JAKE'S BREAK: With three episodes to go, Jake Gandolfo is going strong. He's also working every possible publicity angle. 'I'm gonna make it happen,' he says.
Local Boy Makes Food
Jake Gandolfo of Felton is killing it on Fox network's 'MasterChef.' How far will he go?
Story by Traci Hukill
Photos by Curtis Cartier
HE DOESN'T EVEN TRY to pretend that he's not enjoying it. Jake Gandolfo is making his way through the Felton Farmers Market on a savagely hot Tuesday, me half a step behind, scribbling and plying him for information about the next few episodes of MasterChef. Did he win? Did he get the boot? He's giving up nothing.
"Me?" he asks, his eyebrows shooting up over the top of his blue mirrored shades. "Yeah, I know everything. It's like, you know, when you're a little kid and your parents tell you you don't know everything? Well, I know everything."
And he's happy with the outcome?
"Yeah, I'm happy."
He heads off toward the peach stand and I follow, parsing that last bit for tone and inflection. He emphasized the pronoun ever so slightly, as in, "Yeah, I'm happy." But was it "I'm happy, but the douche who took second isn't"? Or was it "I'm happy, even though I didn't win, because I'm not an asshole"? or was it "I'm happy, because six months ago I was driving a backhoe and now I'm on TV and 5.5 million people watch me every week"?
Of the dozens of amateur chefs who started in the latest Fox reality cooking show, the 39-year-old Felton resident and former construction worker is one of 11 who remain. The winner gets a quarter of a million dollars and a cookbook deal. On Wednesday, Sept. 15, three episodes from now, we'll know who that is.
Whatever happens, Gandolfo will still have his star power. He cuts quite the figure with his straw cowboy hat, long goatee and black sleeveless T-shirt showing off his tribal tattoos. A beefy guy, he moves with the slight swaying gait seen in more exaggerated form in sumo wrestlers. You can feel people looking at him out of the corner of their eye. He just looks like somebody.
He's also determined to be somebody in the culinary world. He quit his job running heavy equipment just before heading to L.A. to tape the show in April. Since the series started airing on July 27, he's been a tornado of self-promotion, throwing viewing parties at the Crow's Nest, Clouds, in Napa and in the East Bay. An old family friend flew him out to Connecticut to cook for 300 people. He's started a catering and private chef business, Custom Culinary Concepts.
"In talking to my friends from the show it seems like I'm being the most proactive out of everybody because I'm a self-made guy. I'm not gonna sit around and wait," he says. "I'm a shucker and a jiver and a go-getter, and I'm gonna make it happen."
This past weekend he won Best Tri Tip and Grand Champion Overall for the first annual Santa Cruz Rib Cook-Off in San Lorenzo Park. This Wednesday, Sept. 1, he's throwing a viewing party at, appropriately enough, Jake's on the Lake in Tahoe City, where he married his wife, Erin Buchla, three years ago. The show airs on Fox this Wednesday at 8pm.
"And, the good Lord willing, we'll be back to Santa Cruz after that," he says coyly. "If I move forward after the show."
ALL BUSINESS: The entrepreneurial Gandolfo wants to grow his catering company. He has the giddyup: he and a friend started Natural Selections furniture, then sold the business, which is still thriving.
Jake From Santa Cruz
There are several reasons to believe "Jake from Santa Cruz, California" might go the distance, mostly having to do with clues dropped by the wily editors at Fox, who pieced the show together after all six weeks of taping were finished in the spring and the outcome had been decided:
Big Bro Love Graham Elliot is on his side. In Episode 2, the extra-large Chicago chef, one of the three judges, sees himself in Jake when our man enters in cowboy hat, sleeveless T and shorts.
GRAHAM ELLIOT: I thought that was me comin' through that door!
JAKE: Graham, you and me are peas and carrots.
Next, Graham takes Jake under his wing after the other two judges slam his signature dish, an eclectic surf 'n' turf with steak spiedini and scallops, as underseasoned and "contrived."
JUDGE JOE BASTIANICH: Come here. Step around here, come over here. Tell me why I should vote yes.
Jake: Because I have the potential to grow and expand and become a great chef in my heart of hearts. ...
Elliot (walking over and putting hands on Jake's shoulders): Look at this guy. I will vouch for him. Joe, I will make this guy better.
A Jake Theme Most of the contestants stay in the background unless they're crying, losing or winning a round. But a handful have been saddled with a kind of boilerplate analysis that's frequently highlighted and which presumably helps the drama along. In Jake's case, nearly every episode features someone—usually an announcer or a judge—marveling at the disparity between his burly appearance and his fine kitchen skills. This is a much more promising theme than that assigned to David (too arrogant) or to Mike (in too big a hurry). A typical example comes in Episode 4, as Jake is acing the Mystery Box Challenge with his double-cut pork chop. Three-star British chef Gordon Ramsay, the brutal Simon Cowell of the judges, once again expresses his amazement that Jake is not an oaf.
Ramsay: There's something really nice about the way you work. I expected you to be clumsy. You build office blocks. You're on construction sites, for God's sake, but you walk around a kitchen with great finesse. It's like watching a swan glide across a pond. It's unique. A big swan. (Laughter.)
