Guest Post – Ben Starr – How to Watch a MasterChef Premiere…from a MasterChef Survivor

Three weeks ago, I gave you all some insight into how I trained and prepared for MasterChef… but I left out a BIG part of my preparation.

As I watched all threee seasons, I was on the lookout for more than just information about the show, what the judges were looking for, etc. I was keeping an eye on the contestants, looking for SOMETHING. I am big on gathering information before jumping into anything, and this was going to be the biggest, most insane “thing” I ever attempted. What I really needed was information from someone who had been there.

Due to the contracts we had to sign, this would be a sticky situation. We weren’t allowed to tell anyone that we were on the show, which would make it difficult to obtain that information. I had to figure out how to do it in a way that wouldn’t violate the contract, and I needed to figure out who the perfect person to approach would be. Pick the wrong one, and for all I knew, I’d be messaging the best friend of one of the producers!

After watching all three seasons, the choice was obvious to me. I would anonymously contact Ben Starr, from MasterChef season two.

You see, something about him really grabbed me. He reminded me a lot of myself, and something told me that he would not only be an amazing source of information, but that he would be trustworthy – an important combination, for what I was about to do.

Against the recommendation of my husband and VERY small group of people who knew what I was doing, I set up an anonymous email address that wasn’t connected to ANYTHING – only ever to be used to contact Ben. I called myself “X” (LOL!), and carefully crafted my initial email to not ACTUALLY say that I was one of the 100. I knew he was smart, and I knew that he would know what I was getting at.

Over the few months before I left, we would email back and forth. I would pepper him with questions – mostly about logistical concerns – and he would provide just the information I was looking for.

I’ll never forget how generous he was with his time, answering all these questions from a complete stranger… especially given that he knew nothing about me! I was extremely careful to not reveal my gender, location, or anything that ANYONE could identify me by. I was even careful to make sure that I used region-neutral language and syntax!

Aside from answering questions I had about logistics concerns (“What is the laundry situation?”), Ben was like a personal, private cheerleader. He gave me the pep talks and confidence that could only come from someone who had been there.

He told me to cook my butt off and cook from the heart. To not try to play someone else’s game, just cook the food I know and love. He told me to be the biggest, boldest, but still most genuine version of myself that I could be. He told me to not to censor myself or try to “act,”but to be the person I am after a few drinks with friends – great advice!

He told me listen to the judges’ feedback, but always trust my heart over all. He reminded me that I’d know if I really cooked a bad dish, and sometimes harsh criticism is exaggerated to heighten drama. He told me not to take that personally and not to let it ruin my love of cooking or cause me to doubt myself. Above all else, he told me to embrace my fellow contestants, learn from them, and love them, because years from now, they will still be like family long after the world has forgotten about MasterChef.

Some of that, I didn’t really take to heart (Sorry Ben!). I read it and I processed it, but I wasn’t exactly able to tell him that the likelihood of me embracing anyone, making friends, or coming to see anyone as “family” was very slim, on account of me not being a people person in the SLIGHTEST – no identifying information about me!

Whoops. I guess he actually was right about it. I promise I’ll listen next time, Ben!

Funny thing – I had no idea just how good a job I’d done at concealing my identity, til I finally “introduced” myself to him. It was a confusing exchange, he didn’t immediately pick up on what I was saying… because he thought that “X” was a DUDE! Hahahahaa!! I don’t think he fully believed that I was female until got on Skype together!

Anyway, enough back story from me. Ben is an amazing guy, and I’m so glad that I met him – I chose WISELY. I thought it would be fun to get him to do a blog entry, leading up to my debut on MasterChef. When asked what I specifically wanted him to write about, I left it wide open. He has such a diverse range of interests, and is just a really interesting, entertaining writer, I didn’t want to give him any guidelines. I knew that whatever he would write about – food, travel, home brewing, gardening… or whatever else – would be great.

What he emailed me as a guest blog blew me away. This is amazing, and I really hope that people keep this essay in mind when watching MasterChef both this evening, and going forward.

Thank you, Ben, for everything. You’re amazing.

If you’d like to follow Ben’s adventures, you can do so on his website, Twitter, Facebook, and/or Youtube

All photos courtesy of Ben Starr.

