With all the publicity swirling around Polyphonic Spree singer Jennie Kelley's participation in the current run of MasterChef on Fox, it's perhaps understandable that the other North Texan, Ben Starr, still in the running for the $250,000 first prize, should have gone a bit unnoticed.
Well, the 33-year old Starr has his own extraordinary personal story to share as well, and his cooking is also a skill to be reckoned with. Born in San Antonio, Starr spent most of his life in Abilene until he moved to the Dallas area in 1997. He's called Lewisville home for the last six years.
But "home," as in denoting one stable place where Starr might often be found, is a relative concept. For, during the last six years, Starr has traveled to some 36 countries, on seven continents, chronicling many of his journeys for a slew of travel publications. Just a month ago, Starr was motorcycling around the southernmost reaches of Thailand.
Afflicted at a young age with a serious case of wanderlust, Starr determined that the world would be his classroom and the kitchen his main portal into the various overseas cultures he would explore. So he began racking up culinary memories associated with his various exotic ports of call.
Starr vividly recalls the parties built around grilling eggplant, and the brilliant tastes of braised chicken with saffron rice, all devoured in an apartment overlooking the Nile in Cairo. Starr learned the secrets of how to concoct the most flavorful coconut chicken and lemon grass soup from a Bangkok grandmother in a sprawling Thai family. It was all about rabbit stew when Starr stopped in on a family in Bruges, Belgium. He recalls every nook and cranny of the 400-year old farmhouse in which he stewed a rabbit with fennel and carrots. Perth, Australia, for Starr, will always connote staying with an extremely affluent couple and relishing their way with giant shrimp, the size of his hand, grilled to perfection on "the barbie." And Starr can't think of Brazil and not wax rhapsodic about the all-day cooking involved in making the national black bean dish involving 15 cuts of meats stewing away in a citrus-infused liquid.
City of Ate caught up with Starr back home in Lewisville and he was almost giddy to talk about his MasterChef experiences. Check out our Q&A with him after the jump.
So how far back in your life can you go to recall the first meal you cooked for yourself? I must have been about 4 years old, and I was pretty damned proud of myself that I taught myself how to make toast. But it wasn't as simple as sticking two pieces of bread in the toaster, as we were pretty poor -- any city-goer would consider where we lived to be a farm on the outskirts of Abilene -- so we didn't have a toaster. I would see my grandmother stick the white bread under the broiler. So I did the same, so that became my first experience with a dangerous appliance.
MasterChef is not your first experience with cooking on television? No. In 2007, my friends, who all felt I should be destined for television in some capacity, got me to submit an application for Rachael Ray's America's Best Home Cooks segment of her talk show. So I sent in a video of me preparing chicken tamales in my Lewisville kitchen and I became one of the five people to compete against each other on her show. I was on four full episodes before being finally eliminated.
Did you like your first brush with cooking television? It was actually really cool, and I'm not a fan of reality television because I think it can bring out the worst in people. But I thought Ray brought such an energy and passion for life that all of the people who made it on to her program had a similar spirit.
Your first experience with MasterChef was as a very nervous viewer? I was so nervous for the competitors, just watching them. I knew from my Rachael Ray experience what a stressful thing it is, to cook on television. But my friends started yet another intervention, wanting me to now do MasterChef. And I have to say I was persuaded to do it when I realized that this is one of the few shows where it is not about the drama but almost solely about the food. I mean, a home cook from a Southern family in Alabama won it last time out -- probably a chef who wouldn't know a piece of foie gras if it dropped on top of her head. So I was persuaded to audition for it.
You had a rather special dish that you auditioned with to gain that prized spot on MasterChef? I'm absolutely obsessive about all things having to do with pumpkins. I've practically built my cooking identity around pumpkins. So for the show, I produced this pumpkin carrot cake with a cream cheese frosting and candied hazelnuts. Well, the judges loved it so much that they gave me the only perfect score, five out of five, of any of the dishes sampled in Dallas.
But cooking is only part of the gauntlet of tests they put you through? It begins to feel like you are applying for a job with the CIA or the Secret Service. There is a battery of written personality tests to take. In addition, there are a slew of medical and even psychological evaluations as well. It's a fairly invasive process, but I was eventually selected, and while everyone was dealing with that massive ice storm here during Super Bowl week, I was off to Los Angeles to film the show.
Tickle our palates: What have you made so far and how have the judges liked, or not, your dishes? So far, in my signature dish round, I made my crispy fish tacos, with tilapia marinated in a pumpkin pale ale and breaded with spiced breadcrumbs. I added a slaw of jicama, red cabbage and cilantro, and dressed it all with pumpkin beer, agave and lime juice nectar and all topped with crispy pumpkin strings. I got three thumbs up from the judges and was called a 'major contender' in the show. Then in the next round, I did a butter poached chicken with chive and crackling biscuits. Then in the next round, I did a salmon with a strawberry balsamic glaze and a pistachio crusted fennel cake. This particular dish, conceptually, the judges felt looked a bit gross and was the worst of all the dishes made. Needless to say, that was pretty devastating to hear.
Now that you've been on the show, what was most enjoyable about it? It was the fact that I was surrounded by other complete, super food geeks. Everyone there is as hardcore nerdy about some aspect of the culinary world as I am. I'm used to being the one person in a group who is the foodie, the one person who drags other people to the latest, newest restaurant. So it was just nice to be among culinary peers.
You had an interesting experience with the third Texan in your group? Yeah, Alvin Schultz, from Houston, was my roommate for the first period on the show and he brought with him, into the room, an immersion circulator for sous vide cooking, an electric pressure cooker, a device that infuses flavors into alcohol and a device that creates wood smoke so he could make a smoked-rum cocktail. This is while the other contestants brought an iron into their room so they could prepare quesadillas using the iron to melt the cheese. Meanwhile, my roommate is making duck confit in our room using the immersion circulator, which he built by hand from an old ice chest. He would then crank out braised short ribs using his pressure cooker.
MasterChef is different from other reality programs, isn't it? What's really nice about it is that they don't film us back at our hotel rooms as we are trying to decompress. That is where some of the rivalries can develop on other shows. Among the top 18 that were selected to compete in the final round, I can safely say we were all rather caring and loving towards each other.
Didn't you and fellow North Texan, Jennie Kelley, actually stage a meeting with the other contestants to establish a healthful mood amongst everyone? We did. Jennie and I have such a similar personality that we decided to sit everybody down and told them how miserable we would all be if we went through this entire show as bitter rivals. We needed each other to get through this and whoever wins, wins. Jennie and I both decided we just needed to get through this in a sane way.
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If there was one thing that you took away from the show, what would you say it is? The other contestants and I formed a bond that we share as if we were all soldiers going to battle together. We all shared the same psychological stress and trauma and lived through it. I've already been back to L.A. to visit with the group of contestants who live there.
But you also have other culinary plans that it sounds like your MasterChef experience may have helped solidify? Indeed, my ultimate dream, something I've been obsessing about for two years now, is to move to the big island of Hawaii and open with friends a guest farm-café-microbrewery. It would be the kind of situation where I could do so many things I love including brewing my own beer and being a host for people visiting from different cultures. MasterChef has totally inspired me to open up a farm where people could come and work it, to learn about animal husbandry and micro climates, and using solar power to grow your own ingredients. We would also network with the mainland universities about planning for the next farms of the future. It's a giant vision and MasterChef made me realize I have the ability and the network to make this dream come true.
New episodes of Masterchef air at 8 p.m. Mondays and 7 p.m. Tuesdays on Fox. Beginning July 19, Tuesday episodes will move to 8 p.m.