Preaching to the Converted: I Am Not the Next MasterChef

By : Ken Kundis
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In October 2010, I lost my job of 13 years with the employer that moved me from Orlando to New York City in 2009. The economy was still reeling, so I was lucky to find a marketing job with a financial services company based near my apartment in Jersey City. But they soon informed me I would be moved to the company’s Lake Mary office. Either that, or look for another job.

So I moved back into my Audubon Park home, but my heart remained in New York. I had fallen in love – with the city and a certain guy. Even as I drove down I-95 to return to the place I still considered “home,’ I knew I would look for a way to get back to the city and to Phil. In the meantime, I was bored and lonely.

Enter MasterChef. The second season of the American version of the show became my must-watch moment. Here were home cooks with no experience in professional kitchens competing for cash, prizes and the kind of prestige that four-star Michelin chefs crave.

Each week contained a new challenge: fillet a fish; make a cake from scratch; produce a soufflé in 40 minutes. I recorded each show, tried to replicate the challenges, and began to enjoy cooking in ways previously unknown to me.

Fast forward to the present: I’m back in Manhattan, Phil and I live together in a high rise on the Hudson River, and I’m still a huge fan of MasterChef. So when a New York casting call was announced at the end of Season Three, I signed up.

I expected a crowd at the trendy Flatotel on 52nd Street, but nothing like the one I encountered last month. More than 300 hopefuls were waving hand-made signs or cut-outs of Gordon Ramsey and chanting “MasterChef! MasterChef!” Over-the-top enthusiasm is not in my repertoire, so I felt out of place… until the editor yelled “Cut!” and everyone went silent. The producers, who had made the signs in the first place, stepped in to rearrange them. This wasn’t enthusiasm or ambition, it was marketing; something I could understand.

In line, an unexpected Orlando connection materialized. Directly in front of me, a forlorn ex-hippie grandmother from nearby Christmas radiated bitterness and disappointment.

“I tried out in Miami, but I didn’t make it past the first round,” May hissed. “They picked the blonde bitch.”

So she packed her Christmas cookies – yes, her audition “dish” was a collection of Christmas cookies – and flew to New York to take another shot.

The young, good-looking African American man behind me seemed more suited for reality television. Jay resembled comedian David Chapelle – in looks and personality – and seemed to know his food. If his dish was as accessible and interesting as his personality, I figured he was a shoe-in.

And so we waited. An hour went by, and then another. Once we finally got in and plated our food, I felt a little better. We had been told that there would be no way to heat up our dishes but not to worry; the judges would focus on presentation and taste.

May’s spread – mini blueberry pies, banana bread and the aforementioned cookies – shouted “Christmas in Christmas, Florida!” But it would be fine (or not) at any temperature. Jay plated a dish with pasta, shrimp and salmon. I felt for him; it didn’t look appetizing cold.

My pan-seared lamb chops and parsley pesto would be better hot, but paired with a fennel and Mache salad with grapefruit segments it made for an attractive plate.

A beautiful and very-LA production assistant came around with a cameraman and asked questions. At the end of each interview we were told to hold up our plates, look straight into the camera and ask, “Am I the next MasterChef?”

Turns out, I’m not. But I felt victory in making it through the tough “food’ round, with compliments from the food editor. My inability to manufacture that over-the-top enthusiasm (or “fandemonium” as the production assistant had called it) was my undoing. Incidentally, Jay’s salmon brick and bland pasta failed to impress the food judge. May’s Christmas cookies must have been tasty, but she blew the interview by acting like an unpleasant schoolteacher.

My audition to be MasterChef was exactly what it was supposed to be: a lark. Even if I’d made it, I’m not sure I could have taken the required nine-week leave of absence from work. (Who can?!) But I got to see the inner workings of one of my favorite shows, meet chef/judge Joe Bastianich (my least favorite), and get feedback on my cooking.

Not a bad way to spend a free afternoon back in Manhattan.

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