Hi, everyone. Emily Withrow was buried in a snowdrift—or, to put it more truthfully, a pile of papers she had to grade—so she asked me to fill in this week. And a clever gambit on her part, too: There was bound to be a letdown after the excitement of “Restaurant Wars,” and this week’s episode, “An Offer They Can’t Refuse” (that wasn’t really an offer and can’t be refused since they’re in a competition), was a largely forgettable one when considered against this very season’s standards.
The unpretentious, food-Hoovering Midwesterner in me generally resists the importance of artful plating; perhaps “you eat with your eyes first,” as we often hear on the show—and certainly a sloppily composed plate can be unappetizing—but when it comes down to it, all that matters is how food tastes. So when fashion designer Issac Mizrahi was trotted out for a Quickfire judged entirely on how the plates looked, I’ll admit to feeling a little dubious about it. But to my surprise, this was by far the most entertaining segment of the episode: Liberated from having to make dishes that made sense, many of the chefs let their imaginations run wild, resulting in a wealth of bizarre conceptual trainwrecks.
How bad did it get? So bad that Fabio’s dish—which he described as “a beautiful woman walking in the rain trying not to get messed up by the water” and Antonia described as “tuna people with acid lemon rain”—was one of Mizrahi’s three favorites! The lowlights were even more deliriously fucked-up, including Antonia herself arranging an uncooked diorama inspired by The Giving Tree and Tre festooning his salmon plate with a bunch of dots. Worst of all—or best of all, in the fun department—was “food stylist” Angelo and his “crocodile skin” concept, which Fabio aptly described as looking “like a bag of vomit.” Add to that the graffiti-like lettering of “CROCADILE” (sic) on the table—which Mizrahi likened, not unreasonably, to Charles Manson—and we get one seriously disturbing look inside Angelo’s head. Richard’s black ice cream seemed to win by default here, though I also thought Carla did elegant work; perhaps not coincidentally, they also prepared dishes that looked like they could be eaten, too.
The Elimination challenge was a little rote: Cook a traditional, family-style Italian meal for the Rao family, which has operated a revered NYC Italian restaurant for four generations. The chefs were divided into three groups of three, each group covering a course: Antipasti, Primi, Secondi. Since neither of those courses is Italian for “dessert,” everyone had a good chance to succeed, and they weren’t really required to work as a team, so there was no possibility of the bad chemistry from “Restaurant Wars” infecting the challenge in any way. Still, pasta can be temperamental and boy was that ever the case tonight.
The challenge was touted as a showdown between three chefs from Italian-American families: Mike, Antonia, and Fabio. And in the style of scripted television, the biggest braggart among them was the one who ironically couldn’t deliver. The bottom three was composed entirely of chefs on the Primi course—Mike, Tre, and Dale—which had the table of diners scrambling to figure out whose dish was the most nightmarish. (An incredulous Anthony Bourdain: “How could three culinary professionals fuck up the pasta course? This looks like something you’d find at the steam table at your worst enemy’s wedding.”) From my vantage, it seemed like Mike deserved to go home the most for unleashing a homemade rigatoni so drastically undercooked that it was short of al dente. Then again, maybe the Grand Canyon-esque gulf between Mike’s boasting and his actual food influenced my judgment too much.
At the same time, did Antonia’s dish really seem like a winner to you? I’m sure it was delicious—as every bowl of steamed mussels in white wine or beer has almost always been in the history of cooking—but I think the other chefs were right to complain that it’s passing over a pretty low bar. For traditional Italian, Fabio’s chicken cacciatore at least looked more complex, and he pulled off a nice polenta, too. I was happy to see Tiffany get a much-needed confidence boost, too, for a sausage-infused polenta dish that survived some kitchen mishaps.
As for the loser, it’s sad to see Tre go home, because he seems like a nice guy and a very hard worker, always overachieving despite a lack of culinary training. A risotto that stands instead of spreads certainly doesn’t sound like a good risotto, though, and covering it up with heavy veggies didn’t make a lot of sense. Tre strikes me as the opposite of a know-it-all like Mike, though; he’ll learn from this experience and cook a solid risotto next time, even if we don’t get to see it. Too bad.
- Not that happy to see Lorraine Bracco back, frankly. You’ll recall she turned up for a season one finale that called on the chefs to pair dishes with her line of wines. The wine and her personality were equally overbearing then; now, without the wine, her personality had to be overbearing on its own.
- Richard is looking like the clear favorite at this point, barring a meltdown of the sort that cost him his season to Stephanie Izard. Just steadily responding to one challenge after another; has there been a bum dish from him yet?
- Some tough comments for Dale, who claimed to cook his pasta dish for his girlfriend. Bourdain, going deep with the GoodFellas reference: “Some bastard in the Witness Protection Program is eating this right now.” Bracco: “He’s not getting laid tonight.”