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See Ya, Suckers!

Hugh Acheson contemplates David Burke's titanium balls.

By Hugh Acheson

We are in the final four. Three will go to the finale. It’s been a long, strange trip for these four chefs and one constant refrain you hear from them at this point is how hard its been and that this was not the TV cakewalk they thought it would be. And “cakewalk" is a term that I have never really understood; it is frankly not that easy to dance, prance, march through hundreds of people with a cake on a pedestal… why on earth does that mean what it means? Well, whatever it means, the only person who knew what they had signed up for was Bryan because he signed up for it before. The rest of them thought it would be easy. This gets into the most popular question that I get asked when I am trying to get a coffee in the airport (obscure but true): “Is competing on the shows as stressful as it appears?” My answer is always: “It’s about ten times as hard as it appears.” Truth. It’s a challenging run. And to make it this far, these chefs are killing it. 

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And so begins the last Quickfire Challenge of this fine season. It’s a burger battle with a 30-minute clock. When, as chefs, we hear the term “elevate food” we all look at it a bit differently. Some want to completely change the playing field and make a burger cloud with french fry snow, and some would just like to use the best technique and the best ingredients to pay homage to what a burger means to them. I am of camp latter. 

Sang and I both had the same amazement when Bryan wasn’t going to make burger snow or pull out the liquid nitrogen for this little duel. He, quite conservatively, made a beef burger. A regular beef burger with a special sauce. Bryan vs. World can take many directions. 

As for the others, Douglas made an ill-conceived shrimp burger based on a McDonald’s favorite in Japan. Jenn made a smokey beef burger that looked tasty, and David made a totem pole thing with lobster and a bunch of other ingredients including burrata. Sang and I, brothers from another mother, both think David’s burger sounds disgusting, but Sang says it tastes good, so I will trust his Sang judgment. Jenn wins with El Smokey. No immunity for her though because that little gift, and thus a pass to the finale, was decided on Battle of the Sous Chefs earlier and Graeme has come through for Bryan, as if Bryan needed help in Bryan v. World. 

So Douglas, Jenn, and David are vying for the other two spots in Finale Fantasy vs. David Burke has identified the fact that Bryan and Douglas are cooking way above him, so he is setting his rational sights on Jenn to defeat. Jenn talks in peppered Esperanto as a defense system as she barrels through Whole Foods. This just confuses the healthy shoppers in yoga outfits and they cling their recycled cotton bags more closely to their chests. 

The Elimination Challenge is to cook inspiring dishes for four inspiring teachers from the L.A. unified School System. These teachers are awesome. Can we start paying them better while we are at it? 

David has “titanium balls.” Douglas told me that. I don’t know where you get those or how Douglas knows this, but from the morning ritual that I could hear through my hotel room door (Burke’s room was right next to mine), he also groans a lot. Are titanium balls heavy? He is making soufflé for 60 people and that takes chutzpah. Lots of it. 

Jenn is making lamb rack with grains and fennel and stuff. I love the oats part. Go buy some Anson Mills oats. They are the best. 

Douglas wants to make Emily really feel special so salmon, caviar, and Jell-O will be made. And roses too. The way he’s talking has me all teary-eyed. I:!....  That’s me crying. Bryan is making squid Bolognese with miso cavatelli. I heard rumors of this dish after the episode was shot. It is now the stuff of legend. 

The event gets underway, and I will make this brief as I am in travel week from hell, which will culminate with me gussied up in a tuxedo at the Emmys. I think all of the food was exemplary, and they all did great. From the judges' perspective, the only flaws seem to be undercooked lamb and maybe underdone soufflé. But this brings up an interesting point: can you win just by making no flaws? Nope, you can’t. The winning, at this point, will come from pushing the envelope and that’s what Bryan and Douglas did. Both just amazed in this challenge. Bryan wins with a dish that could have been, in anyone else’s hands, a complete and utter disaster of ill-conception, but in his mitts it’s a winner. That is skill. Don’t let it go to your head, Bryan. 

David gets the boot and comments that he is the old guy in a young game. Tru dat. But you are a leader and a gentleman. And a kick-ass chef. 


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