Hugh Acheson is optimistic that the best chef will win the whole thing.

“The best years are the forties; after fifty a man begins to deteriorate, but in the forties he is at the maximum of his villainy.” H.L. Mencken

If true, I, having just crested into the 40s, am in my villainous prime, except my idea of being a villain is not colluding with frantic chefs in Chianti or ignoring the sage advice of my elders. My villainous instincts extend more into leaving the toilet seat up and internally muttering snide remarks about adults who bring pillows on two-hour flights. Iago I am not. 

Nookie may not have reached his 40s yet (his bio doesn’t give his age), but he does seem to be positioned to be quite the villain in the show. These chefs really have divided themselves into pacts of those who will do whatever it takes to win, and those with the altruistic vision, one I share, that this will boil down to who is the best chef. Nookie, sadly, could be in the top tier of cooking, but chooses to continually remind us that he will happily sabotage anyone in his path to get ahead. Santa is taking notes, Nookie.

Looking back on the Moroccan experience of my last post I left out that the decision was really left to Liz, whose villainous tendencies are pretty insubstantial, or at least unformed at this point. She chose Chaz but was confused and thought the question was “Who’s your favorite transgendered offspring of Sonny and Cher?” Chaz left mad at the world, that being the albatross around his neck.Still in the flawed beauty of Morocco the teams get to pick their opponent's team.

Gary gets Liz, John, and Jenna.

Nick gets Nicole, Nookie, and Avery. 

Off to Florence we go. In transit we learn that Avery is in the “Best Chef Should Win” camp, and John would happily win under less respectable circumstances. Midwestern morals are not his strong suit, even with his later-in-the-show parental Facetime. 

Jenna needs wine to speak Italian, but once she has a glass this chef is a non-stop language over-pronouncer. She’s like the Alex Trebek of the show. “CA-RRRAAA-KAS is the capital of what South American country?” 

In the meantime, Nick loves Bocce. (As do I. Come play at Empire State South in Atlanta!)  

They seek and find Ribollita, something I have made hundreds of times due to my admiration and love of the River Café in London. The recipe in the Italian Country Cookbook by Rogers and Gray is such a treat. Go buy the book. Essential to the recipe are the beans for sure but also the addition of cavelo nero, or Tuscan kale. It’s the reboiling with the addition of bread that grabs all the flavors and concentrates the flavors into a thick bean stew. Lovely stuff. Nookie and Nick have a moment where they feed each other. I had to have a shower to feel clean again. 

Off to gelato land. It’s a dairy limerick of sorts and it comes down to this: Ricotta ain’t cheese. Whey’t a minute… this flummoxes the Red Team. Jenna’s fluency is not helping them much at this point, but she has annoyed everyone with her endless Italian gibberish.Nicole should not read out loud as she lacks a cadence and sounds like Keanu Reeves rehearsing for a role. Jenna is giving lessons in Florentine history, art, architecture, and sociology whether you want to hear it or not. 

Off to the Infinitis. Filippo the sunglass vendor plays a pivotal role, a yarn he will spin countless times to his grandchildren as they eat Big Macs and drink 64-ounce sugar sodas. Slow food, people. Invest in our future. 

They harvest olives by looking at the three pieces of equipment on the ground (rake, bucket, and tarp) and completely ignoreone of them. Finally, they realize what the green tarp is for, and things progress. They plod through and pant and wheeze and hopefully realize that every plate of food that they ever create as chefs has lots of unthanked and underpaid migrant labor behind it. Harvesting stuff is not the romantic Tuscan dream. It’s backbreaking work. 

Black Team wins and the exceptional ingredient is a monolingual Italian home cooking grandma. Jenna bursts into tears and we hear about her salami ring, which I would add anchovies and a cheese filled crust to… the true secrets of a successful marriage. Nonna Romanelli looks like a smooth cookin’ hobbit, and sadly her son is a food critic. She proceeds to confound all of the Black Team and they cast her aside as a hurdle that they will not be able to get over. She’s only four feet tall -- I could get over that hurdle. They should have had her just cook some stuff and watched. 

