Before I get going, a brief rant about Last Chance Kitchen. (I guess if you haven’t watched the latest Last Chance Kitchen, this would qualify as a spoiler, but then again. . .THERE’S NOTHING TO SPOIL!!! That’s the damn point.)
When the preview to next week’s Top Chef episode sort of played up the dramatic “who will walk through the door?” element of the Last Chance Kitchen contest, I had this dim, gnawing thought that they might not show us the winner. But then I shook it off: They wouldn’t do that to us, right? Right?
I mean, we’ve invested 15 weeks in those darn webisodes, dutifully making our way to the Top Chef website, sitting through the various Toyota and Healthy Choice commercials, pondering our unanswered questions (do they at least give the poor saps a good night’s sleep before they throw them right back into the kitchen? do all the ousted cheftestants live together, Real-World-style?)—all for the oh so glorious payoff that was supposed to come our way last night.
So as I’m watching Beverly go head to head with Grayson, I’m keeping my eye on the time scroll: 3 more minutes—more than enuf time to cook and get Tom’s verdict. 1 minute 40 seconds—start talking faster Tom. 30 seconds—oh, for the love of God, spit it out already Tom. 3 seconds. . . and suddenly Padma’s reassuring voice: “Tune in next week to see who won Last Chance Kitchen.” Nooooooo!
Oh, Last Chance Kitchen, why you gotta play me like that?
Alright, back to the real show. It starts like this really awesome dream I had once, where I go into a room and it’s made entirely of pancakes.
The cheftestants speculate as to who the special guest judge might be: Some sort of child star? Miley Cyrus perhaps? (In that case, it would be a room full of bongs, but I digress. . ) And in comes Pee-wee Herman.
Now something tells me that if you told Paul Reubens in 1986 that 26 years later, he’d still be sporting the Pee-wee bow-tie, riding the Pee-wee bike, and laughing the Pee-wee laugh, he’d want to murder you in your sleep. That being said, Paul Reubens’ failed post-Pee-wee career is something of a gift to us all because—squee!—it’s Pee-wee!
The challenge is simple: Make some fun, flavorful, fanciful, Pee-wee-approved pancakes.
This makes the cheftestants happy because all of them used to eat pancakes and then watch Pee-wee’s Playhouse. (A very important childhood ritual that I apparently missed out on entirely.)
Pee-wee tastes all the pancakes and, one by one, pronounces “I have to say, these are the best pancakes I’ve ever had.” (This by the way, is part of the genius of Reubens—’cause that is exactly the way a kid thinks.)
Finally, when he gets to Edward, who has made this nifty dish with the pancake crispy bits and ends, Edward jokingly recites the line along with him. (And is it just me, or has Edward gotten looser—and I don’t just mean his jaw—over these past few episodes? He’s smiling more, he’s sleeping in funny suits, he’s bending himself around chairs. If he keeps this up he might actually become—gasp!—likable!)
Aaaand . . . Edward wins! (Hey, that’s 5 grand toward jaw-anchoring surgery. Don’t knock it.)
For the Elimination Challenge, they’ll be doing the Top Chef version of 455-time Emmy winner The Amazing Race—riding around Texas in shiny red Schwinn bikes, beating the clock, ending up at The Alamo, the sight of Pee-wee’s greatest setback.
They’ll have to buy their food, find an available kitchen to cook it in—no sharesies—and then bring it to Pee-wee.
Again, generally speaking, I hate when the show loses its focus on the food and becomes all about gimmicks and stunts, but it is funny watching the chefs beg, borrow and steal to use someone else’s kitchen.
And shit gets competitive.
For example, Paul arrives at Rosario’s Mexican grill a few seconds ahead of Grayson, but Paul makes the rookie mistake of going to the wrong entrance and Grayson slips into the front door first.
“I’m a competitive person,” Grayson explains with a shrug. (Apparently, it’s not a game night at the Schmitz house until someone breaks down and cries.)
“Not cool,” says Paul. “Not cool.”
Ultimately, Edward finds a lovely bed and breakfast, where the proprietors cleverly milk him for all he’s worth. (Hey, if you had a Top Chef in your kitchen, you’d ask him to poach an egg or two, too!)
