I have been watching Masterchef and on a lark (actually on a day when I had been sampling a new bourbon that was very, very tasty) I filled out an application. I was on the fence about going but I did eventually decide to do so. Here’s what happened:
Minus 14 days – I don’t know why people think Gordon Ramsey is such a dick. I mean I get that he plays it up on Hell’s kitchen, but on Masterchef he seems positively fuzzy. Like that craggy drinking buddy you’ve been pals with through his divorce and the aftermath who is now with a much better person and is so much nicer now that he’s happy. And there’s no “meanwhile, back at the house…” bullshit that you get in Hell’s Kitchen. Oh, hey, they’re doing a casting in San Diego, let’s look at the application. Okay, I can do this. Done. Hah.
Now, what would I make if I actually went down there? The casting runs from 10am until 8pm … so whatever you bring has to be able to sit for up to 8 hours before it’s going to be tasted and you have to be able to make it in time to head downtown. So, barring actually taking a cooking station down and preparing the food on site when you are called up, it has to be something that can sit for a while. Cakes can sit for a while. I made a wicked good cake for Sabine’s birthday last year and one of the dads offered to pay me to make the same cake for his wife’s birthday so I could make that. It even looks pretty. I think that’s a f***ing great idea.
Minus 5 days – Got a call from a random number in LA and totally let it go to voicemail. It turns out that it’s the casting people asking me what specific 2 hour timeframe would work best for me. Oh! That changes everything. As I am about to call them back I get an email asking the same thing and I choose the 2-4pm slot. Mostly because my wife has a hair appointment and this will mean that she doesn’t have to take my daughter with her.
Still not sure I will actually show up on the actual day.
Minus one day (AKA Friday) – Head to the store to buy butter, cream, etc. The logic being that I might as well make the cake since we haven’t had a cake in a few weeks and even if I don’t go to the casting, it’s not like a chocolate cake is going to go to waste. As I am loading the supplies into the car, the phone rings and it’s another random LA number. As I have an arm full of groceries including eggs, they go to voicemail. When I get in the car I play the message and it turns out it was Graham (one of the judges) wishing me luck and letting me know that if I have any questions I can call them. How nice!
Get home, unpack the groceries, get out the other things I already had, get started on the cake. I am making a two layered cake, the first layer is a flourless chocolate cake, the second is a layer of chocolate mousse. It’s topped with a raspberry, chocolate glaze (recipe to follow in a separate post). The first step is to make the flourless chocolate cake and the mousse layer then let it set overnight in the freezer. Then you make the glaze the following day and dump that on the cake and top it with raspberries. It’s very pretty, very rich and very decadent.
Casting Day! – Wake up, get breakfast out of the way, and start on the glaze. Wife goes off for haircut, comes back with very nice hair, I leave for the Westin on Broadway at 1:00 with my cooler full of cake and whipped cream (who doesn’t like a nice sweetened vanilla whipped cream with their super rich chocolate cake).
1:30 – I arrive at the casting. I fill out the next batch of paperwork (10 pages of Have you ever been arrested? No. Have you ever been in a physical altercation with another person where the police got involved? No. Have you ever been to culinary school? No. Have you ever been a professional cook? No. …) On the top of the pile is the “Judging Sheet” which contains a small area for judging food and a large area for comments about personality. This is a bad sign. I am number 211. Number 210 and I find a spot to sit on the floor and we begin to wait.
1:55 – The next group goes in and the last number in the group is 165. I ask Eric (the Casting Wrangler) how long they are taking and he informs me that they have been going through each group of 18 in about 15 minutes. By this logic I am anticipating that I will be out of there around 3:15 or so. I strike up a conversation with #210 (Josh) and discover that he is attending culinary school (which actually disqualifies him from competing but I do not bring this up). He is a very nice guy who has a Great Dane, an 8 year old daughter, spent 10 years in the Marine Corps, lives in North County, and keeps leaving every few minutes to have a cigarette. He has made mushroom stuffed tomatoes. I tell him I’ve made a cake and he says he does not know how to bake anything and is actually afraid of baking.
