Star Challenge: Chopped Desserts
Even with this special 1.5 hour episode, there's no time to spare, so the FNS contestants are given their star challenge straight away with the ominous entrance of Scott Conant, Alex Guarnaschelli and Marc Murphy - the judges of Chopped, "the one show that scares the daylights out of me," according to Josh.
Again, going with my impression that these contestants have been pushed beyond their capacity this season, I'm not sure they're ready for this challenge. Not only will they have to cook a dish in 30 minutes using four mystery ingredients, but that dish is also a dessert (aka most chefs' worst nightmare) AND they'll be competing against their teammates for the first time. Oh, also, there will be no winning team this time, meaning there will be three contestants up for elimination. Like the finalists, I'm feeling pretty scared.
Team Alton: Hershey's Kisses, Pancetta, Graham Crackers and Kumquats (or, "the inverse of Christmas")
Alton's team of eccentric misfits appropriately provide the judging panel (the Chopped judges plus Susie, Bob, Bobby, Giada and Alton) something "much more bizarre" than anything Scott has seen on Chopped before. First of all, Martie (whose insecure remarks about her age will almost surely put her in danger this week) takes forever to plate her indoor s'mores, bringing multiple judges to scream at her up to the last second ("Please plate! Please plate!") Then there's Emily, who puzzles the Chopped judges by describing her dish as "a chocolate fried pancetta delight."
But it's mostly Justin who is the source of bewilderment and fear. The culinary whiz kid melts the Hershey's kisses with their foil wrappers on, melts them in the microwave and smokes up the kitchen by burning most of his pancetta - all in the name of saving time. He finishes by using a towel to whip off the excess powdered sugar on his mysterious cookies, solidifying the fact he is the weirdest contestant on the show.
Before their presentations, the contestants are given a good pep talk by Alton and reminded to include a culinary tip in their one-minute talks.
Emily: Her chocolate cupcakes with salted pancetta tossed in a graham cracker crust please the judges and Bob likes her bright, optimistic and fun attitude.
Martie: Still unable to control her rambling, she pushes Alton over the edge with her apologies for her age. Plus, Mark says her s'mores could have been made in 15 minutes.
Justin: As a "culinary ombudsman," Justin spins an impressive tale behind his mashed together no-bake cookies that magically came together into "a winner." Bob is fascinated by Justin and proclaims he and Alton are two peas in a pod.
Judson: His chocolate-infused cornbread cake was unfortunately under-baked, but his presentation was given without of a hint of last week's motivational speaker.
Team Giada: Reeses Pieces, Popcorn, Coconut Flakes and Grape Soda (or, "the torture basket")
Ippy, who has been the strongest of Team Giada, is finally put in a situation where his laid-back Hawaiian temperament will be a hindrance. But after calling the Chopped judges mean and vicious-looking, he gets to work on his Reeses coconut mango tempura. Martita, Linkie, Yvan and Josh have all struggled in some way the first two weeks, but they seem to be handling the Chopped challenge relatively well in the kitchen. Yvan has apparently been on Chopped before and knows to focus on one ingredient, while Josh starts off with an interesting Ableskiver (like a Danish donut hole), but then suddenly starts adding 20 other elements to his dish.
Ippy: Despite lacking the urgency to plate well, Ippy's flavors are impressive and his presentation and culinary tip are informative.
Martita: While the flavors of her Bunuelos were good, she came across as tentative and nervous, taking a step backwards from the vivacious persona she's shown before. She was so nervous she forgot her tip - a major disadvantage.
Linkie: The bubbly cook offers the most seamless tip of the day so far and her PB&J-kissed chocolate mousse is deemed wonderfully delicate.
Yvan: His caramel popcorn (one of his three part dish) is "fantastic," but Bobby thinks he had low energy in his presentation. Bob believes Yvan has to stop thinking of himself as inferior and believe he has star quality himself.
Josh: Josh's presentation is like his Asian-inspired/Danish pastry - a wealth of influences and ideas shoved into one minute/dish. Bob believes there's an interesting culinary POV there, but all the complication is getting in the way.
Team Bobby: Hershey's Milk Chocolate Bars, Pineapple, Pasta Sheets and Black Lava Salt (or... no problem!)
From the start it's obvious Team Bobby approaches their challenge differently. There doesn't seem to be any bemoaning of the ingredients, and the four teammates, despite competing against one another, have a spirit of camaraderie that Chopped judge Alex distrusts. Eric predictably focuses in on creating his hand-crafted chocolate and caramel sauces and Malcolm finds inspiration from his mom for his pineapple flambe. The only hiccup seems to be Michele, who is freaked out by Giada's eyes constantly watching her from the judging table.
Michele: Usually at ease in front of others, Michele stumbles while describing her free-formed Napoleon. Bob and Susie are desperate for the old Michele and finally she admits it's Giada's fault, causing the Food Network star to awkwardly laugh in response.
Malcolm: His sugar soft-fried pasta, pineapple flambe and chipotle chocolate sauce provide really exciting flavors, but, like Michele, they feel his energy has regressed.
Eric: Alex loves his coconut-based caramel sauce and Bob thought it was so delicious his plate has been scraped clean.
Nikki: Alex felt lost, food-wise from Nikki's tropical bread pudding and the network feels she comes across very scripted and needs to relax more.
Producer's Challenge: Grilling Without an Outdoor Grill
Though no team wins this week, the network still gives props to Team Alton for excelling overall. The bottom three are announced as Martie, Josh and Nikki, who must come up with a grilled dish without the use of an outdoor grill. This challenge falls right in line with Nikki's POV ("Girl on Grill" is her proposed show), so she feels very confident. Josh once again tries to tie his Scandinavian roots with Asian cuisine with his loose meatball, and Martie decides to do a tequila lime marinated tuna, but seems to flail in her confidence as the challenge goes on.
The Pitch Room
Martie's presentation is adorable and she's praised for being able to talk to the camera like it's her best friend, but she didn't provide any food information and the network questions whether she has the culinary chops to match her on-camera persona after tasting her lackluster tuna. Josh started off his segment strong but can't recover from a stumble in the middle. His dish packs in big flavor and he gets points for his ambitiousness. Nikki moves Bob to completely change his opinion of her and he now views her as a serious contender in the competition. She is clearly safe, so she and Bobby can leave the Pitch Room.
Between Josh and Martie, it seems to come down to the perennial FNS question: cooking expertise or on-camera ability? Josh wins in the former, but Martie is clearly better in the latter. Ultimately, the network decides to let Josh go, but I'm wondering if the fact that Bobby and Alton already have eliminated contestants had a part in the decision. But Josh is thankful and seems to have learned a lot in his short time on the show, so there are no tears this time around!
(Image courtesy of Food Network)