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

By Hugh Acheson

“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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