“The Pre-Egg Challenge” 2.11.11: Last season, the first cooking challenge was to create a dish featuring a single egg. There’s lots of speculation on what this year’s version will be. Potato and chicken are popular theories. On the morning of the 11th, we are taken in small groups to a “food safety” class. We arrive near the Beverley Center and the Casting PA’s walk us to a small cooking school. Sandee is there! We are cooking! It turns out that this “Food Safety” course is a impromptu “informal” cooking challenge!
After a five minute safety briefing, we are given access to a small spread of beautiful produce, a carton of eggs, and basic kitchen equipment. Sandee says, “Make sure eggs are the star of your dish. Your 45 minutes starts NOW!”
The mood is friendly and relaxed. I’m unusually calm in the kitchen, it feels more like making breakfast than a MasterChef Challenge. KC makes a simple but beautiful looking asparagus omelet.
Giuseppe is 2nd done with a crostini of prosciutto and onion topped with a poached egg. I calmly work on my dish – A single egg parmesan soufflé with sautéed asparagus and a butter poached egg yolk. As I go to put my soufflé into the oven – the door won’t close! it stays cracked open! Ryan, one of the casting PA’s stands against the oven holding it closed for me…he’s a lifesaver! I go to work on the garnishes.
Fifteen minutes later, I’m topping my perfectly risen soufflé with asparagus tips, lemon zest, and the butter poached yolk. The dish comes out perfectly! As Sandee snaps the photo (no doubt to show the producers) it starts to deflate. She digs in with a fork and the yolk burst…”Look at that! Isn’t that BEAUTIFUL?” she says.
This is not the souffle that I made that day… but ever since the Presure test between Whitney and Sharone in Season 1 I had been practicing them regularly. I make them with a whisk (no stand mixer) and completely by eye… my souffle game is tight.
I’ll take that as a compliment! Suzy makes a curried hollandaise Benedict. Other dishes include a more traditional Benedict, Tracy’s “Confused Benedict”, and Kyle’s Chiliquiles. All of our plates are photographed and tasted by Sandee and Jane- we get to split the left overs. I feel really good about my dish, lots of technique and perfect execution.
Later in the day there are 16 of us in the cookbook library that the casting department has set up for us. Eight of us have been there since we got back from the cooking session…In my opinion, it shows who really wants to be here and who wants to learn. The first challenge is tomorrow- no pressure!
“The First Challenge” 2.12.11: We’re all expecting a basic skills challenge today. Last season it was peeling, slicing, dicing onions. This year, there’s lots of speculation – breaking down chicken(s), fish, slicing and dicing maripoix, peeling and chopping potatoes, who knows. My money is on maripoix…a race to fill up cups. Based on last season’s result, making this challenge a race is going to end in a blood bath…not sure if the producers are ready for that.
Before we can go on set, wardrobe brings out our aprons – with our names freshly embroidered on them! (Some people do not have embroidered aprons so Jo, the wardrobe lady, writes their name with a red marker…good enough for the camera I guess. We are also given P-touch labels on our backs so that the judges will know our names…funny.
We are in cast holding for a couple of hours before we are lined up to move. “Cast moving” I yell out, we are then led down a hall – the same hall we walked down individually to present our signature dishes.
The set where we cooked and waited for four days is completely struck — all that remains is the MasterChef door. It’s a lot easier to walk through this time:) We make the hard right turn to where the judges are, we walk down to meet them. Shooting this first walk in scene takes about four tries for some reason.
The judges are standing in front of 37 mini-stations, each with a global knife stuck into a boos block. There are also a few different global knives to choose from: pairing, santoku, etc… Chef Ramsay starts on about how we’ve all cooked our signature dish but now we’re stripping everything away…”getting right down to the core”. Then, a large truck backs up and dumps literally TONS of apples. Chef Ramsay gives us a quick demo- peeling an apple with the paring knife, slicing the sides off, and turning the apple into perfect 3/16″ slices: impressive.
