By Frank Sabatini Jr. / Photos by Paul Body
When a flock of lambs was released onto the set of Fox TV's MasterChef amid a roomful of finalists vying for $250,000, contestant Natasha Crnjac of La Jolla started thinking about tortellini. Required to use any cut of the wooly species to prepare a dish, she went straight for the brain, stuffing it into pasta pillows she plated with saffron butter and tomato reduction.
The intense, 60-minute cooking challenge was among dozens of others Crnjac excelled at during Season 4 of the elimination-style reality-TV series, thus advancing her to a nail-biting finale that nearly concluded in a draw.
"Luca and I were the most competitive, which is why we were both standing in the end. It essentially came down to our desserts," Crnjac says, referring to the final three-course cook-off in which they each, coincidentally, made panna cotta (creamy Italian dessert).
Crnjac used coconut yogurt and passion fruit in hers; Manfe risked basil in his. The latter proved edgier, despite dramatic indecision among the judges before the winner was announced.
After seeing her husband and toddler only once during a demanding, three-month sequestration while taping the shows in Los Angeles - where she lived without Internet access or any outside communication, common rules in reality TV competitions - Crnjac vowed in her last sound bite on the show, "This is not the end. It's just going to catapult me into the direction I want to take."
Life after MasterChef has indeed fueled the South African-born chef to move full-speed ahead. "I went right back into the kitchen with everything I learned, along with the fast pace of cooking that I became used to after making 43 dishes on the show in 60 minutes or less," she says. "When I returned home, my husband told me to slow down."
Crnjac recently launched a venture of pop-up dinners she conducts at San Diego-area residences and beaches. Before the gastronomic adventures, guests are given "treasure hunt," clues about the venues via Facebook, Twitter and Crnjac's website (natashacrnjac.com). The dinners, several of which she's thrown since the first one in August, involve up to 10 courses and seat 20 people.
"I'm taking little parts of dishes I cooked on MasterChef, but raising them to the next level for my sit-down dinners. I also create the themes and atmospheres," she says, emphasizing that the online RSVP process is "first come, first serve."
"My mom was born in Argentina, and my father's from Croatia," she says, "so I had a lot of different ethnic foods growing up. But I want to broaden my culinary experiences and document them in places I've never been before."
Her itinerary includes Vietnam, Cambodia, South America and India. And, if all goes well with her pitching the footage to a television network for an intended documentary, Crnjac's fans will be able to watch their favorite self-taught chef work her magic again on television, this times sans the sweat and persnickety judges.
MasterChef and home (and pizza) maker Natasha Crnjac's winning pie recipe
Marinara Sauce (made ahead of time)
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup minced onion
1 tbsp. chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves
1 large clove garlic, minced
4 cups fresh tomato puree
1 large fresh basil stem with leaves removed
1 tsp. sea salt, preferably gray salt
Heat oil in large pot over moderate heat. Add onion and sauté until translucent. Add parsley and garlic and cook to release their fragrance. Add tomatoes, basil and salt. Simmer until reduced to sauce-like consistency, stirring occasionally so nothing sticks. The timing will depend on ripeness and meatiness of tomatoes and size of pot.
Mix 1 cup of flour with all other ingredients. Gradually add second cup of flour until it forms a ball. Use hands to form and knead dough. Let dough rest 10-15 minutes in a bowl covered with dishtowel or plastic wrap to keep it warm.
1 cup baby arugula
6 slices prosciutto
2 large heirloom tomatoes
6 oz. goat cheese
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup lemon olive oil
1 cup marinara sauce
1 pizza dough
1 pizza stone
(Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit)
Place pizza dough on floured flat surface and knead into a circle. Let dough come to a rest for a few moments between rotations to make it easier to mold into round pizza shape. Once ready to place dough on pizza stone, brush olive oil all over dough. Place pizza in the oven for 5 minutes, then remove from oven and cover with marinara, dress with toppings (goat cheese, tomatoes) and then bake for another 10-12 minutes. Once pizza is done, remove from oven, add prosciutto. Add arugula on top of the pizza, dress pizza with lemon olive oil. Slice and serve. Voila!