Do you ever dream of being the next “MasterChef”? I did!
This article originally was published May 23, 2013 at Zujava.com. It has now been archived here due to Zujava’s closing in July of 2015.
Auditioning for a reality television series is not something I had ever dreamed of or planned on doing. But in November of 2012, I spent the day lined up with hundreds other hopefuls in New York City, wishing for just one thing: to make it through the casting call of FOX’s hit cooking competition series MasterChef.
MasterChef is seriously my favorite show. I watch every episode avidly, “playing along” at home trying to figure out what I’d cook and how I’d fare in each of the weekly challenges and contests. Last season I even blogged weekly episode reviews and ran viewer polls on my MasterChef Season 3 Fanpage – this year I plan to do the same for Season 4.
But what I’d really wished for this year, instead of sitting at home watching the show, was to be one lucky hundred people who made it to Los Angeles trying out to receive an apron from MasterChef judges Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot. Whether or not I made it past that point, I loved the idea of getting in front of these three great “Master Chefs” and giving them a taste of my home cooking!
Well, I didn’t quite make it that far but I had a really fun and fascinating experience for the day. It gave me a unique taste of what goes on in reality TV casting – and the show that’s put on for the cameras every step of the way.
A little background on MasterChef
MasterChef began as a television cooking show first in the UK in the 1990s, featuring amateur “home chefs” competing against each other to show off their culinary skills. The series became a super-sensation in Australia from its premiere in 2009, where it has dominated the ratings and been the country’s top TV series for several seasons since then.
FOX Network launched its own US version of the series in 2010, where it has now run for three successful summer series. The fourth season of the show is set to begin airing on May 22, 2013.
I personally got hooked on the show beginning with the second US season. As an amateur “foodie” myself, I enjoyed seeing these non-professional chefs put out phenomenal dishes (and sometimes phenomenal failures) and cheering on my favorites to win (which didn’t happen in Season 2, but did happen in Season 3 with the incredible “blind chef” Christine Ha.)
With every episode, I liked to play along by imagining what I would cook when presented with one of the regular “Mystery Box” ingredient challenges, or how I’d respond to the various “Pressure Test” eliminations when contestants had to prove their ability to cook classic dishes like apple pie, souffle or a perfect poached egg. While I am not well-versed in every single cooking technique out there, I believed I had enough years of experience in the kitchen to stand on my own against (at least some of) the competition on the show. So why not give it a try sometime?
I almost filled out the application for the season three, but none of the in-person open calls were going to be in a city I could make it to easily (or on a date I was available.) Instead I watched season three even more intently than before and began making my plans to try out if there would be a season four. In the meantime, I recapped every episode and had a lot of fun interacting with other fans of the show on my “Fan page” for it (I even once got a nasty message from one of the contestants I didn’t like because I said she came across as “fake”. Oh well, she didn’t win so I’m happy!)
The MasterChef Application Process
From “armchair” chef to wanna-be MasterChef
Near the end of Season 3, I started keeping an eye on the MasterChef Casting Website and made sure I was signed up for their email casting announcements. As soon as the written application was available I downloaded it and started filling out the 11-pages of questions, disclaimers and legal indemnifications. Beyond basic personal info there were questions such as “What are your first memories of cooking/being in the kitchen?”, “What are your 3 signature dishes”, and “If you win the title of MasterChef, what would be your dream to come out of this opportunity?”
For me that last question was the most difficult one. I honestly don’t have any dreams of becoming a restaurant chef, writing a cookbook, or opening any kind of cooking-related business. I cook for the love of food and enjoyment of sharing my food with others – being on MasterChef was just something cool I’d like to experience! But to try to have some kind of “hook” I answered that I hoped to raise awareness about small, local farming (which is true, and something I write about a lot on my food blog). And (to add that necessary “sob story” element), I also said that if I won the grand prize of $250,000 I would use some of that money to finally look into infertility treatment to build my family, something that is otherwise far too expensive for me to want to consider at this time.
