'MasterChef' recap: Go fish

masterchef-judges-320.jpg masterchef-judges-320.jpgThe 11 main contestants saunter into the "MasterChef" kitchen. David says he's still "kind of blown away that I'm actually here." That makes two of us, my man. But he's "loving every second of it." Well... the cheese stands alone, I guess. Anyhow, Gordon informs us it's a new day -- and with a new day comes a new Mystery Box Challenge. Remember the time-honored rules of the Mystery Box Challenge as they were handed down a week ago: contestants have to prepare one dish using the ingredients inside the box.

But what could be inside the box? Jake hopes it's seafood. (Mr. Sobell hopes the mystery box is properly refrigerated if it is.). Tracy hopes it's eggs, flour and sugar -- somebody wants to do some baking. (Someone should have auditioned for "Top Chef: Just Desserts," then.) Enough of this banter -- lift up your boxes. Oh, my God, it's manatee! No, wait, I'm mistaken. It's eggs, flour, milk, sugar, and butter. Tracy spins around happy. You would too if you were clairvoyant.

So they'll be making cupcakes -- "the most amazing cupcake," to be specific. All the contestants will start with the same basic ingredients. But the judges also pull back a cape to reveal a table with many, many, ingredients -- fruit, candy, nuts, and the like -- with which to adorn their baked goods. "On this table you have everything in the world you could possibly need to make a great cupcake," Joe says. Really? Because I don't see a slab of bacon there. At any rate, the wannabe chefs will have 45 minutes to whip up a yummy cupcake. The judges will only be tasting three. Winner gets a big advantage in the next stage of the competition. Since the last big advantage meant a choice between mandarin oranges, chicken and mushrooms, I'd say we define big advantages very differently. But enough -- bake, my lovelies!

As the contestants scramble to pick out their ingredients, the pleasant female narrator reminds us that it's a challenge for anyone to make a perfect cupcake. "But to bake it and decorate in 45 minutes is almost impossible," she adds. Well, good thing we've tasked these rank amateurs with doing it, then. Jake quite correctly points out that baking is very different from cooking, as the former involves science and mathematics and whatnot. And I am not disputing him -- I am a horrible baker, precisely because I am incapable of measuring things precisely. I once tried to make some fluffy southern-style biscuits that wound up resembling something Wayne Gretzky should be firing past a goaltender. But I digress -- the baking, she is hard.

Sharone agrees with me, as he is struggling with the baking portion of the cupcake-making process. ("My wife is the dessert queen," he tells Gordon.) Nevertheless, he's going to try to ape his wife's cream cheese frosting, while whipping in some crushed hazelnut and Nutella. Whitney -- who I hasten to remind you is so very, very young -- is going to try her hand at coconut and lemon curd flavors. Lee is making Irish coffee cupcakes. More importantly, Graham notes, he is working with the Breville stand-mixer. "That scrapper beater means better mixing," Graham says. Yes, yes, the check from the good folks at Breville is in the mail. Meanwhile, Tracy -- who is quite keen on her chances, I should remind you -- is working on a carrot cake-style cupcake. "This is a slam dunk," she says. We shall see what we shall see. Jake is going with some sort of unholy union of chocolate and fruit. "It's going to be like a party in your mouth," he promises.

Judges huddle: Everyone seems quite keen to try what Whitney and Tracy are whipping up. They are also intrigued by the thought of Sharone's nuts. Yes, I deliberately typed that sentence that way. You care to make something of it?

There are now 20 minutes left. Gordon points out that if your cupcakes aren't in the oven at this point, you are going to have a very difficult time serving the judges something that isn't an unappetizing pile of goo. Faruq is only now getting his cupcake into the oven. And Tracy -- previously so confident -- seems to realize that she has frittered away a lot of time. That could prove costly, as the narrator informs us, that the prize at stake is the chance to jump immediately into the final four without passing Go and without collecting $200. Geez, that's a much better prize than telling everyone they've got to cook something involving mandarin oranges, isn't it?

With 10 minutes left, Sharone is still fretting about his inexperience with cupcakes and the judges are still yammering on about how good Whitney's cupcakes looks. Lee thinks he's top three material -- "at least," he adds. Jake likes his chances now that he's seen what other people are doing. That may or may not include hat-wearing Mike's cupcakes, which don't look all that good, or David's efforts, which look like dog-sick. Also, Tracy's cupcakes are nowhere near ready, and there's, like, two minutes left in this competition. "They're not done," she huffs, as the precious minutes tick away. I guess she's wishing that there actually was manatee under that mystery box at this point. "My cupcake is horrible," she moans, as the camera zooms in on her collapsing pile of baked goods. She is not exaggerating.

After an entire commercial break gives Tracy the chance to consider the weight of the baking atrocity she's committed, she begins blubbering. Gordon wants to know what's the matter. "My cupcake is horrible," she blubbers. Gordon curses. So far as I know, he's managed to find out a way to use "fuck" as an affirmative. Gordon asks who isn't happy with their cupcake, and Tracy's hand shoots up. "It didn't have time to cook, and the cupcake was too warm," she says. "It just looks horrible." I'm not going to argue with her at this point -- it looks like a Pillsbury muffin that someone spilled cream cheese on. "Presentation -- zero," Gordon says. Well, that will make her feel better.

