As someone who watches Top Chef, a number of things have always troubled me about the format. One, almost none of the chefs were in the movie Young Guns. Two, many of them seem to have previous cooking experience, or at the very least to have eaten normal human food through their mouths. Three, not a single person mentoring the chefs ever wears their sunglasses on the back of their heads. Very often, they aren't wearing any sunglasses at all! These things have always nagged at me, but now Food Network's Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off is here to "solve" these problems.
Rachael vs. Guy pits eight low-grade celebrities against one another in a cooking competition, with the winner sending $50,000 to his or her preferred charity. Like on The Voice, the contestants are paired with a mentor, food personalities Rachael Ray or Guy Fieri. Like on Celebrity Apprentice, the contestants lack most basic life skills. Some of them are the type of coddled, life-long famous person that make you worry that if their publicist wasn't with them they might walk out of the bathroom with poop smeared on their hands and mouth and a frightened look in their eyes. Like, a mansion with a staff is basically a halfway home, right? You guys are getting the care you need?
And what a lineup of celebrities it is! Our hosts are two of Food Network's biggest recent stars, Rachael Ray and Guy Fieri. Ms. Ray is famous first for meals that take 30 minutes and also the phrase "EVOO," but she now has an ever-expanding empire of annoying media to her name. There is a magazine and a talk show and cookbooks and probably a Sirius radio show that is just the noises of her eating Jell-O shots. Guy Fieri is famous for having courageous hair and lots of rings and terrible shirts. He won the second season of The Next Food Network Star and he has a restaurant in Pasadena called Tex Wasabi's where he puts pulled pork inside sushi rolls. (Honestly, there is an appetizer on the menu called "Eddie's Mommy" Edamame. The Eddie's Mommy part makes straight white people feel OK about ordering a soy product, I guess.)
Of the eight contestants, the immediate favorite to win is Lou Diamond Phillips. He is cocky about everything! He introduces himself as the star of films like La Bamba and Young Guns, movies that have become classics. He says, "I'm also a self-proclaimed foodie," so you know it is not other people putting the label of "foodie" on him. What we learn quickly is that all the contestants say they are accomplished chefs at home, but you get the impression those skills may have been exaggerated just to get themselves on television. Cheech Marin says, "Many of my wives have loved that I cook." We also meet Joey Fatone, the most famous alumnus of N Sync. He's playing for the charity the Fatone Family Foundation, which I imagine is just a charity that gives money to Joey Fatone and his family.
Alyssa Campanella is the 21-year-old reigning Miss USA. Hilariously, she seems to always be wearing her sash, which may be a legal requirement for winners of that competition. She is very pretty and Guy Fieri hugs her way too much. Also, because she's been "famous" (she's not famous) the least amount of time, she also seems the most normal. I am already rooting for her. We also meet Taylor Dayne. I don't know what she is, and I have never heard of her. They say she was a singer? I think she played Sabretooth in the first X-Men movie. (That is a very subtle joke about both how Sabretooth in the first X-Men movie was played by Tyler Mane and also that with her plastic surgery Taylor Dayne looks like Sabretooth from the first X-Men movie.) Summer Sanders is a two-time Olympic Gold Medalist swimmer and television sports reporter. She's in great shape, and Miss USA notices her arms and says, "I wanted to cut her arm off and put it on mine!" Well, then you'd have three arms and that's too many, Miss USA. How would you get your sash on?
Then there is Coolio, a rapper most famous for parodying Weird Al's "Amish Paradise." Coolio's also had an online cooking show that is terrible, and has released a book of recipes as well. Everything he says is silly. Guy Fieri's first line on the show is directed at Coolio and involves the word "bling." It makes me uncomfortable. Also, Coolio says he's a "kitchen pimp," which I think means that anytime the stuff in his kitchen fucks something, he gets some of the money.
