When last night's "Top Chef:Texas" neared its end, a bit of my soul went with it.
I was stunned, shocked, fairly nauseated, and, I confess, I still am. Had the milk of human kindness not run so woefully dry, as it did in this hourlong third episode, I would have dived right in. So would I be stomping down my pain instead with peanut butter and jelly, and a lot of it, or crying and dialing?
But all there was for me was to weep, and weep I did.
Still, no amount of tears could change things, or wash away the pain, as I would be contractually obligated to declare if I were a Texas country singer. And though nothing changed from the time Bravo rolled the ending credits, and I cried myself to sleep, until now, I felt renewed.
Fairly soggy, like Keith Rhodes's enchilada -- or was it a burrito? (and more on that particular circle of Hell later) -- but nothing I couldn't live through.
First, we must rustle up some rattlesnake.
Sound good to you? Me, either. But rules are rules, and "Top Chef" has rules by the dozen. So, off to the rattlesnake den we go.
Bravo must have secured a good deal on snakes, because "Top Chef" is not alone lately in showing off Animal Planet programs call the "nearly silent killer." Can't forget that rattle. Or the nearby Alamo.
Aside from the cast regulars, "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" featured a python the other week at Mohamed's engagement party for Pandora Vanderpump, his recently declared goddaughter. Taylor Armstrong shrieked when she got out of the limo and was greeted by it.
(Translation: Aspiring "Housewives" are auditioning for roles in the cast. Dana Wilkey is selling the role of her Thai-speaking toddler for $26,000, to replace him with a new pair of sunglasses (Beverly Hills -- chi, chi, chi, chi!) and a python. The camera adores pythons; it merely tolerates little boys, and then only when they're peeing on somebody's lawn.
Mohamed decided it would be better to have a real python instead of the phony Russell Armstrong at his party, a party to show off Mohamed's engagement with himself, showcased as "The Real Beverly Hills," one who deserves a full show about himself every Monday night. He has no idea who Pandora Vanderpump is. Taylor Armstrong, however, after pretending to dispatch her chauffeur elsewhere, handed the limo driver for hire $20 she borrowed from her landlord, instantly knew the welcoming python as one of her own.)
San Antonio has snakes of its own beckoning. An entire roomful of snakes -- in boxes, tanks, terrariums -- awaiting the 16 contestants.
This is not a cheering sight.
It's the Quickfire Challenge, both quick (one hour total) and challenging (preparing rattlesnake).
"I was getting a little nervous," Keith Rhodes, owner and executive chef of a seafood restaurant, Catch, in North Carolina, said. "'Cause I don't like snakes."
Who does? But Big Keith -- "Top Chef"'s "South Park" Chef -- nervous?
How nervous could a snake make him after spending time, doing time, with real-life snakes in prison?
Nervous enough to lose.
I was excited, perhaps as excited as a hungry snake eyeing a plump baby bluebird, its mother away -- just for a moment, just long enough to pluck a few juicy worms from the good, warm earth for her baby -- just long enough for a sly, slick snake to lunge, piercing the baby bird's sweet chest, the baby terrified, his heart beating madly, but with hope, with love: "Mommy..."
Each snake was packed in its own box, ready for each of the 16 remaining contestants to open the boxes. The contestants could plunge right in, taking a deep breath, squeezing their eyes shuts and sticking in one hand, two, to grab, to pull, to untangle or to yank out his very own personal rattlesnake out.
Did Edward Lee's hand, sliced and bleeding last week, just tremble?
Maybe the snakes would leap out, a reversal of the old jar of peanuts trick. Or maybe they would languidly -- or swiftly, you could never know -- uncoil as the box was opened, gingerly, and then spring -- flying out, fangs first.
An entertaining 10 minutes would follow, with snake-wrangling and Indiana Jones terror, screams waking the dead along with the saints at the Alamo.
First, a moment of relieved, nervous laughter. Giggling.
Thank God, they're dead, the contestants, each and every one, thought.
And I thought, and I said out loud, damn, and damn again.
The snakes are dead. Already skinned.
Two weeks ago on this ninth-season premiere, Tyler Stone, a 22 year old from Sacramento, Calif., whose confidence rolled right into arrogance, was cut early for his inept butchery.
Making Sweeney Todd look like a Johns Hopkins surgeon, this personal chef to numerous unnamed "celebrities and politicians" (unnamed, presumably, because the innate, nearly overwhelming shyness of celebrities and politicians keeps them flying well under the radar), Tyler's hack job left his little piggy far littler for his trouble, a little too appealing, perhaps, for vegans and kosher Jews.
Having spent three weeks now in the "Top Chef" mode, I fully appreciate that the judges instruct the axed contestants to pack their knives, please, please, please and please. And leave. Now. Please.
