My MasterChef Experience

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We are super pumped because the premier of MasterChef Season 3 is upon us. As many of you know, I was asked by MasterChef casting team to take part in the DC auditions because one of our loyal fans recommended our blog and our skills in the kitchen. Of course I couldn’t pass up this once in a lifetime opportunity to showcase our blog to MasterChef, FOX, and of course, Gordon Ramsay.

So many emotions had overwhelmed me throughout this process. When I got the initial email, I was so proud of myself and our young blog. After only being up for one year, we already had the attention of a casting team for a major television network. Right away, I submitted the application and anxiously awaited a response.

My application was accepted and I was moved to their 2nd phase, which contained a HUGE packet of what seemed like a million questions about me, my culinary point of view, and cooking style. I took my time and filled in every answer. I was so nervous about not knowing the answer to a question; I didn’t want to be seen as weak or one to be disregarded.

Thankfully, they seemed to like my blog and personality enough to actually ask me to come to a live audition. I got to pick between a couple of locations and I was thrilled to see that DC was one of the audition sites. The downside to the DC audition was that it was the first one, so I didn’t have a lot of time to plan and prepare.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what recipe would really show my culinary skills. It was difficult for me to understand what the expectations were, because initially they didn’t specify any guidelines for the auditions. I had no clue if the dish had to be prepared beforehand or on-site, if we had access to any equipment or if there were any restrictions to the type of dish that could be presented. I searched blogs and forums to see if any other blogger had been asked to audition for previous seasons. Finally, I was able to form somewhat of an idea as to what was to be expected. From the point of view of previous contestants, the dish was to be prepared beforehand, you had NO access to any electrical outlets and before you presented to the “tasters” you had a very short prep time to plate your dish.

So with those ideas in mind, I started my prep. Jason had a great idea of hosting a CookingShorts “Celebration” Dinner Party. Everything that would be on the menu would be something from the blog. We would invite family and friends and have them vote on which dish to serve; they would ultimately help me decide what dish was best to present in front of the judges.

Right before our party we got an updated email from MasterChef. This email had two really important details. Number one: it finally outlined a lot of details for us; place, time, and most importantly guidelines (which I will come back to). Number two: Gordon Ramsay was actually going to be at the DC auditions and I was selected to present in front of him. HOLY CRAP! I was shaking as I read that email. For me, this is when everything became so real. I was presenting my food to one of the most highly acclaimed chefs in the world. He would be talking food, with me. Me – Tinsley from Nokesville, Va – a woman with a passion for food. I wasn’t a chef; I didn’t go to school for this. Then it hit me – this is my path. This is going to be the start of something amazing.

So, going back to guidelines… As I had expected from reading about previous contestants experiences, the dish was to be planned and prepared ahead of time. We could make anything that we wanted, but it had to be served as is. They would not provide us with any electrical outlets to warm or finish our dishes. We were also told to expect to wait in a LONG line. Auditions started at 10am and were held at Trinity University in Washington, DC. We were “advised” to arrive at least 4 hours prior. We needed to arrive prepared with a signed contract (10 pages long), a professional photo of myself and a photo of my dish.

The day of our dinner party came and I was overwhelmed by the turn out. We invited just about everyone we knew, and just about everyone came to give their support. We ended up cramming a lot of friends and family into our tiny townhouse. I made an array of samplings, but everyone seemed to vote for my creamy coconut curried chicken recipe. Done – dish selected. I just needed to slightly tweak the recipe and figure out how in the world I was going to keep this dish warm.

After my recipe was perfected, Jason and I scrambled to try to find a solution to keeping the dish warm. Again, we asked our followers for advice. We got everything from a paper bag trick to a super-hot brick stored in a cooler. Even though the instructions from the casting group said that they wouldn’t base a decision off of actual temperature, I didn’t buy it. I knew that my dish wasn’t going to have the same flavor profile if it was cold. We decided to try a technique using hand warmers. We purchased a super stock of them at Costco and spent the week before the auditions trying to come up with the best way to use them. We tried everything, but the hand warmers only seemed to work half of the time and really did not get as hot as we had hoped. Our best bet was to try to keep the dish as warm as possible prior to leaving the house and hope that the hand warmers would keep the food semi-warm.

