Dallas' Jennie Kelley, who lends her talented vocal chords to the mammoth ensemble Polyphonic Spree, this week saw her run of self-generated culinary good fortune run out on Fox's MasterChef program. And she was done in by a catfish. Well, a catfish platter to be exact. A fried catfish platter to be even more picayune about it.
But when City of Ate caught up with the ever ebullient Kelley in her downtown Dallas loft, she had nothing but fond memories of the Gordon Ramsay-led show that most people ruefully refer to as kitchen "boot camp."
You lasted pretty darn far into what was a brutal competition. Yeah, there are only 12 more contestants left. I was cut out in episode nine.
What were your high points in terms of show experiences? Definitely getting my apron, meaning that out of literally tens of thousands of other contestants to try out nationwide, I was one of the top 18 semi-finalists to get one of those aprons. It was also so great to hang out and becoming tight with so many of the other contestants, starting with the two others from Texas -- Ben Starr from Lewisville and Alvin Schultz from Houston. I mean we all ended up spending July 4th together. That's how tight we got.
So how did you finally get eliminated? The season winner from last year had done a cookbook, and we were all assigned to duplicate quite precisely one of her cookbook's recipes. It was a fried catfish dish with sides of coleslaw and sweet potato fries.
Why was that so challenging? Because we had to nail everything about what she did right, starting with how she fried her catfish, how she got it so crisp, what kind of batter she used. There were so many variables involved in the coleslaw, starting with the different cabbages you can use. She ended up using Brussels sprouts. And all we could do was get one taste of each of the elements before then trying to imitate it perfectly. It was not about our interpretation of the dish but our precise imitation of it.
What was the point of this challenge? In a professional kitchen, oftentimes the executive chef, who has originated the dish, is not there, so if you are a line cook or a sous chef, you have to know how to make the same dish with the same consistency every time. It was all about setting up a situation as if you were cooking in a professional restaurant.
Seems simple enough... The difficult thing for me was that though I live in the South, that kind of Southern cooking is not the kind of cuisine I tend to cook. I just have a different flavor profile and so that led to various hiccups in my cooking process.
Such as? Well, there were many variables when it came to frying -- as in should it be deep frying or shallow frying? My catfish ended up being a bit too crispy on one side. The original coleslaw had a dill tartar sauce that I definitely messed up as I put in so many capers that it ended up being very salty.
As you were leaving the show, and on-camera, you received some encouraging words from the show's resident toughie, Gordon Ramsay. On the show, you can see that he tells me very earnestly to 'Keep cooking, you've got something special,' and to not stop here.
Looking back, you had some culinary high points to remember fondly? I made a savory salmon tart that all the judges really loved. It was definitely one of my highlights. I was the only one to use phyllo dough as the base for the tart while everyone else concentrated on the salmon as the main ingredient. I chose to use the salmon as the tart's topping. It was really inventive and stood out.
What else did the show teach you about yourself and how you can handle being in the pressure-filled world of a kitchen? I realized that I worked well with pretty much everyone, that I'm a team player. And that I have quite a long fuse in those situations. Finally, I was able to keep my cool, retain my thick skin, while being barked at in the kitchen. I just realized that I couldn't take it personally and that we all had to get used quite fast to being yelled at. We knew that we would all go out and have a cold beer after it was over and laugh about what went on. We then would be ready to start a new day.
What are your post-MasterChef plans now? Though I haven't left the Spree, I am now officially actively involved in the culinary world. I have a food blog that I'm very proud of. It's called theperfectlastbite.com. I'm looking forward to incorporating more video elements into the blog as MasterChef gave me a bit of an on-camera bug. I'm freelancing as a food-stylist, and I'm learning all those tricks of the trade to get a steak or an omelet or a cocktail totally ready for camera. And I'm starting a secret supper club. Right now, it's only in my loft, but I hope to rotate it among various people's houses and even invite various MasterChef chefs to be guests on it.
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Would you recommend that other chefs participate in something like MasterChef? For the amateur, home cook who wants to push away from just being in their home kitchen and see how far they can go, it is a fantastic experience. For those possible future contestants, I would strongly recommend that they practice more at home with a timer, so they can see what they can accomplish in only 60 minutes. And they should also practice plating, because when there are only two minutes left and you haven't plated, well you should be thinking about plating the entire time.
Sounds like you would give MasterChef four stars as an experience? It was definitely a food boot camp and tough, but I wouldn't change a thing about my time with it.
(Ben Starr from Lewisville is the last remaining Texan on MasterChef, which airs Mondays and Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Fox. The finale will air the week of August 15.)