I don’t know enough cooking to tell for sure whether the challenges on MasterChef are getting harder as the season winds down and the room thins out, but they’re definitely getting cuter. In the first half of this week’s supersized, guest-heavy broadcast, the judges bring out their sons, and, as Luca puts it, “It crazy!” Gordon, who has reason to practice working with children with his kiddie MasterChef spinoff looming on the horizon, introduces the contestants to his kid, Jack, who has his father’s smirk, and no small amount of his cheekiness. (In a moment that whoever edits the commercials and the “next week on…” montages must have dropped to his knees to give thanks for, Jack asks Jessie if she’s seein’ anybody.) Graham has his two-and-a-half-year-old, who is whimsically dressed as his father’s Mini-Me, complete with oversized glasses. As for Joe, well, as he puts it, “This is my 11-year-old boy, Ethan. He’s very vocal and direct, like me. And then Miles, age 13. He’s my eldest son.” To be fair, some of the contestants have given Joe good reason to think they might need help figuring out that his son who’s 13 is older than the one who’s 11.
The younger members are dispatched to the pantry, to select which items the cooks will have to use to concoct the usual “restaurant-quality” meal. This goes about the way you would expect. Mostly restraining the urge to giggle on-camera, the older lads fill the basket with a motley array of crap and random ingredients—rainbow marshmallows, cheese slices, a coconut, berries, puff pastry—while Graham’s baby toddles about, looking for stray rat turds he can toss into the mix. Gordon goes through these offerings, and, as if feeling the need to prove that he really is English, reserves his greatest expression of dismay for the ketchup. Luca shines with his pineapple dessert thing. Graham is impressed that Luca was able to restrain himself from using the passion fruit: “I love,” he says, “that you’re learning to edit your food.” In fact, all the top finishers get a little compliment paying tribute to how far they’ve come. Jessie is working outside her “comfort zone,” and James has started “taking risks” like a mofu. And it’s James who takes the biscuit.
James’ reward is getting to decide which of three dishes, each one especially loved by one of the judges and each of which comes with a story, his rivals will have to master. Graham deserves credit for naming a sandwich that his grandpa used to make, if only because the guy who puts the names of food on the screen actually had to come up with a graphic reading “GRANDPA FRANK’S SANDWICH.” But as is so often the case when a challenge benefits from a flair for melodrama and salesmanship, there’s no beating Gordon and his Vietnamese noodle soup, which, he intones, was first made for him “by a phenomenal, elderly, toothless lady” he met “on a tiny boat on a floating fish market on the Mekong Delta in the middle of a monsoon in Vietnam.” I don’t know if anything like this ever actually happened, but I do know that what he’s describing sounds like a Lifetime TV movie based on the lyrics to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”
Having already made the contestants’ day by introducing them to his son, Gordon risks melting their minds completely by showing them his most extraordinary noodle soup. He doesn’t risk reducing them to quivering, gelatinous puddles by also recounting the full story of how the soup fortified him after he’d stepped out of a crossfire hurricane and was drowned with a spike right through his head, or else he did and the editor decided the folks at home didn’t need to hear it twice. Everyone is eager to set to work except for Krissi, who reminds everyone that she hates Asian food, and proceeds to choke, staring at the soup in baffled wonder. She just cannot process the idea that such a thing might exist and that some people would choose to use it for nourishment. Cutting to the chase in that vocal and direct way of his that’s having such an influence on the next generation, Joe tells her, “Use your brain!” Amazingly, this works, and before long, the judges are faced with a real conundrum: Everybody’s noodle soup is pretty goddamn good! I thought it seemed ominous that, in evaluating Krissi’s dish, the judges use the word “effort” three times, as in “This is a perfectly respectable effort.” But after the requisite period of teasing and torturing and jerking everybody around, it’s decided that nobody is going home tonight. Or at least, not in this hour, because we still have to take a road trip to Paula Dean’s ranch.
Remember when this season started, and the opening of the show included a shot of Paula Deen tootling around in a tractor? And then the roof kind of fell in on Paula Deen and her TV career, and that shot never appeared again? It’s back tonight, with a context to go with it. The contestants are gathered at Dean’s place to prepare an al fresco “thank you” lunch for a bunch of charity workers, with each cook dealing with a different protein: pork chops for Luca, chicken for James, shrimp for Krissi, catfish for Natasha, and alligator for Krissi. Paula Deen makes the rounds, asking people, for instance, how, on a scale of one to 10, they would rate Luca’s pork chops. A woman says she’s rated them an 11, and goddamned if Paula Deen doesn’t rear back in shock, her face contorted in amazement, as if she were truly dumbfounded by this challenging, outside-the-box approach to conventional numeric ranking systems. (Unless you want to be hosing exploded gray matter off the walls, don’t invite Paula Deen over to show her This Is Spinal Tap.)
