An apple pie may seem like an easy dish to make, but when you’re on a show like “MasterChef” you have to be creative without diverting too far from the norm. Unfortunately Michael Chen’s version of an apple pie ended up sending him home on Monday night’s edition of “MasterChef.” Before we descend into the kitchen for another new go-around Tuesday, we had a chance to chat with the student from Austin a bit about his passion for cooking –and also what exactly it was that led to his apple pie falling apart (at least figuratively) in front of Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich, and Graham Elliot.
Cartermatt.com – So what has life been like for you since getting sent home from the show?
Michael Chen – I took a few weeks off after going home to decompress, and to try and get used to a moderately normal life. After that, I’ve been working unpaid internships at restaurants, where basically you volunteer to work for free, and if they accept you, you become one of their trainees. You help out, and you get to learn a lot. That’s what a lot of people do instead of going to culinary school. It doesn’t cost [anything] … That’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been working at restaurants in Austin, going into kitchens and trying to learn from chefs to try and get that experience and be better in the long run.
Cartermatt.com – Since you were one of the youngest contestants at 19, did you see the show as a sort of launching pad for your career?
Michael Chen – It was kind of the impetus, the push towards the goals that I wanted to achieve. I’ve always had the desire to cook and be a chef, but I’ve never had the guts to declare the career change, to stop college and to make a decision like this. ‘MasterChef‘ gave me an excuse to pursue what I really wanted to pursue.
Obviously, I wish I had gotten further, and the further I had got, the more comfortable I would have been … But I got to a point where even after I was eliminated, I was talking to the other contestants and they encouraged me by saying ‘you know what? You totally deserve to go forward in this industry. You have a bright future ahead of you, and be sure to devote confidence [to it].’
Cartermatt.com – What was it like going into that first audition? I don’t think I would be able to cook anything for Gordon Ramsay without fainting.
Michael Chen – (Laughs) It’s interesting, because to me I felt like I had nothing to lose. I didn’t expect to get very far in the competition — at that point, at least — so I walked in and was totally just like ‘if I go home, I go home, but I’m going to do the best I can because it’s not every day that you get a chance to cook for these judges.’ I tried to relax as much as I could … I was just trying to be myself and have fun and enjoy it, just so they could see and feel my food. Then to hear the judges say so much good stuff about me — like what Joe said about me [being possibly able to win this competition] — I really think that in going home early I disappointed not only him but my fan base that felt that I could go really far. To be cut early, that adds to the pain of it.
Cartermatt.com – So let’s go through the challenge you went through Monday night at the military camp — was it really just an issue of the red team cooking something [in pork chops] that the soldiers really wanted more?
Michael Chen – I don’t know how much I can say about my opinion, because there were some things that happened that the blue team didn’t feel was fair and I’m not going to go into detail with that. But we really feel like we deserved to win that challenge, but it didn’t work out in our favor.
The dish aspect did play a big role. I was honest with the interviewers when they asked ‘whose fault was it?’ I hesitated because I don’t like to throw people under the bus, since that’s not the person that I am and I don’t play dirty … To be honest, when I was really pressed I did say that it was Frank’s fault for planning the dish wrong. I said that last night through the course of the challenge. All of us were completely shocked when we saw the Marines split into two groups and we were not the winning group. We thought that we had [a great chemistry], and you could hear Chef Ramsay constantly yelling at the red team for all the mistakes they were making. In our minds, there was not a doubt in our minds that we were going to win the challenge.
Cartermatt.com – So let’s talk about the apple pie [in closing]. What happened, and was it the cheese that did you in?
Michael Chen – Regarding the cheese on the apple pie thing, I don’t think it was as big of a deal as the judges made it out to be. I’ve talked to a lot of people, and apparently it’s a more specific regional thing — especially in the northeast — where cheddar cheese and apple pie are a combination. I’ve tried the combination before and thought it was something you might find in a cheese course at a restaurant, and thought that [it would work]. We also didn’t have the full ‘MasterChef‘ pantry to choose from, and they put ingredients in there that they thought would help inspire us to make a pie. One of the things they had in there was cheddar cheese. That’s why I thought ‘you provided us with cheddar cheese — this might be something that could turn out to be a good idea.’ When I first took the cheese I wasn’t sure if I would use it or not, but then I thought that with the apple, the flavors worked well together.
As for putting the cheese on the top of the crust … the goal was to keep the top of [it] crisp and help hold the crust together so that it wasn’t too crumbly. The cheese would help give it structure so it wouldn’t just fall apart. [When it comes to some other issues], I over-caramelized the inside of it when I was cooking it on the stove, so it got a little bit too dark. Other than that, I had actually switched the top and the bottom pastry, and the bottom couldn’t stand up to the weight of the pie and the top was too thick. You could hear Gordon say that it was raw, and it was raw due to it not being able to cook all the way through.
Were you rooting for Michael to make it far? While he may be out of the competition, he’s definitely got a pretty incredible future ahead of him when you consider that he is really just beginning his career.
Be sure to share your thoughts below, and also check out our other recent “MasterChef” interview by visiting this link.