Have you ever paid more than $17 for a dish that weighs less than three ounces and has no discernible texture? Then perhaps you are familiar with this new development in gourmet dining: The waiter who instructs you how to eat your food.
“Please drop the quivering magenta orb into the shot glass of green soup, then tip it back all the way to drink it in one gulp. Immediately thereafter take a spoonful of the frozen beige powder and lean in close enough to the plate so you can smell the fumes of the exotic tree bark burning underneath it. This is what we call our “Twinkie.”
This is also what chefs call “deconstruction” — an exciting new style of cooking that delights diners with dishes that re-imagine their constituent parts. As an added bonus, deconstructed food often trades in textures that pop, ooze, wiggle and appear to suppurate like open sores. According to Wikipedia, French philosopher Jacques Derrida was a huge fan.
Before we get into all of this, the angel who sits on my left shoulder feels compelled to warn you that this woeful tale of cancer, crustless rice and Calphalon cookware will contain SPOILERS. If you haven’t seen the show, please stop reading and go decide for yourself if Ziploc bags are sturdy enough to warrant the extra ka-ching. I swear by them. In fact, I store my Glad bags in Ziploc.
So the day starts with the boys rooting through Mattin’s closet. He has packed his knives but left behind enough red kerchiefs to dress an entire army of Mattin-bots. Aww. Soon, all the dudes are sporting solidarity scarves and regretting the early departure of their Basque brother. He’s everyone’s favorite exchange student in high school.
Who would the chefs rather have seen go? No secrets there. That motormouth, Robin. Why, she couldn’t microwave a Steak-uum to save her life. Is this her time? Let’s see.
The very important convoy of dark, shiny vehicles transports our chefs to Top Chef kitchen, where Padma has been joined by Michelle Bernstein, a famous Miami culinarian and interpreter of Latin flavors who elicits nods of awed recognition. Guess what kids? It’s time for the:
QUICKFIRE CHALLENGE: Duo Challenge: Angel vs. Devil (or: Where’s Professor Robert Langdon when you need him?)
Padma explains Vegas cosmology to the assembled. There is an angel on your left shoulder and devil on your right at all times in this town. For instance, the angel is represented by Elvis-themed weddings and Joël Robuchon’s roast saddle of unicorn. The devil is gambling, prostitution and $7.95 all-you-can-eat buffets.
Now, chefs, illustrate this duality with a yummy twofer. Try and sneak a reference to the Illuminati (or perhaps “The Satanic Verses”) into your dish.
Various contestants take the “two ways” route. Jennifer pairs angelic scallop ceviche with seared scallops in buttery Beelzebub sauce. Bryan makes a white and dark dessert. Ash makes two custards, except one of them doesn’t cust. Ron prepares twinned fish fillets that seem to suggest moral relativism more than, say, a Faustian struggle of good and evil. (”I place my sea bass on yucca in honor to you, o Dark Lord!”)
But our boy Eli out-scallops perfect Jen with his heavenly radish-top pesto and sinfully good brown butter risotto. He gets a shout-out from chef Bernstein. But does he win the challenge? No! Robin does!
Yes, that devil in a white coat, Robin, who pairs an arugula, apple and fennel salad with a cardamom, ginger and apple crisp. Salad and dessert.
Her story helps. When she was diagnosed with two kinds of lymphoma, she stopped eating sugar and got all involved in raw food. But she was always “wanting to be bad.”
Does Eli take it like a mensch? Not 100 percent. He accuses her of playing the C card for sympathy: “When I had cancer, I could eat this and not this,” he says, mocking her.
Okay. Not. Going. There.
The fact is, Robin gets immunity and is all smiles when Penn & Teller burst through the door. The famous duo of comic illusionists perform the old cup-and-ball trick with wads of aluminum foil and red plastic drinking cups. Then, they switch to clear plastic drinking cups. They deconstruct the magic, as they are wont to do. You know where this is going, right? The:
ELIMINATION CHALLENGE: Deconstructing a Classic Dish (or: I don’ know nothin’ ’bout deconstrucin’ babies!)
The chefs draw knives, each labeled with the name of an iconic dish, which they must turn into the kinds of precious creations Tom mocks in his Diet Coke commercial. Pot roast becomes “Pot Roast.” New England clam chowder could, for instance, turn into a raw potato and a one-way ticket to Boston.
