HOT TAKE: Master Chef Jr. A-Z Challenge

ABC’s are never as easy as 1-2-3, despite what young Michael would have you believe. Tonight’s episode of Master Chef Jr. starts off with one of the series’ favorite mystery box challenges – the A-Z challenge. Showrunners gather 26 ingredients, each beginning with a letter from the alphabet, and put in under the box for the kids to use in creating a dish. So for A you might have apple, and for X you always have Xanthan Gum. Does anyone actually know what Xanthan Gum is? Do you use it in your kitchen? I feel like it is used in Jell-O.

The kids are given an hour to whip up whatever they can imagine using the ingredients in the mystery box and some perform better than others. The first dish selected for a closer look is Remy’s lamb and cheese biscuits. Now I’ve made rack of lamb once before and I was supremely worried I would fuck it up. The cook on lamb has to be near-perfect for it to not taste like rubbish so when Remy goes right to the lamb in the mystery box challenge I think to myself, okay, this girl came to play. Not only did she ace the cook on the lamb – she apparently also had enough time to whip up some cheese biscuits. Smart girl. Cover the baking and you win over Christina. Execute the hard-to-perfect protein and perfect it? You win over Gordon. Not sure how to win over Joe just yet, maybe confidence. The kids think he is scary.

Beni is next up and she presents the judges with a plate that looks like it came from Claim Jumper – that’s normally a bad thing but not in this case. I just mean the plate is absolutely loaded. Comically so.  Beni’s plate may not be a standout on presentation but Christina Tosi thinks it looks like came from a hip steakhouse so that has to count for something. I don’t really know what a hip steakhouse is but it sounds like something that would go out of business, quickly. Steakhouses are like the most traditional restaurant type ever. A word to the wise: Whenever someone over the age of 40 describes something as hip it is inherently not hip. Beni’s herb-crusted steak looks delicious but I would probably pass on the ginger-quinoa and kale. If I’m eating steak I like to be gluttonous about it. Meat and Potatoes please.

Finally we have Henry. Henry also tackled the lamb but he went more Mediterranean with his flavors He seems to have also cooked the lamb well. Where do kids learn these types of flavors these days? When I was growing up the exotic spice in the house was Lowry’s seasoning salt. I didn’t have any Mediterranean or Middle Eastern food till I was in college and I’m not even talking fancy food. I mean literal hummus. I feel robbed. I missed so many flavors! Despite Henry cooking his lamb well it was not enough to beat Remy. Remy is also the name of the rat in Ratatouille so she will undoubtedly be the one to beat for some time. Instead of having a human to boss around and cook for her she has her sister – Olivia! I’ve never seen sisters on Master Chef Jr. but I imagine the family is elated since it pumps the odds of an overall win in their family. The real question is what happens if one of them wins? Do they split the winnings? Does one go to state school while the other attends Brown? I’m glad these aren’t my questions to answer.

Remy gets immunity and heads up to the balcony to watch the rest of the contestants make a Christina Tosi inspired (remember she’s the pastry chef!) tart. Hopefully we are getting the baking challenge out of the way by doing it now so we don’t have to go through this again. Speaking of Christina – the pantsuit-ruffle-bottom-loud-print ensemble is not working for me. She looks like wallpaper that someone fucked up but instead of taking it down and starting over the person said fuck it and left it hanging on the wall. It’s not a good look.

The kids make their tarts and some turn out quite nice but of course there are some that were not super great. Zia, who is baby Claudia (past Master Chef winner), struggles the entire challenge. She initially messes up her crust and is frozen with fear and sadness until Gordon swoops in with the assist and fixes things. When it comes to judging her tart – it also does not go well. When asked how much butter she used in her tart she told the judges a whole stick. I’ve never made a tart but judging by Gordon’s face I am thinking that is entirely too much butter. Now I know there are people out there with the opinion that you can never have enough butter but if you need a “hacksaw” to get through the crust of your tart than you may have tipped the butter ratio too far. She’s crying but Gordon sends her off with a compliment letting her know her filling is pleasant. Nice save Gordy but I think Zia is not long for this competition.

