Tension mounted as the three judges, who wore 1920s style film director’s jodhpurs and berets, took their places on the set. Chef Gordon R. Crank stood in the center flanked by Gram and Joe Slick. The cameras rolled. Slick, with arms crossed, had his back to Crank. American viewers would be reminded that four of us remained as finalists in the most intense cooking contest on the face of the planet, on the back of the planet, on the sides of the planet and future planets yet to come: ÜberChef USA. Bud shrugged his shoulders and Tamara shrugged back. I furrowed my brow and Ben Jax rolled his eyes. This kind of buddy-system communication made us feel secure while we waited at our cooking stations for the three judges to relay what challenge would rear its idiosyncratic head.
In this episode Crank would manifest a shoe fetish for some godforsaken reason.
“Your cue,” Crank said to his sulking counterpart’s back. On the monitor above, the camera zoomed in on Slick’s riding boot.
“I’m pissed off at you,” Slick said.
“Me? What did I do?” Crank said.
“I called you last night.” Slick shifted his beret. “You never called me back.”
“This upset you?” Crank said.
“It wasn’t the first time,” Slick said. “You say you’ll call back, but you never do.”
“Why didn’t you ever tell me?” Crank said.
“I’m telling you now,” Slick said.
“Give us a moment, guys.” Crank led Slick into the pantry by the small of his back.
Judges Joe Slick and Michelin-starred chef Gordon R. Crank had a love-hate relationship. Slick loved Crank to the extent of hate. Crank could not give a fuck, full stop. Slick, owner of Slick’s Common Sense Cookies, envied Crank’s megastar. Crank furnished $185 million in sales for the SHAX television network and hosted approximately two-fifths of the SHAX television lineup. Slick’s man-crush cum contemptuousness surfaced on each and every episode as he challenged Crank’s expertise. Gram, our third judge, had no idea what to do now because nobody was there to tell him. Never had he stood alone at the helm since we started filming the reality show. “I guess we’ll have to wait,” he said.
Crank and Slick returned from the pantry. Slick wiped his red eyes. “Can anyone guess why we’re wearing these?” He pointed to his beret.
“Because we’re going to France?” Tamara said.
“If we were going to France, we’d be speaking French,” Gram said.
“I don’t speak French,” Slick said to Gram.
“Je parle Français,” Crank boasted. “I also speak English, Scot, Brit—”
“Are we going horseback riding?” I said.
“Wherever did she get that from?” Crank said.
Slick hesitated. His confidence had plummeted after his altercation with Crank.
“Bottom line is this,” Crank stepped in, shaking his fist at us, “you’re all a bunch of slobs.” Slick and Gram nodded in an I-Told-You-So kind of way. “I mean, every day, every day,” he addressed his invisible friend on the side, “you leave rubbish everywhere. Do you know what I’d do in my restaurants if a chef left potato peels on the floor, nutshells by the stove?” We had a hunch. “I’d fire them!” Nobody flinched. “You’ve got to clean up after yourselves!” I still wondered why the attire. A sudden calm lined his voice. “And we have just the person who can help. Trey? Trey? Where’s Trey?” The lighting tech shrugged.
I recognized the six-foot-seven boy who appeared from behind a curtain. It was Trey Wasserman, the latest winner of the jewel-in-the-crown of Crank’s TV shows: Crank’s Kitchen. Trey was awarded a position as executive dishwasher at Crank’s trendy café, The Coolest Café in L.A.
“Move it Trey!” Crank barked. Trey slumped over the judges and sneered at us. His expression indicated that his IQ wasn’t past moron. The teleprompter told us to go ape shit.
Ben Jax punched the air, “Attaboy Wasserman!”
Tamara clapped and high-fived Bud, who yelled, “My hero Trey!”
I tried to whistle but it came out like I’d eaten a box of Ritz.
“Trey is going to clean up today,” Gram said.
“No he isn’t,” Slick said. “The contestants will cook in teams. Someone from the losing team will be eliminated. Trey will show these losers tips on cleaning afterward. Tell them Trey.”
“It’s like Slick said,” Trey said.
The judges decided on boys against girls to make a statement.
“You’ll be using choice premium meat from a wicked cool food distributor,” Slick said. He squinted. “It’s the highest choice…of…quality meat you could get in these parts,” he misread off the teleprompter.
“He means the highest quality choice parts of meat,” Crank said. “What’s with you today, Joe?”
A drum roll blasted. Two clowns barreled in wheeling carts with a plastic bucket on each.
“Our premium cuts are supplied by McDonald’s,” Crank beamed. He glanced at the clowns’ huge rubber boots.
It was all about ingredients today, the judges warned, and that McDonald’s chicken product was finger licking good.
Trey examined his gargantuan hands, which looked dry and flakey.
“Trey,” Crank said, “go take a walk big boy. We’ll call you later when we need you.”
