I'm in love with Monti Carlo. And if you've listened to her lighthearted patter on My 103.9 or seen her emoting on Master Chef or met her in person (in which case, she gave you a great big hug, guaranteed), you're probably in love with her too.
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You see, Monti -- who got her stage name from Dwight Douglas, the guy who discovered Howard Stern -- is what you'd call "irrepressible." And since her stint on the third season of Fox's Master Chef -- the wildly popular TV show in which amateur cooks compete for a $250,000 grand prize -- this ivory-skinned, ruby-lipped sweetheart is definitely on a roll.
Her honesty and expressiveness on Master Chef landed her a gig as morning show DJ on My 103.9 this past June. And as of this week -- when Master Chef: The Ultimate Cookbook hit the shelves -- she became a cookbook contributor, her recipes featured alongside those of Master Chef judges and other contestants.
And that's a good thing because getting to this place -- a steady job, a nice home for her 3-year-old son, her name in a cookbook -- took sacrifice and grit.
Here's a bit of the backstory, which I learned from Carlo over a couple of beers at Citizen Public House. When she heard about the casting call in LA in the fall of 2011, Carlo was living in a 300-square-foot apartment about a mile away. She had 50 bucks in her bank account and her unemployment benefits were running out. Knowing she'd at least get a day-rate if she made it on the show, she decided to bake her specialty: apple pie. Having nothing to put them in (she wound up making three small ones), Carlo "MacGyver'd" a pie carrier using an empty diaper box and a dog leash.
Arriving for the audition, she knew immediately that she was out of her league. The other contestants showed up with fantastically elaborate containers to present their dishes, and they all seemed familiar with the judges, while Carlo had heard only of Gordon Ramsay, not of Graham Elliot or Joe Bastianich.
At one point in the extensive process, she had to face six producers who grilled her on cooking. "What are the five mother sauces?" one of them asked her, to which she humbly replied, "I've made a mistake. I'm a mom, but I don't know anything about mother sauces. Obviously, I underestimated what was happening here today." Well, of course, they loved her answer, and she was in.
Carlo had begged her younger sister Margie (a 20-something who was searching for herself) to come to LA and help her with her little boy and elderly diabetic dog. Thank God Little Sis agreed. Seven hours after the audition, Carlo was sequestered and remained so for three months. In some weird way, it was probably being away from her son that helped Carlo reach the Top 5 before she was voted off she show. When she cooked, she turned to her role as a mother for inspiration time and again -- making dishes that would remind her of cooking for her son at home. Ramsay was impressed by her riff on PB&J (which included duck breast, pastry dough, bananas, peanuts and rum). Then one rainy day, when she was especially missing her little boy she made roasted carrot soup and soda bread, a simple, homespun combo that also wowed the judges.
While the other contestants partied at night, Carlo stayed in and read cookbooks -- just as she studied harder and longer than anyone else in broadcasting school, plugged away at internet recipes until she perfected her apple pie and spent hours each day sending out demo tapes when she was an aspiring radio-head looking for work. This girl keeps her head down and never gives up. She also has a quirky independent streak.
Ramsay said of her, "When everyone else went right, Monti went left." That was probably never more true than when she made a Scotch egg with crab meat. Ramsay, a Scotsman, was delighted and called her a "fucking freak" (which he meant in the best possible way), as Carlo basked in her "Gloria Gaynor moment."
Master Chef is shown around the world and Carlo earned her share of international fans, many of whom expressed their happiness or bitterness about each show's outcome. When one team member suggested that Carlo have a "nipple slip" for the 250 marines they were feeding at Camp Pendleton, Carlo screamed, "I'm a mother, you fucking asshole," a conversation that aired with a series of long bleeps. Carlo's following shot up like a rocket after that one.
But It was an intricate sashimi dish, not a wardrobe malfunction, that was Carlo's undoing. Graham Elliot had made it for Obama, and the contestants were required to duplicate it on the show: white tuna sashimi with avocado mousse, cocoa nibs and fried plantain. Carlo says her knife skills are weak, and she didn't have the tuna chilled enough to cut it properly. The result was a disaster, and Carlo was out. It wasn't shown on the show, but the judges cried when Carlo left.
She came home to an eviction notice, a very ill dog and a slew of unanswered phone messages. Six of them were from Mark Young, the program director at My 103.9. She returned his call, breaking down in tears about her dog and her situation. When he was sweet and supportive, she knew she wanted to work for him. Three days after her elimination on Master Chef, she was driving to Phoenix for a face-to-face interview and moving to Phoenix -- with kid, sis and recovering dog -- two weeks after that.
Although she's new to town, she already has a close group of friends. One of them is Helen Yung of Sweet Republic, who avidly followed the show, rooted for Carlo and felt an especially strong connection when Carlo made sweet corn souffle with honey lavender butter. Yung makes both sweet corn and honey lavender ice cream at her shop. The two connected on Twitter, and one day, Yung showed up at the station with both flavors. The two have been fast friends ever since.
Carlo, who had the #1 morning show in Seattle for a year (an all-girl show called The Ladies Room) says, "I want to say something and I want to be real. I want to be the passenger in the car in the morning and the friend who's still at the party at 3 am, when everybody else has gone home and only the cool people are left and you're telling stories about stuff that happened 15 years ago."
When she says, "I feel a connection to everyone who calls in," she means it. Carlo invited me to the station a week ago to talk about Restaurant Week, and I watched and listened as she spoke to every one of her callers with the kind of warmth and respect you don't often see these days, especially on radio. She has also started a Random Acts of Kindness series on her show, and in her very first pass at it, she raised $2,500 for Phoenix Children's Hospital.
And as we sat at the bar at Citizen, where Carlo told me her story, a nearby couple caught her eye and said, "You got robbed," speaking of her elimination on Master Chef. Carlo jumped up and said, "Aww, let me give you a hug."
Although she'd surely have loved to win the money, Carlo seems content with her life. She has work, friends, a new chef beau and big plans to write her own cookbook -- this one for mothers who are time-crunched and on a budget. She'll feature 30-40 simple but sophisticated dishes that got her through the rough times, peppered with a little auto-biography. "Cooking," she says, "is my therapy and my art form."
She doesn't have a publisher yet, but I have no doubt she will. Carlo has recently been interviewed by a handful of online and print publications (The Huffington Post, for one), and the Master Chef cookbook is sure to raise her profile even higher. And all that celebrity stuff aside, there's just no keeping this big-hearted winner down.
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Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: Pete DeRuvo of Davanti Enoteca Chuck Wiley of Cafe ZuZu Justin Beckett of Beckett's Table Bryan Dooley of Bryan's Black Mountain Barbecue Silvana Salcido Esparza of Barrio Cafe Jeff Kraus of Crepe Bar Bernie Kantak of Citizen Public House James Porter of Petite Maison Johnny Chu of SoChu House Neo Asian + Martini Bar Stephen Jones of Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails Chris Gross of Christopher's Restaurant and Crush Lounge Chris Curtiss of NoRTH Arcadia Payton Curry of Brat Haus Mark Tarbell of Tarbell's Josh Hebert of Posh Kevin Binkley of Binkley's Restaurant Lori Hashimoto of Hana Japanese Eatery Larry White, Jr. Lo-Lo's Fried Chicken & Waffles