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Cutthroat Leap

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When Al appeared, Sam, wearing chef’s whites, was staring determinedly at a pile of peppers on a cutting board in front of him. Al took a look around. From what Ziggy had told him, Sam was a contestant on a game show called Cutthroat Kitchen, where he had to face down some cooking challenges. This round, Sam had to cook jalapeno peppers successfully and make sure the leapee won this game so he could get enough money to help with hospital bills.

A bearded man stopped by Sam’s counter, unwittingly walking right into Al. “Are you doing all right? You really should be getting a head start on cooking.”

Sam nodded. “Yes, I know, Mr. Brown.” He picked up the knife, but he still stared at the peppers.

After he walked away. Al came in closer. Ziggy said that Sam had gotten stuck with canned chicken in lieu of one of his ingredients for a challenge this round and also had to use a bottle of ranch dressing. At least he’d had the sense to grab butter, cheese and hot sauce.

“Don’t worry about that right now, Sam,” Al said.

Sam’s eyes widened and he let out a muffled yelp. “I have a knife in my hand, Al!” he hissed.

“Shh. You’re cooking. Grab a pan and put the whole stick of butter in there. Turn the heat up. Pour in an equal amount of hot sauce… what is it, a quarter cup?”

“Half a cup.” Sam followed Al’s instructions. “What happened with the leapee before?”

“His brother’s in the hospital now and Eli is here to get money to help pay off his hospital bills. He lost and fell into bankruptcy last time… Okay, Sam, now mix it up and put in the canned chicken. Wait, drain that chicken first! Now let’s halve and deseed the jalapenos.”

“English, Al!”

“Cut those green things in front of you in half. Use a spoon to get the seeds and that white stuff out.” Al watched as Sam followed his instructions then flinched when Sam raised a fist to rub at his eye. “Whoa, Sam, don’t touch yourself!”

Sam’s hand stopped an inch from his eye. “Why?”

“The seeds on your hands!” Al flailed in Sam’s direction. “You don’t need to go to the head, do you?”

“No, why?” Sam concentrated on using a spoon to get the seeds and rind out. “I’m busy- I can’t go talk to you.”

“I warn you, it will burn like you can’t believe. Okay, Sam, you have never experienced anything like chopping up some chiles, getting the seeds all over your hands, then realizing you need to go, so you head in, whip out-”

“Al.” Sam held up a finger. “I get the picture. Now what?”

Another contestant gave Sam a suspicious look. Sam smiled and gave her a thumbs-up. She shrugged and went back to work.

Al asked, “Is the chicken mixed up with the sauce?”

Following Al’s lead, Sam scooped the buffalo chicken mixture into the peppers then added the shredded Mexican cheese on top. Then he popped the tray of poppers into the oven. Meanwhile, Al was looking at the other contestants. “Oooh, bleu cheese!” he moaned. “Sam, why didn’t you grab any of that?”

“I’m not eating mold, Al!”

Al rolled his eyes, taking a puff of his cigar. “Doesn’t matter, anyway. You should do fine this round, Sam. Drizzle some ranch on the plates- you’re supposed to use that stuff. Did you bid on anything yet?”

“No, I’m still at twenty-five thousand dollars.” Sam picked up the ranch bottle and frowned at it. “What do I do with this? Do I put it on top of the poppers?”

“Put it on the plate, like this. Follow my lead.” Al moved his cigar in a swirl over one plate and Sam followed his lead for that and the other plates. “Get that spoon.” Then Al dragged his cigar over one swirl, and Sam copied it, making an intricate design. The oven dinged and Sam rushed over to pull the poppers out of the oven. Using tongs, he carefully dropped the poppers in the middle of the ranch swirls on the plate.

“How did you know that about the swirl, anyway?” Sam whispered to Al. “I’ve never seen that in a restaurant before.”

“You never go anywhere fancy, Sam. And Tina is obsessed with those cooking shows. She makes me watch ‘em with her all the time.”

“Five, four, three, two, one… Time!” Mr. Brown called, and all of the contestants stepped back.

Two other contestants besides Sam, Al noted, also had to use ranch. One contestant, Melissa, had gone for green chiles stuffed with a bacon bit and cream cheese mixture that was topped with jalapeno jelly. Al shook his head sadly. Ziggy said this one had gotten the challenge of using that jelly instead of their ingredients and wouldn’t continue this round. The real challenge was coming up the next round, with what Sam was getting thrown at him.

