Finally, I can almost tell these people apart. Just in time for Challenge Taco! Reinventing the taco as a fine-dining item understandably strikes many of the cheftestants as stupid -- tacos are, after all, a quintessential street food. Richard's up for the challenge, though, since it involves the word re-invent. His enthusiasm pays off, as guest judge Rick Bayless grants him immunity and the win for a taco reimagineered with jicama shells.
A self-selecting separation into two teams -- Red and Blue -- and an ominously-edited drive kicks off Elimination. Will our plucky bunch get dumped in the ghetto? Heavens no -- it's a lovely tree-lined street eagerly awaiting their annual block party, where adults and children will come together to eat food and be on TV. After raiding the pantries of the neighbors, all Oprah-style (look, a hoarder!), it's back to the kitchen for a relatively sedate prep and cook. The cook-then-transport scenario seems a bit familiar, but each menu contains some dubious choices (that's you, corn dog and macaroni and cheese).
The block party looks like fun -- hell, they have a dunking machine. Team Red keeps it simple, while Team Blue goes upscale -- which, based on the apparent hint offered by a fine-dining taco contest, looks like the wrong choice. Team Red psyches out Team Blue by cooking for everyman, serving their sliders (or America's New Official Favorite Food), and actually having some fun.
But everyman only likes block party food if it's well done, and Team Red's wasn't. Team Blue ekes out a win, but Richard gets nailed for serving a pilaf instead of a paella (really, how dare he?), and Nikki gets slammed for making macaroni and brick. Stephanie pulls out her second win for ingeniously using gyoza in dessert, and becomes the one to beat.
In a particularly brutal losing round, Team Red's Erik gets nailed for soggy-ass corn dogs, Ryan gets nailed for a soggy-ass Waldorf salad, and Zoi gets nailed for a pasta salad that's poor by pasta salad standards, which is actually quite an accomplishment. But it's Erik that packs his knives, reminding us all that when it comes to mangling American classics, a bad corn dog is the ultimate sin.
Morning shenanigans in Chicago -- everyone's dragging themselves out of bed and getting ready to face the day. Amidst some beefcake-lite shots (Spike, Ryan and Dale shirtless), Spike and Andrew play wrassle -- Andrew pops topless Spike with a towel, Spike mimes shoving Andrew's head into the wall. Just two guys having a little bit of innocent fun, as Richard, voice of reality (with a hint of the humorlessness I'm beginning to notice), tells the camera about the seriousness of elimination (it could happen to you!), and helpfully reminds us that "it's all about the food." Spike and Andrew continue to horse around, building to what I can only hope will be a fabulous money shot.
Stephanie's feeling Valerie's absence, and all of the women (at least if Stephanie is their designated spokeswoman) are bummed that they lost one of their own, since "we all just want a woman to make it to the finals and represent." I agree, it would be nice to see a woman win the title. Putting things in perspective, Zoi says "it's not common to have one lesbian in the kitchen. It's not common to have one woman in the kitchen." Wait a minute, isn't that where a woman belongs? As much as I'd like to think she's wrong, that women have made major strides (which they have, as evidenced by the number of extremely well-regarded female chefs, as well as by empirical evidence gathered by myself while dining out), I have no doubt that a restaurant kitchen is still a pretty sexist, chauvinistic place. The biggest struggle, believes Zoi, is "to break people's image of what a chef is."
Andrew, fresh from wrestling (no shuddering finale, alas) thinks the image of what a chef is includes "being an entertainer" -- he's certainly remained true to this line of thought so far, for better or for worse. He feels they're all there to "have fun," as the editors once again place him in opposition to dour Richard.
As the cheftestants assemble in the kitchen for the Quickfire, Padma introduces this week's guest judge, Richard Bayless, "who has done more than any other chef to introduce Americans to fine dining Mexican cuisine," which, I must admit, has always seemed like a bit of an oxymoron to me, kind of like high-end Chinese food. It's difficult to justify paying fine-dining prices when you can get amazing and authentic Chinese and Mexican food on the cheap. But Bayless, with his restaurants Frontera Grill and Topolobampo , has been successful both critically and commercially (he has his own line of cookware, but these days, who doesn't?), so the joke's on me. Bayless, wearing a shirt the color of Japanese eggplant and a meticulously groomed blondish-gray goatee which is a completely different color than his head hair (a generic brown), looks well put-together but there's something about him that creeps me out a little, like there's something sinister beneath that manicured surface.