“In our search for the next MasterChef,” Gordon intones, “we left no stone unturned!” Those who’ve been following the show all summer will not be surprised to hear that some of this year’s contestants were found under a rock. (And some of the celebrity guests, too. But I kid Paula Deen!) In the end, though, the show managed to winnow its way down to two talented cooks who come across well on TV, who have done their best to act as if they were neurotic enough to develop a bitter rivalry between them. Looking to pump up the volume, the judges usher in the finalist’s families, that they might cheer them on and help the viewers put a face to whichever group of people is going to leave the kitchen disappointed in their loved one. It’s a lot to take in, especially since all the cooks who’ve been eliminated since the start of the competition are also here, and I’m already trying to remember who all of them are. I see Sasha Foxx, who I was shocked to see sent home straight off the bat, then forgot all about, and feel shocked all over again.
Natasha’s husband, whose hobby is pointing at things while whispering something to a baby in his arms, is a handsome, strapping man, but then her entire family looks as if they possess cheat codes to winning the genetic lottery. Luca is greeted by a significant portion of the country that invented romance—that’s one of Joe’s lines from a season or two back, I’ve never been able to get it out of my head—including his father. But anyone who remembers back to a few weeks ago, when Luca’s charming and TV-ready wife was in the house, knows that she is the prize draw, and will be the one to watch during frequent cuts to the peanut gallery during tense moments. Luca himself calls her “the most amazing person that I ever met in my life,” and he’s met Paula Deen!
The appetizer: Natasha serves up seared scallops with couscous and seaweed salad. Joe pronounces it “a dish that an experienced chef would never make,” and the close-up of Natasha’s face makes it clear that this worries her, but the experienced MasterChef viewer immediately recognizes it as one of those things that sound bad until the judge finishes his sentence. Instead of saying something like, “…because no experienced chef would dare to dream so far out of the box,” Joe just shrugs and, his duty discharged, says, “I don’t know if you’re brilliant or lucky, but somehow, it comes together.” Joe has already done his duty with Luca’s seared duck liver, giving Luca the fish-eye while he was cooking it and ominously decreeing that it would surely be too sweet. Gordon says that the duck liver “smells incredible,” but we do not eat with our noses, children. He tastes it and calls it “a very bold effort.” As usual when someone calls something an “effort” on this show, I worry that he’s saying, “Eh, nice try.” But it’s Joe who settles the matter by saying that, in spite of his earlier carping, it “does a marvelous job riding in between sour and sweet.”
The entrée: Patting his tummykins, Gordon remarks that, with the appetizers in, this year’s final dinner is “already leagues above last season’s.” There’s a little bonus screw-you for anyone who participated in last season, or, worse, bought the winner’s cookbook. Can they keep it up? Luca is preparing braised beef short ribs in a pressure cooker. Gordon asks him how they’re doing. “Your guess is as good as mine,” says Luca. Gordon seems troubled by this response, as if it did not somehow show the true MasterChef spirit, but what would he think of it if Luca said, “Shoot, since you’re so curious, Chef, let me yank the lid off the pressure cooker that I have going full blast, so we can see how they’re doing.” Luca, thank God, doesn’t take the bait, probably because his I. Q. doubles whenever his wife is in the room, sending him good thoughts.
In the end, Luca serves the judges his short ribs, while Natasha offers them monkfish. Graham the fish is “arguably, the prettiest dish” in all of MasterChef history. The Morey Amsterdam in me kind of wants to respond that the prettiest dish in all of MasterChef history is Luca’s wife, with Natasha’s husband running a close second, but Graham may have stretched the truth a little because his wife is watching the show. Meanwhile, the suspense continues to build over Luca’s short ribs. Luca says that the only way to tell if the ribs are any good is to stick a knife in them, and then if they fall apart, you know you’re okay, and “if it’s tough, you should go back to school.” Then, after we come back from commercial, he says it again, word for word. Short version: The ribs are delicious. But Gordon is concerned that Luca’s dishes have been “very, very heavy. I don’t want to finish up with a heart attack. Duck liver, short ribs, dessert, then I’ve got to make love to my wife!” The show cuts to commercial again, and Gordon calls his agent to say that he’s just had a great idea for a new show.
The dessert: I’m not sure if this was in the instructions, because I was having trouble focusing past the image of Gordon having a heart attack while making love to his wife, but both contestants are making panna cotta. Suddenly, crisis time: “I forgot to strain my panna cotta!” says Luca. Luca’s wife makes the cameraman’s day by waiting until she’s well-placed in the shot before muttering, “Mama mia!” Finally, Natasha’s panna cotta causes Gordon’s ”taste buds to bounce around like they’re in a pinball machine!” But even if we’re to assume that’s a good thing, the judges have been telling Luca all season that they wanted to “see” him on a plate, and Graham thinks that this time, he’s done it: His basil panna cotta is “out of control, it’s refined in its technique,” and presumably has married well. The judges ask to be alone for a while so they can reach a verdict. “For the first time,” says Gordon, “ shall we make it a draw?” Then, after we come back from commercial, he says it again, and Joe says, no, they can’t.
“It’s close,” Graham says, “but one person had the slightest of edges.” Then, before Gordon and Joe grab him by the shoulders and bleat, “Tell us! Tell us which one,” everyone is out in the kitchen, confetti is falling through the air, Luca is cheering excitedly and talking about the gloriousness of the American dream, and Natasha’s entire family is looking as if they just got word that the Governor has refused to hear their appeals. And that does it for another season of MasterChef, except for one clarification and an apology.
- In the course of this season, I made a lot of fun of the heroic and scrappy vegetarian Bri, mostly because I thought it was funny that she had volunteered to appear on TV and cook a lot of challenging new dishes that she would have to master on the spot without being able to taste the ingredients. As anyone who’s read my Raising Hope reviews knows only too well, there’s no telling what I’m likely to find funny when I’m in one of my moods. But even if, as Joel Robinson used to say, there were funny elements, Bri was also brave, and I could have punched that element up a little more instead of taking the cheap shot at every opportunity. I regret that, partly because, in doing so, I may have seemed to be lending my blessing to some people in the comments section who, it turns out, have strong feelings about vegetarians, and also have some mean mouths on them. So, just to be clear how I feel about it: I have some dear and close friends who are vegetarians, smart and fun people who, acting out of some deeply held principles, made a choice that did make their lives any easier. Although I am sympathetic to their aims and share some of those principles, I myself have not followed their path, because I really like bacon. There’s a pretty good chance that I’m not the one with the moral high ground on that one. My friends put up with a lot from me, and in this instance, the least I can do for them is to say that I’m truly sorry for having hurt or offended anyone who shares their convictions.