The first contestant to step forward had a dish that made Al raise an eyebrow. It was a blob of chopped peppers, shredded chicken and crumbled bacon topped with a greenish-brownish-white mass that the contestant claimed was a “deconstructed popper topped with a cheesy avocado ranch dressing.” The chef working with Alton Brown this round, Mason Jett, proclaimed the whole thing terrible. The contestant shrugged, and as he walked away, Al could hear him mumble something about how people didn’t appreciate his genius.

The second contestant, Dustin, had a dish that was Anaheim chiles stuffed with Velveeta then wrapped in prosciutto. To Al, it looked like a waste of a fine Italian ingredient. Jett agreed with Al’s assessment, saying that the whole thing was too salty, despite the spiciness of the chile.

“What do you have for us, Eli?” Alton Brown asked.

Sam stepped forward. “I have a buffalo chicken jalapeno popper topped with a Mexican four-cheese blend on top of a ranch swirl.”

Jett used a fork and knife to cut a piece of the popper off, then popped the bite into his mouth. “Excellent. The sauce has the right amount of kick.”

Al breathed a sigh of relief. He’d been worried Sam had splashed too much of the hot sauce in.

“And this ranch adds a balance to the spiciness, but a bleu cheese dressing would have been better.” Jett nodded in acknowledgement to Sam then Sam stepped back for the next contestant to take his place.

The next dish was the popper with jalapeno jelly. The chef took a bite, then winced. “The bacon balances out the cream cheese, but the spiciness of the jelly is too much with the green chile.”

Melissa nodded, then stepped back.

Then Alton Brown held up a covered dish and said, “One of you will not continue on to the next round. And that person is…” After a sufficient pause for the cameras, he whipped away the cover to reveal the deconstructed popper. The contestant came forward to give up his money, then walked away.

When the three chefs were assembled, Alton Brown said, “Now for the next round…” A cart was rolled in with the next dish in it hiding in a covered tray. “Pasta fazool!” The cover came off to reveal pasta and beans floating in a soup.

“Ohh, Sam! You lucky duck! I haven’t had pasta e fagioli in so long…” Al leaned over to look at the dish on the tray. “Do you need help with this?”

Sam tilted his head at Al, nodded and widened his eyes in a way that meant, “hell yes, I do!”

“Chefs, you have sixty seconds to grab your ingredients,” Alton Brown said. “And that time is… now!”

Al shouted out ingredients as Sam looked through the pantry. “Get some broth! Get little pasta, like macaroni, shells, something like that! Get beans- that’s important! It’s not pasta e fagioli without the beans! Ooh, get that huge can of tomatoes! Basil! Get some spices- fennel, come on! Sam, come on!” he groaned as Sam grabbed some extra ingredients.

Sam emerged from the pantry a second before his time was up, along with the other contestants.

Al paced behind Sam. “Okay, Sam, listen good. This is the round where Eli had trouble. See that guy? Dustin? The one who did the Anaheim chiles? He blows you out of the water for the next two rounds. You need to cripple this guy, Sam, cripple him good, so you can win!”

Alton Brown said, “Now we move on to the auction…” The dumbwaiter whirred, then the doors opened to reveal a stick blender. “When you give this to one of your fellow contestants, they can’t use a spoon to stir their soup. They have to use this, turned on, to stir their soup. Let’s set the price for this at… one hundred dollars!!”

“Bid, Sam!” Al hissed.

Sam shouted, “Five thousand!”

Alton Brown blinked, eyes wide. “Are you sure about that?”

“Very sure!”

“Five thousand it is…”

The contestant whom Al had said would beat Sam, Dustin Meeks, gave him a dirty look then shouted, “$5500!”

Sam shouted back, “$5600!”

It went back and forth until Sam shouted, “$6100!” and Dustin gave up. After Alton Brown handed the stick blender to Sam, Sam took the blender over to Dustin and smiled as he handed it over.

The dumbwaiter whirred again, and the doors opened to reveal a can of Heinz baked beans. Alton Brown said, “This can comes to us all the way from London. If you win this, contestants, you can take away another contestant’s ingredient and replace it with this can of beans.”

Al eyed the beans warily. “Shouldn’t you bid, Sam?”

Sam shrugged and whispered, “Remember when we were in London for that conference years ago? I got that full breakfast after you talked me into drinking too much the night before and those beans were in it. They weren’t too bad.”