It’s been 2 years since I found myself locked in a hotel room in Los Angeles, unable to leave without a babysitter, unable to connect to the outside world (including family, friends, and career.) Awake at 5am every morning and hustled into a cold van, driven to a grimy warehouse where I’d sit outside in a tent for 3 hours.

Every 10 minutes, a production assistant would come by and say, “5 minute warning, everyone. On-set in 5 minutes.” That warning would be repeated for many hours to come. Then suddenly a cry, “EVERYONE ON SET NOW!” Hustlebustle. And we’re herded in front of Ramsay, Bastianich, and Elliot to begin the 8-hour process of filming a 1-hour challenge. Then it’s back to being locked in a hotel room for a few hours of desperate sleep before the process repeated. Every day. Without stopping. For 2 months. Making MasterChef. Season 2.

On May 22, MasterChef season 4 will commence. And in a scant 3 hours of broadcasting, the lives of 100 contestants will flash before your eyes.Within 3 hours of programming, more than 80% of them will be gone forever,and only a tiny core of contestants will remain for the bulk of the season.

This blog is not about that core. This blog is about the ones you’ll see for fleeting seconds. Or the ones you’ll never see.

These initial 100 contestants were selected from live auditions that took place last fall. When you attend a MasterChef audition, you bring a signature dish of yours (they want it to convey “you on a plate”), and you stand in line for an hour or two (or six) with hundreds, or sometimes thousands of other hopefuls. Looking around, you see nervous, shy people with what appear to be truly spectacular dishes. You also see folks dressed up like pirate strippers or gangsta rappers, hopeful to make enough of a spectacle to warrant a second glance from the casting agents. When you reach the front of the line, you’re herded into a large room with 19 other people, where you have a couple of minutes to plate your dish…which has been silently curdling, wilting, fermenting, and basically dying while you stood in line all those hours. (Little do you know, this is preparing you for an everyday occurrence on the show…food on MasterChef is NEVER judged when it is fresh, only after sitting at room temperature for hours after it came out of the oven.)

The 100 contestants, who barely know each other, waiting in a cold dark alley to first enter the warehouse where the signature dish challenge is filmed.

Once your dish is plated, a series of people begin walking around the room. Some are casting agents. (That could range from the supreme executive producer of the show, to an unpaid intern at a local casting firm.) Some are “culinary experts.” (That could range from an instructor at the local culinary school, to a TRUE world-class Master Chef like Ferdinand Metz…the kind that FAR outrank formidable judges like Ramsay and Elliot, neither of whom are actually real Master Chefs.) The trick is that you don’t know who is who. You don’t know who to explain how you crafted the dish to, and who to explain that your family died when you were 2, you were raised by a pack of wolves, and you learned to cook by watching Mongolian television which was the only channel you could intercept through the airwaves in the remote mountain valley where your wolf-pack family lived. 2 or 3 people will ask you some basic questions, and after you’ve talked for about 30 seconds, they say, “THANK YOU,” write a few notes on their clipboard, and move on.

After all the casting folk have made their rounds, a few names are called for people who are to remain for further questioning. Among them are probably the pirate stripper and the gangsta rapper. Also, that outgoing, food-geek dude who rigged his homemade immersion circulator to run on battery power so he could keep his curried hollandaise at perfect serving temperature until plating time. Staying along with him is the adorable old grandmother who made her famous church-potluck deviled eggs with Hellmans mayonaise and a package of dry French Onion soup mix, and who does stand-up comedy at the Senior Center on Tuesdays.

Amongst the “rejects” who are cast back out into the real world are probably the most skilled and talented among all those present that day. But they don’t fit the list of characters the casting folks are looking for. Because reality television is most certainly NOT about skill. That is incidental. They are looking for *characters*.

Contestants enjoying a rare moment in the sun outside the warehouse.

After an invasive and arduous several months of interviews, psychological evaluations, background investigations, and blood tests for everything from STDs to drugs to full DNA sequencing (I’m not joking), 100 contestants are informed that they are cast on MasterChef.

