My favorite summer television indulgence is back! Season 5 of MasterChef made its debut on Memorial Day. And while the show promises the same excitement and inspiration as the previous four seasons, we saw some changes in the premiere.
First off, judge/host Graham Elliot showed off the results of 155 pounds of weight loss. Secondly, the competition began with the top 30 home cooks – no “audition” episodes. The format change dropped viewers right into the heart of the action from the start.
In the premiere episode, the judges – Elliot, Joe Bastianich, and Gordon Ramsay, whittled the competition down to 22. They eliminated two contestants during the cooking process. The first 17 chefs made the cut on the first elimination test, while four of the remaining nine had to endure another challege – with tighter rules and cooking alongside Gordon Ramsay – to earn their aprons.
The Top 22 come from all over the country (I enjoyed hearing so many Southern accents) and all walks of life – including one competitor who worked as a dancer in a “gentlemen’s club.” But a few in particular stand out to me – I claim these as six to watch throughout the season, because they promise to bring heart and drama to an already exciting competition. Take a look…
6. Willie, the Church Music Director from Texas
Willie is a big guy, full of heart. He directs music at a church in Texas, and I have a soft spot in my heart for most anybody involved in worship music, but his passion is cooking. He cooked his way through the season premiere with a smile on his face and an infectious joy.
Willie’s rustic, homey dish of apricot chicken with vegetables bowled over the judges enough to give him the second apron of the night (after Courtney, the gentlemen’s club dancer). He flashed his priceless grin and bounded upstairs to watch the rest of the carnage.
I can already see Willie as an encourager, cheering his competitors on, even as he picks them off one by one with deceptively simple dishes and perhaps a few surprises. I predict he’ll go far in the competition, maybe all the way, because he comes across as the type of cook who soaks up new knowledge and applies it to his already impressive talent. Besides, you can’t help but root for a guy like Willie!
5. Astrid, the Food Sales Representative from Louisiana
I didn’t like Astrid from the start. Though she hails from Mandeville, Louisiana, just across Lake Ponchartrain from New Orleans, Astrid sounds and acts like a pushy Yankee stereotype (all the way down to her affected pronunciation of “New Orleans” that doesn’t sound like any Southerner I’ve ever met). She failed to impress the judges enough to earn an apron on the first round, so she took to the kitchen again for the second elimination test.
Pushy Yankee stereotype Astrid proceeded to pepper Gordon Ramsay with questions as she stood behind him while they both cooked. Then she chose to really distinguish herself. How – with a clever recipe or mouth-watering dish? Nope. With her disgusting mess on the floor! Joe Bastianich called her out in front of everyone else; then he merely gave her a warning.
Astrid managed to impress the judges enough with her second dish to overcome the mess and warrant an apron. Will she heed Joe’s warning to keep it clean? Will she start acting like a Southerner? Will she make me overcome my dislike of her like runner up Natasha did last season?
All of those remain to be seen, but I see Astrid creating a stir in some way – either by stoking rivalries or by sheer annoyance. I don’t know that she necessarily has what it takes to succeed in the competition, but I foresee her going down in a blaze of glory whenever her time to go may be.
4. Elizabeth, the Advertising Executive from New York
Some contestants stick with the tried and true, especially from the start, while others come out of the box making bold moves. Elizabeth is one of the latter. Her first challenge dish consisted of a peanut butter bread pudding with berry compote, a gourmet take on PB&J that shocked the judges at first but impressed them enough to give her an apron in the first round.
Elizabeth should bring a sophisticated palate and sense of style to her food. She’s already shown her willingness to think out of the norm, so imagine what she could bring to leading a team challenge or to a tough mystery box. Her sense of determination and confidence (without resorting to cockiness) ought to serve her well.
I see Elizabeth progressing nicely in the competition, either as a leader (and a target) from the beginning or as one of those under-the-radar home cooks who emerge just at the right time to blow everyone away. Watch out for her!
3. Leslie, the Stay-At-Home Dad from California
Leslie is one of those competitors who defies easy description. He’s a stay-at-home dad from Malibu, which is a totally different animal from a stay-at-home dad from, say, suburban Atlanta or the outskirts of Cincinnati. With his grey surfer hair, he exudes a slightly creepy vibe that resembles a man in the midst of a midlife crisis. (I Googled him for kicks, and found his IMDB profile – he’s done some acting and producing and happens to be Melissa Joan Hart’s stepdad.)
In both challenges, Leslie produced lots of food, and the judges made cracks about the size of the portions he cooked. Come to think of it, that could be a plus for his cookbook were he to win – recipes for large families.
Along with the surfer-dad-in-the-kitchen vibe, Leslie possesses tons of confidence that borders on cockiness. In the second challenge, he traded barbs with a few of the home cooks who had earned aprons the first round, and the previews for the next episode featured some trash talk. I imaging we’ll have a good time watching the sparks fly with this guy.
I’m not a fan of Leslie – at least not yet. He hasn’t sold me on what he has to offer, plus his weirdness and arrogance could become a turn off to fans. But this guy seems to know what makes for good TV.
2. Francis, the Music Video Director from New York
Francis hails from New York City – by way of Scotland. He’s a video director and a self-professed molecular chef. For the uninitiated, molecular gastronomy combines chemistry and physics with cuisine. If all of that sound pretentious, Francis comes across as a nice guy, if a bit odd.
In the first episode, Francis attempted to wow the judges with his molecular alchemy. His ambitious dish of tomato spaghetti failed when his syringe broke. That fail landed him in the second round, where the judges warned him to test his skills with “regular” cuisine.
Francis’ relatively simple dish – with avant garde plating – in the second elimination test impressed the judges enough to give him the second-to-last apron, and I, for one, am glad to see him advance. This contestant possesses an anything-goes attitude toward cuisine that should both wow and baffle both judges and viewers, and his wacky fashion and sense of humor add to his unusual mystique.
Even if he doesn’t make it all the way to the finals, Francis should advance far enough to challenge all of our notions of what cuisine really is.
1. Elise, the E-Learning Administrator from Alabama
Every season has its share of contestants who cook not just with “heart” – as the judges recommend – but also with every ounce of emotion inside them. These competitors rise on every compliment and win and fall on every criticism and setback. One of the most popular of these emotional home cooks was Season 3’s Monti Carlo, one of my all-time favorites.
I think this year’s emotional pressure cooker is Elise, without a doubt. In the premiere, Elise tearfully declared that she wants to escape the cubicle lifestyle to which she is accustomed. Her first round dish was something called “blueberry goat cheese basil hand pies,” which forced her into the second elimination test – with more tears.
For the second challenge, Elise made a chicken pot pie. Gordon raked her over the coals for her decision to follow a pie with a pie, and she practically begged for an apron. In a heartrending moment, the judges granted Elise an apron with which to wipe her tears – along with a promise of no more pies.
What else does Elise have up her sleeve? I have little doubt that she’s capable of more than pies, but I also feel like she may have more room to grow than just about anyone else in the competition. We’re going to see plenty of tears, I’m sure, and I imagine she’ll become the target of barbs from her fellow cooks. That level of emotion may make Elise a bit of a wreck at times, but it will also give viewers a reason to root for her – I already am.