#MasterChef Memoirs Pt. 10: First Team Challenge and Pressure Test

“1st Team Challenge” 2.18.11: We have a 6:00am call time this morning… There is a lot of complaining and coffee drinking going on from the cast. “All in a day’s work” is still my attitude, there’s no way that the producers will be able to break my work ethic. We are driven into downtown LA, somewhere near the Staples Center. Alejandra, our cast local and urban geography specialist is throwing our possibilities. We know today will be the first team challenge with yesterday’s winners, Derrick and Max, picking the teams. We end up in a small meeting room in the LA Times building. After a couple hours of waiting we are escorted to the cafeteria where we find the three judges.

Sure enough Derrick and Max are captains. I’m picked in the middle of the pack by Derrick, captain of the red team. Our team consists of Derrick, Adrian, Christina, Suzy, Erryn, Jennie, Ben Starr, and myself… I feel good about the team. I know it’s not my turn to be the leading voice so I’m fine being the workhorse. I’m also fine stepping up as a leader if (and only if) needed.


Both teams are given a quick tour of the service area and prep kitchen. There’s a lot of equipment in there that I’ve never used…and I’ve used some unusual equipment! The judges tell us we’ll have just two and a half hours to prep a cafeteria style lunch for 350 dinners. Service will last two hours- Wait, how many hundred diners? WTF?! I’ve never cooked for more than 20 people… and I had almost a whole day of prep in that! And we’re not making an entree, side, dessert…both teams will be making a signature salad, soup du jour, brick oven pizza, daily special entree with side, and dessert! Time to do work!

Our team quickly comes up with what I think is a smart strategy: Our entree will be a lasagna with garlic bread, relatively simple prep, and we can just keep firing pans out during service. Our pizza will be a vegetarian white pizza with fresh spinach to appeal to the health conscious dinners from the People’s Republic of California. Our soup will be a simple chicken-orzo, and Jennie pitches a watermelon feta salad with candied pecans. We take an easy route on dessert- a simple fruit salad with fresh whipped cream. We think the menu will have simple prep and easy service. Everyone’s biggest fear is running out of food.


I quickly take a prep role with the soup. I start to break down what seems like an endless mountain of celery and carrots. I have no idea what 350 portions of soup looks like. I don’t even know if I’ve eaten 350 portions of soup in my life… … … okay, maybe I have, but I’ve certainly never MADE 350 portions of soup. I just keep cutting veggies. After a vegetable eternity, Erryn brings me two trays of chicken to dice. I’ve gotten a blister on my right hand from the knife at this point…this is ridiculous!

Before long, and after getting my face ripped off by Chef Ramsay a couple of times, service starts. We divide up the team with Ben and I on the pizza station, Erryn will serve the soup, Jennie will serve her salad, Christine is on desserts, and Adrian will run the special. Derrick will be a floater and Suzy will stay in the kitchen. Sounds like a good plan, but Chef Ramsay insists that pizza doesn’t require two people. Ben and I know this is a trap, Ben has a pizza oven he built himself in his back yard, and I’ve tossed my share of pies… pizza is definitely a two man job. Our team sticks to our plan.

Half way through service we are getting our asses kicked. We’re losing bad in the special, and our soup is getting beat seven ways to Sunday. But, we’re winning in Pizza. Ben Starr will tell you that’s because of me tossing the dough and creating a show, but he manned that oven for the full two hours. Pies were coming out really nice. I actually was more of a secondary floater during service. I’d get a few pizzas assembled for Ben, then run around doing other things, checking on people, and return to Ben to make more pizzas. Whoever is responsible for the pizza win, it feels good to beat Giuseppe. He’s trying to make, fire, and serve the pizzas all by himself…He’s good, but not that good.


At the end of what seems like an epic service, Chef Ramsay calls us up for judgment…I’m not so confident. Alejandra’s chili spanks our soup and the blue team starts with a 70 point lead…we also loose in daily special. Damn! We hold our win in Pizza, then the good news… we also win dessert and salad. The challenge is decided on the cumulative total, it’s going to be close… Then the totals are shown. Blue team: 373, Red Team: 397 WE WIN!!! We’re ecstatic! I was expecting a loss, but I’ll take a win! no pressure test for us!

“Pressure Test” 2.19.11: The view is great from the balcony! Because of the red team’s win in the team challenge yesterday, we’re exempt from elimination and after a short greeting, the judges send us up to the balcony to watch the day’s pressure test.


Yesterday’s blue team is now wearing black aprons, signifying that one of them will be leaving the competition. I see one of Joe’s cue cards stating that today’s challenge will be making ravioli. Nice! But then Ramsay goes on to say that they are taking the creative license away. Everyone in the pressure test will make a simple spinach and ricotta ravioli with a simple butter sauce. No hiding behind fancy sauces or fillings, this pressure test will be all about technique. Finding the perfect balance of filling to pasta, making sure the filling isn’t too wet, making sure each ravioli is perfectly sealed…an interesting twist.

As the pressure tests starts, it’s easy to critique from the balcony with no weight on my shoulders. Lots of people lose their head under the pressure of possibly going home, they’re making mistakes they didn’t in the ravioli cooking class from the other day. Specifically they are making mistakes, but all we can do is watch and comment amongst ourselves. My friend Tracy looks good, she’s calm and collected. It feels good to think that during our cooking classes I was something of a ravioli mentor to her, sharing my recipe and technique (which was better than the chef-instructors:) I am happy that she will most likely make it through this test, I’d be honored to cook against her in the finals.


The hour moves slowly when you’re not cooking. I hope to myself that I get more opportunities to get used to the view from the balcony. After time is up we are once again taken to lunch while the crew takes beauty shots of the plates.

On to judging…the usual highs and lows. At the end of it all, Tony is sent home. Then one of the few genuine feel good moments of the show. Graham explains what a pleasure it has been to watch Tony’s food progress- from the open call auditions in Chicago all the way up till now. He then goes on to offer Tony a stage at one of his restaurants. WOW! What an opportunity for Tony. He’s one of the most passionate guys here, he hopes to open a small chalk board restaurant in the future. I hope that learning from Graham and the publicity of the show will place him in a kitchen soon.

At the end of judging Chef Ramsay looks up at the balcony and asks us if we learned anything watching today. “Yes Chef!” we all reply. He then looks at me and asks,

“Alvin, if you had to cook today, would you have deconstructed the ravioli? Nice, I’m the deconstruction guy…

“No Chef, I would have completely constructed it!” I reply.

“Would you have maybe put the spinach under the plate and wrapped the spoon in pasta, or turned the sauce into a powder?” Chef Ramsay asks.

“I think I’m planning on staying far away from deconstruction for a while…”

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