We were summoned to the carts to get the full details of our cooking challenge. A putrid smell emanated from what looked like pink sponges squashed inside the buckets. The sting of ammonia tarried in the air.
“What we’ve got here is chicken meat from hens too old to lay eggs,” Gram said.
“They had unusually large breasts,” Crank added, cupping his hands to his chest.
“They were processed in a lab down South,” Gram continued, “and you’ll make some kind of food thing out of them, got it?”
“Take note,” Slick said, “the contents of these buckets cost under $3.00.” He turned to Crank, “I think it was—what—$2.98? Anyways, you can make the most phenomenal budget friendly dish.”
Slick handed a container to each team. “Don’t forget to make a mess so Trey can teach you how to clean it.”
Tamara and I stuck our latex-gloved hands in the bucket to feel the meat, hoping an idea would spring to mind. The mush felt gritty as it squished between my fingers. A shard of white bone poked through my glove.
Chicken nuggets popped into our heads, but we needed to be creative. We settled on balls of chicken dipped in batter and deep-fried instead. Tamara would prepare BBQ sauce to go on the side.
The three judges stopped by our station to examine our progress. Gram remained back discreetly counting bills from his wallet. Slick and Crank rocked back and forth heel to toe with their hands in their jodhpur pockets. Crank chewed gum.
I noticed Slick look at Crank as I shaped the poultry-flavored balls. Crank kept his eyes on our feet until he felt the weight of Slick’s stare.
“Where’d you get the gum?” Slick said. Crank pulled a pack of Juicy Fruit from his pocket and maneuvered a piece halfway out of the pack with his thumb. “Juicy Fruit is better than Doublemint,” Slick said, working his jaw.
“Better than Spearmint, too,” Crank said.
“I remember when Bubble Yum used to contain spider eggs,” Slick said.
“That’s what made it amazing,” Crank said.
Our team ran like a Swiss train schedule. We dumped the balls into the hot oil, jumped back and watched them sizzle. Tamara whipped up a crappy BBQ sauce. The stovetop was stained with grease. Egg yolk congealed on the countertop and flour dusted the floor.
While our chicken product drained, I spied on Bud and Ben Jax. They produced exquisite chicken taquitos. Arranged on a lettuce-blanketed plate, Bud dropped a dollop of sour cream and guacamole on each. Ben Jax swirled salsa around the dish to make it sexy.
“If this doesn’t top the girls’ whorehouse in the last challenge,” Ben Jax said.
Trey was called back into the kitchen. He hovered over us with popular cleaning products Klootz, Fick, Peedo, Skuzz and was keen to point out all the muck.
“There’s grease on the stovetop, egg yolk on the countertop and flour on the floor,” the cleaning genius said. He held up a bottle of Klootz. “Klootz gets windows so clean they tend to disappear,” he read from a cue card.
“We don’t have windows,” I said.
“I know,” Trey said, “do you think I’m blind?”
I scraped egg yolk off the countertop with my thumbnail and Tamara wiped grease off the stovetop with her palm.
“Why don’t you Peedo it off?” Trey said.
“Beat it Trey,” I said, sweeping flour under the cabinets with my foot. He embraced his cleaning items in both arms. He kept dropping the Skuzz and the Klootz. He proved to be a welcomed sight at the men’s station and heavy-duty spraying, wiping, sprinkling, scouring and mopping persisted.
I assembled wax paper bags for our chicken balls in order to capture the authenticity of the dish, then arranged them inside a cardboard box and scribbled “ÜC” on the side in yellow marker.
Ben Jax and Bud were up first.
Gram scraped the sour cream off of a taquito. “I’m watching my weight,” the fat man said. Grease poured out in droplets down the side of his thumb. “Reminds me of my father’s IV drip when he was in the hospital after suffering a massive stroke,” he said.
Crank and Slick bowed their heads. When they lifted them it was evident they had been laughing.
“I can’t eat this,” Gram said. He dumped it in the trash.
“You’re a slut,” Slick blurted out to Tamara for no reason.
Oil dribbled down Slick’s chin. “You’ve preserved its sponginess. Sallow inside. You men may have invented a new McDonald’s menu item.”
“The McTaquito,” Crank rolled off his tongue in a Mexican accent.
“Rubbery, anemic. You could taste a hint of chicken.”
Bud and Ben Jax gave each other a rugged man hug.
“Truffle butter,” I said under my breath.
“Girls, if you dare, show us what you’ve got,” Crank said. He squeezed a chicken ball between his thumb and forefinger. “Like a rubber ball,” he said, “this is what we’re seeking.”
We let out a deep breath as the men drew one in.
“But—who made the barbecue sauce?” Crank said.
“I did,” Tamara said.
“It’s shite,” Crank said. He looked at her shoes. “Tamara, how high are your Louboutins?”
She glanced down. “High enough to awaken a sleeping giant, I hope.”
