By Ken Stone
Update: All three San Diegans advanced in the contest. Wednesday night’s episode saw Necco Ceresani of Newberry, South Carolina, leave the show after losing the elimination challenge. For details, see this recap at celebdirtylaundry.com.
A “mystery box” awaits 15 contestants in Wednesday night’s episode of “MasterChef” on Fox. But the secret is out on which city produces the best home cooks.
San Diego wins hands down.
Although Fox lists their hometowns as Redding, Cincinnati and Bensonhurst, New York, self-taught chefs Brien O’Brien, Jenny Cavellier and Dino Luciano, respectively, have deep ties to the county.
O’Brien, a 33-year-old magazine advertising salesman, has lived in Pacific Beach since 2006, when he moved there to attend graduate school at National University. “Some say once you reach 30, you’re officially too old to live in PB, but I couldn’t disagree more,” he says.
Cavellier, a 26-year-old special needs therapist in the South Park/Hillcrest area, moved to San Diego in summer 2005. “My dad was in the Marine Corps and stationed in Coronado at the time,” she says. “He fell in love with the area and worked to get our family back out here.”
And Luciano, a 28-year-old ballet dancer, says: “I moved around San Diego a lot, but most of my family is in Imperial Beach. I live between there and Murrieta at my mother’s.”
The trio are the cream of the crop of 40 home cooks from Episode 1 who survived open casting calls in a dozen cities, including San Diego — in March 2016 at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront. They hope their personality and kitchen skills lead to becoming the second San Diegan to win “MasterChef” — after Claudia Sandoval in Season 6.
After the May 31 season premiere — a “Battle for a White Apron” challenge — 20 advanced in the contest for the masterchef title and $250,000 prize. Also in the deal: a MasterChef Cruise in November, where other season winners will mingle with vacationers.
In its eighth season, “MasterChef” has been a simmering, if not sizzling, reality entry for Fox.
With tough-love celebrity chef (and producer) Gordon Ramsay as host, the show ranks 107th out of 185 prime-time network shows in viewership, according to tvseriesfinale.com. It averages just under 3.5 million viewers — down 13.4 percent from a year ago. (In the key 18-49 demographic, “Masterchef” ranks 79th, however. It’s also the No. 8 prime-time show on Fox, but well behind “Empire” and “The Simpsons.”)
Season 9’s casting calls have already begun, in fact.
The amateur-cook show also is being roasted on Reddit.
JOh boy, another ‘make exactly what Gordon Ramsay shows you’ challenge,” said a recent comment. “I’m a very loyal Ramsay fan, but I’m so sick of the fact that they’re not doing their own unique things anymore. Ugh.”
Said another: “My only complaint is the simplicity. Don’t need to see any more eggs for the rest of the season, and although I dug the fish n chips challenge, I’d definitely like to see more complex challenges.”
Which led to this: “Can’t wait till next week’s episode of MasterEggs!”
In 2011, a Reddit user carved up “MasterChef” for faking a crowd shot — creating the impression of a larger line of auditioners than in reality. (Producers apologized about the scene “enhanced in post-production.”)
Amateur critics aside, the San Diego trio are savoring being in the Top 15. The show, taped in Los Angeles where all the contestants stay during production, is expected to conclude in September.
A fourth San Diegan — single mom Lauren Lawless of Pacific Beach — was in the original 40 but was eliminated in the first show.
The “Whole-y Cow!” episode of “MasterChef” — where the top 15 prepare a dish around a given beef part — airs at 8 p.m. locally on Fox.
MyNewsLA interviewed the San Diegans, all single, this week via email:
MYNEWSLA: What did you cook for the audition?
BRIEN: It was the first time I’ve ever auditioned for a television show. The dish I brought to my audition was my “Fourth Generation Meatloaf Dinner,” which is my great grandmother’s meatloaf recipe.
DINO: I made a vegan lasagna with potatoes, squash and homemade vegan cheese.
JENNY: I cooked up filet mignon with cauliflower puree, honey roasted vegetables and a rosemary compound butter. Kept it pretty simple, but you can’t go wrong with steak.
