Panna Cotta Showdown
Luca Manfe and Natasha Crnjac squared off last night in the "Thunderdome" kitchen to cook their way to MasterChef glory... not to mention a quarter of a million dollars. Chef Graham Elliot serves up some final behind-the-scenes insight about the season that saw a bighearted Italian restaurateur take the title.
SheKnows: What a journey... from 100 of the best home chefs in the country to only two. Looking back, what were some of your favorite moments this season?
Graham Elliot: From the beginning, it was fun things like Jonny's lobster crackerjacks, some of the food that Lynn plated that was so gorgeous, the egg challenge where they came back and had to cook as many perfect eggs as possible, the outdoor challenge where we spent the night out in the woods — all of those things stand out. I mean, the surfer episode, the Glee episode… I just look back on the season and it's like one thing after another that wasn't just intense and crazy, but also super-fun. We'd get done filming an episode and be like, "Man, it's just so awesome that we get to be a part of this."
SK: How do you feel now that it's all over?
GE: Last night at the finale, I think everybody was tearing up and misty-eyed because it's such an emotional marathon — the endurance it takes to get to the end and not give up, to mentally stick with it for that long with it being just as competitive on the last day and for us to watch these guys and see how much they've grown and the food that they put up. But when the families come out? You're all there crying.
SK: Yeah, I'll woman up and admit that I wasn't just misty-eyed... I was a hot mess of emotion, especially when y'all surprised Luca with his dad and sister all the way from Italy! When did you guys decide to do that?
GE: I think as soon as we figure out who's going to be in the finale, we start reaching out and trying to do whatever we can to make it happen. It's so exciting to find out you have this person commit and say, "Yeah, we’re going to make this happen." When Natasha's husband came out with their little son, Diego, and the rest of her family, it was so emotional. And Luca and his wife Cate are, for me, like the greatest love story — it's just amazing to see how much they care about each other. Then his friends came out hootin' and hollerin'… it was a fun time.
SK: Well, the "Thunderdome" is a pretty intimidating place, and it also appears to be much tighter than the roomy MasterChef kitchen they're used to working in. Were there any mishaps we didn't see?
GE: Yeah, absolutely. I talked to Christine Ha last year about how, when you don't have your sight, at least you have that muscle memory of, "OK, here's my knob to turn the oven on, and here's where I grab the knives." In the MasterChef finale kitchen, everything is backwards and different, so it's the same thing. These guys are used to working in a certain spot, and now all of a sudden they're in this circular space and have to re-adapt just for this one challenge. It's really crazy how much different it is being in that situation.
SK: I think if I was told I had 10 minutes to pick out ingredients for a three-course meal that could determine the path the rest of my life took, you'd probably find me in the pantry curled up in the fetal position or something. What would you have grabbed?
GE: I think I might have done more of a global tour. For me, it might have been like, "Here’s a classic American entrée — a pot roast. And, over here, is a super-classic French appetizer." And I might end it with a super-classic Asian dessert, just to show my skill set globally. That's what I'd do.
SK: Getting into the appetizers, you said Natasha's pan-seared scallops looked like a seascape or a painting. Did you personally prefer them over Luca's pan-seared duck liver with toasted brioche?
GE: Yeah, I thought Luca's was too heavy and too sweet with the duck liver and chutney and brioche. All of those things are very rich. Natasha's was very light and clean, and it did look like a beach painting. That's what I would have ordered again if I had gone to a restaurant and had to choose between the two.
SK: How big of a gamble did Luca take with his entrée choice?
GE: With short ribs, you can't see them… you have no idea if they are going to be cooked or not! It's like making a soufflé. You’re taking a huge risk versus just a seared piece of beef or something else. So, it was a very ballsy move, and it paid off. I think Natasha's was flavorful and it was plated incredibly — it was one of the prettiest things we've ever seen — but, flavor-wise, you just couldn't beat Luca's.
SK: It was pretty amazing to hear Gordon tell Luca that it was the kind of dish he’d have as his last supper. One of the best compliments he's ever given?
GE: Gordon's never said anything like that, and I think it speaks volumes. And, you know, it's gotta give you confidence going into the next dish. It was delicious, but Natasha's was one of the most technical — roasting the monkfish in cow fat, having it cook perfectly, carving it so that it looked beautiful. That was one of the most stellar dishes we've seen on the show too.
SK: In the dessert round, Natasha's coconut panna cotta was obviously tasty, but you and Gordon seemed more impressed with Luca's basil panna cotta. Why?
GE: Luca took a huge risk being creative and doing a reinterpreted version of classic savory things based on his culture, and he pulled it off! The tomatoes in it were sweet and marmalade-like, and the panna cotta was really delicious. So, I think it was really cool for him to take a risk and have that happen.
SK: Both home chefs had pretty bold plans for their desserts. Who were you more worried about going into that round?
GE: Oh, I was definitely more worried about Luca. I didn't think he'd be able to pull it off — you know, the panna cotta with those flavors. I think most people thought, "Ugh, that doesn't sound good… that sounds weird."
SK: I seriously couldn't be happier he won! What tipped the scales in Luca's favor?
GE: Taking that risk with his dessert… that's what gave him that edge. Everyone on Twitter was like, "What gave him the edge?" And I think that's what it was. It really was the closest call.
SK: You know, Natasha really won me over as the season went on, and she genuinely seemed like such a gracious runner-up.
GE: Probably the most gracious runner-up we've had. I went and talked to her, and it was, "This is the beginning, not the end. I'm going to focus on what I'm doing. I didn't win this, but it's not going to change my path." I saw her and Luca this week, and she has enrolled in culinary school and is doing all these private dinners and pop-up things. It's cool.
SK: Definitely! I was excited to see on Twitter that she has a cookbook slated to come out next April. Do you have predictions about any of the other home chefs?
GE: It will be interesting to see who keeps pushing forward and doing this. Jordan is on his way to our restaurant today — he's going to spend a week with us, and he might move down to Chicago and work with us full-time, so that's exciting. There are some people who want to do their own chef stuff out of their house and do catering and pop-ups, and there are some people who want to write a book… so I think this show is a springboard for them to reach their dreams.
SK: I was struck by something as I was watching the finale. It was Sept. 11, and here we have Luca — an Italian immigrant who has built a life in New York City. I just thought it was so special to hear him, through tears, gushing about America being "the best place in the world, where dreams come true." What did it mean to see him win?
GE: It's the American dream, you know? To have somebody not make it the first time, persevere and come through the second time, suffer a lot of downfalls, kind of mature through the show, and just get better and better and make it to the end — he was just super-, super-passionate and driven, and he took criticism and learned with it. Every single challenge, Luca cooked with more heart than anybody.
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Be on the lookout!
If, like us, you're bummed this season of MasterChef has come to an end, don't fret. Starting Sept. 27 on Fox, you can catch Graham, Joe and Gordon on MasterChef Junior — a culinary cooking competition for kids.
Photo credit: Matt Hoyle/Fox