Culture

12 Questions with Monti Carlo, MasterChef Season 3 Star and Host of Make My Food Famous

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I recently had the incredible privilege of interviewing my all-time favorite MasterChef contestant, Season 3’s Top 5 finalist Monti Carlo. (Yes, Monti’s my favorite even though Season 4’s Jessie hails from my hometown.) She’s a really cool lady and a true inspiration. She dished on her days on MasterChef, the joys of motherhood, and her new show Make My Food Famous, which debuts this weekend on FYI.

1. What can you tell us about the new show?

I’m so stoked to be hosting Make My Food Famous! It’s a competitive cooking show filmed in some of the best restaurants in the country. Three home cooks get to battle it out in a professional kitchen to get their original recipe on a renowned chef’s menu. The pilot airs this Sunday August 31st on A&E’s FYI Network at 10PM ET/PT, though you should check your local listings since air times are subject to change. It was shot in Manhattan Beach, California, at Michelin-starred chef David LeFevre’s incredible MB Post.

Chef LeFevre has worked with some of modern cuisine’s culinary giants like Ferran Adria and Charlie Trotter. To impress this man enough to showcase your creation on his menu is an almost impossible feat. To do it as a home cook is a near miracle. The show isn’t just for foodies and culinary enthusiasts. It’s also for people that get a kick out of watching someone hustle to make their dreams come true. It is truly inspirational!

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2. Where did the concept come from, and how did you get involved?

The Make My Food Famous concept was created by Super Delicious, the production company behind Cupcake Wars. In October of last year I received a message on my Facebook Fan Page (MC3Monti) from Michelle Furtney-Goodman, an exec at Super Delicious. MasterChef 3 had just finished airing (I made it all the way to the Top 5!) and I was hosting a morning radio show in Phoenix. One of Michelle’s good friends was a regular listener and told Michelle that I would be a great host for a show.

Michelle and I got to talking and two months later I packed my bags and moved to Los Angeles to audition for Make My Food Famous. I was up against some incredibly talented chefs with huge followings, so it was nerve-wracking going through the lengthy audition process. I second-guessed my move many times. But in mid-April, two weeks after my on-camera audition for A&E, I got the call that I had been waiting for! The powers that be had chosen me to host!

I was in a CVS paying for prescriptions when I got the call and the first thing I said (actually shouted) was “SHUT UP!!!” I was so shocked my legs actually gave out and I fell to my knees. #Hilarious. I gave that poor cashier a heart attack.

3. What do you hope viewers take away from the show?

Above all else I want viewers to know that you can do anything you set your mind to. This isn’t just a cooking show, it’s also about watching home cooks give it their all under incredible duress and achieve a nearly impossible dream: to get their original dish on the menu of one of the best restaurants in the world.

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4. Can you tell us about your culinary background?

I didn’t start truly studying how to create incredible food until my mid 30s (I’m almost 40 now! GAH!). I became obsessed with learning about different cuisines and my cook-book library is well past the 100 mark right now. My passions are pastry and re-interpreting Puerto Rican street food. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico and it’s really hard to find the food I grew up with state-side. I hope to have a hand in changing that. I’m also launching a small pastry company for busy moms who want their kids to chow down on organic, locally sourced and produced, non-GMO treats. As a busy mom myself, I know how  tough it is to put down the supermarket cupcakes when your kid has to bring some to school for the bake sale. Even though they are usually chock full of corn syrup and preservatives, those cupcakes are convenient and after a tough day of work and bussing kids around who wants to get in the kitchen to bake? I want to provide a better, healthier alternative for school functions, birthday parties and other special occasions. My company is called #SweetsFTW. Keep a look out for it!

5. Who are your culinary influences, and why?

Alice Waters is my HERO! She isn’t just an incredible chef (Chez Panisse), she is also a slow food activist, works tirelessly for school lunch reform, and pioneered American cuisine. Her cook book The Art of Simple Food is my kitchen bible and she has really inspired me to make my meals with organic, locally produced ingredients. I’m also a huge fan of Roy Choi. He built an empire out of re-interpreting Korean street food and bringing it to the masses. I work for him at his new restaurant Commissary and he is one of the most down-to-earth chefs I have ever met. He is humble and gracious both to his guests and his staff, but more importantly the man is a food genius. What he can do with a simple head of bok choy will bring you to tears. As far as food show hosts go I don’t think it gets any better than Anthony Bourdain. The man is LEGEND. I can’t think of anyone else that has told the story of the world’s food culture better or with more panache.

