“Lift carefully and watch your fingers,” Gordon Ramsay advises the MasterChef contestants as they begin their mystery box challenge tonight. Away come the boxes to reveal mounds of moving crab, and out come the shrieks from those home cooks who have never worked with live shellfish. Among them, Hetal, an Indian who is vegetarian, and Olivia, the fashion stylist who says all crustaceans remind her of “giant bugs and aliens. So gross.”
Hetal dives right in and uses the blue crab to begin a tomato curry and rice. Olivia is not so quick to start. She flags Gordon down and peppers him with questions such as, “where is the head?” and, “where is the meat?” Gordon is supremely calm and helps her out. With that, and with a little encouragement from Hetal, Olivia apologizes to the crab before putting him in the pot.
We learn there are two gents from Louisiana in the contest, both of whom are huge seafood aficionados. Charlie, from New Orleans, tells Christina Tosi he eats crab three times a week, laughing, “usually I stink for the rest of the day.” His pan-seared blue crab cake and hollandaise sauce will be going up against Jesse, a Baton Rouge native, and his crab dumplings and fish stock soup with a side salad.
The three standout dishes are called to the front. The first is Amanda’s stunning trio of crab cakes, with a mango and arugula salad and avocado cream sauce. She opted for the dungeness crab and her cakes look freaking amazing; soft, moist, and overflowing with tender meat. Gordon declares them delicious, but maybe she could’ve had a bit more apple to back up the sweetness.
The second hopeful is Olivia, who’s struggled a bit up to now. “Everything I’ve made has been ugly, and I’m excited to show people I’m a stylist for a reason. Tonight, I took something disgusting and made it gorgeous,” she tells us. Indeed she has. Her crab cake benedict with a roasted asparagus bridge atop looks marvelous. I would inhale this for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Graham, Gordon, and Christina agree, declaring it her best work yet and you can actually see Olivia’s self esteem soar.
The final top dish is Jesse’s dumpling soup with a small pile of salad, which looks bland, all yellow with a sprinkle of green. The soup looks bland, too; just beige on beige. However, Christina quickly tastes pork fat in the soup, leading Jesse to reveal the first ingredient was peppercorn bacon. I now love him and this soup. As does Christina. “The bacon was a very smart choice,” she praises. The salad was good, she thinks, but he could’ve forgone it as the soup stands on its own. Gordon’s turn to taste and he spices things up, asking Jesse, “Do you have a girlfriend?” He does. “And was the first thing you gave her crabs?” Gordon retorts. Juvenile sexually-transmitted disease jokes aside, Gordo loves the taste and tells Jesse he must cook on this level every time he’s in the kitchen.
The winner is an elated Jesse. “I have all the power. I’m like the Wizard of Oz right now,” he grins. His advantage for winning won’t be revealed in the pantry, but right out in the open. The fate of his fellow contestants lies in his hands, Gordon says. “Who would you send home right now?” asks Graham. Wait, they’re just letting this guy kick people out?! Jesse smiles and rubs his palms together gleefully like a Dr. Evil about to feed someone to a pack of sharks with lasers. Jesse chooses Stephen, but Stephen doesn’t have to leave. The judges are just curious. Lame.
Graham brings out a box and announces that there’s a special, awe-inspiring ingredient inside. “A gift from mother nature.” The box is either gold-lined or back light, as there’s a bright glow that is cast over the faces of the judges. “It’s like a scene out of Pulp Fiction with this box,” says Derrick, my favorite rocker contestant who owns nary a sleeved shirt. “Stephen, what do you think is in this box?” Gordon inquires. “My f—ing destiny,” comes the answer.
No one will know what the ingredient is until they’re in the pantry, so here comes the twist. If Jesse hands a contestant a regular shopping basket, they’ll be using the ingredient to craft a savory dish; if it’s a basket with a bow, a sweet dish. The judges tap the box again and say that it could be game over for those who need to use this mystery thing to make dessert.
NEXT: Basketful of surprises [pagebreak]
Jesse starts doling out baskets, giving the sweet baskets to those he thinks are weak. This includes Veronica, Olivia, Tommy, Katrina, and Justin. Eh? Who’s Justin? He’s an 18-year-old high school kid who’s “not into partying and getting wasted. I’m preparing for my future,” the youngest contestant tells us. Stephen marches up. “Listen, you’re going to give me the basket that I want or you will become my mission in life,” he sternly tells Jesse. I understand this is a threat by his tone, but I’m not sure “you will become my mission in life” is as ominous as Stephen means it to be. “I want savory. Give it to me, please.” Jesse obliges, and everyone sets off to see the secret ingredient in the pantry. It’s (drumroll, please)… corn. Corn? Seriously? Corn’s not that hard to make into a dessert. C’mon.
