Watching two hours of Hell’s Kitchen per week makes me dizzy. And not because we’re experiencing twice as many Chef Ramsay freakouts. If anything, this season has witnessed the arrival of a kinder Gordo, a gentler Gordo, a Lots-O-Huggin’ Gordo who smells of strawberries when he wishes you farewell on your journey through life. No, I feel dizzy because watching back-to-back episodes convinces me that I am losing grip on reality. Because I have absolutely no idea at any time whether a contestant is a great chef or a terrible chef.
Last night, two chefs who have been non-entities at best were suddenly revealed as legitimate contenders. Meanwhile, the two most talented chefs stumbled, stammered, imploded, exploded, and generally acted like caveman fifth-graders. (Also, maybe I’m hallucinating, but I could swear that Jay said, “Jason has no talent in the kitchen” about three seconds before he said “Jason is a very talented chef.” Well, which is it, Man-With-Blue-Hair?) I can understand when characters in a scripted show act differently from one week to the next, but when that happens on a reality show, the only response is to curl up into the fetal position and chant “Life is Chaos, Life is Chaos” until the spinning stops. Such existential uncertainty makes it hard to analyze the field of remaining contestants, but we’re at the halfway point of the season now, so perhaps we should take a few moments to survey those who remain.
First, though, a brief requiem for the dearly departed:
There’s a character who appears in the director’s cut of The Return of the King called the Mouth of Sauron. He’s basically a giant mouth with grimy teeth who says nasty things, hurts everyone’s feelings, and then gets his head chopped off. And so, I give you Fran, who successfully talked herself back from the edge of elimination about a billion times. Not because she ever convinced Gordo she was a good chef: This is the lady who didn’t know how to cook chicken, which is something they teach in kindergarten Math. No, she stayed for so long purely because all her talking confused Gordo’s headbrain. Last night, he finally cleared the brain fog and sent her packing.
This season’s biggest disappointment. There was a brief moment when it looked like Nilka would seize control of Team Red…but something went wrong. She lost focus when she was under the gun. So confident in the dorms, she looked confused in the kitchen. By last night, Nilka’s outlook had taken a pretty severe turn to general nihilism. When she wasn’t cursing out her own teammates, she was descending into Confessional Madness: “Yes, Chef! Yes, Chef! I say it so often, I can’t say it anymore!” she laughed, sounding like a madwoman.
Gordo tried to talk some sense into her, but by the lobster dinner, everything she cooked was “Raw! Raw! Rawwww!” (Or, in Chef Ramsay’s accent, “Roawr! Rowr! Rooooooowwra!”) She received the most ignoble exit all season: kicked off right in the middle of dinner time, left pleading in the dorms. Okay, and then Kindly Uncle Gordo gave her a hug and sent her off to college. Still, this was sad stuff for someone who looked like a legitimate contender about three minutes ago.
Now, let’s look at the remaining contestants, in reverse order of their likelihood of running Gordo’s Savoy restaurant. Since these odds can be completely upended depending on how the wind blows, and since Gordon Ramsay doesn’t care about rules, and since the Savoy hotel is still under construction, I should note that all of these numbers are essentially imaginary.
Captain Awesome: 20-1
Ed and Holli have both spent most of this season doing solid cooking. Or anyways, they’ve managed to stay outside of Cruel Doctor Gordo’s line of sight while more obnoxiously terrible contestants fell victim to his Terror-Glare. Unfortunately, Ed is choosing the worst possible moment to drop the ball. First, he grilled his lobster claws into something resembling rubber. Then he started a few fires underneath his pans and burnt Chef Ramsay’s beloved asparagus dry. “Have a bit of f—ing finesse,” said Gordo. For a hot second, it looked like that lack of finesse would send him home. At the last elimination, Gordo called his name. Ed looked surprised and scared. Then Gordo said he was in the top six. Ed looked surprised and scared. Even when he’s drunk in a hot tub, Ed always looks surprised and scared. That won’t cut it at the Savoy.
I’m predisposed to liking Jason, if only because he’s emerged as this season’s Magical Quote Fountain. See Jason on his excitement about going to Sea World: “Slap five with the whales! Holler at the seals! Say hi to my people in the water!” Or how about when he said, “I ain’t tryin’ to say I’m Jay-Z in the kitchen.” Viewers, that’s his third Hova shout-out of the season.
After some of his struggles early in the season, and especially after Blue Jay has spent half the season sliming Jason in the Confessional, this guy’s recent emergence as one of Gordo’s favorites feels gratifying. But something tells me he’s just one minor misstep away from getting back on the Chef’s bad side. Now that Fran’s gone, he’s also the contestant most likely to yell right back in Gordo’s face. And that will not be tolerated. Gordo’s like a Greek god: he loves it when you worship him, but don’t pretend to be on his level.
Holli is a conundrum. Roughly every four episodes, she’ll play the role of a vampy reality show vixen, making wink-wink eyes at every male authority figure in the room. (Last night, she tried flirting with Abe Froman, the Caviar King of Los Angeles.) The music will get bouncy, the camera will linger on meaningful glances, and Blue Jay will say something skeevy in the Confessional. (Last night, it was “Holli could easily talk my pants right off.” Sounds like a fascinating conversation.) And then, like nothing ever happened, Holli will disappear into the background and deliver fair-to-spectacular food.