Avery is another contestant who had some difficulty from the onset. When Gordon swings by mid-cook to see how she’s doing he observes that she has left the orange peels on her oranges. This is when Avery lies to Gordon and tells her it was intentional. How do I know she is a liar? Because when asked about the orange peels being left on the tart by Joe she tells Joe it was a mistake! WHICH IS IT AVERY? Did you mean to leave the peels on or nah? You don’t want to go down a path of lying to get away with things just because you don’t want to face the consequences. White lies now snowball to white lies in the White House. Just ask Hope Hicks how lying works out – not good. She also claims her tart has every color in the rainbow in it but I count 2 colors: orange and blue. Since when are orange and blue the only colors of a rainbow. Unless she’s completely colorblind she’s gas-lighting us. We gotta turn this ship around, pronto.

Quani’s tart has an off-putting orange color but the taste and cook are good enough that he’s safe. He seems to struggle with color on his parties as well. Last week he made some tasty cupcakes but they were an ill green color. He’s gotta fix this. Juelz makes a pineapple tart and here is where I learn the limits of Christina Tosi’s patience. She is borderline incredulous that Juelz has the audacity to put pineapple on a tart. Doesn’t he know that pineapples are too fibrous to be put on a tart! They will break down the tart and make it gross. It’s almost like he had no idea this was the case and just willy-nilly thought to himself that since he liked pineapple it might be a good flavor to put on a tart. Unbelievable! This is a grave mistake, according to Christina. She knows what he did – he fucked up. And she called him out on it. I think her reaction is a bit heavy-handed. I like pineapple. I think this tart would be good. Someone make a good pineapple tart and mail it to Christina.

Next we get to Ben, and oh man is his tart a work of art. Ben is a man of pleasure and can’t waste his time focused on presentation, or crafting a perfect uniform crust. That shit is weak. Ben is about maximum satisfaction when eating a tart. For his tart he’s prepared a white chocolate and berry tart. What kind of berry you ask? All the berries. It’s like Captain Crunch’s oops all berries on his tart. He then adds as much white chocolate as the tart can hold. It’s dribbled on the tart. There is a white chocolate glaze. Scattered about the valleys between the berries there are large chunks of white chocolate. And in the center? Ben saved the best for last. A jagged spire of white chocolate erupts triumphantly from the center of the tart daring the judges to call his tart anything else but art. The judges don’t quite see the tart the same way ben and I do and it turns out that he probably should have focused on presentation and a uniform crust. BUT CAN YOU DENY THE TASTE? I bet it was sickeningly good. At this point I was pretty nervous Ben’s quest for ultimate flavor might send him home.

BUT…Ben escapes just by the skin of his teeth and Juelz is sent home for his pineapple transgression instead. Zia is also sent home and I’m not too surprised. She just didn’t get the baking thing which I can relate to. Every pastry type thing I have ever tried to make has failed so completely that know with absolute certainty I would be going home Zia if I was being judged on making a tart. So Juelz and Zia hit the dusty trail. Adios kiddos.

My current front-runners on the show are Beni and Quani – maybe I have a thing for names that end in i? I love Ben and his commitment to flavor and I hope he takes to coaching well but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous for him. If, and when, Ben does get asked to leave the Master Chef kitchen I hope it is because the judges aren’t ready for the amount of flavor Ben brings. One other note – Cade looks like baby Aaron Samuels from Mean Girls. Happy October 3rd Cade!

They’re Baaaack!

Another season of Master Chef Junior is upon us, and none too soon. My normal cynicism can be cast aside as I watch these talented kids cook up better meals than I ever could. Sure, they don’t always succeed, but when they do the results are nothing short of amazing. Master Chef Junior follows the same format as Master Chef – a collection of home cooks gathered from across the country that come together and compete to see who can become the Master Chef. Junior. It’s your typical rise to the top reality TV competition. For our panel of judges Fox brought in some culinary heavyweights:

Gordon Ramsay – Known more for his anger than his famous beef wellington or perfect scrambled eggs recipes, Gordon is the main host of the show. On the adult version of Master Chef, you can expect him to play up his outrage for the cameras and making cooks question their self-worth as both a chef and as a person but here on the kid version he prefers the disappointed father role. You can catch glimpses of what he might be like at home when he talks to some of the young chefs, exhibiting both pride and concern for the kiddos at different points. Still, he’s at his best when he mutters “oh dear” to himself as he stares into a slice of raw chicken and levels a child’s hope. Neat nature fact: there is a show on Netflix called lookalikes that I watched last night and there is a dude on there that has an uncanny resemblance to Gordon Ramsay. It’s terrifying. Bizarro Ramsay.