Have you had cook training outside the home — at a public school, professional school or via professional tutoring? If so, when and where?
BRIEN: Before I left for the show, I had never cooked in a professional kitchen in my life. It was a daunting task to jump right into the MasterChef kitchen and compete with such talented home cooks. Since my time on the the show, I’ve worked in a number of kitchens, but most notably I worked at the University of San Diego under Executive Chef Dave McHugh. He taught me TONS and I couldn’t be more thankful for the opportunity.
DINO: Growing up, I learned things here and there from family, my mother, grandmother. But I was mostly self-taught. My obsession over health and fitness forced me to learn cuisines I didn’t grow up cooking. My favorite healthy meals were always Indian and Thai.
JENNY: Nope — I am a self-taught home cook. With the help of professional influences on Food Network (Chopped!) and of course from watching Masterchef.
What are your specialty dishes? What do you like cooking for yourself or friends?
BRIEN: I can cook a great many things, but the dishes I’m most known for are also the dishes I like to cook for myself and my friends. Those dishes include meatloaf, prime rib, tri tip, BBQ beef ribs, lobster and potatoes (every way you can think of). Currently, my favorite things to cook are things I’ve never made before. Exploring new ingredients and techniques is my favorite activity.
DINO: My specialty growing up was traditional Sicilian and Italian. I’ve learned to elevate classic rustic dishes to modern levels. My favorite specialty is being able to take classic dishes that usually include meat and dairy, and make them vegan.
JENNY: I cook a lot of modern American food and love a good steak. I love to bake — try as a I can to do that in moderation. I actually love testing out new dishes with my friends for review. Pizza is always a fun one to play around with.
What San Diego restaurants or chefs do you admire? Where would you like to work, if such a career were possible?
BRIEN: This is a difficult question because there are so many great chefs here in San Diego. Probably my favorite is Trey Foshee of George’s at the Cove and Galaxy Taco. I’m also a huge fan of celebrity chefs Richard Blaise of Juniper & Ivy and Crack Shack and Brian Malarkey of Herb & Wood (which is my favorite place to dine currently). If I could pick three restaurants in San Diego that I wanted to work in most it would be (in no particular order): George’s, Mister A’s and Herb & Wood.
DINO: My favorite restaurants in San Diego are the mom and pop joints, like Cafe Di Roma in Imperial Beach. I used to frequent Bahn Thai in University Heights at least three times a week, and Zarape’s right next door just as often. My new favorite includes Indian Grill in Old Town. As of right now, I’m definitely interested in opening a restaurant, but I’m not sure exactly where.
JENNY: I really enjoy Accursio Lota’s work at Solare. Other favorites include Amanda Baumgarten at Herringbone — I’ve had some of my favorite meals there and you can’t beat the ambiance. Cowboy Star is my ultimate favorite San Diego restaurant — Victor Jimenez and team know their steak!
Where do you like to dine in San Diego? Name preference for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert.
BRIEN: Another difficult question because there are so many choices! For breakfast, I would probably say World Famous in PB is my favorite place. There are tons of great breakfast spots in and around San Diego, but this is the place I eat most often with friends. For lunch I’d say Rocky’s Crown Pub is my favorite. This is a well-known burger spot to locals, but still small enough to be a neighborhood favorite. For dinner I’d recommend the Smoking Goat in North Park. This restaurant has served me the best dinner I’ve ever had in San Diego, so I must give them the nod.
DINO: I usually make a smoothie for breakfast. For lunch I’ll usually treat myself to Whole Foods’ salad bar. Dinner, Cafe Di Roma, Bahn Thai, Zarape’s or Indian Grill. But most days I’ll eat my Mum’s food; she’s a great cook.
JENNY: As I mentioned, Cowboy Star is my favorite. The best steak dinner I have ever had, so that would take the cake for dinner. Breakfast is one of my favorite meals to cook, so I don’t often eat out. However, the man candy at Fig Tree Cafe is absolutely delicious (bacon on steroids) and their Eggs Benedict combinations are amazing.