At this time, I am thinking to myself, “I don’t even like apples” I haven’t peeled an apple since I was 10…I either eat them whole or use them skin on. The last time I actually peeled an apple was when my family made apple sauce from the apples in our back yard. After an entire afternoon of peeling, cutting, and cooking apples, we found out that they were crab apples! This challenge will definitely be out of my comfort zone…
We are told to gather our apples, and choose our stations. After a mad dash to the stations we are assigned stations by Anna – the main Associate Director. She positions us for camera blocking purposes. Next, we are read the rules by the rules guy and everyone gives “two hands up”. Next, we break for lunch…wait I thought we were going to slice apples?!
During lunch we are “On Ice”. This means that contestants are not allowed to speak to each other, it’s done to preserve reactions for “Reality TV” and to prevent co-strategizing. These moments are actually quite relaxing for me. I put headphones on and listen to my ritual iPod Music: Gloriosa Symphonic poem for Band, and my “MasterChef” playlist (rap songs). The first calms and focuses me, then it’s all about getting pumped up. I like being “on ice” because I can get mentally focused without feeling anti-social.
After lunch we are escorted as a group to our “random” stations, game time… I remind myself, “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast”. My biggest fear is cutting myself with those insanely sharp global knives. Not 30 seconds into the challenge somebody calls for the medic- I’m not sure who, but my fears are definitely real… All I know is that cutting yourself will suck for many reasons: 1st the obvious negative attention, 2nd lost time while the medic bandages you up (everyone else will still be peeling and slicing), and 3rd you’ll have to wear a glove which means decreased dexterity. I remind myself not to cut myself.
30 minutes in(a few people have “passed” at this point, Chef Ramsay puts his hand on my back, he says, “Do not stop Alvin, please, do not stop” He and Chef Elliot go through my product and waste bowls silently…”Keep going” Chef Ramsay says… I keep going.
At about an hour in, I feel Chef Ramsay’s hand on my shoulder again. This time he says, “Alvin, stop slicing.” I carefully set down my apple and even more carefully set down my knife (now would NOT be the time to cut myself). Again he and Chef Elliot are inspecting my product and waste bowls. Chef Ramsay takes several of my apple slices and lays them on the cutting board, he says they are very consistent and asks Graham how my waste bowl looks. He pulls a peel, “Very thin”, he says. “There’s almost no waste, this is exactly what we are looking for”. Chef Ramsay says, “Alvin, you are through to the next round”. I thank both chefs and run up to the winners circle where I’m greeted by the other contestants that have made it.
For the next hour, we cheer on our fellow contestants from the stand. My internal leader comes out, exclaiming, “a year ago we were all watching MasterChef…and that we’ve come too far for an apple to end our journey”. As each of the contestants make it, they are welcomed onto the winners platform.
Two hours into the apple challenge, Tracy is one of the last two left. She makes it and beats out Joey. He seems really nice, but Tracy and I have bonded over a couple of dinners and time in the library, so I am happy for her.
“Food Safety” 2.13.11: The producers tell us that we need to become food safe certified for later challenges. So early Sunday morning everyone gathers in the library for a food safety course taught by a guy in a suit. He seems more concerned with making sure we all pass. He tells us it’s illegal to serve meat that hasn’t been cooked to 155F internal… I write in my notes “How to overcook your food”. We take a test and the class is over. Many of us spend the rest of the afternoon in the library studying. We’re just about to get ready for dinner at this awesome Mexican place, when the casting PA’s come in and tell us about a cooking class they somehow forgot about… We quickly gear up and load into the vans…here we go again.
“Sausage fest” 2.13.11: We return to the cooking school where we did the impromptu egg challenge and as we enter, I notice that there are sausage grinders at each station. I hope there’s venison hiding around here somewhere! There isn’t any venison, but my team of Tracy, Army Aaron, Peanut (Esther), Blonde Jennifer, and Alejandra work well together. Our Asian inspired sausage is one of the best of the night. We also work well as a team, everyone takes a turn learning all of the processes.
I can’t wait to see what people bring to the first REAL Challenge tomorrow.