For his part, Gordon looks a little worried that these five idiots may surpass themselves again, and is visibly relieved to catch James slipping someone a chicken breast that’s raw at the center. For his part, Graham seems itching to be done with Krissi. Nothing wrong with her shrimp, apparently, but so what? “Krissi knows how to cook shrimp,” he sneers. “We know that.” Krissi? Shrimp? Fuck that noise! Meanwhile, the guests chow down and grade the food, while I wait for the usual explanations of what kind of charity work they're involved in, which will eventually earn them a lavish and fulsome tribute from Gordon. In what may be a MasterChef first, this never occurs. Unless I missed it, I don't think it's ever even mentioned just what it is these people have volunteered to help out on. It's very puzzling. Why, it's almost as if, for some reason that we might never know, the charity in question actually preferred that Paula Deen not give them and their cause her personal endorsement on national television.
Jessie, who had never worked with alligator meat before, but who, being an actual Southerner, had the instinctive good sense to fry it, and Luca, he of the pork chops that go to 11, are the winners. The elimination challenge involves three dishes, each chosen from the menu of the judges’ own restaurants. Luca and Jessie get to decide which cook gets stuck with what. Natasha has to prepare Gordon’s appetizer, a seared scallop salad that, he brags, would cost you $150 in his beanery. (But if you order now, you can have it for $19.95, plus this lovely tote bag!) Krissi sets to work duplicating a fillet thing that makes Joe’s heart go pitter-pat, and James gets to work on a dessert of Graham’s, a Greek yogurt panna cotta with stewed rhubarb and variations of honey.
As is her custom, Krissi sees this talk of hoity-toity restaurant dishes as a great excuse to talk about how she don’t know nothing about no fancy cooking, but Joe doesn’t have frozen strawberries spooned out the cardboard container with a shoehorn on the menu of any of his restaurants, so she’s stuck with the fillet thing. She hits it out of the park, of course. And though Natasha’s appetizer has some problems in the duplication-of-the-original department, the judges agree that it’s tasty as shit. That leaves James, whose dessert also tastes surprisingly good, but has consistency issues. It resembles the dish he was asked to duplicate only to the same degree that a cup of ice cream fresh from the hopper at Ben & Jerry’s resembles one that’s been left on the dashboard of the car for three hours on a hot August day. Gordon watches it slide and slop around inside the container and asks James how well he thinks his copy matches up with the original, and James sort of shrugs and coughs, well, sure, pretty much. Denial. He’ll have time to work himself through the next six stages of grief on the Greyhound ride back home.
- Shortly before hearing Gordon announce that Luca has won the Mystery Box challenge, James gives himself a pep talk, based on the law of averages: “To be in the top five,” he says of himself, “and never win a Mystery Box? That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!” Well, Cary Grant never won a competitive Academy Award. And Herb Alpert has more Grammys than Sonny Rollins. And I don’t know if you’ve ever actually sat down and read the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore. But I agree, that’s kind of stupid. Not last 20 minutes of Minority Report stupid, but still…
- With only a few seconds to go before the next commercial, Natasha realizes that she forgot to snag garlic from the pantry. It’s “extremely crucial for this dish,” so she decides to ask Luca if she can have some of his, despite the fact that, she tells the camera, they don’t really get along.” “Luca,” she asks him, “can I have some garlic?” Cut to James, upstairs, watching all this intently. Then cut to Gordon, anxiously awaiting Luca’s response. Cut to Luca, saying, “Ummm…” Cut to Natasha, processing this. Cut to Joe, holding it together stoically, though you can tell the suspense is killing him. Then another cut to Luca. Then commercials, and after those are over, we get to see most of what we’d just seen played back again, until Luca says, sure, have some garlic. That’s what it looks like when the MasterChef editors decide to go for an Emmy nomination. It isn’t pretty.
- Luca is a little concerned when Paula Deen shows up, because he doesn’t really have a lot of experience with Southern cuisine, and “When I see Paula Deen, the first thing that comes into my head is ‘Southern cooking.’” Granted, Luca said this before last June. I’m sure that Southern cooking is still one of the first things that you’d think of if you looked up and saw Paula Deen, grinning ear to ear and driving toward you on a tractor. One of the top seven or eight things, definitely. I mean, unless she was toting an Uzi or something.
- With the schedule of this show shifting back and forth, going for two episodes a week for a long time and then suddenly cutting back to one new hour a week and then, this week, returning to the two-hour format, Fox somehow managed to ensure that this inadvertent opening salvo in Paula Deen's comeback-and-forgiveness tour was broadcast on the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s “I Have A Dream” speech. So, that's something that happened.
- Luca and Jessie are surprised that they take out James, because they’re gunning for Natasha. Remember when all anyone talked about was how they were gunning for Krissi? I understand that, with each passing week, it becomes more and more important to get rid of rivals who pose a serious threat, and nobody really believes that Krissi can beat them. But have these people given any thought to how they’re gonna feel if the person they all hate and don’t consider a serious threat sticks around to the end, and then she beats them? Didn’t they learn anything from the second season of Big Brother!?
- Is there a porn movie called Variations Of Honey? Because if there isn’t, I’m gonna start writing it now before I go to bed.