Day 3. Auditions are over and everything is real. The stakes are real, the competition is real and I can feel the pressure. Unaware what the day will bring I begin to set my routine in motion. A 4am wake up with a brief stretch, and then I put the coffee on, jump in the shower, meditate and get ready to head to the set.
The day feels good, the sun is not up yet, and the world is quiet. The calm California breeze whispers calming words to me. We load up into the van and head off.
We progress through the usual hair and make-up routine. Only this time two contestants faces have been removed from the board. I sit as they spray my hair with texture leaving it as natural as possible. I am grateful. We are then moved back to the holding room. It is uncomfortable. No couches, only fold out chairs and picnic tables. The floor is concrete, the bathrooms are locked and the lights fluorescent. I retreat back to my meditation space… a yoga mat that I found the day before.
Time for action. We silently navigate through the airplane hangar, in which Howard Hughes plane was built and make our way to set. It is time to cook…or wait. The 3000 lights are adjusted once again and the adrenaline builds. Our feet are marked and we are ushered back stage. Let me cook! After waiting and waiting, we are queued to enter the set. We take our marks and the mentors walk out to our applause.
Bourdain stands tall and announces the challenge. This week the judge is a friend of his, he says, my mind skips and immediately thinks Eric Ripert. “The challenge… Under The Sea” my thoughts are affirmed… “with guest mentor Eric Ripert.” My mind starts spinning and I begin digging for all of my favorite fish recipes. What can I cook that will live up to this man’s expectation? He is a legend, unparalleled, talented, successful, kind, cool, French!
Marcus walks to the team and begins to discuss his take on the challenge – fish and shellfish. He prepares what he would do in our situations. Cured Hamachi, apples, corn it is a magical plate full of inspiration. His guidance in and direction are my priority. I figure if I can execute his vision with my twist, we will win, he will like me and I’ll probably get to stick around.
We are provided a cart of beautiful Hamachi, clams, oysters, black cod, fish eggs, and a bounty from the sea. It is full of life and the quality is top notch. At this point it is my job to let the ingredients shine and stay out of their way.
The cook begins and fly’s by. I continually ask Marcus to taste, we adjust seasonings working on the pillars of what makes a great dish – SALT, ACID, SPICE, TEXTURE!
A corn and uni puree sits on the bottom of the spoon, cured Hamachi sits on top whimsically decorated with pickled romanesco, charred corn, apple, preserved lemon, clam, and togarishi. The dish is harmonious and hits all the notes.
I am honored that Marcus chooses to pick my dish, my listening has paid off. Time to hear what Chef Ripert thinks. It is pretty wild to be cooking for such a master, I cannot express the nerves, and my heart beat grows. I may appear calm, but on the inside the pressure is immense. After running through the dishes, he chooses mine. MINE. I can finally take a breath. The weight has lifted, my mind immediately moves to the next challenge. What do I cook? But before that, the worst spoon.
This is when tempers erupt, it seems as though tension has been brewing on Nigellas team from the start. I try to stay out of it, but at this point everyone knows. When the team members are asked to choose who they would eliminate it gets ugly. Lindsey throws down. She speaks her mind in an articulate way. I don’t blame her. When you are fighting for your life on the show you do what you gotta do. Lindsay is a great person and a great competitor, I am happy that our paths crossed. She will do great things.
As we move to the master class I am thrilled. Eric Ripert shows us the beauty of simplicity through ceviche. His actions are precise, his movements have purpose, he moves with grace. He creates a progression of ceviche that moves from the simple South American to an Asian inspired umami bomb. As the class wraps up, it is time to put my game face on. I want a gold star. I want to win.
The time begins for the individual cook and I am so excited. I know the judges will love my dish. My sauce is a favorite from my NYC cook days. It is like the ocean and herbs – perfect for the challenge. Having Ripert in the kitchen is quite a help. We bounce ideas around and he helps me refine the flavors.
Time begins to tick and I am behind. Although my dish is simple, it is taking a long time; the knife work is time consuming and so is making the herb oils. The adrenaline begins to pump even more as I see 10 min remain and my dish is nowhere near complete. Time to hustle. With some magic, I pull it off and I am thrilled at the final product I have created.
Seared cod, ocean herbal broth, brunoises of spiced clam and fennel. It is well balanced, beautiful and a fantastic representation of the sea. Judgment time.
Standing and listening to the judges is a unique experience, I am always quite relaxed until the person before my dish. Then my heart starts to pound. The judges taste my dish and are not as impressed as I was hoping they would be. Ludo seems pretty fond of it. I knew he would appreciate the nuance.
As we enter the stage for judgment, I feel confident. Rightfully so, I start off with a bang. Ludo gives me a gold star. I am safe this week. Jen and Jake, my teammate goes into the taste off. ..
The taste off is intense and to be honest something I never want to go through. We are yelling at him directing him and trying to help him navigate the kitchen from a far. We tried our hardest, but in the end it was not enough. Jen beat Jake out… team Marcus is down to 3. One less person but in my mind, one less buffer in case we make a mistake. The competition just got real.