Tonight on Cutthroat Kitchen:
Four more chefs enter the ring, hoping to earn money for their causes while entirely at the mercy of host and clinically psychopathic food scientist Rita Calhoun.
First, Nick Amaro - a chef trained in the best kitchens in Italy and Cuba. He took experiences from opposite sides of the world to open his restaurant here in Manhattan, where he consistently ups the game on Italian-Cuban fusion.
Next is Amanda Rollins - Le Cordon Bleu-trained in the heart of Atlanta, competing against the South’s finest chefs for years before moving to New York to give them a taste of her particularly fiery brand of Southern comfort.
Our third chef today is rookie Dominick “Sonny” Carisi Jr., a home-based cook and current culinary student who almost single-handedly turned a failing diner on Staten Island into one of the most thriving foodie stops in the state.
Our talented lineup is topped off by a chef with a reputation that speaks for itself - as does his food. Paris-educated master of French cuisine, Rafael Barba has appeared twice before on Cutthroat Kitchen and has left every bit of his competition in the dust. There’s no doubt that he’s the one to beat tonight and everyone he’s up against knows it.
So buckle up, folks, and get ready for another night of Cutthroat Kitchen.
Rafael Barba was terrible at this.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true. He was a marvelous chef and had the Michelin stars to prove it. People knew him. Stars now gauged their celebrity on whether or not they’d tasted something Rafael had a direct hand in making and the gossip mags just loved following the surly peacock as he strutted and looked down his nose at them. He’d served two presidents, had famously refused to serve another.
Talent wasn’t the issue here - the issue was that he was terrible at TV. He was terrible at recognizing that a show entitled “Cutthroat Kitchen” might entail some level of rivalry beyond bored eye rolls and disinterested shrugs when sabotages were leveled on him. Rafael knew there was little that was going to throw him off and very much acted like it.
That was largely why Rita designed the challenges like she did.
The first dish of the day was poutine - one of her favorite drunk foods from college. “And a culinary tribute to our neighbors to the north,” she told the chefs brightly, putting just enough emphasis on the end to strongly hint that this was a theme they should likely take note of.
Something common enough that they would all know what it was but sufficiently blue collar as to throw off the classically trained among them. It would also serve the added benefit of allowing their rookie to shine, as it was already something on the menu at Sonny Carisi’s diner.
Of course, that was before the carefully orchestrated monkey wrenches were thrown into the mix.
“You know, chefs,” she started whimsically, twirling her hair, “with all this focus on neighbors — it’s got me thinking. Sometimes neighbors need to borrow things. It just happens like that. Sadly, I don’t need any sugar today, but what I do need is cheese curd. Probably a lot.”
Amanda Rollins was focused on her like she could make Rita spit it out faster just by willing it so. Behind her Nick was already shaking his head. Sonny was dutifully paying attention but not even a blind man would miss the way he was sneaking glances at the man next to him. Rafael, of course, was hardly listening - and for that, he’d pay.
She offered a coy grin for the sake of the cameras. “This sabotage allows me to borrow any fellow chef’s cheese curd. But don’t worry, because I’ll replace it with this.” She set a brightly colored can down on the table in front of her and watched as the cameras panned in on the neon swirls that designated it as Cheez WOW. “Pasteurized cheese product. Bidding for this sabotage will start at $300. Do I have anyone willing to give me $300?”
Amanda, she’d be willing to bet. She had a slightly feral look in her eyes that said she wasn’t going home without burning the place down after her. When the attractive blonde shelled out almost a grand over Rita’s first offer, she was gratified to know that she was right, even if the sabotage had missed Rafael and gone straight to Nick. Nick, who accepted it with a glare in Amanda’s direction before surrendering his package of pepper jack cheese curds. He retaliated moments later with the “bad neighbor sabotage” - the bad neighbor who borrows tools without returning them.
Moments later her fryer was gone, never to be seen again.
A fact she clearly found all too frustrating not even ten minutes later when trying to bake her fries in the time allotted. “Shouldn’t have stuck me with the can of fake cheese, then,” Nick told her blithely as he scooted behind her to his fryer, taking the time to eat some of said fake cheese directly from the can as Amanda mimed vomiting.
