This week’s Top Chef begins, as always, with some pretty shots of New York and Brooklyn, and some shots of some really bleary-eyed chefs. Now that I know that it takes five days or so to shoot one episode (thanks to Meg), I think the chefs look so bleary because they’re really, really hungover. I mean, if I had to sit around for hours on end waiting for the camera crew to set up, while simultaneously being stressed out and nervous, I would be driven to drink copiously too.
Anyhoo, we get the scoop on last week, including Melissa’s near dismissal (I still think she should have gone home) and Ariane’s triumphant come-from-behind win. Also, we learn that Stefan is really cocky (ah, so the producers are coming back to that theme that they established in episode one, eh?) and that he has a crush on Jamie. Jamie, in case anyone didn’t know, is a lesbian (and you can buy the shirt to prove it), but Stefan seems unperturbed by this fact. He’s even made some pants for her toy lamb to prove it, which is the weirdest way to woo a woman ever.
The chefs head to the Top Chef kitchen for the Quickfire challenge. Alas, there will be no pretty-boy media-whore guest judge this time, because it’s the Identify that Ingredient challenge. Whoo hoo! We do get a nice passing shot of the Calphalon logo on the Top Chef kitchen appliances. I’m calling that Product Placement Number One, baby!
But there’s a twist—instead of doing the usual blind-folded taste test, the chefs will have to identify the ingredients in an unnamed sauce. They’ll each go head-to-head and the chef who can identify the most ingredients wins. I thought that they were going to have to write all the ingredients down, which makes the most sense to me. But instead they each volunteer to name a certain number of ingredients, and the one with the higher number has to name their choices. But if they’re wrong, then the other chef advances. Um, is anyone else really confused? I had no idea what was going on until, like, round three.
The first sauce the chefs taste is a shrimp/lobster bouillabaisse (isn’t that a soup, not a sauce?). The chefs generally play it safe with the ingredients (the really smart ones start off with “salt,” since salt is in everything). I rolled my eyes when Stefan and Jamie go head to heard—like I’m supposed to believe that they just happened to be paired up against one another out of pure luck? Yeah right. Also, Gene? How in the world did you think there was fish sauce in bouillabaisse?
The final round is Mexican mole sauce and Carla, Stefan and Hosea are the finalists. Carla loses it when she thinks that “peanut butter” is in the mole (um . . . no . . .) and Stefan gets out on “tomato paste.” Hosea wins the Quickfire and immunity when he correctly names “vegetable oil.”
Oh well well well, will you look at this? It’s a Swanson stock ad during the commercials. It looks like they’re building off the Swanson-Top Chef Product Placement synergy.
After the break, it’s time for the Elimination Challenge. Once again, we know exactly what the challenge is—the chefs will have to cook for Top Chef Judge Gail Simmons’ bridal shower. We know this because they’ve shown it about fifty times on the previews. Still, Padma is all mysterious, saying that they’ll be cooking for a bridal shower of a friend. This is just ridiculous.
Finally, the big “It’s Gail!” reveal comes, which is completely unthrilling. However, the judges make a big deal about how a bunch of the bridal shower guests will be Food and Wine staff members, so much so that I’m calling a Product Placement Number Two on Food and Wine Magazine.
The chefs use the knife-drawing method to split into four teams: “Something Old,” “Something New,” “Something Borrowed,” and “Something Blue.” The team name needs to inform the course that they’ll be creating for the bridal shower. This seems just a teeny, tiny bit arbitrary to me, but it’s still way better than the Swanson Quickfire Challenge.
Jamie, Radhika and Ariane are the Something Borrowed team and Jamie quickly takes charge. I felt bad for Rhadika, who obviously doesn’t want to cast herself as the “the Indian chef,” because Jamie immediately wants to do Indian-inspired food that they’ll “borrow” from Radhika’s culture. Jamie also wants to “borrow” some vadouvann spice, which she brought with her to the show, and use it somewhere in the dish.
Stefan, Jeff and Hosea are the Something Old team (insert joke about how Ariane should be on this team) and from the get-go Stefan drives his teammates crazy. Stefan shoots Jeff down for wanting to do a sorbet (“Jeff has no freaking clue,” according to Stefan). They all decide to do “old world” European food, and their dishes involve a lot of heirloom tomatoes. Actually, this seems like a pretty decent strategy—with these challenges the most important thing is to be clever without letting your cleverness take over the integrity of your food.
