Top Chef: No Limits, Except Your Own Talent

by moderndomestic on January 9, 2009

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Toby Young scowling in concentration as he desperately thinks of witty, mean things to say that will justify all those Bravo commercials about how witty and mean he is.

Top Chef is Back! And as usual, it starts with shots of NYC, recap of the last episode, blah. Next!

For the Quickfire challenge, Padma is looking really lovely in a pale blue-green blouse, although Wonktheplank thinks she needs to undo a button or two. She should follow the lead of guest judge Jean Christophe Novelli, who’s shirt is unbuttoned at least one button too many, revealing a swathe of man-chest. I steel myself in anticipation of the product placement. Does he have a new cookbook? Is he starting a new show called “Cooking, Unbuttoned Shirt-Style”? Are we in for another Swanson challenge?

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Jean: "Do you think they can see enough of my chest? Maybe I should unbutton one more?"

It’s even better! Jean will be hosting a new show, “Chef Academy” on Bravo (Product Placement Number One). That’s some nice internal marketing Bravo – way to reach your target audience. Someone mentions that Jean is a pastry chef, although it’s not in his official bio. In a not-so-surprising surprise twist, the challenge is to make a “sweet treat” without using sugar. Padma calls this the “Diet Doctor Pepper Quickfire Challenge” (Product Placement Number Two). I suppose that Bravo drew the line at making the chefs use Diet Doctor Pepper in the preparation of their desserts. Next season, folks. Next season.

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I can't believe this photo is actually on the Bravo Web site. Did Diet Doctor Pepper pay to have it up there?

No one seems particularly thrown by the challenge. Jean’s comments are concise and curt, and mostly he makes weird faces when he doesn’t like something. I was surprised that he didn’t have more criticism of my least favorite dish , Melissa’s “dessert burrito.” That’s something you feed to fifth graders for an after-school snack, not something you serve on Top Chef.

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Melissa's dessert burrito belongs at preschool snack time.

Carla, Ariane, and Jamie are in the bottom three. Carla makes what I think is baklava with sauteed bananas (I’m not exactly sure because Bravo emitted the photo of the dessert on their Web site. Are you trying to make recapping this show harder than it already is?), but Jean says the bananas are “tasteless.” Ariane makes a whole-wheat crepe with pears and cream that Jean thinks is “missing something” (sugar, perhaps?). Jamie makes a napoleon using phyllo dough, with stewed fruit and ricotta for the filling. Jean says that the cheese “overpowered” the other elements in the dish, landing her in the bottom.

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Jamie's unfortunate napoleon.

Leah, Jeff and Rhadika have the top dishes. Leah made a stack of crepes with ricotta and strawberries, which looks just lovely. True to form, Jeff cannot make a dish with less than two components; he makes a baklava spring roll with cherry and fig frozen yogurt. Rhadika rounds out the top three with a challah bread pudding with lavender, peaches and yogurt. Yum. Jean succinctly names Rhadika the winner, giving her a second Quickfire win.

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Rhadika's winning bread pudding.

Then it’s on to the big news of the week: British Food Critic Toby Young will be replacing Gail Simmons as a Top Chef judge for the rest of the season. Oh, and he’s supposed to be really mean. Like, didn’t you see the fifty billion ads Bravo ran about how mean Toby Young is? I’m sure you’ll see some during the next commercial break.

I’d like to ask the obvious question: Why did Gail leave the show? Her blog provides no clues. Was she, like former Top Chef Judge Ted Allen, tired of seeing “passionate lovers of good food being forced to use packaged convenience junk thanks to Kraft/Altria/Exxon’s sponsorship”?

Ted Allen’s comments are even more timely, given that during the commercial break there’s a hybrid Top Chef and Diet Doctor Pepper ad with Brian from Season three and Stephanie, who won Season Four. They’re seriously shilling for Diet Doctor Pepper? Are you kidding me? Since when is industrially processed aspartame-sweetened water part of fine dining?

Okay, okay. Rant is over. The commercial break ends and we see Tom surprising the Chefs at Chez Top Chef. He explains that the next challenge will be “no limits;” i.e., the chefs will be cooking a family-style meal of their choice for the judges and some other food critics. The judging will be done “blind,” so the diners won’t know who cooked what. The chefs will be divided into two teams due to the small kitchen, and two people will be eliminated.

Group A – Melissa, Gene, Jamie, Hosea, Rhadika and Fabio – get to work first, heading off to Whole Foods (Product Placement Number Three) for their shopping. As they start prepping, Group B (Carla, Ariane, Jeff, Stefan, Leah) goes on its own, uneventful, shopping trip. Jamie decides to cook scallops again, even though she used them for both the Quickfire and the Elimination challenges last week. My Boyfriend Fabio sums it up perfectly: “All she does is scallops. For Chrissakes, come on. This is Top Chef, not Top Scallop.” Yes! Yes! Exactly!

