Once, twice, three times a potato

By Maggie Fremont
August 24, 2016 at 10:20 PM EDT
Greg Gayne/Fox
S7 E12
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When MasterChef offers up a double helping of episodes that promises to be packed with intense challenges, one does not imagine that it’ll be a two-hour weepfest. Yet, here we are, weeping. Over the course of “5 Star Food” and “Hot Potato” we lose two charming, extremely talented cooks, and no I’m not over it yet. I’ll never be over it. Since doctors say it’s always best to eat your feelings, let’s dive right into the food.

MYSTERY BOX CHALLENGE

Top Chef winner Kevin Sbraga is joining Gordon Ramsay and Christina Tosi as guest judge in the MasterChef kitchen, and with him comes the Mystery Box that Vegas-man Shaun has been waiting for since day one: a high-end ingredient box. The judges want to push the cheftestants out of their comfort zones, and what better way to do so than giving them ingredients that most of the home cooks have never worked with before? We’ve got lamb belly, garlic buds, baby octopus, vintage red wine, and so much more.

The cooks (and Kevin, who wants to show off his fine dining skills) have 60 minutes to use those ingredients and whip up an upscale meal for the judges. Christina wonders if this type of challenge might be too much, too soon, but this is the Top 9 — Gordon wants to see some risk taken in the kitchen. The judges call their top three dishes forward for a closer look:

David Williams, Las Vegas, NV

Tandoori Black Cod With Red Quinoa and Chickpea Puree

David is in a mood today. He hasn’t been able to fully show off his skills, and he’s feeling less and less confident that he should even be in this competition. Seriously, the guy looks he’s doing a permanent Charlie Brown sad walk. When any of the judges try to talk to him, he hangs his head in disappointment. Gordon tells the guy to get a grip. It must work at least a little bit because David puts forth a delicious upscale fish dish. The judges love the presentation and find the fish to be cooked perfectly. David’s so overwhelmed by the reception, he starts to cry. Upscale food can do that to a person.

Shaun O’Neale, Las Vegas, NV

Lamb Belly and Black Cod With Balsamic Reduction and Tomatoes

This is Shaun’s challenge to lose, and everyone knows it — including the judges. Shaun is clearly in his element here, and his double-protein dish looks beautiful. He is a front runner for a reason, and he demonstrates it here: Both the lamb and cod are cooked to perfection. Gordon’s surprised the combination of lamb belly and black cod works so well, but Shaun compares the unlikely mix to his work as a DJ and by some miracle, Gordon doesn’t roll his eyes on camera. We all know what you’re thinking though, sir.

Brandi Mudd, Irvington, KY

Tandoori Black Cod With Octopus and Stuffed Squash Blossoms

Brandi is just as surprised as anyone to be standing next to the Vegas boys in an upscale cooking challenge. She’s a country cook and proud of it. Gordon teases her for living in a town with just one restaurant, but he can’t hide that he’s impressed with Brandi’s cod dish. All the judges rave over her hummus-stuffed squash blossoms and the nice cook on her fish. Wouldn’t it be great to see the Kentucky girl take this one?

Unfortunately, the challenge goes as expected, and Shaun’s refined dish wins over the judges. Such is life, I guess. If nothing else, the Mystery Box Challenge was enough to bring David out of his funk, which is a good thing because that dude was bringing me down.

THE ELIMINATION TEST

Thanks to his lamb belly and cod one-two punch, Shaun is awarded immunity in the elimination challenge and he’ll get to pick what each of the remaining contestants are cooking tonight. The star ingredient of the challenge is salmon, however there’s a twist: Half of the contestants will be cooking with a big ol’ fresh salmon, which they’ll have to butcher, and the other half will have to figure out a way to make a restaurant-quality meal from canned salmon. It’s upscale versus very, very low scale.

Shaun gets to pick which chef gets what. He’s not messing around, either. Shaun wants to take out some of his big competition, mainly: Terry, Tanorria, and Brandi. He gives the fresh salmon to the four cooks he believes will have the most trouble butchering such a big fish: Eric, Nathan, Katie, and Brandi. This leaves some nice little cans of salmon for Dan, David, Tanorria, and Terry. The strategy is a little devious, but smart. And it pays off in the end.

After 60 minutes of cooking time, the judges taste all eight dishes to come up with their top two plates of the night:

Brandi Mudd, Irvington, KY

Seared Salmon With Apricot Balsamic Glaze, Spinach Puree, and Peach Slaw

Brandi’s having a top-notch evening. Gordon’s warns the cooks of one simple truth: Do not underestimate Brandi Mudd. Shaun does, believing she’s inexperienced with fresh fish, and Brandi knows it. It only pushes her harder, and in the end, she puts forth a delicious salmon dish. The judges rave about the thoughtfulness put into the different textures and flavors, and the fish is cooked perfectly. Shaun’s plans to trip up Brandi are unsuccessful, and our country girl easily slides into the Top 8.

David Williams, Las Vegas, NV

Salmon Risotto With Asparagus, Peas, Fresh Tarragon, and Crème Fraîche

Well look-y here: David also finds himself in the top crop of dishes for a second time this evening. The judges were very apprehensive about David’s risotto since he cooked it in a pressure cooker, rather than the traditional, time-consuming stirring. Gordon is in disbelief that it worked, but he can’t deny that the risotto is delicious, and Kevin’s happy to see that the salmon is still the star of the dish. If the funk wasn’t washed off before, it must certainly be now.

