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“Top Chef” recap, episode 2: Crapshoot

Credit: Bravo TV

Credit: Bravo TV

This weekly recap of “Top Chef: Las Vegas” CONTAINS SPOILERS. If you are adverse to SPOILERS then there is really only one thing you can do. Take your laptop and completely enclose it in Glad Press ‘N Seal, which clings to a variety of surfaces including fruit cocktail, seat-back airplane trays, tuna tartare, Padma’s fetching cerulean shorts, Tom’s shiny pate and Eve’s Midwestern dipthongs.

Aah. Poor Eve. Poor Michigan. The Wolverine State has not had a good run of things lately. First Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick obstructs justice. Then General Motors goes bankrupt. And now Eve, mauler of shrimp, heads home to the land of “pets or meat.” But more on Eve’s sad fate later.

Our sixteen chefs begin their grueling competition in the Top Chef kitchen where Padma and guest judge Todd English (chef and restaurateur, Figs and Olives) are standing by a craps table. The chefs must prepare a Japanese steakhouse feast on this felt-covered table, complete with airborne spatulas and an onion volcano.

Oops, no. Here’s what they really have to do:

QUICKFIRE CHALLENGE: Roll the Dice and Create a Dish with The Same Number of Ingredients (or: Mushy on Mushy Makes Mushy)

Our Kevin rolls a 10 and isn’t at all happy about it. He’s so not a 10-item chef. Let a few ingredients shine, that’s his motto. But, hey, life’s a crap shoot.

Laurine rolls a three and makes an asparagus soup so stripped down that all the judges can do is arch their eyebrows. Mmm. Green.

Ashley serves a lamb chop that a judge generously calls “a little rare.” It in fact looks ready to follow Mary home to school. Jesse of the pinned mouth can’t get a sear on her scallops, and Todd English gravely informs her, “When you have mushy on mushy, it’s not nice.” Words to live by.

But this episode really belongs to the brothers Voltaggio, Michael and Bryan, who are not, shall we say, each other’s keepers.

Mike, the younger one, is clearly the baby brother from hell. He has something to prove. “Bryan has gotten where he’s going with his career,” he moans.

There is no question that during his formative years Mike spied on Bryan and his girlfriend, found his hidden bottle of Wild Irish Rose and then went screaming to mom when Bryan hit him in retaliation. As a baby brother myself, I know the type well. Do. Not. Trust.

And yet…

Mike pulls out the win. After rolling an eight on the craps table, he thinks of the perfect eight-ingredient dish: gazpacho! Not just regular-Jose gazpacho but one frozen in a cumulus of liquid nitrogen that comes out so thick a pointy crouton can stand upright in it like a dagger through his brother’s heart. Boo-yah.

Not only does he win immunity but also another of those nifty $15,000 casino chips that will start him on a lifetime of compulsive gambling.

We barely have time to watch three commercials for the “Real Housewives” before it’s time for the:

ELIMINATION CHALLENGE: Bachelor and Bachelorette Party: Battle of the Sexes (or: where are the strippers??)

Now, this is sweet. We meet Cute Couple who have come to Vegas to celebrate their last days of non-connubial bliss. They come bearing the shots they plan to serve their guests — Moscow Mules, pure tequila and something called a “Golden Delicious” that Ash calls “sweet, gooey and disgusting.” The chefs must make dishes to match the libations.

So, how’s it gonna work? The boy chefs will cook for the bachelorette party and the girl chefs for the bachelor party. A nifty idea but, well, gender identity isn’t so cut and dried.

Ashley doesn’t feel right about the whole enterprise when her fellow gay citizens can’t get married in most states. “At least three of us here aren’t allowed in that institution,” she comments. But she puts on her game face and makes panna cotta.

The teams head to Whole Foods, where they’re seemingly issued brand new reusable bags and begin shopping for their respective dishes.

Mike Isabella, who has been frustratingly copacetic throughout the show, finally lets loose with a little sotto voce trash talk. For some reason that I either missed or willfully blotted out of memory, he calls Eli and Kevin “the pickle brothers.” And once again he makes fun of Preeti’s name. I hope one day she pins him to the ground and threatens to beat him up until he says “Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi” 10 times correctly.

It is time for the two parties. I may have missed something due to the quick editing — and please correct me if I’m wrong — but are these parties being held simultaneously around the same swimming pool?

This is the last hurrah for Cute Couple before a promise to love, honor and obey? I’m sorry, but are no wild oats to be sown anywhere at this sorry affair? It looks more like a Virginia Reel than a bachelor party. Have none of these people seen “The Hangover?”

Remember: what happens in Vegas gets broadcast to millions of homes. So just drink and eat and keep your clothes on. Unless you’re Eli and Kevin.

Anyhow, let me quickly do a Golden Delicious shot and move on to the food.

It is so hot out that Mattin’s red kercheif flops listlessly as do Preeti’s shiso leaves.

Tom arrives wearing sunglasses that make him look an awful lot like Morpheus from the “Matrix” movies. Then he does the most curious thing: he offers Kevin a red pill or a blue pill.