About 3 days prior to the auditions, I was a ball of nerves. I kept thinking this could be IT. My life could change in 3 days. I think I was psyching myself up and making my expectations way too high. I was panicking over the recipe – did I pick the right dish? I was going back and forth about my side component – should I go with a quinoa, rice, or noodles? I was worried about keeping my dish warm. Just when I was about to burst, my phone rang. It was a very sweet girl from MasterChef’s casting crew, Karren. She was calling to confirm that I was still going to audition. Karren also was a key component in helping me “calm down”. She explained the process more in depth and reassured me that temperature would not be a factor in the taster’s decisions. Her instincts had her tell me a story about people in NYC that would audition in the middle of a blizzard. One of the contestants had a soup that froze – that amateur chef went on to win last season.

Feeling a bit more at ease, I moved on with my week concentrating more on the contract and my appearance, and less on the recipe. I took off the day before the auditions. Jason wanted me to look polished, in case I made it to the camera portion, so he treated me to a manicure. Otherwise, I just spent the rest of the day relaxing. I knew that around 11pm, I had to start cooking. We needed to leave our place by 6am to be in DC and in line by 7am. My chicken needed to braise in my creamy coconut curried sauce for at least 4 hours. I needed to toast all my spices and grind them for the sauce. Plus, I needed to make my golden raisin quinoa bed that my chicken was going to rest on. By midnight, I had my sauce complete, the chicken braising, and I moved on to my quinoa. Thankfully, I was smart enough to buy triple of all my ingredients from the store, because for whatever reason, my quinoa was not turning out right. After 3 batches, it was finally right. I packed it up, along with everything else I would need for my final prep. The only thing I was waiting on was the chicken and that would be ready by the time we were about to walk out the door.

I decided to go upstairs and try to take a nap. BIG MISTAKE! About an hour later, I started to really smell the spices from my sauce. During my practice, I had never noticed the aroma being so intense. I ran downstairs to check on the chicken. The sauce was burning. “NOOOO” I screamed and quickly went into recovery mode. I just thought to myself, “Every chef has a bad day and this is not going to screw with a chance at a new life for us.” “I can fix this,” I reassured myself, and I did. I re-toasted and ground the spices to bring the sauce together. I was about to pull the chicken out of the burnt sauce when I realized that it already tasted delicious and was super tender. I then transferred the chicken to the new braising pot and turned the heat to low.I ran back upstairs to tell Jason what had happen. He seemed impressed that I was able to recover AND stay on track without going into panic mode. We looked at the clock; 4am – time to get moving.

Tinsley Stricker MasterChef Season 3Now this is the part where I get all sappy. As we drove through DC, my phone blew up with text messages, Facebook/Twitter notifications from friends, family and CookingShorts followers. I almost started to cry as I saw the support flooding in. I couldn’t believe how many people in my small network of loved ones stood behind my dream. This only made me want this audition even more. My best friend and love of my life got up at the ass crack of dawn to navigate our way through DC to help me through this process. I could have never grown as a chef without my husband, Jason, by my side. It was all so very emotional.

Ok, sappy, emotional Tinsley is moving on. We thought arriving at 7am would guarantee that we would be the first in line, we were wrong. Other’s arrived at 4am to get in line. It was November and FREEZING (the caps are not an overstatement) outside. There was no inside, until you went in to audition. I had never wanted a hot skinny latte so badly. We ended up being number six in line. We chatted a little with some of the other contestants. I seemed to be the only one that was actually contacted by MasterChef to audition, which made me feel really good.

