Top Chef: Amusing Amuse-Bouche

by moderndomestic on December 5, 2008

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Jamie can't get her duck egg cooked in time.

This week’s Top Chef took mercy on us poor viewers and had less product placements (well, okay, it had the same number of product placements, but at least some were pretty discreet). But this episode was another example of how previews overkill can make the show’s big “surprises” feel like letdowns.

I had the same problem when Padma spit out Ariane’s dessert—it should have been thrilling, but because we had already seen it fifty times in the previews, it was a non-event. Similarly, this week’s “big reveal” that the Top Chefs would be presenting on the Today Show seemed pretty ho-hum after we saw it advertised on every Bravo program known to man.

We start off with the now familiar shots of NYC (or is it Brooklyn?) and see the chefs going through their early morning routines. The sleepy chefs give us the low down on the last episode—including how Richard got booted off for his spitty s’mores, and how Ariane made a comeback (apparently, she cooks a mean Butterball turkey breast). The Top Chefs leave the apartment, but not before showing more porn-o-riffic shots of my couch.

We get to the Top Chef kitchen where, lo and behold, it’s Rocco DiSpirito. This isn’t really surprising—I think he’s been on this show every season (media whore much?). Does this mean he has a new book or product to hock? I bet it does. He and Padma look painfully pretty standing next to each other—in a “you’re so beautiful you’re blinding my eyes” kind of way.

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My eyes! My eyes!

Fabio, however, is not impressed—he says that Rocco is not a real Italian cook because he’s not from Italy (okay, I admit I, I laughed. I’m kind of digging Fabio these days. Maybe he can be my Top Chef boyfriend, since Padma is Wonktheplank’s Top Chef girlfriend).

Rocco introduces the Quickfire challenge: the chefs will have to create a breakfast amuse-bouche. An amuse-bouche, for those of you who don’t have foodie parents that take you to nice restaurants you could absolutely never afford, is a small, one-bite appetizer that is meant to awaken (or “amuse”) your palette before your meal. Rocco mentions that he loves bacon and I gear myself up for an onslaught of bacon dishes. I bet the winning dish will be bacon-infused bacon on top of a slice of bacon.

We see some glossy shots of breakfast ingredients, and they flash a discreet glimpse of the Calphalon logo (Product Placement Number One). I hold my breath and wonder who will be sponsoring the Breakfast Challenge. Will it be the Butterball Bacon Breakfast Challenge? The Jimmy Dean Sausage Breakfast challenge? The Mrs. Butterworth’s Syrup Breakfast Challenge? But no—it’s just the breakfast challenge, sans corporate sponsor.

Everyone scrambles as they get to work on the No-Corporate-Sponsor Breakfast Challenge. Jamie is pissed because she hates breakfast; she opted to eat chicken soup and Chef Boyardee for breakfast as a child. Stefan is making huevos racheros (the Finnish classic!), and he’s planning on doing a neat presentation where he serves the eggs in the eggshell with the top carefully taken off. See, that’s something that a chef would do (not a cook).

Jeff wants to impress the judges, which always seems to spell doom on this show. Danny always associated breakfast with cornflakes, so he’s going to coat zucchini blossoms in crushed corn flakes. There’s a shot of him pouring out the 365 Organics Corn Flakes (product Placement Number Two). I can’t believe he’s not coating them in bacon!

I liked this challenge, and the chefs came up with some great dishes even if, as Leah points out, they don’t meat the classical definition of an amuse-bouche (which should only be one bite). Jamie makes a breakfast BLT sandwich, which Rocco likes (and so do I. Maybe I’ll make a breakfast sandwich tomorrow). Oddly enough, my boyfriend Fabio makes a big deal about how breakfast should be a light meal, but then he serves up an uber-heavy breakfast of  brioche french toast with a caramelized banana, and a shot of espresso cream. The dish is too heavy for Padma and two sweet for Rocco, but with a couple of tweaks I bet it could be a nice dessert. Fabio is cursing himself for not making a bacon-infused bacon bits served over a slice of bacon.

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Fabio's dish - sans bacon.

Jeff goes overboard, making a twice-baked potato with bacon, and a yogurt sorbet with honey. Is it just me, or is that too many things for an amuse bouche? Danny’s cornflake-crusted stuffed zucchini blossoms also fall flat because the sweetness of the cornflakes overwhelms the rest of the dish.

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Danny's dish (it looks like turds on a plate).

Rocco seems to like Arien’s stuffed french toast, which I have to say looks kind of amazing (I love French toast). But he likes Leah’s one-bite breakfast sandwich more—it’s a fried quail egg and cheese atop a tiny mound of bread. Rocco and Padma also like Stefan’s beautifully done heuvos rancheros, which he serves in the shell and is accompanied by a bite of toast.