“Ooh, paella!” Ron whoops when he draws his knife. “I make paella all the time in my restaurant.” Yes, but has he ever deconstructed paella? Has he ever considered rendering the shrimp as a fragrant vapor and the saffron as a kind of foaming discharge? I think not.
The Voltaggios on the other hand? Piece of cake. These bad boys were born to deconstruct. No sooner does Mike V. draw his “Caesar salad” knife then he pulls out his calcium chloride and sodium alginate to spherify salad dressing into globules that gush when popped. He even makes his own brioche for “croutons.”
Still, this is a troubling challenge for most, as the lugubrious lighting over the Whole Foods of Horrors warns us. The music swells and the chefs bound like Hell’s minions into the market.
“Take the bloodline out of the tuna!” Bryan shrieks to the fishmonger. He has to make a “Reuben sandwich,” and that bloodline will not be welcome with “Russian dressing.”
Ron? No worries, mon. He’s going to make his Norwegian Cruise Line paella, and all will be right.
Mike I. has no idea what eggs florentine are, much less “eggs florentine.”
Ron and Laurine are aghast! “You take an English muffin and spinach,” starts Ron…
“…and a Mornay sauce made with Swiss cheese,” continues Laurine.
Dude, have you never cooked brunch service in a resort?
It’s pandemonium in the kitchen. Eli’s fancy pressure cooker explodes, an event that will put the cause of pressure cooking in America back 20 years. Robin asks Laurine to take her pancetta out of the oven, which is so uncool that Laurine lets loose with a string of expletives. Ashley has to deconstruct pot roast, but she was so poor growing up that she never had beef.
That evening, the Pickle Brothers — Kevin and Eli — give ol’ Ron a little Gen Y pep talk. You have to deconstruct your paella, dude. De. Con. Struct. Maybe you could cut the rice in squares to crisp the crust, because you know Michelle is gonna want to get her crispy on. Ron looks scared. Crispy?
The next morning, Jen is not happy, not at all. She was classically trained, dammit, and she does not deconstruct. Flopping grimly next to a box of Whole Foods granola, she succumbs to a woeful interior monologue. Deconstructed meat lasagna! Sob. She’s going home for sure. Not even a cup of Seattle’s Best coffee will cheer her up.
But no, it’s off to the M Resort to finish cooking for Tom, Padma, Michelle, Penn, Teller and — gulp — Toby Young! The dyspeptic Brit is back. “The meanest guy in food criticism,” Ashley calls him.
Young takes his position at the table, trailing a cloud of bad juju. He is bald, but not cool bald like Tom. Rather, it seems that even his hair hates him.
The dishes go out two by two. Teller pantomimes his reactions. Michelle likes this, hates that. Toby trades in mean, unfunny jokes about the food.
“These looks like bull’s testicles,” he says of rillettes balls in Eli’s otherwise praiseworthy “sweet and sour pork.”
“I’ve had bull’s testicles,” says Padma.
“I’ll bet,” says Penn.
Padma loves her first taste of Kevin’s “chicken with mole negro,” which is unsweetened crushed cocoa beans with chili flake, coffee fig jam, a croqueta of thigh meat and pumpkin seed romesco.They also love Ashley’s “pot roast” (steak with colorful dribbles), Bryan’s tuna Reuben and Jen’s lasagna, which seems to be a steak with tomato sauce, fresh pasta and cheese.
“That savory taste of the melted brown cheese on top…” begins Padma, with a look of Thickburger rapture crossing her face. Oh my…
But Kevin pulls out the win! And not only that, he gets a big purple box of Calphalon Unison Nonstick Cookware. It’s like a wedding gift.
Alas, Laurine gets hauled in for the loser’s table for her chipless fish. She apparently splits the tuber-troubled vote with Ash, who serves a potato-free shepherd’s pie that he interprets as chewy lamb chops with a pea squiggle.
These two squeak through, but they must bid au revoir to Ron, who never did get that crust on his paella rice no matter how much he overcooked it. He neither ponied up an acceptable traditional paella nor a good tricked-up one, and so he must deconstruct his presence.
A look crosses Ron’s face as he briefly considers removing the protective tree limbs that surround the judges’ table. But instead he shakes everyone’s hand graciously and talks about the American dream. He’s a sweet man, who we all will miss.
Go in peace, Ron. Reconstruct.