Christina Tosi – I wax and wane on whether or not I actually like her as a judge. Christina was brought in a few seasons ago to represent both women and the beleaguered baker. In the culinary world bakers and chefs are constantly warring with one another. One profession involves passion and creativity, where the other involves science and attention to details. This is a not so subtle metaphor for the battle of the sexes here. Christina is probably the most critical out of all 3 judges and it is clear to me that she has difficulty relating to children – like me. Rarely does she seem pleased with the kids unless they are baking. Kids should never be heard nor seen. Every few episodes there will be a baking specific challenge and it becomes the Christina Tosi show. She does not hesitate to let kids know they screwed up and I have to believe after taping she goes back stage and cackles at their failures. Basically, I get her.

Joe Bostianich – Welcome back Joe! I’ve missed you and your suits and your sneakers and your east coast attitude. This is Joe’s first season back after leaving us just a few seasons ago. Joe was a regular judge on the show but had to excuse himself to open a little restaurant empire you may have heard of…Eataly. Anyway, Joe is back and I couldn’t be happier. The way he interacts with the kids on the show is great. He treats them like tiny adults, and as peers. He has no problem speaking to them about investment models and trendy restaurants and the kids’ reactions are priceless. You can tell their parents never speak to them like that. Basically, I wish Joe was my dad.

So, with our entourage of judges assembled we must now go through the ritualistic culling of the herd to get to our main competitors. This year’s group of kids competing in Master Chef Jr. seems bigger than previous years. 24 boys and 24 girls are assembled to take part in an initial challenge to see who will earn the coveted white apron. The white apron is basically holy grail from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – those who are worthy may drink from the bounty of the grail and receive ever-lasting life (verified twitter handle) and those who are not disappear from relevance.

For the girls, Gordon tasks them with cooking the perfect filet mignon. He does a quick demo where he expertly creates a stunning filet using nothing more than some salt and pepper, rosemary, thyme and butter. Super easy right? Yep, that is exactly how it turns out in my house too. Now, I if I am being nitpicky he says his is a perfect mid-rare and well…it looks a bit more towards the rare than the mid-rare end of the scale which is fine because when I make filet in a skillet it comes out that way too. Same! I’ve learned to eat steak this way because I am a miserable home cook I guess. Still haven’t had ecoli though. After the brief 8 minute demo the girls have everything they need to prepare their perfect filet.

Now I’ll be honest – I had a hard time telling who is who and I am not going to commit to watching this episode again because:

  1. I don’t want to get emotionally invested in some kid that is going to be booted off at the end of the first episode
  2. This is the same case for boys episode – I won’t be watching it more than once for the same reason
  3. As with every reality tv show I need the producers to tell me who to care about after the blood-letting
  4. I’m not ready to pick favorites.

The girls cook filets, some get eliminated, some do not. Rinse, wash and repeat for the boys only this time they are cooking Chicken. I think it’s a poor choice to have little boys working with chicken versus steak only because little boys are much messier than little girls so there has to be salmonella EVERYWHERE at this point. Things got worse for the boys – somehow one of the kitchen towels gets set on fire but the kid who lit it up is as cool as a cucumber. Honestly, he couldn’t be bothered with it and I begin to question whether or not he knows how it happened in the first place.

There’s another boy, Tyler, an 8-year-old from Milford, DE, who is hilarious. He’s my early favorite but his dry chicken fingers and carrots, admittedly a bizarre combo, do not make the cut. Gordon tells the young dude that maybe a sauce like a spicy ketchup would have helped? He coolly tells Gordon maybe mustard. Ah well, he’s gone and I hardly knew him. I was really hoping for another Riley situation but sadly no. It was not meant to be.

With our kiddos in place for season 6 we are ready to get cooking. I’ll have some actual hot takes on the contestants (seems weird to say kids here, so I won’t) this week.