Beyond the paper application, MasterChef holds open casting calls in select cities around the United States. The casting website explained that hopeful auditioners were to bring one of our “signature dishes” to the casting event – a dish which might (or might not) be tasted by one of the food experts on hand; we’d also be interviewed by the casting crew and from that they’d made decisions on who would get callbacks for further interviews and screening.
Soon the list of open call locations for season four was posted, and I saw there would be a date in New York City that I could attend – Saturday, November 10, 2012. I submitted the short preregistration form and was now committed to “doing it” no matter what.
Fate seemed to be on my side when soon after, I found out that my fannish worlds would be colliding in NYC that weekend; “Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving The Police”, a documentary based on Andy Summers’ 2007 autobiography “One Train Later”, would be premiering on November 9 in New York with Andy in attendance! I couldn’t miss that!
So I booked a (very expensive) room at the Flatotel in New York, the hotel where the MasterChef open call would take place. A converted condominium building, my room was supposed to have a full kitchen – so I could cook if need be on the morning of the open call and keep my ingredients in the fridge overnight. A friend of mine, Deb, was going to come with me to the movie and stay overnight at the hotel so she could be my personal “cheering squad” at the tryouts. Everything seemed set – now I just had to finalize plans for my “signature dish”.
Planning and preparing my audition dish
A meal many months in the making!
Ever since watching the season 2 audition episodes, I started thinking about what I would make for the casting call tryouts. I knew it had to be something that could travel well (having to be made either the day before or early that morning) and I wanted it to be something that would taste good hot OR cold. I had read online that they would give us some time to plate our dishes and that it was advisable not to do so until the last minute (so that things didn’t end up a soggy mess!)
After a lot of debate, I ended up deciding on one of my true “signature” meals: roast pork loin with fig and pine nut stuffing. This is a dish I’ve made countless times with almost uniform success – provided I got the timing just right on the meat so that it wasn’t over OR under-cooked. Since my mother raises pastured pigs, I figured this was a good gimmick, too – I could tie it in with my pitch as a natural farming proponent and utilize our farm-raised pork loin and baste it in the lard I render from our pigs’ fat. I decided too I would make a salad on the side with a bacon-vinaigrette to make my dish a “Triple Pork Threat”.
To be a balanced meal (meal, greens, starch) I decided to plate my pork loin with roasted acorn squash, which would also tie the dish into the autumn season when the audition would take place. Originally I wanted to make the salad with mixed baby greens from my garden, but after Hurricane Sandy what was left in my garden patch didn’t look too appetizing. I would just buy micro greens at the last minute.
But the pork was my big worry so I devised a three-stage plan to make sure the pork I would plate and serve for the casting call was perfect. I took out a 5-pound pork loin from our most recently butchered pig (she was a big girl!) and divided it into three sections. Friday morning, I prepared enough stuffing for all three, butterflied each section of the loin and rolled in the stuffing. I would cook two of the loin sections at home that morning: one would be my “tester” to make sure the pork was cooked to the right temperature (I would cut it open and examine, then leave at home for my sweetie for dinner that night!); if it looked good I would leave the second (cooked) one whole, wrap it uncut, and bring it for the audition in the morning. The third I would leave raw and cook in my hotel suite the morning of the competition, “in case” I thought it would be better hot from the oven/if the other one didn’t travel well.
That morning I also made my bacon-mustard-olive oil vinaigrette, candied some walnuts to mix into my salad at the last minute, and roasted my acorn squash with some spices and maple syrup. I packed all my plating utensils, silverware, place mats and other necessities for cooking in the hotel that I might need like aluminum foil, a baking dish and extra storage containers.
The pork roasted for an hour and I checked my “sacrificial” section of loin – it looked almost perfect when I sliced it through the middle, just very slightly pink. But I figured that was okay as I was going to be wrapping the other in aluminum foil right away for transit and I knew it would continue to cook a little bit more while it cooled. I packed all my other dishes into my wheelie cooler, grabbed my luggage and I was off! I booked a seat on Amtrak from Metropark so I’d be sure to have a seat AND room for my cooler and luggage (normally I just take NJ Transit into NYC). I was in NYC and at the Flatotel by 5:00pm Friday night.
