The Air Force! Everyone remembers the Air Force. They're those masters of the sharp, missile-taloned beasts that streak through the air like doomsday. They're the mighty lords and protectors of the very sky, swaddling themselves in clouds and flocks of birds while surreptitiously blowing things the hell up. They are also, as it turns out, just nice people who like to eat food in airplane hangars. They bring their kids and their fiances and they eat things happily and say kind things. They are not scary sky people the way you might think. They're just regular folks who happen to spend their work day barreling through the sky in a tin can made of rocket fuel. So it was sort of sad to see these everyday heroes, these kind and generous and unassuming folks, forked and poked into a glitzy Bravo reality show about vainglorious pains-in-the-ass food manipulators. Because they were forced to pretend that these drunk and braying egomaniacs were doing anything of any importance, of any impact. They're not! This is Top Chef, fools. It's utterly useless. Oh but it's fun. It's fun.
Yes there was an Air Force challenge last night and the chefs sweat and burped out all over the place. But that was when we came to the end. First, back in the beginning, there was a Quick Fire. There is always a Quick Fire! Even if it is snowing and no one can get the Top Chef buses out to pick everyone up, there is still a Quick Fire. Even if Padma has gone loping off over the western hills, following some unknown zombie call, there is still a Quick Fire. Even if Tomthumb Colicchio dies in a terrible being-bald accident, there is still a Quick Fire. The Quick Fire--this inevitable, inexorable force, like wind or Charlie Sheen--is always something grand and befitting of its noble, constant status. And the Quick Fire last night didn't disappoint: Potatoes! Yep! Nothin' fancier'n 'taters. All them Toppy Chefy contestants came all stragglin' 'n wanderin' out, hair in thistly bundles, single teeth gleamin' there in the hot desert sun. "Awwww bananas alabaster!" cried Mud-Man Zeke, "We're havin' us a regular potato-bake!" Juggy Jill slapped her knee and let out a good ol' holler.. um... holler and said "I'm going to make a gnocchi with hen of the woods mushrooms, doesn't that sound divine?" And everyone suddenly remembered who they were and where they were and we all learned an important lesson about how the mere presence of potatoes is not an excuse to suddenly act like crazed 1920s hillbillies. It should be, but it's not.
So yeah, that was the fun, wide-open Quick Fire, to just make something nice from potatoes. Your 10th grade geometry teacher, Mr. Stengel, was the guest judge. He waved awkwardly at all the chefs and chuckled shyly. They all smiled politely at him and wanted to sink into the floor. Once he'd left, though, everyone went to cooking. All the running and fricasseeing and yelling. Oh god there was so much yelling. See what had happened was that Dev Patel from Slumdog Millionaire? You remember Dev. She's the short-haired layday from the Google kitchens who never makes anything well and is just annoying? Yeah, well, what she had done was be a straight up dope and go and blanch her damn cabbage or something in some other lady's pot. This is the cooking equivalent of cheating on your wife of 50 years. You just don't it! Because it is cruel and destructive and ruins a sacred bond. Worse still, Dev put her greens in the potato pot of that lesbian with an octopus on her head who got mad about gay marriage last week. So the two lesbians we're in a fight and it was scary. Well, it wasn't really a fight. It was just Dr. Octopus shrieking and shrieking and shrieking and hurling gnocchi at everyone while Dev flagellated herself and said, over and over and over again like some sort of malfunctioning shame robot, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry." It was actually kind of beautiful, in a Lars von Trier sort of way.
