I’ve not had time to check with the Nielsen people, but I can only imagine that the penultimate episode of Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off on Sunday night won its time slot handily, across all demographics. For some reason, and I can’t think of what that reason might be, Food Network moved it to 10 p.m. from its regularly scheduled time slot of 9 p.m. Was there something else going on at 9? Maybe something that 108 million people were watching instead? If there was, it was probably done by 9:59 and that’s why 10 o’clock made perfect sense. We all watched Rachael vs. Guy live, and it felt good to know that I was part of a global community all tuning in at the same time to see what Carnie Wilson’s face looked like.
Much like Rachael and Guy themselves, their two remaining teams are unevenly weighted: Carnie Wilson, Kathy Najimy, and Hines Ward comprise a seemingly unbeatable triumvirate for Team Rachael, and, on the other side, mighty Dean McDermott alone must bear the weight of Guy’s ambitions, his fallen comrades’ shattered dreams, and his own, very public desire to build a culinary career. Although his teammates are gone, they are not forgotten. “I miss them all,” he says. “They all became my babies.” We remember, Daddy Dean. In fact, I might never be able to forget the closing image of last week’s episode, where you cradled a shivering Johnny Weir in your arms while he nursed at your swollen teat.
Rachael and Guy greet the four remaining contestants. They’re standing in front of two food trucks, far and away the coolest vessels from which to eat food three years ago. Carnie, a fan of griddle-cooked food, diesel fumes, and fast getaways, snarls, “I”m gonna like this.” Guy is wearing a shirt with a patch that says “DEAN RULES,” and I can’t see if he’s attached it with safety pins like the true punk-rocker he is. Obviously, the two teams will be serving their slop-plus-mentor-suggested-garnish out of a truck this week. Guy says, “We’ve put you in all types of situations. You’ve had to run a diner, throw a birthday party for kids, and now: a food truck.” Yes, Guy just listed all the situations. I’m pretty sure that guy from Jersey Shore’s name is based on throwing a birthday party for kids. “Bonjour. Je m’appelle Eric Ripert. Before opening the four-star New York restaurant Le Bernardin, I did all the normal jobs young chefs do: I cooked three sandwiches at a diner, steamed a buffet for a spoiled child, and then had a free food truck in a Hollywood parking lot. Bon appetit.”
Team Rachael was last week’s winner, and they get to choose first from among four possible truck themes: Tiny Italian, Mighty Mexican, Ragin’ Asian, or the Comfort Cruiser. Cool themes. It’s fun how they made the names fun. I’m Italian, and I’m slightly offended that we get “Tiny Italian.” Look, Italians are white, so we’ve had it easy, but that doesn’t mean this show couldn’t be more sensitive. It reminds me of being in college and going to a chain Italian restaurant and seeing written on the mirror behind the bar, “Name Withheld: Where Everything on the Menu Ends in a Vowel!” That is very offensive. My grandparents (presumably) dealt with all sorts of prejudice when they got off the boat here, and their Italian names gave them away and kept jobs out of their hands. Don’t make light of that. Hasn’t Guy Fieri already done enough? He’s got two restaurants called Johnny Garlic’s. Maybe Tony Stromboli’s was already taken, or maybe his lawyers advised him against calling it Pauly Ba-Fungool’s Greasy Parmhouse.
Carnie, Kathy, and Hines choose the Comfort Cruiser, which sounds like a motorized recliner marketed to old folks. Dean is feeling Italian or Asian, but Guy pulls for Mexican. Guy says he’s got lots of experience in Mexican, but it’s a cuisine unfamiliar to Dean. Dean is leaning toward Italian, but he knows that if he does Italian, he’ll want to go too homemade and start making his own pasta and stuff. Guy agrees: “I’m a purist.” Yes, Guy, I believe the prevailing wisdom on your food, especially your ethnic food, is that you’re a purist. That’s why at your restaurant Tex Wasabi’s, you serve a sushi roll with BBQ pork in it alongside French fries. Because your desire for purity is so all-consuming. You’re really more an ethnographer than a cook. Dean defers and takes “Mighty Mexican,” and Guy hops in a plane to Oaxaca to research for six months.
Dean and Guy brainstorm a total showstopper of a dish. They put their giant heads together, and it gets real. There are sunglasses everywhere. He’s going to cook a three-pork taco. That’s one taco with three kinds of pork: chorizo, carnitas, and belly. Dean no longer has to prop up any tiny babies on his team who need his help to turn on their grills or wet-wipe their buttonholes; it’s all on him. As Dean reminds us, he’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders. He’s not just doing this for his charity, he’s also doing it for Tori and the kids. Guy has a special message from her, and it’s almost surprising, in this day and age, that Guy doesn’t make a big production out of what brand of phone the video’s playing on. Guy cannot handle emotion in front of another man and yells, “DUDE!” and slaps Dean on the back. Dean tears up at an extremely intense message from Tori: “I love you so much. You mean so much to me. You mean more than the sun and the stars in the moon. You mean more to me than golden diamonds mean to the greediest burglar.” Yeah, it reminded me of this:
Hines remains the only member of Team Rachael with the ability to stay cool under even the slightest amount of pressure. He calmly prepares 100 portions of his special chili dog; it’s his son Jaden’s favorite dish, and he wants to honor his boy. When Hines told Rachael that he put onions, relish, ketchup, and mustard on his chili-cheese dog, she was visibly repulsed, but the only reason she swallowed her bile was because it was Jaden’s favorite. Rachael’s patience with all these contestants is bafflingly low. I imagine this is maybe the eighth day of shooting this show, and she’s run-down like she’s been filming Man vs. Wild in Yukon for three uninterrupted months. Her voice sounds like she stays up all night smoking Parliament 100s and drinking black coffee and working with a public defender to figure out a way to get her kids back.
