By John Young
Updated August 12, 2009 at 11:09 AM EDT

Like the Subway sandwich I ate for dinner last night (depressing, I know), this week’s venture into Hell’s Kitchen was serviceable but completely forgettable. For one thing, it seemed a whole lot less Hell-ish. Gordon Ramsay waited all the way until the show’s second half to start throwing hissy fits, and even then, his Swearengenesque putdowns seemed artificially escalated. Ramsay never appeared convincingly pissed off in an “I’m ending my life and taking all of you with me” sort of a way. I’m still new to the show, as I explained last week, but I’m quickly learning that each episode’s success hinges on the authenticity of Chef Ramsay’s anger; although, alternatively, I would cherish seeing an episode in which Ramsay pretended to be a charmingly courteous Brit, á la Jim Broadbent, until the credits rolled. Nothing would freak the contestants out more than that.

So we’re down to the final dozen, and a leading candidate has yet to emerge. Right now the remaining six guys look to be in pretty good shape, with “aw shucks, I’m from Georgia” Van and “aw shucks, I’m actually nice” Jim at the top of my list. But it’s still way too early to tell, and Episode 5 didn’t really help us narrow down the list — we all knew Tek was going to be eliminated sooner rather than later.

This episode’s catch was that the contestants were going to prepare a “Welcome Home” feast for Marine Staff Sergeant Otis James, who was returning from a 13-month stint in Iraq. This is a swell idea and all, and I hope Sgt. James and his family enjoyed the experience, but didn’t the whole thing seem very 2003-ish to you? I have nothing against reality shows honoring America’s finest in Iraq, but every single reality show capitalized on that idea a few years ago, and now it feels stale.

For the first challenge, each team had to whip up one appetizer dish and two entrees, which would be tasted by James’ wife, Lytasha. Before the cooking commenced, Ramsay selected Robert and Suzanne to meet Lytasha and learn about her and her husband’s food preferences. Robert returned to the blue team, announced a general country-cooking style and helped guide his teammates’ dishes. Suzanne, on the other hand, transformed into a culinary dictator as she ordered around her teammates and scorned their suggestions. I gave Suzanne a pass last week, but I bet her “my way or the highway” approach isn’t going to be tolerated much longer by her fellow chefs. Lytasha picked the blue team as the winners (of course it came down to the last dish), and the guys hit the skies in fighter jet planes (because nothing complements fine dining like nausea-inducing nosedives). The gals got stuck with Ramsay’s wife, Tana, who orchestrated the decorations for the night’s dinner service, but mostly the chefs just practiced their Chipmunk voices by inhaling mucho helium from the balloons.

The girls have yet to win a dinner service, and in this episode, it didn’t help that the guys essentially cheated. Since the blue team won Lytasha’s vote, the entire kitchen had to cook their menu: bouillabaisse, fried catfish with collard greens and mac and cheese, and Surf ‘n’ Turf. However, the guys wouldn’t completely share their recipes with the ladies — I loved Jim’s shrug when Ariel asked him about “all those little specks” in his dish. So the red team was at a disadvantage from the start, and thanks to Tek’s inability to properly grill steaks, the blue team easily won again. In fact, the blue team managed to send all of their entrees out before the red team finished a single entree, prompting Ramsay to order the guys to assist the girls for the rest of the service. Oh, and Ramsay called the women “stupid cows,” obviously to distinguish them from those Einsteinian cows you’ve been hearing about.

Tennille annoyed me for most of the episode, but she did provide the best (unintentional) comedic timing of the night. While the women were discussing the two chefs that should be nominated for elimination, Tennille’s name came up. In response, Tennille passionately made her case while using five bleep-worthy words, and then she followed it all by… putting on ChapStick? Yes! Nothing puts the exclamation mark in a profanity rant like some good ol’ lip balm.

The red team nominated Tek and Tennille, but when Ramsay asked Tennille who she thought should be nominated instead, she selected Amanda (who almost sent out raw lobster during the service). Sir Ramsay agreed, bringing the judge’s decision to either Tek or Amanda. The latter chef started crying, prompting the only truly cold-hearted Ramsay line of the night: “I’m looking right through your eyes, and I think you’re done. I don’t see anything left.” Ouch. But Ramsay axed Tek instead, and at least she took it well, boasting, “I’m a crazy bada– girl!” You go, girl. The ads for next week’s show promised a return to classic Hell’s Kitchen shenanigans. In the clips, Tennille and Ramsay get into a yelling match, and Robert will have a medical problem that’ll send him to the hospital. There’ll be some cooking too. I think?

Until then, PopWatchers, answer me this: Do you believe the red team will get its act together anytime soon? Would you ever want to eat at one of the Hell’s Kitchen dinners knowing how many items are almost served raw or undercooked? And when was the last time you inhaled helium from a balloon? I’m nostalgically flipping through my childhood memories, and I honestly think I’ve never done it. So next week this recap will be written entirely under the influence of helium. Just kidding…or am I?

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