The Hot Dish caught up with Master to chat about the experience, the judges, and why she decided to throw her hat in the ring.
Sarah Master: Jim Norton from Heavy Table sent me a casting call for the Food Network show Cutthroat Kitchen before their first season was set to air. I considered it, thinking it might be fun to fly to L.A. for a day, compete, and come home. I was initially chosen for the show, but cut last minute by the network right before I was set to fly out. The casting agents liked me so much they decided to re-submit my application for The Taste. With a 5-week filming schedule I teetered on whether or not the show was for me. But my family, friends, and Kim Bartmann (owner of Barbette and a number of other restaurants) really supported me in this. So I jumped at it. I knew this was going to be the opportunity I needed to get exposure to find investors for my own venture. After numerous interviews, phone conversations and a daunting 20-plus page application, I was invited to L.A. to audition for the show. 35 of us made it to the audition phase, which will be pared down to 16 during Thursday's airing.
HD: Is this the first time you've ever done something like this? What was the overall experience like?
SM: I've done a number of local cooking competitions, including Iron Fork, Master of the Market, Uptown Art Fair/Kitchen Window competition, and the Local Chef Challenge at the MOA. Nothing this big, though. The production was huge! So many people went into building the set, producing, interviewing, sound, lights, hair, make-up, wardrobe. The culinary team was huge, the wrangling of the cast -- it was insane. I don't envy them trying to get 35 big personalities to do what they want in the time allotted.
I've been doing TV spots since I was about 16 years old (I was a really good hockey player when I was younger so I got interviewed a lot), but I've never seen anything like this. It makes you feel pretty small. Overall, the experience was really fun but it was really stressful to put your personality, life, hard work, dedication to the craft, your dreams, everything, into a single bite of food. It was the most important bite I've ever put forth in my life. Everything was on the line for that one taste. Can you imagine how that feels? Nothing else matters. Not to mention you are in a strange kitchen with strange equipment. We had to use the knives they provided, navigate a huge sound set, constantly have a mic on, and be stuck in a room with 34 other (loud) people. Some took it as seriously as I did, others shrugged it off as if it were nothing.
During the audition process, I just tried to keep to myself and focus on what I needed to do to make it onto a team. During the hour you have to cook, the producers are coming by asking you questions about what you are making, and the culinary team is watching to make sure you handle the food safely; there's a medic in case you hurt yourself, and all along, seated upon a large pedestal in front of you raised about 15 feet in the air, are the mentors: Anthony (Bourdain), Nigella (Lawson), Ludo (Lefebvre) and Marcus (Samuelsson). Four culinary geniuses getting ready to judge the shit out of whatever you just made. Yikes.
HD: Did you know any of the other chefs auditioning?
SM: I did not know anyone else who auditioned. But I flew from Minneapolis to Chicago on the first leg of my flight to L.A. The whole flight from Chicago, I was sizing people up, wondering which other contestants were on that flight. I picked out 2 correctly. We chefs have a way about us. But, I'll tell you, as soon as I found out the names of the people I was auditioning against, I Googled the hell out of them. There were a few who had done Chopped, Cutthroat, and two who I recognized as trying out for season one of The Taste. After sizing them up, I thought I had a pretty fair shot at making a team.
HD: What did you cook?
SM: I went back to the ingredient I always turn to when I think of showcasing my knowledge and passion: lamb. I did a seared lamb loin, saffron cous cous, a celeriac puree, and a spicy chermoula sauce. I thought I would appeal to Ludo through my use of French technique, to Nigella with a general homeyness I like to cook with, to Anthony with technique as well, but with a flair of heat, punchy flavor, and richness (which I know he loves), and to Marcus with perfect execution of the lamb, my slicing of it, and the North African sauce I garnished the dish with.
HD: Did you have much interaction with the judges? Is Nigella as luminous and calming in person as she is on TV?
SM: The only interaction we had with the judges in the audition round was the three or four minutes we had standing in front of them while they told us if they chose us for their teams or not. You walk up the stairs onto the upper stage and stand before them while they go down the line and tell you their thoughts on your dish. It's brutal. They are honest, forthcoming, and don't really give a shit what your story is up to that point. The decision has been made by the time you walk out in front of them.
All of the mentors have great personalities and aside from the whole "judgement" part of it, it was a pleasure to have met them at all. Nigella is so poised, but with a certain snarkiness that is beautiful and somewhat shocking coming from such a put-together person. She really is gorgeous, confident, and has one of the most refined palates of anyone I have ever encountered. Ludo is really raw, harsh, and goes for the most shock value of all the judges. Anthony seems like a guy who knows what it is like to be in the shoes of the contestants. He says what's on his mind, but can have a compassionate side as well. Marcus is really energetic, smart, and competitive. It was an honor to have cooked for them all.
HD: If you go farther in the competition who will fill your spot or what will happen at Barbette when you're gone?
SM: My sous chef, Ran Mruz and chef tournade, Kyle Martin, will run the place while I am gone. It will be business as usual. They have been trained to run the place in my absence and know to uphold my high standards of quality, even if I am halfway across the country for an extended period of time.They did a great job when I was gone. No one noticed a thing!