However, as our third and final day of tryouts progressed with an abundance of lackluster dishes, I wondered if perhaps the entire day would be a wash. Nearing the end of our remaining contestants, we had yet to see any of the slam-dunks like Michael Chen from day one.
After what seemed like a revolving door of disappointment, in walks Graham's doppelganger, David Martinez, from the rough streets of the south side of Chicago – a neighborhood notorious for churning out tough-as-nails characters.
I tasted his pescando with apprehension, but the dish spoke for itself. It was top quality, the kind of plate we had been waiting for to redeem the day! Earning a resounding "yes" from all three judges, he is another top contestant to watch moving forward.
Stacey from Applewood, Calif., was also a noteworthy find of the day. Graham gave her the high sign immediately, but Gordon and I were not so convinced – at first bite, her dish left me wanting. It was not terrible, but also not quite at the level of the standouts we had seen over the last few days.
Although it was my change of heart that enabled her to advance to the next round, it is really Graham who will get the credit for saving her from elimination. I would never have given her a second chance had it not been for his urging. He and I have a different approach to food, and although we disagree often, there is a commonality all of us judges share, and his insistence was enough to make me reconsider.
Divided JudgesAnother contestant who left us divided was Dallas car salesman Rami – a real show-boater. My gut instinct about him was that he was all talk and no action: he gave too much of a pitch instead of letting his food sell itself. Food is something that you can’t talk your way around. It is either good or it isn't, period. Schmoozing doesn't resonate on the palate.
If Rami is truly passionate about finding his place in the culinary world, then my advice to him would be to stay out of the kitchen, and play to his strengths by pursuing the front of the house.
He is your classic front of the house guy: the maitre d', the floor manager, someone who knows how to read people and can put the customer at ease. Those are the salesmen of our world. Smoke and mirrors don't fly in the back of the house. The kitchen is a primal, dog-eat-dog, stripped-down world where what you taste is all that matters.
Plucking only 36 to continue on from the audition round this year means we are quick to get down to business, and we feel the talent who came out for season 3 was strong enough to be thrown into the fire.
Eager to see right out of the gate what our top 36 can do, we immediately pushed them past the comfort zone of their signature dish and into a challenge. Ground beef is fairly easy to prepare, and what we were looking for was the ability to quickly and competently conceptualize and execute a dish.
I was extremely impressed with the way each of our remaining contestants went about the first challenge. No one was standing around the pantry anxiously lamenting over what to prepare – everyone got right to work and proved they deserved that apron.
We searched through thousands of people to bring you the top 36, and if those we chose couldn't get it together to prepare a simple ground beef dish, the fault would lie with us judges.
The question now is who can keep up with the fast pace we've set for season 3? It is still very much anyone's game, and we've seen frontrunners fall and underdogs rise here in the MasterChef kitchen before.
Thanks for reading and tune in Monday at 9pm ET/PT on FOX. And for more, follow @masterchefonfox on Twitter.