Last time on Top Chef: it’s the Thanksgiving Challenge! I always like this challenge because Thanksgiving is such an odd meal with a huge mish-mash of flavors. It flies in the face of the highly sophisticated “taste experience” that most restaurant chefs strive for, which makes it an interesting challenge.
However, banish your hopes of a discussion of American culinary traditions or the historic origins of the great meal. In TV Producer-land, “Thanksgiving” means “product placements.” Lots and lots of product placements.
We start off with shots the Top Chefs blearily going through their morning routines and discussing the last episode. Fabio wants to win a Quickfire challenge so he’ll be tied with Stefan, while Ariane bitterly recounts how her too-sweet meringue almost got her kicked off We also get our weekly dose of Richard’s sass; among other things, he refers to Leah as the chef with “a nice rack.” They’re really trying to cast him as Top Chef’s Christian Siriano in the sass department.
Then we’re off to the Quickfire challenge. At the Top Chef kitchen, Padma (sporting a floaty purple printed blouse that, to use Richard’s vocabulary, does some nice things for her “rack”) introduces the guest judge, Grant Achatz, a leading chef and Molecular Gastronomist (a style of cooking that, apparently, is going out of style in the recession). There’s some requisite fawning over Grant, although I think having a molecular gastronomist judge the Thanksgiving challenge is kind of odd. It’s like having Daniel Day Lewis judge “America’s Got Talent” or something.
Padma wishes everyone a Happy Thanksgiving, but she says it with a pained, fake expression on her face. I think this is due to the fact that this episode was probably shot in May or so, which is a very un-Thanksgiving time of year. Grant says something really ominous about “rolling with the punches,” so you just know that this is going to be completely awesome. The chefs nervously draw knives, all of which have different numbers written on them. The numbers are all over the place—some are in the 300s, some are in the 70s.
Alas, the numbers are for the Product Placement Number One: each number is a page number of the Top Chef Cookbook. Oh my God! How incredibly clever and post-modern! Not at all a blatant ploy to sell the Top Chef Cookbook, no siree.
Everyone seems a little annoyed (at product Placement Number One, perhaps?) but gets to work on their dish. They have 60 minutes to put their own spin on each recipe—another ominous sign, since that’s a lot of time for a Quickfire.
But wait! Wait! One product placement per challenge isn’t enough anymore. Padma yells for the chefs to “stop,” and then says that she and Grant have changed their minds. Now they want soup. And since the chefs won’t have time to make their own soup stock, they’ll be generously supplied with Swanson Broth (Product Placement Number Two) for their dishes. Wow, how incredibly random.
The chefs seem really annoyed now and so I am. As the chefs furiously start on their soups, we’re treated to alluring shots of Swanson broth that seem better suited to a Playboy pictorial. Some of the chefs are dealing with the twist better than others—Carla says that she’s like MacGyver and can deal with the twists and turns, while Jamie goes on and on about how she loves soup, and how it’s her favorite thing to make. But Leah fusses over how her dish calls for white asparagus, which she hates, and Richard can’t add lime juice to his Mexican black bean soup because he mismanages his time.
After the time is up, Grant and Padma prowl through the dishes. They like Stefan’s Thai green curry bisque, but they think that Ariane’s lamb and roasted red pepper soup is overcooked (boy, is she pissed). They especially like Daniel’s ham and egg soup with cheese. But Grant thinks that Richard’s Mexican soup needs more “acid,” making Richard especially regret his lime omission. Melissa makes an Italian wedding soup with black truffles and Parmesan linguine; Grant says, cryptically, that this dish “blurs” the lines, and not in a good way. So what does that mean, exactly?
Grant really likes Leah’s chilled asparagus soup; he acknowledges that it’s a difficult ingredient to work with, but he thinks she’s done a great job. Jamie also proves a strong contender; the judges really like her chickpea soup with crispy shallots. Jamie says that she’s “not trying to be egotistical,” but she thinks that her soup was really good, which makes her sound rather egotistical. Funny how that works.
Grant says that his favorites were Jamie, whose soup was “well balanced;” Leah, who got points for the difficult ingredient; and Daniel, whose soup was “hearty” and “rustic.” But there can only be one winner, and it’s Leah, who actually is pretty low-key about her win.
Now it’s time for Padma to introduce the Elimination Challenge. The challenge is to divide into teams and cook Thanksgiving dinner. Since Leah won the Quickfire, she gets to pick her team; she chooses Jamie, Hosea, Stefan, Melissa, Fabio and Radhika. That leaves Carla, Richard, Daniel, Eugene, Ariane, and Jeff for the second team.
In another random twist, the chef’s won’t just be cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the judges—they’ll be cooking for the Foo Fighters (Product Placement Number Three) and their entourage of 60, 20 of which are vegetarians. The Foo Fighers also provide the chefs with a list of their favorite foods (bananas rank high). The winners of the Thanksgiving challenge will get to watch a Foo Fighters concert, while the losers will have to clean up after the meal.
The chefs get to work drawing up a game plan. Stefan seems to be emerging as dominant personality on his team, while Jeff ends up taking charge on the other team. For reasons unbeknownst to the audience, Stefan’s team dons the title of Team Sexy Pants, while Jeff’s team becomes Team Cougar (Jeff says that Ariane is their mascot. Dude, that’s really mean). I swear to God I think that the producers make them pick dumb team names to make the episode easier to follow (or to sell t-shirts with the team names on the Bravo Web site).