Not that this crowd needs knives to do its dirtiest; I've seen enough bad behavior so far to make all "The Real Housewives" shows seem like bowdlerized versions of "Sister Act," and I would not like to be on anyone's bad side, whether as a fellow chef or a customer.
Though the 29 contestants arrived in San Antonio all aglow, all good-humored, we are the world, go-team-go, in just three hours they've flung aside all pretense of collegiality, much less fair play.
Not only was the judge Tom Colicchio visibly annoyed by Tyler Stone and his hack job, but he was also unamused by the way he brushed off his shortcomings by using them to turning them around to smack his critics, belittling the task, and with that, belittling his taskmasters.
Saying things like he does not need to stoop so low as to do any actual workingman's butchery because he pays someone else to do the grunt work.
Tyler alienated not only the "Top Chef" judge, but also the other contestants, and in his short time on earth he has already alienated Sacramento's food circles and, dare I say, the world at large. And not because they're burning with envy.
Tyler's personal chefdom for politicians and celebrities includes Joe and Gavin Maloof. Know who they are?
I didn't think so.
They're brothers of Adrienne Maloof, one of the countless pseudo-stars of reality TV, "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills." The Maloof family owns the Sacramento Kings, among other people, including musicians and skateboarders, and though their wealth is vast, their taste is just like their sister's: casino royale rococo; they own the Palms Casino Resort.
The judges ordered a swift here's your knife, what's your hurry to Tyler, who went home and told the world via Facebook that it was his tools, his tools and not his talent (or lack thereof), that did him in.
Dealing with an actual reptile, not just a reptilian personality, Dakota Weiss grabbed her snake, and showed it who was boss. "I'm making a rattlesnake fritter," she said.
Better you than me, I said.
"It's new to me, and I'm freaking out about it," she said.
But the judges -- Padma Lakshmi, who said "motherfucking" -- twice -- blame it on the snakes; Tom Colicchio; Hugh Acheson, ringer for Ty Burrell's Phil Dunphy www.youtube.com/watch?v=V_CmBsi17_0
on ABC's "Modern Family" -- loved it.
- Dakota Weiss won $5,000, and immunity in the Elimination Challenge. With the $5,000, she can buy a jungle full of snakes. And offer Tyler Stone a job butchering them. And then laugh.
Dakota is imaginative, in just the right ways. She's proving her resilience, which is streamlined with a charming sense of happiness and professionalism.
Just from the simple fact of her name, a great deal is revealed.
Dakota is 35, born in the mid-1970's, a good two and a half decades before naming children after places -- a trend that first tickled the imagination of America's second wave of hippie parents turned slick and arty.
Dakota's surname is Weiss, which would stop most parents in their tracks from taking such a risk: the child could be mercilessly ridiculed or be strong. Not quite Johnny Cash's "Boy Named Sue" theory, but close enough.
Dakota didn't let them down. She personified and rose above her potentially clunky name, turning it as elegant as she is.
Most important, for the birthday girl, Dakota Weiss made it about her day. Because it is.
Great big cake?
Great big pink and blue cake, coming right up. (But the recipe was right off the box. But still.)
"I couldn't be happier," Blanca says.
I'm learning from watching "Top Chef: Texas" that it's largely about the accessories -- the edible equivalent of Dana Wilkey's sunglasses, belts, gloves being so delicious (or expensive, in her case) that you barely notice the big clumpy thing they adorn.
Dana's the pig, say, in Bobbi Brown lipstick. But here I see I cannot simplify this, as Johnny Hernandez already barked at the Texan chef Paul, who treated the (supposedly delicate, and I will never willingly know) snake just like any old meat.
As if it the shredded piece of rattlesnake were a delectable barbecued shredded He popped a piece in his mouth as if it were pork. Which it might as well have been, and that, I see,
While to me the barbecue spices and South East Asian flavors tasted delicious in my mind's tastebuds, to the judges, this was cheating and taking the lazy way, the easy way out.
After losing the snake fight, Keith Rhodes continued his downward slide.
Next, he found himself on the Pink Team, and that's where it all went seriously bad, very, very bad.
Put yourself in the minds, if you dare, of the dopiest crooks on earth in "Reservoir Dogs," and remember who wanted to be Mr. Pink.
Everybody wants to be Mr. Black, as Quentin Tarantino's usual suspects agreed.
The moment Keith drew a pink-handled knife consigning him to the Pink Team was the moment he undoubtedly yearned for the time when the day was new, and everything was simple and reptilian again.
With the Elimination Challenge, the eliminated was about to hit the fan, as the Pink Team members began revealing their true, and truly nauseating, colors.
