Worst Cooks in America: Chinese New Year


If you haven’t been introduced to Worst Cooks in America, it is a sort of culinary bootcamp for those who don’t know how to cook but don’t let that lack of knowledge stop them. A lot of the contestants admit to making loved ones ill or burning things down, so the show is really doing a social service for us all.

This season of Worst Cooks in America, the instructors are Anne Burrell and Alton Brown and this is perhaps the closest we’ve come yet to real drill sergeants. I personally find them both terrifying. I once met Alton Brown. It was a book signing event at a Williams Sonoma and I was too scared of him to say much. I learned to cook watching Alton, but he is a no nonsense, extremely smart, deeply sarcastic man.

In any case, the format of the show is that Alton and Anne each have a team of “cooks” to train. Each week, they eliminate the contestant who is lagging behind. In the end, Alton and Anne will have one last contestant standing and they will face off in a blind culinary battle to determine the winning contestant and trainer. Anne rarely loses.

In this episode, the hapless cooks will attempt Chinese cooking for the New Year. Alton informs everyone that it is the year 4717, per the Chinese calendar, and to celebrate they will start with a game. Each team will need to break open a fortune cookie and decipher a riddle. They will then grab the ingredient or tool from the riddle and buzz in. The winning team will be signaled with a gong.

The game begins and Anne’s red team almost immediately pulls ahead. Alton’s blue team isn’t far behind, though, until Monica’s turn. Monica is the first to be stumped by her riddle which reads, “if you’re a true red head, then you’re in good company with me. Spicy, yet stomach-settling, I’ll forever be.” Monica proclaims the mystery thing to be something they don’t have in Kentucky and grabs a hot red pepper. It takes her a little time to realize she needs ginger instead.

Before long, the red team has finished all their clues and Anne bangs the gong. This game has no prize other than Anne’s ability to gloat and our enjoyment in watching the game.

After the game, we get down to business. The contestants, or recruits as the show calls them, watch Anne and Alton demonstrate making fried rice. Alton is making fried rice with tofu and Anne is making hers with chicken and vegetables.

As I said before, I learned to cook watching Alton Brown, but his style does not lend itself easily to this kind of show and these kinds of cooks. Knowing that his stir-fry will cook fast, Alton tells his team he won’t talk during his demo. He just gestures and cooks.

Anne, on the other hand, explains each step and, more importantly, why she does it. Anne explains the importance of mise en place, basically getting everything ready and in place before cooking. Always important, it is vital in stir-fry where everything happens quickly. She also explains the foundation of Chinese cooking- GGS, or ginger, garlic and scallions. As she cooks, she explains that you need to watch the order of the stir-fry so that you start with the longer cooking items like carrots and build from there.

After their demos, the teams are tasked with cooking their own fried rice creation with a protein of their choice. They need to use the techniques demonstrated such as mise en place, flavoring, and order of cook. Watching the teams cook, it doesn’t seem like Anne’s teaching style has really given her much edge.

On Anne’s team, if you place a finger over the top of your knife, Anne marks that finger in red. Leslie promptly gets a very red finger. Bridget tries to remember mise en place and recalls it as mess in my place, which is basically the opposite. She also refers repeatedly to “knifes,” which she is scared to use. Ryan, who is burning his vegetables, reminds us that he works in a funeral home and is known for burning things at work, which is a pretty dark joke for this show. Lulu, who Alton refers to as Cyndi Lauper for her colorful outfits, is very scattered and needs reminders to start cooking.

On Alton’s team, he admires Asian fitness instructor Kelly’s skills but then turns his attention to Jolynn. “I think Jolynn needs more of the kind of positive words of affirmation that I’m simply not wired to give,” he says. He then yells at her that her wok is about to catch on fire and then keeps yelling until she puts enough meat in the wok to avoid the inferno.

Meanwhile, Leo seems to be rather confused in general and keeps requesting advice from Alton. He finally gets cooking, only to remember he did not prepare his ginger. He asks Alton about that too, who tells him he needs to peel and grate the ginger while cooking. So here he is, attempting to stir fry and peel ginger with a spoon. I’ll admit, if I was grating ginger, I would make sure it was clean and would skip peeling it. The peel is so thin; no one would notice.

Once time is called, it is time for Anne and Alton to try the dishes. Anne tells her team that she is not happy and feels no one built their stir fry correctly. She tries each dish. Ryan’s dish lacks green, his onions are burned, and the egg he put on top is under cooked. Shannon does OK but hers is too sweet. Curtis has a very interesting andouille sausage take which fares ok but needs more sauce. Bridget’s has undercooked vegetables. Lulu did everything in the wrong order, starting with shrimp, and she poured soy sauce over the top at the end. Leslie’s pineapple pork rice with teriyaki is too sweet.

