The last two episodes of the season are set in New Orleans, and I’m beginning to regret not asking our own Amelie Gillette, a native of the city, to finish out the recapping for me. I know she tends to get sensitive about the clichés that get regurgitated in virtually every portrait of the place, and I’m left to wonder if tonight’s principal attractions—Mardi Gras masquerades, andouille sausage on freaking everything, and the ubiquitous Emeril Lagasse as master of ceremonies—drove her completely over the edge? These things are unavoidable to some extent, and turning to traditional favorites is kind of inevitable (e.g. deep-dish pizza as the first challenge in Chicago last season), but tonight’s hour was a bit of a letdown anyway.
First on Emeril: He seems like a nice enough guy, and probably better than most TV chefs, despite his annoying bams and kicking-it-up-a-notches and relentless branding and empire-building. But as a guest judge, he reminded me a lot of the Simpsons episode where Homer becomes a food critic and gives everything a rave review, including the two-week-old slice of pizza he found behind his couch. Granted, all the chefs seemed to step up with strong dishes tonight, but Emeril seems to have cultivated a nice-guy image that doesn’t really help him on the critical front. The worst thing he had to say was that Fabio’s dish was missing a little heat, and I’m thinking that’s the equivalent of Paula Abdul having reservations on American Idol. If she’s not falling over herself to praise a singer, it’s the kiss of death.
The Quickfire borrows a gimmick from Project Runway’s third season, when two of the craziest designers (Vincent and Angela) were brought back for a second chance. The rules are the same, too: They can get back into the competition, but in order to do so, they have to win outright against contenders who have been beating their asses week in and week out. Not surprisingly, the other four chefs are not pleased to have a fifth in their ranks, but the twist didn’t bother me too much because the odds are pretty long that an ousted chef would ever be resurrected. Yes, it’s possible for Jeff, Leah, and especially Jamie (my pick for #2 until she was prematurely auf-ed) to cook the best dish, but how willing would the judges really be to drop two of the four that made it that far? In any case, Jeff’s crawfish grits with andouille and beer were enough to get the job done, enough though I thought Jamie’s corn cakes with poached eggs, andouille, and crawfish cream sauce looked better to my eyes.
After visiting one of Emiril’s restaurants for dinner—notable mainly for Stefan’s bizarre exclamation that “this is a competition, not a butt-rubbing contest”—and seeing the obligatory Mardi Gras floats, the chefs compete for a Toyota in the Elimination Challenge. (Which, of course, we immediately want Fabio to win, since his car is “a piece of poop.” European phrasing paying off big time tonight.) The five remaining contenders are told to create two dishes and a cocktail for 100 guests at a masquerade ball. And though this is an individual challenge, I’m a little disappointed that they have to cater this late in the season; as we’ve learned many times in the past, food doesn’t always travel well when pre-prepared and tucked into coolers. Still, it appears that they were able to cook their dishes on the spot and certainly the results were very strong, so maybe I’m picking nits needlessly.
This is the first time in recent memory that the judges seemed to have very little bad to say about anybody’s food. It was really more a battle of which dishes were best of the best, and that’s as it should be with just five left, especially since this group of chefs haven’t seemed all that distinguished compared to past seasons. And there’s Carla, with the love and the “hootie hoo,” continuing her late surge to the top; both her oyster stew and her beignet looked amazing, and I trust that it was all very well-balanced, despite the non-alcoholic cocktail. (Incidentally, I’m happy that the cocktails didn’t seem to figure into the judging that much in the end. We know this is not Top Sommelier or Top Pussy, and it’s not Top Bartender, either.)
Based on the fawning praise for all five chefs, with only minor reservations for Team Europe at the bottom, I was actually surprised that anybody but Jeff got sent home. Reality shows seem to love pulling “You’re all going to the finale!” twists and the solid dishes coming out tonight would seem to present that opportunity here. What a bummer then to see Fabio, that charming wellspring of malapropisms, get the boot. The finale won’t be nearly as fun without him.
• As Carla rises, Stefan fades. His arrogance has slipped into outright complacency of late, but I suspect Fabio is right in thinking that he’ll pull it back together for the finale. It would be strange for such a dominant competitor just to fade out with a whimper.
• “I got a suitcase full of gumbo.”
• “Jeff’s mind has a couple of different people talking in it.” And at least one of them is talking himself in the third person.
• Carla wins a new car. Jeff wins a copy of Emeril’s new cookbook. That’s some disparity there.
• Gail’s back. Does that mean Toby has gone the way of Poochie?
• One thing about tonight’s episode is indisputable: The “Additional Editing,” courtesy of my good friend Matt Reynolds (receiving his first screen credit tonight), was fucking awesome. Without all that editing, the whole thing would have run too long. Or too short. Or something.