Behind the Screens with Joshua Maloni
Three of the top "MasterChef" home cooks of all time will compete Monday for a shot at the title, a trophy, a book deal and $250,000.
Elizabeth Cauvel, a 31-year-old advertising executive from Brooklyn, squares off with 56-year-old Leslie Gilliams, a stay-at-home dad from Malibu, and 25-year-old Philadelphia dancer Courtney Lapresi.
"I think you have a divergent group of people from different walks of life," judge Joe Bastianich said Thursday. "Leslie, the New York transplant to Malibu, is a true home cook; cooks for his family. He's a little bit of an older contestant, has a very brash, forward style; unapologetic in his ambition to win and what he does and the way he conducts himself.
"You have Elizabeth, who is more of a Brooklyn-ite, New York-sophisticated young lady who probably has her pulse on what's happening in the fine-dining scene and trends in the food world. She's well-traveled. She studied. She's culturally apt and really can kind of put all her life experiences and intelligence to play in every plate.
"And you have Courtney, who is from Philadelphia; kind of the combination of a little bit of street smarts, ethnic cooking, a fierce competitor. She probably knows how to play the game as well as she knows how to cook."
"I think all three have a real solid chance of going to the final two and then the finale. It's as strong of a threesome as we've ever had."
Fellow judge Graham Elliot said, "It comes down to simply cooking and also how you play the game. So you have someone like Courtney, who can do that better than anybody else, going up against someone like Leslie, who is completely unfiltered and just does whatever he feels like, and then someone like Elizabeth, who is probably the most sophisticated and has the most refined palate and cooking technique. They all have their own highs and lows."
While Elizabeth, Leslie and Courtney were solid competitors throughout the season, they were nearly supplanted in the finale by Cutter Brewer, a 33-year-old petroleum landman from Beaumont, Texas. Cutter didn't appear to have the polish or poise needed to execute some of the show's dishes, and he often wound up in "Pressure Test" elimination challenges.
Through a combination of luck - Cutter often found himself on the winning team in group challenges - and the misfortune of more talented home cooks who stumbled when the "pressure" was on, Cutter avoided elimination until the season's penultimate episode.
While Cutter's nine lives flabbergasted "MasterChef" fans, his resilience didn't surprise the judges.
"I think the biggest thing is kind of the transformation of the journey they have," Graham said. "They come in with their own strengths and weaknesses and then you see them evolve.
"Somebody like Cutter, who in the first few episodes looked like he was getting beat up on a lot, and then once the pressure was applied you see him making things like a delicious dish with beef heart or the best truffles that we've seen. Things like that. I think that other people like Leslie, who have issues plating, by the end are making gorgeous trios of ahi tuna - things of that sort. You really do see the evolution of the home cook, and that, I think, is what the biggest thing I recognize from this season is."
Joe added, "I think sometimes contestants have personal renaissances, and Cutter had a renaissance combined with a little bit of fortune. You know in our show, some of the greater cooks get eliminated too early on circumstance, and some people maybe who don't have as much talent go further on circumstance. I think that Cutter had a confluence of events that took him a long way, including him coming to Jesus in his own way, figuring out his own stride, and then a couple of lucky breaks. And that brought him as far as it did."
On Monday's season finale (8 p.m., FOX), the three competitors will create dishes for, if you can believe it, a conglomerate of 50 renowned chefs - each representing a different state. The home cook with the top score will advance to the final cook-off, while the two remaining contestants will go head-to-head in a dessert "pressure test."
The final two will make a full meal for judges Joe, Graham and Gordon Ramsay, who will name a winner at episode's end.
For more on "MasterChef," visit the official show website at http://www.fox.com/masterchef/.
Follow Joshua Maloni on Twitter @joshuamaloni