The Night Before
Getting ready for the big day…and having some fun!
My room at the Flatotel looked great and so did the kitchenette, except for one thing: the temperature dial on the oven was missing! How was I supposed to cook my raw pork loin in the morning if I didn’t know the oven temperature?! I reported the problem to the front desk and was assured they would have maintenance fix it that night. Even so, I was so glad I had pre-cooked my one pork loin so I had a “backup” ready.
My friend Deb was already waiting for me across the street in a coffee shop. I ran to a nearby market for some micro greens for my salad the next morning and found some very lovely fresh frisee. Then we quickly got ready to head downtown to meet up with my Police fandom friends to see Andy Summers (and his movie), and enjoy a late dinner afterwards. This was a perfect distraction and helped ease some of the nervousness I was feeling about the auditions in the morning.
When we returned to the hotel about midnight, fortunately the oven dial HAD been fixed. I set the alarm for 5am and tried to get at least a few hours sleep so that I wouldn’t be a mess in the morning.
This is your MasterChef wake up call!
The big day is here at last
I’m up like a shot, and first thing I do is turn the oven on to 425F. I need to quick-sear the spare pork loin and then drop it to 350F to roast for 50-60 minutes. My game plan is to be in the line by 7am. Deb is waking up as well, so I jump in the shower and get dressed while the oven is warming up. As soon as it hits temperature the loin goes in, I drop the temperature…and then I run downstairs and to the corner to get myself a MASSIVE cup of coffee (and a muffin) from a corner breakfast cart. I know I’m going to need fuel now that I likely won’t get while in line.
When I get back and the pork is cooking I start putting everything together to take to the tryouts. I finally cut into the cooked loin from yesterday and, thank goodness, it came out perfect. The quick wrapping and chilling made it set perfectly; I have two perfect slices to plate and I give Deb a taste even if it’s early in the morning for pork; she declares it a winner. It’s so moist and flavorful that I decide I’m just going to go with THAT pork for the audition and take the morning’s pork out of the oven now that it’s mostly cooked; I’m not going to take chances on something cooked in an unfamiliar oven.
I plastic wrap my pre-cut stuffed pork loin slices and also pre-toss half of my salad with the bacon dressing. The rest of the lettuce I leave “raw” in case the rest looks too oily on plating. I get my cooler all set up with everything I need to plate quickly on top; everything else goes either in the bottom of the cooler or in my luggage bag. We are packed and ready to check out of the hotel just about on schedule, perhaps 10 or 15 minutes after 7 am. The front desk staff are more than happy to check our luggage, thankfully, so I only need to carry my wheelie cooler, application and purse with me.
I see at this point that there is already a significant line forming outside the hotel and around the corner bend into an alleyway. But the line’s not too bad yet and soon enough, someone is coming down the line to check us in and give us numbers; I’m 128. I’m ready to wait. I see a lot of people carrying desserts which seems like kind of a cop-out dish to me but also a good solution to not being able to cook on the spot. One woman has her meal in a crockpot, and she finds an electrical outlet in the alleyway to plug into and keep her dish warm during the wait. Clever.
The line is pretty quiet at first, until the guy behind me starts calling out, “Hey, everybody wake up! Are we excited? C’mon! Let’s see some energy!” I start talking to him and he turns out to be a bit of a regular on the local reality tv/extra circuit. He lives on Long Island and goes to every casting call he can make, often ending up in background parts on NY-based crime shows and says he has even auditioned for American Idol in the past. He’s there with his young daughter and both of them are a hoot. I have a lot of fun talking with him while we stand around and wait.