Leah, My Boyfriend Fabio, and Melissa are the Something Blue team, which definitely has the most difficult task at hand. As My Boyfriend Fabio puts it, “there’s not any frickin’ blue food.” You can tell he’s not American, because he didn’t grow up on a steady diet of Laffy Taffy and Blue Raspberry Airheads. Still, they decide to go with a fish theme, which is about the best they can do.
But it’s team New, Danny, Carla, and Gene, that looks like it’s going to fall apart. You know there’s something really wrong with when Danny goes off on a tangent about how they should do something pickled. Say what? Gene tries to be a “leader,” only his “leadership” leads them to the concept of doing a surf-and-turf sushi roll. Has it ever been done before? I bet it has. Does it sound good to eat? No, no it doesn’t. If anything, I think the entire concept of “surf and turf” is incredibly dated. They should have done a course with all locally sourced ingredients, since that seems, to me at least, like the newest and hottest frontier in cooking. I wish that Carla had stood up to her teammates because she clearly thinks that Gene and Danny are craaaazy, but she takes a back seat and lets them roll with it. Not a good sign on the Top Chef.
Now it’s off to Product Placement Number Three: the inevitable shopping trip at Whole Foods. We get to see more of Stefan’s dictator tendencies (he goes on and on about how “douchebag Hosea has immunity” and thus Stefan doesn’t trust him) and Radhika frets some more about how she doesn’t want the food to be “overly Indian.” Tell it to Jamie, honey, since she’s leading your team at this point–the viewers can’t do anything for you.
After shopping, the chefs have two and a half hours to prep for the challenge. Gene, apparently, doesn’t make the sushi rice correctly, and then tries to “fix it,” which you just know is going to come back to haunt him later. And it was the entire fault of the digital rice maker! Calphalon Digital Rice Makers, let that be a lesson to you!
Tom comes in to check on how everyone is doing. He seems to irritate the hell out of the blue team by reminding them that there’s no blue food (blueberries, apparently, are purple). Whatever Tom, have you ever had an Airhead? Or blue M&Ms?
Tom seems really worried about the New team—and he should be. He doesn’t seem very into their surf and turf sushi concept (no one who likes food would be into their concept). Gene says, prophetically, the team will “give [the guests] a new insight on sushi—hopefully not a terrible one.” Oh, producers. How brilliantly you foreshadow the end of the show.
Later that night all the Top Chefs seems to be getting drunk in their Brooklyn Apartment and gossiping about the challenge. Gene, who looks like he’s had at least a couple beers, decides in a fit of tipsy brilliance that they’re going to “improve” their sushi dish. Oh wow! Flashback! This is exactly how I came to sign up for Match.com!
Gene decides that the bridal shower guests should make their own sushi! They’ll present the guests with deconstructed sushi rolls, and then the guests will roll their own sushi! Wow. Just wow. What amazes me isn’t that he had this idea (let’s be honest—we’ve all had a “wouldn’t it be great to roll my own sushi” moment when really smashed), it’s that the team decides to follow through with it the next day.
As the program rolls to commercial, I have to ask: who do you think is the hotter housewife? Gretchen, or Tamra? The way that Bravo is pushing this question, I feel like it’s central to the fate of the world. I actually think that Tamra’s cuter—Gretchen has a nice body because she’s young, but Tamra’s prettier overall. But Wonktheplank thinks it’s Gretchen all the way.
The next day, after some little snippets of Leah and Hosea flirting (which just makes me feel really bad for their respective boyfriend and girlfriend), the chefs are off to the Elimination Challenge. And they’re riding in Product Placement Number Four—A Toyota SUV. I can’t wait until the chefs have to make food from chopped up bits of cars in a later challenge—just like the Saturn challenge on Project Runway.
The chefs get a peek at the very formal dining room before they head off to the kitchen. As the chefs prepare, the guests enter the dining room, and I feel as if I’m going to go on preppy overload. The guests are all so pretty and so put together and so well tailored, I feel like I have to run out to Lord and Tailor for a suit skirt right now!
Gail, to the credit of her stylist and her rapid slim-down diet, looks really cute. But Padma outshines her, as Wonktheplank reminds me (Padma just looks amazing in purple. I wish I looked like that in purple; instead I look like a washed out corpse). Also, we find out that the guest judge is Dana Cowin, the Managing Editor of Food and Wine magazine (which makes me feel totally justified in calling them out as Product Placement Number Two).
