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Gordon Ramsay's 'MasterChef' serves feast of drama, amateur cooking

Contestant Mike Kim, a server from Redondo Beach, Calif., was an exception to the crying game. He made duck “ssam” wraps.


Contestant Mike Kim, a server from Redondo Beach, Calif., was an exception to the crying game. He made duck “ssam” wraps.

Chef Gordon Ramsay neatly sums up his new series, MasterChef, this way:

"(We're) searching the country for the most amazing amateur chefs, and more importantly, putting them under immense pressure and turning them into something unique."

As a home cook, I was left to wonder, why is adding immense pressure more important?

The new series, which bills itself as kind of a Top Chef for home cooks, debuted Tuesday night on Fox. The first several contestants did not impress the judges at all, culminating when Ramsay spit out the tilapia taco of one of the contestants.

That brought me to the first question I had about the show. In the opening, it said that they went across the country, searching through thousands of applicants to find the country's best home cooks. They brought the top 50 to Los Angeles, and the first three have the judges screaming and spitting about how terrible the food is? Seems like a setup.

In full disclosure, I may not be totally impartial. I was one of the thousands who lined up to try out back in January in Miami. And so was St. Petersburg's Elizabeth Dougherty, who blogs about food on her website ( and hosts the Florida Flavors show on WGUL-AM 860. Neither of us made it. But neither of us is particularly bitter about it. We watched the premiere together and came away with a similar reaction: We must not have cried enough.

The first round of eliminations showed that the judges — Ramsay, chef Graham Elliot Bowles and restaurateur Joe Bastianich — are willing to overlook a culinary faux pas if the contestant can at least bring the drama.

They were offended that David Miller, from Massachusetts, called his dish a bouillabaisse, but they gave him a pass when he cried.

They didn't even get a chance to try the smothered chicken of Tracy Nailor, an Atlanta doctor, before she was crying while telling them about her mother's cookbook. Give her an apron.

But the greatest act of emotional manipulation was saved for Faruq Jenkins, a bartender from Glendale, Calif. He didn't properly season his mac and cheese, which any reality cooking show viewer knows is the kiss of death. After a proper dressing down, his wife and young child were brought out before the judges, essentially to cry, plead and provide visuals for the overly dramatic music that led into the critically timed commercial break before Ramsay relented and issued him an apron. There had been enough tears, it seems.

"They clearly picked people who really wanted to be on the show, but I don't really want to be on a show that much," Dougherty said. "I'm passionate about cooking, but I wouldn't want to expose my family to a process like this."

To be fair, there was also Mike Kim, a server from Redondo Beach, Calif. His duck "ssam" wraps looked fantastic. And he didn't cry at all. Well, he may have gotten a little misty after he was approved.

Dougherty and I found Ramsay's comment about pressure odd, because in the promotion of the casting calls, the producers billed the series as less about yelling and more about teaching. For each of us, cooking is a way to release tension, not build it.

"It's obvious that these people are under a great deal of pressure," Dougherty said. "It has the intensity of making diamonds. 'We're going to crush you and make you something better.' "

Granted, the show we thought we were trying out for probably wouldn't have had enough drama — or screaming, or spitting — in it to be a network hit.

"People who don't cook a lot will probably like it more than people who do," Dougherty said. "It's a good show, I just feel kind of sorry for some of the people."

Ultimately, we won't have to feel sorry for the one who walks away with the $250,000 grand prize.

Jim Webster can be reached at (727) 893-8746 or

To watch

9 p.m. Tuesday (starting Aug. 18, it moves to 8 p.m. Wednesdays).

Gordon Ramsay's 'MasterChef' serves feast of drama, amateur cooking 07/27/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 5, 2010 1:48pm]
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