them to piss Krissi off and see what kind of reaction they can get out of her.

Krissi is surprisingly quiet after the decision, but you hear a quick quip from James “based on what I’m up against, I’m not too worried.” You can easily see how if the producers had wanted to cast James in a bad light, they could just take sound bites like that and feature it. One of these days, maybe I will try and demonstrate this by doing an interview with Ben and having it edited two different ways and seeing what y’all’s reactions are to each video. *makes mental note*.

Pressure test time, and for the first time ever, the top two contestants get to play a role in determining what the test is. It’s basically an elimination challenge at this point. Jessie and Luca must assign a dish to each of the contestants. The first dish is a seared scallop salad, with confit potatoes and truffles. He claims that the dish would cost $150, which even with the truffles seems to be a bit of a stretch. Some quick research turns up a similar dish on the flagship restaurant’s a la carte menu, which charges 95 GBP (approx $150) for THREE courses. The dish on the menu doesn’t mention truffle, but I highly doubt a few slices of truffle would command TRIPLE the price of the standard dish. Regardless, being able to sell any “appetizer” for $50 is already incredibly impressive, so kudos to Ramsay I guess.

The second dish is a Filet Rossini, which is a filet steak on top of a truffle polenta cake, foie gras, and Asian pear (?!?!). Bizarre choice for somebody that values tradition in Italian cuisine so much. I can just imagine a contestant putting Asian pear on a dish like that and Joe just going BERSERK, spit flying out of his mouth, eyes bulging, so furious that the insults can’t come out fast enough. Hahahaha.

Graham’s dish is from his flagship, Graham Elliot, and features a greek yogurt panna cotta (which for lack of a better description, is like creamy jello), with stewed rhubarb and “variations” on honey (probably some crystallized honey, honeycomb, and various assorted floral honeys.

….Wow. Definitely an intense challenge. Joe and Gordon’s dishes are RELATIVELY easy to execute, with the main challenge being the cook on the proteins and a judicious hand with the truffle to avoid overpowering the rest of the dish. Graham’s dessert is whimsical, “modernist”, and deceptively simple, although there are a lot of specific techniques involved with the execution and presentation that will definitely catch a home cook out of his or her comfort zone.

Natasha gets Gordon’s scallop dish, which is weird to me if she is the primary target. I still fail to see what is so difficult or tricky about this dish. Help me out? Krissi gets the Filet Rossini, which is probably the easiest for her to execute (steak and polenta she should be comfortable with, and searing the foie is really not very difficult). James gets the sno-globe, and instantly I think he’s in trouble. That to me is the dish I would have given to whomever I wanted to send home.

Everybody seems to be getting off to a good start. Natasha is focused, and Krissi and James are both doing the right things/taking the right steps towards executing their dishes properly. James however puts the panna cotta in the fridge, while Luca laments that he should have put it in the blast chiller. Now this confuses me a little bit, because in my season we did not have a blast chiller (I specifically asked). So either Luca is talking about the freezer, which would have been risky for James (if the outside of the panna cotta starts to freeze, the texture is ruined), or they somehow got a blast chiller this season, lucky bastards. For those of you unfamiliar, a blast chiller is like a fridge that constantly blasts the contents inside with cold air, which cools the food much quicker (think about standing in freezing weather with no wind vs howling wind and you get the idea).

The time whizzes by, and the judges are concerned about Krissi’s filet being overcooked and James’s panna cotta not being set. James seems to be happy with his panna cotta, deflecting Graham’s questions with confidence and is focusing on his plating. Natasha still seems focused and composed. Krissi’s polenta cake doesn’t look very well seared, and James’s looks like it’s lacking some garnishes.

Natasha is first up, and her plate looks beautiful (aside from a few missing sauce dots). The judges love everything.

Krissi goes up, and her plate looks almost identical (where did that magical sear on the polenta come from???). The big question is whether the steak is properly cooked, and it’s definitely more cooked on one side than the other. Gordon actually flat out disagreed with Joe (who said that at least one side of the steak was medium rare) and called it out for actually being closer to medium well (which I would tend to agree more with). Perhaps Ben’s speculation that Joe has a soft spot for Krissi is true after all. Still, rarely do you see the judges openly disagree with each other. I would LOVE to see the judges get in a real legitimate fight sometime over the merits/flaws of a dish, hahaha.

James is up last, and here I have a problem. What usually happens is this. After the completion of a challenge, the contestants usually leave set for a lunch break. Beauty shots are taken, and any dishes that need to be chilled or frozen are usually put back in the freezer/fridge (i.e., Christine’s coconut lime sorbet in the finale). I’m ASSUMING that’s what happened with James’s dish. However, since his dish was tasted last, then it still must have been sitting out for 10-15 minutes under the hot spotlights on set. Even a properly set panna cotta would have started to loosen up and melt by then. You can see James stand by his dish and start to protest when Graham criticizes the texture, but ultimately he is wise to save his breath, and probably knows in his head what the end result is going to be anyways. Hearing the judges complain about how the panna cotta tastes and is garnished perfectly but isn’t set properly makes my blood pressure spike. James is a talented cook, and there is no question in my mind that when James took the panna cotta out of the fridge and proclaimed his satisfaction that he knew it was set. The judges are supposed to take into consideration how long food has been sitting out when they taste it (i.e. not criticize bread for being stale if it’s been sitting out for 4 hours waiting to be tasted), but that clearly wasn’t the case with James’s panna cotta, and he is helpless to say or do anything to stop it. The look of resignation on his face tells him that he knows exactly what I already know, that the producers are ready to send him home, and there’s nothing he can do about it.

I’m glad the elimination was relatively quick and not all drawn out. Honestly, the fact that he was eliminated is not at all surprising to me. The show needs the villain (Krissi) to stay around for a few more episodes to make things interesting, and of the 3 remaining, James is probably the least marketable and connects with the smallest portion of the audience.

That doesn’t take anything away from him though. James leaves with dignity and respect of all of his fellow contestants who recognize what a strong competitor and incredible person he is. I almost had the privilege of meeting him the last time I was in Houston (it was actually HIM that played an integral role in getting the ChilantroHTX food truck to literally drive up to Christine’s door!). Unfortunately, he ended up being busy that night, but I look forward to seeing him and congratulating him the next time I’m in Houston. He has started his own Houston-based hot sauce company called Bravado Spice, and regularly does pop-ups/cooking classes via his spin-off, Brave Kitchen. Be sure to follow him on Facebook and Twitter! Can’t wait to see what this talented guy does next.

As always, let me know your thoughts down below. I’d love to hear what you have to say.

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