This episode of Top Chef (“Show Your Craft”) was more interesting than last week’s, as the chefs started to falter from their first episode high. Thank goodness. Everyone did way too well in the first challenge, and I was rather relived that we were back to a much more standard Top Chef format (i.e., some doing really well, and some doing really poorly).
The episode starts off with shots of the Top Chefs wearily making breakfast in their apartment. We see some clips of an interview with Ariane, who almost got kicked off last episode, but managed to stay because Mr. Patrick just didn’t learn enough in his Cuisines of Asia class. Ariane says she deserves to stay in the competition because of her experience, making her sound like Hillary Clinton around the Iowa caucuses. Methinks this does not bode well.
The chefs finish up with breakfast, and they depart for the day (but not before they show another porn shot of My Beloved Couch. My God I want that couch).
The chefs gather in the kitchen for the Quickfire challenge, which, you’ll be happy to know, is just as gimmicky as the last Quickfire challenge where they had to peel apples (in The Big Apple. Get it? But no, really, do you get it?). This challenge is a hot dog challenge (because NYC is known for its hot dogs. Get it? But no, really, do you get it?).
The chefs have a luxurious 45 minutes to make the best hot dog possible, and they’re going up against a guest chef, Angelina D’Angelo, who supposedly makes the best hot dog in NYC. As Padma Lakshmi explains the challenge, I can’t help but admire her purple scoop-neck top, although I don’t think it shows enough cleavage for Wonktheplank’s taste (who, sadly, was too tired to watch this episode). The guest judge is Donatella Arpaia, who apparently is a famous chef, although I’m skeptical because she looks like she’s 25.
Considering that the chefs have 45 minutes for this challenge, I figure that most of them will try to make their own sausage for the hot dog. Although this brings up an important question — can a sausage really be a hot dog? Can anything qualify as a hot dog unless it’s the heavily processed, salty, eerily rubbery tube of meat made from animal parts you didn’t even know were edible? It seems weird that they would put a “sausage dog” up against a “hot dog,” since, to me at least, they are different species.
Most of the chefs get the message that they need to make their own sausage. All of them except Jill, who makes a “hot dog summer roll” with, you guessed it, a store-bought dog. Oh Jill, you didn’t make an impression on me in the first episode, but you have now — that sounds disgusting. Store-bought hot dogs, even the good kosher ones, are only palatable with the help of luscious condiments and a warm, bready bun. Putting a hot dog in a summer role, where each element is exposed, is just gross.
Thankfully, other people do some good work. Hosea, from Colorado, makes a lumpy but tasty-looking dog that’s stuffed with bacon (mmm, bacon) and Fabio makes a Mediterranean style-dog with andouille sausage. Even though Rhadika made a big deal in the first episode about how she can cook more than just Indian food, she makes an Indian-style hot dog, with caramelized onions. Maybe she should stick with the Indian food, because it looks delicious. Donatella agrees, and Rhadika wins the Quickfire! I’m actually happy for her, since she almost got eliminated in the first Quickfire and didn’t do so hot in the last elimination challenge.
Next, it’s time for the elimination round. The chefs have to create a lunch item menu for a New American restaurant and each chef gets to create their own dish. New York chefs are going to help judge their dishes, and Padma warns that they will be a tough crowd.
Back in the kitchen, chaos ensues as the chefs try to figure out who will do what type of lunch item menu. Team Rainbow Jeff takes control of the situation by making everyone split up into entree, appetizer, and dessert groups. You can tell that these chefs are much more Top-Chef savvy now that the show’s in its fifth season, because someone actually says that they want to do a dessert dish. Believe me, in season one they wouldn’t touch dessert with a ten foot pole (remember the wedding cake they made from a cake mix?).