On Alton’s side, Leo has garnished with carrots. Alton tells him that isn’t garnish. Those are carrot peels and they don’t help. He has also used a choking amount of soy sauce, giving his entire dish a deep brown color. Jolynn has used too much fish sauce. Alton recommends she balance fish sauce with citrus, so she suggests pineapple. Alton tells her, “pineapple is almost never the answer. Pineapple is the answer to the question, pina colada?”

Mike does OK except that he has included raw, whole garlic cloves. Jefferson’s is under seasoned and his broccoli is not cooked enough. Monica’s calamari is a little tough but he’s pleased that she has tried something interesting. Kelly’s plate looks really good but she needs more fat as everything is dry.

And there you have a list of the many things that can go wrong in a stir-fry. Up next, the teams will need to produce pot stickers and shumai, which seems like a big ask for this group. Both things require learning the knack of pleating the dumplings, which takes practice that these guys don’t have.

Anne demonstrates the fillings for pork pot stickers and shrimp shumai. Alton demonstrates the fillings for tofu dumplings. For her filling, Anne teaches the recruits how to clean a shrimp, delighting in telling them about the poop. For his, Alton uses an unusual mix of ketchup, mustard and Worcestershire sauce.

Chris Chung from East Wind Snack Shop comes in to demonstrate the techniques of creating the actual dumplings. Fun fact- one a previous season of Worst Cooks in America, my local rolled ice cream shop came in to demonstrate that skill, so I am basically one person removed from Anne Burrell. Anyway, I am horrified to see that he starts his dumpling demo with raw dough that they must form into wrappers and I feel like we have just gone too far from any chance these guys have in making decent dumplings.

Set with a nearly impossible task, the recruits have to make six of each dumpling and their own dipping sauce in sixty minutes. On Anne’s team, Leslie is narrating the steps she is taking to keep herself in check, which drives Anne crazy. Anne yells at her to shut it. Meanwhile, Bridget has a life-long fear of shrimp so Anne cheers her on to power through ripping off shrimp heads.

On Alton’s team, Monica tries to pronounce Worcestershire, which comes out Horse Chester. Cue the montage of his whole team trying to pronounce it, including Mike calling it Woo-shawn sauce. Also on Alton’s team, Jefferson has lost his cilantro and spends time looking through his trash for it until Alton yells at him as Anne laughs gleefully. Things continue to go poorly for Jefferson who is struggling to form his dumplings. His first efforts look a little like meatballs, and his next one looks a lot like a dough and meat rose.

Somehow, after sixty minutes, they all have the required number of dumplings and a sauce. Unfortunately, Alton tells them that he noticed too much improper handling of raw pork. He won’t taste a single thing, and judging will be on looks alone.

Alton previously admired Kelly, albeit suspiciously, for her fast, clean and precise work. He has decided she may be a ringer or a robot who is purposely making her food taste bad. Here, she has cooked her fillings well but she has put the fillings in the wrong wrappers. Leo has used the correct wrappers but his steamed ones are too over-cooked and his dough is too thick.

Shockingly, Jefferson has pulled out decent looking dumplings with good doneness. Jolynn seems to have done well until Alton cuts her dumplings open and sees no scallions or red pepper. Monica’s pot stickers are basically “textbook” crispy and he admires her uniformity. Mike, who gives all his food a fun title, has produced well-formed, well-cooked dumplings.

On Anne’s team, she is willing to sample the food. Leslie’s aren’t cooked enough and Anne again admonishes her to stop talking. Bridget’s missing water chestnuts but otherwise did well. Lulu’s taste good but her wrappers are too thick and her pot stickers aren’t cooked enough. Ryan’s are tasty and get a simple “nice job.” Curtis’s are not cooked enough, nor are Shannon’s. Shannon has also suffered from not draining her shrimp, which has watered down the filling.

Anne announces that Bridget has won, while Mike has won on Alton’s side. Safe on Alton’s team is Jefferson, Monica and Leo. Safe on Anne’s team is Ryan, Shannon, and Leslie. This leaves Kelly and Jolynn on the bottom for Alton and Lulu and Curtis on the bottom for Anne.

Alton has chosen Kelly and Jolynn for failing to follow their recipe. Kelly used the wrong wrappers and Jolynn left things out. Anne has chosen Lulu for continuing to need more help than her fellows and has chosen Curtis for his lack of focus.

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In the end, Alton and Anne admit that the challenge was very difficult and, in the spirit of Chinese New Year, prosperity and longevity, no one goes home this week! They all live to burn things another day! Based on the preview, we should not be disappointed on that count at least.