At about 9am the casting and camera crew showed up. They came around in groups to talk to each of us. According to Jason, I was super shy and overly polite to them. He told me I needed to be more aggressive. The line at this point had wrapped almost all the way around the school (did I mention that I felt as if my feet were frozen). One of the producers walked around, talking to random contestants, to get a feel for the group dynamics. As she was talking to the contestant in front of me, this long haired, 40 something, skater “boy” interrupted her conversation. He needed to know if someone could inform him when he could start cooking his dish. This odd request got my attention because according to the guidelines that were sent out, the dish was not allowed to be cooked on the audition grounds. He was able to figure out a way around this rule. He brought a group of friends with him to help. In the trunk of his car (which was parked on the street in front of the school), he had a camp stove. While he signed in, he had a group of people prepping the stove. Once he was signed in, his plan was to gather another couple of friends to stand in line for him while he cooked his food. Since his car was parked on a public street, they allowed it. I was so pissed! You know how much better my meal would have tasted if I thought about that? UGH….

As it got close to 10am, about 15 of us were selected to stand with Gordon Ramsey to film the open portion of the DC auditions. I guess skater boy’s “genius idea” got him a spot, because he was one of the selected contestants. Jason overheard the producer tell another casting agent that he was a pain in the ass and might be good for camera. I should have caused a scene because I was pissed that they allowed them to do so, but I was too shy and didn’t want to be at risk to be asked to leave. Damn skater boy.

Tinsley Stricker MasterChef Season 3The 15 of us gathered in front of the school with the camera crew, waiting for Gordon Ramsay. They must have decided to include some other contestants as well, because when I looked back, there was a huge crowd behind us. I didn’t care - all that mattered was that my face was front in center to greet Gordon, and that Jason was standing next to me. When Gordon arrived, he introduced himself and noted that he had a feeling, while driving over to us, that standing in the crowd was the next MasterChef. Jason looked down and said, “That’s going to be you, baby.”

The director of the camera crew came out to talk with us about instructions and then the filming began. In between takes, Gordon would turn back and have conversations with us. He was so kind and polite. I loved talking with him. I thought it would be nerve-wracking, but it wasn’t. I kept calling him Chef Ramsay and he would correct me and say, “For you, it’s Gordon.” We both were excited to meet him and wished we would’ve had more time to hang out.

Filming wrapped and the 15 selected were herded into the school. Supporters were asked to stay outside, so Jason couldn’t come with me. I was on my own and it was time for the auditions. The butterflies still in my stomach began to flutter.

They lined us up in front of the table, one person per 12×12 prep area. We were given 3 minutes to plate our dish and have it ready for presentation. I pulled out my quinoa and diced up my mint garnish. I tossed the quinoa with some olive oil, almonds, golden raisins and mint. Seasoned and plated it. I then laid my braised curried chicken on top and finish by topping the chicken with the sauce. I garnished with two baby mint leaves and time was called. That was the fastest 3 minutes of my life. Oh, and just for added pressure, Gordon came over and started “helping me”. He was pulling items out of my cooler and asked me tons of questions about the ingredients that I chose. When I finished plating, he noticed that it looked and smelled amazing. I told him I made the curry myself and that I toasted the spices to enhance the aroma and flavor profile. “You already sound like a Chef”, was Gordon’s response.

So, the first person to come around was the producer. She asked me a lot of questions about myself, my life and our blog. The most interesting question she asked was, “Tell me about your relationship with food.” For those who do not know, I grew up as an obese child. I had extremely busy parents and relying on fast food was the easiest thing for them. My mom was actually a caterer. By the time she came home, she didn’t feel like cooking another meal. I explained to the producer that I have a love/hate relationship with food. I love everything food, but food used to hate me. I knew when I went into college that if I didn’t change that relationship, I was going to lose my battle with food. It took me 10 years, but from there, I was able to turn things around. Who would have known that the fat girl could become skinny and still focus a life around food. She seemed to be impressed with my answer. Others that did not impress her were told to pack up and exit. I got to stay (and my food still hadn’t been tasted yet.) So far, I survived Gordon Ramsay and the first round. I sent a text to Jason letting him know I was still going strong and he posted an update to Facebook.