Team Old is first up with their old-world, heirloom tomato course. Jeff’s dish is a tomato sorbet, Stefan’s is an heirloom tomato and eggplant tureen, and Hosea’s is gazpacho. Gail really likes the sorbet (take that Stefan!) and the guests seem to like the course. One guest thinks the tureen is bland, but there are several positive comments about the sorbet.
Team New is up next. Danny, unbeknownst to Carla, has added mushrooms to her salad (who adds stuff to a dish without telling them first?!). Hosea thinks there’s way too much crap on the plate, and I agree. Gene makes a big speech introducing the dishes, but doesn’t explain how the guests are supposed to eat the deconstructed sushi. He realizes his mistake as soon as he’s left the dining room, but it’s too late.
Everyone seems to be having a hell of a time rolling up and eating their pathetic little sushi rolls. But Danny seems fine: “I think they’re going to start taking their clothes off and start eating,” he says when asked if he thinks the guests will enjoy their dish. Um, the hell? The hell? There are too many things wrong with that statement.
The Borrowed Team goes next and does much better; their dish is lamb with vadouvann carrot puree and raita. There was some drama in the kitchen because Ariane had to keep her lamb in longer than Jamie wanted, but they manage to get everything plated in time (all the other Chefs help the Borrowed team plate their dish, which I thought was very sweet). The guests really like the dish and it seems like the Borrow Team is definitely going to be in the top.
Team Blue goes last. Leah and Melissa are smart and have My Boyfriend Fabio present the dish because they realize that Fabio could serve Chef Boyardee and the women would eat it up. They serve a blue cornmeal crusted Chilean sea bass with roasted corn and swiss chard. The guests love Fabio (um, who doesn’t?) but are less impressed with the food. One guest calls it “old people food,” and guest judge Dana Cowin remarks that she usually likes a more “challenging” plate.
Back at the judges table, Team Borrowed and Team Old are the top two, which is no surprise. The judges love Jamie’s carrot puree; Tom calls it “subtle” and Gail says she loved the flavors. They also loved Ariane’s lamb, which they think was perfectly seasoned and cooked. Dana gets to announce the winner, saying it was the chef who “made the most flavorful component of the evening.”
Jamie is all set to win, but the Producers thwart her again (no doubt purely for dramatic effect). It’s Ariane! She wins again! And she wins an entire set of Calphalon cookware and Calphalon electrics (perhaps winning the exact rice maker that caused Gene so much grief!). I want to call this as Product Placement Number Five, but since they already showed the Calphalon logo earlier I feel that it doesn’t count. Ariane seems a little uneasy because she knows that Jamie is pissed off.
Now it’s on to the bottom two—Team Old and Team Blue. I agree with the Best Bites Blog, who though that Team Blue really didn’t do that poorly, and were just in the bottom because they needed to have two teams in the bottom. The judges make a big deal about how the “texture” of the dish was too soft, but it’s not like Team Blue made any egregious errors.
Team New is another story. Not only do the judges think the team’s dish was poorly cooked, Tom calls the concept a “mess” (Oh yes. Oh yes). Dana Cowin calls out Gene’s rice for being “mushy,” and the judges are unimpressed that he “saved” the rice (they’d rather not be served poorly cooked rice to begin with). They also ask Carla about the awful mushrooms at the bottom of her salad, and she admits that Danny put them in there without really asking her.
Danny is both mystifying and aggravating during this entire exchange. Clearly Carla and Gene know that they’ve messed up, but Danny stubbornly maintains that he thinks the dish was good. Why he would think that about a dish that even I, as a novice foodie, know is a mess, just astounds me. Or, as Tom puts it: “[Danny] likes the dish. It’s mind-boggling.”
Is it any surprise that Danny goes home? I feel like the producers set up his departure from the beginning. Tom does say, harshly, that he wishes he could send all three of the Team New members home, but since he can only choose one, it has to be Danny. Thank God. He was really getting annoying, and not even in an interesting way (like, say, Stephen Asprinio).
Next week: OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD! THE MARTHA! IT’S THE MARTHA! She’s really going to be there. Really! And the chefs are cooking for a holiday party. I seriously cannot wait.