“Hey, Barba,” Sonny called over the sound of his own fryer crackling, “I think they’re having all the fun.”
Rita picked her head up, more than interested in the slight show of surprise that passed over Rafael’s expression. No one spoke to Rafael in these challenges and even if they did, he never answered. It was with the utmost amusement that she watched as Rafael looked back over his shoulders, let his eyes rest on the rookie greasy spoon cook for far longer than was necessary - even by television standards.
“If you say so.”
The words were delivered in a snide tone but Rafael’s lingering gaze didn’t lie.
Thirty minutes later the challenge ended and she introduced Elana Barth as the judge, who must have had some idea where sabotages had happened but pretended not to anyway as Amanda presented fries that hadn’t been able to bake long enough to crisp and Nick had to valiantly defend his use of synthetic cheese.
"I wanted to do a twist on poutine with the cheese incorporated into the gravy instead of using curds," he’d said - somehow managing a straight face.
Sadly, it was his death knell.
Rafael and Sonny had been unscathed in this challenge and as such performed well, and his sabotage hadn’t been enough to hamper Amanda’s ability to recover. As the scene ended and Nick walked off set, Amanda spared him a parting glance before returning to her workstation to clean up. Flicking long and perilously straight hair over her shoulder, Rita leveled dark eyes on the two men remaining.
“Yours looked great,” Sonny offered the older chef selflessly, pushing boundaries even further. Rita wasn’t entirely convinced he even knew he was doing it. “I, uh. I had to keep reminding myself to pay attention to what I was doing because I was too busy staring at you. Your work, I mean. Not you.”
Was that… a smirk threatening to turn up the corner of Rafael’s mouth?
Rafael, the notorious hardass who didn’t socialize or make friends or make any semblance of pleasant human contact?
“You have to learn somehow,” Rafael tossed back and rather than cringe at the insult Sonny snorted a laugh. Either the guy was thick or thick skinned, and she didn’t know which would be better for making Rafael watchable. Either way, Rafael’s eyes followed Sonny’s hands as he spoke and just as much as Rita knew good food and good wine and good TV, Rita also knew good chemistry.
She could work with that.
Amanda Rollins was used to ignoring men. It was the only way she’d managed to work her way up to executive chef at a Manhattan restaurant in a male-dominated field.
As such, she was more than content to ignore her competitors chatting with each other. She chalked it up to the usual boys club, and already surmised that she was going to be the target of the next round of sabotages. “Get the girl out,” she muttered under her breath as she finished wiping her station down.
She was used to it.
But she wasn’t used to another chef all but bounding over to her station, giving her a wide grin, and telling her earnestly, “I thought what you managed to pull off there without a fryer was incredible.”
Amanda blinked at Sonny. “Um, thanks,” she said cautiously.
“Seriously, your dish smelled amazing,” Sonny continued, with a wide, easy grin, and Amanda tried to figure out what his angle was, and what he was trying to achieve here. “I mean, not as good as Barba’s, because he’s like...well, you know.”
There was something like admiration in Sonny’s voice, bordering on awe, and Amanda resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Chuck a couple of Michelin stars and a James Beard award on a guy and he usually turned absolutely insufferable, not that Sonny seemed to have noticed.
Sonny continued chatting animatedly and Amanda resolutely tuned him out, and likely made nothing of it, but then she caught Barba’s eye from where he was lingering at his station. Something like annoyance flit across Rafael’s face and Amanda’s eyes narrowed, staring him down until he looked away, his expression darkening. Something in it struck Amanda as odd, though she couldn’t quite place what it was.
Was he sizing up his competition?
No, that wasn’t quite right. She glanced sideways at him again and then realization hit.
Needless to say, Amanda wasn’t used to that either.
Before she could dissect what exactly that meant, Rita took her place at the front of the room and the director called for quiet on the set. Sonny gave Amanda one last grin before heading back to his own station, and she shook her head, trying to clear it of anything but the challenge ahead of her.
