With only four contestants left, Worst Cooks in America is a different show. Last week the judges eliminated Carla and Michael, cooks with two of the clearest gimmicks: Wanna-Lay-Bobby-Flay and Bow-Tie-Accounting-Dork. With their dismissal, all that’s left is to watch the most capable cooks compete, though that distinction is profoundly relative. On other cooking reality shows, there is a drama inherent to having a whole pickup truck full of contestants running around your kitchen: Some people don’t get along, some people get along too well, a few have no business competing but look interesting on television while doing it. Then, as the field narrows, that particular drama flakes away and is replaced by the drama of watching only the most skilled cooks competing. These are people at the top of their field crafting works of art. That is not the case here. Now that the ballerina and the frat guy and the chiropractor with the sex dungeon are gone, all that’s left is to watch four miserable home cooks struggle and get things wrong. I expected to be let down. Instead, the increased screen time exploded these remaining four contestants from sound bites and punchlines into real people, people with families and human struggles who want to be better providers, and I also cried twice. I’m an old softie.
We’re down to the Final Four, just like in the popular March Madness. (I’m contractually obligated to put that reference in so that this article can go on Grantland.) Remaining on the Blue Team are Chet, the Greek god of misidentifying foods, and Alina, an Eastern European caretaker whose angelic patience does not extend to her teammate. She does not like Chet one bit. Alina feels like Chet bullies her, and she’s right to be put off, because if Chet can dislocate his jaw even a little bit he could fit Alina’s whole head in his mouth. He might have been a bad guy in The Fifth Element. On the Red Team, Biker Mom Sue and Man Hunter Rasheeda have a much better relationship. I enjoy their back-and-forth with Chef Anne Burrell. If Sue, Anne, and Rasheeda had a reality show where they opened a diner in the Midwest, I’d watch it. I mean, I’d DVR it, and then mean to watch it but let it auto-delete for new episodes of House Hunters International.
This week’s Skill Challenge is to teach someone else what they’ve learned, because as we know most teachers have about two and a half weeks of televised education before taking their talents to the classroom. The rules are complicated, as this whole thing is backwards. Anne and Bobby will be in the kitchen, and the Blue and Red teams will each inspect and taste a plate of cooked food and then instruct Anne and Bobby on what’s in it and how it was prepared. Anne and Bobby, armed only with headsets, will have to reverse engineer the described dish. Luckily, the headsets everyone wears are gigantic. People look like they are on the sidelines of the Super Bowl. The contestants are eight feet away from the chefs and separated by only a black curtain, but the headsets would be appropriate if they were landing fighter jets on aircraft carriers in the middle of the Cold War. Maybe Russian MiGs with advanced signal-jamming capabilities are flying over the kitchen. The Russians probably want to steal Rasheeda’s prison walkie-talkie again. The headset is so big that when Rasheeda tries her dish she gets some food on the microphone piece.
The cooks lift the domes; the dish is grilled lamb chops with a charmoula sauce and a hash of bacon, yams, and purple potatoes. The dish is simple enough, but I’ve never heard of a charmoula sauce. I believe that it’s real. I looked it up, and it’s a North African marinade. The four cooks tear into the meat, and they set out to describe everything incorrectly. Some examples: “two lamb shanks”; “cooked to medium”; “the purple squares are shallots”; “green onions”; “it’s pan-roasted”; “it’s griddled”; “green chiles”; “limes”; “the bacon is julienned”; “I think it’s veal.” It’s OK that they make mistakes, as identifying ingredients is difficult and even the best of us have struggled at a restaurant trying to figure out what something on the plate is, but it’s enjoyable to watch how confidently they all say the wrong thing. Sue asks, “Can food be purple?” That’s a great question, Sue. Can it be? Yes, but a better question might be, “Should it be?” In addition to the diner reality show I mentioned above, I’d also watch a show in which Sue explored the answers to simple questions about food and life. “Can food be purple? If onions are so cheap, why do they make you cry? How come stoves are hot? Do babies ever come out of your butt? If not, then what was that?”
While Chet and Alina bicker and leave Bobby Flay waiting, Sue and Rasheeda relish bossing Anne around. They are doing it as a joke, but Anne’s not that into it. Sue tells Anne to make sure to manage her time well, and to clean all the plates. It’s weird, Anne is so funny and kooky when she’s ordering other people around, but she is less cool when the reverse is the case. Wearing wacky socks and multicolored clogs is not as good a look when you are scowling at someone’s playful joke. Chet and Alina get into a large argument about the amount and location of the charmoula sauce on the plate. Chet is extremely insistent that there is a “vein” of sauce running along the sweet potatoes. It’s worth noting that in the original dish the sauce is, as expected, over the lamb, but in Chet’s memory the sweet potatoes are a long thick cylinder on the plate with a one-inch vein of charmoula running through them. Alina tries to disagree, and Chet yells at her and repeats the word “vein” a dozen times. “Bobby, trust me, it’s a large vein on top.” Chet probably learned this term from all those restaurant menus that describe plates that way. “The steak is accompanied by a thick tube of mashed potatoes and a raised vein of gravy running down the length of the potato shaft.” Alina says that the misunderstanding might be on account of the language barrier, and that she did not know the right word. Chet says, “Now you do. It’s vein.” I call cleaning the sauce off my plate “draining the main vein.”