“Oh, you’ve awakened my sleeping giant all right, darling,” Crank said. Her six-inch stilettos made the shot.
“Girls win hands down,” Crank said.
“Whoa, whoa, wait a minute,” Slick argued. “That makes it a tie.”
“Ooooh noooo,” Gram said, smacking his head, “now what.”
“Well,” Crank said. “I don’t know.” He scratched his head and Slick rubbed his chin. Trey hovered over them.
“Why is Trey here anyway?” I called out. “And what’s with the getups?”
“Who asked you?” Slick said.
“Greta may be on to something,” Crank said. He snapped his fingers. “Trey popped in on us and gave them a key to the city.”
“A key to the whole world,” Gram said.
“Let’s see if they used it.”
The judges had to explain to Trey that he did not come onto the set with an actual key, it was a figure of speech.
“Game changer. The team with the cleaner cooking station is the winner,” Slick said.
“Right!” Crank said. “And one of the slobs from the losing team will be sent home.”
Ben Jax led all of us to the men’s station as if he were showing a house for sale.
“The stovetop was caked with salsa gunk,” he said, “but Skuzz did a job even Peedo couldn’t do.” Crank ran his fingers across the countertop. They came up clean.
“And we used a soft sponge,” Bud said, his armpits widely stained with sweat.
“Look here,” Ben Jax said, “the sink is brighter with half the effort it would have taken with a scouring pad. Walk this way.” He led us to an area by the oven. “Bud spilled beef tallow on the floor and Fick did the trick.”
“It got the spill up before it could get us down,” Bud said.
“Really?” Slick said. “I thought if you’ve seen one paper towel, you’ve seen them all.”
“Not quite,” Ben Jax said, hands on his hips.
“Obviously not,” Crank said, “I mean look at that floor, have you ever?”
“You sound like a used car salesman,” I said to Ben Jax.
“What’s wrong with used cars, Greta?” Gram said. “I drive a used car.”
“That’s because you’re a chump,” Slick said.
“Easy call. Men win,” Crank said, eyeing Tamara.
“Hey!” I said, “what about our station? You haven’t inspected our station yet.”
“Frankly, Greta, we’re not sure we want to,” Slick said.
“You have to!”
Gram crossed his arms. “Make us,” he said.
“Do you think we’re fucking around?” Slick screamed at us.
* * *
The trio of judges decided not to inspect our station. They covered their mouths while deliberating on who would be eliminated. They deliberated too loudly and we heard: “hot pumps,” “has a knack,” “missed the mark,” “nice rack” ending with “I’m just here for the benefits.”
My heart raced as we faced the judges. Slick had enough and discarded his beret. Bud and Ben Jax were dismissed.
As if being saved from elimination was not enough, the judges would tell the men later why they were dressed up. The duo punched each other out of joy. Losing sucked. I’d wondered all day why the outfits. Now I’d never know.
“Girls, cleanliness is critical for reaching an ÜberChef status,” Crank said, waving his finger at us. “I ought to eliminate both of you,” he said indignantly. “Trey’s expertise. The trademark cleaning products. No excuse for slobbery.”
“The products do all the work for you,” Ben Jax interjected.
Slick put up a hand. “We’ve got this amigo,” he said.
“Tamara step forward and hand me your apron,” Crank said.
“I thought we agreed to send Greta home,” Slick said.
“Noooo. It was Tamara. Tamara darling, step forward, I’ve got a surprise for you,” Crank said.
“Greta, step forward,” Slick said.
“Tamara, take another step forward.”
“Greta, take another step forward and another one after that.”
“Tamara, keep walking until I tell you to stop.”
“Greta, touch my nose.”
“Tamara, there’s a new job waiting for you at my five-star restaurant in Singapore as Sous-Chef.” Crank looked at Slick. “Top that.”
“Crank offers all the girls who wear nothing less than six-inch heels jobs at his restaurants because he feels guilty to have to eliminate them,” Gram said. “But don’t worry,” he said to me, “nothing will materialize because Tamara won’t leave her family.”
“I’ll write you,” Tamara said, “from Singapore.” The camera trailed her Louboutins as she clomped off the set shouting, “Yes, yes, yes!”
I cried because I was not Tamara. I couldn’t afford shoes like that.
Everybody knew the consolation prize Crank offered was a million times better than the ÜberChef title and the money that went with it. Bud and Ben Jax shook their heads in disbelief, probably wishing they were hot girls in heels too.
I shrugged off today’s narrow escape dealt by the ÜberChef judges who coveted my fate. Tamara had hit it big. Probably packing her shoes for Singapore this instant. That’s what wearing high heels will get you these days.
What was an ÜberChef anyway? If identity and self-worth were dictated by a scripted reality show which was anything but real, I was a zero reaching for the stars in hopes of grabbing hold of one golden toe. I fell asleep wondering how many…