Her game face was back in place before the director even called action.
“In Round 1, we took our culinary inspiration from our neighbors to the north,” Rita said with a deliberately casual air. “So it seems only fitting that in Round 2, we’d direct our gaze southwards. That’s right, we’ll be headed to Mexico for inspiration, and going with a classic: chilaquiles. Now, chilaquiles, of course, is a traditional Mexican dish, and consists of tortillas topped with salsa — either red or green — or mole, and a variety of other ingredients. Whatever those other ingredients are will be up to our industrious chefs.”
One mad dash to the pantry later, and all three chefs were back at their stations, baskets overflowing with ingredients. Amanda felt fairly confident in her ingredients, and just prayed that unlike last time, she’d at least have all her cookware to use.
Rita gave the remaining chefs a smirk that bordered on evil and Amanda watched warily as two PAs appeared just off camera, toting what looked like an enormous — and distinctly culturally offensive — sombrero. “Rice and beans. Lime and cilantro. Tequila and salt. Some things are just better together — our chefs included,” Rita said, her smirk widening as the PAs brought the sombrero onto the soundstage. “Win this sabotage, and you’ll force two of your competitors to wear this massive sombrero — together. That’s right: prepping together, cooking together and dishing out together. By the end of this, you’ll be either amigos or... enemigos.”
Rafael rolled his eyes so hard it looked painful, and Amanda bit back a laugh, instead raising her hand to bid on the item.
No way was she gonna be stuck cooking with one of those two idiots.
No way in hell.
Sonny didn’t seem overtly worried by the sabotage and thus didn’t bid, but Rafael put up a good fight, only backing down when the price broached five figures. “Chef Sonny, Chef Rafael — I hope you both wore deodorant today,” Rita said with a broad grin as the PAs brought the sombrero to Rafael and Sonny, setting it on their heads and forcing them to stand no more than two feet apart at any given time.
It was worth it, even if she didn’t have enough cash left to counter Rafael’s sabotage to swap her tortillas for spinach wraps, or Sonny’s sabotage forcing her to use maracas in lieu of a spoon or spatula.
She’d make it work.
Besides, she was now guaranteed thirty minutes of pure entertainment.
And entertaining it certainly was. She laughed out loud when Rita started the round and Rafael and Sonny both tried to take off in opposite directions, only to be halted in their step by the massive hat they were forced to wear. “Careful, boys,” Amanda called, hurrying to get her tomatillos and onions cut. “That’s not how amigos act.”
“Amigos my ass,” Rafael ground out, just loudly enough that she could hear, and Amanda smirked.
That was gonna get beeped by the network censors.
“I need to get my ingredients,” Rafael snapped at Sonny, who seemed unperturbed.
“Ok, so we’ll go grab your basket and bring it back to my prep station.”
Rafael scowled at him. “Why your prep station?”
Sonny ignored his tone. “Or I can take my basket to your prep station,” he said calmly, and Amanda couldn’t help but admire that, just a little, even if she was still gonna beat his ass. “But the hat’s not big enough for us to work separately.”
“Fine,” Rafael ground out. “Let’s grab your basket.”
They shuffled to Sonny’s station and Amanda bit back a laugh as Rafael tripped, only remaining upright because Sonny caught him with a firm hand on the man’s arm.
“Would you move?” Rafael snapped only minutes later, trying to elbow Sonny out of the way.
“Sure, where would you like me to go to?” Sonny shot back.
Rafael sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, a risky move considering he’d been slicing jalepeños and those oils were still on his fingers. “This isn’t working.”
“Which I believe is the point,” Sonny said, glancing at Amanda, who winked at him.
“No, I mean—” Rafael broke off impatiently before sighing again and saying, “Give me your onions and peppers.”
Sonny stared at him. “What?”
“Give me your onions and peppers,” Rafael repeated. “I’m going to chop them up while you deal with prepping our tortillas and your mole sauce and getting everything ready for the stove.”
Sonny’s brow furrowed. “What move are you trying to pull here, Chef?” he asked warily. “I mean, there are probably easier ways to sabotage me.”
