City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
City & State or ZIP
City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
City & State or ZIP

“Top Chef” Recap: Episode 5 — The Blair Lunch Project

Donner Party Memorial

Donner Party Memorial

Welcome to the desert, ladies and gentlemen. Yes, you, with your avocado mousse, and $40 tubes of hair gel, and dashi broth, and jaunty kerchiefs, and your fancy French words like “paillard,” and your woeful senses of entitlement. Welcome to the raw elements, the unforgiving sun, the blistering sand, and the snakes that only come at night.

You, chefs, will cook your preening vittles in a pit. Over an open flame. In a rusty pot. And you will feed it to Padma, queen of the desert, and her 20 cowboys. We do not — repeat, do not — want a repeat of that dinner scene in “Blazing Saddles.” Got it?

One of you won’t make it out alive. Your sun-parched skeleton will remain in the sand for eternity, your flesh having been feasted upon by vultures (and special guest judge Tim Love), your knobby metacarpals wrapped around a spatula.

Who will that be? Read on if you dare.

Okay, rewind. Let’s go back before the start of the Blair Lunch Project, to another morning in the suburban McMansion. Mattin stands over the sink eating his breakfast and reminiscing about the idyll of his Basque childhood on the farm, cavorting with chickens and goats. A Voltaggio mourns the loss of Hector. Kevin puts on his socks. Robin, having run out of hair gel, applies molten Glad bags to her hair for spikes that wont wilt in the Nevada sun. Ashley talks to her twin brother on speakerphone and cries.

Enough of that. The top-secret convoy of official, dark-hued cars shuttle one and all to the Top Chef kitchen. (By the way, I have heard the kitchen is not actually in the M Resort despite the scenes of chefs walking through said resort’s halls.) There they meet chef Tim Love — who’s a cowboy because he wears a Stetson hat and named his Texas restaurant (as well as his failed New York spinoff) after a Larry McMurty novel.

Padma and the lonesome Love Dove introduce the:

QUICKFIRE CHALLENGE: Cook With Cactus (or: goo figure)

Padma explains this is a “viewers choice challenge,” meaning that online voters were given the eternal question — Rattlesnake, cactus or kangaroo? — and they chose cactus. Well, duh.

But suddenly our once-confident crew is transformed into nattering nabobs of nopales negativity.

“Eez so slimy, and eet has needles in eet,” whimpers Mattin, echoing the views of just about everyone in the kitchen.

“We don’t have cactooos in ze Basque country,” Mattin further moans. (This is a strange assertion because the entire region is apparently overrun by coyotes and roadrunners, according to Wikipedia, and the Acme Bomb Company is headquartered in Biarritz. Whatever..)

The chefs curse and struggle. Slimy! Gooey! Mucilaginous! Can anyone survive the torrent of cactus goo?

Yes, one clever soul. Mike Isabella knows you have to cure the nopales by submerging it in salt. Add some cured tuna, a pipian sauce, and he scores with the most succulent succulent in the kitchen, according to the Love Dove. Mike earns a $15,000 chip to start off his lifetime of compulsive gambling, but he does not get immunity.

Ash, who prepares a kind of “grilled cheese sandwich” in a clumsy homemade tortilla that looks like a burn poultice gets the lowest marks. He says the Love Dove looked “pissed off that [he] had to eat this food.”

At least Ash gets to keep cooking, unlike last week’s quickfire washout, Jesse. Love Dove and Padma, uneasily digesting their goo, announce the:

ELIMINATION CHALLENGE: Prepare a High-end Lunch for Chef Love and Two Dozen Cowboys Outdoors (or: the Donner Party ate better)

Two. Dozen. Cowboys. The mind reels. What fou-fou delicacies do cowboys crave? Arctic char? Ponzu sauce? Tuna on hardtack?

Quick to Whole Foods, which, you know, is where all the pioneers shopped before embarking on that arduous journey across the Santa Fe Trail. They knew there would be no fresh cilantro until Bent’s Fort.

Cooking “outdoors” proves to be more than even our most intrepid chefs imagine. They arrive at the Sandy Valley Ranch, which is an encampment of teepees, an outhouse, a covered wagon filled with pots and pans, a lean-to prep kitchen, and four fire pits. Not an immersion circulator in sight. The chefs are there for the night.

Eli, our unrepentant city boy, worries that this camping trip will give his nature-loving girlfriend ideas. Ashley looks at the outhouse and waxes nostalgic for her underprivileged childhood. And Ron? He engages in good old Haitian voodoo (seriously) — surrounding his tent with sticks to ward off snakes.

