Things start out like any normal episode of MasterChef, with the cooks gathered at Centennial Square in Pasadena, to prepare an outdoor steak lunch for 101 firefighters, a term that the judges use so interchangeably with “heroes” that you sort of long to see the hungry bastards show up drunk, giggling maniacally as they roll their fire trucks over puppies and nuns. Little does the viewer know that this routine opening is a mere prelude to an epic battle, in which the judges and contestants will spend two hours and cross state lines before determining which single contestant will be rifling in the supply closet for the crying towels. In theory, it’s all very thrilling to see the show getting flexible with its format like this, but in actual practice, I have to admit that, well before the closing minutes, a little man inside my head started groaning, “For Christ’s sake, just pull the trigger already!”
After what feels like a 15-minute testimonial from Graham attesting to the unparalleled quality of the steaks to be had, at popular prices, from a Wal-Mart near you, the teams fall to their work, Bime captains the red team, which laughs in the face of the notion that the secret to a good steak is a good rub. When Gordon expresses dismay at this attitude, he is told that they’ll let their sauce speak for itself. Bethy is in charge of the blue team, which has James working at perfecting two sauces. Gordon can scarcely believe his ears: Wouldn’t it make better sense to pick one sauce and concentrate on making it as tasty as possible? He’ll get no argument from James, who immediately concedes that “doing two sauces at once is stupid!” All through the cooking and serving process, the judges and the editing conspire together to keep the audience in doubt as to the probable outcome, but as you might have guessed, the fact that one team takes Gordon’s advice on seasoning and the other does not is a dead giveaway. The red team goes down in flames, pulled down by its irrational contempt for steak rub and the assembled heroes’ bewilderment in the face of their cauliflower thing on the side. (“What is it?”)
Back to the kitchen. Having learned his lesson from seeing contempt piled on one failed captain who jumped at the chance to spare himself from the hangman’s noose, Bime tells the camera that he is prepared to go down with the ship: “I failed my team,” he says. The judges must have overheard him, because once they have him and his confederates standing before them, they inform him that they are taking him out of the elimination challenge and sending him upstairs with the other safe cooks. It’s as if, even if you try to take the noble route, they’re just going to fuck with you. You might think that this would put a big ol’ target on Bime’s back, but in fact, hardly anyone seems to notice; they’re all fixated on the open warfare that has broken out between the hot-tempered Natasha and the winsome Beth, after Beth undiplomatically refers to Natasha’s cauliflower mush as “disgusting.” The more Natasha reams Beth out for this faux pas, the redder and weepier Beth’s face gets. Trying to pull the camera back to herself, the gleefully confrontational Krissi lets it drop that “Beth is like one of those hipster people in Philly that I can’t stand.” It barely registers.
The challenge is to whip up a perfect eggs benedict. The dependable Krissi and the prodigious Bri make it look easy, but Beth, Natasha, Luca, and Kathy are left with, well, egg on their faces. The judges confer but cannot decide which of them had brought the most disgrace on the fatherland. To the Gordonmobile! The judges and the unlucky four regroup at Gordon Ramsay’s eatery in Las Vegas, which Gordon describes as “one of the greatest culinary cities anywhere in the world,” and with a straight face, too. Here, a crack team labors mightily every evening to provide “stunning gourmet burgers for the high rollers of Vegas!” Unfortunately, none of them are here tonight, though Gordon doesn’t say whether this is because they made the mistake of sampling some of their own product the night before. So the cooks who are on the block will divide into teams of two and man their stations. Rather than waste time with some random selection process, the judges tell the cooks whom they’ll be working with, to simplify things, and to not take any chances that Beth won’t be working with Natasha.
The burger-cooking contest does much to point up the different strategies available to MasterChef contestants. As Natasha pretty much admits to the camera, and as even Beth eventually figures out for herself, Natasha’s master plan is to defer to Beth at every turn, on the theory that when their food is served and everybody starts puking, she can shrug and say, hey, it was all Beth’s idea. Luca takes a different approach. His big idea is to cook the best burgers he can and cook them faster than Beth and Natasha, so that when he puts his final product on the counter while his opponents are still struggling, Gordon will yell about how he’s not going to let these finished burgers get cold, and some people won’t get served by Beth and Natasha, and so won’t even have the option of voting for them. That’s pretty much what happens, which must make it that much more galling when Beth and Natasha win. “Of course,” says Natasha, “I’m happy for both of us, or whatever.”
By now, the awesomeness of this pitched battle has gotten too intense for the indoors. The judges escort Luca and Kathy to the roof of Caesars Palace, which has been turned into an al fresco replica of the MasterChef kitchen. For a minute, I thought the winner would be the one who threw his opponent over the ledge, but instead, the two near-survivors are tasked with cooking butter-poached lobster, a dish that, naturally, neither has ever prepared before. Despite the judges’ feverish insistence that Luca has screwed the pooch by using a knife on his lobster instead of hand-twisting the poor, delectable thing, it comes down to a contest of inches. Luca wins, but only after Kathy has talked about how she has to stay in the game for the sake of her kids, at almost as great a length and at least as eloquently as Graham talks about Wal-Mart’s meat department. His great heart swelling as if his arteries were dangerously clogged with gourmet burger grease, Gordon bestows upon her the tribute he reserves for only the most pathetic of MasterChef contestants: He hints that he would love to consider her for a job at his New York restaurant, if she can ever make it past the former Kray brothers associates who make up his security team. Then the judges and Luca depart, leaving Kathy behind to clean all that shit off the casino’s roof. I hope that bottle in the corner isn’t completely empty.
- The fact that there is a wait staff there to dole out the plates is cited as proof that the “heroic firefighters’” lunch is a banquet, not a buffet. Having insisted on this distinction, Joe delivers the bumper sticker slogan of the week: “Banqueting is like the medical school of restaurants!”
- Would I be a spoilsport if I asked Joe and Krissi to dial down the sexual tension between them? I live in Texas. It’s already hot enough in my living room in the summer.
- Kathy’s greatest humiliation comes not from Gordon or Luca, but when Joe, his voice softening as if he were trying to console a child who just got a hot flash about Santa Claus, asks her if she ever thought she’d make it this far. No, she admits, she never did. Seriously, you went to the trouble of auditioning for this show and putting your life on hold so you could appear on it, and you never thought that you’d make it four episodes into the competition? Why the hell did you even bother?