2:30 – My wife and daughter show up to offer me some encouragement. Daughter gets bored. They leave after a half hour. I do not blame them. In point of fact I am slightly jealous.
3:00 – #175 is pacing around and starting to freak us out. When I first walked in he was standing there in his chef pants and a black t-shirt next to a commercial heating box with a bag on top. Every 15 minutes or so he has added something else to his ensemble starting with a baseball cap, followed by an american flag bandana around his neck, a chef’s apron, a knife case slung over his back, etc. and he is getting increasingly twitchy … kind of like an overweight MMA fighter psyching himself up for battle or a meth addict who’s been sitting in a room for 4 hours and is starting to get freaked out by the spiders crawling on his arms. People visibly shy away from him when he pulls the knife block out of his bag and sets it on top of his hot box. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief when he goes off to terrify the judging staff.
4:00 – For some reason, the amount of time with each group suddenly jumped to a half hour to 45 minutes after I walked in. Josh and I are considering the pros and cons of eating our food because we are starving. Someone has brought a crock pot and they open it to unleash what smells like steamed broccoli that has been sitting in the refrigerator for at least a month. Josh and I agree that someone needs to kill that person and throw their shit in the toilet. We are no longer hungry though.
5:00 – Josh and I are finally up against the wall in the 18 seats that are reserved for the next group. The woman sitting next to me is named Michelle, she is a very attractive Thai woman around 28 years old. The Thai part she told me, the 28 part I guessed at, the attractive woman part was blatantly apparent.
Also notable in our group of 18 are the following people:
A very obese woman in a super low cut tank top exposing an expansive tattoo of nothing discernible. She has brought poke (raw tuna).
A large man with a proliffic beard in a trucker cap who is with his 6 children and his wife and has been talking loudly about hunting and fishing for several hours. As we are sitting down the tattoo lady asks him what he made and he says shrimp which she points out might not be such a good idea since it has been sitting out (Hello, kettle? This is the pot. You’re black.) and he replies that he thought about that and he just gave some to his kids and none of them got sick (yet). That should be a fun ride home … His wife smiles the smile of the blissfully ignorant.
Another large man who has apparently spent the past 5 hours sweating or visiting the swimming pool. He is beat red, breathing heavily in spite of the faact that he has been sitting still for 3+ hours. I pray that I do not have to give him CPR.
Eric is standing perplexed staring at a scrap of paper in his hand and counting the people in the “next group” chairs. Something is fucked up and it’s messing with his mind. He counts us about 5 times before someone points out that one of the people sitting in the “next group” chairs is a girlfriend who has to hold a guy’s hand until the very moment when he leaves the room. Eric is visibly removed, ejects suportive girlfriend and replaces her with a real contestant.
5:30 – We file into the Judging Room and are split into two groups of 9. Each group will have one food judge and one “personality” judge. There is also one mug shot taker for each group, a clean up person, and a security guard. Having seen #175, no one questions why there is a security guard.
We are given 3 minutes to plate our food. I take 45 seconds. Poke woman barely manages to put a piece of lettuce and two tablespoons of raw chopped fish on what appears to be a saucer. The judging begins. While we are waiting, I mention to Michelle that I noticed her application on the table says she is an engineer. She smiles and says “Yes.” I ask her what kind of engineer and she says she is not actually an engineer but she works with technical illustrators who create parts catalogs at a Boeing subsidiary. Wondering why she didn’t say that instead of engineer, I mention that it must be interesting to see all various bits and pieces that actually go into a plane. She says “Yes.” and stares at me waiting for the next question. I ask her what she has made and she says “Thai beef salad” and stares at me waiting for the next question. I am relieved when Josh interrupts and asks if he can have a taste of my cake before we go.
Food judge approaches and takes a bite of the cake with some whipped cream. She asks how I made the glaze and I tell her but I forget about adding the raspberry juice at the beginning and have to back track to explain that I added the juice at the beginning of the process. I internally berate myself for being so stupid. She takes another bite before she leaves which I take as a good sign as she hadn’t even tried anyone else’s food. My tactical calculation of bringing chocolate seems to have paid off. I can hear Personality judge talking to Michelle and she asks why she brought Thai beef salad. Michelle says it is because she was jealous when her boyfriend got to go to Thailand and so she bought a Thai cookbook and this seemed like a good option. She stares blankly waiting for the next question.
