This week's double dose of MasterChef went a long way towards establishing the eighteen-year-old Max as both a man to beat and the man you love to hate. With a lot of help from the editor, who one imagines as a crusty old pro with kids to put through college and an interesting prostate condition, Max came across as the smirky representative of a generation of oily ingrates, a callow and beardless youth, especially in the second episode, when he found himself pitted against the time-worn, fiercely mustached fifty-two-year-old truck driver Tony—who I swear was a fifty-one-year-old truck driver according to the episode from just the day before, indicating that somebody had an especially lousy birthday. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The week started with the remaining chefs gathered to, as Graham promised them, "really test your creativity with your first mystery challenge." I was hoping that the promisingly named mystery challenge would require the chefs to prepare their best interpretations of the wish sandwich and the ricochet biscuit, but instead it turned out to just mean that they had to whip together something out of the mess of ingredients that some knucklehead had piled together in front of them. Tony likened it to "opening your pantry the day before payday." Ingredients included a large cut of salmon, potatoes, pistachios, fennel, and strawberries; once the judges began whispering to each other, it became clear that this was the culinary equivalent of a trick question, and the winner would most likely be selected from the ranks of those smart enough to not even try to incorporate both the fish and the berries in the same dish.
The winner was Christian, who thus earned the chance to decide whether the contestants he'd just left in his dust would be required to cook something representative of French, Spanish, or English cuisine. The judges made no attempt to hide the fact that this, too, was a trick question, and that the idea was to tempt Christian to force his rivals to try their hand at English cooking, just to see how many of them would basically be chaining themselves to cast iron steak and kidney pies and jumping off the nearest pier. ("Lord," the cast sings at the end of Frank Zappa's 200 Motels, "have mercy on the people of England/ For the terrible food that these people must eat!") Being a good sport, Christian selected French cooking, which resulted in an embarrassing moment for one of his competition, who chose to make a beef carpaccio. The judges were incredulous: why had he switched countries on them. "I got it from Julia Child," the dude shrugged, "so I just assumed…"
Max acquitted himself well enough, while Tony mainly distinguished himself by putting Gordon Ramsay in the awkward position of informing him that his equipment had caught fire, to which Tony offered the face-saving rejoinder, "It wasn't on fire when I was watching it." Thus was the stage set for the battle of the titans when the teams showed up at the offices of the Los Angeles Times and commandeered the commissary. Everyone split into two teams; the winner would be the team whose dishes found greatest popularity with the newspaper staff when they filed through at lunch time. Max was leader of the Blue Team, with Tony serving under him and grinding out hamburgers, something, he felt compelled to point out, that he had been doing since before Max made his first appearance on this Earth. On the competing Red Team, Suzy, who Max had already judged to be his greatest nemesis, appointed herself in charge of making the lasagna, because she'd never made it before and the time seemed right.
At first, the Blue Team seemed to have it in the bag, with Tony's burgers the popular hit of the day. But then—oh, irony!—the burgers proved so popular that Tony was unable to provide enough of them fast enough to meet the demand, and hungry ink-stained wretches were forced to patronize the other team, costing Max and his crew a point. Loudly denouncing the older man for his incompetence, slowness, and excessive generosity when it came to the size of his hamburgers, Max grabbed wads of meat and started making his own burgers at a different station. In his youthful exuberance, he made them using an unwashed cookie pan covered in nut residue, and the entire batch was thrown out. "We have contaminated burger meat," Max, making an interesting decision to employ the royal "we", informed the camera. Presented with a golden opportunity, the Red Team surged ahead. Thus it was that Max, Tony, and the other members of the Blue Team would meet on the field of battle in their first "pressure challenge."
Basically, this was simply a contest to see who could make a ravioli dish that didn't make the judges want to blow chunks. But everything was riding on it. After listening to a few team members damn Max for his indifferent leadership, the judges set the chefs to work, commenting among themselves about what they were seeing. It was agreed that "the guy everyone seems to see as a weak link", i.e., Tony, was doing something hands-on and ballsy. Before long, though, it was clear that we had all been lost in a reverie of the editor's, who wanted to construct a narrative in which the leathery working class hero handed the pimply rich kid his head, and who would probably have been good with it if a flock of geese on a nuclear defense radar screen somewhere had resulted in us all being turned to ash in the moment before this rosy scenario was exposed as a cruel lie. Max dazzled the judges and was treated to their slightly begrudging vote of confidence, while Tony was sent home with his tail between his legs. I'm not sure who needed that shot of Max leaning over the guardrail high above Tony and appearing to snicker at his bad fortune, but at least he didn't hock a loogie on him.
Next week (I'm guessing): Suzy Strikes Back!
- You know how I was complaining last week about the ridiculously drawn-out, meant-to-be-misleading revelations of who's just gotten voted out of the aircraft hangar and who's sticking around? They have gotten better about it. It only made me grind the enamel off my teeth once this week.
- Ben Starr, Texan travel writer and possessor of the largest stupid-looking hat collection owned by any man who is not a pimp in a 1970s blacksploitation movie, continues to have a hammerlock on the space reserved for the contestant who's sure to be kept around as long as possible for his novelty weirdo appeal. After being chewed out by the judges, he told the camera, in a forlorn singsong: "Here's me, incompetent Ben Starr! Biggest disappointment of the evening, by far." Here's hoping they cut him loose before he starts rapping.
- After the lunch rush was over but before the teams' points had been added up, Ramsay told them to reflect on the fact that they'd just served "more than three hundred employees." He sounded impressed, as well he might be. Who would have guessed that many people still worked at the Los Angeles Times?