If, as the MasterChef guys like to say, in the whole history of MasterChef, there is one recurring flaw that just seems to be built into the entire MasterChef concept, it’s that the show can be a lot of fun in the middle, but the audition process that opens each season is interminable, and the big finale is anticlimactic. The whole point is to get down to the last two cooks going head to head, but there’s a lot less drama by that time, and since the folks at home can’t actually taste the food, the only way the finale can provide any satisfaction, let alone entertainment, is if the cooks go out on a limb and prove their worthiness by pulling off some spectacular and telegenic culinary feat, with an outcome the viewer can happily get behind. Me, I have no argument with the judges’ verdict, but they were weighing in on a contest that could have been a lot splashier.
First, though, the show has to remind us why we’re all here, indulging in levels of mythic hyperbole never before achieved in the history of MasterChef-related mythic hyperbole. “It began long ago,” intones Gordon, sounding like Orson Welles in one of those documentaries about the end of the world or ancient astronauts that he used to narrate when he was short of cash. “From the big cities to the smallest towns,” they came. “Only the best 18 made it to the MasterChef kitchen.” Then several of the worst of the best 18 were quickly culled, which accounts for the unrecognizability of some of the faces now crowded on the gangplank above the stage. Here to battle it out before their former rivals and their own families, we have Josh, the 24-year-old “army contract specialist” from Mississippi, and Christine, the 32-year-old “creative writing student from Houston, Texas.” I’m immediately distracted by the discovery that “creative writing student” is Christine’s official MasterChef professional designation. With all the talk about her blindness, I’d never processed that part of her bio until now. Gordon tells them that they must prepare “the most stunning appetizer, the most amazing entrée, and the most delicious dessert.” Conferring in whispers, the judges talk about laying odds. “What Josh hasn’t got,” says Gordon, “is the intensified palette Christine has got.” Never one to let go of a bugbear, Joe replies, “But he can see!”
It soon becomes clear that Christine is ceding all high ambition to Josh, hoping that she can prevail by attempting more simple, basic fare and executing it perfectly. What we have here, says Joe, is “starred European restaurant food versus hooker street food.” After switching on the closed captioning and rewinding the DVR, I see that he actually said “hawker street food,” but the tone of his voice helped to make it that much more of an honest mistake. The big drama of the actual cooking portion of the show comes when Josh decides to puree his lobster. “Why is he pureeing his lobster?” asks someone. Josh finally sticks the whole lobster in a blender, a sight that Joe reacts to like George C. Scott watching footage of his daughter and some anonymous stud making the beast with two backs in Hardcore.
It is done. Josh proudly lays before the judges his butter poached lobster with grits and sweet potato puree, his rack of lamb with green curry sauce, and his bacon crusted pecan pie with cinnamon-touched ice cream. Christine, on the other hand, has prepared Thai papaya salad with crab and mixed veggies, braised pork belly with an egg on top, and coconut lime sorbet. If looks are all that matter, then Josh plainly has the edge. Gordon, using his “Lord, thank you for these blessings we are about to receive!” voice, sums up Christine’s menu as good, rustic, Vietnamese home cooking, then sniffs that they’re not in Vietnam or at home. This is MasterChef, goddammit!
Things are looking good for Josh until the judges actually taste his lobster. The son of a bitch is undercooked, badly undercooked. In other aspects, the two dinners are described as being neck-and-neck, and Josh scores his share of triumphs. His ice cream produces a collective orgasm—although nobody quite gets why he stuck that bacon into his pie—and when Gordon complains that he’s combined spring lamb with winter vegetables, a complaint that seems to confuse Josh as much as it does me, Joe leaps to his defense, proclaiming this combination of all seasons to be “an orchestral composition of epic proportions.” A man could feel pretty good about himself for a while after hearing that, but any true student of this show will have recognized that it was over as soon as Josh put undercooked anything on a serving plate. Gordon lines the two of them up and tells them that they’ve both “exceeded our expectations,” which I guess means that nobody thought Josh could cook a lobster all the way through but that they’re pleasantly surprised that he didn’t actually poison them. And then, Christine is the winner of this year’s MasterChef. Confetti falls, Christine cries, and Josh, the hot-blooded youngster, vows that his time will yet come, even if he cannot claim to be a MasterChef when it happens. There are worse epitaphs.