Last but not least, there is Aaron Carter. Wow. What to say about this kid: singer, actor, younger brother of Nick Carter, former boyfriend of Hilary Duff, current unsettling freak show. Look, maybe Aaron Carter has never done any meth. Probably, right? All I'm saying is that also maybe he's done ALL of it. There's just no way to know which is the right answer. I feel really bad for him. Everything he says is in this meek, whispered, sing-songy voice that makes it sound like he's apologizing for being molested. You want to hug him and repeat, "It's not your fault" over and over again. I mean, you don't actually want to hug him, but you get my drift. In his intro, he says, "What people don't know is that I love to cook." I get the impression you like to cook something, Aaron Carter, but my guess is the recipes are less Marco Pierre White and more Walter White, you know?
To get on with the recap, everyone is introduced. I will say that it grosses me out the way everybody vaguely knows each other, because it makes me imagine depressing Hollywood parties that happen every night, text blasts going out to a hundred The Hills rejects that say "Aaron Carter's gonna do a set at 3 a.m." or whatever. Everyone is split into two teams. Guy takes Coolio, Cheech, Miss USA, and Joey Fatone. Rachael Ray's team has Lou Diamond Phillips, Aaron Carter, Summer Sanders, and Taylor Dayne. Their first competition is catering the first Celebrity Cook-Off Food Festival. Uh, what an honor? That is so much pressure, catering the food festival invented specifically for this episode. The fest has such a long history and it would be very embarrassing to tarnish that legacy.
Each team picks a theme, and when I say "team" I mean Guy and Rachael pick it for them. It's incredible watching Guy and Rachael interact with the celebrities. I previously did not have much respect for either of them, but it's like they are teaching a class of second graders. I think Guy had to physically remove a crayon from Cheech Marin's mouth. Guy's theme is "Mexican" (inventive) and Rachael's is "Hot Day in the City," which make no sense. It will be a hot day in the city, so are they making spicy food, or food to cool down people who are having a hot day in the city? Those are two different foods. Whatever. Both have very elegant theme ideas.
The celebrities will each be making a small dish for 150 people, and all the guests at the "festival" will pick one of the two teams as their favorites. Whichever team loses will send its two least successful members to the chopping block for a cook-off. The celebrities begin brainstorming. On Rachael's side, Lou talks up his famous ribs. He mentioned these ribs in his intro, and it seems unwise to make your signature dish in the first challenge. Keep it in the pocket, Lou. After LDP finishes bragging about how his ribs will dominate, Aaron Carter whispers, "What about a macaroni salad?" I can tell you, in all honesty, I have not laughed as hard at anything, on television or film or elsewhere, than at Aaron Carter nervously asking, "What about a macaroni salad?" Good point, Aaron. What ABOUT a macaroni salad. I rewound it three or four times. The way each word seems to be a struggle for him reminds me of that famous SNL short film with Harry Shearer and Martin Short as synchronized swimmers. Martin Short straining out, "I'm not a STRONG swimmer" perfectly describes everything about Aaron Carter. Eesh. After a few seconds of silence, Rachael tries to make the best of it, and suggests a jalapeño popper macaroni salad, with peppers and ranch dressing. Aaron does not know what she's talking about, and his eyes glaze over (more). But he sticks to his guns. "I think the macaroni salad is going to be a hit."
The twist of the competition is that each team has to provide entertainment as well, to convince the patrons to vote for one team over another. (Shouldn't the food do that?) You'd think, as these people have made their living in entertainment, that this would not be difficult. But it is! They are clueless, and all of their ideas are embarrassing. Cheech Marin can't believe he has to both cook and perform. "It's like telling Beyoncé you have to cook for everybody, then you have to do a show." That's an incredible metaphor, Cheech, but also incorrect. One, Beyoncé could totally pull that off, and I bet the food would be incredible. Two, NONE of you are Beyoncé. It's more like telling LaTavia Roberson that she has to cook and then do a show, and she, like you should be, would be grateful for the opportunity.
Rachel's team is trying to figure out what entertainment to provide, and Taylor Dayne, a singer, wisely suggests music. Aaron Carter says, "What about a macaroni salad?" Aaron, you want the entertainment portion of the day to be a macaroni salad? "I think the macaroni salad is gonna be a big hit." Aaron, you can't eat that apple, it's plastic! It's for decoration! Whoa, you already finished it?
