Master of HIS domain

Ben Starr, the recently out Dallas cheftestant on Fox’s ‘MasterChef,’ camps it up on Gordon Ramsay’s cooking competition series

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor


Airs Tuesdays on Fox (Ch. 4) at 8 p.m.


When Lewisville-based travel writer Ben Starr auditioned for Fox’s MasterChef, he doubted they’d be interested in his style of home cooking. But not only did he make the cut, he’s been one of the more memorable cheftestants — just this week, he had the judge’s favorite dish.

The series is only halfway through, but for Starr, it’s already made a huge difference in his life: It forced him to come out to his parents just last month. We talked to him about the experience and his favorite meals.


You’ve been struggling since you wowed the judges at your audition. The audition kinda set me up to expect that I would do well in the competition, but we spun pretty quickly into an emphasis on gourmet cuisine, which is not my thing at all. My street tacos were a little bit spiffy, and I am extremely well traveled, but I tend to eat peasant food even when I travel. I was seeing all these people around me making restaurant quality cuisine and trying to compete on their level. Nice to make a good ol’ catfish in a skillet.

What was the hardest challenge for you? The biggest challenge has definitely been psychological. I’m competitive by nature and I want to feel like I’m competition, but I was surrounded by chefs that were a little more connected to the Food Network that I am. They’d use words like umami [a Japanese word for a savory flavor] and I had to go look it up. There was a common lexicon among the contestants about what these famous chefs I’ve never heard of are doing in their restaurants. I felt like an idiot stumbling around in the dark. That started to leak into my cooking and I began to question, “Is this sophisticated enough? Is this even sophisticated?” The episode this week was a turning point. I felt like for the first time I’m back in my own element.

You certainly have made an impression with your outfits. I don’t wear those hats at home, though I do wear an apron, just for practicality. But [the show] has started this storytelling legacy — people expect me to wear them when they come over. My mom made me the pumpkin hat and apron. Actually, she made me five or six pairs to wear. That’s why you always see a different one on me each episode. I was going through them.

Was wearing them part of a conscious effort to stand during the auditions? I am fairly myself, though I had to set myself apart that wasn’t just about food. I needed to be someone [the judges] remember when they go home at night. That’s why I talked about my rural upbringing, because I thought it would generate a memory.

Had you watched the show before? Did you know what to expect? I don’t watch much TV, but this is not my first time being on TV, which is ironic because I abhor reality television —it brings out the worst in our culture. But I did Rachael Ray’s So You Think You Can Cook in 2007. The audience there was much more caring and nurturing than the machine on MasterChef, but I was a little bit prepared for the frank judgment.

I did not watch the first season of MasterChef, but my friend Karen Rutherford said, “I’ll never speak to you again if you don’t audition [for season 2].” So I watched them all on Hulu. I just sweated my way through them. I knew how intense and stressful it is to cook on TV, and saw how brutal Joe Bastianich and Gordon Ramsay were with the contestants. I thought: Screw this. Then a few weeks passed and the terror faded [and I went through the lengthy audition process]. It was a lot of work — the most difficult full-time job I’ve ever had that doesn’t pay.

What’s your favorite kind of cuisine? While my DNA wants to say Mexican food — I had it in the womb six times a week — I am most intrigued by Thai food. It is so complex, yet so much of it is cooked on the street in a tiny little cart. From the richest to the poorest, everybody eats on the street.

How about a favorite meal? One of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had was in Egypt on New Year’s Eve in 2001. I spent it on Mount Sinai and hiked eight miles back down to the car for the drive back to our resort. [The driver] fell asleep at the wheel and we plummeted into a canyon. Eventually a camel train of Bedouins came by the bottom of this canyon. They took us onto the camels and rode four or five miles to their camp. All the women came out, killed a goat and started cooking while the men tried to pull our car out of the canyon.

It was a humble meal — just a goat stew and some flat bread — but the flavors were really intense and felt they came right out of the desert. I could not even communicate with these people who live in abject poverty, but still they were willing to kill one of their last goats and throw a big feast for us because it’s in their nature to be hospitable. I realized it was important to me to use food to nurture people in my life — I could never be a chef and be in the back. I need to be with the people. My partner is one of the main reasons I cook — we’ve been together eight years and I want to marry him one day.