The Voltaggios, sitting around the campfire, decide to grow even more indistinguishable. I mean, can anyone tell them apart? I’m beginning to suspect there really aren’t two Voltaggios, but just a lot of fancy camera work.

The morning dawns early, and temperatures hit the triple digits far too soon. “It’s like the surface of Venus,” jokes Eli, who has proven himself as the best quipmaster on the show. ” “We’re just going to try and stay conscious.”

The chefs run hither and yon. It looks like Ashley and Laurine are the only two who actually know how to cook over an open flame. Ashley uses various iron pans to temper the heat and get a fine sear on her halibut. Laurine works her baking potatoes like a counselor on an Outward Bound trip.

Mike I. falls back on his old Hellenic tricks, making a kind of pork gyro. Mattin and Ron don’t even go near the hot stuff and instead opt for ceviche à la Deadwood, using the combination of poor refrigeration and 110-degree sun to particular effect.

Robin prepares something called “drunken prawns” with chicken sausage and soggy salad. No, no, no. STAY AWAY FROM SHRIMP, people. On “Top Chef” shrimp always spell heartbreak.

But time’s a’ wasting! We see something on the horizon. It’s the Wild Bunch trudging purposefully toward camp Sandy Valley: Tom (is that a bolo?), Padma, Gail and Love Dove in his baddest Stetson. Twenty cowboys trail behind. They mean business.

Padma — wearing a long, green skirt that makes her look like a mix between a pampered guest at an Aspen dude ranch and Miss Kitty Delatour from the Gold Nugget Saloon — approaches the camp and rings the dinner bell.

Let us pause just for a moment to note how wrong this is. Normally in the Old West, a cook rings the bell to announce dinner to the many ranch hands within earshot. Padma subverts this paradigm. “Feed me, everyone,” the bell commands.

The cowboys — hats, beards, grunts — line up for their high-end lunch.

“Do you want a bourbon-glazed chicken paillard with succotash?” Ash asks chirpily of a grizzled oldtimer.

“Okay,” the cowboy mutters laconically from beneath his handlebar mustache, eyeing the succotash with suspicion. He’s seen “Blazing Saddles.”

There are, off the bat, some spectacular failures. Mattin’s High Noon ceviche trio repulses the judges. Tom spits out his hunk of raw cod and calls it “gross.”

Meanwhile, Robin’s drunken shrimp may have spoiled somewhere over Independence Pass, and Love Dove says eating these shrimp is “like sucking on a piece of chlorine.”

But the successes are many. Kevin’s roasted duck with mole and tequila-marinated watermelon looks like a million bucks. One hirsute cowboy, who appears to be the lost member of ZZ Top, has no idea what the hell he’s eating. But he tastes — and likes! — the tequila. Jen’s Arctic char with an Asian slaw also gets high marks from one and all.

But neither dish buys their creator a place at the judges’ table. No, Ashley ascends with her fine halbut, as does Laurine with her pit-fired potatoes and her multidirectional Southwestern Arctic char. They face the Robo-brothers. Bryan wins for his roasted pork loin with polenta, dandelion greens and glazed rutabaga — a dish prepared with restaurant-level finesse.

Robin and Mattin face off at the firing squad with Ron, whose too-sweet tuna ceviche came with some kind of repulsive coconut cocktail that Gail calls “bitter and acidic.”

My guess? Not a cocktail at all, but rather a voodoo potion that can make cod spoil. For it is the scary cod — fish that actually made Love Dove feel sick — that gets Mattin the boot. He is shocked: this would never happen in Basque country.

Maybe not, mon ami, but here in America, you are — how do we say? — French toast. Adieu.

18 comments Add your comment


September 17th, 2009
9:48 am

John, you knocked another one out of the park! Absolutely hilarious stuff! I couldn’t believe that no one picked steak… Are you kidding me? You’re going to a ranch and you’re going to cook for “cowboys” and Love Dove and you think of Arctic char and NOT steak?? This is one different bunch. Can’t wait for next Thursday… your comments are better than the actual show!


September 17th, 2009
10:32 am

I thought Ashley was a goner after the Heartfelt Phone Call Home (Of Doom). Glad she did well — she manages the neat trick of being both serious and likable.

I liked Tim Love as the guest judge — cowboy pretension makes for better audience surrogacy than French chef pretension. He had the quote of the night, “And then Mateen, this guy….” He and Bryan both smile as though they’re brushing their front teeth. They just pull their lips back — otherwise, their faces don’t move at all. It’s like Clutch Cargo doing a Crest commercial.

Finally, Gail seemed more relaxed in the outdoor setting. Hey, wanna go camping??