Beaucoup Screen Time Jake's been a favorite from the get-go, and he gets lots of screen time. At random moments, like when the group is standing on the beach at Camp Pendleton, learning that they're going to cook for 150 Marines, the camera zooms in on his face. This phenomenon may have as much to do with Jake's penchant for colorful language as with his look. He's a character. In Episode 1, Jake introduces himself memorably, in classic Santa Cruz–speak.
Jake: I want to say to the other people in the competition to bring it. Because I am [bleep] for real and it is on like Donkey Kong, you know? I am definitely here to compete.
Later, in Episode 5, he gives his opinion of the Team Red's burger, which is beating his Team Blue's burger in the Truck Stop Challenge.
JAKE: That burger I just tasted was gross. To me, it was [bleep] gross. It was a [bleep] burger slathered in barbecue sauce and raw bacon.
You could probably organize a drinking game around Jake's bleeps. In fact, the only person who swears more than he does is the show's alpha, the hotheaded Ramsay. Here he is on the subject of Jake's surf 'n' turf, Episode 2.
RAMSAY: I'm sorry. A surf 'n' turf is about a good quality cut of beef, it's about filet against big lobster tail. We've got great scallops and [bleep] beef, a garnish, we've got overcooked rice, [bleep] pea purée. No.
Back in Santa Cruz, Gandolfo recalls a little shock in the studio with the Donkey Kong comment. That dissipated as the producers realized what they had on their hands. "They got a taste of my flavor and my flurry and then it was like, Jake can say whatever the fuck he wants," he says.
Tony Carbone, the good-natured Boston waiter who was eliminated in Episode 5, was Gandolfo's roommate during the taping and got to know him well.
"What you see is what you get with Jake," Carbone says. "He's a lovable guy. I think America loves him, as they should. He's not throwing punches. But he's not putting up smoke screens, either. He's just Jake being Jake."
Gandolfo tells another story that sounds like foreshadowing. When he went for the screening, he was doing his bit with a producer and his assistant, just yammering on.
"And they're just doubled over and he keeps going up to her and putting his folder over his face and talking to her. And I'm like, what's he saying? And he goes, 'I'm telling her you're gonna be a star.' What more can you ask for than that?"
Oh, and the Food
There's one other reason to suspect Gandolfo is at least headed for the Top 4. The judges like his food. A lot.
His egg dish was pronounced "perfectly well" constructed. He placed in the Top 3 in the pork chop Mystery Box Challenge. He was among the three finalists in the Cupcake Challenge. And he smoked all the other contestants last week on the Cat Cora challenge, which saw 11 aspiring cooks trying desperately to copy the Iron Chef's complex truffled halibut dish.
That a former construction worker with no formal culinary training knows how to sear a halibut and prepare a cream sauce that doesn't break might come as a surprise to many, but not particularly to Gandolfo himself. He started cooking at the age of 5 with creations like Ants on a Log and Ritz crackers with peanut butter and chocolate chips.
"I'd put it in the fridge, and it was chilled, so it's official," he says. "I mean, that's pretty good for 5 years old."
Back in Connecticut, where Gandolfo lived until coming out West and finding Santa Cruz in 1993, his "hunter-gatherer" family canned vegetables and bought steers and hogs to butcher for the winter.
"We were poor. It was about supplementing our income, and it really tightened up in the winter. But what a way of appreciating ingredients." As time went on, he kept cooking and barbecuing. He still uses a cast iron skillet that he first used in 1978 to cook venison while ice fishing.
Gandolfo's success doesn't much surprise his wife, Erin Buchla, who realized early on in their courtship the seriousness of his hobby. "I've never seen anyone just sit on a couch and read a cookbook from start to finish. And that's what he did, just reading and reading and reading. I have a huge collection of cookbooks, and he got through half of those."
Incidentally, she doesn't know how he did on the show, either. "When Jake came back he wanted to tell me and I said, no! Don't tell me! I had to tell him, 'It would take a couple of glasses of wine and a couple of girlfriends and this is out. Do not tell me because I will spill the beans!'"
Right now the two are reveling in their plans for the future. Gandolfo is eager to get the private chef part of his business going. Buchla says they've long dreamed of a bed and breakfast, only with a "Jake and Erin" twist. Week by week, it gets a little closer.
"I have an amazing opportunity," Gandolfo says. "This gift has been placed in my lap."
'MasterChef' airs Wednesdays at 8pm on Fox. To view past episodes and see interviews with Jake Gandolfo, visit www.fox.com/masterchef.
Where were you born?
What's your astrological sign?
Aries (March 28, 1971, at 5:56pm).
What's your favorite comfort food?
Gourmet Mac and Three Cheese infused with center cut bacon and topped with pan-seared prosciutto bits.
Guilty eating pleasure?
Ice cream, ice cream, ice cream.
Name an underappreciated ingredient that you love working with.
Got a favorite date night restaurant in town?
Depending on my mood, Clouds, The Nest, Miramar.
Name a chef you'd love to meet.
I just did, in front of 5.5 million viewers!
Name someone you'd love to cook for.
Who was your favorite judge on 'MasterChef'?
The big man outta Chi-Town, Graham Elliot. He da man.
Is Gordon Ramsay as much of a prick as he seems?
Define "prick!" Let's just say, in a word: passionate.
How about Joe?
Pretty serious guy and very well spoken.
What's the most important thing you've learned in the last three years?
It's never too late to follow your dreams and to stay true to yourself no matter what life throws at you.
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