Rafael rolled his eyes so hard that Amanda could practically feel it across the kitchen. “I’m not trying to pull anything,” he snapped. “This will be easier and go faster if we work together rather than separately.”
“And you trust me with that?” Sonny asked, eyebrows raised so high they practically disappeared into his hairline.
“If I want to stay in this competition, it appears I have no choice.”
They continued sniping as they swapped ingredients, and Amanda mostly tuned them out, so much so that she barely noticed when their rapport shifted from sniping to something almost...companionable.
Then Rafael muttered something under his breath and Sonny laughed, and for the first time, Amanda realized just how good of a team they were making.
And for the first time, she wondered if she’d made a mistake with the sabotage.
But she had her own dish to worry about, and she endeavored to again tune them out, though it was harder this time, especially as they moved to work together at the stove.
Especially when Sonny tentatively asked Rafael to taste his mole.
Especially when Rafael Barba, who never had a kind word for anyone if his reputation was to be believed, told Sonny, “As much as it pains me to admit it, it’s delicious, Chef.”
Especially when Rafael, without prompting, offered Sonny a taste of his salsa verde, and Sonny let out a porn-worthy groan at the taste.
It made Amanda roll her eyes, but Rafael smiled, just slightly
As Rafael and Sonny finished their dishes, Amanda had to admit that they really had made a good team.
Which definitely didn’t bode well for her.
The spinach wraps had been Amanda’s downfall, their texture cooking unevenly and not crisping the way they should. She knew going in to the judging that she was likely to be sent home, and the sympathetic look Barth shot her as she tasted her dish only confirmed it.
Amanda knew she should be pissed that she’d lost to two idiot men, but she couldn’t quite find it in herself, glancing over her shoulder as Sonny offered Rafael a high-five that the older man reluctantly returned, a small smile crossing his face.
Maybe it was just that she was a romantic, but she really couldn’t find it in herself to be anything but a little glad that those two were left in the competition together.
She couldn’t wait to watch from the green room to see what happened next.
Olivia Benson sighed as she put her headset back on and the director shouted, “Quiet on set!”
Normally, Olivia’s role on set as a producer was symbolic more than anything, at most there to coordinate but normally just to observe.
But today, going into the final round, both remaining contestants had over $20 grand remaining, which was unusual.
It also meant that the sabotages for the next round needed to be switched, ever so slightly, to make it so that both chefs would have to bid, for fear of being stuck with the sabotage.
She waited as the director counted them in, watched patiently as Rita introduced the next round — “After visiting our neighbors to the north and to the south, it seems only fair to bring the final round home with a quintessential American dessert: ice cream sandwiches.” — and held her breath as Rafael and Sonny got started ahead of the first sabotage being introduced.
“Chefs,” Rita said, as Rafael and Sonny hurried at their stations to get their ice cream prepped, “for our first sabotage, you can force your opponent to stop cooking until he searches through this picnic basket—” She held up the massive wicker basket for the camera’s benefit. “—and picks out all the ice cream ingredients from the other special ingredients I’ve hidden in there. We’ll start the bidding at $500.”
Rita looked expectantly at the chefs, and while Sonny tossed a look at Rafael, Rafael didn’t bother looking up from his ingredients. Rita cleared her throat. “Like I said, we’ll start the bidding at $500—”
“Pass,” Rafael said dismissively, and Sonny’s eyes widened.
“What the hell do you mean, pass?” he asked, dropping his whisk with a clatter to his station as he gaped at Rafael.
“Exactly what I said, Chef,” Rafael said, still not looking up. “Pass. I’m not bidding. If you want it for $500, it’s yours.”
Olivia blinked. For all her time working on this show, for the crazy ingredients and sabotages she’d seen, she’d never once witnessed a chef just refusing to bid on a sabotage. She glanced at the director, who shrugged, bewildered, before calling, “Pause the clock and cut!”
Tugging her headset off, Olivia marched onto the set, frowning at the two remaining chefs. “Gentlemen, do we have a problem here?” she asked, her tone clipped.