NEXT: Well, this is a worst-case scenario

And then there’s the bad news: Two of the best cooks in the competition find themselves in the bottom. One of them will be going home. Everyone will be really sad about it.

Terry Mueller, Long Island, NY

Salmon Cakes With Dill Aioli and Baked Salmon Crostini

Oh, Terry. Terry, Terry, Terry. Delightful human, expert blueberry pie maker, we have perhaps found your one weakness and it is canned salmon. His dish is, surprisingly, a bit of a disaster. His salmon cakes are dry, his use of thyme is a complete misstep, and the whole thing is of subpar quality. According to Christina, his dill sauce saves him a little, but overall, the judges are shocked to see such a bad dish from such a great cook. You know what, Terry? You’re too good for canned salmon, anyway!

Tanorria Askew, Chattanooga, TN

Salmon Croquette With Salmon Quenelle, Crispy Potato, and Lemon Dijon Sauce

Tanorria, too, falters when handed canned salmon. Gordon looks just as dismayed as I feel when he gets Tanorria’s dish in front of him. To him, it looks terrible and tastes just as bad. It’s undercooked and gooey inside; she made some big technical mistakes. Christina applauds the thought put into having different textures on the plate, but generally agrees with Gordon’s assessment: It’s not good.

How did we get here, people? Terry and Tanorria as our bottom two? Shaun’s strategy is smart and it pays off for him, but it still feels unfair to let cooks who’ve had minimal missteps go. If you’re wondering why I’m stalling with the elimination reveal it’s because I just don’t know if I can physically type this next sentence: The judges send Terry home. TERRY. Terry is the Scarecrow to my Dorothy, and I shall miss him most of all.

Now that we’ve all had time to take one of our own Charlie Brown sad walks and process the loss of that gentle giant, it’s time to get back to the kitchen. Hour two of this MasterChef extravaganza is all skills test, all the time. You know it’s going to be an intense 60 minutes because the judges start revealing the forthcoming challenge to us while bathed in single spotlights throughout the kitchen. They mean business, you guys.

It’s a great challenge: The Top 8 will be put through three skills tests in row, all having to do with potatoes. After the first test, four chefs will be sent to safety. Those four will compete against one another and we’ll be left with a bottom two. The two remaining chefs will battle head-to-head and the loser will be eliminated. Potatoes and drama, people. That’s what MasterChef is all about.

ROUND ONE: FRENCH FRIES

Our eight cooks have 20 minutes to make the best batch of french fries possible. It’s a test of knife skills — the potatoes need to be cut evenly in length and thickness — as well as using the fryer. It’s all about execution. In the end, some cooks do much, much better than others. Brandi (seriously, get yours, Brandi) is the standout of the bunch, and Gordon calls her cooking a masterclass in french fries. She’s quickly sent to the Balcony of Safety along with David, Shaun, and a surprise choice: Nathan. That leaves Katie (whose fries were completely raw inside), Eric, Tanorria, and Dan to duke it out in the next round.

ROUND TWO: MASHED POTATOES

As the cooks progress through each round, they’re being asked to cook more challenging potato dishes. Now, the remaining four have to whip up the creamiest, smoothest bowl of mashed potatoes they’ve ever made. Tanorria thinks she’s a lock to win this round, but according to the judges, none of the four cooks present a perfect helping of mashed potatoes. All of them leave lumps in their small servings. The judges have to make a cut, though, and they vote based on flavors. Tanorria and Dan make it through and join their friends upstairs. Katie, whose potatoes were incredibly gritty (she thought they were good, so what do the esteemed judges know?), and Eric, who can’t seem to get out of his own head tonight, are going on to the third and final round.

ROUND THREE: GNOCCHI

Gordon and Co. have left the most difficult potato challenge for last: potato gnocchi in a brown butter sage sauce. The trick is in making the perfect potato dough, and it seems like both Katie and Eric have no issues doing so. They do, however, both make major technical mistakes before handing over their plates to the judges. Katie, for seemingly no reason at all, sprinkles raw sage on her dish after plating her gnocchi. This is a no-no. Raw sage is bitter and will mess with the overall taste. All three judges agree that her dumplings are cooked to perfection, but she needs more sauce and they’re hoping her addition of raw sage was just a moment of panic.

Eric has the perfect amount of sauce, but his mistake may be even graver than Katie’s sage problem: He undercooks his gnocchi. The dumplings are obviously too big, and the inside isn’t cooked all the way through. They needed just a few more seconds to get that perfect consistency. The judges have a tough time with this decision, but decide that Eric’s mistake with the star ingredient is far worse than eating raw sage. Eric is going home. Is it just me or is everyone crying as the lovely fireman leaves the kitchen? Gordon and Christina look as though they immediately regret this decision.

Losing Terry and Eric in one night is tough to stomach. But seriously, TERRY? It’s still anyone’s game at this point, but I’m with Eric, who after being eliminated picked Brandi as his choice for the next MasterChef winner. Here’s hoping the country girl can bring this one home. 

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