“Take the blue pill, and everything will continue as it was,” he intones. “You will still believe you are living a life where you get to spend five weeks in a resort town baking fish on camera. But take the red pill and you will wake up in a dark factory farm with a painful metal tube shoved down your gullet. There is a master race that pours corn down these tubes so they can feast on our engorged livers!”

Kevin takes the blue pill and makes almond soup. It is good, but not as praiseworthy as Hector’s tofu ceviche, which charms the judges. Todd English can’t recall a zippier mouthful of curd in his life. Eli scores big with with his tuna tartare with puffed rice, too. “Great seasoning and great acid!” cries judge Gail Simmons excitedly.

But while these two Atlantans enjoy a moment’s glory on the winner’s lineup, the brothers Voltaggio are the cooks to beat.

Young Mike makes (I think) apple  sorbet with a goat cheese cookie. But Bryan gets the gold for his riff on chips and salsa that involves a lime meringue, guacamole and corn puree. Add a few shots of tequila, and it’s party time.

Preeti drags her sorry shiso leaves to the loser’s table, joining a tearful Jesse and her disagreeably watery lettuce wraps. Ashley explains how she infused her panna cotta with bitterness (toasted bay leaves!) and Eve, dear Eve, serves up more flavorless shrimp.

I am sorry to see her go, mostly because I love the Marge Gunderson intonation when she says “fresh paaaped paaapcorn.” But go Eve must, back to Ann Arbor, Michigan, a sensible place where they don’t have craps tables in the kitchen. But they do have Zingerman’s, the great deli. It’s a good consolation prize for our hangdog Michigander, a sweet lady who rolled snake eyes.

35 comments Add your comment

[...] Chef: Las Vegas" Recap: Episode 2 | Food and More with John … Syndicated from "Top Chef: Las Vegas" Recap: Episode 2 | Food and More with John ….Our sixteen chefs begin their grueling competition in the Top Chef kitchen where Padma and guest [...]


August 27th, 2009
9:20 am

Like most of Kessler’s work, this is borderline unreadable. There are more nonsensical tongue-in-cheek references than Dennis Miller.

Come on, John. It’s a newspaper column covering a TV show. Like Kevin would probably recommend, let a few ingredients shine. Get to the point.


August 27th, 2009
9:43 am

I think this is a great article. Absolutely hilarious!


August 27th, 2009
10:48 am

“”Ashley doesn’t feel right about the whole enterprise when her fellow gay citizens can’t get married in most states. “At least three of us here aren’t allowed in that institution,” she comments”"

Seriously – just keep your mouth shut and cook the food. You were in the bottom four for a reason and I don’t expect you to last longer than Week 5. The world isn’t your soapbox – shut up and cook.


August 27th, 2009
10:55 am

Ashley’s incessant complaining about the plight of gays and lesbians as related to an engagement bash for a heterosexual couple was, well, incessant. If she achieves success in Top Chef World, will she refuse to cater a gig for a boy/girl couple forever? Or just until everyone can enjoy a state sanctioned marriage, a la Branjolina. I thought this was a cooking show. Ashley needs to decide between being a political/social spokesperson or a contestant. If she doesn”t like the challenges, she can either get focused on winning or hit the road. The only way she will make a significant impact for her cause is if she wins the competition. That’s a real long shot.


August 27th, 2009
10:55 am

Enter your comments here


August 27th, 2009
11:06 am

How did you ever get this job? You spent almost zero time discussing the losing team, waxed romantic on the winning (though lacking details like what the spin on the chips and guac WAS), made some odd gay jokes and blah blah blah’ed about your own weird fantasies. And they were not interesting.


August 27th, 2009
11:11 am

Why is Ashley complaining so much? When you cook for others, as chef’s do, it’s about the clients not your political agenda. Ridiculous.

I don’t think I could have taken Eve’s voice for the rest of the season.

[...] See the full article from “Atlanta Journal Constitution” [...]


August 27th, 2009
11:24 am

Amen to Ricci, Can’t we have a cooking show without any political posturing.


August 27th, 2009
11:54 am

i seriously enjoyed this commentary and will be following along with the series. the comment about ashley’s lamb getting up and following mary to school made me laugh. keep up the good work — there is nothing more boring than po-faced pronouncements from Official Journalist Types on the state of this or that reality t.v. show.

Joseph Goebbels

August 27th, 2009
12:05 pm

Man. I though I was harsh.


August 27th, 2009
12:38 pm

Bravo is where gay people talk about being gay. Might as well not get exercised about it, because it’s going to keep happening.

Jesse must go — she’s not equipped to handle criticism under a spotlight.

So far, a very milquetoast group. It’s hard to punch up the drama of a sibling rivalry when both parties interview as though they’re facing a firing squad.


August 27th, 2009
1:04 pm

there are enough boring play-by-play blogs, but this one is entertaining and funny. if you don’t think so, you should probably be reading the bravo blog, powered by bravo.