In front of me is a woman who looks to be around my age; she’s a little more serious and even a bit sullen in demeanor. She’s from Jersey, like me, but North Jersey – and from an area badly hit by Hurricane Sandy so she doesn’t even have power in her house right now. She almost didn’t come to the audition but managed to cook her dish in a friend’s house where she could do so using their generator. I’m thinking she’s got a great story to share, but not a lot of personality. The guy behind me is ALL personality, and has a great story too about wanting to enroll in culinary school after having a massive health issue that cost him his other main source of employment.
How am I going to compete with these people?!
I’m ready for my close-up
The madness begins
We had been told to show up by or before 9am in order to be eligible for some prizes, but then we find out showing up early was for more than that. Over barely-audible bullhorns (so they have to repeat themselves multiple times) we’re told by the casting and film crew that we now need to move out of line-up and come around to the front of the Flatotel. They are going to film crowd shots and need us to all be in them. The numbers we were given were so, after these crowd shots, we could line back up in the order we had arrived that morning. OK, then…
So I wheel my cooler around to the front, and as I’m walking along I see some of the casting folks with piles of colorful, glittery posterboard signs they are handing out to people who will take them. They are “handmade” but certainly not signs that any of us hopefuls actually showed up with; some have photos of the judges Gordon, Joe and Graham with saying things like “I want my Cup of Joe!” or with holes cut out to put your head through the MasterChef logo. I grab one that’s bright green and not too stupid, just because I figure it might actually get me on TV.
There is a long process of making us space out and back up until the crowd density is right for the TV cameras. Joe is going to be there (shoot, I was hoping for Gordon) so this is to be a shot to air on the audition episode. They search through the crowd for people wearing brightly colored clothes to bring up to the front (and complain about so many people wearing black…hey, it’s New York!) I see it’s quite a crowd of hopefuls at this point, from soccer moms to tattooed biker types, from people in wheelchairs to women literally wearing beauty pageant ribbons and tiaras.
Joe arrives in a big limo SUV, and there’s some delay as everything is set up. We’re told we are to march forward as he is speaking into his bullhorn, shouting “MasterChef! Master Chef!” to drown him out and to not stop until we reach the alleyway again. That they may want several takes so that after the first we should return back to where we’d been before instead of lining back up in the alley.
So. This goes on for not one, not two, but if I remember correctly three takes. On at least one of them I know I was shoving my green “Pick Me” banner right in Joe’s face so I hope I made it on film. It was all very exhausting AND surreal. I can only compare it to the “Waiting for the Worms” section of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, when Roger Waters (as “Pink”) is shouting in to the megaphone while the mindless crowds of marching hammers storm along, oblivious to their madness.
Finally they’re satisfied with the filming and we can get back in line. They collect all the signs from us along the way (perhaps to re-use at the next open call?) and now it’s time to stand around and wait again.
A brief encounter with Joe Bastianich while in line
My one-on-one with a “MasterChef”
10am and the line finally starts moving forward as the auditions begin. Soon I’m around the corner and I’m actually near the front of the line when they do a cut off before letting more people inside. At this point another friend of mine has arrived to help be my cheering squad, although it turns out that friends and family won’t be allowed in past this point. Oh well!
My name and application is checked at this point and I’m asked about the dish I’ve brought. This info is written on a “scoring page” then attached to my application. Now here comes Joe once more to briefly meet with and talk to us hopeful MasterChefs – he’s asking each our names, where we’re from and what dish we’ve brought. Being a fellow Italian, when I introduce myself I mention that I’m actually from Ancona, Italy (it is where I was born, after all.) Joe lights up at this and asks what I’ve made – I should have described it as Arrosto di maiale con fichi e pinoli instead of Roast Pork Loin with Figs and Pine Nuts – because he declares “that doesn’t sound Italian!” and moves on before I have the chance to smack-talk back at him.
Soon after we’re allowed inside – and expected to climb a narrow set of stairs with our food and coolers! I ask if I may use the elevator that’s right there, which people in wheelchairs had been allowed to use – and gruffly told “NO”. Ack. I’m struggling with my heavy, awkward cooler until thankfully a few other contestants lend me a hand with it. I realize I need to calm down, I hurt my finger and I’m getting cranky and I know that won’t sell well with the casting folks.
