Tuesday, January 16, 2018

St. Pete native dishes on 'MasterChef', Ramsay

Tampa Bay area native Francis Biondi grew up in the kitchen, sitting at the counter and watching his parents whip up Italian dishes with thick fettuccine noodles in creamy sauce. When he was 10, he made his first dish — pasta, of course.

Now he's bringing that lifelong culinary passion to a bigger kitchen: Biondi, 25, is a contestant on Gordon Ramsay's competitive cooking show MasterChef, which aired its second episode of the season Monday on Fox.

Born in St. Petersburg, Biondi grew up in Seminole and the Palm Harbor area before attending Palm Harbor University High School, where he was in the IB program, and East Lake High. He now lives in Orlando, where he moved a few years ago to become, get this, a pro golfer. He graduated from Florida State in 2010 with degrees in International Business and Entrepreneurship; he studied in France for a few months as part of a French minor. In fact, Biondi has always been a student of the world. His mom, who is Filipino, and his dad, who has an Italian background, met in Italy, and instilled an international curiosity in Biondi. He's been traveling the globe since he was a small child, visiting the Philippines and making summer trips to Europe.

"I would eat a lot of great food. I turned into a food snob," he said. "(Traveling) taught me about how food should taste, and how it should look on the plate. Using fresh ingredients really make a dish."

When asked to describe his cooking style for MasterChef, Biondi used the term "eclectic nomad" — "even though I'm not totally sure what I meant by that." What it means is that he has a penchant for mixing culinary styles and flavors, like his dad did for years when he put his own Italian twist on Filipino dishes.

On the MasterChef premiere, the dish that secured Biondi an apron and sent him through to the next round was a prime example of this signature cooking style: Cornmeal-crusted grouper cheeks on a Moroccan chickpea ragu, a blend of Southern comfort and Middle Eastern flavors.

"Cooking is an art form. I think there's some kind of innate talent that you need," he said.

Last year, Biondi was working as a server at the Rusty Spoon in downtown Orlando under chef Kathleen Blake, a James Beard Award semifinalist, at the same time MasterChef casting calls were being held at a Holiday Inn off I-4. A group of casting executives from the show wandered in to grab a bite. One of them told Biondi he was cute and asked if he could cook.

That was in October, and since then it's been a whirlwind.

For his initial MasterChef audition, Biondi made a salad. With butterleaf lettuce, pumpkin-seed vinaigrette, blue cheese, walnut brittle and quinoa, it sure sounds delicious, but it was a risk. "I don't know if anyone's ever made it onto the show with a salad," Biondi said.

After that, it was months of sending in video submissions, telling the MasterChef execs more about himself and demonstrating the kind of cook he is. The show is done taping, but of course Biondi isn't allowed to talk about how he did.

For Biondi, the payoff was getting to work with chef Gordon Ramsay, who he calls "one of the top culinary minds of the world."

"It was an amazing, humbling experience," he said. "He has a great attitude. He'll shake your hand and look you in the eye. Yeah, he's straightforward, he'll tell you how it is. ... I learned a lot from him cooking-wise and how to treat people. He treats everyone like family."

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