Time for the judges to pick their three favorites. Gordon likes Jake's cupcake. "Clumsy like a bull in the china shop," Gordon says, "and yet you come up with a handsome cupcake." Is this going to be a regular feature of the show, where Gordon marvels that a knuckle-dragging lummox like Jake is able to even spell "food," let alone cook it? Because that could prove tedious. Anyhow, Jake's cupcake -- which does look yummy -- is billed as a chocolate lover's delight with raspberry coulis. It's not quite as moist as Gordon might have liked, but given the time constraints, Jake "produced the goods." Joe thinks it could go in a restaurant as an ode to a flourless chocolate cake. Jake gets all misty-eyed, thinking back to how he was almost booted during the audition episodes. Yes, how young and innocent we were then.

Next up is Sharone, whose cupcake can best be described as chock full o' nuts. It's flavored with Nutella and there's hazelnuts and pistachios adorning the frosting. Gordon takes a bite and likes the moistness -- "absolutely brilliant." Joe likes the cream-cheese frosting. Graham adds that it's the most visually appealing of the cupcakes they've seen. Having seen some of the others, I think that might be damning with faint praise. The final cupcake in the final three is Whitney's coconut cupcake with lemon glaze. It may well be the most ordinary looking of the three, but Gordon likes the toasted coconut taste. Joe admires Whitney's choice of ingredients that plate well -- "a very smart cupcake," he says.

But there can be only winner in Challenge Cupcake -- who will it be? I will not make you wait through a commercial break to tell you that it is Sharone -- an impressive victory, given that this is allegedly the first cupcake he's ever baked. We cut to Slim saying that she respects Sharone's cooking skills: "But as a person, I don't like the dude." If you're the type of person who keeps track of these things, this is the second Mystery Box challenge in a row where Slim has sniffed and pooh-poohed the eventual winner. But she's not the only one -- Jake mutters that Sharone is a bit of a "kiss-ass" who thinks that sort of thing will get him far in the competition, "but I think he's sadly mistaken." Sounds like the secret ingredient in this competition is sour grapes, if you ask me. You didn't ask me? Well.

Sharone is ushered off to the pantry with the judges "where a surprise is about to be revealed," the narrator promises us. Oh God, the three judges aren't wearing pants! No, wait -- that's not it. Instead, it's three covered plates featuring three dishes. And the chef -- "one of the best chefs in America today," Gordon says in his typically understated way -- who made those dishes is here today to tell Sharone all about them. And that chef is... Cat Cora. of Iron Chef America fame. Sharone is excited: "I've been watching her cook since I was a young teenager." He has her rookie card and everything. Anyhow, to the dishes -- the first is a truffle halibut with a sweet corn sabayon and a fava bean salsa. Dish No. 2 is a Basque beef tenderloin, complete with its own Spanish rub and a spicy chimichurri sauce; there is also couscous. Finally, there's lamb -- a marinated lamb chop to be precisely, with a feta salsa verde and some fried squash blossoms. Sharone's mission, if he chooses to accept it, is to pick the dish that everybody else will be cooking. Who's the kiss-ass now, Jake?

Anyhow, Sharone's choice -- which sounds much more delicious than Sophie's choice -- is the halibut. Why? Just for the halibut. Jake seems confident now that it's seafood on the table. He had better be, because Gordon reminds everyone that the contestant who fails to cook a pleasing version of the halibut dish will be booted off the show. Anyhow, Cat Cora is ushered out to the hoots and hollers and general fawning of the contestants to tell them all how it's done. But first, there's another bit of business -- everyone else will be cooking to avoid elimination, but Sharone will be cooking against Cat Cora. If his version tastes better than her dish, he gets that spot in the final four that nice narrator lady told us about earlier. "My question to you," Gordon asks, "is can you beat Cat Cora?" It looks like Sharone will have an entire commercial break to think about that.

So Guy Fieri and the AFLAC duck are making commercials together now. I'm not sure who I'd rather see cooked and served up with a nice orange sauce.

Back from the commercial break, and Sharone has vowed to try his level best to out-cook Cat Cora. I mean, just in case you were worried about his response. And I have to say, I hope he pulls it off. It will be one less person I have to pay attention to for the next couple of episodes. As for the rest of you, please watch how Cat Cora cooks this halibut dish so that you can mimic her exact movements and recipe. Because aping your betters is what being a great chef is all about, right?

There's an all-too-brief rundown of technique -- Cat shows us how to sample oil in a pan and warns us of the dangers of overcooking halibut -- but after Cat completes the dish in about 18 minutes, it's time to get to cooking. The contestants have one hour to either avoid elimination or, if you're lucky enough to be Sharone, vault into the finals. And just to further the divide between Sharone and his fellow wannabes, Gordon orders a wall be rolled in to separate everyone else from Sharone and Cat. Little known fact: the Berlin Wall was also erected as the result of a televised cooking competition. I read that on the Internet.