The chefs travel to Blue Cross Arena (Product Placement Number Four) up in Rochestster, New York, where they’ll be cooking the dinner and where the Foo Fighters will be performing later that night. However, when the chefs see where they’ll be cooking, they’re in for the surprise of their life: Product Placement Number Five!
Instead of cooking in a real kitchen, they’ll be cooking outside using only Calphalon microwaves and toaster ovens. There’s no refrigerator, no freezer, and only one measly burner. Interesting how this is the second time in this episode where a product placement makes for a really random challenge. The chefs, understandably, aren’t happy about these constraints.
After some Top Chef bitching, the chefs go shopping. We get to the store and, lo and behold, it’s Product Placement Number Six. Ariane, who’s making the turkey for Team Cougar, makes a big deal about how she chooses a Butterball turkey. We see various shots of Butterball turkeys, with a nice lingering shot of the logo. Other than this, the shopping is pretty uneventful.
The chefs get back to the kitchen and get to work. Eugene has ingeniously concocted a smoker out of various items he found at the grocery store, and starts working on a maple-smoked pork loin. Alex starts making mac and cheese with bacon, since the Foo Fighters love bacon, and Daniel busies himself with a couple of potato dishes. Jeff is being ambitious and making two desserts: a pumpkin mousse with fruit, and a bread pudding. Richard has decided to cater to the Foo Fighters’ love of bananas and is making up banana smores, which sound good to me. Meanwhile, Carla is making salad dressings, as well as a dessert of her own.
Over at Team Sexy pants, Stefan is making up the turkey and Jamie is whipping up a couple of side salads for the vegetarians. Radhika is working on stuffing, Leah is working on their potatos, Fabio is working on a pumpkin tiramisu, and Hosea is making a fruit crisp. Most of their stuff looks pretty ho-hum to me, but I bet Fabio’s tiramisu is awesome.
After more obligatory cooking scenes where we see various chefs hounding Ariane about her turkey, afraid that she will be the “weak link,” everyone rushes downstairs to set up their stations. Richard waxes poetic as the judges enter the building; we see a slow-mo shot of Tom walking into the arena as Richard says that he has “butterflies” because “Tom-Hottie-Gay-Bear-Icon-Colicchio” has entered the house. Wait, Richard, are you gay? Because I’m not sure. Maybe someone needs to beat me over the head with this fact one more time before I really “get it.”
Unlike some of the team challenges on past seasons of Top Chef, the teams are pretty close on this one. There are some good dishes: one of the Foo Fighters (no idea which one) really likes Jamie’s vegan stuffing, saying that it was his “favorite” thing out of the entire meal. Everyone agrees that Ariane has the best turkey, which means that she beats all-mighty Stefan on the turkey front. The judges are also fans of Fabio’s pumpkin tiramisu, which makes me really wish that I could taste it.
But while there seem to be no amazing victories among the dishes, there are definitely some hideous failures. Danny’s potatoes are slightly underdone (eww), which the judges rightly criticize. The judges also dislike both of Jeff’s desserts, although his pumpkin mouse with fruit is especially bad (the Foo Fighters call his little dishes of mousse “barf-aits”). And Richard’s banana smores just don’t deliver. Richard makes the mistake of putting a “vanilla foam” atop each smore, which one Foo Fighter says reminds him of “spit.”
Clearly, no one hit it out of the park. But the judges have to choose a winner and they choose Team Sexy pants, who are thrilled. I kind of think it’s unfair, since it seems like the teams were really tied and there was no clear winner.
As Team Cougar stands before the judges, Jeff gives a passionate defense of their performance, which he says was strong given that they were thrown a lot of “curve balls” in the competition. Tom remarks that the other team was thrown the same curve balls (i.e., random product placements) and they still did a (slightly) better job.
However, the judges agree that Ariane made the better turkey and that she really redeemed herself in the challenge. The judges also liked Gene’s pork, especially Tom. Gail calls Danny out on his “undercooked” potatoes, which he tries to defend as “al dente;” Tom says it was one of his “least favorite” dishes of the night.
But the main scorn is reserved for the desserts. The judges say Carl’s cobbler was “too sweet,” although Gail calls it the “least offensive” of the desserts. They also say that Jeff’s pumpkin mousse was “unbalanced” and that the combination of the pumpkin with the fruit was just strange. They especially dislike Richard s’mores, which Grant says were “really bad.” Gail mentions the “spit” comment about the vanilla foam.
There seems to be so much wrong with the desserts, but the judges can only pick one loser. They choose “Team Raindow” member Richard and his spitty s’mores. Richard seems genuinely stunned and, I have to say, so am I. I thought they would keep him on the show for his gay humour and kind of witty banter. But I guess those s’mores must have been really, really bad, because he’s outta there. He gives his final interview in tears, which is rather touching, and makes me feel bad for him. Team Rainbow ain’t doing so hot, folks. Better buy those t-shirts.
Next Week: The Top Chefs Go to The Today Show! Can you feel the synergy of the product placements? Can you feel it? Also, someone on the Today show spits out the food. I just hope it will be more exciting than when Padma spit out Ariane’s meringue. Here’s hoping.