The chefs then go shopping at what I think it the Whole Foods in Union Square and, already, there are some problems. Hosea is hell bent on making crab salad, except that the store has no fresh crab. Rather than figuring out something else, he picks up some canned crab, figuring that no one will know the difference. At this point I wondered if he had ever been to New York— does he really think that bitter, competitive NYC chefs aren’t going to be able to tell the difference between fresh and canned crab? Not a good idea.
Meanwhile, Jill happens upon an ostrich egg, and decides to make an ostrich-egg quiche, in an attempt to recover from the hot-dog summer-role Quickfire disaster. I want to know a.) why she would choose to work with an ingredient she had never worked with, b.) why she thinks the quiche will taste any different and/or better with the ostrich egg, c.) why have I never seen an ostrich egg at my Whole Foods, and d.) why in the world is Whole Foods stocking ostrich eggs?
Back at the Top Chef kitchen, everyone’s preparing their dishes and, in a Top Chef tradition, talking about everyone behind their backs. Jamie gripes that Jill is “playing it ridiculous” with the ostrich egg (agreed), and she looks pretty right on because Jill doesn’t even know how to crack the thing open. Stefan takes the chance to tell us how amazing he is, and talks smack about all the chefs who can’t make a dessert (because a chef should be able to cook anything!). Tell that to every chef that has a pastry chef working in their kitchen. Isn’t that kind of common?
After seeing some more prep shots, we see Tom “Mr. Sexy” Colicchio enter the kitchen to give the chefs more details about their challenge. Oh my God! There’s a twist! This never happens on Top Chef.
Tom explains that the restaurant they’ll be creating the lunch menu for isn’t just any restaurant, it’s Craft, Tom’s very own award-winning establishment. And the chefs who will be judging them won’t be just any bitter NYC chefs — they’ll be bitter NYC chefs who tried out for Top Chef and didn’t make it on. (Note to those chefs, you probably didn’t make it on because of casting, not talent. Otherwise how would the likes of Little Lauren and Plucky Patrick make it on? Even with The Cuisines of Asia, Patrick is not all-knowing).
The chefs troop over Craft, where everyone is quiet as they enter The Hallowed Space of the Colicchio. Everyone gets to work on their dishes. We see the Bitter Chefs troop into the restaurant, along with Padma, guest-judge Donatella, and Gail Simmons (who, thank goodness, is wearing a much more flattering dress today. Maybe she fired the last stylist).
First off is the appetizer group, where dishes range from amazing, to awful. Fabio serves beef carpaccio with grilled lemon, Parmesan cheese, arugula, and olives that have been soaked in some substance that causes them to liquefy inside. Jesus Christ that sounds amazing, and the judges agree.
On the other end of the spectrum, Hosea’s canned crab salad doesn’t go over so well. One of the Bitter Chefs says it tastes like “aluminum,” and Gail says the flavors are “muddy.” Leah makes a scallop dish that, unfortunately, is a tad bit sandy. Padma criticizes the presentation as “dated” and “80’s.” Melissa serves a plate of grilled avocados and peaches that looks “blah” to me, and the judges agree (and why would you grill an avocado anyway? They’re so perfect at room temperature). Jamie is smart and keeps it simple, serving up a dish of sweet corn soup with mint and chile oil, which the judges love for its creamy simplicity and clean flavors.
The entree group starts off with Jill’s quiche and, surprise surprise, the Bitter Chefs seize upon it like tigers encircling their prey. Ostrich egg aside, her choice of a rice and pecan crust for the quiche mystifies me. Isn’t one of the best parts of quiche that luscious, flaky pastry crust encasing the egg? Unless your new crust can improve on that classic butter crust, then you shouldn’t do it. One taster says Jill’s quiche tastes like “dog food” and Donatella thinks it tastes like “glue.”
Donatella criticizes the presentation of Eugene’s open-faced meatloaf sandwich, but they like Stefan’s halibut with micro-greens and ravioli. The judges also like Jeff’s grilled chicken with chorizo and spoon bread that, I must admit, looks rather fabulous. They aren’t as impressed with Alex’s grilled pork tenderloin with potatoes and vegetables, which looks like something anyone could make themselves at home.