Sharone ponders how he's going to beat Cat Cora. He's apparently decided to use the miracle ingredient of butter, which he will turn to in lieu of olive oil to sauté the corn and red onions. Oh, and he's gonna swap out that red onion for some shallots. Earlier, Joe and the other judges wondered if Sharone would try to simply copy Cat Cora or "be stupid enough" to try and go his own way, and I guess we're getting our answer to that question.

On the opposite side of the Great Wall of Ramsay, the other 10 contestants are struggling just to stay alive. Faruq has already forgotten Cat's sage advice about getting his pan nice and hot -- it's not even fired up yet. Jake seems to have mastered the concept of mise en place. David has managed to make his pan smoke. "This isn't a competition about creativity," Graham says. You're telling me.

As Hat-Wearing Mike puts his fish in the pan under the watchful fussy eyes of Graham and Joe and Whitney hopelessly bungles her corn purée, Cat Cora is busy taunting Sharone. "I must have made this dish a thousand times," she says nonchalantly, as Sharone struggles to keep up. I must say, the trash talk amuses me, though not nearly so much as Cat's utter indifference to Sharone's shallots-for-red-onion swap. Back on the other side of the wall, David is telling Joe and Graham that his sauce probably tastes better than what Cat Cora whipped up. They let him enjoy his delusions.

Slim is laboring under no delusions -- she's already plating, and her sauce is beginning to separate it because she forgot to strain it ( as the wise cooking lady told you that you must!). And she can't make another sauce because she's all out of corn. So let's just reserve a spot for Slim on the hot seat, shall we?

Time elapses, and we finally find out the reason for the wall -- no, it's not because Gordon and the boys are all big Pink Floyd fans. Rather, they are going to do blind tastings of the Sharone and Cat Cora dishes to see which one is better. Visually, they both look the same from the color of the sauce to the sear on the fish. "One of these dishes is truly wonderful," Joe says, "but the other is world class." Ah, but who's is who's? The judges unanimously prefer the dish on the left -- which just so happens to be Cat Cora's dish. Guess I'm going to have to remember that Sharone's name is only spelled with one "R" for the next couple of weeks after all. "[Sharone] is a very good cook," Slim voice overs. "But he is going to have to learn modesty." Bold talk from someone with a broken sauce.

Time to taste everyone else's dishes, then. First up is Slim, whose sauce doesn't look that bad but who has apparently overcooked her fish. "Better luck next time," Graham says. Joe refuses to taste it: "I'm not sure there will be a next time." Tracy's up next -- Joe thinks the fish is perfectly cooked and calls it a good interpretation of Cat's dish. Good thing, too, as Tracy has no tears left after the Cupcake Incident. Cocky, cocky David is up next with the sauce he proclaimed better than Cat Cora's -- he is horribly mistaken, Graham informs him. Now it's time for Hat-Wearing Mike's attempt, which Cat Cora will taste personally. The sauce is a bit thick, and the fish is raw inside. But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, the play is great. "I know you put a lot of effort into it," says Cat. "But I don't even want to eat it." For once, Mike does not contort his face comically as he slinks away.

More contestants, more halibut. Jake's dish is hailed by Cat as "absolutely beautiful." And it tastes as good as it looks -- "you rocked it," Cat declares. Whitney doesn't feel very confident about her dish, and for good reason -- her sauce is off-puttingly runny and her fish is under-seasoned. Finally, it's Faruq -- and no, dear reader, I didn't skip over Lee, Sheetal and Tony. Your MasterChef editors apparently decided their attempts to ape Cat Cora were neither overly successful nor horribly train-wrecky, so you will be spared their moment of judgment. Oh, and Faruq? The sauce should have been whisked more and the salsa's a little dry, Cat thinks. Gordon finds the fish too dry. Suddenly, Faruq's confidence seems horribly misplaced.

Before sending some poor bastard home, the judges pick the winner who managed to monkey-see/monkey-do Cat's recipe -- and that winner is Jake. He's pleased. And your bottom three? Mike, Slim and Faruq. They look less pleased. "You've got to do more than just dream about being a great chef," Cat tells them. "You've got to practice it and live it every day." Gordon is concerned about Slim's one-trick pony-style of cooking; Mike moves too fast for his own good; Faruq lacks finesse. But which one will leave MasterChef? Finesse-free Faruq. "You follow your dream, you keep your head up high," Gordon tells him. "Because you have come a long way in a very short time." Am I the only one who finds this an odd thing to say after you've just criticized someone for their lack of finesse? Anyhow, Faruq graciously tells everyone what a pleasure it was to be there. "When I walked off," he says, "there was no sorrow." Really? That's going to disappoint the producers, who were hoping you'd have a good on-camera cry.

Watch the episode below, discuss it in our forums, then check back for the second episode of the night!



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