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Stefan's beautiful huevos rancheros. See Danny, that's what food is supposed to look like.

Rocco says that his bottom two are Fabio, whose dish was just too sweet, and Danny, whose cornflakes overwhelmed the rest of the dish. But he loves Jamie’s breakfast sandwich, which he says was “perfectly executed,” and he also loves Stefan’s huevos rancheros, even if, technically, his dish was “two bites.” Leah’s dish is also in the top three, Rocco says it was the “perfect bite.”

After some deliberating, Leah wins the Quickfire (which makes sense; she had a good dish and really understood the concept behind an amuse bouche), giving her her second Quickfire win in a row, to Jamie’s dismay. Besides immunity, Leah gets a copy of Rocco’s new book, Rocco Gets Real, (oh really? is it available in stores now, perhaps? Perhaps in time for the Christmas season? And by the way, that’s Product Placement Number Three).

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Leah's winning "perfect bite."

Next, it’s time for the elimination challenge. The chefs will have an hour to create a dish for a 2 1/2 minute segment for a live TV presentation. Could it possibly be for The Today Show? Possibly? Padma just says that winning the challenge will have “big consequences.” Like the winner gets to sleep with Padma? That’s what Wonktheplank thinks the prize should be.

The chefs haul ass to Whole Foods (Product Placement Number Five), where we see that many of them have no idea about cooking for live television. Like, no idea at all. Gene wants to make a sashimi dish—but, like, do you really think that raw fish will go down well on live TV? And Alex has the brilliant idea that he will try to stand out by making a crème brûlée, even though there’s no way to make crème brûlée (where you have to make, chill, and bake the custard) in one hour. What is it with the desserts this season? Everyone and their mother wants to make one.

Back it the kitchen, everyone gets to work and there’s relatively little drama besides what we’ve already seen (seriously, Alex, crème brûlée? Seriously?). Jamie notes that she’s feeling especially confident, since she’s presented the dish she’s making on live television before.

After a frantic hour, Padma, Gail, Rocco, and Tom “Hottie Gay Bear Icon” Colicchio enter the top chef kitchen. There’s a camera set up, and the chefs take turns presenting their dishes, with varying success.

Ariane is the first up. She’s been smart, given her time limits, and makes a simple tomato, watermelon, and feta salad. It’s not a complicated dish but she stays calm and personable in front of the camera, and doesn’t go over her time limit (believe me, that’s hard to do). Jeff also does a decent job; he makes a Malfouf roll (um, what?) and, while I think he’s a little flustered on camera, he manages to pull it together in time.

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Apparently, this is a Malfouf roll.

My Boyfriend Fabio does extremely well; he’s confident and charmingly Italian in front of the camera, making a sesame-encrusted tuna that the judges seem to like quite a bit. Daniel makes a skirt steak, which the judges think tastes good, but he smokes up kitchen so much it looks like the fire alarm is going to go off. Stefan also makes a good dish, minestrone soup, but he appears a bit distant in front of the camera.

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Fabio's lamb - very pretty.

Despite her confidence, Jamie’s bitter green salad with duck egg doesn’t quite go as planned. Her fried egg doesn’t quite cook in the 2 1/2 minutes, and as the segment ends she places the partially raw egg on the salad. It looks a little gross and the judges mark her down for the uncooked egg. They also knock her for pouting on camera after the dish doesn’t go as planned.

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Jamie's slightly raw egg. It doesn't really look that bad.

However, I think her performance is stellar compared to Alex, whose crème brûlée is disastrous. He isn’t able to make the dish in the time limit, and when the judges take a bite they can tell that the custard isn’t actually set. Melissa also does extremely poorly, making a shrimp dish so spicy that Rocco actually spits it out.

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Melissa's inedible shrimp.

There’s quite a bit for the judges to gripe about, but eventually the put Jamie, Melissa and Alex  in the bottom three. Jeff, Fabio and Ariane are in the top three.

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Alex's dish doesn't look too bad, but remember that the cream isn't set at all.

There’s a lot of sulking as the chefs head home to Chez Top Chef. Ariane thinks that some of the other chefs think she pulled a Wendy Pepper and took the easy way by making a simple dish. But she doesn’t seem to be all that bothered by it. Whatever dude, I think she was smart. If the chefs are really “here to win,” as they all claim to be, then thinking strategically isn’t a bad idea (but, smart strategically, not “dumb” strategically, like Alex).

Jamie is extremely pissy and makes some comment about “crying herself to sleep,” although she seems to be sleeping pretty soundly later that night. Leah thinks that Alex’s head just isn’t int he game because he’s getting married in 20 days, and has other things on his mind. Personally, my bet’s on Melissa to go home. I know that Alex had a flawed concept, but at least his crème brûlée was edible.

