Adventurous, crunchy Asian seeks blue, cheesy Middle Easterner for mutual mastication. Must be discreet. I’m into full-sleeve tattoos, sustainable seafood, hair gel, bacon and yuzu. You should be likewise. Not looking for long-term commitment. Just a Quickfire: 45 minutes, and it’s hands up. No romantic, tart Latins need apply.
Oh, dear. What fresh silliness has the “Top Chef” crew concocted for us after last week’s hiatus. Plenty, you will see. Word salads, bags of Asian mysteries, blown electrical circuits and the chefs’ first dinner party at their suburban McMansion! But who will emerge from the ruins of this party as the hostess with the leastest? Read on, if you can stomach the salty, tough and underdone outcome.
Once again, we start at breakfast as Eli scrambles eggs, Bryan shovels said eggs, Mike V. pines for his two daughters back home and Jen….oh, Jen’s not good. Hack. Wheeze. Sniffle. She’s sick!
“I’ve worked many times being sick,” says Miss Puffy Eyes, zipping shut her turtleneck fleece jacket. How reassuring! Indeed, last year she valiantly slogged through New Year’s Eve dinner at her Philadelphia restaurant before they sent her off to the Adirondacks for a six-month cure.
Sick Jen, garrulous Robin, homesick Mike and the seven more still standing meet Padma in Top Chef kitchen where she waits with guest judge Tyler Florence and a specially rigged chef-torturing slot machine. This slot offers no jackpot but endless permutations of foodie jargon. Yes, gang, it’s the
QUICKFIRE CHALLENGE: Create a dish using three words chosen by the slot machine (or: “Dude, You’re Stressing my Umami”)
The wheels spin and spin and stop with A: a mood. B: a flavor. C: a world cuisine. You ready?
Ash pulls “tired tart Italian” while Ashley gets “blue cheesy Middle Eastern” and Robin is “stressed umami Middle Eastern.” For the love of Escoffier, seriously? It’s like that improv exercise where the audience calls out adjectives, but with food. How exactly can one communicate stress through glutamate receptors on the tongue within the context of a falafel? I’m just asking.
Jen’s wheels stop spinning at “adventurous nutty American,” which suggests she must devise the Lucille Ball of recipes. Will she attach an escargot clamp to the tip of her nose? Maybe not. Our poor wheezing girl isn’t entirely compos mentis. “You should keep your mood out of your food,” she says — not exactly the spirit of the challenge.
Alas, Jen’s scallops with caviar aren’t adventurous or nutty enough for Florence, and so she gets singled out as one of the sucky three. Joining her is Robin, who, in a state of umami-induced stress, tries to pass curry off as Middle Eastern. Padma knows better.
Eli also shows poorly with his “stressed umami Latin American” mushroom ceviche accompanied by something called an “avocado marble.” He seems very proud of this marble, though I suspect it involves little more than an avocado and a melon baller. Whatever, Florence says the acid in the dish overpowers any chance at mushroomy umami goodness.
But our other Atlantan, Kevin, scores big. The capricious food wheel commands him to cook a “stressed, hot and spicy Asian” something or other. Does Kevin ever cook Asian food? No way, but he rises to the occasion with chargrilled pork with marinated daikon and carrots and a Vietnamese herb salad.
The pig is Kevin’s best friend, and he wins! And not just bragging rights, but also a choice of either immunity or a $15,000 credit at M Resort to start on a lifetime of compulsive gambling. Confident and riding high, Kevin (unlike Robin in an earlier episode) chooses the money.
Instead of announcing the elimination challenge, as is her scripted custom, Padma tells the chefs to go home. Home? Home!?
The anxiety is palpable. “They’re always twisting screws in your mind,” says Jen, sounding as if she’s being ordered back to the Stalag.
But – lo – during their absence some sort of anti-Grinch has gone through the chef’s manor and stocked it. Baskets of tomatoes and onions spill from the counters! Piles of Macy’s cookware fills the dining room! There are racks of meat and mixing bowls and even flowers! Vases and vases of flowers! O, what cruel fate awaits?
Uh oh. Here comes Padma and four grim-faced famous chefs, each holding a sack of groceries. These four (Nancy Silverton, Takashi Yagihashi, Govind Armstrong, Tom Douglas) comprise the “Macy’s Culinary Council,” an august body that apparently has something to do with those commercials where celebrities have dinner in a department store.
