Top Chef: Battle of The Runners Up

by moderndomestic on January 30, 2009

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The Top Chef All Stars have nary a final contestant among them.

Before we start, I have to say that the only reason I was able to get this recap up is because Wonktheplank figured out how to restore our cable service after it went out during DC’s first snow store of the winter. Please thank him by checking out his latest post on “fungible assets” (haven’t a clue what that is).

Now, on to the show. We start off with the usual recap of last episode, where we learn that Hosea and Leah’s smooch fest was indeed alcohol fueled! I knew it! I knew it! The way this show purposely liquors up the chefs to film their drunken exploits must violate a international human rights treaty – maybe I should alert the UN.

Also of note in the mini recap is an opening shot of Whole Foods. Product Placement Number One already? Are they getting lazy or what?

Moving on, the Quickfire guest judge is Scott Conant, whose newly opened Scarpetta restaurant received a three star rating from The Times. So unlike some past guest judges, he really knows what he’s doing.

The Quickfire challenge is Superbowl-themed, which seems straightforward enough, but the way Padma (looking ravishing in purple, by the way) reveals the true nature of the challenge is convoluted. The chefs play a game of culinary “football squares” (am I the only one that has no idea what that is?) to pick a main food group they’ll be using in the challenge. But then Padma reveals that the chefs have to pair their main food group with oats. No, it really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but that can only mean one thing on Top Chef:

Product Placement Number two! That’s right: this is the Quaker Oat Quickfire Challenge! Wow! It almost rivals the stupidity and arbitrary nature of the Swanson Broth Quickfire Challenge. We see some nice pornographic shots of the Quaker Oats label as the chefs prepare their dishes, as though the oat boxes just “happened” to be there and weren’t strategically placed in front of the cameras.

Oats are a strange thing to include in a cooking challenge, since they’re really more of a supporting ingredient. It’s kind of like having a Quickfire challenge where all the chefs have to use flour.

As one would expect, the chefs are really all over the map with their oats. Leah winds up in the bottom because her oat-crusted branzino is overcooked. In a similar vein, My Boyfriend Fabio coats eggplant pieces in a thick oat crust that overwhelm the rest of the dish. Jeff follows his signature rule of doing many things poorly rather than one thing well, and makes an oat-crusted chicken paillard, oat-crusted fried zucchini, and grits.

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Jeff's quickfire dish is as brown as brown can be.

In a refreshing turn, Carla’s pecan and oat crusted tofu with an oatmeal and lentil salad is in the top three. Jamie’s perfectly cooked oat-crusted shrimp with avocado and a peach salsa is also in the top. Stefan rounds out the top three – his banana mousse with oatmeal and oatmeal-almond petit fours look delicate and delicious. Hosea’s wiener schnitzel doesn’t even get a mention, which makes me a little sad.

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I wonder where Stefan got the rose?

Conant names Stefan the winner, giving the Stefan his fifth win in a row. He’s pleased as punch, and Hosea thinks that this will make Stefan even more unbearable. Well if you don’t like it Hosea then cook something good and beat the guy!

With the Product-Placement-O-Rama Quickfire over, it’s time for the Elimination Challenge. Of course, we already know the chefs will compete against a team of former Top Chef contestants in Superbowl-themed challenge. The producers act like this is surprising, even though Bravo has killed the “surprise” by over-promoting the show.

Bravo may have billed this as “Top Chef All Stars,” but they really should have called it “Top Chef – Hey, It’s That Guy!When I think Top Chef All Stars, I think of Harold and Tiffany, Dale and Casey, Stephanie and Richard. I think Steven Aspiriano. The closest thing we get to an All-Star is Spike (Season Four), with his weird and annoying hats. The other All-Stars are Andrew (Season Four), Josie (Season Two), Andrea (Season One), Camille (Season Three), Nikki (Season Four), and Miguel (Season One).

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The Top Chef Has-Beens.

So, I have to ask: did anyone actually understand how this challenge worked? See if you can follow this: The Season Five Chefs will each compete head-to-head against an All Star, cooking a dish in 20 minutes in front of a live audience. The dish will be inspired by the region of a pro-football team. The chef who wins the majority of the judges’ votes will be awarded seven “touchdown” points. Selected members of the audience will also be tasting the dishes, and whomever wins over a majority of the audience votes gets three “field goal” points. What the hell? Could they make this any more complicated? This is more confusing than those fungible assets Wonktheplank is blogging about.

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Expect this photo to turn up in high school boys' bedrooms across the country.

Each head-to-head match up is provided with the same set of ingredients, so we miss out on the Whole Foods shopping trip (which is probably why they showed the Whole Foods at the beginning of the episode). Instead of watching them shop, we get to watch Spike being really annoying. He actually says that he “wants to prove to the Season Five Chefs that they’re not worthy” of being on the show. Um, did you really just say that? Really? You weren’t even that good on Season Four, dude. The only reason why they kept you around was because of your stupid hats. You’re making me want to start a little boycott of your DC burger joint.