For the first time, Rafael looked up at her, a slightly mutinous expression on his face. “No problem,” he said calmly. “I’m simply choosing not to bid.”
“On this sabotage or any remaining sabotage?” Olivia asked, incredulous.
Judging by the look on Sonny’s face, he felt the same way.
“Any remaining sabotage,” Rafael said evenly.
Something dark crossed Sonny’s face. “You trying to prove something, Chef?” he asked. “That you can still beat me even if you have all the sabotages used on you?”
Rafael smirked, just slightly. “Firstly, I could still win even with all the sabotages used against me. But secondly—” Something seemed to soften in his expression, just slightly, almost imperceptibly. “Secondly, for once I don’t want this to be about sabotages. I want this to be a battle of skill. Plain and simple.”
For one long moment, Sonny just stared at him, expression blank. Then he turned to Olivia. “If he’s not bidding on sabotages, neither am I.”
Olivia wished for not the first time that day that she had just stayed home from work. “You have to bid,” she said, exasperated. “It’s how the game works.”
“Actually, we don’t,” Rafael said. “Check our contracts. We’re not obligated to bid on any sabotages whatsoever.”
Rita joined them, scowling. “How much longer is this going to take?” she demanded. “Need I remind you what my contract stipulates about how much time I’m required to spend on set?”
For a moment, Olivia considered pushing the issue, but decided against it. She’d have Rita record a new scene later, after they got a chance to write it, something about the men deciding not to use sabotages in their final round. If anything, she mused as she took her spot back behind the camera, it would be a great marketing angle, the first time in the show’s history that two contestants refused to sabotage each other…
And for as much as she had insisted on sabotages, Olivia had to admit that she found herself leaning in as the episode progressed. There was real drama this time, not manufactured drama, as Rafael cursed when his ice cream came out over-churned, or Sonny’s cookies had burnt edges.
Even more than that, there was real chemistry between them. No barbs tossed as each other for the sake of the camera, just some light teasing and, bizarrely, occasionally words of encouragement.
Mostly from Sonny, but it was Rafael who had called out, “Check your cookies, Carisi — I think they’re burning.”
Rafael Barba, it seemed, had found something that softened his rough edges. Or at least, someone.
And Olivia knew potential when she saw it.
The tension was so high that for the first time in longer than she cared to admit, Olivia had no idea going into the final judging which chef was going to take it home.
Elana Barth was a fair judge, and deliberate, and she took her time choosing between Rafael’s traditional Cuban bocadito de helado and Sonny’s more conventional chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwich.
After much deliberation, she announced, “And the winner is...Chef Sonny!”
Sonny stared at her, stunned, and Rafael bowed his head, but not before Olivia caught a glimpse of the look on his face.
He didn’t look angry that he’d lost, or even mildly disappointed.
Instead, there was something like triumph in his expression.
Even though he’d lost.
But as Rafael returned his remaining cash to Rita, who accepted it gleefully, and as Olivia watched as he threw a glance over his shoulder back at Sonny, she couldn’t help but feel like she might just understand why Rafael looked like he’d won anyway.
“Just a few more interviews. Then we’re out of here.”
The words were grumbled somewhere behind him but Fin didn’t have to turn to recognize Munch’s voice, gruff and put upon despite the fact that it wasn’t even noon yet. At some point eighteen-hour days had stopped being easy for the two of them, despite the fact that today would only be a half day.
“When did we get old?” Munch asked him and that actually made Fin scoff as he turned and found Munch rubbing at his neck where the camera rested on his shoulder.
“Speak for yourself, man,” he said and huffed a laugh, “I’m a spring chicken.”
“Another year or two and you’ll be chicken jerky.”
“You’re one to talk,” he said and looked toward Munch’s knees, “I’ve seen you in shorts.”
His friend chuckled and shook his head, pulling the camera back into place. “Alright, back to work. Who’ve you got left?”
“Just Barba,” Fin replied and fought the urge to scowl. “So it’ll be over quickly but about as interesting as watching paint dry.”
“You have fun with that.”
“Yeah,” he said and watched Munch walk away from the sound studio, “You too.”