Aaron gets to work on his macaroni salad, and he immediately encounters a problem. The recipe calls for ranch dressing and he can't find any in the cupboard. "I just thought it'd be right there." Summer Sanders tells him he has to make it himself, and I maybe have never seen anyone more defeated. His face would have fallen, if he had enough skin left on his face. "I was not aware I have to create ranch dressing from scratch." He then proceeds to try and create ranch dressing from taste memory, and it is unbelievable. You need to watch this show. He's putting sour cream in a bowl and then just smelling ingredients. He puts about a cup of garlic powder in, he smells hot sauce. Then he adds a little Thousand Island dressing, and that "ruins it" apparently. Watching him try to figure it out is like if a bunch of elementary school kids got stranded on a desert island and tried to then invent medicine. "Hmm. It's often white? You have it with water? Maybe we can use these tiny shells. Why is Jordan still sick?"
It's time for the "festival," and some people do a good job. Lou's ribs go over well. "People are saying, love your work as an actor, didn't know you could cook, this is amazing." Uh, what are your sources on that, Lou? People like "Fatone's Camarones," which are shrimp kabobs but also sound like slang for Joey's balls. Miss USA's ice cream melts, so she calls it a milkshake. Cheech Marin further corrupts the meaning of sliders by serving "sliders" that are "slices of a burrito."
Every single thing that Aaron Carter says makes me laugh out loud. Now that he conquered ranch dressing (he conquered it off-camera, apparently), he has a swagger about it. As people sample his dish, he brags, "The ranch dressing in there? I made it from scratch." Also, everyone hates his macaroni salad. It's terrible.
For the entertainment, Aaron sings what sounds like a homemade song about the theme "Hot in the City." Taylor Dayne sings backup. It's such a train wreck to watch. If I'd been at this festival live, I wouldn't be writing this recap because I'd be dead. He also grinds with an audience member. The only lyric of his song is "Tonight," and it is daytime out.
Subtly working off their theme of "Mexican," Team Guy puts on sombreros, ponchos, and fake mustaches and hangs a piñata. Cheech is proud of his work on behalf of his people. The piñatas are empty, but if you hit them, you get a kiss with either Joey Fatone or Miss USA. This is a successful strategy. Many kisses are had.
The patrons make their decisions, and Guy and Rachael announce the results. Rachael says to Lou, "everyone voted unanimously that your ribs were epic, off the hook." Did they really? I thought people just voted by putting a token in the Guy jar or the Rachael jar. I want to see this whack-ass ballot. By a thin margin, Guy's team wins.
On Rachael's side, the two celebs on the bottom are Aaron and Taylor Dayne, who made a spicy gazpacho shot. Aaron's macaroni salad must have just tasted TOO good, I guess. They've got ten minutes in a cook-off to prepare a dish with the secret ingredient: shrimp. Taylor is relieved. "Thank God I went through a shrimp dish with my girlfriend like two weeks ago." What does that mean, she went through it? Like, ate it all? Or that it went through her? Either way, gross.
Aaron is confused. "Right now I'm thinking to myself: What am I going to do?" I bet he has thought that a lot over the years, and he's not always chosen wisely. Both Taylor and Aaron decide to make a quick scampi. Taylor strangely serves her on a giant piece of romaine lettuce, which is not a usual pasta presentation. Rachael and Guy struggle, courageously, to say a nice thing about both. Rachael says about Taylor's dish, "I like the cracked black pepper." Guy says about Aaron's dish, "He definitely made an attempt to get it in the bowl and serve it." That's really true.
Sadly, Taylor wins. Good for her, but it's crazy how much I already miss Aaron Carter. He is one of the greatest people I've ever "met." As he leaves with his head high, he ominously warns us, "But what I'm good at, I know I'm good at, and I'm going to do it as soon as I get home." Eesh. We can only guess what he means.
Max Silvestri is a comedian and a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter, where he mostly talks about food.
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