Anne and Bobby both know how to cook and cook well, so however skewed their teams’ directions might have been, their finished dishes are good. Chet looks 10 years older after this challenge. I didn’t know it was possible to grow a five o’clock shadow during a 30-minute challenge, but it is. The Red Team missed the purple potatoes, but the lemon zest they spotted in the charmoula gave Anne’s lamb an extra kick, and the Red Team wins the skill challenge. It was close. As Anne said, “It was a negligible difference,” which is always a funny phrase to me. This is a negligible show.
This week is the final Main Dish Challenge before next week’s professionally judged finale. Sue says, “My heart is pounding,” likely a side effect of all the old-school biker meth she probably used to do. The cooks will be making a meal for someone very special; it would have been very funny if they then brought in Carla. Instead, we see loved ones trotted out to very successful emotional effect. I got teary four times during the back half of this episode. There is Marshall, the charming man for whom Alina serves as caretaker, and Rasheeda’s twin sister Aisha, Sue’s son Christopher, and Chet’s mother. Chet loses his mind when he sees his mother, and he weeps large, real tears. He is so big and she is so small and my heart explodes. They love each other very much. Similarly, Sue can barely handle seeing her son. Aisha and Rasheeda’s relationship is a little cooler. Aisha is surprised Rasheeda made it this far and hasn’t killed anyone yet. I’m super interested in finding out Rasheeda’s reputation as a prison guard. She seems so sweet, but what if multiple prisoners at her facility kept accidentally falling down stairs and then dousing themselves in lighter fluid and then setting that lighter fluid on fire and Rasheeda discovered the bodies each time? That’d be pretty crazy.
Anne and Bobby have prepared special recipes for each cook, and their loved ones will vote blind. Anne’s got the Red Team making pastas, which is bold. These guys could barely handle cakes, and that was like three hours ago. Now they are using pasta makers. We see Sue and Rasheeda start their doughs, and a few shots of them attempting to roll them out, but then it cuts right to Rasheeda dropping her ravioli in the boiling water. We saw her burn pecans three times — “Aww, nuts, I am running out of nuts to work with” — because she couldn’t manage to remember one garnish in her oven, and we’re expected to believe she had zero problems pressing out dozens of complicated little pastas. Something is up. Sue gets overwhelmed easily; Anne says she’s “in the weeds,” but again, more likely that it’s the biker meth.
Aisha really digs Rasheeda’s broccoli rabe–stuffed ravioli, and Christopher goes nuts for his mom’s tagliatelle with bacon and cherry tomatoes. He gives it six thumbs up and asks if he can take some home with him, and Anne slaps him in the mouth. That second part doesn’t happen, but I feel like it could. Also, they show wine being uncorked, but then Anne and Aisha are drinking something on the rocks. Pretty cool to have white wine on the rocks with your pasta. This is a special meal, after all. Honestly, I’m a little disappointed with Anne’s recipe selection. Broccoli rabe is a bold flavor, and one that many people don’t like, especially people who aren’t “into” food, like the contestants’ families. That being said, both Aisha and Christopher pick the right dishes, and Sue and Rasheeda are happy.
Marshall and Chet’s mom sit down with Bobby to enjoy Alina and Chet’s dishes. Alina made a fried cutlet with ham and triple cream cheese. I love all the things that come out of Marshall’s mouth. If something happens with Alina, I’m willing to be his caretaker. He says, “Somebody got a lot of love in their heart to cook this.” Chet’s mom also loves Alina’s dish, which could be bad news for Chet. Chet is disappointed to see it, and it’s funny watching somebody who loves his mom so much get crestfallen watching her genuinely enjoy something. Chet’s buttermilk fried chicken with honey and pink peppercorn sauce and greens goes over great. Marshall is breathless over how good it is. In the end, Chet’s mom picks Alina’s dish, and Marshall picks Chet’s. Good that they tied, but also you can tell they’re both sad.
Bobby and Anne stand before their cooks and announce the results. Bobby thinks Alina is a mad scientist, and she’s got a great touch at seasoning, but he’s always worried that she’s a risk. Remember, Bobby needs Alina to win him this year’s trophy next week. Should he take a risk on someone who’s “off the grid, so to speak”? He uses the phrase “off the grid” incorrectly, I think. Alina probably has a credit card and a cell phone. Chet’s a perfectionist, and has a great eye, but it’s not enough. He’s going home. Sometimes Rasheeda loses focus in the kitchen, but she’s improved immensely, and focus is less of a problem than Sue’s confidence. She’s genuinely afraid of what goes on near that stove, and Anne asks her to pack up her apron and head home. But at least Sue and Chet can go hang out with their families, whom they love so much, and oh man I’m about to cry again.