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MasterChef: “Top 12 Compete”/“Top 11 Compete”

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Long about this time. every season on MasterChef, we get to that sad point where a contestant who hasn’t bottomed out but also hasn’t really soared—someone who has repeatedly been on the receiving end of Gordon Ramsay’s most backhanded  compliment, the sentence that ends, “…and I know you can cook!”—finally steps up, only to plummet. On Monday night, it’s Anna’s turn. This episode begins with the contestants gathered at Venice Beach, waiting for the arrival of the judges, who show up in three ginormous “food trucks” suitable for carrying the world’s last stores of refined gasoline through the desert, with Wez and the Humungus in hot pursuit. The contestants are to divide up into three teams and hustle their menus from these trucks, and Stacey, triumphant winner of the last challenge, is given first pick in assembling her team. She selects Frank, Becky, and Tali to join her as the Red Team. Tali? WTF? As she explains to the camera, Frank and Becky are solid cooks who will boost her team’s chances of winning, and if they lose, she won’t have to worry about going home so long as Tali is down there in the pits with her. Her logic may not be the very definition of team spirit. But hey, as Michael Jordan once said, there is no “I” in the word “team,” but there is in the word “win.”

The other teams are the Blue (with Christine, Cowboy Mike, and Felix, with Josh in charge) and the Yellow, with Anna running the show and David, Monti, and Tanya pushing from below. David wastes no time in claiming the bad team member prize with his dubious work attitude and generally pissy attitude. He grabs a spatula and mans the burger grill, and is soon turning out plates of slider fixin’s, though not as quickly as potential customers show up at the window, braying for nourishment. Gordon is quick to detect that some of David’s burgers are raw at the center, and this news is treated with the gravity it deserves by Anna and most of the other Yellow team members, though David himself seems to regard it as a matter of proportion: If you cook as many burgers as he’s being asked to turn out, a certain number of them are just not going to be, well, cooked. “Do I look like Superman to anybody?” he asks. There is no need to actually poll the room on that one.


The Red Team is victorious, the Blues wind up in the middle, and the Yellows have to report back to the MasterChef kitchen to cook tortellini for their very lives. The editor, the judges, and David all conspire to drive up the Las Vegas odds that it’s David who’ll be going home. David himself laments that he has been cursed with “fat fingers” that cannot roll a tortellini with the necessary precision and grace. Also fashioning a handmade noose and looking for a stepladder is Monti, who has no previous experience with this dish. Naturally, fat-fingered David hits it out of the park, and Monti serves up a dish that Joe pronounces “a little underseasoned, but pretty good.”  Tanya gets a slap on the wrist, and Anna is sent home to her husband, who was sent home earlier—more or less immediately, in fact—in the season.

Tonight’s show kicks off with a Mystery Box challenge centering on a big ol’ hunk of rabbit. As a special treat, Graham himself participates as a chef, just so the contestants who can’t manage to do anything special with what they’ve been given can see what a master can accomplish in the same amount of time, with the same ingredients and facilities, and thus feel that much worse about themselves. Graham’s dish is oohed and ahhed over by Gordon and Joe, who can’t say enough about the sheer physical beauty and artistry of what he’s set before them. Personally, I thought the squiggly yellow lines he’d used to decorate the plate looked like skid marks, but then, my idea of exceptional plating is when the server at Popeye’s manages to keep my biscuit and mashed potatoes from touching.

Cowboy Mike, who surprises no one by claiming to have family experience with rabbit, is singled out for praise. (He says that his grandmother used to cook a mean rabbit leg. He fails to mention whether he himself used to go up to the road and peel it off the highway for her.) But it’s Becky, who just got a lot easier not to mistake for Anna, who is proclaimed the winner. Immunity challenges are now a thing of the past, so she still has to cook alongside everyone else, but she does get to select a piece of equipment for herself, while deciding what piece of equipment everyone else will be using. She picks for herself a deep-fat fryer, which means that, if I were one of the judges, she’d just won already. For her competition, she picks out a pizza stone, which really flummoxes those who are determined not to cook pizza or any dough-based dishes at all. Cowboy Mike, who was so close to the brass ring, basically flips out and serves up a lobster dish, explaining that he couldn’t think of a recipe for pizza dough. This is one of the many things that it is a mistake to say to Joe, who stares at him in wonder from beneath his heavy, reptilian eyelids and says, “Yeast. Flour. Salt. Water.”

Monti, who has to salvage the soda bread that goes with her soup after smoke begins billowing from her oven, comes out the winner, maintaining a peculiar tradition of this season: You know that Monti is going to do pretty well whenever it looks as if she might well burn the kitchen down. But it’s the bum notes that stick out. David, who seems to be regressing into a vaguely humanoid state that predates the development of spoken language, social cues, and Zoloft, presents his offering to Joe and gets to hear those six magic words: “Am I supposed to eat that?” When Joe slams David’s dish into the trash with backboard-shattering force, Tali can be seen grinning like a happy monkey with an obscene case of schadenfraude.


This kind of smugness ought not to be allowed to stand, and in the blink of an eye, Gordon is up in Tali’s shit, demanding to know what the hell he thinks he’s doing, leaving his work station in such a frightful mess. He has a point. Everyone else’s station appears to be immaculate, but the space around Tali’s oven looks like the aftermath of the last fight scene in a Transformers movie. But it’s Cowboy Mike, Tanya, and David who have to stand before the judges, begging with their eyes, like hungry puppies, not to be sent home. Gordon sends Mike home, takes his sweet time about letting the sense of relief sink in, then informs Tanya that she, too, has delighted them long enough and sends her packing as well. David is left the last man standing, with only his latest bumper-sticker-suitable rationalization to console him: “Hey,” he says, “sometimes planes crash!”

Stray observations:

  • I know that a certain amount of contrivance has to go into the making of a show like this, and given the choice between that and flat boredom, I welcome it. But sometimes, as when people are gasping for breath and making O-faces and saying things like “That! Is! So! Awesome!” in reaction to being told that Graham Elliot is going to be cooking rabbit a few feet from where they’re going to be cooking rabbit, I do sort of wonder what they might really be responding to. “Hi, folks. Listen, I don’t suppose they’ve let you hear any of the news since bringing you in here a couple of hours ago and confiscating your phones? Well, just so you know, Martian spaceships are strafing the White House. And in the confusion, somebody who was trying to post civil defense information about extraterrestrial attacks online accidentally released a whole raft of confidential, sealed documents related to the Kennedy assassination. And it turns out that there was a second shooter on the grassy knoll, and it was the woman who used to play Mrs. Howell on Gilligan’s Island…”

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