When they arrive in Los Angeles to film the show, they immediately become perplexed. Because, as they get to know each other and chat about food, they discover that there’s a surprisingly wide range of skill and knowledge levels present. There are plenty of contestants who have never heard of “sous vide” cooking, have never tasted arugula, and don’t know what “mise en place” means. Then there are other contestants who may have been to culinary school, or may have worked on the line in a restaurant…who have dined VERY well…who have even more knowledge of sophisticated cooking techniques than many chefs. Most candidates fall somewhere in between. And the core group of finalists, after the majority are sent home without aprons, will be pulled from both extremes and the middle group. But in that first week as the contestants get to know each other, it can be very puzzling for some, and very intimidating for others. Puzzling to the advanced candidates because they are wondering, if this is really a skill-based competition, why are there people here who only know how to make casseroles from cans. Intimidating for those casserole candidates, because there are people here speaking in an advanced culinary language that they can’t understand, and they wonder how they fit in.

Through the magic of television, a crumbling old furniture warehouse is transformed into the signature dish studio.

Eventually, they all spend a week inside a dusty warehouse filming the “signature dish” challenge. This is where each of the 100 contestants has an hour to prepare their “signature dish” for the judges, and find out whether or not they get the coveted apron. Some contestants are truly lucky enough to actually cook their own recipe. Contractually unable to reveal any more, I’ll just say that other contestants don’t have that luxury and have to cook something else…sometimes it’s something they’ve never even cooked before. This week of signature dish filming is incredibly tense. Up to 10 contestants are cooking at any given time. Once their hour is complete, they put their food on a cart and wait for their turn before the judges. That wait can be up to several hours long, depending on how smoothly the production is running.

And this solid week of 12 hour days gets condensed into 2 or 3 episodes of MasterChef. The premiers. Out of 100 contestants, you’ll be lucky to see half them on the final edit. Those that are displayed will be a carefully selected sampling of some (but not all) of the top core of finalists, along with candidates who have inspiring stories, candidates with crazy mad skills but who are deliberately eliminated without an apron to prove to the rest of the contestants and the audience that this is a “tough and very serious” competition, candidates with bizarre aspects (ie a guy who plates his sushi on a naked woman, a guy who rides in on a horse, a guy with a pet monkey who sits on his shoulder as he cooks, a girl who cooks with her own breast milk, etc.) and contestants who were deliberately cast to be ridiculed by the judges for having amateur skills. Yes…that happens too.

In a casting van headed to the studio, contestants take every instant they can to study.

Do I know this because I have “inside knowledge?” Of course not. You know it, too. MasterChef auditions gather thousands of VERY serious, knowledgeable cooks. If the casting agents had truly sought out the 100 best home cooks in America, there wouldn’t be a single amateur in the house. No one would be sent home for having offended the judges with sub-par cuisine. But this is entertainment, folks. You wouldn’t watch MasterChef if they had TRULY recruited the 100 best home cooks in the country. Because it would be pretty darn boring.

One contestant creatively expressing their extreme boredom from being locked in their hotel room all day.

So as you watch the first 3 hours of MasterChef, let yourself be entertained. This isn’t reality. It’s television. But the lives *behind*the show are reality. And if you connect with a contestant who really strikes something inside you, reach out and find them on the internet. Because MasterChef changes lives for the worse, perhaps more often than it changes lives for the better. People discover that they were just cast to be made fun of. Others who truly believed they had a chance at winning, and who produced a truly fabulous signature dish, will be eliminated because they just didn’t have the right chemistry to be in the core group…and are judged based not on their cooking, but on their “package” as a character. And that is really traumatic for a lot of folks. Contestants will make it to the top group who know *very* little about cooking. Contestants will be eliminated who are breathtakingly talented. That’s just the way reality TV goes.

What can help heal them, and inspire them to continue following their food dreams, is to be contacted by fans who felt a connection to them. Because one of the truly remarkable things that MasterChef does is cause people to take a long, hard, objective look at their lives. They made the choice to potentially lose their job, their house, their spouse, because they have a dream of making a difference in the culinary world. And that’s powerful stuff. And those that get tossed out like yesterday’s salad can find themselves in a very trying place. But you can help push them to continue their dreams by showing that you were moved by their performance and you want to see more…*that their sacrifice and performance made a difference to someone*.

