There’s a restaurant in Studio City, California, called Mexicali, serving only the finest in Mexican/Californian cuisine, and one afternoon a little over a decade ago, I decided to stop by. The hostess wasn’t at the front desk when I walked in by myself, so while I stood there waiting for her to return I looked around at the bar, the quaint Mexican/Californian décor, and the nearby tables and booths—and that’s when I saw her. The one. The only. Melissa Joan Hart.
And that’s also when she saw me. It was one of those moments when two strangers happen to lock eyes at the same time—a moment that is often awkward and followed by immediately looking the other direction, but that didn’t happen this time. There was a connection, brief yet palpable. It was electric. It was almost telepathic. Time stopped, and for a few seconds there was only us, she in her booth, and me at the hostess stand. Could this be the one, we each thought? Might this stranger, here in this slightly better than average Mexican/Californian restaurant, be the person I’m destined to spend the rest of my life with? We never got the chance to find out as our trance was suddenly broken by the return of the hostess to her stand. I turned away from destiny to greet the hostess who was pleasantly smiling at me. She asked me if I needed a table. I did not. Instead, I asked her for a job application.
You see, I wasn’t ready for Melissa Joan Hart at that moment. Sure, I possessed all the faculties I have now: moderate intelligence, a decent wit, and an okay face. But I was missing the most important piece: experience. I hadn’t yet come into my own and discovered my unique voice, and MJH had long since found hers. It was easy to see that she was playing on another level than me, much like some of the remaining MasterChef contestants are more likely to win than others. Sure, all seven of these surviving Home Cooks have the basic chops to win it all, but which ones are truly ready? In these last few weeks, that is exactly what we will find out.
The Home Cooks enter the MasterChef Kitchen which, as Courtney notices, seems to being growing larger and more luxurious with each passing week.
“I’m excited, because I’m still here,” says Willie, likely sealing his fate this episode. It would be sad to see him go, but it’s been hard to see everyone go for a while now. Let’s just do our best to enjoy the time we have remaining with our new friends before it’s all over.
Before the Mystery Box Challenge, Gordon has a surprise for everyone. He instructs them to reach inside their drawers and feel around a bit. Inside each Home Cook’s drawers is “something to remind you why you are here.” Stuffed inside everyone’s drawers are letters from home. Most of the cheftestants only have one letter, but Willie has dozens, because he is just that much more lovable than everyone else, including you and me.
It’s an emotional moment for many of them, especially Courtney, who received a touching letter from her mother, and Leslie, who received some song lyrics from Rihanna. Cutter’s father promises him a big bear hug when he returns, but if Cutter makes it too far in the competition, he may have to wait until his dad finishes his winter hibernation to receive it. Willie’s grandmother reminds him that “your attitude determines your altitude” which is great advice and perhaps evidence to why I’ve been stuck at sea level for most of my life.
Filled with sadness and motivation, the HCs are instructed to lift their Mystery Boxes, and dozens of apples come rolling out and onto the floor. Instantly, everyone’s minds fill with potential desserts that he/she could make. Willie makes a “mean-ass apple cookie.” It’s the only mean thing about Willie. But we won’t get to see that side of him, because the one rule of this Mystery Box Challenge is #NoDessert.
Even I know that apples pair well with pork, so I assume that everybody will be making a pork dish. But first, how about a little product placement? "I go and grab the Philips Airfryer,” says Courtney, instantly propelling her to the next round. “I’ve used it back at home, and I know that it’s going to cook my dish perfectly.” This could have been Courtney and you, Walmart, but you playin’.
Cook, cook, cook.
Willie’s grandmother only eats pork chops, so we have that in common. He’s making pork along with everyone else, except for Cutter who is making squab. Cutter also mentions the Philips Airfryer but doesn’t sell it nearly hard enough to get a free pass.
Elizabeth is making savory apple, pork, and cheddar hand pies, and Joe and Graham are insulted by the mere mention of hand pies. Meanwhile, Gordon visits Leslie and asks him about his wife. Leslie says, “She is an amazing lady. That’s why I married her. What woman has seven kids (one of whom might have shared a rich and rewarding life with me if it weren’t for my delayed ascension into manhood) let alone a dynamite husband like me?” His hype man, Christian, cheers him on from behind, not that Leslie needs him. He’s his own hype man.
Cook, cook, cook.
Pork, pork, pork.
Stop. Hands in the air.
It’s time for the top three, and first up is Christian. He has prepared an apple stuffed pork chop with bacon, Brussels sprouts, zucchini, and red apples. Gordon checks to see if his giant pork chop is fully cooked, cutting it open. “That looks moist,” says a smiling Christian. Gordon likes it, and so does Graham who says, “It shows the arc of your journey.” This is why these guys are the judges and not idiot slobs like you and me who can’t see arcs in pork chops.
Next up is Leslie. Willie declares him to be “someone to look at as far as winning the whole competition.” I’ve got him predestined for second place, but perhaps Willie’s right. Leslie presents his apple stuffed pork loin with bacon and Gruyère cheese. Graham tastes it, looking up and to the left. He says, “I think it shows a lot of technique and your journey so far.” Graham does it again! This guy is incredible.
Lastly, Courtney is called up. “If Courtney wins this Mystery Box Challenge,” says Elizabeth, “I’m going to stab kittens.” The fate of these kittens is riding on Courtney’s apple stuffed pork loin with apple and celeriac (what?) salad. Graham tries it and says, “This is you at your best right now.” It’s almost like the arc of her journey has taken her to this point and it is now being revealed on the plate.
Courtney wins again, and Elizabeth murders a litter of kittens, but it’s okay because kitten pairs excellently with apples.
