The Balcony of Safety is invaded by food critics

By Maggie Fremont
September 08, 2016 at 12:55 AM EDT
Greg Gayne/Fox
S7 E16
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America, say hello to your Final Five! Okay, Shaun, Tanorria, Brandi, Dan, and David aren’t as sparkly as that other Final Five — MasterChef could obviously benefit from more back handsprings — but you can’t deny there’s some real talent in this group. With a cool $250,000 and the MasterChef title just a handful of challenges away, that talent is coming out in full force. In an underwhelming, okay-if-we-have-to twist, Gordon announces that not two, but three of our home cooks will participate in the finale this season, making these next two eliminations especially tension-filled.

To ease our pain, Gordon and Christina welcome a new guest judge: Chef Richard Blais. Blais is always a delight, and our home cooks — especially Shaun — appropriately fangirl as the chef of the evening relays the secret to success in the kitchen (which, if I remember correctly, is wearing purple-framed glasses). Just kidding! It was probably something really insightful about authorship of your food, but I was distracted by said glasses.

Richard Blais isn’t the only guest to walk through those magical kitchen doors: The cooks are surprised by a visit from their families, here to introduce the next challenge. Shaun, Tanorria, and Dan are treated to some big ol’ mom hugs, while Brandi and David get some kid snuggles. It’s so heartwarming it almost makes you forget that two of these chefs are hours away from having their dreams completely dashed. Oh, television.

MYSTERY BOX

First up is a Mystery Box Challenge. Each chef is given one ingredient handpicked by their visiting family member to showcase in a restaurant-quality dish. Better hope your family knows you as well as you think they do, huh?

For the most part, the five cooks are happy with their individual ingredients: Dan is given blackberries, Brandi gets corn on the cob, Tanorria has peaches, David will be cooking with cherries, and Shaun is bestowed the gift of parmesan reggiano. After 60 minutes of cook time — in which Chef Richard Blais made one dish with carrots six ways — the judges select a top three to inspect further.

Dan Paustian, Charlotte, NC

Blackberry Turnover with Blackberry-Mint Salad and Vanilla Whipped Cream

Dan’s sweet mom gave her son some blackberries to work with, and Dan decides to turn the fresh fruit into a delightful pastry dish. He’s had success with turnovers before, so why not? Once again, the judges are fans of the flaky pastry and delicious filling. Gordon thinks Dan’s made his mom proud with this dish and that’s all that matters, right?

Tanorria Askew, Chattanooga, TN

Grilled Peach Shortcake with Peach Caramel Sauce and Peach-Basil Salsa

The judges call Tanorria forward, believing her dish shows off an impressive arsenal of cooking techniques. It tastes good, too! Christina loves the caramel sauce and Gordon is pleased to see one of his home cooks grilling peaches. It’s always a good day when you impress Gordon Ramsay. The only real gripe is the shortcake is underbaked. Otherwise, it’s another great southern dish from Tanorria.

Shaun O’Neal, Las Vegas, NV

Egg Yolk & Ricotta Ravioli with Sage Cream Sauce, Fried Sage and Parmesan Crisp

It’s nice to see how moved Shaun is to cook in front of his mom. The guy likes to swing his ego around the kitchen, but deep down, he’s a softie. There’s also good reason for his ego: He’s a great cook. As a big Richard Blais fan, Shaun’s focus is on impressing the guest judge; he does that and then some. Both Richard and Gordon give the Vegas DJ rave reviews. They find the raviolis perfectly cooked and the cream sauce delicious and rich, as cream sauce is meant to be.

Once again, it’s no real surprise Shaun is the big winner here. He’s won the Mystery Box Challenge three times now, but I’ll allow it because he’s so endearing with his mom by his side cheering him on. Shaun is officially in the Top Four, and he’ll receive a fun, albeit dramatic, advantage over his fellow contestants.

NEXT: Who’s next to join Shaun in the Top Four?

ELIMINATION CHALLENGE

The remaining chefs are informed that they’re going from cooking with a single star ingredient to having full access to the MasterChef Pantry. They’re allowed to select any 20 ingredients they want to create the perfect meal for the judges. If it sounds too easy for a MasterChef challenge, that’s because it is. The twist: Once the chefs return with their shopping baskets filled to the brim with their favorite ingredients, Dan, Tanorria, David, and Brandi are informed they won’t actually be cooking with the ingredients they’ve selected… They’ll be forced to cook using the ingredients from someone else’s basket. That’s devious and wonderful, isn’t it? Even better: Shaun gets to select how the baskets are moved around. The other four cooks are not enthused. Here’s how it pans out:

David Williams, Las Vegas, NV

Smoked Trout Endive Cups with Kohlrabi Greens and Rice

David’s wicked temper emerges once again, this time worse than ever. David was set on impressing the judges with some homemade pasta, but when he’s handed Dan’s basket full of incoherent Asian-based ingredients and a package of smoked trout, the guy flips out. It’s unsettling to watch as he curses out Shaun for giving him the basket and Dan for selecting ingredients with which David can do very little. He stages a walkout, but Gordon runs after him and convinces him to keep cooking. To this I ask: Why? If David is going to act like this every time something doesn’t go his way, let him leave. He apologizes for his outburst and attributes his actions to seeing his daughter earlier, but it (and his smoked-trout dish, let’s be honest) leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Gordon tells David to cut the crap, and I’ve never loved our host more.