And the winner is…

Last night season 15 of Bravo’s Top Chef came to a close. For those watching from the beginning you no doubt saw your favorite chef bow out some time ago. Tonight we, the audience, were left to see who would come out on top (chef) – Joe Flamm or Adrienne Cheatham.

Obvious spoilers are below so if you haven’t had a chance to watch yet, or simply don’t care to ruin the mystery, read on. You’ve been warned.

It seems almost unfair to even have a winner this season since most of the contestants, save a few surly and self-proclaimed underappreciated culinary geniuses, were legit friendly towards one another. You can actually see, without much difficulty, that the chefs on this season of Top Chef actually liked being around one another, most notably the 3 bears (Tyler, Joe and Bruce) + Mustache Joe. I’ll confess that as much as I like Adrienne, and I do really like her, I was hoping for Mustache Joe. In my heart I knew he probably did not have the finesse to get to the finale, but damn if he wasn’t close (Joe finished 3rd, likely a result of serving plain sourdough bread, sigh).

So it is with Adrienne and Joe; they admire and respect one another. Gone are the days of good versus evil – we are living in the age of Lebron James and friend competitors. For the final challenge Adrienne and Joe get to pick two sous chefs to help them pull off their culinary pièce de résistance. Per usual, the previously eliminated chefs are wheeled out and picked to be on Adrienne and Joe’s team kickball style. Adrienne selects Chris for her first choice…which was odd. Don’t get me wrong, dude can cook, but with Mustache Joe on the table it…well…doesn’t make too much sense. Chris cooks southern style food and we discover that is precisely what Adrienne plans on cooking up to wow the judges but still…why Chris? He’s so boring and one note and doesn’t have a lot of ideas and…kinda sucks?

Joe smartly chooses Mustache Joe with his first pick. Flamm, who works at Spiaggia in Chicago, is planning an intricate Italian meal to win over the judges. Mustache Joe totally makes sense for this menu but…the menu itself doesn’t. Instantly I recall an earlier episode where Padma laments, “You guys are killing me with this pasta”. Not good. Let’s recall Joe also previously went home and had to work his way through last chance kitchen to even be here and you potentially have a recipe for disaster.

The next two picks come quickly with Adrienne picking Carrie Baird, celebrated Colorado local who relies on making fancy toast to win competitions. Neat nature fact: When flying into Denver and boarding the train between terminals Carrie welcomes you to Colorado because the mayor was busy or something. Adrienne literally picks her because she is “fun to cook with and that’s important, too”. My heart sinks, Adrienne is finished. Joe picks Fatima Ali, who I just think is lovely. Ali is a firey Bangladeshi woman whose food always looks and sounds amazing. What she lacks in the technical department she more than makes up for in her creativity and flavor.

Joe and Adrienne sit down with their respective teams and begin to develop their final menu. Chris and Carrie are generally agreeable and go along with all of Adrienne’s ideas, nodding their heads appropriately. Adrienne has settled on Southern cooking with a bit of Japanese fusion. Sounds intriguing and needlessly complex – perfect for a Top Chef finale. Joe, Mustache Joe and Fatima start to work Joe’s vision. He’s going full Italian baby and Mustache J and Fatima couldn’t be happier. They actually ask questions and are interested in Joe’s ideas so it’s apparent right out of the gate who picked the better team.

Cut to Whole Foods and each Chef going down their respective shopping lists. Always a timed trip, Adrienne and Joe run through the aisles and scratch items off. We see their friendship once more when Joe checks out first and then Adrienne. Joe has some money in the budget left over but our girl Adrienne is over budget. Good guy Joe tells the audience he wants to win on his food and not a technicality and so he buys the remaining items Adrienne needs to complete her dish. Foreshadow much?

Back in the kitchen, the two now-executive chefs begin to execute. Adrienne and her team are having difficulty making this crispy cheese thing that will eventually be served over a sea urchin buttermilk dashi dish. There were other things in it, but it went over my head. Spoonbread maybe? I’ve never had it so I don’t know exactly what it is, but maybe it’s in there too? Adrienne also assigns Carrie to make grits for a classic shrimp and grits dish but…surprise! Because grits is not fancy toast, Carrie has never made it before. Grits. I’ve made grits. Guess I could be on Top Chef now.