In the MasterChef Pantry, the judges show Courtney what everyone will be cooking: #DimSum. I should say everyone else, because she has immunity. Not only will the other cooks have to prepare five difficult dim sum plates, but also they’ll have to do it in teams of two, selected by Courtney.
She pairs Willie with Christian, which is like pairing the tortoise with the hare. She pairs Elizabeth with Cutter, which is like pairing the Wow Girl with the bear. And that leaves Jaimee with Leslie, the baker with the silver fox.
“Tonight’s challenge,” says Gordon, “is the formidable Tag Team Challenge.” Only one cook from each team will be able to work at a time, switching when the judges say so.
Their 60 minutes starts—now.
Immediately, Jaimee is confused as to what Leslie is doing at their station. He wants her to trust him, but she isn’t too comfortable with that idea. Predictably, Willie isn’t moving fast enough for Christian, but Cutter and Elizabeth seem to have instantly found their groove.
Jaimee starts working on the pork dumpling, which Leslie is pretty sure is supposed to only be a vegetable dumpling. “We’re screwed anyway,” says Jaimee.
“Stop pointing fingers. Just cut,” says Leslie. You know what they say. When you point a finger at someone, three other fingers point back at you and demand that you cut vegetables.
Elizabeth is now cooking, and things still seem groovy at their station.
“Push it, Christian,” encourages Willie. Christian pushes it.
Cutter hops on the frying pan while Elizabeth tells Graham their plans. It's all going very smoothly for them so far. “Working in advertising,” she says in a side interview, “helps me work really well under pressure, so I’m not worried about this challenge.” I also work in advertising, and it helps me work under pressure, too. Though it doesn’t do my liver any favors.
While Leslie works, Joe asks Jaimee if they’re going to make it. “No,” she replies.
Willie’s working on the pot stickers, declaring them to look good. Christian disagrees. He shouts a barrage of instructions at him, which only makes Willie more nervous. Which only makes Christian more frustrated.
Christian takes over while Willie takes a break from all the yelling. Courtney tells us that she thinks this challenge is “too far outside his comfort zone,” and she’s right.
Cutter and Elizabeth continue grooving, and Jaimee and Leslie continue arguing.
“There might be a chance that Jaimee and Leslie don’t get any food on the plate,” Joe says to Graham. There might be a chance that Jaimee stabs Leslie to death and serves him on the plate.
Meanwhile, Cutter is showing some surprising dexterity with his sausage fingers, and Willie appears to have bounced back from being yelled at.
Christian burns himself on a hot pan but gives a quick spin, nullifying the pain.
Two minutes remain, and now everyone is yelling. Joe watches Graham do some aerobics. Leslie is still shouting, but instead of commands, now it’s words of encouragement. Christian bites it but pops right back up. Elizabeth bites it but pops right back up. More shouting. Lids on! Get it pretty! LIDS ON!! LOUD NOISES!!1!
Stop! Hands in the air!
Jaimee & Leslie are the first to present their dim sum. Their communication was a disaster from the get go, but their dim sum actually looks pretty good. “I am frickin’ amazed,” says a frickin’ amazed Gordon. Perhaps chaos is the key to good dim sum, because both Gordon and Joe love it. These two are safe.
Next up is Christian & Big Willie. Graham was getting inspired watching them work, but their finished product is depressing at best. Burnt pot stickers, doughy Har gow, no sauce, no garnish… “It’s just sad,” Graham tells them. Willie defends himself to Gordon, saying that he feels he performed tremendously, but Gordon isn’t having it. He says they’re both in trouble, but if this is the bottom team, I’m pretty sure it’s Willie that’s going to feel the blade of the ax.
“This is, without question, the worst thing I’ve brought to the judges,” Elizabeth tells us as she and Cutter bring forward their dim sum. All isn’t as groovy as it previously seemed. “It looks horrendous,” says Gordon. No, he did not say tremendous. “Those buns? It looks like a basket full of canned dog food,” he continues to Joe’s delight. It’s not looking good for them. They communicated just too damn well. Damn. Damn, damn, damn.
The winning team is, of course, Jaimee & Leslie.
The other safe team, “by a fraction of a hair,” is Cutter & Elizabeth. They were bad, but Christian & Willie were worse, and Gordon calls them to the front.
Now for Gordon’s elimination speech. “Two of you, although as a team, both contributed heavily to the loss. At least one of you will be leaving this competition shortly. It’s a tough decision. Here we’ve got one vocal, ambitious, rough around the edges amateur cook—,” Graham presses the stem of his glasses to slightly open lips, “in Christian that gives it his all—against a passionate, kind-hearted gourmet that has a flavor profile beyond belief. This is very, very difficult.” Graham presses the stem of his glasses to pursed lips. “The person leaving MasterChef tonight—,” Joe purses his lips, “That person is—Willie. I’m sorry. Your journey ends tonight.”
Willie gives each of the judges a big bear hug and picks Christian to win it all before placing his apron on his station to the applause of his teary-eyed competitors in the MasterChef Balcony.
“America, yes, y’all are going to miss all of this,” Willie tells us in his exit interview. “Yes, it’s not going to be as bright in the kitchen, but I was able to do some amazing things.” Starting off strong, Willie impressed the judges and everyone else with his unrivaled desserts and lovability. He may have faltered in the past few weeks, having particular troubles with cooking non-American cuisine, but his attitude will always determine his altitude. I expect Willie to continue flying high from here on.
So this is goodbye, Willie. Thanks for bringing vibrancy and positivity to a competition known for its combativeness. You were a joy to watch. Good luck in your future endeavors, and if that includes your own television show some day, know that you always have a writer on standby.