After the first 3 episodes are over and the core group of finalists is chosen, reflect on the fact that you only saw a handful of the total number of people who risked almost everything in their lives to be on the show. There are people who will never even make it to the final edit. You’ll never even know they were on the show in the first place. But their entire life was turned upside down for half a year. They had to leave their job with no more information than, “I’m going away for at least a week, maybe up to 2 months, and I can’t contact you until I get back.” They left their families the same way, too.

So while you laugh and cry as you meet the lucky (and sometimes very unlucky) folks who are featured during the first few episodes, think of the ones you *didn’t* meet. And realize that, even for the people the judges laugh out of the studio who seem to have no cooking skill at all, they took a very frightening risk to be there. Deep inside, they truly dream of being the next MasterChef, of leaving their mark on the culinary world. And, as every true Master Chef knows, *all* skills can be taught…but passion can’t be.

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14 thoughts on “Guest Post – Ben Starr – How to Watch a MasterChef Premiere…from a MasterChef Survivor

  1. This was so profoundly moving. I knew reality television was not “reality”, and I knew that the contests were rigged to a certain extent and that participants were sleep deprived, but I had no idea how truly horrible the treatment of the participants was/is.

    I know Marie to be an extremely talented woman and am a pleased purchaser of her cookbooks. I’m delighted to hear that you two struck up such a friendship that is healthy for both of you, depsite the experience.

    Lastly, Ben, one note: If she had been male, she would have signed her emails “Y”. 😉

  2. Not much in Ben’s guest entry is quite surprising, but it is a very real, very slap-in-the-face view of how television is. Not just reality television, but almost every show you can think of. Cheers!

  3. So as a contestant on that upcoming Season 4, I’d like to thank you for this particular post. I can’t say half of what I would like to yet because of the NDA, besides I wouldn’t want to accidentally spoil anything for the people who REALLY enjoy the show, but this sums up about half of it very well.

    I look forward to being able to write my story eventually, but in the mean time…thanks man.

  4. I have been searching for a blog, article anything describing the actual experience of this show. Good work! Glad Ben shared it on his FB page.

  5. Wow, I’m so taken aback by this blog post so much so that although I’ll watch the show, I don’t think I can get as emotionally invested as I typically do. I always figured it would be difficult for contestants but to block you from your job, family and friends is pretty wild! How can one stay so focused if they can’t reach out to their loved ones? Is this prison? Wow, so blessed to follow Ben on twitter and now being introduced to your blog. But all in all, Masterchef can’t be that bad b/c without it we wouldn’t have met any of you!

  6. Marie, your cake looked wonderful! I was sad they only gave you a split-second of airtime.

    Ben, you’ve written a wonderful guest post! I absolutely loved your season. You’re passion for food was obvious and inspiring. Also, thank you for giving us all an insider’s look at what really goes on while taping MasterChef. It sounds much more emotionally draining than I ever imagined.

    My only question: I’ve watched other countries versions of MasterChef (in fact, I watched MasterChef India religiously while I was staying in Kolkata), and they typically feature segments of the judges teaching the contestants different techniques and recipes. Why do you think the American version leaves this out? Was there a lot of teaching going on behind the scenes? I know, you probably had to sign a non-disclosure regarding this; but if you’re able to answer, I’d love to know!

    1. I, too, have watched outher countries’ versions of MasterChef. They seem to be much more serious and less personality-based. If you are truly intrested in a serious food competition, try watching MasterChef Professionals on BBC America! It is the best cooking competiton I’ve ever watched. Excellent, inventive food; serious cooks; judges who are generally polite, honest and encouraging. And my mouth waters when I watch the judges taste the dishes. It proves to me that there are people out there who don’t consider ugly behavior to be the hallmark of good television.

