MasterChef Christine Ha's Recap: Dessert (and Defeat) Is Bittersweet
by Christine Ha
We are down to the final 4 on MasterChef. Since Luca won the previous challenge, he will select a teammate, leaving the other two cooks to form their own team by default. During this time last season, I, too, was in Luca’s position, and I selected Becky, putting Josh and Frank together on the opposing team. We were tasked to make a three-course dinner for, not only the judges, but three additional kings of the culinary world: Guy Savoy, Daniel Boulud, and Alain Ducasse. Although it was one of the most stressful meals Becky and I’d ever pulled off on MasterChef, it was by far one of the most amazing challenges of all time. I mean, who in this world can say they’ve cooked for Gordon, Joe, Graham, Guy, Daniel, and Alain? And actually receive a few compliments from them? I get chills just thinking about it.
But back to this season … Luca chooses Natasha to be on his team, leaving Jessie and Krissi a duo. This challenge is similar to that of my season: both teams have to create an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert. Except, unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?) for this season’s final four, they don’t have Chefs Savoy, Boulud, and Ducasse glaring at them from across the table. Another difference is the teams only get ingredients from a pre-selected mystery box (whereas Becky and I were allowed to outsource anything we desired).
Luca and Natasha serve: (1) butter-poached lobster, trout, fried oyster with avocado puree and mango sauce; (2) rack of lamb with a red wine jus, parsnip puree, roasted beets; and (3) strawberry tart with vanilla pastry cream and a strawberry compote. Jessie and Krissi make: (1) Cold lobster salad; (2) Herbed rack of lamb with red wine jus (sound familiar?), roasted yellow and red beets, swiss chard; and (3) what was supposed to be an apple tart with chantilly cream and roasted macadamia nuts.
During my season, Becky and I worked well as a team, while Frank and Josh were shown struggling with amicability at times. The judges attributed their loss to their rivalry, and perhaps this is what does Jessie and Krissi in, too. They had an ugly spat during prep, and Krissi has to leave the kitchen to cool off. Their animosity is still apparent while their dishes are being judged, and they end up losing to Luca and Natasha (who, happily, are launched into the semi-finals).
Jessie and Krissi face the pressure test where one will move on to the semi-finals and the other will go home. Each cook has 75 minutes to make one chocolate mousse, one chocolate lava cake, and one chocolate soufflé all to be served up at the same time. This immediately reminds me of the similar challenge during my season when Frank and Josh had to deliver three different soufflés at the same time. It was the toughest challenge that kitchen had ever seen, and Becky and I were biting our nails up in the gallery, feeling bad for the boys, but glad it was them and not us.
When it comes to judgment, Jessie serves the superior soufflé, but Krissi makes the more marvelous mousse. (Funny how it always comes down to the last vote, huh?) And the winning lava cake is awarded to … Jessie. And this means Krissi goes home.
The next mystery box challenge requires all three cooks to recreate his/her audition dish but with an elevated twist. “Restaurant quality,” we always hear the judges say. If I were to participate in this challenge, I would find it difficult to improve upon my braised catfish and pickled cucumbers and carrots (recipes can be found in my New York Times best-selling cookbook, Recipes from My Home Kitchen) — not so much because it’s perfect, but because it’s such a rustic dish that my only thought for improvement would fall to plating and presentation. Or perhaps I would, at the very least, get the rice right this time!
Natasha’s dish receives positive remarks, while Luca’s parmesan cheese sauce is criticized. Jessie’s dish also has glowing reviews, and this seals her first win ever of a mystery box.
She goes into the final elimination round with the advantage of having first pick of ingredient, giving runner-up Natasha with the second pick, thereby leaving last-place Luca with the final ingredient by default. Jessie picks Kobe beef, Natasha chooses Alaskan king crab, and Luca ends up with grana padano, an Italian cheese that’s slightly less grainy and less sharp than its cousin, parmigiana reggiano. Luca hilariously plays a little game of reverse psychology when he states he most fears cooking with the cheese, but we later get a glimpse of him in his confessional saying, duh, he’s Italian. He loves grana padano!
In my opinion, the grana padano would present the biggest challenge — hard cheeses are great as a finishing touch, but it’s tough to make it the star of the dish. Graham agrees: “It’s just a big wheel of dried milk.”
But Luca starts doing something that sounds pretty amazing with that big wheel of dried-up milk: he makes a pancetta-wrapped veal cutlet stuffed with sage and grana padanoo, braised radicchio, and a frico (which is a potato and cheese crisp). Joe says Luca’s dish is very tasty, but a bit on the heavy side, which I agree by the sounds of it. Why not a radicchio salad instead? But I have to give Luca credit because pulling off all three of those components takes some skill. Next is Natasha, who made a cold soba noodle salad and crab with a ponzu sauce and serrano chiles. Graham adores her choice of serrano peppers. Jessie presents Kobe beef finished off in ponzu butter with a side of glass noodles, Japanese eggplant, bok choy, and mushrooms. But the judges wish she would’ve served the papaya salad she’d left at her station instead of the noodles and vegetables. (See my cookbook for the papaya salad recipe, which I made in the Season 3 finale.) I, however, understand Jessie’s decision to leave the salad off the plate as it would indeed confuse the dish’s flavors. I’m not even so sure papaya salad would’ve gone with the Kobe beef and ponzu butter. But what do I know? I’m just watching — er, listening —from my living room.
Unfortunately, Jessie is sent home. Both she and Krissi have served up some strong dishes that reflect their heritage and style. And both are forces to be reckoned with (especially that Krissi — watch out, or she may take a fist or frying pan to your face).
Final 2! Luca and Natasha will go head-to-head next week in the biggest culinary battle of their lives. I predict Luca to win as he’s been on a roll lately, and it’s about time he takes one home for the boys. But Natasha is talented and consistent. Who do you think will be the next MasterChef? Who do you want to be the next MasterChef? Tune in Wednesday at 9/8c on Fox for the big finale.