No! NOOOOOOOO! The wind got knocked out of many of us, I'm sure, when that camera slowly, elegantly, perfectly panned and zoomed in on Steph's pork belly that got left out of the fridge. Owwwwwwwch. An honest mistake; we've all done it, we've seen it on this show before. But also the kind of mistake that almost always destroys; more damaging for throwing a chef off her game even than for weakening that chef's planned menu for the judges. Obviously, excruciatingly bad timing. I felt really bad for Stephanie and, and worse for Dale.
And by the way, either the Elves re-shot the chefs' exit from the kitchen in order to capture that perfect picture of the forlorn belly's inexorable march toward bacteria-palooza or there is a cameraperson who deserves a cocktail and a fat raise. Actually, regardless, I think they all do.
Just as good for the drama factor, though: Not only does Steph's team (through no fault of her own) give us this jaw-dropping mistake; Steph and Dale then manage to power together through the adversity to produce a dinner that lands in the top two and pleases judges and partygoers alike. That, friends, is hot. That's keeping it together when something's gone deeply wrong, and turning it out. That is being a pro. That's why, even though it was Dale's mistake that caused this problem, Steph was so right to choose him. Together, under her calm leadership, they showed us a remarkable recovery.
For some reason, our chefs arrived in Puerto Rico looking considerably more relaxed and happy than I remembered from the regular season -- go figure. Stephanie mentioned her travels in Asia, Antonia, her new restaurant. Lisa arrived with a new haircut and a "Kosher" t-shirt she would soon wish she had saved to wear for the Elimination Challenge; and, whaddya know, the editors allowed her a smile or two. But the peace, love, and puppies was not to last; the writing was on the wall when an interviewer got Richard to say he didn't think anybody expected Lisa to be in the finals. (True, but not the nicest thing to say.)
I will say that I thought it was very smart of Lisa to begin her Quickfire shopping by checking to see what proteins were available, while the others dove into a huge pile of readily available plantains. In a little, beachside kitchen, I would be suspicious about quality in the shellfish department. I was also impressed that everybody did a little homework on the local flavors, as you should. But I completely share Richard's philosophy that it's foolish to play someone else's game; that trying to wow Puerto Rican chefs with your mastery of tostones will never work. You need to have some knowledge, make some references, use some local ingredients -- but cook your own food.
This sagely quotation of Richard's should be tattooed on the hearts of every incoming contestant on the show: "The goal is to bend each challenge to your strength, not to totally change your style to the challenge."
He also showed once again his strength in so quickly conceptualizing the show he was planning to put on; right away, he's telling Spike, "Head to Tail."
But, once again, it was Andrew who gave us the most quotable quote, as he attempted pidgin Español in the market. Most of what he said was hilarious, but my favorite line was, "You have una mas plastico?"
When the chefs are doing what they do best -- even in that tiny, hot kitchen -- it is so fun to watch them and share the camaraderie. See both Jewish Lesbian and Astro-Boy struggle equally to butcher 60-pound pigs! (Side note: There is a class on pig butchering at the fabulous culinary shop Brooklyn Kitchen in Williamsburg that has sold out five times since its launch just a few months ago. I'm telling you, pig is big!)
Of course, the warm fuzzies had to be doused with drama; I so wish Lisa hadn't whined that Richard and Stephanie didn't congratulate her. I understand that she might feel that way, but there are other factors at play, too; shock at losing Antonia, realizing that there's only one more battle, realizing that, chances are, it was probably gonna come down to Richard vs. Stephanie. To say nothing of being hot, tired, and dazed.
It also was not fun to lose Antonia. I have deeply admired her class, her strength, her work ethic, and her skills throughout this contest, and I was sad to see her fall. "My entire heart was invested in this," she said, and you could taste it in her food.
You could also hear it in her voice, when she whispered to Stephanie, "Kick their ass!"
I'm hitting the summer festival circuit again for Robert Mondavi Winery; look me up in San Fran this weekend for cooking demos, wine-pairing ideas, and, of course, tastings! Dates and times at www.tedallen.net.