Personality judge comes to me and suddenly she has a fork. Her first question, with fork hovering over my cake is “Do you mind? It’s been a long day and I could use some chocolate.” I am a little taken aback and I say “No problem, that’s what it’s there for.” thinking “AHA! I may actually be an evil genius!” She asks why I brought this cake and I give her my story about how this was the cake I made for my daughter’s birthday last year and since then I have made it a few more times and tweaked the recipe and I’m very proud of it and my daughter’s friend’s dad actually gave me a case of beer to make the same cake for his wife’s birthday. She asks me what I would do with the money if I won and I explain that I would like to buy an apple orchard and start making hard cider. I am slightly annoyed because that was one of the questions on the second page of the application she is holding in her hand. We chat for a bit more and she goes on to Josh.
Michelle asks if she can try my cake and I say sure. I ask if I can try her Thai beef salad and she says sure. I take a bite and it tastes like I just dumped an entire shaker of salt into my mouth. Josh takes a bite of her salad and I hope my face did not do what his face did because he looked like he was going to spit it across the room. I try Josh’s tomato and it’s pretty good. He appologizes and says it’s better fresh out of the oven. I can see that but it was still pretty tasty.
The mug shot guy appears out of nowhere and asks if I would mind if he tried my cake. No problem! This seems like a good sign. The personality judge from the other group comes over and asks if she can have a try. No problem. The table cleaning woman comes over with a fork, followed by the picture taking women from the other group followed by the food taster from the other group followed by a repeat visit from both my picture taking guy and the security guard. I am now down to a tiny little 1” sliver of cake and I’m starting to wonder if I’m going to need to whip out the backup piece of cake I have in the cooler. I assume this is a good sign.
Poke woman is last in our group and she is explaining to Personality judge that if she won she would take the prize money and open a restaraunt because she wants to win a James Beard award and if they don’t give her one then they are just stupid. All the while she is flailing her arms around demonstratively and nearly hitting the woman next to her. At some point she has donned a red apron and pulled out an 8” chef’s knife. Security guard looks as unnerved as the rest of us. I notice that Personality judge is standing a little farther back from the table whereas when she was at our end she was sitting on the table.
6:00 – The casting staff confers in the middle of the room. Personality judge finally walks forward with a small stack of applications. She starts to read out numbers: in our group she choses Michelle and Poke woman. Food judge had not tried either of their dishes. The rest of us walk into the hall with the dawning realization that we did not need to actually bring food, we simply had to be a loudmouth crazy person with 200 square feet of tattoos or a hot young girl. One guy who had brought a full on dinner complete with expensive red wine walks out shaking his head.
Josh and I shake hands, I wish him luck in school. I get in my car and head home with a newfound feeling of disappointment washing over me. I wasn’t really disappointed that I wasn’t chosen, more that the reason I wasn’t chosen had absolutely nothing to do with the alleged premise of the “Largest Cooking Competition on the Planet”.
Monday – After mulling this for two days, I have come to the following conclusion: One of the main reasons that I decided to try out for this was to get some honest feedback from total strangers about the food I make. While I appreciate the compliments I get from friends and family more than they will ever know, there is always that little voice in the back of one’s head that says “Do they really like the food or are they just being polite because they live next door and they are afraid I might not let them park their kid’s car in front of our house when she comes back from college?” I suppose I sort of got that a little bit when they casting staff kept coming by and eating my cake, but then there’s a little voice in the back of my head saying “Yeah, but it was late in the day and everyone else brought savory dishes so they were probably just sick and tired of oversalted food and wanted something sweet.”
And so, my take away from this is that I am going to grow my beard back and try again next year. Maybe with a pie. Or salted caramels. Or take a camp stove and make chicken with mustard sauce and sautéed asparagus.