And that made us worry. Was Arnold an imminent casualty, soon to be voted off the kitchen island? Or were the producers shrewdly withholding his screen time, waiting for an underdog to challenge the alpha canines?
Now we know. Like a NASCAR racer who sees the inside lane clear, Arnold made his play last night. Now that he's got a team victory under his belt — and more importantly for the demands of reality TV, now that he has a nemesis — Arnold has definitely announced himself as a competitor to watch.
Some highlights from last night's episode, along with some stray thoughts:
• First and foremost: Nobody's clip reel of Great Moments in Schadenfreude will be complete without last night's utter meltdown of the Angelo-Kenny temporary alliance. The challenge was inspired: Teams of four had to prepare cafeteria lunches for 50 schoolkids, restricted to a school budget of $2.68 per student. It was clearly close to judge Tom Colicchio's heart, as his mother had run a school-lunch program for nearly 20 years.
But it was a steam table of woe for the Kenny-Angelo squad, and that was before they'd even left the market. Called before the judges' tribunal for crimes against school lunchcraft, Kenny left Angelo to take the rap for his bungled dessert of celery sticks stuffed with peanut-butter mousse. (Angelo, alas, had immunity. Damn that Siamese-twin-apron "biparti-sandwich" contest.) The highlight: Kenny arguing tomato is a vegetable, only to be informed that it's a fruit. His expression could only be improved by the Sad Trombone.
• For utter folly, though, nothing beat their teammate Amanda's entree: chicken thighs with ... sherry jus? In a school lunch line? Why not just serve up a tobacco-condom salad with crystal-meth reduction? The judges were not swayed by Amanda's feeble comeback that, well, she loves the taste of sherry. "I love vodka, too," came the reply. Do White Russians count as a dairy serving?
• This was the section Arnold and teammates Kelly, Lynne and Tiffany aced. Their ticket to glory was a Taco Day array of pork carnitas, caramelized sweet potato with Abuelita chocolate, and Arnold's contribution: a roasted corn and tomato salad that drew special praise from Hanging Judge Tom. Kids and judges alike loved the bold color.
All wasn't beer and Skittles, however — not with Arnold's temporary partner Kelly looming as the Gina Gershon to his Elizabeth Berkley. Arnold's most dramatic moment came at a table face-off speaking for the rest of the team, where he put the pimp hand on Kelly for her credit-hogging ways. In the end, Kelly won overall honors and Arnold clapped politely. But there's blood in the broth. Remember that part where Kelly tells him one of his dishes needs salt, and they cut eyes at each other like Sergio Leone gunslingers? Somebody's going home in a crisper bag.
• Proof positive of Arnold's new status — his prominence in next week's preview, where he expresses some doubt about the picnic theme: "I'm not a grill guy. I mean, it'll clog the pores too fast."
• One last thing, Arnold — the hats. Really. We don't get it. Unless this guy is your style consultant: