Training & Preparation for MasterChef
Deciding to compete on a “reality” TV show was a major decision for me. Like I’ve mentioned, it was an act of desperation, a last ditch effort to make a go of my current career path, potentially get ourselves out of tornado debt, etc. If I was going to do this, I would be doing it RIGHT.
So, from early on in the audition process, preparing myself for the show became more and more of a full time job for me - 4 months worth, leading up to the filming. By the end of the first month in ... I lived, slept, ate, and breathed Master Chef.
As I’d never seen the show before, the casting producer strongly encouraged me to watch the entirety of season 3. So I did... and then I watched seasons 1 and 2, taking notes on EVERYTHING. Finally, I watched season 3 again, to gain a better understanding of the overall arc of the series, to help assess what direction(s) they could potentially be going with the season I would be competing on.
It was an interesting progression, and one that disturbed me a little. By watching the judges’ faces throughout the series, I could tell that they were lying more to/about the contestant entries as the series progressed over the 3 previous years. (I studied faces to help get by with my Aspergers years ago, and am excellent at identifying micro expressions - when I WANT to -yay me!), Also, there was definitely an increase in the forced drama - this worried me, so I braced myself for it. Always better to have an idea of what to prepare for, right?
Mentally, I prepared myself for everything right up to the possibility that they would end up housing the contestants together and air footage of the “behind the scenes” crap, “Big Brother” / “The Glass House” style, this year. I looked at it as an absolute worst case scenario, but really... I can survive anything for a finite amount of time, especially if I have time to consider/prepare for the possibility ahead of time.
After watching the previous three seasons of the show, I had a good idea of which contestants I could identify with in some way, and which would be most likely to write about their experiences. Starting with them, I poured over their blog entries, tweets, etc - from around my estimation of when they started the casting process, right through to current day.
I learned a lot about what to expect from the whole thing, from arriving at the airport, to the recurring theme that food would be scarce while filming (and I should have paid WAY more attention to that one!). From random bits of information across several seasons - and many contestants - I pieced together a bit of an image of what life would be like. I knew that - barring any major changes - I’d be set up in a hotel with a single roommate. I knew that the show liked to screw with the contestants, pulling crap like middle of the night “pack your bags NOW, we’re moving to another hotel!” drills. I knew that those who received aprons would spend a lot of time in cooking classes, though that was never really shown on the air. I learned more about what the judges (stated that they) were looking for, about strengths and weaknesses, and more.
I looked up the grocery stores that we would be going to for our daily supplies and food to cook at the auditions: Ralph’s and Whole Foods. I learned that Ralph’s had a rewards card, so I registered for it ... receiving it JUST in time to leave for LA! Boy, am I ever glad I did - saved me a ton of money, and the extra cards that came with it were handy to pass out to my new friends, aiding them as well. The truck I was in saved almost $100 on the first day!
Now, I like to think I’m a pretty good cook, but I know that there is always room for improvement. Also, I realized that there were certain basics that I just never really got into for whatever reason. For example, I’m not big on eggs, so I’ve never bothered to learn how to poach them. I’m horrible at making pancakes. I’d never made risotto, or fresh pasta, and those were really common things in the show.
So, we bought a pasta maker, and I quickly taught myself not only the basics, but all sorts of different flavors and techniques. We LIVED on risotto. OMG, if I never see risotto again...
It was a lot of work - and CARBS! - but I knew there was no way I would (legitimately) get eliminated on either pasta or risotto! Beyond that, I trained to the point where I could do pretty much any type of egg from memory, possibly with my eyes closed. I became a finely tuned MACHINE in the kitchen! Muahaha!
When the show told me that I would be making my Mango Mojito Upside Down Cake as my “audition” dish, I had a little work to do there, as well. I had to tweak the sizing - 1 hour is not enough time to prepare and bake it, start to finish. So, I time trialled a few sizes, and finally settled on making 6" cakes. Then, on the advice of a friend, I took my ingredients to a friend’s house (I’d never cooked in his kitchen, was good to get ‘in a foreign space’ experience!) and baked a batch, start to finish... wearing the outfit I had planned for my audition (more on that later!), hair done, makeup done, and with my husband harassing me with questions as I worked. I managed to get it all done and plated within the hour, and it turned out perfectly - I was ready!