The occasion was Blanca Flores's quinceañera, the Mexican version of a Sweet Sixteen for 15 year olds. Blanca's birthday was the very next day.
And who is this Blanca Flores?
"A rock star, perhaps?" guessed Edward Lee.
No, no, no! Just a girl dreaming of a big party, with friends, family and TV food and cake.
Blanca's party; Keith's wake.
It all came down to shrimp.
(Oh, the shrimp! Or swimps, as my career criminal father's swampy grifter wife calls them, using her erster logic. And that is: Try to con the world into believing you are the high-class, fancy-dancy lady you wish you were by pronouncing your words the way that rich people do. Hence, swimps.
What? That's not the way rich people, or English-as-a-second-language people or any people at all with a smidgen of education say shrimp?
So this was not the way that Brooke Astor said it through all those many years, flipping her never-touched-dirt pinky skyward, ordering fishy snacks? Did she not glide down her banister, trilling her r's and and reciting the price tag amounts on all her 2X elastic-waist-banded saggy, baggy in the rump turquoise "slacks"?
What a shock that will be to fat Ola!
No doubt Ola is piling a plate high with lard now, topping it with swimps and ersters. Such hard work eating fancy, like them rich folk do! Living high on the hog, and Ola's the hog. A much larger version.)
Which takes us back to Keith Rhodes.
Suddenly, this chef, one of the older contestants at 39, who seemed destined for a straight-up win -- a feature article about him in Food and Wine magazine; a showcase at the annual Food and Wine Classic in Aspen; $125,000 from Healthy Choice; and the title Top Chef -- broke my heart, shattering my faith, kicking the pieces to the Hell I was positive I'd entered and would never be able to leave.
He'd paid his dues in every way. While the other chefs were off fluffing up puff pastries, he had been doing hard time, and not by grilling chicken under a brick.
He'd made, he said, poor choices. He sold drugs, and was caught. He went to prison, and it saved his life. In the prison kitchen, Keith cooked his way to a new life, as owner and executive chef of Catch, his seafood restaurant in Wilmington, N.C., easa scowning a seafood restaurant, Catch, a new world.
And here he was in San Antonio.
Seemingly in Keith's favor to win, too, was his race. He's black; a minority among chefs.
What judge wouldn't love a hard luck rags to riches tale with a happy ending?
But Keith's supposed teammates on the Pink Team did him in.
With a lot of help from himself.
And the shrimp. He went for pre-cooked, for price and to speed its preparation. A bad move, all the way around.
Sensing that he was cutting corners dangerously, Keith began forcing his teammates to accept responsibility, one by one, so if the time came, as it did, he could move right along into the blame game.
The other Pink Team members were not blameless; they played their own games. As Keith informed them of his plans -- I'm buying pre-cooked shrimp; it's cheaper than fresh; it's quicker and easier to prepare -- he made sure they heard, said something, or nothing, and implicated themselves.
"I'm gonna get the cooked shrimp," Keith announced, leading his hostages into captivity. Chris Crary, 29, of the Whist Restaurant in the Viceroy Hotel in Los Angeles, happened to be standing nearby, ready to be led, as was Ty-Lör Boring, 34 (now living in Brooklyn and not in Kansas anymore), whose styling and punctuation are all that his surname promises, and less.
And he is more annoying than Tyler (note spelling) Stone, in large part because he is a dozen years older, and should know better.
As distracted as we all are right now by this distressing picture of a Ty-Lör Boring I've never seen on "Top Chef" (the one we get, and I say, thank you, God, for that, is shy and skittish, not at all like the predatorial sleaze pictured here), Chris is probably even more preoccupied with Padma Lakshmi, the host and judge for whom, he declared, he was giving his all to stay in the competition.
"Whatever," Chris replied offhandedly.
Accountability accomplished, in the sleaziest way.
But don't feel sorry for Chris. What he does later is worse.
Back at the studio, "The kitchen is like an explosion of body parts," Chris notes, and I worry for Edward Lee's hand, "and pans and pots."
Lindsay Autry, 29, a Swoosie Kurtz with anemia, who works in West Palm Beach, Fla., has been sneakily trying to turn herself into the Pink Team's leader, a Jack Sprat to Sarah Grueneberg, also 29, but Lindsay's opposite, with Spiaggia in Chicago.
"There's an underlying tension between Keith, Lindsay and Sarah," says Nyesha Arrington, 28, of the Wilshire in Los Angeles. All the way through, Nyesha's energy has been focused on her food, not on the personalities around her, and she is doing a consistently fine job.
With her keen intelligence, Nyesha observes everything around her without distracting her. from perceiveblot everything out but the food, the way many chefs work, s The judges respect her in turn, and she has won praise at every turn.