By the way, I’d just like to point out that the show is halfway over and we still haven’t seen hide nor hair of the Today Show. Which just reinforces my thinking that originally the Today Show was supposed to be a surprise, before Bravo decided to promote the hell out of the brand synergy in ad after ad after ad.

In next segment we see Tom sneak into Chez Top Chef at 2:00 am and tell Ariane, Fabio and Jeff that they have to get up. Tom explains that they’re going to be cooking for the hosts of the Today Show (Product Placement Number Six), and the hosts will be choosing the winner! Dude, I though that they were all going to have to do the live demonstration on the Today show (which would be wickedly mean), but instead the hosts will just be eating the dishes that they’re cooking early that morning.

The next morning, the other chefs get up to see that huge TV set has been set up in their living room. While the three finalists nervously wait backstage and watch the Today Show hosts eat (i.e., pick at) their dishes, the other Top Chefs watch the segment on the show. After repeated shots of the Top Chef living room (and my couch), I just have to ask—does anyone else think the whole cowhide rug thing is over? Because I’m really over it.

The Today show women pick apart the dishes, all the while clucking like a group of mother hens. Ariane is freaking out because Meredith Vieira hates watermelon, which her salad contains, but it’s Jeff who really doesn’t do well—Kathie Lee actually spits out his roll! Dude, snap. They seem to like, but not love, Fabio’s tuna.

After much clucking, they choose Ariane as the winner, who is overjoyed. But wait! There’s more! She’s also getting a set of Rocco’s favorite kitchen tools (kind of a random prize, don’t you think?), and she’ll also be presenting a dish live on the Today Show the day after the episode airs (so, she was on yesterday, as of this writing). My boyfriend Fabio says that she deserves it.

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Ariane's winning salad!

Then we’re on to the bottom three. Really, I kind of think they put Jamie in the bottom three just to keep things interesting, since she’s done so well in past challenges. Compared to Melissa and Alex her raw egg sins are pretty minor (and did no one mention that Gene served up raw fish? Isn’t that even worse than raw egg?). Even Tom says that her dish was “so close to being a good dish,” even if Rocco dislikes the way she pouted on camera.

I fee like Melissa has the weakest defense of the three—she maintains that she likes her dish even if it was “too spicy for some of you.” Rocco doesn’t believe her, saying that the shrimp was “inedible.” Gail slams her on using a habanero pepper, which she says was “not the best choice” for a dish that’s supposed to be made by home cooks. They’re right on all counts.

As for Alex, well, what can they really say? Whenever someone tries to do something “difficult” or “different” just for the sake of impressing the judges, it never really turns out well. Rocco says that the crème brûlée was “a process that takes longer than the time you had,” which Alex agrees with. Gail suggests that a “live TV segment is not the time to try something new.” Seriously! See, Ariane wasn’t copping out, she was being smart.

At this point I really think that Melissa is going home (Alex has a stupid idea, but she cooked a bad dish), but surprise: it’s Alex! Maybe they sense more potential drama from Melissa and they decided to keep her on? That’s the only explanation that makes sense to me, personally. But he seems okay—he’s going off to get married, so it’s not like he doesn’t have other things on his mind.

Next week; The chefs are cooking for Gail’s bridal shower! I think she must be on a rapid slimdown diet or something, because she looks a lot better than she did in the first episode.

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Top Chef: Desperately In Need of A Blue M&M « Moderndomestic’s Weblog
December 12, 2008 at 9:14 pm

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

wonktheplank December 5, 2008 at 8:51 pm

Wow! What an entry! I’ll bet that Rocco cat would have liked the bacon sandwich fried in bacon grease from the brodeo.

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Vulcanella December 5, 2008 at 9:43 pm

I think we may have a war on our hands. Fabio can’t possibly be your fake boyfriend because he is already mine. Hmm. Interesting. It’s on like Donkey Kong!!

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moderndomestic December 5, 2008 at 9:44 pm

Oh, I think there’s more than enough Fabio to go around for all! I think it’s funny because he kind of annoyed me at the beginning, but he’s just so cute now . . .

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meg December 6, 2008 at 10:09 pm

I read an article that it takes them 5 days to film the challenges in the NY version of Top Chef. I haven’t heard them talking much about the time pressure. They live in Bushwick, the kitchen is in Bushwick but they shop in a Whole Foods in the middle of Manhattan. so just shopping can take 5ish hours.

Also, I like Fabio, he is cute. They are snobby but cute. He seemed actually okay about Arianne winning.

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wonktheplank December 7, 2008 at 12:02 am

Hah, I love it! I knew that they lived in Brooklyn but I didn’t quite put two and two together about the shopping in NYC. I think five days for an episode makes sense– considering all the locations they have to shoot, it would take awhile to get everything set up. Where’s the article you read? I would love to see it!

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