Love Bites, Hard: Turf and Surf, Tough and Stuff, and the Opportunity of a Lifetime — Jeff's Star Report
We start this episode Rosa-less, and I’m feeling a little bummed by the absence of her bubbliness. What we start out with instead is each finalist's favorite ingredients, ominously plated right in front of them. Right off the bat, I’m calling shenanigans! Jay has venison, Dom’s got ricotta, Michelle has grape leaves and Eddie has a giant pile of dangerous habaneros. Just when you think all is loosey-goosey in LaLaLand, here come the caveat: the good old switcheroo! The finalists must switch their signature ingredients with another finalist. In turn, Eddie trades his pepper for Michelle’s grape leaves, Alex swaps his five-spice powder for Dom’s ricotta, and they're off to the races.
I love this challenge. It’s a great way to force the finalists to break free of their supposed “comfort zone.” Case in point: I often receive a recipe assignment on The Kitchen that forces me to research and develop a new technique or cuisine that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I enjoy a challenge, and as a Food Network Star, you need an almost-bottomless repertoire of culinary knowledge if you expect to last more than a year in this business.
The cooking begins, and I’m seeing some clever applications. Eddie’s turning grape leaves into a play on escarole and sausage soup, Dom has finally left his own neighborhood for his Grandma’s and is dipping into Asian territory. Michelle is aiming to incinerate the judges' taste buds with a whole mess of habanero, something she has never cooked with before (!?).
The presentations begin, and Bobby and Giada throw another whammy! A double, two-tier, class-A switcherooski. This is a Food Network Star first, and quite frankly, it's immensely entertaining. They can only taste a partner's dish and (hopefully) eloquently judge and critique the flavors — a must-have ability for any Food Network talent.
Eddie starts with a subpar description of Michelle’s dish. (BTW, there is no tilde in the Spanish word habanero! Please stop mispronouncing it and be a food authority!) Michelle does a better job of selling Eddie’s dish. Emilia hits the nail on the head, but Arnold is a bit long-winded about his love of turnips, and, according to Bobby, his assessment is inaccurate. Alex is unable to visualize Dom and his boys “crushing tea sandwiches” on the stoop of his Staten Island two-flat, and nobody seems to know what the hell Chinese five-spice powder is made of. Jay talks good 'bout food. Rue talks good 'bout food too, but she slays Jay with her critique of her whole branzino, and because of her elegant eloquence, Rue wins this first challenge!
Now on to a team battle, but this time it’s just teams of two. Quite volatile, if you ask me. The teams are as follows: Jay and Emilia, Eddie and Alex, Arnold and Rue, and Michelle and Dom. They head to the architecturally significant Disney Concert Hall in the increasingly hip downtown Los Angeles. They get the opportunity to cook for the venerable Joachim Splichal at his classic restaurant Patina, a place I could not even begin to afford to dine at when I lived in Los Angeles 10 years ago. In walks guest judge Anne Burrell (who is not only a friend, but who also had the pleasure of consuming a serving of my sweat vinaigrette during her guest appearance on my season of Food Network Star — a very regrettable moment indeed). She never pulls punches, so this should be quite the challenge. As if that weren't enough pressure, the finalists must also cook for a gaggle of Match.com first daters. And they’re off ….
Season 11’s love affair with shrimp continues with Michelle and Dom’s dish of Shrimp and Risotto. This is definitely not a first date for Dom and Michelle. These two are bickering like my parents during Sunday dinner. It seems Dom is not too keen on working with Michelle, and Michelle just wants to collaborate and construct a dish together, but Dom just wants to cook, but Michelle isn’t being heard, but Dom just needs to decompress with the newspaper and a tumbler of scotch after a long day on the job site. Ahhhh …. young love.
Everybody else seems to be getting along splendidly with few or no hiccups. Time's up, and they begin to present.
Jay and Emilia slay the presentation with humor and fluid delivery. They address the audience “in the round” with expertise, making both the Match.com lovers and the judges feel comfortable. Unfortunately, their food is lacking sparkle.
Eddie and Alex are apparently now aspiring to go on the road as a quirky yet tender duo I heretofore dub the “Bromantics.” Well-timed humor always works in a crowd, especially paired with a well-executed sandwich successfully incorporating two distinct POVs.
Arnold and Rue. Turf and Surf. Surf and Turf. Furf and Struf. Tough and Stuff. To quote my grandma, “Those two pooped the bed.”
Michelle and Dom were doomed from the beginning, and we all knew it. Their presentation to the judges and daters is a Match.com made in hell. They leave the room deflated and aggravated. This leads to a heated discussion in the back, one that ends in an emotional Michelle storming out of the stew room. This was not unlike every lovers' quarrel ever in the history of human civilization. It started with bad communication, escalated to “bringing up old crap,” then ended in someone storming out of the room, threatening to never come back and/or to sleep on the coach. However, in classic fashion, both parties kissed and made up … kinda.
Evaluations start. Eddie and Alex nailed it, so they are safe, as are Jay and Emilia.
Couple of the year — Dom and Michelle — are far from safe, as are Arnold and Rue. Arnold realizes he repeated the same mistake twice in a row, and Rue just needs more minutes to execute southern African food. Remember this, Rue: You have only 30 minutes to execute a dish on your potential cooking show, let alone 60 minutes. The viewers have even less time — most lead busy lives while trying to balance work, family and cooking. Ease is king.
Dom is a beaten man, but my girl Anne Burrell finds you sweet and vulnerable, Dom, so you come off smelling like ricotta: sweet. Michelle might have plateaued, and that has the judges thinking twice. Arnold is safe, as is Dom, but not without warning. So it has come down to Rue and Michelle, and tonight, it’s Rue.
She had so much ammo with her point of view, and I loved watching her cook and present. Maybe she needs a little more time and experience to hone her point of view and truly own the hell out of it. Maybe she'll go on to Star Salvation and kill it!? Maybe next week Dom and Michelle will make up and start a family and live happily ever after!? Maybe Eddie will lose his muscles and make me feel better about my uneven physique?! Maybe Arnold will get some rest and pizzazz the bejeezus out of us next week!? Maybe Jay will win this whole thing …… !? Who knows? All I know is this: I’m sitting on a plane, headed back home to Chicago and my beautiful family, tired but fulfilled after a long week of shooting The Kitchen, and I’m feeling a bit emotional but also very, very blessed.
Oh, and this I know as well: It’s all worth it, so people better bring it next week. This is the literal definition of “the opportunity of a lifetime,” so don’t blow it.
Tootles till next time.