If Hell’s Kitchen were a slightly worse show – a low-cost VH1 joint, say, with a drunken hot-tub scene every episode – Holli would be a more interesting contestant. As it is, she seems to be finding her groove at just the right time. Of course, her big moment in the sun basically just came down to the fact that, while the rest of her team was descending into backbiting self-laceration, she was quietly churning out a splendid array of desserts. Rewarding her for that effort feels a little bit like giving the relief pitcher an MVP trophy just because he held the score at 27-3. But hey, everybody loves Mariano Rivera.
There are only two possible explanations why Autumn is still in this game. One is that everything we know is wrong: god is dead, science is a communist plot, black is white, and purple rhymes with orange. The second explanation is that Generalissimo Gordo decided on the first night of competition that he saw something he liked in Autumn, and so he’d keep her in the game even if he had to bend over backwards and forwards to do so.
Consider: in the first hour last night, Autumn had a bad night. Her food was raw, RAWWWRR! Gordo forced her to apologize to the dinner guests. Then he chastised her, “You’re so casual.” “I’m not casual!” she argued lamely. Her team sent her up for elimination next to Fran. Fran: “My team never communicates! Shut up, Nilka!” Autumn: “I don’t think I was so terrible tonight, Chef! I believe in belief!” Gordo had such a pained look on his face, and he threatened to throw them both out…but instead he just threw out Fran, and switched Autumn back to her old Red Team.
Now, here’s where reality starts twisting: In the second hour, her old team welcomed her back with hugs and open arms. (Mind you, this is the same team that was absolutely sick of her a few days ago. Are these people suffering from extreme sleep deprivation? Does Gordo slip them “Forget-Me-Now” pills every morning?) She proceeded to make a plate of lobster stir fry that resembled a Big Box of Crayons after five hours in an oven. She made Jason’s tank-sized Lobster platter look subtle by comparison. Then she made a dessert that appeared to be misshapen strawberries in a cocktail glass. Admiral Gordo declared it to be the very worst thing he had ever seen, ever.
Naturally, she was back in the elimination circle by episode’s end. It was Autumn vs. Ed, and there was no way it was going to be Ed, right? Jango! It was nobody! Coach Gordo changed the rules yet again, and welcomed Autumn in the final six. I think at this point she might be invincible.
Jay & Benjamin: 2-1
I’m not trying to cheat here. I genuinely think that both of these chefs will win it all. I envision Chef Ramsay in the season finale, staring at his two final contestants. “The winner of Hell’s Kitchen…” he says, looking back and forth from Jay to Benjamin. “Is…” he continues, as the music plays on the soundtrack and doves take flight in the background. “Going to be…” he says, as the camera skips to a close-up on Benjamin’s sweating brow and Jay’s sweating jowls. COMMERCIAL BREAK! And then that all repeats after the commercial break, and finally, Gordo says, “Both of you!” Yes, in a patented bit of Ramsay rule-breaking bravado, he’s going to crown two victors this season.
Consider: for all the back-and-forth between Benjamin and Jay, the two of them haven’t been quite as strong since they joined different teams. You could see the problem in the first dinner challenge, when Chef Ramsay tasked his teams with building their own menu. Benjamin had big artistic dreams, declaring that his hapless Team Redmates would have to learn how to cook elaborate cuisine. (He also memorably declared that rice was “poor food.”) We were set up to think that Jay had the better idea: Over in the Blue corner, he was espousing the gospel of simplicity, building a menu out of pasta, spinach salad, and all the other food you loved when you were 12.
Benjamin’s big-dream menu didn’t go over well with Gordo, who thought the presentation was bland at best. But Jay’s uninspired food went over even worse. Upon eating the baby spinach salad, Gordo exclaimed, “If I was a f—ing rabbit, I’d be f—ing wetting myself.” (Viewers, am I the only one who thought this was a compliment at first?) For all of his bluster about keeping things basic, Gordo likes people who dream big food dreams.
It doesn’t help matters that, left on their own, both Benjamin and Jay are much easier to hate. Pretty much everyone on the Red Team thought Benjamin was a narcissistic know-it-all, while Blue Jay had a bad tendency to badmouth every single one of his teammates. Together, they’d form one hell of a team: leave Jay to wield the soft touch of authority, while Benjamin assumes the greater artistic responsibilities of the cuisine.
Lest you think I’m just hedging my bets, I’m going to go one step further and say that, if Gordo doesn’t opt for the Duogarchy, Benjamin will probably win it all. Unless, that is, there’s a late challenge from a fallen contender…
Salvatore the Lobster: Even Money
As Salvatore awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed into a gigantic lobster. He screamed something in inscrutable Italian, but only Mad Doctor Gordo could hear his cries. In Lobster form, Salvatore finally managed to be a part of at least one good dish, although true to form he ended up losing things for the Blue Team.
What are your thoughts at the halfway point, HK fans? Who’s your pick to win it all? Do you think Autumn will stage her tenth comeback of the season? Was Nilka’s exit the worst elimination ever? Will those poor dinner guests ever make it to the theatre? And speaking of dinner guests, I didn’t realize that Mr. Creosote was a regular at Hell’s Kitchen!