Jenna, who Gary calls Nonna-lite, is over-pronouncing things again. She’s a serial linguist and will not stop. 

Talking about the required ribollita Avery tells Nookie: “Dude, just make it today. It’s better the next day.” Truer words were never spoken when it comes to this dish. Like most bean soups, its better the next day as the beans absorb the flavors of the broth and vegetables. Apart from this sage advice it seems that though Avery has all the skills to win this thing, she is pretty homesick for her kids. I can relate. It’s hard to be away from your kids for that long. Power on, Avery -- you have what it takes. We wake up to John unbalancing the shelf. You see, the Midwest is the ballast of the country and when you disrupt that, things get loopy. The beans go a-flying and John’s heart skips a beat. 

My mind races, obviously to these wise words:

“Beans, beans, the musical fruit

The more you eat, the more you toot

The more you toot, the better you feel

So we have beans at every meal!”

Liz looks like she’s been crying a lot, even with immunity from the results of this challenge. She has promised great pasta and delivers mush. Her answer is ambivalence. No good. Gnocchi is started to fix this situation, but it definitely ain’t her chutzpah that is going to get this done. 

Nicole is making a very complex dish of meatballs that has never been Tuscan. A replay of Under the Tuscan Sun is in order. John meanwhile seems to think that the Red team’s food would kill it anywhere in the Americas, as long as it was a suburb in the Midwest. 

Diners eat Red Team’s food and they seem to be on a good track. Curtis goes into the kitchen of the Black Team to poo poo them for exiling Nonna to Elba. Why is Cat dressed like Nonna? I am so confused. Curtis blah blah blahs about how he’s cooked everywhere in the world and you have to understand the language of kitchens to succeed. Sometimes late at night I call Curtis and yell at him in my Marco Pierre White accent, just for shits and giggles. Freaks him the fuck out. Oh, but he does look beautiful in this episode. Judging time. Ribollita is not usually meaty, so I can understand Curtis’ comments about that, but it can have chicken stock. He comments to the Black team that it is a vegetarian dish and then lauds the Red Team for its authenticity even though theirs had chicken stock in it. Cue Husker Du’s Make No Sense at All. 

Black Team wins! Nicole can’t read scripts, nor can she cook Tuscan food, but she can make some meatballs. Nookie’s plan is not working on this one and he thinks that people should not be lauded for “salty balls.” 

“Regrets are a waste of time. They're the past crippling you in the present.”

That’s a line from Under the Tuscan Sun. I have no idea of its context, as I have never seen the movie, but it makes some cosmic sense here. Thanks IMDb.



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Food Reigns

Hugh Acheson is happy to see that it was all about the food in the finale.

Finale time. This worldly traveling circus has come down to the Strategist Nookie, the Relentless Avery, and Bubbly Liz. Obviously when looking at the map in a culinary voyage around the world we can’t overlook… Uruguay? In a coastal wedgie between Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay has never been on the cusp of culinary greatness, but their food has a fondness for beef, chicken cutlets, blood sausage, honeyed booze, and citrus fruits. This should be interesting, but before it all goes down, we have to go through the season's highs and lows. Though I vowed never to look at the Demon Chef ever again, there he is, dreamily hitting on Avery. Creepiest man on the planet. 

They get on the ferry from Buenos Aires to Colonia del Sacramento, across the Rio de la Plata. This is a geography lesson to you and me. I went to the handy Google maps. In the sleepy little town of Sacramento the chefs find their challenge. They must purvey at three shops and create a typical Uruguayan dish. They have two hours and a map. There is a produce store, a dry goods shop, and a butcher. No baker or candlestick maker, but you get the idea. 

Avery has some funny things she says; funny like Yogi Berra. She says “conversate”, which is kind of yokel way of sounding all smart (it’s a backformation), and then later in the show she says “time restraint.” It’s constraint. Silly Avery. But she’s a good shopper and a fine chef. 