Tinsley Stricker's Curry Chicken from MasterChef Season 3It was now the tasting portion and this time it was a guy. I was listening to him as he talked to each contestant; he was hardcore and critical. When he got to my plate, he didn’t even look up at me. Just picked up the fork and started picking through my dish. He asked me about each component and why I paired them together. He tasted the quinoa and then the chicken. The first words out of his mouth was, “Your chicken is slightly tough.” Well duh, it was cold; when chicken changes temperature it’s going to have a different texture. I just said quietly, “Yep, because it’s now cold.” I reminded him that he wasn’t supposed to take temperature into account and I asked him, “How is the flavor? Are you getting a little kick from the curry? I actually made my own curry and I toasted the spices before applying them to the sauce. Can you taste the difference?” He just looked at me and smiled. “Good job defending your dish, no else had done that so far. Your quinoa is really good. I like the refreshing aspect,” he replied as he moved on to the next person. I had survived another round.

A second taster came around and only selected a few dishes to sample. Mine was selected. She told me that she lives in LA and can’t get good curry in LA (did I mention that she was Indian?). She loved my chicken and after she tasted a few more, she came back to mine and had seconds. Behind her was another producer with a camera crew. They came and asked me some questions and like an idiot I froze up. I can’t even recall the questions to conversation. All I can remember is that I said, “I’m a food blogger and I like food,” while I sheepishly looked down at my food. I could have kicked myself. We all stood around for about 20 more minutes while the producers pow-wowed. They came back into the room and called a couple names. Everyone whose name was not called was asked to pack up. My name wasn’t called. I was bummed. As I was packing, one of the producers came over to me and said that it doesn’t mean it’s the end, but it was just all they needed for today. They would let me know if I would be getting a call back. I walked out of the school with my head held high. I accomplished a lot to be there and I made it as far as I could. Jason greeted me with his big, warm smile as I was the last one to walk out. He first gave me a big hug and told me how proud he was of me and how far I’ve come. He then showed me our Facebook page with all the supportive comments. Now, all I could do is wait. Oh and just in case your wondering, Skater Boy’s name was called.

I never got a call back from MasterChef, but I am ok with that. As I said previously, I’ve held my head high. I’m so proud of myself and I’m excited to have been a part of the audition process. It truly helped me grow as a person and as a chef. Thank you CookingShorts supporters, friends and family for all your love. Jason and I appreciate you from the bottom of our hearts. Please check out our 3 seconds of fame by tuning into to Fox, Monday and Tuesday – June 4/5 for the season premier of MasterChef. They filmed us for the opener and we’re really hoping they use it.

Always,

Tinsley

 

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6 Comments

  1. Christina Morrison says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I’m about to go to an open casting call in a few weeks and it’s so good to read about the process. It’s actually quite difficult to find information about people’s experiences. So, I very much appreciate you sharing yours with other foodies like me.
    Christina

  2. Victoria Wolanek says:

    Thank you so much my nerves are getting the best of me my audition is in two weeks and I just want it so bad and wasn’t sure what the expectations really were. Im praying with all my being I get this.This blog really helped me calm down a bit and it was really informative.

  3. Kate says:

    My comment is nearly identical to the previous one – I, too, am going to an audition, and you just really helped put me at ease. Having said that, my cheeks are on fire with anticipation and nerves! Well done to you – and it’s incredibly generous of you to share your experience like that. Much appreciated.

  4. Christina, Victoria and Kate: I’m so glad that our post helped! GOOD LUCK.

  5. Linda Stinnett says:

    Thanks for your thoughts on the experience. I am going this weekend and have NO IDEA what to expect…so your words showed me what I needed to expect. Thanks again!!

  6. @Linda – GOOD LUCK! Let us know how it worked out!

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