Due to a family emergency, this week’s column is a favorite from four years ago. There is a brief update below.
I’m not going to be the next Fox Network Master Chef. Let me tell you how I know this.
For those who are Chef Ramsay clueless, Master Chef is one of about half a dozen “reality” shows produced by Chef Gordon Ramsay, a chef of haute cuisine who owns restaurants in London, Glasgow, and Los Angeles. As a television personality, Ramsay is quite a character. He’s known for his foul mouth and wide mean streak, yet his shows strike a chord in that he is sharply tuned in to other people, and that is what makes his shows work. In Master Chef, a hundred amateur cooks are chosen from across the country to compete in several weeks of cooking competition elimination challenges, from which only one emerges the winner of $250,000. Simple enough on the surface, but not so simple when you understand that the contest is not about the food so much as it is about the people. That is why, when the producers went looking for a hundred cooks for Season Four, they called it an audition. This isn’t a contest, it’s a drama.
So I decided to bop down to the audition in Nashville last Saturday. I’ve been cooking for family since I was eleven, and I figured with forty-five years of experience behind me I might have a shot at this. I, too, am a character and there is no reason I shouldn’t fit in with the folks in that competition. The worst that could happen is that they could sneer at me like Ramsay and his buddies often do, and send me home. I’ve been sneered at; they don’t scare me.
My best recipe is a pumpkin pie my mom used to make, which I made traditional in my family and it morphed into something slightly different. I call it Jack-O-Lantern Pie. Every Hallowe’en I carve a jack-o-lantern from a large pumpkin, set a candle in it, and put it out on my porch until the trick-or-treaters are done for the evening. The next morning I cut it in half, bake it until tender, then puree it. I freeze the puree for pies on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and one large, reasonably moist pumpkin will usually cover me for four deep-dish pies. After nearly thirty years of baking pies with fresh pumpkin, I can hardly look at canned pumpkin and decline to order pumpkin pie in any restaurant.
So I got up at dawn on Saturday to bake a pie. I often don’t make my own crust, but this time I did, and fashioned little crust-leaves for decoration. It was a thing of beauty, easily the finest pie I’ve ever made. I set it in a flat basket for transport, covered it with a new, white dishcloth, and set out for Nashville like I was headed for grandmother’s house wearing a red, hooded cape.
When I entered the waiting room there was a light, cheerful, friendly feel to the place. Folks sat around, waiting for their nametag number to be called, most with coolers and carriers sitting at their feet. I took a seat and turned on my Kindle, for I could see there would be a long wait. I had no idea.
The applicants were processed at a rate of twenty an hour, so it was two hours before my number was called. A small, bearded man hurried in and out, who turned out to be the one responsible for the atmosphere staying light, cheerful, and friendly. Otherwise, I’m sure, there would have been mutiny. He came and went, joking and smiling, and explaining to everyone what was going on at any given time. I believe he saved lives.
As we waited, the smell of food wafting through the room kept reminding me I had neglected to eat breakfast that morning, for my stomach was nervous and I figured I would be able to grab some lunch when I was done feeding pumpkin pie to the judge. Silly me. It was well past noon, I’d been up since six o’clock, and was ravenous. Still we waited.
Finally my group of twenty was marched into the judging room, lugging our coolers, carriers, and baskets. Several people carrying clipboards stood around or scurried here and there. We were instructed to stand by a table and not touch the food until told. A short, dark-haired girl came around to squirt our hands with hand sanitizer, the plating and judging procedure was explained to us, and then we were allowed to plate our food. We had three minutes.
I never would have thought it could take so long to put food on a plate. The first piece of pie I cut came out in two pieces. I set it aside and cut another, which obeyed nicely and didn’t fall apart. I dumped the first piece back in the pie plate and set it on the floor next to my purse, then proceeded with the whipped cream and cinnamon candy syrup, finally decorating with the pie crust leaves sprinkled with cinnamon. I was well pleased with my presentation. Three minutes up, hands off the food, and we waited.
First to come around was the Head Guy judge, an Hispanic-looking fellow with a pleasant smile and a gentle voice. He spent a couple of minutes with each applicant chatting first then taking a very small taste with a plastic fork. He was a bit distracted by the guy in the cowboy hat, though. Everyone who has seen this show knows there’s always one contestant from the South in a cowboy hat. I guess that’s to signal the rest of the world that he’s from the South, for we all know that Southerners wear cowboy hats everywhere. This one had brought two jars of moonshine to serve with his dish. (Let me note here that in Tennessee corn liquor is legal so long as it’s aged and taxed according to law. Which, to my mind, makes it not moonshine, but maybe that’s just me. In any case, I have such a jar myself, and I assume the stuff in those jars was duly aged and taxed.) Head Guy saw this, and in the middle of his chat with the guy next to me turned and made a beeline for the guy serving alcohol. After a couple of shots, he returned to his task, but didn’t stay long. He hurried back to Cowboy Hat to ask for one of the jars, which he set aside before once again resuming his job. Everyone in the room laughed, but not very happily.
