Twelve cooks remain in the game as episode five of Anthony Bourdain's "The Taste" gets underway tonight. Brian Malarkey seems to have overindulged on the caffeine front; he can't stop jumping up and down during the intro. Bourdain is gleefully counting how many cooks remain, because his team is still at full glory.
This week's episode is all about Le Sandwich, whether it be a club sandwich, a PBJ or a "good old-fashioned salad sandwich, be it tuna, chicken or whatever," Nigella Lawson tells the cooks. And since no one eats sandwiches off spoons, this time they will place their teeny tiny sandwiches on teeny tiny plates for guest judges Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi, chef-owners of New York City's Torrisi Italian Specialties, to taste blind.
The sandwich club
Down to just two cooks, Nigella's team is working in an atmosphere of cozy, nurturing warmth. Ludo is unleashing a storm of mostly bleeped commentary. Bourdain is mellow and laidback, tasting sandwiches and saying, "This is totally delicious. And Malarkey seems to have downed a couple more espressos in the minute and a half between the intro and kitchen time.
Khristianne is working on a chicken-curry sandwich with sambal olek and apricot jam. "More! More pungent!" Malarkey crows. "
The clocks tick down, plates are prepped and team decisions are made: The judges will taste sandwiches from Diane (a pulled pork club with some Mexican
"We're all very hopeful," Nigella says. "It's just whether I allow myself the audacity of hope."
Sorry, Nigella, but Gregg wins immunity again. Ludo is ecstatic and their team gets the help of the two guest mentors in the elimination challenge.
Sarah tells the guest mentors that she's doing a fried oyster riff on a taco. "Does a taco count as a sandwich?" Torrisi asks, worried. Both mentors will continue to worry over this point for next half hour.
"You know what? I'm just going to take a risk. It's protein between carbs," Sarah says.
We catch a glimpse of Diane's past, as she talks about her destructive marriage, the poverty that followed, and her resolve to never go back to that level of misery. The brash, trash-talking ice queen sheds a tear and we find our hearts melting a little bit.
Backstage, Bourdain, Nigella, Ludo and Malarkey hang out and chat. The contestants are certainly feeling confident, Bourdain says. "We're going to be so confident and we're going to go wfffft," Ludo says, mimicking a crash-and-burn.
It's judging time and the sandwiches include everything from a triple pork cubano (Adam) to a riff on bao (Uno), pork belly-chicken liver mousse (Khristianne) and a very garlicky Mediterranean lamb on naan from Lauren.
"Love this!" Malarkey and Bourdain says after the first bite of Lauren's sandwich.
"I hope you don't need to kiss somebody after you eat that," Ludo says.
"This is the sort of sandwich that I would reconsider my social plans so that I might enjoy more of this," Bourdain says.
The contestants wait anxiously for the verdict and the chute-verdict. "It's like 'Hunger Games'," Uno says.
Chutes of shame and glory
When the chutes open, seven cooks stand exposed, including the top three -- Lauren, Ninamarie for her beef carpaccio and fried green tomato sandwich, and Jeff for his top-ranked hot beef sandwich with bacon mayonnaise. Mmm, bacon mayonnaise.
The four worst: Gregg, who has immunity but whose curried lamb on naan was panned by the judges; Mia for a lamb and eggplant sandwich on homemade, burned flatbread; Diane (noooo!) for a too-bready pork banh mi; and Huda for her very undercooked chicken pesto.
Mia tries to argue that her bread wasn't burned -- "Mine was black," Nigella says -- and that Lauren's was burned too.
When all's said and done, two cooks are going home: Mia and Huda. The latter exits gracefully, saying, "I don't fault them for their decision. I'd have sent me home too."
Diane tells the camera her near-ouster has "lit a fire -- you have no idea."
Now we're down to 10. Nigella has just one remaining cook on her team, and three cooks will get sent home next week in a challenge that involves blood, guts and testicles. Sounds offal.
Get the recipes: Find winning recipes from "The Taste" -- including Gregg Drusinky's Five-Spice Crusted Short Rib with Eggplant, which won last week's Alamos malbec-pairing challenge -- at www.MercuryNews.com/food-wine.