If you choose to eat lunch inside an airplane hangar in the hot Nevada desert, where the midday sun can fry a scorpion in its tracks, there is always a chance your food will SPOIL. The undercooked shrimp in a slapdash Greek salad sumpin’ or other will spoil. The highly flavorful yet oddly flavorless pimentos, capers and artichokes that you dump right from their #10 cans into a pliant mound of cold, sad pasta may SPOIL. So unless you want to read about these SPOILERS, please visit another blog or perhaps find some pictures of smiling pets. Preferably ones not named Preeti.
So this episode started out with a frisson of tension when Laurine, lounging poolside at the start of the show, turns to one of the guys and says, “It was lonely in our bedroom.”
Excuse me? What she means is that now Eve and Jen Z. are gone, and the girls’ dorm is empty. Oh.
Soon, everyone is buttoning into their chefs coats to leave the suburban McMansion and head to Top Chef kitchen. There, a universe of potatoes awaits.
“There are sweet potatoes, and purple potatoes! Russian banana fingerlings and French fingerlings!” cries Jesse of the pinned mouth, who reveals herself as the Bubba Gump of tubers. She loves potatoes. Really loves potatoes. She knows every variety by name, bless her heart.
With joy in her step, she lunges for the sweet potatoes and begins:
QUICKFIRE CHALLENGE: Make an “Out of this World” Dish Featuring Potatoes (or: the attack of the faux marshmallows)
Guest judge Mark Peel of Campanile restaurant in Los Angeles has occasioned this challenge with his lament that he spend his formative years as a potato-peeling “vegetable boy” in Wolfgang Puck’s kitchen.
You know how that can be. “Vegetable boy! I need 30 gallons of Russian banana fingerlings peeled by tomorrow! Putin and his entourage have booked Spago!”
The contestants rush around in a Yukon Gold frenzy. A frantic Preeti uses Ashley’s blanching water. Jesse over-cayennes her sweet potato soup, which results in a paroxysm of self loathing (”It’s pretty —-ing spicy! Stupid me, I hate me!”)
Hector makes potatoes three ways, including a dish of mashed potatoes with yeast. Perhaps they expand pleasingly in your stomach.
Not good. His play on Southern sweet potatoes casserole with pistachios and “faux marshmallows” has two strikes against it. First, Padma, her voice ringing with bitter accusation, pulls a nut shell out of our mouth and shows it to Eli. (Aside: I so hope in the DVD version we see this slo-mo and close up.) Then, guest judge Vegetable Boy acidly comments, “I understand Southern cooking, but that was too sweet.”
Dude, if you even dare to mouth the oxymoron “too sweet” then you don’t understand Southern cooking. Pecan pie with the contents of a glucose drip bag poured over it isn’t too sweet.
Anyhow, Vegetable Boy give big props to the umami flavor of mushrooms in Ashley’s potato dish but bestows the win on Jen, who somehow “found the essence of the potatoes” in her mussel and multi-tuber presentation with potato sauce. It also helped that she dressed up as Mrs. Potatohead and sang “Danny Boy” in a pitch-perfect brogue. Yessiree, Jen — who get immunity — is the fingerling to beat.
With nary a beat missed, in marches Colonel Dave Belote, the 99th Air Base Wing commander at Nellis Air Force Base for the:
ELIMINATION CHALLENGE: Prepare a meal for 300 Servicemen and Women in an Air Force Base Kitchen (or: uncanny cooking for the masses)
Colonel Belote informs the chefs that they are to report to the base at 1200 hours tomorrow. They are to break into teams of two, with immunity Jen in charge, and all work together to prepare a buffet extraordinaire for the men and women in uniform.
Kevin and Eli form a team, with Kevin remarking they “bond on a fat-kid level.” The Pickle Brothers reunite. Hector, the odd Atlantan out, teams with Robin.
They arrive next day at the base — everyone with nice comments to make about our soldiers in uniform — and then stop short when they see what they have to work with.
“There’s a lot of canned food!” cries one disembodied voice.
“Spam? Is this Spam?”
Cut to Mattin in a sit-down interview confessing, “I’m not comfortable using cans.” That’s okay, Mattin. The creamed corn isn’t comfortable with your neckwear, either.
We find out a Voltaggio sister is in the Air Force from the two brothers who decide not to team up. We also learn Preeti knew she wanted to be a chef on 9/11.
There isn’t a lot of equipment — barely any pots and pans. People have to wait their turn for the steam kettle, a massive stainless vessel that heats up its contents. Mattin stirs and stirs and stirs his béchamel sauce in it with a giant oar, looking like he will never finish. (With that red scarf, he also looks like a Venetian gondolier.) Finally, Jesse gets teed off and complains.
Eli stacks all his trays of yumminess on a steel speed rack and, catch this, wraps the whole damn thing in Glad Wrap. See, there’s another use for all that Glad Wrap that “Top Chef” makes you covet. You can wrap up furniture and appliances wholesale with the stuff.
(Speaking of Glad Wrap, I’d like a show of hands. Who is more annoying: the Press ‘N Seal stewardess of this season, or economical Erika of seasons past, who got giddy with her frozen peas while summoning a soul chorus?)
The next morning, a convoy of jeeps takes the chefs to the airplane hangar where they’ll serve their lunch. Mike I. is thrilled with his vehicular convoy and comments, “It’s pretty cool. It’s like we’re going to war or something.” Um, yeah, minus the I.E.D.s, bouchedag.
A new jeep arrives at the hangar, a door opens, and a pair of shapely gams emerges first. Who is it? Bette Grable? No, Padma!
At ease, boys! Sargeant Lakshmi is just here to stuff her face!
The soldiers show up, some just back from Afghanistan, some about to be deployed, some toting along their cute children. The scene, all snark aside, is touching.
The judges like Hector and Robin’s three-bean chicken chili, particularly for its “authentic flavors” and creative garnish of fresh celery leaves to replace cilantro.
But it is Eli and Kevin who get called to the winner’s table for the Georgia-style braised pork shoulder with potato salad. The pork recipe, Kevin admits, is a good, quick cheat he learned from competitive barbecuers in his family.
But our Georgia fat boys are up against the two Mikes, I. and V., for the very clever braised bacon (cooked like pork belly) with soy-mustard sauce, peanuts and lettuce wraps. Mike V. wins for the dish. Mike I. stupidly makes a second dish (When will these people learn? Don’t make a second dish) that involves undercooked shrimp (When will these people learn? Don’t serve shrimp.) and flavorless Greek salad. (When will these people learn? Taste for salt.)
So Mike I. has to come back to the loser’s table. He gets belligerent and acts out. Is this what “Jersey Boys” is like?
Joining Mike in the ultimate minutes are Preeti and Laurine, who seemed to have opened a bunch of cans and dumped them over farfalle pasta. Boy, the judges hated this dish. Gail Simmons (whose hair has become as straight as the late-model Jennifer Aniston’s) says it’s “a hack job. Not creative, inspired or interesting.”
Laurine agrees it’s like bad conference-hall food but says, “I forgot about the competition.”
Preeti, on the other hand, sticks up for the offensive pasta salad. She likes it!
The judges are left with a Sophie’s Choice, if ever there was one on “Top Chef.” Who goes? The lame competitor or the defender of bad food?
Well, it’s back to the Google cafeteria for Preeti. Let’s hope she has stock options. If she shreds them finely and tosses them in the pasta, they might impart a little flavor.