Critic-Turned-Cook Auditions for 'Master Chef'


[Photographs: Leslie Kelly]

My cell phone rang last week, a call that could possibly change my life: "This is Lyle with 3 Ball Productions, calling to make sure you're coming to the Master Chef casting on Sunday."

Uh, umm, yeah, I stammered, in shock.

I had sent in an application on a whim after seeing that the new Gordon Ramsay reality show from the producers of The Biggest Loser was having an open casting in Seattle, as well as 11 other cities. I hadn't heard a thing back, so kind of forgot about it.

Then, the call came. Then, the jumping up and down. Then, the menu planning.

20100114-critic-turned-cook-dish.jpgContestants were supposed to arrive with a dish that could be served room temp. "The health department's worst nightmare," I couldn't help thinking. No sweat. I made geoduck crudo using a recipe I begged chef Ethan Stowell to share after I fell in love with this ceviche-like dish last spring at his restaurant, Anchovies and Olives.

It's a fairly simple preparation, but it's brilliant because geoduck—which is native to the Pacific Northwest—is so novel, its appearance in the raw so ripe for dirty jokes (Excuse me, is that a giant clam or are you just happy to see me?). I brought along an extra geoduck (pronounced "gooey duck") with me to the casting for a little show and tell because nothing says good TV like a phallic-looking bivalve, right?

The Audition

20100114-critic-turned-cook-leslie.jpgWhen I arrived at the Sur La Table in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland for my 3 p.m. call time, the line of hopefuls stretched around the block. Most people had been waiting for more than four hours. The judges tasted dishes from more than 300 amateur cooks that day.

The room was filled with enough nervous energy to fuel a NASA launch. Earlier in the day, as I prepped my dish, I felt so incredibly stressed out. I kept saying, "Why am I putting myself through this?"

But when I got there, my nerves calmed and I was as chill as that geoduck on ice. When my turn came to stand before the judge—Eric Tanaka, executive chef at Tom Douglas restaurants—I delivered my spiel, he tasted, and minutes later I heard the good news:

"Congratulations!" read the slip of paper. "You have impressed our food consultants so much that our casting team is now ready to conduct an on camera interview with you."

The Interview

The next day during the 30-minute "grilling," I answered questions including, "What's the craziest thing you've ever done for food?" My answer: Ate barbecue in four states in one day (for a story I did while working at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis). And, "What would you do if you were the oldest person on Master Chef?" My answer: Kick some ass!

Now, never in a million years did I envision myself as a contestant on a reality show. Then again, I never imagined the newspaper in which my restaurant reviews appeared abruptly folding. After that devastating blow nearly a year ago, it was mighty tempting to fall into a major funk. But I vowed to use all my strength to try and move forward in a positive direction. To be open to anything and hope it leads to something good. Yes, even the possibility of appearing on Master Chef!

Keeping my fingers crossed. Wish me luck?

About the author: Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer restaurant critic Leslie Kelly has been working in professional kitchens since the newspaper folded in March 2009 and chronicling her culinary journey from pen to pan for Serious Eats. She also blogs at and is working on a story-telling project for Northstar Winery following one wine from the vine to the table.