Beyond actual in-kitchen training, I studied my ass off:
- I researched different cuisines, memorizing flavor profiles and base recipes for many popular ethnic dishes.
- I researched the availability of various animal proteins, how to prepare and cook them, etc. I learned stuff like “you have to cook bear well done, because of possible trichinosis”. I learned which meats should never be cooked well done, what seasonings work best with what, etc. I now know how to prepare every variety of domestic, game, and exotic animal available in the USA - including snake. If they were legally able to obtain it (by purchase or by hunting), I had a plan for how I would prepare it. I know how many regular eggs that emu and ostrich eggs are equivalent to (10-12 and 24 eggs, respectively!), and what I’d do if given one.
- All of that previous paragraph? Did it for fish and seafood, as well. I am completely blown away by the variety of fish available for sale in this country, btw. I’d never heard of HALF of what I came across!
- Watched many videos to learn about fileting different types of fish and butchering different types of meat. Thanked my lucky stars that I have the ability to watch something done once, and be able to do it. (One of my "Aspie Superpowers"!)
- Memorized cook time/temperature charts for all of the basic poultry / roast/ etc options.
- Researched and memorized all of the “Mother” sauces AND major variants of each.
- I gathered and memorized all of my base recipes for things like biscuits, fish and chip batter, doughboys, pastry cream, panna cotta, choux dough, sushi rice, pakora batter, etc.
- I spent a lot of time thinking of individual ingredients, and what I would be doing if they came up as mystery box challenges, etc. I have a LONG list of cool ideas I came up with - you can expect to see them on this blog, eventually 🙂
Business as Usual?
In addition to all of the cooking and studying, I had to prepare for my husband to take over my business while I would be away. Starting out, I thought this would be no big deal... but wow, it really ended up involved!
- I wrote and set up 3 months worth of blog entries to auto post to my site, and then set up for auto posts to Facebook and Twitter. Seriously. THREE MONTHS! Wonder why I went from sporadic blogging to being super diligent about following a schedule? Now you know!
- I had to gather the login information for EVERYTHING. My merchant account, my publisher (and how to order more stock!), bank accounts, the company I order mailing envelopes from (and write down which products I buy!). Each of my email addresses, all of my social media, the blog, the web host... every time I thought I was done, I’d think of two other things to document for him!
- Had to create a daily to do list, with references to details on some of the items. I’d never actually thought about what all I do, it seems basic habit now... but man, it’s a whole ordeal to get it together for someone else. ESPECIALLY knowing that person will not have the ability to ask questions - there would be no contact once I arrived in LA, from everything I read!
- As I was under contract with Minnesota Historical Society Press for "Sweet Corn Spectacular", I had to step up my work on that, with now-shortened deadlines. In addition to that, I had a couple of other books slated to come out in and around the time I'd be gone.. again, lots of work to do on a much shorter schedule!
- Being in Mensa, - and a part of some really tightly knit social groups with the organization - I knew that “disappearing” would be very difficult to do. Stephanie had recently “gone on sabbatical” and shut down her social media in order to be on the Glass House, so I knew that anything I did would make everyone suspicious. How do you fool a ton of really (excessively?) smart close friends?
I weighed the options and eventually decided that a “no social media” new years resolution would be the way to go. Everyone knew I was frustrated and stressed out by all of the hatred and violence in the media, so I knew it wouldn’t be hard to believe. Hell, by the time New Year’s rolled around, I think I was ready to take a social media break even if NOT for MasterChef!
Making Myself Presentable
I knew going in to this that it was not necessarily merit based, and not all about the cooking. From everything I’d read (and really, simple logic)... this was about being marketable as a winner. As a fat, homely, blue haired curmudgeon? No small obstacle!
- I hit the gym.
- I bought Spanx for the first time in my life. OMG, torture! (Oh, and they really weren’t fun when we had only the teeniest hit-your-knees-on-the-door porta potties during filming!)
- I made a very flattering “audition” shirt. It fit well, made me feel good... and was based on the “Hunger Games” training shirt. YES. If I was going to do something this crazy, I was going to have some fun and be able to laugh at the irony / make a bit of a statement, right? 🙂
- Per their request, I made a special apron for my "audition". I don’t wear aprons, ever... but they wanted something that showed some personality, whatever... so I made a bright turquoise PVC snakeskin print/texture apron. Awesome!