Carnie is in full, insane Carnie-mode. She yells, “IT’S SHORT FOR CARNIFER!” and then bites a sealed Pringles can clean in half. She’s making meatloaf meatballs with chicken-stock gravy and mashed potatoes. Rachael barked at Carnie to use beef stock, but Carnie was Carnie and ignored her. Rachael was left to pack another lip full of dip and make Guy blush with her swearing. Carnie is discombobulated. She screams, “I’m about five seconds away from withdrawing!” She says her heart is racing, probably both because of the time limit and also because of pills she takes. Hines, meanwhile, is ready and waiting for service.
Kathy is making a soup-like Lebanese macaroni and cheese. Again and again, Kathy returns to worship at the temple of her mother’s kitchen, and her track record on this show is not being especially kind to her mother’s abilities. Are we sure her mom was a good cook? You are a well-off actress with lots of free time; it’s very possible that you’re a better cook than your mom, no disrespect. Either way, she put olives in her macaroni and cheese, and that sounds good. She also focuses on winning over the crowd. As they line up at the Comfort Cruiser, she yells, “Whoever loves it the most, I’m gonna make out with you!” That’s a hastily planned strategy.
Dean is on his own and overwhelmed by his line and his prep. He’s a perfectionist, and his one taco has a lot going on; there’s a fresh-roasted tomatillo salsa and a fussed-over avocado crema and his three types of pork, and it’s all rolled up just so. His line backs up more and more, and his patrons are getting restless. They cheer him on with “Dean-o!” but it’s also aggressive, as in, “Give us our food!” Only guest judge Lou Diamond Phillips can inspire Dean to complete his Herculean task. Dean says, “I want what he has,” and I think he’s referring to LDP’s crazy shirt-and-tie combo. It looks like one of those bargain packs with both the shirt and tie already included that you get for $3 at T.J. Maxx. “The tie is attached! I can’t take it off, so that way I’ll never lose it!” LDP’s vote is worth five civilian votes, so his support is crucial. When Rachael sees Lou, she says, “I miss you!” because of those 14 hours they spent together one year ago.
Despite a snap-less hot dog, a soupy mac and cheese, and bland meatballs, Team Rachael served all 100 portions. Dean is not so lucky. His serving time runs out with nearly a third of his patrons unfed. As their votes decide who wins, that leaves him at a disadvantage. We see Lou Diamond Phillips hem and haw over which bucket to dump his golden ticket into, as if he knows, like we do, that this is the last time his opinion will matter on television for a while. Carnie is sure she’s going home and begins thinking of what to cook for the final challenge. Every week, the challenge is completely different, so that seems like a terrible strategy. She can barely handle the anticipation. She says, “It’s like waiting to find out from a record-company exec if a song got added to a radio playlist.” That’s a great simile, Carnie, one that a lot viewers can connect with and also reflects current recording industry economics. You still got it, girl.
30-odd taco-less diners end up not meaning much in the end, and Dean emerges as this week’s winner. It’s a triumphant story, and he gets a direct berth to next week’s finale. He is so relieved. Did you know that his new career and his family are depending on this? Let him remind you. LDP called Dean’s taco a home run, and Rachael had zero criticism of the dish. Guy thinks his timing was off and that service was slow, but fathers are always extra critical of their sons. There’s real love there. Dean is extremely happy. “I’m ecstatic! I GOT that spot!” He sounds like he’s auditioning to be in a spot-remover commercial, which is something I bet he’s done.
Two contestants are going home this week, and Team Rachael will consume itself when Carnie, Kathy, and Hines face off in a 20-minute Dish on a Stick Challenge. Hines scrambles — you know, like in football — to put every skill he’s learned this season to use: He’s grilling, he’s boiling, he’s massaging oil on stuff. Dean says to him, “It sounds bad, but I’m really enjoying you rubbing your meat.” Hines decides to run the ball up the middle again and add soy sauce; when it works, it works. Kathy starts making a pound cake and pineapple skewer. As if her season’s talking points were only a quarter-page long, she reminds us that she’s making vegetarian food and that her mother cooked. Be better than your mother. Carnie says, “There’s a voice inside of me that repeats, on a loop: ‘Keep it simple, keep it simple.’” How do you sleep at night, Carnie? On a pile of medicine, I bet. Carnie makes a tri-tip steak kebab with a homemade salsa.
Though a graphic promised a blind tasting challenge, once again this challenge is not blind. Hines undercooked his shrimp, Carnie’s giant kebab plate was a little too giant, and Kathy’s dessert dish was too small. Also, Rachael and Guy are not dessert people. Never cook them dessert. The decision comes down to undercooked versus over-portioned versus under-portioned. With these two judges, it’s not hard to guess which they pick: Carnie’s over-portioned kebab takes her to the finals. She bursts into tears from everywhere, not just her eyes. She says, “My food symbolizes my history, my pain, my Achilles heel, my pain, my growth, my love, and my passion.” That is a direct quote, not one of my jokey free-association riffs, and, yes, I’m almost positive she says “pain” twice. What a loon. I cannot believe that it’s her versus Dean in the finale. It’s going to be bananas. She says of Dean, “When I first saw him cook, I actually envisioned me standing next to him in front of Rachael and Guy and them saying, ‘You’ve made it.’” Oh, God. Someone get her a cold compress. Tune in next week.