Dessert — again, something I don’t often order out, so my experience with dessert is a little bit more limited in San Diego. I’m going to ode to an ultimate favorite here at the Liberty Station Public Market (an amazing spot to grab a quick bite and browse some amazing eateries). Crafted Baked Goods makes a mean ice-cream sandwich. Baked Bear also delivers in this sense. However, I love being able to walk around the market and people watch (not to mention all of the other wonderful vendors in such close vicinity to one another).
Has San Diego influenced your cooking skills or specialty? If so, how? Name names if anyone here has helped or inspired you.
BRIEN: San Diego has absolutely influenced how I cook! It’s such an experience to live in a community that has some of the best produce available in the country. Not just the produce, but California raised meats and local seafood make this place among the best locations in the world for chefs in my opinion. I remember discussing this with the executive chef of University of San Diego Dave McHugh. He and I talked at length about locally grown ingredients and how essential they are to great cuisine. He is absolutely someone I consider a mentor and thank him for all he taught me and the opportunities he gave me.
DINO: San Diego had greatly helped me by providing fresh seafood. Growing up Sicilian, that was our specialty.
JENNY: San Diego has made me much more open to experimenting with seafood. I grew up in Ohio, so I didn’t have much experience cooking with it. Living so close to the water and having all of these fresh ingredients at your disposal gives you no excuse but to broaden your culinary horizons and play around with seafood. I bought my first live lobster from Point Loma Seafoods — so much fun! I also love the fresh scallops there. San Diego has opened this entire culinary world to me. In addition, you can grill year round here — no need to worry about snow!
How are your friends, co-workers and family dealing with your celebrity? Any changes in how you are treated?
BRIEN: Everyone is taking it really well. When I traveled back to my home town of Redding, I was recognized a lot going to the bank and at local restaurants, but not as much here in San Diego. I have had distant relatives reach out to me I haven’t heard from in years as well as fans from as far away as the Philippines. The only difference in how people treat me is that they assume I only eat 5-star cuisine. They don’t realize that I am just a normal guy who still enjoys the taste of KFC’s coleslaw.
DINO: I don’t like to call myself a celebrity. But my family is definitely super happy, we’re all very blessed because of this wonderful opportunity. I’ve been getting recognized everywhere I go; it’s so crazy. Even after the first episode, people would stop me on the street and ask for photos. I’m just happy people are watching.
JENNY: My friends, family and co-workers have all been nothing but supportive. I’m definitely not one that craves the spotlight, so celebrity isn’t something that I’ve had to deal with too much. The thing that has gotten me recognized the most is my laugh (I don’t know what that says about my cooking chops, haha). But that’s something I’m used to having noticed (I sound a bit like a seal).
I’ve definitely gotten more attention than I’m used to. I’m learning to embrace the attention in a positive way — especially since the reason I got involved in the show in the first place was to bring attention to the desire to have more inclusion of individuals with disabilities in the culinary world. I’m hoping I’m able to focus more on that goal moving forward.
What would you do with the $250,000 prize? Open a restaurant?
BRIEN: I would first pay off my condo in Pacific Beach as that is my only debt. After that, I would try to invest the rest of the money into a business, but I am not sure what that business would be quite yet. I’m working on a few projects right now to help figure that part out.
strong>DINO: I’d help my parents out with remaining debt, start a food truck, invest, and save up for a restaurant one day. My main goal is to build such a steady financial situation where I can constantly donate, and hopefully start foundations on my own, pertaining to homelessness, OCD and mental disability awareness, and anything else the world needs help on.
JENNY: I would definitely put the money toward a restaurant. The ultimate goal is open a restaurant that is able to serve as a jumping off point for individuals with disabilities to make their mark in the culinary world.
Ideally I would like to have something set up with a culinary school to filter in students with disabilities to have their externship opportunity within my restaurant and they can prep for future jobs and such. I have worked with these amazing populations for the last several years and have been able to see firsthand how much potential so many of these individuals have to make a strong impact in so many different areas — including the culinary world.
How many cookbooks do you own? Which genres? (French, Italian, American, baking, etc.)
BRIEN: I probably own between 15 and 20 cookbooks. Most of them are general cookbooks like “Joy of Cooking,” but I also have a couple vegan cookbooks as that is a cuisine I’m trying to learn more about right now. With the Internet at my fingertips, it is not as necessary to own as many paper cookbook anymore.