The dessert group also has some highs and some lows. The judges think Rhadika sat this one because she had immunity; her “avocado mousse” is really just “sweet guacamole” and makes no sense. But they like Daniel’s ricotta pound cake with strawberry lemon coulis — and so do I! It looks delicious. They also like Carla’s rustic apple tart, although the random piece of cheese sitting on the plate is disjointed. Still, the judges praise Carla’s light and flaky pastry crust (Go Carla! Go DC!). They also seemed to like, or at least not dislike, Richard’s banana bread sandwich.
The biggest failure in the dessert category is Ariane’s lemon meringue shooter. I like lemon desserts and I’m a big fan of mixing textures, but this didn’t look very good to me. The meringue is way too sweet — so sweet, in fact, that Padma spits it out into her napkin. Given that we’ve seen this moment fifty times in the previews for this episode, it’s a bit of a letdown. I mean, it looked bad, but not that bad.
Back at the judges’ table, Tom rants and rants about how the chefs have no idea what New American Cuisine is, and how their dishes took New American cuisine back 20 years. I won’t go into any more detail, except that you can read about it in excruciating detail on his blog. After more staged “conversation,” they call in the six chefs with the highest and lowest scores: Jamie, Carla, Fabio, Hosea, Jill and Ariane.
Of course, Jamie, Carla and Fabio are in the top three. The judges liked Jamie’s soup, and thought that her flavors worked well. Padma says that Carla’s pie was her “favorite dessert” (again, go DC!), although she wishes that the piece of cheddar cheese was better incorporated into the dish. They also liked Fabio’s dish; Gail especially liked the grilled lemon, while Tom and Donatella loved the olives.
But there can only be one winner, and this time it’s Fabio. I think this is well-deserved, considering that, of all the dishes served up this week, his is the only one I would contemplate making a trip to California to taste. Fabio is thrilled because he is tied with Stefan for elimination wins.
Then it’s on to the bottom three. Hosea is, apparently, surprised that he was in the bottom. Oh, but there are so many reasons why he’s in the bottom. Tom thought the salad wasn’t seasoned well, and the Bitter Chefs though that the crab tasted off (I told you the NYC chefs would figure out it was from a can). Tom also criticizes Hosea for being “complacent,” which I think is a fair criticism. Ariane’s dish is also criticized, not just because it was too sweet, but because it “wasn’t interesting” (Gail) and “was too safe” (Donatella).
Jill’s ostrich-egg quiche is ripped apart, and she’s so overwhelmed that she can’t even defend her choices coherently. I think Jill thought the judges would be so blown away by her bold choice of the ostrich egg that they wouldn’t really taste her dish. Gail says that the quiche “just didn’t taste good” and Tom says that, even though her idea is unique, she still has to make a dish that really stands out from the pack. Her’s didn’t do that.
At the beginning of this episode I thought that Ariane was going home, but they actually kick off Jill instead. I am fine with this decision. At least Ariane did okay on this week’s Quickfire, while Jill made huge, rather bone-headed mistakes on both the Quickfire and the elimination challenge. Both her hot-dog spring role and ostrich-egg quiche looked unappetizing, to say the least. I do feel bad for Ariane, who looks pretty overwhelmed. We see her sitting in the kitchen after the elimination sobbing into Carla’s arms and saying that she “doesn’t deserve” to stay. I kind of hope they send her home next week, mostly because I think this isn’t good for her sanity. Kind of like Andrea’s departure from Top Design.
Next Week: Thanksgiving Challenge! I am totally stoked, mostly because Thanksgiving is such an odd meal from a culinary standpoint, and makes for a great challenge. But why are they making Thanksgiving dinner for the Foo Fighters? Does anyone listen to the Foo Fighters anymore? Seriously?