That Time I Tried Out For Masterchef And What I Learned From It
OH. MY. GOD. I have been dying to write this post. Dying! But I was contractually obligated to keep mum about it until after the show was cast. I think I’m in the clear though by now.
Anyways, I did the Masterchef open call this year and it was quite interesting indeed. Please, take a second to wipe off the spit coffee from your electronic device.
Much better. As I was saying, I have no television and I barely watch Hulu these days, but even I knew about this show. The concept of Masterchef is simple and formulaic. The show starts off with 100 amateur cooks who are chosen nationwide to compete for the title of “Masterchef” awarded by Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliott. The contestants are flown out to the cesspool of the nation, Los Angeles, where the pool is cut to 50 in the first episode, then down to 16 in the following. Those 16 contestants will then, in true reality show style, be subjected to a variety of well edited cooking challenges and well slung barbs until one person is left. The winner gets a quarter million dollars and a cookbook deal.
For anyone who knows me, this type of thing is probably the last thing that anyone would ever expect me to do. I hate reality television. Some may argue that I also have a tentative grasp on reality. But I do like money, and I would punt a baby seal across the tundra to have my own book published.
Regardless, the whole experience was rather fascinating to witness. I was surrounded by hundreds of people who loved to cook and all who had some aspiration of being somebody, myself included. It was amazing to be surrounded by people who had filtered in from small towns and smaller cities for the chance to stand in line and have their two minutes of fame. Everyone had aspirations that they were going to make the cut and were willing to wait the hours in the line, in the cold for their pastry brush with greatness, Joe Bastanich, who was attending casting that Saturday.
All of us standing out there in the cold were sleep deprived and overexcited. We had all been forewarned that the doors opened at 10 am, but it was suggested that we arrive early (doors opened at seven!) to ensure that we would get in and make a great impression first. I assumed nobody would have been batshit enough to stand in near freezing weather for hours, that I was going to be parking it in front of the location first in line. I was totally wrong. By the time I arrived at 7:05 in the morning, the line already snaked down the entrance, through the atrium between the cross streets and threatened to spill over onto the street below. I queued up, silently wished that I hadn’t chosen to drink that second cup of coffee with no bathroom in sight, and got to filling out my twelve page application.
I carefully listed my favorite famous cooking personalities (McGee and Escoffier), my six personal references, my cooking experience and what I might not want disclosed on national television. I listed my emergency contacts, my tattoos, checked boxes that indicated that I had no health insurance. But my eyes were opened when I had to answer what my “Signature Dishes” were.
“Signature Dishes”? That question is when I suspected that I may not be a great fit for this show, but that I may have started thinking like a cook. I don’t think in terms of signature dishes from standard recipes. I don’t have a famous pie passed down for generations or a stew that my mother made. I think about food in terms of taste, texture, season and personal interest. Lamely, I listed omelets and a couple other things that I liked to eat rather than my grandmother’s famous brisket and something copied from the Food Network.
Eventually things got underway that morning. After many false starts and insincere “I know you’re going to win!” statements between linemates, we were instructed by the tiniest of tiny adorable producers that we were to walk down the street cheering wildly, then up the street cheering wildly before we’d get our chance to wow the judges. Dutifully, the hundreds of people waiting paraded up and down 52nd street cheering as if they had won the Publisher’s Clearing House award while Joe Bastianich was positioned behind a plexiglas podium.
Fortunately for me, that three hours in line was about to pay off. I was in the first round of people being judged that morning, which was going to be sweet relief considering I had two hours of sleep and a painfully full bladder. The first round of contestants were herded in to an upstairs staging area with banks of tables. We were given three minutes to plate and present our dishes for the professional tasters and casting agents. (Joe, thankfully, did not have to subject himself to hundreds of bites of questionable and cold dishes. He just made a quick trip around the tables to look and comment on the foods before him.)
Once the fog of outdoors had lifted, I got a look at my tablefellows. To my left, a woman with a bold personality and haircolor to match who insisted that the lumpy red pepper coulis on her wilted onion pie was pronounced “Kohl-liss” (adamantly). To my right, a very sweet lady who trekked all the way from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania that day with her dish of unattractive chicken parm. I admired her effort and saw that she made her dish with love, but I knew that she didn’t have a rat’s chance of going on.
My dish? A roasted root vegetable salad with oyster mushrooms, dressed sunflower shoots and a bing cherry gastrique. I did my research before creating the dish. I represented my background from the Pacific Northwest with the cherries and mushrooms as well as where I am now with the locally sourced root vegetables. I went seasonal and above all- I heeded the warning that there would be no possibility that I would be able to reheat a dish once I got to the show. Salad, obviously, was one of the only logical options that I could see to make if I wanted to win..
The second thing that I noticed was that I was one of the few who had assembled everything on the plate in three minutes rather than coming with my dish intact. There were so many beautiful dishes on the table flanking me on the right and left, but I noticed a great majority of them had already come pre-assembled. Lettuce wilted. Sauces congealed. The chill from outside did nothing for my counterparts but worked extremely well in my favor. I knew I had this in the bag.
I was correct in my assumptions, I made the cut on the first round. My heart leapt into my throat. What would happen if I got into the top 100? What about my apartment, my dog, the time off from work? Would someone be curious enough to dredge up stupid crap from the Myspace days or remember me from high school if I were on television? I assumed I would not win, but the immediate threat of change scared me half to death. This fear, however, worked to my advantage. I was running so high on adrenaline that when I reached the second round that my personality was way more energetic and robust than I am in real life. I could have sold you the Brooklyn Bridge at that moment, or a Peugot.
The handful of us who were escorted upstairs to meet producers, casting agents and Joe Bastianich himself again. It was agony. Could I be “on” enough to wow them? Would I say the right things, look the right way? Nervously I waited, thankfully I was placed last in my group. As we were grilled up and down the line, I carefully observed everyone’s personality and potential downfalls. I noted to have clear answers and a smile on my face. I pulled out almost all of my obscure knowledge on cooking to the forefront of my mind, just in case. I shied away from controversial questions and tried to make myself look more unique and personable to the decision makers in front of me. It was an excruciating ten minutes that dragged on for ten hours. They verbally wined us and dined us, and then told the group that they would call us.
Did they? No. I never got a call back. However, I found this to be a great relief and an amazing reassurance in the end. I am clearly not the type who would enjoy being in front of a camera for weeks on end making fancy sounding timbales for drama. At best for me, it would have been an interesting observation on how television works. But the experience did show me that I’m going somewhere, that I’m not nearly as mediocre of a cook as I though I was. I pay attention to detail. I think through my process. I pay attention to quality and I’m curious about new things. I think outside of the cooking box.
So although I may not be on my way to a cookbook of my own right now, I think I won in my mind and for that I’m amazingly thankful.