DINO: I own a few cookbooks. I wish I owned more, and hopefully I can soon make enough money to buy more. I grew up with a few Chef Ramsay cookbooks. Lidia Bastianich has a lot of great cookbooks, every one she’s ever came out with is pure gold. Right before I went on the show, I bought [judge] Chef Christina Tosi’s cookbook on pastries and desserts, and I’m absolutely in love with it. She’s a very talented chef.
JENNY: I don’t actually own too many cookbooks. I do love “Joy of Cooking” — jam-packed with so many recipes. I recently found a used book store that I have started finding all kinds of stuff from my favorites at super reasonable prices ( I love anything by Emeril Lagasse). But this is a recent development, so I own far fewer than many of my peers — the Internet is a wonderful thing (although in a perfect world, I would love to read nothing but books). It goes without saying that I follow Gordon Ramsay’s, [judge] Aaron Sanchez and Christina Tosi’s cookbooks — I mean who wouldn’t?
Is your reality TV experience a true depiction of your personality and skills? (Critics say editing skews what people are really like.)
BRIEN: I’d love to say that the way I am depicted on the show is who I am 100 percent of the time, but I don’t necessarily believe that. So far on the show they haven’t shown me make a mistake, but I made many. They have only shown me doing well so far, and I absolutely made mistakes here and there.
DINO: I grew up thinking that reality shows were completely fake and scripted, but on “MasterChef,” we’re pretty much what you see on TV as we are in real life. They encourage us to be us, and that’s what I loved about the experience the most. They really inspire us to not only elevate our foods, but also our inner self and being as well. It’s been a life-changing experience, and I left that kitchen as a better cook, and human being.
JENNY: This is a very interesting question — as it is something I wanted to often ask the cooks on previous seasons of “MasterChef.” The emotions depicted on the show are all very real. I would typically describe myself as a pretty tough individual not affected by the stress of reality TV.
However, I was completely taken aback by the stress of the situation and the emotion shows. In regards to my cooking chops, I was definitely a bit more on edge throughout the course of the competition — so that may also show throughout some of those tougher challenges.
What episode already aired would you point to showing your best moments, one you’d like people to see?
BRIEN: In the episodes that have aired so far, the challenges I did best would be episode 3 the first “Mystery Box Challenge” and episode 4 the first “Team Challenge.” I’m very pleased with how well I did early on and will keep pushing as the show continues to air
DINO: I would say the episode that best describes me as a person would be my white apron battle. That was my most vulnerable, frightened yet inspired self.
JENNY: I would say the last episode that played, the restaurant challenge, was one of my favorites to film. Despite our team losing the challenge, that was one of the biggest adrenaline rushes I have ever experienced — working in a real kitchen and having deadlines by tickets was such a challenge and so much fun! I had a blast making breakfast (and one of my favorite dishes Eggs Benedict) and working alongside my peers.
Please share your social media channels — Twitter, FB, Instagram, etc.
JENNY: I’m not as active on social media, but I have a few channels.
I have an Instagram that I’m getting better with — js_meatandpotatoes
and just opened a Twitter page (put in my first tweet today!) @jenny_cavellier.
Anything else about your “MasterChef” experience people should know about?
BRIEN: I will be having a viewing party for the July 26th episode at The Local Pacific Beach (809 Thomas Ave., San Diego, 92109) from 6 to 10 p.m. This will be the final viewing party I will be having of the season as other opportunities have come up that will prevent me from doing more. Here is a link to the public event page on Facebook: LAST MasterChef Viewing Party with Brien O’Brien at The Local and a YouTube video which highlights my MasterChef Viewing Party 7-12-17.
DINO: “MasterChef” has changed my life in the best possible way. Not only did I learn a lot more about the culinary world, but I also learned so much about myself. It inspired me to never be afraid to leave my comfort zone, and that vulnerability is key.
JENNY: “MasterChef” was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life. Getting the chance to learn from some of the best chefs in the world was a dream come true. I never thought I would be here — so I guess the thing to say would be, never give up on those dreams — no matter how far-fetched!
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