After everyone had glooped their potato mashes onto plates and sprinkled parsley on them and said, weakly, "Voilaaa.... [thud]," Mr. Stengel came by and darned if he wasn't the most effusively praising of any judge in all of Top Chef history. "Oooh, I really like how that tastes terrible," he would say kindly while absentmindedly twiddling with his graphing calculator and an overheard projector. "Hey there, I think it's interesting how you made this dish literally blow goats. Yeah, that's real nice." At one point he just started gently making out with one of the cheftestants, even though their dish was "stone cold straight up inedible, but in a really inventive way." Guess who was on the bottom, again? Piercings Doodangle. That lady is destined to go home soon. It's weird though how she's sorta-successfully marketed herself as an actually top chef who just... can't get it together. Like I actually sort of believe her! I'm like "Oh, that's too bad, she's such a good chef, but things just don't come together for her." I'm such a sap. Well I was. I now know better! Piercings, you are a liar! You are going soon! Enough of your bellyaching. Padma, come eat this thing so I don't have to look at it anymore.
In the end, only one caveman made fire the quickest. It was, as we should come to expect by now, that menacing blonde lady who will one day lop off your head with a potato peeler. That lady is fierce and really upset about something. But she is a good cook! So she wins Quick Fires. That is how the world's arithmetic works. Anyway. It was on to the real challenge! An Air Force captain or something strutted in and everyone immediately snapped to and Padma purred that gargling zombie purr of hers and the challenge was this: Make food. But make a lot of it! Yes they had to cook for a bunch of airmen (ohhh how they all loved to say "airmen"! Because it made them sound professional and in-the-know. Airmen! Airmen! Airmen!) and their families. Some were deploying overseas, others were just coming back. It was a big, sturdy, grounding meal they had to make for people in the greatest kind of transition. Just one meal, sure, but still pretty heady.
Everyone divided up into teams. All the cool popular kids picked the other cool popular kids and the losers were left to sit there and shift awkwardly and chuckle. (Mr. Stengel was never a cool popular kid either.) The awful, leering Ari Gold paired up with the punk brother. Square brother wanted to be with his sibling, but alas it was not meant to be. Instead he grudgingly pointed his finger at a little fawn standing in a French wood. The fawn trembled and its eyes opened extra-wide and it said, with a lilting deerbaby pixie voice, "Meeee"? Of course what I mean to say is that Older Brother picked the little red scarf of my heart, Mattin. He's like a cartoon sailor. It's strange and alien but oddly wonderful. Other people got matched up with other people until no one was left. The scary blonde lady who probably has detailed blueprints of how to break into your house was not coupled off because she was the Executive Chef for this challenge, meaning it was her job to run around and yell at everybody. As you can guess, she handled the role with aplomb.
Everyone else sorta freaked out. See not only did they have to make huge portions of food, they had to make it in a mess kitchen. And, I guess, mess kitchens aren't much like your typical kitchen facility. All of the food was canned or in boxes, plus there were no burners. No burners! There was just this ominous big thing where everything went to cook and where, I suspect, nightmares come from. Some people chose wisely. Younger Brother made some sort of bacon lettuce-taco that was made with pork belly. Your bearded uncle from Atlanta made BBQ pork on top of potato salad that looked like scrambled eggs. These are things that people like to eat, especially people who have been to or are going to terrible places where the only food you can eat is sand and sadness. Other people made dumb things. The Zattarain's guy went and made clam chowder on a gott-damned 115 degree day. Silly. Ari Gold, though partnered with delicious pig stomach lettuce-tacos, half-assed some sort of shrimp salad that looked gross and unpleasant. Much like Ari Gold's face. He has a sneer and cackle like the Joker. Me no likey.
But worst of all were Dev and her partner, Wendy Whatchamacallit. Dev and Wendy made a red and white bowtie pasta salad that looked like something I could make. I once burned down an entire city block trying to open a can of Pringles, so that should give you some sense of my cooking ability. But yeah, throwing a bunch of ugly pasta into the Nightmancer and then, I dunno, tossing some seasonings and herbings in for good luck? I could totally do that. I mean, if I had a Nightmancer. I don't, thankfully. So it was boring and uncreative but Dev really seemed to think she'd done something marvelous. "I took cold pasta and put it in a bowl. Call me, James Beard." Things did not look good for her.
