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A week ago, we watched as our six hopefuls scraped through a foodie field piece. This week, with five left, the tension is higher than Anne Burrell's hair. I think we've all been waiting to see this year's Donner Party moment, and it's finally upon us: the epic battle of Nikki vs. Stacey.
This is a challenge I can get behind because I love playing MacGyver in my pantry, and I feel that home cooks don't do enough improv cooking.
- Nikki: From minute one, Nikki's been able to climb out of any culinary ditch with her golden stepladder of camera presence, and today was no different. You should go back and watch the look on Stacey's face.
- Rodney: Rodney uses the sweet 'n' salty chips to make — wait for it — a pie crust. On camera, Rodney was as controlled and un-shticky as we've ever seen him. There wasn't a guitar in sight.
- Damaris: Instead of pointing out that the cereal fixes the problem of wanting immediate French toast when it should have been soaking overnight, she highlights its texture. Regardless, AB digs the French toast and her on-camera vibe.
- Russell: Being the chef-of-chefs' chef, Russell wants to create a dish reminiscent of a late-night pantry raid after a long day at work, which somehow means a rib eye with potatoes coated in sea-salted popcorn chips. When it came to the camera, it looked like Russell was reading tiny cue cards held by a tiny man in the corner of the room.
- Stacey: In between laughing fits triggered by Nikki's cubes of smoldering cereal, Stacey bangs out some vanilla-almond crusted chicken. I dig these flavors together, and I think it's a winning combination. Alton warns Stacey to turn down the perfection in her presentation and get intimate with the camera. Stacey managed to do just that, much to the chagrin of Nikki.
Filling in for Bobby is none other than Robert Irvine. As a living testament to how powerful Robert is, Stacey flashes back to the time Robert mouth-to-mouthed her restaurant in San Diego.
- Rodney: Pie style at this juncture involves covering yourself in flour. He manages to entertain the judges, but the concept of cacciatore pie doesn't sell. A cacciatore calzone might have been a winner, but, alas, I am not pie style, so I wouldn't know.
- Damaris: While her dish is tasty, it remains meat, potatoes and a vegetable. There was no twang in her dish, and that's what the Selection Committee wants most.
- Stacey: This challenge fits Stacey like tailor-made suede. It's really hard to put on a sweet face when total annihilation of competition is what you're hoping for. Stacey does a decent job of masking this, but the judges and even old Phil Trani can tell that it is just that — a mask.
- Nikki: When Nikki's dish is presented, it looks a dinghy of salmon in a sea of red rice. Therein lies the problem with being a self-taught cook. Sometimes you skip one page of one chapter and then someone calls you out on it. It happens to me more than you'd think, or I like.
- Russell: When Russell isn't reaching or preaching is when Russell does best. Instead of trying to lead a revolution, he wanted to teach. When Alton met me for the first time, he said he wasn't looking for a star performer; he was looking for a star teacher.
Cue the Scary Music
Russell, the phoenix of culinary sin, is now leading the pack going into the final challenge of this season. This man has had so much growth, I'm afraid he might come after my Miracle-Gro partnership. I said it six episodes ago: I've got my eye on you, Russell.
Damaris' food was a snooze, Rodney's cacciatore pie was good on paper but not on a plate. The stoic sentry that guards the tender Stacey seen in Restaurant: Impossible would not stand down yet again this week, and Nikki's pilaf problem portrayed her as greenhorn.
Sadly, the girl with the golden POV, our semi-vegetarian heroine, was shown the door. I was bummed. I think America needs her POV, and I admired her tenacity throughout this competition.
The moral of the story: If you don't know what you're doing, don't pretend you do. Has that ever worked out for anyone outside of Congress?
Threat of the week: Stacey. She drops hammers like a clumsy carpenter. Her food and POV are more solid than a frozen pork butt. If she dismisses the guard at the gate, drains the moat and lowers the drawbridge in the final challenge, it could be big. The previous challenges don't matter anymore. Whoever wows us next week will be the next Food Network Star.