MasterChef is back this week with a two-hour episode, which means double eliminations, right? Hmmm...
We begin with a mystery box put together by none other than the judges' sons. How cute is it to have mini-Gordon, mini-Graham, and two mini-Joes? I was told Graham's toddling son looked adorable in his glasses and vest. But the cuteness ends there. The 15 ingredients the boys select for the remaining five cooks are random and, as one might expect, particularly sweet: hazelnut spread, white chocolate chips, ketchup, peanut butter, marshmallows, baby pineapple, passion fruit, bacon, cheese slices, maple syrup, bananas, blueberries, strawberries, puff pastry, and a coconut.
It's obvious most of the cooks will be making a dessert. I myself would make a strawberry banana and hazelnut crepe topped with chocolate syrup. And the top three dishes belongs to Luca (white chocolate and pineapple napoleon), Jessie (various cream puffs), and James (white chocolate and passion fruit turnover with blueberry mint puree and whipped cinnamon, sugar, and coconut). Even though baking is not James's forte, he wins, launching him into immunity and advantage in the next elimination round.
James is taken into the pantry where he's presented with each of the judges' most memorable dish he'd ever eaten. Joe presents a sea urchin and caviar dish he'd had in Singapore. Graham chooses a soft-shell crab sandwich from memories past. And Gordon selects hu tieu, a Vietnamese noodle soup made with pork and seafood, which he had on the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.
Uh, this is a no-brainer! Noodle soups are made or broken by their broth, and Vietnamese noodle soup? I'm willing to bet my chopping arm that most, if not all, of the remaining home cooks have never tasted hu tieu in their lives. And smart James, he picks hu tieu for everyone to replicate simply by taste.
Vietnamese noodle soups are often complex in flavor — the broths must contain a balance of sweet, sour, salty, and umami. I'm thinking the cooks have a little help in detecting the ingredients and/or recipe, because Vietnamese noodle soups are not just figured out on a whim and a fluke. Plus, the challenge is timed for 75 minutes, and that's just not enough time to extract all the flavors out of the bones. (And that's why we see pressure cookers on virtually every kitchen station.)
Krissi, who's said she dislikes Asian food in several episodes, when asked if she doesn't like Vietnamese food, replies that she just hasn't been exposed to it. (And I'm glad I don't have to chastise her for putting down my signature cuisine — thank you, Krissi.) Though the judges deem everyone's hu tieu a valiant effort, Krissi and Natasha end up in the bottom two. Krissi is given a pass, and we see Natasha crumble in tears.
But wait a minute. Natasha is told she can join the other four cooks back in the kitchen. Whaaa...? Nobody goes home during an elimination round. All I can say is, if I were James, I'd be pissed.
So the Top 5 remain the Top 5. The next day's challenge sees the return of Paula Deen, who is hosting a luncheon for 50 volunteers to honor their philanthropic work. Paula picks the five proteins, and Luca (who made the best hu tieu in the last challenge) gets to decide who will cook with which protein. He keeps the Alabama pork chop for himself and assigns James the Kentucky chicken, Krissi the Georgia shrimp, Natasha the Mississippi catfish, and Jessie the swamp's alligator tail.
The luncheon attendees give their feedback, and in the end, Luca and Jessie have the two winning dishes, and this moves them into the final four. This means James, Natasha, and Krissi will be cooking to secure their positions in the Top 4.
In the pantry, Luca and Jessie are presented with three signature dishes from each of the judges' restaurants. Gordon's appetizer is a seared scallop salad with confit potatoes, lightly dusted with curry, and topped with black truffle and a truffle vinaigrette. Joe's dish is a tournedos Rossini (which he calls a "filet Rossini") — a dish created for the composer Gioachino Rossini by French master chef Marie-Antoine Carême. The classic tournedos Rossini consists of a filet mignon cooked in butter set atop a crouton and served with truffle, seared foie gras, and a madeira demi-glace. Joe's filet Rossini is served upon a bed of truffle polenta and topped with a slice of Asian pear. Last but not least, Graham's dessert is a Greek yogurt panna cotta with stewed rhubarb and "variations of honey" (Graham's words exactly — I couldn't help but chuckle at this).
After hearing the dishes (and being audio-scribed them by my husband and viewing companion), I don't think I've ever drooled so hard over foods on the small screen. I wanted to lick every single one of those plates clean.
Together, Luca and Jessie have to decide who will cook which dish. They target Natasha (and rightfully so as she's probably the strongest competitor there) by giving her the most difficult dish to execute: Gordon's scallop salad appetizer. They give Krissi Joe's filet Rossini entree and James Graham's panna cotta dessert. I would've done the very same.
This challenge reminds me of the Graham Elliot white tuna sashimi dish we had to replicate during my season. I'd won that round, but it was nerve-wracking to try to recreate a dish fit for President Obama just by taste and feel. (You can find my version of this white tuna sashimi with avocado puree in my New York Times best-selling cookbook, Recipes from My Home Kitchen.)
In the end, James, who says baking is not his forte, is asked to take off his apron. James — who is a fellow Houstonian and who has since become not only a MasterChef comrade but also a friend — has been hard at work in Houston with his hot sauce company and pop-up restaurants. With his upbeat personality, there's no doubt James will make it far in this world, even if his MasterChef journey fell short. Not many can say they're one of the Top 5 home cooks in America. Best of luck, James. America will miss your hilarious quips and sound bites.
The final four: Jessie, Natasha, Krissi, and Luca. Who do you favor to win and become the next MasterChef? Tune in next week to see who will make it to the Top 4 on Wednesday at 8/7c on Fox. And for all things MasterChef please visit www.fox.com/masterchef and find me on Twitter @theblindcook