This week, MasterChef began at the Los Angeles restaurant Patina, where the contestants were given the opportunity to take over the kitchen for a service. It ended with what might be called The Rise and Fall of Ben Starr, a tragicomedy in forty-five minutes, plus commercials. Things began up in the stars, but then the heat of the sun melted the show's mascot's wings. It was like seeing a hobbit get called before a secret military tribunal, his face still bearing the bruises and scars of his latest pistol-whipping.
At Patina, Ben and Christian were on the Red Team, under the leadership of the alternately flustered and put-out Suzy. Tracy was in charge of the Blue Team, with Adrien and Jennifer working under her in full beheaded-chicken mode. Both teams were required to produce proper versions of the restaurant's showpiece dishes as the orders flooded the kitchen. Barking the orders at them was Gordon himself, perhaps as a sop to any Hell's Kitchen fans who'd stuck around for his next show and were growing confused and restless as the minutes ticked by and he failed to yell at anyone. It did the trick for damn sure, especially since hardly any of the cooks understand that when he yelled something at them, he wanted them to yell back some acknowledgement that they'd heard him; Ben Starr indicated that he did understand this but that he was too terrified to say anything. "Hello! Can! I! Have! An! Answer!? Thank you!! Bloody hell!"
At first, the Red Team seemed to be a little more lost than their competition. People were kept waiting for their food, which meant the show was able to treat us to the thoroughly enjoyable sight of Joe, working the front of the house, abjectly apologizing to hungry patrons. But then, the Blue Team managed to arrange to overtaken. Adrien's contribution was especially worthy of comment, if only because he managed to send out a plate with some hair in it. Adrien was indignant about being called on this. He huffed that he had cooked many a dish in the course of the show and he'd never lost a hair in his food before. He made it sound as if he thought that the judges should cut him some slack because it was overdue to finally happen. On the other hand, Ben Starr charmed Gordon by giving the edges of the plates a little polish before sending them out. It was starting to seem that everything Ben did charmed Gordon. I began to fantasize about a prison movie starring the two of them, and to wonder how many boxes of cigarettes Gordon would be willing to pay to rescue Ben from the clutches of Vern Schillinger.
It was close in the end, but the Blue Team went down. To save themselves from elimination. Tracy, Adrien, and Jennifer went required to clean, fillet, portion out, and cook a whole, huge salmon. Jennifer was the only one who didn't crash and burn just trying to make it through the clean-and-fillet stages. Watching Tracy cluelessly hack away at her fish, Suzy was moved to reflect that the creature "literally gave its life for this pressure test, and for it to go out in such a manner is just a travesty." The judges agreed. Tracy took her dismissal very hard. She was barely able to stop weeping long enough to get out a single, impassioned word for the censors to bleep. Noting how far she had come, Graham informed her that he, Gordon and Joe were not done with her, and were signing her up for a year's worth of free "MasterChef Enthusiast cooking classes!" The name sounded so phony that I had to wonder if it was something that Graham had made up on the spot in a panicked reaction to seeing Tracey acting as if the next thing she stuck in her oven might be her head. Maybe, like Ted Baxter before him, Graham went home and had to spend the weekend inventing a school.
Tonight, those emerging triumphant from the mystery box challenge were Ben and Jennifer. (Adrien also got called up to have his dish tasted, but in a development that I'm surprised doesn't happen more often, the judges decided that his offering—a selection of meatballs that Suzy unkindly insisted looked like "vomit on a plate"—looked better than it tasted.) "I was a little surprised to see Jennifer up there," said Christian. She's up there about once a week, and every time it happens again, Christian says that he's surprised to see her up there. He's either got a serious short-term memory problem or the lowest threshold of surprise on record. But it was Ben who took home the gold. It was his first mystery box win, and he'd wanted it very much, and everyone was very happy for him. Me, I couldn't suppress this uneasy feeling that, for many, winning the "advantage" that comes with the mystery box win has brought the same kind of good luck that winning an Academy Award for Best Actor brought to Roberto Benigni.
The contestants were compelled to cook one of Gordon's celebrated, signature dishes. Ben selected the venison tenderloin, because, he said, he had so much happy experience at cooking venison. This was a refreshing change of pace, given how many people on this show have had the peculiar idea that they should veer off into uncharted waters just when they've had their necks on the chopping block. Nobody seemed thrilled to be working with the venison, though. Sensing misery throughout the room, and perhaps terrified that they'd be stuck looking at Christian at the end of the series, the judges circulated through the room, dispensing hints with the light touch of cinder blocks thrown from a high window hitting the pavement.
Seeing how Adrien was tackling his venison, Joe asked him if he'd thought about watching Ben to see what he did. He pointed out that Ben had been given the opportunity to ask Gordon three questions about how the dish was prepared, adding, "Don't you think probably the first question he would have asked was how to cook the venison?" You would have thought so, but in fact, his first question was about what he thought were beets, but which Gordon then had to tell him was actually red cabbage, just like he'd said it was in his description of the dish. It didn't matter much, since Adrien and the other cooks were so unused to this kind of solicitous special treatment from the likes of Gordon and Joe that they decided that the judges were probably trying to mess with their heads.
In the end, only Suzy managed to produce something that the judges regarded as palatable. Contemplating Jennifer's dish, Graham said, "As for the venison, all I can say is, 'Oh dear.'" It was a pun, but it took me a minute to get it. I'm not sure that Jennifer has yet. To Ben's credit, he knew that he'd fatally overcooked his venison as soon as he got it ready for plating, and took his whipping like a man. Like Suzy on the subject of Tracy's salmon, he seemed horrified at the crime he had committed against a member of the animal kingdom, which had given up his life so that he could render its flesh inedible by those with palates worthy of the name. If the judges had called out Adrien's name instead of his own, he might have yelled "No!!" and thrown himself on a live grenade.
Before calling his name, Gordon made a little speech about how the one about to leave the MasterChef kitchen was someone for whom he had great personal affection and who he had expected to make it to the final two, as if he wanted to make sure that everyone who was still there ten minutes later would have to assume that Gordon Ramsay thought they were there by mistake and didn't even like them. Ben said his goodbyes and then was gone, leaving a faint trail of pixie dust behind. A lot of stupid hats and general goofiness had gone under the bridge since he was introduced to America, and by now, I found it hard not to share Gordon's affection for the little guy. He expressed concern that, if he screwed up a venison dish, he'd be allowed back into Texas. Me, I toyed with the idea of putting on my shoes and heading straight for Dallas to see if I'd be too late to welcome him back at the airport.