After the usual prep shots and some competitive banter among the teams, everyone’s carted down to the Institute for Culinary Education, where the challenge will be filmed. The actual competition takes place in a small studio that’s crowded with judges and fans. Some of the fans are the chefs who were eliminated earlier in the season! It’s Patrick! And Ariane!

The competition starts with Leah v. Nikki, who are cooking New York food in honor of the New York Giants. Leah keeps it simple with a New York strip steak with creamed corn, peas and arugula. Nikki makes sauteed chicken livers with arugula, goat cheese and challah toast. Leah wins the judges’ vote, but Nikki wins over the fans.

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Leah's winning steak.

Round two is Hosea v. Miguel, who are cooking Seattle dishes for the Seattle Seahawks. Miguel serves cedar-plank salmon with noodles and mushrooms. Hosea serves a crispy salmon role with a sesame-apple salad. The judges and fans vote for Hosea, with the exception of Tom. That salmon role looks amazing – I’d vote for it too.

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I want to eat Hosea's salmon roll. Now.

Round three pits Carla against Andrew, cooking the food of the New Orleans Saints. Andrew makes a crayfish crudo with spicy lime vinaigrette. I want him to lose because he talks to the audience in a really fake southern accent, which he thinks is funny and I think is extremely annoying. Carla makes a crayfish and andouille gumbo, served over grits. All four of the judges vote for Carla, but the fans pick Andrew.

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Carla's gumbo is beautiful.

Round four is Stefan v. Andrea, cooking the food of the Dallas Cowboys. Stefan makes a corn and pepper steak salad and a pork-topped coleslaw. Andrea makes a Tex-Mex chile with coleslaw. The judges are split; Padma and Toby go for Andrea, and Conant and Tom go for Stefan. The fans, the deciding vote, give the win to Andrea. I can’t believe Stefan was slain by the health-food chef! Classic.

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Andrea was smart to go for the Tex-Mex.

Next up in round five it’s Jamie v. Camille, cooking San Francisco cuisine in honor of the 49ers. Jamie makes a crab cioppino stew with olives and piece of grilled sourdough. Camille makes a sweet potato and miso mash, paired with a crab salad with mustard and butter. The judges are torn; Padma and Toby vote for Jamie, but Conant and Tom vote for Camille. Jamie wins over the fans, however.

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That piece of sourdough on Jamie's stew is huge!

Round six pits Jeff against Josie, cooking food from Miami, in honor of the Miami Dolphins. Josie makes a hot shrimp cerviche with papaya and mango, while Jeff makes a shrimp cerviche with sangria sorbet. Jeff thinks that his dish is far superior to Josie’s and makes some snippy comments about her presentation. But Toby, Conant and Tom all vote for Josie’s dish, as do the fans.

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Jeff didn't like Josie's warm cerviche, but everyone else did.

The final round is between Spike and My Boyfriend Fabio, who are cooking the food of the Green Bay Packers. In honor of Wisconsin’s hunting tradition, My Boyfriend Fabio cooks venison, which he serves with a salad with cheese. Sad to say, the salad looks like something off a lunch line. Spike makes five-spice venison with a port-wine reduction. Spike wins over all the judges save Toby, but the Fans pick My Boyfriend Fabio.

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Okay, so Spike's dish looks pretty good.

The final score is 37-33 in favor of Season Five. The team is thrilled, but I have to say, they weren’t really going up against the best of the first four seasons. Were any of the All Stars in the final three? I don’t think so.

Later at judges table, the judges name Carla as the winner of the challenge! As Toby puts it, he “tasted the love” this time in her gumbo. Go Carla! Go DC! And she wins two tickets to the Superbowl! She mentions earlier in the episode that her husband and stepson are football fans, so I bet they’ll be fighting over that extra ticket.

The bottom three are Stefan, Fabio and Jeff. It’s Stefan’s first time in the bottom, so he’s definitely not going home. The judges have to weigh what was worse – Fabio’s overcooked venison, or Jeff’s inability to simplify his dishes. Jeff clearly thinks that he should have won because his dish was more complicated, saying that he did much more work than Josie. He never seems to understand that complicated isn’t always better.

I’m worried at this point that My Boyfriend Fabio is going to get the axe, but thank heavens! It’s Jeff that gets cut. Don’t you dare touch My Boyfriend!

Next week: The chefs freak out because Eric Ripert, of Le Bernadain fame, is the guest judge. And from what I can tell, they’ll be cooking in Le Bernadain. Maybe they’re just freaked out by his platinum blond hair and preternaturally smooth skin? Because that’s what I think is really scary.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

wonktheplank January 30, 2009 at 1:33 pm

To think Your Boyfriend Fabio could have been cut. Thank goodness they picked Your Girlfriend Jeff.

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Joanne February 2, 2009 at 12:22 pm

I don’t like Jeff so I’m happy that he’s gone. He was so dense. Josie is a star in my book, b/c she’s filipina :o) And Fabio is not your boyfriend, b/c he’s betrothed to me (unbeknownst to my husband).

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