“Sure… on toast. Not in soup.” Al wrinkled his nose. “It was disgusting, watching you eat that breakfast in London. Especially that black stuff. And no, you don’t need Spaghetti-O beans in pasta e fagioli! That’s not the point, Sam!”

“I got tomatoes, don’t I? I’ll be fine.”

“You’re hopeless.” Al took a puff of his cigar.

As Al had feared, Dustin won the Heinz beans and swapped them out for Sam’s beans. Sam said, “Thanks!” as Dustin took away the beans, and Dustin scoffed in response.

The third challenge, as presented by the dumbwaiter, was a pressure cooker. Alton Brown said, “This is a pressure cooker. If you win this, you can use it on yourself or one of your opponents. Whoever gets it has to use this in place of their burner and pot. Let the bidding start at one hundred dollars!”

“Two hundred!” Sam shouted.

“Going once… going twice! Hand over two hundred, if you would, Eli.”

Sam handed over the money, then he gave the pressure cooker to Melissa, who took it with a wary look in her eye.

“You’ve got the idea, Sam!” Al shouted as Sam ran to his station. “Demolish those people!”

At the stove, Sam poured the chicken broth into the pot, then added the tomatoes. Al hovered behind him, watching. “Save the pasta for the last ten minutes, Sam. You don’t want it too mushy.”

Sam glanced over at where Melissa had already dumped her pasta in. “She didn’t get that memo,” he whispered to Al.

Al looked over and scoffed. “Chicken sausage? And curry spices? I wouldn’t worry about her, Sam.” He raised an eyebrow as Sam opened the can of Heinz beans and tipped it into the pot. “But I am worried about that.”

“Enough spices and it should be fine, right?”

Al made a seesawing motion with both hands. “You gotta compensate for how sweet the sauce is from those beans. Add salt and taste it.”

Sam glanced up at the clock then added in the spices and some of the basil, with Al hissing to remember to save some of the basil for presentation time. After letting his soup simmer for awhile, he added the box of miniature shells then put a lid on top. While the pasta cooked, Sam grabbed the bowls he needed for presentation and set the basil leaves besides each bowl.

“Taste it, Sam!”

Sam tried the soup. The taste was a little flat, so he tipped in some more salt, stirred then tasted again. It tasted fine and he thought the basil and fennel beat out the sweetness of the bean sauce. He waited a few more minutes then ladled out the soup. He put one basil leaf on top of each bowl.

“...three, two, one, and time!” Alton Brown called out. “Step away now!”

Sam looked over. Melissa had a mild disaster with the cooker- some red stuff was splattered onto her whites- but her soup looked okay. Then Sam looked the other way. Dustin’s soup looked smooth, not chunky like Sam’s or Melissa’s.

“Dustin, please come forward.”

Dustin presented his pasta e fagioli, saying that it was a Mexican play on the idea of pasta e fagioli. Al didn’t get how wagon wheel pasta, black beans, and warm salsa all mixed up made a decent soup, but then again, he wasn’t a professional chef.

Then it was Sam’s turn. Sam said, “I went for a more traditional Italian pasta e fagioli.”

Mason Jett tasted the pasta. “This is good, like you said- very traditional. It tastes a little sweet, but that’s my only objection.”

Sam smiled, and stepped back.

Melissa stepped forward and said, “This is a Middle Eastern chicken fagioli with garbanzo beans.”

Mason Jett took a taste of the thick yellow soup. “Where’s the pasta?” He stirred his spoon in the bowl. “Ah, there it is- it’s disintegrated!”

Melissa, face burning red, stepped back.

Then Alton Brown held up a covered dish. “The next person to be cut is…” He whipped away the cover. “...Melissa!”

Melissa walked away, leaving only Sam and Dustin.

Alton Brown said to them, “The next round is…” The cover came off of the plate once again to reveal a cookie on top of a slice of cake. “Dessert! It’s wide open for this round- go with something sweet.”

Sam’s eyes lit up. The one thing he knew he could make well!

“Three, two, one! Go get ingredients!”

“Okay, Sam, dessert… what are you doing?” Al asked as Sam raced around the pantry, grabbing brown sugar, cream, vanilla extract, butter, apples, refrigerated pie dough, and cinnamon. “Do you need my help on this one?”

“I got this one!”

“Are you making caramel? Do you need help with that?” Al hovered anxiously as Sam went through the shelves.

“I got this. I remember helping my mom make this a hundred times. I’ve made caramel sauce before from this. I got it, Al.”