Keith turns on Sarah, who loves to drive the bus, he charges, wanting to run the show, but able only to send it crashing, throwing Keith underneath before running him over.
If Sarah's so smart, Keith wants to know, why didn't she stop him? He had no idea what Lindsay was planning to do with the shrimp; why didn't she tell him, and stop him and maybe, just maybe, even cook it all herself?
Sarah is ready to execute Keith -- we are in Texas, after all -- in her lawless food court, sentencing the incorrigibles across the country to be locked up in Martha Stewart's dungeon.
The Pink Team, now in a full-on-food fight, has devolved into a writhing mess, a snakepit of hatred, anger, blame, finger-pointing and -- Oh, Elimination! -- there's no more time but just time enough for the judges to seize on the mess in a white flour wrap that Keith has masquerading as an enchilada.
Can things get any worse?
Yes, they can!
A triumvirate that denies it exists is pining for a food fight, and one, a great big one, is about to erupt.
"When I open it up," Lindsay says of the big bag of shrimp, "I am truly shocked!"
"I hate cooked, frozen shrimp," Lindsay says, her voice growing shrill, yet authoritative, as if this shrimp, all this substandard shrimp, were an assault on her soul By Keith.
The shaky triumvirate splits; Lindsay and Sarah need each other, to destroy Keith. They begin to grow careless about what they say, and how loud they say it.
Keith hears it all, and begins harvesting his own field of resentment, focusing mostly on Sarah, hating her with his full force.
Sarah interrogates Chris Crary.
"That was all Keith," says Chris, as terrible as he is telegenic. He shifts his gaze, looking down, looking around, sticking his hands into his pockets.
"Why didn't you guys," Sarah demands of Chris the slippery knife and the other guys just standing around now, around him, "stand up for ..."
Chris, bolder now, states, "We didn't see it."
Now I am yelling at my TV, happily watching Lindsay and Sarah -- the two people I hate with all my heart now -- losing the competition because they are lost in the sick of it.
The Green Team wins. It deserves to win. But more about the bad, the Pink.
I've had enough of Chris for life, and I'm sure Padma feels the same way. He thinks he's gamed everyone, but what he has done is so much worse; he has turned into Jill Zarin, doomed to suffer forever from the Jill Zarin syndrome. Which is that what you say is the truth; just ignore that flickering screen. And, for good measure, the man behind the curtain.
And even though it's all on TV, to his bitter end, to dessert, if he gets that far, Chris Crary will stay wedded to his story.
Keith has been trying to appear as the gentleman in all this, and has, kind of, sort of, more or less, as he's been only the lesser of some of the worst evils at play here. He is sick of being scapegoated, as he feels he has been.
And now I have a bone to pick with Sarah: She's been in Texas under a month, yet she's y'alling away like a native, like Hank Hill. So just stop it, stop it now. You live in Illinois; you always have, you always will. Talk about bubblers, talk about pop, but don't ever be y'alling round these parts again, y'hear?
Now it's time to make this Keith Rhodes's worst day cooking ever.
Along with the shrimp debacle, Keith's assignment to prepare elegant Mexican dishes suffered further from his awful judgment and corner-cutting.
He advocates swaddling some Mexican stuff in thin flour wrappings, throwing some sauce on top and calling it a quinceañera. Which he does.
At Blanca's quinceañera -- as in life, there is no dress rehearsal -- and Keith's enchiladas send Hugh Acheson squealing.
"It's a flour tortilla, which if it's an enchilada it should be corn," Hugh complains.
Blanca Flores liked how it tasted. So did Tom Colicchio.
But Hugh was not finished carping. "Like it or not, Keith's made a burrito."
Keith has also made the judges decide to say goodbye to him.
They clearly like him. As do I. They are torn. As am I. Keith stands tall.
Such a turbulent day. Sometimes the best response is to cry it out.
Goodbye, Chef Rhodes.
What's this envelope? A letter? From Bravo, to Keith. He expects it to say "goodbye," but a little more formally.
Keith opens the envelope, takes out the letter inside.
Now Keith is astonished.
Where he was all down, now he is -- can it be, can it? -- up again!
You know Bravo's waste not, want not philosophy? Turning bits and pieces and flotsam and jetsam of "Real Housewives" outtakes, Giggy in the fitting room, Ramona planning to renew her own Sweet Sixteen?
Well, guess what! Chef Keith gets to stay! Hooray!
He's in a brand-new show, so new that Keith didn't know he'd already been shooting it.
It's called "Last Chance Kitchen"! And it's on every Wednesday night after "Top Chef: Texas."
The chefs who were eliminated have a chance to get back into "Top Chef: Texas."
All they have to do is beat each and every chef eliminated from "Top Chef: Texas."
Chef Keith Rhodes, unpack your knives!