John Kessler

August 27th, 2009
1:22 pm

All right. Next time I want to go off on a flight of fantasy, reference a movie that only serves to show my advancing age or use a $10 word for no good reason, here’s what I’m going to do: Take out my handy-dandy roll of Glad Press ‘N Seal and wrap my keyboard tightly within. Or perhaps my head.
I wonder if the folks on “Project Runway” could fashion a catsuit out of Glad Press ‘N Seal? But I digress.
Seriously, it all seems a little contrived, no?
I just got off the phone with Eli, who told me that the bachelor/bachelorette “party” started filming at 8 in the morning, and the temperature was already 110 degrees. Par-tay.


August 27th, 2009
1:35 pm

This was hilarious and I loved the writing style! I always enjoy reading John’s work. Keep it coming!

Bill A.

August 27th, 2009
2:19 pm

I wish Kevin has swallowed the red pill. (I love John’s recapping ways.) I don’t think this group is any more milquetoast than at the beginning of other seasons, it always takes a while for the chefs who aren’t competition material—no matter how good they are at their jobs at their own restaurants—to get booted off, leaving the real fighters. We’ve got sexist Mike and bitchy-talented Jen, and our hometown crew. I think this one’s more compelling from the get-go than last season.

Anastasia Beaverhausen

August 27th, 2009
2:27 pm

John’s review is witty and tongue in cheek – or shall I just say cheeky?

The production team works with the material the cheftestants give them. If Ashley chooses to share her commentary on the status of gay marriage, it’s the editors decision to use or not use it. Their goal is to do as much character development as possible. They want to build villain, heros, proganists, etc. It’s all part of what draws us in to watch – sad but true.


August 27th, 2009
5:20 pm

You know what? After re-reading this blog entry, this would be MUCH more entertaining as an audio commentary while watching the show for the second or third time. But as a recap for what happened for those of us who missed the show, it’s meandering and too full of side dishes, if you will. Where’s the beef?!

Kessler can write; there’s no doubting that. But even Stephen King put out a turd every once in awhile. :)


August 27th, 2009
7:38 pm

Don’t let the haters get you down. Love the witty commentary as it is; keep up the good work!

John Kessler

August 27th, 2009
9:39 pm

Not getting me down at all. I’m a fan of intelligent criticism — even when it’s directed at me!


August 27th, 2009
10:49 pm

Loved this week’s punchy recap. John writes with heart and balls.


August 28th, 2009
11:50 am

I am still laughing about the rare lamb that followed Mary home from school. I agree that this whole one-pool, one-party affair seems dreamed up by a very jealous fiancee. Great job, John.


August 28th, 2009
1:32 pm

I assumed that the pool party was just the pre-real-party event, or even the pre-pre-real party event. Next time you talk to one of the contestants, help me understand how they keep the food hot while waiting to serve it to the judges. It doesn’t seem fair that someone might have a ten or more minute wait to have their food tasted.


August 28th, 2009
1:42 pm

I love Eve. She’s lovely and Michigan-y.

[...] "Top Chef: Las Vegas" Recap: Episode 2 | Food and More with John Kessler – view page – cached Life’s a Crapshoot When You’re Cooking in Vegas — From the page [...]


August 28th, 2009
2:49 pm

It’s called editing…they taped this episode over a LOT of hours and apparently no one else said anything even remotely interesting, so you get Ashley “complaining” for a minute about having to cook for the hetero wedding and commentary from Preeti too, but they both did their jobs as chefs do. It was only over the top in how the show’s editors made it a focus, but this is what happens when they’re all milquetoast in both cooking and personality so early in the season.


August 28th, 2009
3:27 pm

Although it’s probably true that not enough time has passed for any interesting interpersonal situations to arise, I think Ashley’s complaint would have been played up regardless. Top Chef has never been shy about catering* to its gay viewers** — every season features at least one chef outing him/herself before the first commercial break of the first episode. The show’s producers probably viewed Ashley as pure gold in that respect.

* yessss…

Weekly Link Round-Up: 08/28/09

August 28th, 2009
5:57 pm

[...] A shout-out to Whole Foods reusable bags in a Top Chef recap! [Access Atlanta] [...]


August 31st, 2009
5:21 pm

i think todd english is an extremely talented chef.
i would love to see him more on tv.


September 3rd, 2009
9:49 am

Enter your comments here


September 3rd, 2009
9:58 am

John, your writing is laugh out loud funny (your comment from Gail is my personal fave) but I’d enjoy more space devoted to the dishes. All in all, you do a good job of capturing the food but I’m one of those much more interested in cuisine details, less on the personalities. (Sorry I pulled the trigger previously sans comments)

Bill Bartmann

September 5th, 2009
11:05 am

I’m so glad I found this site…Keep up the good work

northern lights

September 14th, 2009
9:52 pm

well jens dish of salmon with jalapeno emulsion is the creation of soa davies who works in the kitchen at le bernardin ,when this dish was created by soa davies it was so perfect that chef eric ripert and chef muller put it on the menu without changing a thing so basically it wasnt her dish ,just a little info