“1st cooking challenge” 2.14.11: Chef Ramsay tells us that we’ve shown excellence in our signature dishes, and shown proficiency when we stripped everything down to the core…but how will we handle something with a few more moving parts? Cue the Mac truck backing up…again?! This one has a lift gate…I am hoping for potatoes, although those don’t have too many moving parts. The lift gate drops and the door opens.
There is fog pouring out of the truck- is it a refrigeration truck? Are we breaking down a whole animal? Chef taps the lift gate… Now he’s making clucking sounds…then the star of the show appears. A chicken slowly makes its way to Chef Ramsay (you’d think it would know better!).
This is no regular chicken, I can’t imagine the last time it saw a farm. This is a movie star chicken, perfectly white with a bright red comb. This is like the Bragelina of chickens. Chefs Ramsay and Elliot talk to us about how much chicken America eats and how if we’re going to be in this industry, we’d better do something amazing with chicken. Chef Ramsay asks us individually what we’re thinking… “Alvin, what are you thinking?” he says. “Beer Can Chicken, Chef” I respond. Army Aaron says, “damn you!” I know then I need to beat him to the pantry.
When Chef Ramsay starts time on our hour to cook “One STUNNING dish featuring chicken” I bolt to the pantry…My speed surprises the other contestants, I explain later and in interviews that from my shooting background, I have a good grasp when there is somewhere else I need to be. The pantry is well stocked, but missing a few things…no doubt so that the producers can see who will improvise and who will not know when to ditch a plan.
The hour flies by in the kitchen. Having to fight our way around the pantry eats up about 10 minutes and not having the equipment pantry sucks (no Sous Vide for me today!) I have to improvise a steamer using a colander and pot…it works okay, but I lose quite a bit of steam due to my foil top. When I pull the chicken and put it on the grill pan, it looks good. I cut into the hind quarter and it’s not done…pink at the bone. I Slice the breast and it’s PERFECT. Breast meat it is! I taste my potato/corn salad and its spot on, as is my pickled watermelon rind. The plate looks beautiful. I am happy and confident.
My group is called up first…Kyle is next to me and we are the last two out of our six to be judged. Kyle is RIPPED!… earlier in the week somebody described him as “a young Schwarzenegger”. I look over at him and his hands are shaking under his plate. I know that it’s not too heavy for him, it’s nerves. As the judges critique him, I notice my hands shaking. Now would be a really bad time to drop the dish. I carefully stretch to regain circulation and calm my nerves…now it’s my turn. Chef Ramsay’s feedback is mostly positive, he says the final dusting of raw BBQ rub was a mistake. Chef Elliot likes the dish, but recommends that next time I cook the potatoes in chicken fat. Joe doesn’t say much but calls the dish, “Whimsical”. WTF does that mean?! Is that supposed to be Constructive Criticism!?
Chef Ramsay calls Max (the 18 year old from Daniel Boulud’s restraunt) and I to step forward first…We’re through to the next round he says! YES! MasterChef Kitchen here we come! We sit on the sidelines and watch the rest of the chicken judging…Some of it is brutal, damn you American TV and your desire to see people fail! Again Tracy is last through…I feel for her, she’s had a very emotional couple of days.
“The Top 18″ 2.14.11: Feels INCREDIBLE! It is still surreal when the judges are talking to YOU. They say that Suzy Singh’s Butter Chicken is the best dish of the day…funny it didn’t seem like it was when they were tasting it. We’re headed to the MasterChef Kitchen! Chef Ramsay gives us a heartfelt speech motivating us to rise the level of competition. We take a group photo and he comes by and shakes everyone’s hand.
In no particular order, here are the top 18:
Links are to each contestant’s Facebook Fan Page… go click “LIKE” on all of them!
Thank you to all that have supported me this far and those that will continue supporting me going forward. For more cooking content, photos, videos, and fun you can also follow me on Twitter #teamalvin! and visit my Facebook Fan Site.
Join me during every episode at SWAYE Bar (3730 Washington Avenue, 77007) for the official Houston Viewing Party… New signature menu items every week and great drink specials. Come chat and enjoy the show! Party starts at 5:00pm every day MasterChef is on!
Next week: We go to the MASTERCHEF kitchen for the first time! Tune into FOX to see what happens!