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MasterChef: "Top 15 Compete"/"Top 14 Compete"

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Anyone who thinks that competitive cooking pales next to, say, stock car racing or sword fighting while bungee jumping when it comes to dangerous action would have been surprised by the thrills and chills seen this week on MasterChef. Monday night's episode, in particular, had as its running theme the question of which chef would poison one of the judges by presenting him with uncooked food. The mystery box included a rack of lamb, and the platefuls of raw lamb that made their way to the presentation deck earned Joe's second most impassioned cries of, "Are you out of your mind!?" (He sounded most impassioned when he directed this question to Derrick, who, ignoring Gordon's usual boast that this was "the most amazing" lamb, chose to debone the rack and knead the meat as if it were hamburger.) The editor, taking his cue from the apoplectic judges, went for his Emmy here, patching together a montage of contestants' faces frozen in expression of appalled horror, embarrassment, and dismay, that you usually only see on the faces of audience members at a Kate Hudson movie. It helped set things up for the conclusion of tonight's episode, in which two people laid their TV careers on the line over which of them could cook three steaks so that, when sliced open, the meat revealed an ideal crescendo from reddish to pink to faintly pinkish. But I'm getting ahead of myself.


Adrien won the mystery box challenge and was given the opportunity to select the key ingredients he would use to construct a prize dessert, and also which ingredients his rivals would be forced to use while applying themselves to the same task. Adrien chose to use nuts and, not to kill you with suspense, ended up being chastised by Joe for having squandered a great opportunity. He foisted coffee off on the rest of the chefs, to the delight of Alvin, who approaches every challenge like a kid looking to dazzle the crowd at the school's next science fair. His coffee-filled beignets, whose fillings were described as looking "like a coffee blood clot," actually inspired the gentle Graham to something like an attack of frothing rage; having proclaimed his faith in Alvin's ambitious, scientific approach, he seemed to take it quite personally that Alvin didn't know "when to use restraint and come back inside the box." Wait, scratch that, he did take it personally, and said so. "Things like this," he said menacingly, "give what I personally do day in and day out a bad name."

Standing alongside Alvin in the dock were the hapless Jennie and the smirking young samurai, Max. Max, who clearly expected to cruise to the winner's circle, produced a dish that moved the judges to arias of culinary revulsion. "Damn!" said Gordon. "It's like I've just been to the doctor's for a skin graft on my butt." It wasn't the most enlightening metaphor so far as explaining just what the food tasted like or what Max should have done differently, but there was no mistaking it for anything but a negative judgment. Joe affably termed it "one of the most disgusting things that I've ever tasted." As for Jennie, the judges simply lined her up alongside the two dudes and told her that, while her dessert stank on ice, "there were two other dishes worse than yours." The round of applause that greeted that comment indicated either that the other chefs were feeling pretty magnanimous or that they were just so happy at the possibility that Max was about to go that they couldn't help themselves. There would be more not altogether appropriate applause to come, and once again, Max would be at the center of it. But I'm getting ahead of myself again.

Tonight, just as the walls of the MasterChef kitchen were starting to feel as if they were closing in on all of us, the show repaired to a stretch of beach along the Pacific Coast Highway for this season's well-timed first al fresco challenge. Having divided everyone up into a Red Team, led by Esther, and a Blue Team, with Tracy at its helm, the chefs were informed that 101 bikers were about to converge on the spot, and they expected to be fed. The menu would consist of sausages, presumably because someone figured that there was nothing that 101 biker types could say about sausages that would not be all-ages appropriate. Surprisingly, the "Did he really say that?" prize went to Max. Unhappy with being entrusted to cram the sausage makings into the casings, he complained, "I just put the meat in the hole." The poor guy had already suffered the indignity of being literally the last player anyone wanted for their team. "I'm picked last," he said, "but I really don't give a [bleep]! I need to prove myself so these other scumbags don't discount me." Spoken like a man who really doesn't give a [bleep]!

The Red Team had so much trouble getting its act together that it looked as if the Blue Team would waltz away with the prize by default. But Tracy had overruled the original choice of toppings, in favor of something sweeter. Christian was nonplussed by this development. "I just think," he told her, "that peppers and onions complement each other, especially with sausage." She paid him no mind. Then they cut to Christian back in the studio, and he told the camera, "Onions and peppers go really, really well together, especially with sausage," as if he thought there was something we could do about it! Once the Danny Trejo lookalikes on the bikes wrapped their mouths  around the Blue Team's sausages, they were suddenly amenable to waiting to try the Red Team's, and the Red Team took an early lead. But then, word leaked out—thanks to Joe, the blabbermouth—that there were complaints about the sweetness of the Blue Team's meat, Tracy unleashed Christian to onion-and-pepper those bitches up, and we were off to the races. As the numbers climed on both sides of the board, the chefs stood facing the bikers who were scarfing down the last servings, and the editor did his best to make it look as if the women of the Blue Team might just be about to pop open their tops and flash the voters. Maybe they did, and the censors wouldn't clear it. The final score: Blue Team triumphant, 51-41.


Back at the kitchen, Gordon confronted Esther with her failings as a manager and asked if there were two people serving under her who most deserved to go home. Her failings as a manager did not prevent her from throwing Christine and Max under the truck with alarming speed. I mean, she didn't even furrow her brow and pretend to think about it. Gordon assigned Christine and Max the task of doing three versions of, yes, "the most amazing Philly steak" That was Christine's cue to do her ceremonial white trash war dance, a triumphant spaz attack reminiscent of Walter Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Max looked at her as if she were deranged, and I'll bet he wasn't the only one, but the remaining chefs, clustered together on the catwalk above their heads, made no secret of where their sympathies lay. They wanted her to stick around, maybe almost as much as they wanted to see Max go down in flames. "Focus, Christine!" somebody yelled, to which Christine, perhaps not getting it, yelled back, "What the [bleep] do you think I'm doing over here!?"

It was a very close one, but in the end, the judges took the surprising and undeniably crowd-pleasing route. In his farewell interview, Max seemed composed and even gracious in defeat, talking about how "good" it would be for Christine to stay in the competition; she "needs it more," he said. They must film those things after a decent, possibly wine-soaked interval, because the show then cut back to his immediate reaction to being cut, in which he stormed out of the kitchen and bitch-slapped a palm frond on his way to the bus stop. He also bid an acrimonious adieu to the three chefs who've come across the best so far in terms of consistency of competence and occasional flashes of brilliance: "Christian, Suzy, Esther, I can't wait to see you crash and burn." If this were Hawaii Five-0, he'd seek out Alvin and enlist him in a revenge scheme that involved explosive coffee tarts set to detonate inside the heating vents. If there are any producers of Hawaii Five-0 reading this, you can consider that a pitch.


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