However, there’s another twist to the episode. As Group B troops into the dining room on the way to the kitchen, they find out that they’ll be sitting down to judge the food along with Padma, Tom, guest judge Jean Christophe Novelli, and the famed Toby Young! Also, unbeknown to Group B, Group A will be able to watch the judging on a giant TV screen that’s been set up in the kitchen, nanny-cam style. The drama!

Group A’s dishes don’t go so well. The judges are mixed on My Boyfriend Fabio’s dish; they like his ravioli, but his lamb is seriously undercooked. Gene makes a bizarre dish of seared snapper and daikon fettuccine with tomato-basil sauce. It looks beautiful, but the flavors are strange and the fish is overcooked. Toby thinks that both the dish and the daikon are boring, describing it as “the bland leading the bland.”

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Gene's fish just looks unappetizing.

Melissa makes the weird decision to serve fish tacos, which Toby says taste like “cat food.” Ouch. Rhadika makes a spicy bisque that Tom thinks is “too heavy handed” and Toby calls a “weapon of mass destruction.” They’re also not fans of Hosea’s bacon-wrapped halibut and roasted vegetables; the vegetables upstage the fish, which is not what you want in an entree. Jamie’s scallops with fennel and garlic cream is the only dish that everyone likes.

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Melissa's fish tacos. Does she really think this can win? Maybe at Applebees.

Stefan is the only chef who really gets into critiquing the food; everyone else is very subdued. Maybe they should have gotten the chefs drunk beforehand? That would have made this much more interesting. Even Toby Young isn’t as tough as I thought he was going to be. His judgments aren’t any harsher than Tom’s. The difference is that he tries way harder to be funny and witty in his critiques, kind of like that guy in your high school AP Literature class who was always making puns.

Now it’s time for Group B to go cook, while Group A takes their place at the judges table. But after Group B brings out their food and returns to the kitchen, surprise! They see the giant TV, and realize that all their critiques were overheard by their fellow competitors. I bet they’re all thanking God right now that they weren’t drinking during the judging. They’ll save that for the stew room.

Maybe it’s because they got to taste their competitors food, but Group B definitely puts out better dishes. Stefan makes dumplings with duck breast and stewed cabbage, which Tom adores. Ariane’s seared skate wing with pineapple also goes over extremely well. The judges are mixed on Leah’s red mullet, which she fries between two slices of bread, almost like a fish-filled grilled cheese. Jamie doesn’t like it, but Toby thinks it’s like a “pan-European fish and chips.”

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Stefan's very German duck breast, cabbage and dumplings.

Carla does the worst in Group B, making a pea risotto, topped with a seared scallop, and garnished with a gremolata that has a harsh, raw garlic flavor. Jeff also doesn’t fare very well; he makes a trio of tapas that Tom thinks is more like a group of appetizers.

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Poor Carla. At least the risotto looks good.

Jamie, Ariane, and Stefan are in the top three. Toby says that he likes how unabashedly German Stefan’s dish was. Jamie says that she wanted to redeem herself after the raw scallop disaster of last week (um, or she’s doing the same thing over and over again). Jean says that Ariane’s dish was “a great dish.”

Jean announces that Jamie wins the challenge! When she triumphantly returns to the stew room, I see that there are many boxes with the Glad logo on them in the background. That’s it. That’s it. That’s Product Placement Number Four.

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Jamie finally produces a winning scallop.

Carla, Gene, and Melissa are in the bottom three. Tom says that Melissa’s dish was a “failure of imagination;” in a challenge where she had no limits or constraints, she chose something safe, boring, and pedestrian. Tom also thinks that Gene’s tomato basil sauce didn’t go well with the daikon fettuccine. Toby says that Carla’s dish was “a little tart, a little bitter” in the flavor department, and not in a good way.

I’m amazed that throughout the entire judging, Melissa keeps on pleading that she hasn’t been able to show them what she could do, and that she needs one more chance. I disagree. This challenge was her opportunity to do that, and she failed. I also fall in love just a little bit more with Tom Colicchio when he says, “it hurts me that a fish gives up its life” for Gene’s crappy dish. Oh my God Tom! You may have just turned me into your very own personal stalker!

Is anyone shocked that Melissa and Gene go home for the double elimination? I’m not. I’m more surprised that Melissa made it this far to begin with. As Gene walks out of the stew room for the final time, he leaves with the parting words, “when the booze is gone, it’s time to move on.” You said it, brother.

Next week: Hung, the Season Three winner, is back! And judging by the looks on everyone’s faces, I think it’s a really crappy product placement in Quickfire. Also, pigs! A farm! Chickens! A Stefan/Jamie show down!

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