Paul finds a hip little creperie–it’s so him.
Lindsay checks out a place called Mad Hatters Tea House, but decides it’s not quite up to her standards and leaves. After wandering around aimlessly, she decides that Mad Hatters isn’t so bad after all but by then, Sarah has taken over the kitchen. Ooooh.
Lindsay has to then suffer the indignity of taking over the kitchen at Frank’s Hog Stand. (And I literally cannot type the words “Frank’s Hog Stand” without laughing.)
Then they all get on their bikes and drive back to The Alamo, except Grayson is actually holding her stuffed chicken in an aluminum pan as she rides and it is hot. (Here, exclusively, is Grayson’s inner monologue as she makes her way to the Alamo: Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, owwwww!)
They all bring their food out together. The judges, including Pee-wee and my girl Gail Simmons (hi Gail!) agree that it all looks great.
They start with Sarah’s summer vegetable egg salad with chicken skin vinaigrette.
Everything is prepared perfectly, but the egg is a little bland. Tom utters the two most dreaded words in the Top Chef lexicon: Needs. Salt.
Next, Grayson’s stuffed chicken breast with gorgonzola and egg yolk and squash and tomato salad.
Tom wishes she’d left out the salad.
Pee-wee wants no part of that runny yolk.
“I have child issues with runny yolk that I’d have to lie down to tell you about,” he says.
“Did you ever catch it?” Tom says, still hanging onto a bit of his Charlize Theron yuckmaster persona.
Pee-wee generously gives a Pee-wee laugh.
(Side note: What is up with Grayson and her culinary gargantuism? Everything she serves is positively plate dwarfing. It’s kind of gross.)
Next, Lindsay’s roasted zucchini boats with beef cheeks, rice, and goat cheese.
Gail thinks there’s too much goat cheese (um, is there such a thing?)
But otherwise, it’s a big hit.
Next Edward’s chicken and grits with red-eye gravy.
Pee-wee thinks the texture of his chicken is off and Tom explains that’s because it’s undercooked. (Whoops.)
Finally, Paul’s red curry gastrique with chicken.
Padma finds it too sweet.
But Tom appreciates Paul’s save of adding pickled vegetables.
Then there’s some tortured insertions of some Pee-wee-isms into the conversation, “I know you are, but what am I?” asks Padma, out of the blue. (Because I’m sure, during childhood, when she wasn’t reading Rudyard Kipling, perfecting her runway walk, and attending literary salons on yachts, she watched a lot of Pee Wee’s Playhouse.)
Pee-wee counters with: “I’m rubber you’re glue, whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you . . .infinity!” And Padma must admit defeat.
“What will you think of when you think of The Alamo now?” ask Padma.
“Chicken,” says Pee-wee. “Lots and lots of chicken.”
(Not quite the heartwarming conclusion we were all hoping for, but so be it. . .)
Padma asks to see everyone.
“We stand as one,” says Sarah.
“We leave as four,” says Grayson. (Heh.)
“Chefs, you did a great job on your big adventure,” says Padma.
Bottom line: Once again, they liked all the food and are now nitpicking.
Tom asks Grayson why she took the skin off her chicken.
“Because Pee-wee says he likes to eat healthy,” Grayson answers.
“But then you loaded it with gorgonzola cheese, egg yolks and bacon,” says Gail, playing the role of Padma.
Tom is particularly pleased with Lindsay’s stuffed zucchini, because it was one of the first things he ever cooked, when he was 12 or 13.
(And this is how you knew I wasn’t going to be a chef: One of the first things I ever cooked? An Oreo and marshmallow fluff sandwich between two Cinnamon Brown Sugar Pop Tarts.) (Hey, don’t knock it til you’ve tried it.)
And the winner is .. . Lindsay!
Paul is also safe.
So it comes down to Ed, Grayson, and Sarah.
“They all failed in that all their dishes needed ketchup!” says Pee-wee. (I love the fact that Pee-wee Herman is quite possibly the first judge in the history of the show who’s not trying to impress the judges with his sophisticated palate.)
Aaaand. . . Grayson “please pack your knives and go.”
If you think this was a sad ending for Grayson, just imagine how I felt when I got to the end of Last Chance Kitchen and they didn’t announce the winner.