As I walk away from the set and 3,000 lights, it all sets in. I have made it to the finals. I am only three cooks away from a dream and I want it bad. All my stars mean nothing. It is time to execute and pour my love into these next spoons.
4:20am that morning:
I wake up the morning of the semi-finals and it all becomes real. At this point there are only seven of us left. To the average person this may seem like a lot, but starting with 25 and seeing two people leave everyday the field is now slim. In the the hair and makeup trailer they post our photos. When one is eliminated it is yanked down, a stark reminder of why we are here and that only one will survive.
This day is special. I am up early and thinking, alarm buzzes at 4:20 and the wake up call comes from the hotel at 4:25am interrupting me from my meditation. I have committed and given everything to this competition. It has been 3 1/2 weeks of grueling hours. And to go home at this point would be devastating. It is time to focus.
I jump into my clothes and head downstairs, listening to my favorite song at the moment. "Wait for the moment" by Vulfpeck. It is fitting as this is the moment I have been waiting for. A victorious day means that I will be in the finals competing for $100,000. The bus arrives, the weather is slightly colder today. Knowing that in time it will heat up, I cringe as we will never see the Sun.
The ride to the studio is a bit more quiet than usual, at least I am a bit more restrained. As I've said before this is time to focus. Never in my life have I felt so dedicated so committed and excited to accomplishing something. I've sacrificed a lot, I have given new meaning and understanding to myself and what it means to dedicate.
Hair and makeup begins and we sit in the room waiting quietly. Waiting quietly...Still waiting. My morning routine at the studio consisted of many many minutes of meditation, and the rest of the times writing in my journal about strategies in how to execute my dish with love and intention.
It's time to shoot. We single file walk to the set where we begin cooking. No one knows what the theme is, however we all stand there with anticipation not knowing what challenge will send us home. Not this one. I have come too far.
The mentors walk out onto the stage. "Bring the Heat" and Andy Ricker walks out. At this point I know I must step up and out of my comfort zone. I want this class. I want his help, with it I know that I will win. Andy Ricker is somewhat of a legend in my mind, as he brought true traditional Thai food to America. As a kid I remember visiting his restaurant Pok Pok in my birth city Portland Oregon. I went with my whole family, and we sat in the misty weather eating the most delicious wings and Thai I ever had.
This week is different. We as a team, leave the set and go to experience Night Market + Song. Chef Chris dazzled us with his unparalleled cuisine. Fermented sausage that was like hot salami, medium rare pork shoulder and crispy rice salad. The meal was packed with inspiration. Night Market + Song is a Thai restaurant which I will never forget. Although it sounds cliché, at this point I do become emotional. Food has been and always will be my best friend. Food has gotten me through the best and the worst of times. Food is my gift, and sharing it with the world provides me with the deepest sense of satisfaction. As Marcus, Tristan and I speak and eat we become closer and we open up. I find myself choking up as I am explaining the past 10 years of my life, something I never intended to share. This process was beautiful. And in turn Marcus opened up... not something that I was expecting. We left the restaurant refreshed, inspired and as a team ready to go to the finals.
I find this emotion raw and refreshing, it reaffirms why I'm here and what I'm doing. The fire has been stoked and I am now ready to cook.
Cooking the dish for Marcus's challenge was in fact quite a test. As a team we decided that I would do a fish dish with pork garnish and Tristen a meat dish, he wanted it raw and he wanted it to be a pork dish. However I was requested to use the fish as the main component with pork garnishes. As I understand this is a strategy, it is not one that I completely agree with. I wanted to do something more brave I wanted to do something spicy gritty and dirty as it was requested, however had to keep things relatively clean as I was dealing with a delicate white fish. The cooking is tough because its hot, and in the end Tristan's spoon is picked. I'm ok with it no problem, as I know that his spoon is best to represent the team.
I am glad that it does. Andy Ricker responds well and we have won the master class. I embrace Tristan with the up most respect and gratitude, he and I have worked extraordinarily well as a team and we would not be here without each other.well... We would be however it would have been a more challenging ride.
The unfortunate reality is that someone must now go home. Bourdain sends Tarik home. We are all shocked. He was one of the most talented cooks in the competition and on his team. It makes no sense we are all at a loss for words.
The break room is heated. Eric is pissed and begins to rant about how he is going to 'crush everyone of us' and how we are 'all fucked.' I have stayed out of the drama, but the aggression in his words set me off and I tell him to chill. On camera you can only see a little bit of what happened. But in reality we went after each other. It was heated, intense and real. The fact of the matter is we will let the food speak for itself.
As the masterclass precedes, chef Ricker prepares a spicy stir fry that is hotter than the sun. However his explanation and exotic ingredients make for an even more tasty and amazing result. He shows us that simplicity is key and that building flavors is crucial. He's taught us how to do this in a short amount of time, which was perhaps the most interesting part.
As the solo cook begins, my heart is racing. This is the time, the opportunity that is the gateway for achieving my dreams. 3...2...1... The solo cook begins and I am off. Rocking and rolling, I have my meat in the pressure cooker, I have my shrimp marinated in a traditional Thai spice mix. My mise is looking wonderful and I'm on course for a great finish. The demanding part of this challenge is to create something that is super spicy but also very well balanced. The key to this, is building spice on a variety of different levels. The fresh chilli provides the initial Heaton. While others Chili's raised Chili's or cooked Chili's provide different levels of heat but with a slow burn. It is this mix coupled with acid, sweetness, sour, bitter and crunch that we create an extraordinary unforgettable bite.
This is time to take a risk. I must take a gamble and make sure I can provide different levels of spice to different judges. The most special aspect of cooking is that it is personal, and that each person's palate, what they like and what they do not like, are all different. Over the course of the competition I have gained insight onto what the judges like and dislike. I must hit Bourdain with something super spicy. To set my spoons apart and make each one perfect for each judge I take a gamble on which spoon will go to which judge. The spoon I think is going to Bourdain gets an additional chili. I'm coming for Anthony he is the one whos approval I want. Anthony Bourdain knows spicy food, he knows street food, he knows what he's talking about when it comes to this kind of cuisine. I am breaking out of my shell, I'm getting ready, I'm getting dirty and his recognition would mean the world to me.
It pays off. Upon judgement he picks my spoon. Mission accomplished and another gold star. I now hold the all time record of stars awarded on The Taste.
Walking away from the drama and into The Taste Off, it was only natural for me to support Vanessa. I want Eric to go home. Enough. Bourdain wants the cooks to have a fair shoot so he stays out of it. On the other hand Tristen and I want Vanessa to win. We begin to coach her through her stir-fry. Teaching her everything that Chef Ricker told us in the masterclass. She fought hard. The pressure was huge and she handled it well. At the end of the day, the most experienced chef that took the cake was Eric. I have to say, the Taste Off was less about Eric and Vanessa cooking their food and more about Ben vs. Tristen and Gabe.
As I walk away, it sets in. I have made it to the finals. Tomorrow is judgement day. I return to my room and meditate, study and go to sleep. The morning comes early.