I watched this week’s episode of Around the World in 80 Plates with some friends who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. They run a wine shop in my town (I used to volunteer there) and they know everything about flavors and haute cuisine — but I wasn’t exploiting them for their culinary knowledge; I was exploiting them because they own a television, which I do not.
On to the show:
France is the best country for food and everybody knows it. The most sophisticated entree of all time comes from France: duck l’orange. The healthiest breakfast snack was invented in France: foie gras. And Champagne (a.k.a. “Monsieur Fizzly”) grows only in France — and if it doesn’t, it can’t be called Champagne, because France will sue your ass for false advertising, so get out of my basement with your fake-ass Champagne, are you trying to get us all killed?!
(Also: Julia Child may have been American, but it wasn’t until she moved to France that she grew into a she-giant and captured our hearts, with toes as big as baguettes.)
Given that France is the center of the culinary world, is it any wonder that our crew of half-drunk vagabond chefs finds itself in France this week? Au contraire, it is c’est non small wonder.
Curtis Stone and Cat Cora (a person, not a paint color) lay down the rules for this week’s challenge via envelopes: Our teams will run around learning about traditional Lyonnaise food before taking over local Lyonnaise restaurants. Has anyone warned the Lyonnaise people?
THIS WEEK’S TEAMS:
1. Black Team (assembled by Chaz, last week’s overlord): Gary (who “knows how to French kiss”), Cheven (who wears his hat at a rakish angle), Nookie, and Avery.
2. Red Team: Nick, Sai (who chafes against the show’s Eurocentric claim that France represents the origin of all food), John, Jenna, and Nicole.
The gangs drive around in their rental cars and experience fresh air and roundabouts and weird French license plates and all the other things that make driving in France different from driving in America. (I was hoping the cars would be crusty old Citroëns, but they’re Infinitis because Infiniti is a sponsor of the show.)
Red Team is first to arrive at a country idyll bursting with sheep and flowers and trees and all that rural French bullshit. Turns out it’s the farm of a man who wears a little red kerchief around his neck! He’s French!
The teams have to identify which of 30 cheeses are made from sheep as opposed to cows. This is the kind of thing foodies do for fun. I know this because my C.I.A wine-friends start playing along from home EVEN THOUGH THEY CAN’T TASTE THE CHEESES.
Jenna starts misidentifying cheese like a racist at a rap concert, which annoys her teammates to no end. Finally she gets them all right, which means Red Team can move on to the next challenge, which is herding sheep without touching them, because they’re in France I guess? And France is home to psychic shepherds? Who knows. I still can’t believe people eat cheese that comes out of a sheep’s butthole or wherever it comes from.
Black Team’s cheese-identification process is also labored, but draws to a close, and soon enough both teams are acting goofy with sheep in a field without touching them.
Black Team wins the sheepherding contest, much to the joy of the sheep, who cry out: “Baah baah, we love you Black Team, take us to America where we can be free!” (JOKE.)
The next challenge makes my wine-store friends sit up and take notice: The teams must pair eight wines with the ingredients that make up their flavors. My friends go crazy watching the chefs screw everything up.
By that time Red Team shows up, but it’s too late: Black Team has paired the wines thanks to Nookie’s relentlessly logical process of elimination, and has thereby won the Exceptional Ingredient, which is ... dinner with chef Joseph of the famous restaurant Daniel et Denise, who feeds them a bunch of weird food like green-bean salad and rabbit sauce and something that looks like pork cracklins but probably can’t be purchased at American gas stations. Chef Joseph flirts with Avery, who finds him “very charming and very friendly.”
All this facetime with the chef is useful for Black Team, because they must produce four Lyonnaise dishes — including what I keep mishearing as “canal,” but is actually (per my chef friends) called “quenelle,” and which appears to be fish, eggs, and butter plopped in a bowl.
Red Team is reduced to doing field research from local menus. But these dudes don’t speak French very well! Jenna speaks the most French — she speaks the most, period — so she starts bossing everyone around and they can’t stand it, but what can they do? The lady speaks French.
Red Team takes over le Bistro Palais. Jenna works the front of the house because she speaks French. Sai has to poach eggs which freaks her out because Thai food doesn’t involve poached eggs. John’s poached-egg technique enrages Tim. (Remember: These people are chefs, and so they get emotionally invested in activities like poaching eggs.)
At Daniel et Denise, Gary’s knowledge of French and love of meeting people recommends him for the front of the room. Cheven continues to ramble about his strategy, displaying his knowledge of reality show cutaway-interview protocol.
Red Team’s quenelle is basically a dumpling. One French guy calls it “swollen pasta,” which qualifies as a vicious burn. My friend from the Culinary Institute of America agrees. “If you don’t know how to make quenelle, you don’t deserve to cook,” he says as I reach for more corn chips. Nicole makes haddock with special sauce. Sai is taking too long with her Lyonnaise salad, but it goes over well.
Over at Daniel et Denise, Gary nails the French small talk. He’s a good host! The pink quenelle by Avery impresses the locals — per Gary, “people are FLIP-ping!” Nookie’s foie gras is a little cold, but one French guy thinks it’s the best he’s ever tasted. Chaz is berserk because Gary wants everything served at the same time, which seems like the opposite of European. (Once I ate dinner in Belgium and it literally took three hours.) But Gary continues to demand all the food at once, as if he wants to suffocate his diners with calories and make foie gras from humans.
Red Team’s quenelle stunk, but its sauce was good. Here’s the real question: Why didn’t every diner get a haddock? Somebody miscounted how many fish were in the oven, or mis-timed how long it takes to cook the fish, or something — this didn’t make sense to me, but everyone is apoplectic.
The judges ask Black Team why they served the chicken and salad simultaneously. Gary admits to his dumb decision. Meanwhile Chaz is called out for inconsistency in his chicken portions. But the good news is Avery’s quenelle was a hit!
The winning team is ... please hold for 90 seconds of dramatic music ... the Black Team! (My friend called it, because he’s a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, which really should start offering a major in “Reality-Cooking-Show Analysis,” if it wants to stay relevant.) Meanwhile Avery is the most valuable chef and is immune from next week’s foofaraw.
On the other side of the hand, Red Team has to send someone home. They return to their kitchen and process their emotions. John calls out Sai for taking two hours to make a salad with four ingredients. The conversation gets into interesting kitchen lingo about “counting proteins” and “firing fish” and other stuff that makes these yahoos sound like actual chefs for once. I wish the show had more of this, and less of people herding sheep.
Red Team votes to evict Sai, the self-identified sexy chef. She feels burned by her teammates. They’ll never know what magical dishes she could have conjured in Asia. And we’ll never get to see more of her erotic kitchen photos.
Next stop: Barcelona, Spain. Reader, I will meet you there next week!
David Rees is an artisanal pencil sharpener.