Forty-five minutes later, he was done.
While Barba hadn’t been any more forthcoming than he was the last two times he’d been on the show, he at least seemed more engaged with the fact that he lost. Frankly, Fin had expected to have to pull positivity about it out of the man by force but it was offered freely - praise for the kid, grudging admission that he’d been outperformed even if the dish was pathetically low-brow compared to what he made on a regular basis. Still, near the end, Fin had even managed to record a handful of smiles.
Rafael Barba, smiling.
Fin would be worried about the second coming if it weren’t for the fact that the man had still managed to finish the interview with a stuck-up comment on how he hoped the next time he was on he hoped to find meals with “some semblance of class”. To which Fin had only rolled his eyes and told him to have a nice day.
Or, at least that’s what he would have told him, had he not been interrupted mid-sentence by six feet worth of nervy Italian rambling. All leveled at Barba - praise and admiration and so much sucking up that Fin was sure they’d hear it on camera in post - and Fin just stood there, resigned, as the kid threw off his schedule. First by barging in, then by apologizing at Fin’s disbelieving expression. They’d all been on set eighteen hours the day before and had been on set at seven o’clock that morning.
Can’t these people see that he was tired and ready to do something other than lift a heavy camera over his shoulder for hours while they turned his cooking game show into a goddamn romantic comedy?
“I’m gonna take five,” he told them charitably, even if his expression was downright sour, “Get myself a soda.”
Barba looked relieved as Fin left, at least, even as Sonny squared his shoulders like he was psyching himself up.
Fin came back ten minutes later and the men were cleared out. Small favors, he thought to himself as he approached the table a few feet away and looked over his equipment. It was with a quirk of lips that he looked down at the screen and saw a tell-tale blinking of red light.
It was recording.
For eleven minutes and thirty-three seconds.
Looking around and seeing no one, Fin leaned back against his workbench and held the camera up so he could see the screen. With a small swipe of his thumb the scene rewound, moving from an empty room to one occupied by two men standing very, very close to each other. He hit play once he saw the camera lowered - the moment he’d stepped away - and tried not to laugh at the way Barba’s eyes had to follow every move the pretty white boy made.
It was a lot of fawning, at least at first. It was Sonny telling him what an honor it was to cook against him, even if it was for something dumb like a TV show. Fin tamped down his momentary offense at the phrase and instead watched as Rafael stood from his stool and removed his apron, wordlessly laying it over the back as he regarded Sonny with a wary expression. Like he didn’t know if the kid was being serious or was making fun of him.
“Did you come here to rub your victory in my face, Carisi?” Barba asked from the recording and Sonny shook his head.
“I came to see if you wanted a rematch.”
“Oh, getting a little overconfident there, aren’t we?” Fin marveled aloud and Barba seemed to agree with him, raising his eyebrows and smirking at the suggestion.
“I see,” he started but stepped a little closer than was strictly necessary, “Is this your way of asking me to come back to the show in the future?”
“Come on, Barba,” Fin scoffed, “You know better than that.”
“Nah,” Sonny replied. “I was thinking my apartment. Tomorrow, for dinner. If you’re interested.”
Oh, Barba was interested alright. Even if Rita hadn’t been harping at him for half of yesterday about getting shots of the two of them looking at each other, Fin wasn’t an idiot. A guy would have to be headless to miss the way they looked at each other.
His answer was apparently shared by the Barba in the recording, who stepped close and reached out to tangle his fingers in the thin canvas apron strings provided by the show. He pulled them only once - until the strands fell free - before leaning in.
Sonny’s eyes clearly flicked down to Barba’s lips and the man grinned.
“You’re on,” he said - simultaneously a threat and a flirtation - and Fin watched as Sonny beamed his happiness and Rafael stood too close. It was another minute or two before they left the room and a few minutes after that he heard the sound of his own footsteps again. Not long after the recording ended and the screen went black.
Fin grinned and shook his head.
“Surprise, fools. Guess who just showed up on the special features.”
He made a mental note to make a copy for Rita, packed his camera, and headed for the door.