It's 7:40 am , April 12, 2014- I'm outside the Sheraton Roma with roughly 300 other hopeful candidates for the cast of Masterchef Italia 4. Upon arrival at the hotel with my friend Donatella, about an hour before, aside from the 7 foot illuminated posters outside, we found little evidence of what would become this now bustling mob scene. Just the few people seated in the lobby with ice-chests, grocery bags and nervous looks of anticipation on their faces had indicated that this was the place. At home, Luciano wasn't 100 percent "on board" with my decision and I had been getting whiplash trying to keep up with his feelings regarding my participation. One minute he was ranting and raving about my lack of judgement in moving forward with this crazy idea, and the next he was offering his opinion about how my dish should be presented.
A pretty girl from Naples had come down to the lobby in her pajamas shortly after Donatella and I had arrived.. She had slept at the Sheraton and told us that the television judges/chefs wouldn't be there. She also revealed that there had already been an audition in Milan where more than 3000 candidates had attended. According to her source of information the meetings had continued on until 9 pm there. A blond woman in a blue wide brimmed hat overheard her report and expressed her worry that she might miss her plane back to Sardegna if this was the case today and that she had been told that there was the possibility of facing a "Mystery Box" challenge. I started to worry, I had obviously not done my research about this event. I had not been made privy to any of this insider information. .
Cherry picker cameras were mounted facing the garden courtyard outside the hotel. Someone who carried himself with an official air announced that soon we would be given stickers with numbers on them. We were to attach the large number to our clothing and the second half of the sticker should be kept for later. The typical Italian conical line had formed and as the line moved forward more late comers attempted to push their way in from the sides. My years of training at the bank and post office paid off. I was amongst the first 10 people who'd arrived at the hotel and I was able to stand my ground and snatch away one of the first 50 sticker numbers. Some of my Girl Scout spirit has faded a bit.
After receiving our numbers we were requested to position ourselves in the small garden area to the right of the entrance near a small gazebo. As we filed by to take our places I noticed that there were photographers as well as video cameras documenting the event. I also noticed that I stuck out from the crowd which was mainly dressed in black and gray. I had a light suede jacket and red coral colored polka-dot tee, Donatella was thrilled and sure that this was a great omen. Although unintentional on my part, there were others who seemed to have made their wardrobe selections to intentionally stand out from the crowd. An older man with a pronounced Naples accent sported a rather garish shirt and bolo tie, a heavily tattooed, middle aged woman with Crayola red hair coiffed in a geometric spiky hairstyle was dressed in black leather, a thin, waiflike young man wore leggings under an oversized tee shirt and was wrapped with an enormous colorful chiffon scarf. Hundreds of people, young and old of different ethnicities and walks of life had their sights set on becoming the next Masterchef Italia. Soon, when all the numbers had been given, the cherry picker camera went into action. A man gave directions with a megaphone: "On the count of three, everyone shout "Masterchef !!!" then applaude, hands over your heads!"
As the cherry picker camera flew about above us, we were incited to repeat this war cry. Again and again- Hey, you people sitting (and smoking) on the wall over there, we can see you - we need everyone to pay attention here-look at the camera. "Di nuovo, uno, due, tre, Masterchef!!! (applausi)" Bolo tie guy: "Come on now! Do it right or they won't pay us!" Two guys standing near me:"Next New Year's Eve we'll be screaming 'Masterchef!!!' instead of Happy New Year" After our third or fourth attempt a sleepy eyed, bare-torsoed man came to the window of a garden-view room. I am sure he did not put in a request for the Masterchef wake-up call.
The director seemed satisfied (and probably encouraged by the hotel front desk staff to be so) with their external shots. amd we were then herded back to one side of the entrance to the lobby. We were informed by another of the casting company representatives that we would be called in small groups to the meeting room they had rented on the lower floor of the hotel. I had been stopped for a few minutes after the Masterchef chant by a video camera and interviewed- name, where was I from and whiy I wanted to be the next Masterchef. If I could describe myself as an ingredient what would it be? I had felt at ease until this question stumped me for a moment...." Uh...a Dungeness Crab!"---what a stupid answer...I was being given directions ...look into the camera and say "I want to be the next Masterchef Italia" I did so and tried to load my statement with as much determination as possible. As I was dismissed and turned to walk away, the woman who had stopped me for the interview said, "oh, and by the way, I'm Francesca, I interviewed you on the telephone." It was not until that moment that I realized that this was a finely orchestrated mob scene. This was confirmed and I was even more heartened when I was summoned from the entrance to an isolated spot back in the garden to take some still shots as I was coached to make the "buono" gesture, my index finger pressing into my cheek.
As other startled guests of the hotel attempted to maneuver and exit the lobby, we were led out of the way inside to wait to be called upstairs to the audition space offices. The downstairs room was basically a waiting room. So many hopeful people waiting and waiting. There was a bit of comic relief for us when Donatella was whisked back outside with my overnight bag by one of the casting crew, we were both perplexed, Donatella frightened that we may have infringed some rule. However, when she returned relieved, she told me that they had found my bag to be the most attractive one there and they wanted to photograph it outside on the grassy area. I called Luciano to tell him that if I didn't make it on the show, maybe my bag would..
In small groups candidates only were led upstairs to another audition area and more waiting. By observing what the others were doing the new group would surmise what was to be done.When called one was to go to a prep room, with table stations and microwaves ready to prepare and plate the food. After that was the meeting with a chef and representative of the casting company for tasting. I was surprised when still waiting for my turn to go to the prep room that I was asked to stay a little longer after the tasting for an additional interview.
While prepping my food I noticed there was a camera man and a photographer documenting it all while Francesca asked me questions about my dish. After a few minutes I was ready. Three glass bowls with my three garnished dumplings arranged on an olive wood board, the hot broth waiting in the small teapot. The photographer took the last shot and I awaited mine.
The chef was cordial and the casting representative asked just a few questions. I was encouraged when the chef asked about the broth I'd used, the method of making the duck skin crispy. I couldn't resist asking him after he'd tasted all three what he thought...he only replied cryptically, " I can't say."
I was then led to a final room for the additional interview/audition. I was told, "This is only for fun, we have a website, a blog, we might use some of this footage here, but remember this is only for fun.." I was instructed to give instructions for classic Italian dishes, then give the instructions without talking, then mime different pasta shapes. I was quite proud of my interpretation of a tortellone .
By about 1:30 pm, my audition was over. The last step was having a head shot done and the casting company representative told everyone that we would only receive a phone call if we were selected and by the end of May.
I didn't know it then, but my journey had ended.
For the next forty plus days I dreamt and dreamt big, waited for the phone to ring, hoped and really believed it would. I worried about the arrangements to be made before leaving Cortona, I fretted about what I would need to bring to Milan. As the countdown closed on the end of May, I clung desperately to any driftwood of hope in the ocean of doubt that was swallowing me.
And I'm still counting on Karen...
* My bag which has star potential---keep your eyes open for it!