  7. Hi Marie and Ben,

    Ben, you never fail to write awesome blogs — sure was an eyeopener for me — I thought it was the best 100 chefs, and then the best 50, 40, 30, 18 — and finally the best chef of all chosen as Masterchef in the finale — I also thought Chef Ramsey was and is one of the best Master Chefs in the world — I love all his shows… so true eye-opener! glad that your blog, Marie, asks for a website — because you and Ben can check out my poetry and devotionals — that’s mostly what my blog’s all about, although my testimony is there also… I wish you best of luck, Marie, in the competition — happy to root for any friend of Ben’s — in my mind he should have been in at least the top 3 in Season 2… but that’s just my humble opinion — take care you 2 🙂

  8. Hi, folks!

    @Shari, there IS a lot of education behind-the-scenes for the top 18. MasterChef is like a mini culinary school. However, the judges are NOT part of that education…different people are involved in that. That’s one reason it’s not shown in the American version…people would expect Gordon to be teaching classes, and that’s not what happens. However, the judges DO explain some things at your stations, and I do have a very fond memory of Ramsay deboning a 20 pound salmon in about 10 seconds to show us how it was done, when our normal “class” was taught by a chef who had smoked a little something beforehand. Another reason it’s not shown is that MasterChef isn’t made for YOU or the other people who would LOVE to see more education and technique on the show…MasterChef is made for the Fox audience. Otherwise you’d see it on Food Network! It’s an entertainment show, no different from American Idol. The food is superfluous to 90% of the viewers.

    @Jenny, YES, I wouldn’t take back my MasterChef experience for ANYTHING! The people it brought me are now so firmly integrated into my family that I can’t imagine life without them. It’s very difficult to convey both sides of the story, because for most of the FINALISTS, MasterChef brings them as much good as it does bad. But this post was specifically about the folks that had their lives turned upside down for half a year, to end up with 3 seconds of heavily edited screen time, like Marie did. Or the folks that didn’t get screen time at all! For them, the experience is largely negative, at least emotionally, and I wanted to encourage folks to reach out to them and learn their story.

    @Kerri, Gordon Ramsay is one of the most famous celebrity chefs in all the world, and he has more Michelin stars than many true Master Chefs. (This just means he has opened LOTS of restaurants…most Master Chefs have one restaurant.) Ramsay is an entrepreneur in addition to being a chef. But he spends more time on TV these days than in the kitchen. This is NOT to downplay his talent. He is brilliant. I actually didn’t believe that when I landed on the MasterChef set and was initially interacting with him as if he was an actor rather than a chef. The aforementioned moment when I saw him debone a 20 pound salmon in 10 seconds changed my tune really fast. The Certified Master Chef program (CMC) was started, I believe, at the Culinary Institute of America and is a degree similar to a PhD. Not many chefs in the world have completed it, and it recognizes the highest level of education in the culinary world.

  9. Hi Marie, Ben

    I know its wrong… but why do I still want to watch it? Is the same for me with all 3 of Gordon Ramsay’s shows he is on, Kitchen Nightmares and Hell’s Kitchen included.

    Joe Bastianich seems a little too over dramatic, overly aggressive… Graham seems to be the adorable and Gordon tones down the aggression he depicts in his usual shows and is moderate… so even the judges are chosen as such… at different scales or asked to act that way… Otherwise Gordon would be screaming ‘its RAW!’, ‘its COLD!’, ‘its DRY’ or ‘you you you you you you…. GET OUT! F*** OFF’. To be I can’t say if any of those two characters is actually Gordon Ramsay, but WTH.. why would you want him to be shown in that light, why would he want to be seen in that light?

    The thing is… I now all this… But why do I sitll watch it??? :/

  10. I was wondering what you mean by “They had to leave their job with no more information than, “I’m going away for at least a week, maybe up to 2 months, and I can’t contact you until I get back.” They left their families the same way, too.”

    I would think most people are preparing for this for so long and have told the all the people in their lives they are going to compete in the show, so I’m confused.

    And why is there mention of “Then there are other contestants who may have been to culinary school, or may have worked on the line in a restaurant…”, the application clearly states that you can’t have worked with food professionally…so of course these people were eliminated early on. The contest is for home chefs.

    1. Actually, from the very first audition you do – the big cattle call – you’re told very clearly that you are not allowed to tell anyone that you even auditioned, and that if you do, it’ll kill your eligibility to be on the show.

      As far as culinary school, etc… like most “reality” TV shows, Masterchef subscribes to a very loose definition of “Reality”. Don’t believe much of what you see/hear on the show.

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