Image courtesy of Monti Carlo

Images courtesy of Monti Carlo

6. What inspires you to create new dishes and menus?

Some people cook to impress. I cook to nurture.  I’m inspired by my son, my friends and family to create dishes that will bring smiles to their faces because that’s what matters the most to me. I’m a mom and the definition of a “home cook.” I shop the markets with my son and do my best to create something with ingredients that are in season. My favorite thing I’ve made so far is a cake for my son’s fifth birthday. He wanted cake for breakfast (of course) and when I asked him what flavor he wanted he said “peach.”  We had just bought some beautiful peaches at the market that he had helped me pick out. Now, peaches usually works great for a tart or a pie but a cake?? And especially one for breakfast!  I ended up making a butter cake with creme fraiche frosting and fresh peaches sliced on top which he gobbled up like crazy! For his party I made a more traditional two-layer dark chocolate cake with ganache frosting, hazelnut syrup and a bazillion sprinkles. I know when he’s older and he looks at those pics he will know beyond a shadow of a doubt how much I love him. Two cakes for 1 birthday is A LOT of work, but seeing how happy it made him made it all worth it.

7. and 8. How do you balance motherhood with all the cool stuff you get to do? Is your son Danger as interested in cooking as you are?

I balance motherhood with my busy life the same as every other mother does and that’s BARELY. I don’t leave the house unless it’s work-related, to run errands or if I’m taking Danger to a play date. If you’re coming over to my house you’re bringing your kids or you aren’t coming over. I just watched my first movie without Danger in tow in years! (Chef of course!)  It’s just what happens when you have a five year old. They take over your life! I love that Danger is really interested in cooking. We make apple pies together. He loves mixing and working dough and has the Mickey Mouse pancake MASTERED.

9. Tell us about your MasterChef experience. What did you take away from your time on the show?

MasterChef changed my life in the most incredible way. I walked into that kitchen a bit of a broken person. I had just wrapped up an ugly divorce and child custody battle that had left me penniless. I had sold everything I had to move my son and I to L.A. for a job that didn’t work out. My best friend had been shot in cold blood and I didn’t have the money to go to his funeral. I was numb. I was devastated. I thought my son and I were going to end up on the street. And then Gordon Ramsay handed me that apron. Every time I see that moment on the show I get goosebumps. I doubled over and started to sob uncontrollably because I could finally see a light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel. Gordon, Joe and Graham challenged me more than I ever had been before. They taught me to believe in myself. They taught me to always keep moving forward, no matter what setbacks you have. Miraculously, with very little culinary experience but about a ton of sheer stubbornness I made it all the way to the Top 5. I will never be able to thank the MasterChef family enough for what they did for me. They saved my life.

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10. What are Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliot, and Joe Bastianich really like?

Gordon, Graham and Joe are actually incredibly sweet. They really care about the contestants that they feel have potential. That’s why they push you. They want to transform you from a home cook into a Master Chef, and it’s not meant to be (excuse the pun) a cake walk. What surprised me the most about Gordon is how much he loves to laugh. When I couldn’t stop screaming during the live prawn mystery box challenge, Gordon had a giggling fit. I was also shocked that Joe and Graham are both musicians and play and write songs together on set when the cameras are off. Graham is definitely the most down-to-earth of the three and anytime anyone was flailing he would say, “You can do this!” A lot of people ask me if Joe is really as off-putting in real life as he plays on TV, and he’s not by a long shot. He wears funny socks. You can’t wear funny socks and be an ogre.

11. Have you kept in touch with your fellow competitors from Season 3?

We keep in touch via social media but I haven’t seen anyone from my season in a good while. I chat with Stacey every few months and we did an event together in March. I should be having lunch with Felix soon, and I’m excited for that. The crazy thing is how much I bonded with contestants from other seasons! I love Ben Starr and Alvin Schultz (both from Season 2) and have hung out with them more than anyone else. Alexander Weiss (the first winner of MasterChef Junior) and I chat constantly. We went to brunch with his Dad and Danger a few months back and had a big ‘ole time! Keep an eye on Alexander. He’s going to be a culinary giant!

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12. What has your life been like since MasterChef?

My life after MasterChef has been a blessing. Yes, there have been ups and downs but I am thankful for all of it! I moved to Phoenix right after I shot the show and hosted a morning radio program for a year and a half. I made some incredible foodie friends in that city that I absolutely treasure. I moved to L.A. in December of last year to begin the audition process for Make My Food Famous a mile away from my ex-husband’s new place. We have miraculously managed to get over the divorce hump. We hang out with our respective significant others and Danger all the time. We are a family of four parents and it’s been wonderful to see Danger grow from it. I’ve started a small cake business and also teach people how to bake, so I feel ridiculously fulfilled. It could all go away in a heartbeat, but at least now I know that if you have fight in you you can always climb out of the darkest of places. Who knows where you’ll end up?! I’m hosting a TV show on a major network! Color me flabbergasted! I really hope you tune in on Sunday the 31st to watch someone fight to make their dreams come true. I hope you get inspired to do the same.

Don’t forget to check out Make My Food Famous on Sundays beginning August 31 at 10PM ET/PT on the FYI Network.