September 17th, 2009
11:11 am

Am I the only one who flinched when Mike Isabella pronounced it: JY-Roh?
And um, how did they wash their hands.
John, while I’m with you on the overuse of hair product, there are a couple of chefs, who look a little, how can I say this kindly? — unkempt. And if I saw them in the back cooking, I’d be a bit concerned.

Anastasia Beaverhausen

September 17th, 2009
11:26 am

John, you continue to amuse us with your comedic review of the show. This IS better than watching it! I’m with Art, you’re cooking for cowboys and no beef? And what up with Tim No-Love? Perhaps next week they’ll contiue to get such personable chefs like Michael Chiarello…lol


September 17th, 2009
1:20 pm

The way you can tell the brothers apart is that one looks like the definition of ‘average’, and the other looks like he wants to suck your soul out and spit into his immersion circulator.


September 17th, 2009
3:55 pm

Good stuff, John! Your review is better than the actual show….well almost. I do like to read your take on the show before I watch it.

Laura Dahl

September 17th, 2009
5:18 pm

What a fantastic overview! Seems almost as if you were there with us…

Yes, the western adventure was filmed at my family’s ranch and I was lucky enough to be a part of the episode (even though that meant I had to eat all the gnarly food).

For some insider info on the taping, check out my blog!


September 17th, 2009
5:36 pm

I watched the program and could not wait for your report. I was not sure who Tim Love is and still am not. I thought it was Mattin’s time to go home last week too.


September 17th, 2009
6:40 pm

This review gets funnier every week! When the season is over, I’ll miss reading this as much as I’ll miss the show.
As for the brothers, one is nice and somewhat grounded. The other has his nose so far in the air, it’s crazy.
So long Matten, or however you spell it. Guy seems clueless; like he’s living in a dreamworld.
Did you mention the voodoo sticks to keep the snakes away? He put more into that than he did the apparently gross cocktail.
Now, John, what does cactus really taste like? No one ever said. It’s slimy; does it taste like okra?

Jennifer W

September 17th, 2009
9:44 pm

Mr. Kessler,
You have been the reason I’ve been consistently racing to my computer every wednesday at 11. LOVE the commentary! However, I am surprised you didn’t mention Ron’s quest for a sword…


September 18th, 2009
12:12 pm

As with Rodney Ho and his RHOA recaps, your blog is better than the show. Thank you, Mr. Kessler!

B. Thenet

September 18th, 2009
4:04 pm

Is it me, or was Tim Love one of the most arrogant guest chef’s that they have ever had on the show. It was an easy win for the only person that blatantly catered to the whim of Tim Love’s ego with their dish.


September 19th, 2009
8:20 am

John, since you submitted this entry at 2 am, I can only guess that fatigue makes you funnier. These reviews ARE the reason to watch the show. Mattin, the little Basquan wimp, won’t be missed…his is one restaurant I won’t bother with when in San Francisco next. The JY-Ro comment (from a self-proclaimed Greek to a panel of professional chefs, no less) almost killed me so thanks, Michigander, for making me feel better.

The remarks about the V brothers (from both John and Colitas) were hi-larious. Keep ‘em comin’!

Wayne Bynum, G.M., Sandy Valley Ranch

September 19th, 2009
11:33 pm

I would like to point out that Sandy Valley Ranch is far more than a few firepits and outhouses. We also have a ranchhouse with a dining room that seats eighty people, a full size kitchen, two lighted arenas, a ‘covered wagon’ B&B that is quite charming, and some of the most beautiful western sunsets you will ever see. Horses, cattle, a very friendly staff, and on one acre out of 200, a little place we call ‘Cow Camp’ where ‘Top Chef ‘ decided to film their episode.

John Kessler

September 21st, 2009
11:33 am

Thank you all for the hilarious commentary — particularly the Voltaggio litmus tests. I shall pay attention to tattoos and soul suckage in future viewings. Mr. Bynum: I’m sorry your ranch has been depicted as the strange campsite from culinary hell. Laura — I’ll go read your account right away. See you all Thursday!

Kevin Bailey

September 21st, 2009
2:28 pm

Enter your comments here
Wow, the hilarity continues.

I’m slightly disappointed that Mattin is gone, simply for the unintended comedic value he brought. Did anyone else catch his near backflip when he heard the words “20 cowboys”?
I’d bet a paycheck that Ron’s sword was hidden somewhere in his tent…

I enjoy the column, keep up the good work.


September 21st, 2009
2:38 pm

Mike Isabella was the wedding feature in Sunday’s Washington Post. I didn’t realize he had worked at Kyma. Saying Jy-Roh seems even more offensive


September 25th, 2009
1:31 pm

Good riddance to Mattin! I enjoy watching the same people mess up every week…they gotta know their time is short!