Over on Joe’s side they are making this green pasta that will be stuffed with pig’s head. Joe informs us that most pig’s heads are female, passing the layup dad-joke, and explaining more technicalities with his dish. Mustache Joe kills the pasta prep while Fatima struggles with making brown sugar cake. I think Fatima on desert is a waste but what do I know. Good guy Joe assures Fatima that it will come out fine even though they may have to make a few more before it does. Mustache Joe tells her the only problem with the cake is that it isn’t very good. Easy fix.

The sun sets on prep day 1 and we move to an inspirational dinner back at their lux apartment hosted by chefs/hosts/friends (?) Tom Colicchio and Graham Elliot. Tom cooks a massive grouper and Graham makes what looks like a steak? Unsure as his meal wasn’t highlighted but I am sure it was fine. Either way who eats like this? Two entrees? I’d be so fucking full from dinner the night before that cooking the next day would be insanely difficult. I’d have to shout orders and taste everything from the bathroom. After some kind words and general “hey you got this!” type remarks Tom and Graham head out for the night.

Day 2 arrives and we are set to see what the chefs are prepping for the judge’s table. Adrienne’s first dish arrives and Graham says the spoon-bread-sea-urchin-cheese-cracker is seductive. Pause. What? Who says that about food? I love eating good food, and I love Graham Elliot, but to use the word sensual when describing food is just…stop it Graham. Go back to your weird hold the fork out and examine before eating small bite technique. That works. Food sex doesn’t. Joe serves a small cut of tuna with fat powder. I don’t know what fat powder is but one of the guest judges says it’s an ingenious use of it. I’m good with this but I wonder how often fat powder is used – and what can it be used with? I’m thinking some beefy bourbon cocktail thing might be nice? Probably not though. I’m thinking Joe wins the first round.

Second course arrives and we have to determine which dish is executed better: Joe’s pig head tortellini or Adrienne’s shrimp and grits. Joe, when describing his dish to the judges says his pasta looks like river rocks for some reason.  It does, but that seems like an odd image to conjure up. You know those mossy rocks that fish sit in between and pee on? Put one of those in your mouth. The judges eat up (see what I did there) the description and remark on how each tortellini is hand-rolled. All pasta should be handmade just like your non-existent Italian grandma did when she cooked Sunday evening dinner for your massive catholic family – in one pot. Seems like Joe comes out on top again.

The third course is the entree course. Joe has made asparagus bathed in asparagus juice (again, didn’t know that was a thing) by grinding down the stocks and juicing them. Side note: I am going to try this and screw it up. Gail Winters, who seemingly likes nothing, loves the Asparagus. Unfortunately Joe also serves a forgettable ribeye with the asparagus. Whoops! Adrienne plates a cheerwine (so many things to look up on the internet today) braised short rib served on top of black-eyed peas. She pretends to overcook the beans and bursts some of them and Tom calls her out on this. Bad home cooks burst beans, and while he gets she was trying to be fun, she’s better than that. The lesson here? If you know how to cook beans, cook beans correctly. Tom has no room for fun at his table. Still, it seems like Adrienne gets the point here.

Finally we get to the desert course and let’s be honest here – desert is always an afterthought. The chefs are exhausted at this point. I’d do the same thing and mail it in too. Let’s flambé a fruit, squirt some whip cream onto a plate, and call it a day. Hilariously the judges call out both Adrienne and Joe for making good deserts but naming them poorly. This somehow affects the overall quality of the deserts so this one is a tossup on account of chef error? That’s the last two dishes of the season. Contest over.

Adrienne and Joe retire to the outside deck while the judges deliberate and it isn’t long before they are called back in to hear the results. With all the eliminated Top Chef contestants gathered-round the judges announce that Joe Flamm is the winner of Top Chef season 15. So now that Joe’s the winner his plans are…to go back to Spaggia and keep pushing it till he’s ready to open his own joint. I mean, that’s fine, but you could totally just go out and get some investors at this point and do your own thing. Whatever, Joe is a nice guy and won through his cooking. See ya in Chicago. I’m sure Adrienne will have her own spot shortly. It’s not like coming up second on Top Chef is worth nothing. Just please don’t invite Chris to cook in your kitchen when you do open shop.

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