- I practiced talking and cooking on camera, with and without being asked questions. Very awkward, as someone who’s not big on having a camera aimed her way!
- I went to my friend Holly - a talented makeup artist - to get a crash course on makeup. I don’t know anything about it, I don’t usually wear the stuff. She was great, teaching me about contouring, products I’d never heard of, etc. She sent me off with a better idea of what I was doing, some samples, a diagram AND an order of operations list!
- As an "all ponytail/bun, all the time" kinda person (yes, scrunchie too!)... I decided that I should probably actually learn how to do my own hair. I cruised some braiding websites, and quickly learned how to do a few styles. I also scoured the 'net for some inspiration hairstyle photos and compiled them into a printed book to bring with me, figuring I'd figure them out as needed.
- I had my teeth bleached. Saw a Groupon for a crazy deal on Zoom whitening... OMG sensory torture. The whole time I sat there with my face all jacked up, waves of pain shooting into my face... all I could think about was competing on the show. Eyes on the prize!
- On the subject of sensory torture, I knew that going on this “adventure” would rank right up there as one of the dumbest things I could possibly do, with regards to my sensory issues. Not wanting to have any meltdowns on TV (And not knowing at the time that the show would actively try to induce them... assholes!), I decided to “train” in a new, completely masochistic way:
... I went to the Mall of America, on Christmas eve. I can’t stand that place on the best of days, and absolutely refuse to enter it between October 1 - January 1. Going on Christmas Eve? Insane. I did it with a purpose though - I went in there knowing that it would be absolute sensory overload, to practice blocking it out, managing the stress, etc. Proud to say that I made it a few hours without losing it! Could have gone longer, too... but it all got to my husband first!
Man, the amount of shopping we had to do to get ready for this whole thing was insane - we hemorrhaged money over this, crossing our fingers the whole time that this would be a good investment, and a smart risk to take.
You see, I don’t have much of a wardrobe. I’m an author! I really do fit the stereotype of just working in my PJs every day. I don’t like wearing jeans, as they never seem to fit, so I have yoga pants. The rest of my wardrobe is made up of well loved ThinkGeek / Misc geek shirts. I had one pair of runners, and they’re pretty ratty.
New jeans. All new shirts, which had to fit the “reality show standards” - no words, no logos, no artwork, no white shirts, no black shirts (WHAAAAT!?), etc. We scoured thrift shops to come up with an affordable, attractive (read: blues, teals, turquoise) wardrobe of TV suitable shirts. New runners, as we knew I’d be on my feet a lot. Those damn dreaded Spanx. Toiletries for 3 months (That was NOT fun to figure out, btw)...
Accessories! I picked up a few sets of simple earrings and a couple of necklaces. New for me, I am not usually a jewelry person. (See "spending all day in my PJs" comment above!)
My friend Lauren, of Style in Abundance sent me some GORGEOUS custom necklaces to wear (Go check out her stuff!)
I picked up a burner phone, as I had to leave my smart phone at home so my husband could run the business.
Thinking ahead to the logistics at the hotel, I bought this laundry hamper at IKEA. DEFINITELY recommend it to anyone entering into a similar situation, for what it’s worth. Fit easily in my suitcase (the coil structure collapses down flat, and is held flat with Velcro straps!), and allowed me to keep my dirty clothes separate and relatively organized!
Ok, so waiting didn’t seem like training at the time, but after the rush of making sure I had EVERYTHING planned for... there was a lot of waiting. In hindsight, I guess it was good practice for being in LA and having to deal with people who had a tenuous grasp on logistics - at best. There was a LOT of “hurry up and wait”.. “Be in the hotel lobby by 7am!”... only to not actually be leaving till 10 am or later. That kind of mind blowingly frustrating thing.
It only got worse after getting home, when it became obvious that the logistics issue wasn’t just isolated to the people dealing with us on the ground there!
So, I did things like ... watch “The Hunger Games”. I figured - death and such aside - it was probably a fairly accurate representation of what I was about to walk into.... and I was right!
Oh, and finally... I made a super cute travel/toiletry bag set for the trip. I had so much STUFF to organize, this came in handy. One bag for hair dye, bleach, gloves, etc... another for accessories, another for hair accessories, another for ALL my makeup, a smaller one for "day of" makeup in my purse, etc.
So... more on the MasterChef adventure another day!