Bring The Heat - The Taste Semi Finals!

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. 


E3 Happy Holidays - Time to Focus

I started off the competition strong and hope to continue. Today I wake up and continue my routine.

4:20am the alarm goes off.
4:22am get in the shower. 
4:35am get dressed, put coffee on and begin meditation.
4:55am finish meditation and walk downstairs to get on the bus. 

The day begins. It is still dark and and I am unfamiliar with the land. Unsure as to where exactly we are in the city of LA and where we are going this is all still a mystery. We are whisked of to hair and make up and then rushed to wait. 

When the time to cook comes, the theme flashes on the screen 'Happy Holidays' - fitting as it is in the middle of September and we are all sweating balls off.  Chef Naomi Pomeroy walks out on stage. I have to admit that I am not as familiar with her as I would like to be, however, after a quick chat with Tristen and Marcus I am brought up to speed. 

The essence of her cuisine is; Bold, Delicious, Gritty. We are tasked with making a chicken curry, a dish that represents Marcus's holiday experience. He challenges us to cook a 'festive fau.' He demonstrates a chicken curry with chicken oyster and actual oysters. He keeps suggesting that we cook with the humble part of the bird... the dirt, the liver, the heart, the innards.

To be honest, this is something that I am not too familiar with. I don't love innards... I wish I did, it would make me feel cool,  but the reality is that I don't really enjoy the taste. 

Ok, so time goes on and the challenge begins, I am rocking and rolling. Feeling REALLY good about the way things are going. I am making a seared squab breast with a garnish of confit squab, chicken liver, heart, necks, preserved lemon, apple and other wonderful things. 

Time ticks down and Marcus chooses my spoon! I am proud and excited. But horrified as I look to see my spoon is incomplete. I forgot the garnish. Fuck. 

The spoons are being tasted by Chef Pomeroy and the results are close. Ludo's team gets picked first. Anthony team gets picked second. 

Are you kidding? Me vs. Nigella's team? Big shot to the ego. Well... as it turns out everything is OK and we are safe. But this was way too close for comfort. It is a wake up call that I really need focus, dot my i's and cross my t's. 

The individual challenge is now my time to shine. Although my family didn't eat duck often, to me it represents the holidays. I decide to draw from my past experience at Bouley and incorporate an Apple Rosemary puree that is emulsified with brown butter. It rocks and pairs perfectly with the duck. 

Roast duck, apple rosemary puree, ginger emulsion, crispy Brussels sprout. Delicious. 

The comments come in. Anthony Bourdain says 'This is a terrific spoon with a huge chunk of sage that blew out the whole spoon' WHAT!? There was no sage on the dish! #NoSage. 

Marcus compliments my aggressive seasoning. Mission accomplished. 

Fortunately for me the dish earned me one gold star from my mentor Marcus! I can't say how good it feels to get the recognition of my mentor. This means more than a gold star, but safety. As the field narrows, this provides me security if our team falters on a team challenge or if I stumble on an individual challenge. It is a good day. 

I am convinced that my positive energy, focus and love for the food is making a difference in this competition. It is an affirmation that I will continue to do well if I put my heart and soul into every bite.

Unfortunately, my teammate Joe got a few red stars and will be going into the taste off. The taste off is hardcore. It is really intense as everyone is watching you, gazing down at you and yelling. The way that it is edited on TV is far from what it is actually like. The cut out the sound from our mic's. I wish it was uncut. The energy is real. 

In the thunder dome Joe worked hard, but a few missteps made his dish the weakest and unfortunately he will be going home. Joe is a fighter, a great man, father and friend. His energy and enthusiasm is unparalleled and I am happy to have cooked along side him. 

I retreat back to the hotel smiling. However, now there are only two of us on Team Marcus. A drastic change from starting off so strong. Tristen is my biggest competition and now we are going head to head every day. We are a team and will continue to operate that way until it is the finals. But now holding the most gold stars in the competition, I can sleep well tonight. 

Tomorrow it starts all over. 

I walk away from today's challenge

The Taste E1 - Curry Chicken with Marcus

I made it. My dream is coming true before my very eyes. I am deeply touched by love and support that surrounds my experience thus far, and it is only beginning. So after a sleepless first night, I am excited to see what the new day, the first day brings. I enter the hair and makeup trailer, our pictures are posted all over the wall. Those who don’t make it are immediately taken down. A firm reminder of why we are here and that only one will last. It feels as though I am in the hunger games, bizarre but oddly fun. As time passes, the first challenge arrives. Who will go home?

Walking out onto the stage, we take our marks as all 3,000 lights are perfectly positioned to capture our frame. Camera men surround the set, the cameras hang from above and set from below, this is all too cool. An entire crew of nearly 200 people are hear to capture our every move and every word. The magic of being on set has taken a hold and the mentors walk onto stage. Anthony, Marcus, Ludo and Nigella gaze back at the 16 of us. We smile but know that two contestants will be gone shortly. After a brief intro, he announces the challenge. CHILDHOOD. Chef Stephanie Izard walks out to our applause. She is a legendary woman, chef and business person. To cook for her is truly an honor. Knowing her style at the Girl and The Goat in Chicago, my mind beings to to tick. What will I make? 

Childhood. How fitting for our first challenge. An opportunity to represent ourselves in whichever light we choose. 

Team Challenge - This is the first team challenge. Each team cooks their own version of a dish that their mentor selects. The mentor chooses one team members spoon to represent the team. The guest judge picks the best and worst spoon. The worst spoon goes home. The best wins a class with the guest mentor. 

Team Marcus is tasked with making our own version of Chicken Curry. ‘Chicken curry? I love chicken curry’ I think.  My mind begins to race, how will mine be different. It is time to follow my instinct, lucky for me curry is familiar.

I decide to go for a vaudovan (like curry on steroids) spiced chicken breast, cooked sous vide, perched over a sweet and spicy red curry with shredded leg meat, crispy chicken skin and a fresh cabbage slaw. 

Cooking with Marcus is nothing less than wild. His passion radiates through. He wants to win just as bad as we do. He tastes, he smells, he instructs and yells at times. I take this as a once in a life time learning opportunity. Who knows how long I will be around. He critiques my curry saying that there is too much Kaffir lime leaf in it. We work to balance the flavor. I am confident that I made the right choice. We are working as a team, sharing stocks, sauces, ingredients and garnishes, doing whatever we can to ensure that we go to the end as a unit. 

It is amazing how quick the time goes. Really it flies by, so it must mean that I am having fun right? Right. As the time ticks down, Marcus can’t decide if he will choose between Tristen or me. He goes with Tristen.

I am OK with it. It is a team challenge and although I would have liked to represent the team, many of my components were used in Tristen’s dish. My stock, my sauce, it was truly a collaboration.

Judgment has arrived. I am sweating bullets. Although I am not worried about going home at this point, there are weaker cooks on my team, it is always a possibility, not one that I want to dwell on. I see her hand reach for the tile indicating out spoon and my heart beat begins to slow, knowing that I am safe and our team will live another day.

With the first challenge behind me, my perspective has changed. My competitive nature has kicked in. This is something that I want to win. Something that I will need to fight for. Something that can and will change my life.

I retreat back to the hotel with the rest of the cast. The drive is filled with jovial conversation, all of us grateful to still be around. As we make our way back to our new home at an airport hotel, I can only think of one thing. Winning.

 I go upstairs, open my notebook, favorite cookbooks and begin studying. The journey has only just begun.

Tomorrow I will be cooking for a legend. I know it. Under The Sea, I hope my dreams tonight take me there.