I’m lined up in a hallway with about 30 other people, waiting for our turn. I can see there are two rooms being used – one where each group of us goes in for the plating, initial interviews and tastings. From each group of thirty it looks like about six or so are then called into a second room, I assume those are the lucky ones being called for additional interviews. There are a lot of deflated expressions as those not chosen leave the first room and head back down the stairs. Some of them do smile and wish the rest of us “good luck”.
And now it’s our turn.
Step one of the MasterChef audition
The tasting room has tables lined up in a circle and we are each give half a table space to do our plating. First thing first, however, is that we are to place our written applications down on the edge of the table and not to touch them again or else be immediately disqualified – they are now FOX property.
We are given a few minutes to get our plating supplies and dish elements ready while they go over some basic information and make sure everyone is in place. Then we will be given exactly three minutes to actually get our dishes plated. When the casting person calls “Start now!” the room erupts into furious chaos but I try to tune out the noise around me while I work. I start with a large smear of the pureed acorn squash as a bed for two slices of the pork loin. Then I add my salad, starting with some of the undressed frisee and then putting the dressed greens and candied walnuts on top. I rush then to put away my plating utensils and food containers, wipe down the plate, and finally let out a deep breath of relief when she yells “STOP” and I’m actually done.
We all look around at each other, some laughing, some looking happy, some looking frustrated, all checking out each other’s plates. My new friend from Long Island has done an adorable romantic plating of mini-cheesecakes on a silver platter, complete with champagne flutes and a bottle of sparkling cider. The woman from North Jersey has an attractively-plated beef stew with vegetables but she’s already convinced herself she’s not going further, putting down her dish and dismissing her cute dishware as “nothing special”.
The room gets quiet as the tasting is to begin. I’m actually second in order so I only can eavesdrop while the woman’s beef stew dish is sampled. The taster asks her about the cut of beef she used, where the recipe came from, why it’s special to her (she doesn’t have much of an answer), if the beef stock was homemade (no.) Next he’s on to me.
I smile and try to be bubbly and enthusiastic. I describe my dish, making sure to mention how all three pork ingredients are from our family’s farm, naturally raised and how important that is to me as a chef. He is impressed by how “juicy” the pork is for being served cold, quite an accomplishment apparently. He also loves my salad dressing and declares it perfectly balanced and the quality of the olive oil used really shines through. This is another point I jump on so I can bring up my Italian roots, and how I love to experiment with olive oils from different regions of Italy. He seems pleased with it all before moving on to the next dish.
Suddenly one of the casting women is in front of me and asking me about olive oil. Do I know a lot about it? Am I an “expert” on olive oil? Well, no, not exactly, but it is something I’m enthusiastic about and buying olive oil from small producers in Italy. With that she scribbles a few notes on my application and moves on. Ooops. Now I’m thinking I missed my chance to catch her eye with a good witty response.
This all goes on for a while with photos being taken of each of us and our dishes. Joe wanders in the room at some point, not saying anything but pacing about with a serious expression on his face; this is certainly the “stage” Joe of MasterChef now. Finally we’re told we can clean up and get our food packed away. Some of us trade each other bites or containers of food; others just dump their food in the trash.
The casting person announces she will be reading off some of our numbers; if our number is called, we are to wait behind. If not, thanks for coming and better luck next time!
Amazingly, my number is the first one called!
Time to impress
Step two of the audition process
Us lucky few who made it past the first part of the audition are now led into a waiting room area. We’re told we’re here because we proved we definitely could cook; now we had to sell ourselves to the casting committee and we’d have about “10 seconds” to do so. Yikes! After some nervous waiting around, six of us are called in together and lined up against a wall across the room from the casting committee. They take our photo and I feel like I’m in a police line-up.
