Q&A with Ben Starr ("MasterChef"):
Who was your first cooking inspiration?
My mom, of course. One of the earliest memories I have is sitting on the kitchen floor, surrounded by homemade toys, looking up at Mom peeling veggies in the kitchen sink and singing at the top of her lungs. Cooking was always such a joy for Mom, because it was her way of taking care of the people she loved, and that love and joy infused everything her hands touched. I inherited that desire for taking care of the people I love, and just like her, cooking is my favorite way to do that.
What is the first dish you ever mastered?
Buttermilk biscuits. My mom believed that breakfast was the most important meal of the day, so we would have scrambled eggs, sausage and buttermilk biscuits every single morning.
What is your favorite thing to cook?
Tamales. They're so complicated, it takes me 24 hours to make 12 dozen tamales from start to finish, but there's just nothing like a fresh, handmade tamale. After making them for the first time, I understood why Mexican families usually only make tamales from scratch during the holidays. It's a huge ordeal. I usually do it 3 or 4 times a year, and when people hear that Benny is making tamales, they come out of the woodwork. They're extra nice to me, in hopes that I'll send a dozen home with them after dinner. My trademark ingredient in everything is pumpkin, of course, and I do use pumpkin in my tamales, both in the masa dough, and in the filling. It keeps them ultra-moist and adds a dimension of complexity that always puzzles and delights my diners!
What did you learn as a contestant on "MasterChef"?
The most valuable lesson I learned on "MasterChef" was to remain true to my own cooking identity. In the early challenges, I saw all around me these brilliantly talented people who were cooking the type of food you'd only see in fine dining establishments. You know, ultra gourmet food. Reductions and gastriques and coulis; things I had no clue about. And I stepped way out of my comfort zone and identity to try to imitate them, because I figured that was the only way to compete. I should have taken inspiration from Whitney Miller and stuck to my guns. I cook simple food. The kind of food you get in street carts and in farmhouses around the world. Rustic, flavorful food, the farthest thing from sophistication you can find. Ultimately I learned that I just had to be myself, cook using my instincts and passion and experience, rather than trying to be something I'm not.