The smell of food in this room was stronger than in the room previous, and I was lucky my stomach didn’t start growling.
My turn. Head Guy had some nice things to say about my pretty piece of pie, and when he tasted it he said “Very nice.” So I was relieved to learn I wasn’t going to be sneered at. He asked me about the jack-o-lanternness of my pie, and further queried about why we call them jack-o-lanterns. Since I’m History Geek, I was happy to answer his question. He ended with “Good work,” and moved on.
He was followed up by the little dark-haired girl, whose question to everyone was “Tell me: Why Master Chef? Why now in your life?” Hard question to answer, since this was entirely a lark for me and I was only there to see how far I would get. I knew they wanted to hear about how I was hanging my entire existence on this contest and my heart would break if I didn’t get on the show, but I just couldn’t do it. That would be a lie. So I told the truth. I said it sounded like fun. I could see I was impressing nobody. But we segued into a chat about my grandson and his food allergies, so it wasn’t a total loss since I got to talk about the grandbaby. But then when she asked what I do, I told her I write novels for a living and her eyes glazed over. Hrm.
Then came more waiting. A lot more waiting, as we stood behind our tables. I looked over to my right at some fish tacos and my mouth watered. All that food in that room smelled so good! I like fish tacos. The woman to his right had something with a great deal of cheese. I like cheese.
People across the way began tasting each other’s dishes. I was so hungry! I hadn’t eaten since the day before. It was nearly three in the afternoon. The dish-sharing spread, and people were tasting those fish tacos and the casserole further over. My neighbors asked me for a taste of pie, and I gave them gladly. I nibbled a bit myself, but hesitated to ask others for theirs because I was afraid I would make a pig of myself. I was so hungry.
However, the girl to my left had something with Brussels sprouts that looked irresistible. Brussels sprouts can be very good if they’re done right, and these were very small. I asked for one.
Oh. My. God. It was the best Brussels sprout I’ve ever had. You could die from this Brussels sprout. I asked for the secret, then I asked for another taste. I could have eaten the whole plate.
We waited some more, then the judging folk read off the numbers of the applicants they wanted to stay behind. Nobody was surprised when Cowboy Hat Guy was called. Maybe I could have done what he did, but bribery just didn’t occur to me and I haven’t worn a cowboy hat since I was six. Brussels Sprouts Girl was called, and she deserved it. I was not called, and I probably deserved that. Clearly I am not, as they say often on this show, “Master Chef material.” I and my fellow rejects made that long walk to the door, just as hundreds of others have done in the Master Chef kitchen. We were blessed that we didn’t have to do it on camera.
I’ve been to cattle calls as an actor in Los Angeles, and I have to say those are a little easier to take. Usually what happens to an actor is that one is told to go home, then one goes home and waits for a phone call. Realization can take weeks, and it’s gradual. Last Saturday I knew I was rejected when they skipped my number and they told me to leave. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am. Don’t let the door hit your butt on the way out.
I don’t really know why I went. Or even why anyone goes to something like that. I guess it’s a need for others to see how special we are, and I think that’s a common enough feeling. But there are six billion people on the planet and that makes specialness either really common or impossibly rare, depending on how you look at it. In a way it’s bizarre and maybe a little pathetic. I stand guilty on both counts.
I’m not sorry I went. I had a day of smiles, was complimented on my Jack-O-Lantern Pie by someone who would know, and I now have a bag of fresh Brussels sprouts in my refrigerator waiting to be sautéed in bacon grease and maple syrup. Dang, those were good.
That year was the fourth season of Master Chef, which was won by a fellow from Italy named Luca. I cheered him on to victory, entirely over my disappointment at not getting a free trip to Los Angeles. I still enjoy the show, though it’s true the premise is wearing a bit thin. I tinker in the kitchen, and once a week I attend a pot luck dinner with a cluster of friends who are quasi-foodies like me. I’ve successfully made those Brussels sprouts a few times. I’ve given up my dream of being yelled at by Gordon Ramsay, and have set my sights on more reasonable goals.