I’m second in line and they begin with the woman next to me, asking her some things like what the craziest thing she’d ever done was and what her dreams of cooking are (to open a restaurant to serve food to all of her NYC friends, apparently). I’m up next and (although my memory is now a bit of blur from the adrenaline rush) somehow I’m being asked about my dish and how long I’d been planning it, and I mention that I’d been planning it for well over a year now, since watching the last season’s audition episodes. The head interviewer doesn’t seem to quite believe me but I just explain that’s how I am, I’ve dreamed about being on the show for two years now and that it’s just the engineer in me that loves to plan out creative solutions to problems well in advance.
I get the “craziest thing I’ve done” question as well, and I’d been scrambling mentally on how to answer it. I knew what my best answer was, from a reality show point of view, but it’s the kind of personal thing I would NOT want brought up on television as I’m sure would be jumped on by producers. Instead I go for the silly answer about spending the bulk of two years following The Police around on their reunion tour. That gets some laughs and a “You’re funny” from the casting people, but I wasn’t sure I’d really sold myself – or rather, sold the version of myself they were looking for.
The other four people in our group are a rather interesting bunch. I won’t go in to details as I’m waiting to see if any of them actually end up making it on the show or not. Suffice to say some seemed real, some seemed (very) fake, one I just knew would get picked to go on to the next round because she just had the “story” to sell (and some connections in the entertainment industry). We were thanked and told to wait outside for a few minutes, where another casting crew member explained that two or three of us would likely be asked to stick around to schedule a more detailed interview later. If we weren’t chosen at this point it wasn’t “definitely over”, but if we didn’t hear from them in about four weeks to assume we didn’t make the cut for this season.
Well, they called out three numbers from our group of six and I wasn’t surprised who they were – and was only slightly disappointed at this point I wasn’t one of them. I collected my things and headed downstairs to meet back up with my friends and give them the news that it didn’t look like I was going to be MasterChef any time soon, alas! But I treated them to lunch before heading home to thank them for the support and encouragement. I was back home about 6 o’clock that evening and for dinner finished off the rest of my “MasterChef” roast pork with my sweetie.
So, was it worth it?
Was it worth the time, expense and exhaustion of auditioning for MasterChef? For this fan and foodie, absolutely! I had fun meeting the people I did at the casting call and getting a small glimpse behind the scenes of the show. I also felt proud that my dish was a winner and proved that I do indeed have the talents and skills in the kitchen to be a “Master Chef” – even if I don’t necessarily have what it takes to be a reality tv star.
Would I do it again? Well, in fact I did. I attended the Philadelphia casting call for Season 5 in late 2013, which wasn’t quite the mob scene as it had been in New York the year before. And perhaps unsurprisingly, my experience was very much the same: getting past the tasting judge easily, going before the same casting people (who even remembered me) and then “don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Oh well! I will say that I have some thoughts on the casting process and how it’s not really in any shape or form about finding the best “home cooks” in America, but just the youngest and most marketable ones.
Is MasterChef Ageist? That’s the question I found myself asking after that second experience and watching through to the end of season 5 in 2014. But, no matter what, I’ll keep watching, and recapping episodes, as long as MasterChef is on the air!
Related posts at Spacial Anomaly
Table of Contents
- Do you ever dream of being the next “MasterChef”? I did!
- A little background on MasterChef
- The MasterChef Application Process
- Planning and preparing my audition dish
- The Night Before
- This is your MasterChef wake up call!
- I’m ready for my close-up
- A brief encounter with Joe Bastianich while in line
- Tasting Time
- Time to impress
- Final thoughts
sockii is just your typical Jane-of-All-Trades who never has enough time in her day for all of her projects. She has written for many websites online including Squidoo, Zujava, Yahoo! Contributors Network, HubPages and Wizzley. She has been attending and vending at science fiction and media conventions for over 15 years, and for several years ran an art gallery and jewelry store in Philadelphia. Today she is happy to be living in South Jersey with her partner David and their 6 cats. Sockii is a member of several affiliate sales programs including Amazon Associates and Viglink. Products from these services may be advertised on her posts and pages to generate sales commissions.