Did you plan to be “the gay guy” on the show? When I was on [Rachael Ray] it was not addressed and I didn’t talk about it openly. At that point my family didn’t know I was gay — in fact, I didn’t come out to my parents until about five weeks ago. They were totally shell-shocked — they didn’t have a clue.

Maybe mom should have guessed since she made you all those hats. Ha! Maybe.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 8, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Movies: Tanked Soldiers, 3D Showgirls and Memorable Undies


…prefers air conditioned movie theaters to hot beaches in the summertime. He blogs daily at the Film Experience.

Damn it. Why didn't everyone tell me Harry Shum Jr was in STEP UP 3D? Glee's best dancer (pity that he was apparently born mute) is a total selling point. I would've made the effort to catch a screening. Love him.

Step Up 3D, which was actually shot in 3D rather than converted later (imagine!), is opening against the Will Ferrel/Mark Wahlberg buddy comedy THE OTHER GUYS but as per usual the interesting stuff is in limited release.

CAIRO TIME stars Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig, two dependable attractive actors who rarely get lead roles. If you're a fan of either, it's an absolute must see. This subtle cross cultural quasi romance could well have been titled Before Sunset. That title was already taken so they went with something to situate you geographically. This isn't a transcendent classic like the famous Before… films with Ethan Hawke/Julie Delpy. It's not half as talky either — Patty's character is rather reserved and even the camera is nervous to approach her, only gradually moving in for closeups the further along the story goes. But the film is beautifully observed and if you thrill to the sight of the right actress in the right gown, Patty gets a beyond flattering lulu for the finale.

Lebanontank The festival hit LEBANON, an Israeli film about the 1982 Lebanon war, is another solidly built drama hitting the arthouses. The claustrophobic film takes place entirely inside a tank where four hot, sweaty, cramped, young Israeli soldiers struggle to keep their wits about them and survive increasingly nerve-wracking situations in a mission that's getting very confusing and dangerous. It's unfortunate that the movie doesn't make more use of the internal space of the tank itself — even when the faces are this gorgeous a close-up isn't always the best option — but it's a moving anti-war drama all the same.

But given the elation following the Judge Vaughn Walker's decision on Prop 8, maybe we should all go see THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT again this weekend. It's such a funny, authentically felt story about gay marriage and family. The timing of the wide release couldn't be better.


 road Guess what time it is?

It's time for National Underwear Day. More, AFTER THE JUMP


That's according to Fresh Pair. It's more like National Underwear Week the way they promote it. So even if it's a not-so-secret corporate sales ploy rather than a real holiday, it should be real. Who do you think of when you think of undies at the movies? Marlon Brando in a wife beater? Liz Taylor in a white slip? Christian Bale's American Psycho exercise routine? Eddie Cibrian giving Holly Hunter a massage in Living Out Loud?


The latter is a less classic association, but I'm not the only one who is obsessed with it. Holly Hunter is magic but that's…uh… probably not why people remember it.

 road It's the 48th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe's death this week. She's still magical. Mad Men, which has been all over the media these past two weeks, dramatized that national tragedy beautifully a couple of seasons ago. Season 4 is thankfully putting Mad Men's own Marilyn, Joan Holloway Harris (Christina Hendricks), back in the spotlight. We deeply appreciate this. Did you see her awesome conga line?

 road That Jennifer Aniston as Babs photo posted here at Towleroad earlier was mildly upsetting. You just don't mess with the classics like that. So it's funny that the Burlesque trailer also made its debut and looked so much like an unfortunate stepchild of Paul Verhoeven's gaudy 1995 masterwork Showgirls. Cher is a classic herself but if you're in competition with Showgirls you're bound to lose. Remember Cristal's sage advice: "If someone gets in your way, step on 'em. If you're the last one standing, they hire you."

 road Are you totally over 3D? That feeling is going around. Ticket sales are dropping and Disney recently cancelled their Beauty & The Beast 3D re-release plan. Obviously big ticket movies that people would line up for anyway will still be able to get away with those steep markups. But regular movies or re-releases? Unlikely. But if someone wants to convert Showgirls, have at it. Imagine those flying beads, epileptic sex scenes and cheesy foam volcano eruptions… in 3D.

Think The Castro Theater has time to convert Showgirls into 3D before the 15th Anniversary celebration this weekend?

Towleroad News #gay

—  John Wright