Tanorria Askew, Chattanooga, TN

Lamb Chops with Celery Root Puree and Carrot Salad

Tanorria is handed Brandi’s basket and is more or less happy with her new ingredients. The judges applaud her presentation as well as the flavors. The lamb is cooked just right, the carrots add a needed sweetness, and the puree is perfectly smooth. Christina also digs how Tanorria was able to take someone else’s ingredients and make a dish that is so obviously Tanorria.

Brandi Mudd, Irvington, KY

Crab Ravioli with Alfredo Sauce and Crab Salad

Shaun gives Brandi David’s basket full of high-end ingredients, thinking this true home cook won’t be able to handle it. Shaun is very wrong. Brandi’s ravioli is perfectly made, according to Richard, and the sauce is “like Morgan Freeman’s voice,” meaning it’s rich and decadent. Oh, Blais, won’t you stay with us forever?

Dan Paustian, Charlotte, NC

Deconstructed Jambalaya with Cilantro Rice, Creamed Corn and Shrimp

Before the ingredient switch, Tanorria announced she’d be making a deconstructed jambalaya with her 20 ingredients, so when Dan is handed her basket, he follows suit. This decision does not please the judges. They want to see Dan use his imagination a bit more and cook something meaningful to him. On top of that gripe, Gordon also chides Dan for his overcooked and bland rice, and a gremolata that doesn’t make much sense on the plate.

The judges want a second helping of Brandi’s ravioli and thus declare her the winner of this elimination challenge. She and Tanorria join Shaun in the Top Four, leaving Dan and David in the bottom two. Ultimately, the judges send our resident Frat Guy Dan home, but I’m baffled. Sure, this is a cooking competition, but shouldn’t David be held accountable for his temper tantrums?

NEXT: The most intimidating challenge yet

TEAM CHALLENGE

With just four home cooks left, the judges announce the most intimidating challenge yet: The Top Four will be pairing off and cooking one spectacular entree for a room full of the country’s biggest food critics. Even Gordon is a little bit scared. The 17 critics march themselves over the Balcony of Safety to flash some intimidating mugs at the cooks. The balcony is safe no more.

As the last challenge winner, Brandi gets to select her cooking partner and goes with Shaun. That’s a stacked team right there. David and Tanorria know they’ll have to bring it (and Tanorria will have to keep an eye on David’s temper) if they want to win over the critics.

Red Team: David & Tanorria

Duck Breast with Ras Al Hanout, Brussels Sprout Slaw and Polenta Cake

David and Tanorria plan to bombard the critics with refinement, and set out to give them a plate with the best seared duck they’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, David falters when in charge of the protein, and as they get ready to plate they find most of their duck breast is extremely rare. They salvage what they can and are able to get all of their plates out. Some critics are big fans of the duck; others, saddled with the undercooked pieces, not so much. The reviews are all over the place, but overall our judges seem pleased with the quality of the dish.

Blue Team: Brandi & Shaun

Hazelnut Crusted Halibut with Meyer Lemon Buerre Blanc and Asparagus Salad

Much to the chagrin of Gordon Ramsay, Brandi and Shaun decide it’s time to go big. Halibut is a fickle fish, but when done correctly, it’s a hit with the foodie crowd. Brandi and Shaun promise Gordon they’ll be getting this one right. Again, our judges enjoy the dish, but the critics have some cons to express: Although most cuts of the halibut look perfectly done, a few critics complain their fish is overcooked, and one doesn’t buy into the “play on purple” Brandi and Shaun were so excited about when plating their purple puree as a series of dots. On MasterChef, as in life, you can’t win them all.

Except that, in the end, Brandi and Shaun do win and earn their spots in the big finale. After losing Terry (still not over it), the season seemed to be headed for a Brandi and Shaun showdown, so this is no real surprise. The only question remaining is who will be joining these two as they duke it out for kitchen glory. To fill that final spot, Tanorria and David head to the Pressure Test.

PRESSURE TEST

The Pressure Test du jour: Pork three ways. So, yeah, not the easiest challenge to face. Each judge presents David and Tanorria with a pork dish they’ll have to recreate: Christina asks for pork tenderloin with a harissa spice, Richard gives them the difficult braised pork belly, and Gordon reveals a dish with a double pork chop sitting on a bed of bok choy. Our cooks have 75 minutes to make all three dishes, including any garnishes, and place them in front of the judges. The biggest threat to a win here is timing.

Or, you know, not cooking your pork well.

As the judges taste all three of David and Tanorria’s plates, a pattern emerges: David only focused on the protein and misses several additional elements on all three of his plates, but his pork is outstanding. Tanorria recreates the three dishes exactly, but her pork is subpar for the most part. Christina gives the tenderloin round to David and Richard calls Tanorria the winner for the pork belly, which means the deciding vote is left to Gordon — who can’t deny David’s pork chop was perfectly cooked. David wins round three (and the final spot in the MasterChef finale) and Tanorria is sent home.

We’re left with the Vegas boys and our Kentucky gal going head-to-head-to-head for the big prize. Which, I’m told, is not actually the gift of having Gordon Ramsay shower you with confetti, but something of monetary value. To each their own, I guess. See you at the finale! 

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