MasterChef recap: Return of the Champions
It hasn’t been an easy road for the Masterchef hopefuls this season, and that’s why it’s so upsetting to see a home cook go home with a seemingly simple basket of ingredients. But then again, sometimes the simplest things can be the most difficult to execute. The Top 5 episode was all about the ingredients, though the use of ingredients was varied for both rounds; the mystery box challenge saw the contestants using only one ingredient each (with the help of the MasterChef staple box of course), to create an elevated dish, while the pressure test gave home cooks several ingredients as per usual but brought different challenges as well as the return of MasterChef favorites.
In the mystery box challenge, the simple ingredients given to the home cooks didn’t seem all that difficult. But then again, the staple box they’re allowed to use for their dish is obviously much more limited than getting access to that embarrassment of riches the show calls a pantry. Stephen gets a portobello mushroom, but clearly any vegetable could get this guy going, and his rival Derrick received blue cheese, which apparently he hates. Nick gets a giant brick of chocolate I wish I could be eating right now, Katrina gets a pear, and Claudia finishes out the mystery box ingredients with a tomato. It’s clear throughout the cooking time period that Claudia will take the win in this challenge from her confidence with the ingredient to her flirting with Gordon Ramsey (who says he’s way too old for her). The tomato is just such a perfect ingredient for Claudia’s Hispanic cooking sensibilities and she’s seems to be rising higher and higher in the competition over the past few weeks, so her eventual win is really a no-brainer.
Gordon and the judges end up choosing Claudia, Derrick, and Stephen’s dishes as the top three for the challenge and give great remarks to each cook. But despite having a great flavor and richness to his soft pretzel bites with blue cheese, Derrick’s dish needs a little more color. And Stephen’s mushroom sandwich/mushroom done five ways isn’t quite flavored to perfection to beat Claudia’s Tomato Napoleon, which looks like some fancy meal I could only afford to eat in my dreams (oh, the writer’s life). Claudia becomes the first of our Top 4 contestants and gets another bonus: She gets to choose 20 ingredients for a basket that one of her competitors will have to cook with in the pressure test. The other three boxes are chosen by the previous three MasterChef winners.
As the competitors and the judges remark, it really is lovely to have the alums back in the MasterChef kitchen, especially Luca and the beyond endearing Christine Hu. All three chefs, including last season’s winner, Courtney, share their professional triumphs and then the themes of their boxes. Christine chooses 20 ingredients with her signature Asian flare, Luca fills his 20-ingredient basket with the requisite Italian entree necessities and of course Courtney makes a ridiculously complicated baking box, complete with edible flowers and items with names eventual box recipient Derrick (and probably many viewers like myself) has never heard before tonight.
Claudia intelligently assigns out the boxes, giving Katrina the seemingly easy Italian basket, Stephen gets the Asian ingredient basket (perfect to trip up someone who’s known for overdoing his flavor profiles), Derrick takes on Courtney’s baking basket, and Nick gets Claudia’s Hispanic basket, which surprisingly worries the guy. Apparently even though he’s from San Diego, Nick never cooks Mexican food. And with that, my respect for the home cook goes out the window for the 20 minutes he’s cooking and prepping his dish. Nick is clearly looking the weakest out of the bunch during the cooking period (Derrick thinks Nick will “go down in a big Mexican fire”), while Stephen and Derrick look way too confident. Stephen wants to cook pork and shrimp and tofu and lions and tigers and bears, but Christine gives him some smart advice from the balcony to tone down the dish. He decides to keep trying to do it all, but he does simplify much more than expected.
Meanwhile Katrina is looking worse for wear while cooking her veal scallopini, so Graham decides to jump in and boost her confidence a little. When Graham leaves, Katrina looks a little less flustered — but the judges are right in thinking that she’s lost her spark a little while cooking. By the end of the cooking period, the home cook going home isn’t all that predictable, but considering Derrick’s overconfidence, I figured he was a safe bet to land in the bottom two. No one but Courtney could pick up a Courtney baking basket with that much cockiness and actually triumph as much as Derrick seemed to think he would. Plus, I don’t know about you guys but his lack of sleeves and his constant rockstar comparisons are really starting to bug me. I’m not sure how it’s taken this long for me to get to this point since both of these things are part of his signature personality, but I’m here now and I’m annoyed.
NEXT: The eliminated chef gets a huge consolation prize
But enough complaining, the final round of judging begins. First up is Mr. No-Sleeve Rocker himself. He’s prepared a Chocolate and Darjeeling Pot De Creme that apparently is more sophisticated in its title than its execution. Gordon and Christina both say that the flavor is nice but that the pot de creme itself is too dense and thick. The mascarpone he added to the top of the pot de creme could have been put to better use in the dessert itself and Gordon says that he doesn’t receive any points for creativity with the dish or the plating. Gordon calls the dish much too safe and Christina remarks that while it is good, it might not be good enough to get into the Top 4.
Next up is Nick, who is over the moon about his dish, despite not having any ideas on what to cook for what looked to be the first minutes or so of his 60-minute cooking period. He’s made a beautiful plate of chorizo mussels steamed in pineapple juice with lime cilantro rice and poblano sauce, and the judges are rightfully obsessed with the dish. Gordon calls it incredible and Graham calls the dish “beautifully sexy in the best possible way.” Gordon and Christina look a little weirded out by the statement, but Graham backs it up with another true compliment: It’s the best dish Nick has ever cooked.
Stephen steps up with his Asian explosion of flavors in a Deconstructed Pho that has shrimp atop the bowl and the pork and tofu on the side. It’s beautiful to look at and Christina tells Stephen he actually found a way to reign in the dish. Graham says there’s great seasoning all around, but that the broth is a bit difficult to eat and could have done well with adding some of the ingredients on the side into the actual broth.
Finally it’s Katrina’s turn and her veal scallopini with fettuccine, broccolini, and mushrooms is a letdown. The homemade pasta is prepared beautifully as is the broccolini, but the veal is, as Gordon puts it, “literally minutes away from being back in the field.” Gordon states that veal is too chewy and doesn’t even taste like protein but the rest of the dish is great. “So near yet so far,” he tells Katrina.
In the end, Nick wins best dish and Derrick and Katrina are in the bottom. Katrina gets sent packing, but Gordon doesn’t let her leave without some huge, incredible news. Gordon first tells Katrina that she’s been an amazing student who cooks from her heart, and that he’d love to see her in France because he knows what it did for his own cooking ability and passion. He then reveals that when she’s ready and able to come to France, he will arrange for Katrina to spend time at his two restaurants there as his guest. Gordon’s gooey center comes forth as he literally wants to help Katrina re-affirm her love and dream of cooking. “You’ve got no reason ever for the rest of your life to lack in confidence, because you have been a shining star,” Gordon tells her as she cries in joy, hugs the judges, and points to Nick as her pick for MasterChef winner.
I’ve never been so uplifted by a reality competition contestant getting kicked off a show in my life. And with that, I ask you MasterChef fans: Who wants to see where Katrina is in her life after her France trip? Is Nick worthy of truly being in the running for MasterChef Champion? Should Gordon Ramsey hand out trips to France to unsuspecting viewers after they’ve proven they can cook for him in their own homes like some kind of British, curmudgeon with a heart of gold Ed McMahon? Ooh! New show idea to pitch to Fox ASAP.