My Evening at MasterChef Korea

Extras, Food News, south korea — By on May 15, 2012 at 12:00 pm

by Kissairis Munoz

A few weeks ago, I received an unexpectedly awesome email from my running group. The international cooking show MasterChef was currently filming its first Korean season and one of the upcoming episodes was based around a Western-style challenge. The show’s producers had contacted the group because they needed non-Koreans to be the audience judges, as we had “western palates.” Was anyone interested in participating? Was I ever. A chance to be on TV and get a free meal on a Saturday night? Done.

So a few weeks later, I walked into the hotel where the filming was taking place, a swanky hotel in the heart of Seoul. I wasn’t sure what to expect. All I’d been told was to show up by 6:30 p.m. and expect to stay until 9 p.m. I was greeted by a smiling woman with a clipboard who laid down the rules. Filming would begin at 7:30 p.m. There was food in the waiting area, an enormous banquet hall (but don’t get too full before the taping!). At 7:30 p.m., we’d be escorted to where the show would be filmed. There were 11 contestants left and they were split into two teams, the red team and the blue team. We’d find out more about the challenge then.

I walked into the banquet hall, which was already filled with foreigners ready to dive into the food. I heard a variety of English-speaking accents but also some Spanish and Dutch. I sat down at the first table with an empty seat that I spotted. My table companions were all really friendly. There were three other English teachers, one woman in the Army, and a couple who worked at the American embassy who had the husband’s mother visiting — talk about a unique tourist destination.

After sampling the free pre-judging food — Korean food, sushi, pasta, and a boatload of desserts — we waited. At about 7:30, one of the producers got on the mic to inform us that the kitchen was having some issues and filming would begin later than planned. “In the meantime,” she said, “I’ll fill you guys in on what’s going to happen.” The red team and blue team were competing against each other for our votes. The challenge was to create an entire dish around sausages. (At this point, the wife in the couple just stared at us; we’d just spent several minutes talking about how she was a vegetarian. Cross your fingers for good side dishes!) We’d get two plates, one dish for each team, and eat. Afterward, we’d each vote on our favorite dish by pushing a snazzy buzzer. The losing team would have a cook-off the following day where at least one contestant would be sent home.

And with that, a frantic-looking person ran into the room, whispered something in the producer’s ear and scampered off again. “Alright, everyone! It’s time to get filming.” We were ushered into a much smaller room, with two long rows of tables and the judge’s area. There were exactly 105 of us eating and voting. I was seated at the end, right in front of the judge’s table. “It might come down to our votes!” exclaimed the Australian man sitting next to me.

After watching the camera men set up their spots and sneaking over to take some photos of the judge’s table, the contestants finally came out and began setting up their food to our rounds of applause. Everything looked and smelled delicious as we walked up to get our two plates. The blue team had chosen to do a familiar hoagie-style beer-battered homemade sausage sandwich with baked potato fries in a garlic sauce. Just by looking at the dish, I thought for sure they’d nailed it. What was more western than that? The red team had put two spiced homemade sausages on each plate with a type of potato salad. Unfortunately, the placard that described exactly what the dish was supposed to be was missing, something that came back to haunt them.

When I sat back down to try the food, I bit into the sandwich expectantly and nearly gagged. The overwhelming taste of beer filled my mouth. Did I just chug a pint, I wondered. I was nervous as I bit into the red team’s sausage and instead was pleasantly surprised. The sausage was full of flavor and perfectly spiced. A bite of the second sausage on the plate was even better; this one spicy and smoky. They’d done one mild sausage and one spicy for each plate, one of the contestants told me, since westerners often don’t like spicy foods. The red team had my vote.

While the side dish on the blue team’s plate was better — can you compete with creamy garlic? — the challenge was sausages and the red team had made awesome sausages complemented with Korean spices. Sadly, while I thought the red team had better food, the blue team had several English speakers, including an Australian guy who is married to a Korean, which allowed him to qualify for the show. The blue team spent their time hamming it up with the audience judges while the red team could only smile and exchange pleasantries. “Don’t be fooled!” I wanted to scream. My table mates and I spent several minutes going over the sausages in depthly, feeling like fancy food critics while also trying to make as many “that’s what she said” jokes as possible.

Finally, it was time for the voting. The first row of tables stood up and filed to the stage to cast their votes on the buzzer while the scoreboard kept flashed the numbers. At first, the red team was winning. But slowly, the blue team started taking over. Before they reached me, the blue team had secured the necessary amount of votes to win. My dreams of being the deciding vote were crushed. Thoughtfully, the producers still let cast our votes but it wasn’t nearly as exciting knowing our votes didn’t really count.

Finally, the shoot wrapped up and we were set free at about 11 p.m., a full two hours later than planned. That’s show biz, I guess! Although my team didn’t win, the whole experience was great. I got to chat with some interesting people, try some food and best of all, keep my wallet in my purse. Now I’m keeping my eyes peeled for when the episode airs on Korean TV! Thanks, MasterChef Korea!

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