Another day, another TV reality show with a contestant from Dallas. This season’s MasterChef, on Monday and Tuesday nights on Fox, features two local heroes: Jennie Kelley, a singer with Polyphonic Spree, and travel writer Ben Starr. Intrepid intern, Harrison Smith, is all over the show like hot on fries. Each week he will file his take on the show. Go:
Is Gordon Ramsay a raging lunatic? I’m not sure—this is reality TV, after all, so who can really say who the nice guy is or who the mean-tempered award-winner is in real life. Maybe all the cursing and screaming he’s done in eight seasons of Hell’s Kitchen and now two seasons of MasterChef is just an act put on by a kind Scottish soul who loves to cook.
Or maybe he’s just an…
(Oh, you have to jump.)
Ramsay hosts MasterChef in its second season with restaurateur Joe Bastianica, a well-dressed Italian-American, and Chef Graham Elliot. The Fox show searches for the best amateur chef in America by whittling down 100 contestants to 36 on the basis of their “signature dish,” and then having these 36 compete against each other to see who earns a quarter of a million dollars and, of course, the title of Master Chef.
It’s a fun show, and sure it’s a reality TV show but it’s a reality TV show about food (that won’t bring you to tears and guilt you into going to the gym). Not to mention it’s a show with two contestants from Dallas and another from Houston, all of whom are some of the nicest people on the show.
So let’s hear it for Jennie Kelley, who quit her job to pursue cooking and has sung with Polyphonic Spree, and for Ben Starr, a travel writer who does a damn fine Julia Child impersonation. Ben, it turns out, is actually from Lewisville, though for national TV audiences that equates to “Ben from Dallas.” Way to make the suburbs proud Ben. And of course we can’t forget Alvin Schultz, native Texan and Houston son.
Monday night, Jennie, Ben, and Alvin competed in mystery box and elimination challenges with 15 other contestants. Required to create a dish using only the “mystery box” ingredients of salmon, strawberries, fennel, white asparagus, ricotta cheese, fingerling potatoes, pistachios, balsamic vinegar, fresh dill, and puff pastry. The 18 contestants were given an hour to impress the judges with their dishes and hope to get picked as one of the top three finalist. The top winner “wins” a significant advantage in the elimination challenge.
Jennie’s dish of savory salmon tart with caramelized fennel and shaved asparagus (a pizza, essentially) was chosen as one of the top three, though it ultimately lost to Christian Collins’ “restaurant-ready” pistachio-crusted salmon with balsamic reduction. Christian, a Gloucester fisherman, was given the opportunity to select a European cuisine—Spanish, French, or British—as the basis for the elimination challenge.
The fisherman chose French and was given immunity from elimination. From his perch, he was able to watch the 17 other contestants master the art of French cooking as well as Julia Child ever did. After being called out as having the worst dish of the mystery box challenge, Ben never got any redemption here: the camera never spent much time on him, and I don’t think they even showed his dish.
Jennie came up way short with a trio of soups. The cream of mushroom, French onion, and zucchini were an attempt at summoning her memories of French café culture, but the onions weren’t cooked properly and the dish came across as a threesome of under-seasoned, greasy purées. Jennie barely survived elimination. Not so for Angel Moore-Soukkay, who didn’t finish her tart, and Mark Raffaeli, who committed the unforgivable culinary sin of putting raw flour in his mashed potatoes. They both had to “turn in their aprons” and leave the show. As Gordon would say, off you go, off you go.
On the Tuesday night show, the 16 remaining contestants were split into two teams under Derrick Prince and Max Kramer, the chefs with the two best dishes of the French elimination challenge. Derrick cooked homemade chorizo for his signature dish earlier in the show—what’s not to like about a guy who makes his own Mexican food, even if he is from New York state? And Max, well, Max is 18 years old and fits the stuck-up arrogant rich-kid profile perfectly.
Jennie and Ben were chosen to be on Derrick’s team, and the two teams were given two and a half hours of prep to serve a five-course meal to 350 guests at the Los Angeles Times Building cafeteria. Each team had to prepare a soup, salad, pizza, “special entrée,” and dessert. Derrick’s team made a near-disastrous lasagna and Max’s team made burgers. Ben made the (winning) pizza and worked on the dessert while Jennie helped make the (WINNING) watermelon salad.
Derrick’s team won on the basis of their dessert of berries and cream, beating the chocolate chip cookie made by Max’s team. The losing team was then sent into the kitchen for an elimination challenge. Each person was given an hour to cook the perfect ravioli with spinach and ricotta filling. No tomato sauce—just simple butter. Contestant Jennifer Behm made the mistake of putting raw nutmeg inside the pasta but Tony Scruggs, a 51-year old truck driver from Grant Park, IL was was given the boot for his dismal effort.
I’ll be back next week with another recap. Let’s home they toss in an enchilada challenge. Go Dallas.