The cheftestants shop through the sleepy little town that would be an awesome location for a modern western movie, and meet up with their regional experts on the local cuisine, Cat and Curtis. I think something must have fallen through at the last minute because I don’t think that Cat and Curtis know anything about Uruguayan food at all; I certainly didn’t until about 20 minutes ago. Evidently they love arugula down there, cause all three of the chefs make some sort of protein salad thing. And the main drag in town is named after FDR. Facts come in handy. You can use that in a trivia night sometime.They cook in a small kitchen but Liz has not purchased salt. Nookie won’t lend her any. Neither would Avery we later learn. Really? That’s crappy. I don’t roll like that. Liz, you can borrow salt from me anytime, no matter what’s on the line. 

The dishes they make are pretty basic. Nookie has chorizo from the butcher, arugula, and some onion condiment. That’s his dish. He is done way before time expires and the judges pretty much call his simple bluff, and tell him he could have done something with a bit more complexity. At this stage I would recommend pushing the parameters beyond something as simple as a PBJ sandwich. Liz makes a grilled steak with sausage, caramelized onions, and arugula. She actually cooked something and it would be a winner, but the lack of salt is an albatross around her neck. She’s kicking herself. Avery makes up a bunch of new words and cooks chicken with citrus and the ubiquitous arugula. She nails it and wins this thing. 

Now the pressure is on. Avery and Nookie have had a longstanding pact that seems pretty tight, but now she’s put in an interesting position: choose the perceived weaker opponent or follow the code of the dark side. She ditches the Nookie. Cue that Limp Bizkit song (I swore to myself that I would only mention that song in the last blog post.) 

“I can't believe that I could be deceived (but you were) 

By my so-called girl but in reality 

Had a hidden agenda 

She put my tender heart in a blender 

And still I surrendered”

Ah, the immortal words of Fred Durst, more apropos than ever. So that’s out of the way, let me be clear about something vital to our relationship… I hate that band. And off to L.A. we go. Avery and Liz will both be on home turf for this final battle. At least they are less likely to get lost while driving to Wolfgang Puck’s Red 7 restaurant. Two Infinitis and beyond!

So along the way they shop and find some discarded contestants. Avery gets Nick and Jenna. Liz gets Chaz and John. They have three hours to cook and they get surprised by their close family and friends in the kitchen. Liz’s boyfriend is dapper. Small, but dapper. Avery’s kids are cute as can be. Nookie tries to manipulate them for no apparent reason except that’s how he lives. It’s his oxygen. Did he just say that “lepers don’t change their spots”? That sounds like an Avery-ism.

Chefs galore come in to be guest eaters and voters. I know of many of them, but only really know Ben Ford. Ben is awesome. Josiah Citrin is the lauded chef of Melisse and is a badass. Many more chefs looking stylish come forward. Then we have Wolfgang Puck, one of the most iconic figures in food of our era. He’s also got an awesome personality that shines on camera. Good choice, people. 

The cooking goes pretty well and Avery bangs out a Thai salad with shrimp and coconut, then a steak with chimichurri, and then a nice-looking pannacotta thing. The judges seem to be shining to her food, though WP seems to want the salad to have a bit more oomph. Avery’s aunt drops a line from Procol Harum’s Lighter Shade of Pale. I did not see that coming. 

Liz puts up a beef salad with crisp rice, a "braised" chicken, and a puddle of creamy stuff with some fried dough resting in it. Her salad is awesome, but the other two kind of fall flat. 

The votes pour in, and it’s close, but Avery pulls it out and wins a car and the money. Liz is devastated, but she should be very proud. She made it to the final. As for Avery, she was a favorite from the beginning. She had confidence and was smart about things while she cooked great food. The latter is the more important facet for me. So food did reign supreme which was a treat.  The chefs are dizzy and probably need a little down time. I know I do. To the victor the spoils!

Follow me on the Twitter! @hughacheson

I will be blogging Top Chef Masters Season 4, which premieres next Wednesday on Bravo!

Rock on and thanks for reading.


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