When all the soldiers, excuse me airmen, arrived, everyone wept and clapped and felt really self-congratulating and proud of themselves that they had the courage to go on a cushy reality show and be told by a bunch of people to go cook for soldiers one morning. Your uncle teared up about your great-grandfather, who apparently stormed the beaches of Normandy, all beardy and brave and glorious, not knowing that one day his grandson would grow up to live in a basement and make weird sex jokes. Edie Falco was off in a corner crying and hugging herself. At one point Ari Gold had said, about being carted off to the food hangar in your standard issue troop transport, "It's exciting! I feel like I'm going to war!" Which, you f-cking asshat, those other people there in the uniforms? They are actually going to war. So shut up and go do your silly cooking thing, you sword-toothed jackal. Anyway! The airmen were polite and gracious and said nice things about Baby Brudder's delicious hamgut lettuce-tacos. They also liked Beardy McBeardson's Beard Stew, which is actually just BBQ'd pork on a heap of potato salad that, yes again, looks like srambly aigs. (Oop sorry! I mean "scrambled eggs." Just saw a potato and started turnin' hillbilly. But it's gone now.) Then the judges made a grand entrance by crashing through the hangar roof, tangled in their parachutes, Padma hooting and keening loudly, Tom just saying "crapballs crapballs crapballs" over and over again, and Mr. Stengel telling awkward jokes about the Pythagorean theorem. They pretty much liked what everyone else liked, which was the bacon tummy lettuce-taco and BBQ eggs.
They also liked Boatman Hapgood Bobicheaux's Zattarain's!!! clam chowder, even though it was so hot that Gail Simmons just melted into a puddle of red wine and hair spray, right there on the tarmac. There was also some sort of chili that the judges liked, but who cares, because we all knew who was going to win. Younger Brother pulled it out and got a solid gold protractor from Mr. Stengel for his pigglywiggly crapfactory lettuce-tacos. Your uncle cursed and threw his scrambled potato eggs in the judges' faces and stormed fartily off back to his cool, dark basement, like a fat spider having a bad day. Ari Gold thought he was safe because his partner had won his damn dish, but no! No no no. Tom haaaated that scrimps deluxe. And he haaaated Dev and Wendy Whatchamacallit's "Sad Lady Sitting on a Porch By Herself Weeping Has-No-Friends Pasta Salad Surprise" (they'll need to shorten that name for the cookbook). Ari was royally pissed. Wendy was resigned. Dev didn't really get it. And back in the cubbyhole, Piercings Doherty was just glad that she hadn't once again expertly and with great precision culinaried her way into the bottom.
At the Judges' Table, Mr. Stengel laboriously explained y = mx + b to everyone and Padma said a sort prayer for Gail Simmons, the sad sticky pile of her placed on the empty chair. Ari actually like sort of apologized for making a major boner. Wendy just sighed and said "I have no friends..." and Dev got obstinate. Obstinate! She insulted old Hapgood Bobicheaux's delicious clam chowder. Tom raised his hairless forehead ominously and basically snapped his fingers in a Z and said "Oh helll no, sister." Heh. Actually he said, "Well, yeah, but at least it tasted good." And Dev just made some sort of grumble with her face and you knew it, right then like a stab, that she would be going home.
Sure enough, there she went. Padma clapped her hands and two leather-clad guards (you could totally tell it was just Your Uncle and Piercings, because their beards and face-beads were poking out of the masks) dragged her kicking and screaming away. That was that. Done was done. And above their heads soared and screamed the mighty airmen, smoke glowing blue and red and hazy white, the sun glinting off of metal and glass, the ground a thin smear of faraway people and places. Dev shuffled off to the rumbling van to go home. Just before she stepped in and puttered away forever, she stopped and stood and looked at her feet.
There they were, low on the asphalt. Rooted and dumb. Feet made for cooking. She wept, knowing she would never fly. She wept, thinking she'd just go home and Google herself.