Stephen’s over the moon, you see, because he has “a deep, loving relationship with corn,” though it’s unclear what that means. Do Stephen and corn go on long walks together, sharing their hopes and dreams? Does corn whisper sweet nothings in Stephen’s ear? Does corn slowly strip out of its husk while Stephen watches intently from the bed? “This is like corn heaven,” exclaims Claudia. “Or hell,” murmurs Charlie. Usually sweets are Veronica’s thing, but her brain doesn’t want to go down the path of corn and dessert “because those two don’t go together,” she sighs.
Baskets overflowing, the hour to cook begins. Veronica’s going to make corn creme brulee, Claudia is making sweet corn tamales, and Justin’s doing corn profiteroles. Graham and Christina taste some of Justin’s batter and Christina remarks that it’s sometimes helpful to add a bit of salt or acidity to help everything along. Justin interrupts to tell her there’s a teaspoon of salt in there. Taken aback, Christina snaps, “I understand that, but we tasted it, and this is my most polite way of telling you it doesn’t have enough salt.” Justin stares at her blankly. “I feel like you’re very shut down,” she prods. He still says nothing. “Is today your last day? Is this your Hail Mary?” Graham asks. “I have a good idea what I’m doing,” he finally answers. Apparently not. Easy, fella. They’re just trying to help you.
Taste time, and Stephen’s up first. Let’s see if his deep, loving relationship is evident in his corn tamale with avocado and corn salsa. It’s not the prettiest plate I’ve seen, but Gordon likes it. “This has been your best effort so far,” Gordon says. Impressive. Next comes grandma Veronica, who is feeling confident in her corn creme brulee with caramel corn. It looks spectacular. Christina’s looking for that nice crack through the sugar shell, and it’s there, which is a good start. However, we get an odd “hmmmm” from Christina as she digs in with her spoon. Veronica’s mouth, smothered with bright pink lipstick, falls open. “It’s not done well at all. This is a fail,” Christina says. “Too much fat, cooked too high, too quickly. It doesn’t taste like it’s celebrating corn.” Veronica thanks her and retreats, tail between her legs. “My brain is writing my swan song,” she glumly says.
Shelly’s five-spiced shrimp tacos with a roasted corn guacamole and corn vinaigrette is a resounding hit, as is Claudia’s sweet corn tamale with Mexican chocolate sauce. Tommy offers a sweet corn panna cotta that is nearly the color of his bright shirt, and plated artfully. He also hits a homerun.
Up comes Justin and his profiteroles with sweet creamed corn and candy corn caramel. Gordon only needs half a bite. “Too sweet and cooked poorly, but more importantly: Was that canned corn in the center?” It was. “Did you not think the best flavor would come from fresh corn?” “Uh, likely,” he responds as Gordon just glares before walking away.
Last up, Charlie with a dish he grew up with: corn grits and barbecue shrimp. “Your grits give me the s–ts,” Gordon quips. They’re undercooked and bland, and the corn is not the star. The poor guy tries to defend himself a bit, bringing up his humble beginnings and roots, but Gordon says time is not his friend. Charlie’s got a soft, gentle way about him that just makes me want to root for him and to watch him get down on himself gives me a little pang of “Aww” for the guy.
Elimination time. The two winners are announced first: Shelly and Stephen. Now onto the worst dishes. No surprise as Veronica, Charlie, and Justin are summoned forth. “Charlie, you’re a 25-year-old air conditioning technician from New Orleans, but your dish was not good,” Christina begins. (I have to say it’s rather odd to include the man’s profession at this juncture. It seems like a slight. No one said “Jesse, you’re a petroleum landman from Baton Rouge, but boy, you cook a helluva soup.”) Luckily, Charlie’s wasn’t the worst dish, so it’s now the oldest contestant versus the youngest. Veronica and Justin shuffle together. As Jesse predicted, they both struggled, so Gordon tosses it up to Jesse in the rafters, asking him who should leave. “I’m shocked Justin used canned corn. I think he knows he should go home,” Jesse says. Gordon agrees and Justin is dismissed.
Who do you think had the best dish tonight? Would you watch a show where it’s just Stephen trying to find love with three bushels of corn? Why didn’t we see more of Katrina?