Al tapped at the handlink nervously. “Okay. Ziggy thinks you have an 81% chance of succeeding this round. It depends on what Dustin throws at you and what you throw at Dustin. Saam! Are you listening to me?”

Sam dug through the pantry for what he needed. He found the confectioners’ sugar and threw it into his basket, then he ran back out through the pantry doors.

Alton Brown told them, “As you cook, I’ll be throwing out challenges. Be sure to stay on your toes.”

Al paced back and forth, watching Sam chop up apples and push dough into two cocottes. Using a pizza cutter, he sliced what was left of the dough into strips.

“Chefs!” Alton announced. “Here I have a bottle of Satan’s Blood. At eight hundred thousand Scoville units, it’s sure to give a real kick to your or your opponent’s dessert. If your opponent gets this fiendishly hot sauce, they must use it in their dessert. I start the bidding at one hundred.”

“Two hundred!” Sam said, not looking up from his arranging the chopped apples in the dough within the cocottes. He had the open jars of cinnamon and sugar nearby, ready to add.

Dustin, who was making something that involved a double boiler and chocolate, didn’t respond.

Alton Brown said, “Going once, going twice! Eli, what would you like to do with this?”

“Give it to Dustin.”

The bottle landed next to Dustin, who sprinkled a few drops into his chocolate without really looking at it.

The remaining cooks continued their work. Then Alton Brown brought in a cart with something hiding underneath a metal dome. Under the dome was a clock, which was ticking loudly. “Get this clock,” Alton said. “And your opponent loses five minutes off of their cooking time. They must step away from their table for five minutes and turn off all heat. I start the bidding at five hundred.”

“Seven hundred!” Sam shouted.

“One thousand!” Dustin shouted.

“Keep going, Sam!” Al yelled. “You don’t want to risk underbaking your pies!”

The bidding went back and forth until Sam won at five thousand, with Dustin glowering at him as he stepped back from his work, the chocolate stiffening in the pot.

Sam had been cooking the cream, brown sugar, extract and butter in a pot on the stovetop this whole time, keeping an eye on it as Al yelled at him to watch carefully. Sam wanted to ask Al if he’d really screwed up that much at cooking back home, but he had a Leap to work on.

With ten minutes to go, Alton Brown brought out another lidded cart. The lid was lifted to reveal a mountain of salt.

“Here is a great mountain of salt! It is an excellent addition for taste, but you have to be careful not to use too much of it. If you win, your opponent must use a portion of this on their dish. Starting the bidding at five hundred!”

The mixture in the pot had become a smooth brown sauce and Sam was too focused on whisking it and making sure it didn’t burn. He was so immersed in his task that he only looked up when the cart holding the salt tapped against his cooking table. Sam looked up with wide eyes to look Alton in the eye.

“You have to use this. Good luck,” Alton said, and walked away.

Sam looked over at Dustin, who smirked at him, and nearly panicked. What did he have to do?!

Al walked over and said, “Okay, Sam, you got this. Add half a teaspoon of salt from there to the caramel. Mix it up.

The pair of cocottes holding the mini apple pies were cooling on trivets. Following Al’s instructions, Sam whisked in some salt, then carefully swirled ropes of salted caramel over the pies as Alton shouted, “Your time is running out! Ten… nine… eight…”

Sam set the cocottes on two plates then stepped back. Dustin also stepped back. He had pieces of what looked like chocolate on the plates. Sam wasn’t sure what he was going for- it was chunks of chocolate with strings of white chocolate on top.

“Dustin! Step forward!”

Dustin explained that he had made a spicy mole bark for his dessert. Jett said, “This has an interesting texture, but this is a little too hot for me.”

Then it was Sam’s turns. Palms sweating, he said, “I made apple pie with a salted caramel sauce.”

“Beautiful, beautiful! The apples don’t seem cooked enough to me, but the crust is a good color. Go on.”

Then there was some deliberation. Sam twisted the bottom of his chef’s jacket in one hand. What if he failed? What if he screwed up this Leap?

Alton then rolled a cart towards them. “The next one to go is under this lid.” He lifted it to reveal the bark and Dustin slumped. “Congratulations, Eli!”

As Sam walked off with Alton, grinning, Al said, reading off of his handlink, “You did it, Sam! Eli uses the money to pay off the bills for his brother and he goes on to open a successful restaurant. Bon appetit, Sam!”

Sam shook hands with Alton, then he disappeared in a crackle of blue light.