“In these tough economic times people are coming together for home dinner parties,” says Padma, subtly dropping reference to the Beatles song licensed for the campaign. And so she announces the
ELIMINATION CHALLENGE: Prepare dinner at home for the Culinary Council, using the bags of groceries in each chef’s arms (or: “The Tale of the Abject Brush Scrubber”)
The chefs must draw knives etched with the name of each grocery-bag wielding chef to break into teams, grabs their goodies and run. They have only three hours.
“Please don’t give me Robin, please don’t give me Robin,” Mike I. cries to the gods of bouchedaggery, who promptly hand him both Robin and Yagihashi’s sack of Japanese mysteries.
“I’m livid, angry, upset and going home,” Mike moans.
Three hours! The chefs storm the kitchen, trampling over their fallen brethren like English soccer hooligans to grab space in the tiny kitchen and secure the choicest leeks. Jen, getting raspier by the moment, reminds us she is unwell. Will she even survive Project Dinner Party before CDC field officers in full HazMat gear cart her away?
At least two of the teams establish clear master-slave relationships. Mike I. gives Robin meaningless little tasks as he tries to figure out what the hell he’s going to do with a ribbon of dried kelp. Robin chops along merrily, unaware that all her work is going straight into the garbage.
Mike V. sets up a Macy’s electrical cookware station in the dining room, and the starry-eyed Ash is all too eager to do his bidding.
“He is so brilliant with his asparagus coulis,” swoons Ash, “I’ll do whatever he wants.” Mike, for his part, just wants to make frozen-egg-yolk-filled ravioli with pancetta-wrapped halibut a la plancha in peace, so he sends Ash out to set the table.
“I’ll get the perfect flowers!” cries Ash, running outside. But when he returns, Mike is dire straits. All that fancy Macy’s equipment has blown the circuit! The plancha (i.e., griddle) is not crisping the pancetta-wrapped fish and the wok of water isn’t boiling the pasta. Mike may be seeing his little girls sooner than he thinks.
Kevin and Jen, in a more equitable relationship, open their bag, containing Asian condiments as well, and decide on a riff on Korean barbecue. Kevin gets busy with a hunk of Kobe goodness, while Jen fiddles with a cardamom-scented tomato chutney sauce and tries very hard not to sneeze into the pan.
Eli and Ashley are having a rougher time of it. As Ashley prepares her famous gnocchi, Eli stands on the sidelines holding fistfuls of salt and thinking spot prawns and some sort of screaming fuchsia sauce would set them off just right. (No, Eli, no! Never, ever serve shrimp or shrimp-like creatures on “Top Chef!”)
Tom Colicchio looks worried, as well. After he does his walkthrough, he grants a rare solo interview on the steps of the suburban McMansion with Nevada canyons behind him. “I don’t see how the textures will work together,” he says in full-on talking head mode.
Those three hours pass quickly, and soon the Macy’s Culinary Council gathers around Ash’s impeccable table with Padma, Tom and Brit twit Toby Young.
As befits these difficult recessionary times, all the food is to be served family style rather than plated on fancy china as is the chefs’ wont.
“Would you like some wine?” Padma asks, framing a bottle of Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio with Carol Merrill hands.
The guests scoop, pass plates and masticate thoughtfully. “This is chewy,” says Nancy Silverton of her mouthful of rubberized pancetta. “And the fish is overcooked,” says Tom, looking displeased.
But these issues are nothing compared to the horrors of the salt lick shrimp and gnocchi. Tom Douglas — looking a little wild, like one of those guys in New Yorker cartoon holding up “The End is Near” signs — cannot believe how badly Eli and Ashley mistreated the seafood.
“Spot prawns are too beautiful to let this happen!” moans the Seattle restaurateur, who knows from spot prawns.
The Macy’s Culinary Council is dismissed. Does the rest of the dinner party head to the parlor for dessert and digestifs? No, they convene to Judges’ Table. They call in Kevin and Jen for their fine beef in tomato sauce as well as Bryan and Laurine for a much more successful Voltaggio halibut concoction.
Jen wins — big — for her sauce, which she nailed despite failing health. A $10,000 Macy’s gift card is hers, and she promises to buy Kevin another suit because she didn’t do it alone.
Mike V. did do it alone, as becomes quite clear during his lineup at losers’ table along with his adoring partner, Ash. Eli and Ashley of the gruesome gnocchi sweat alongside.
But first Mike must defend his ill-conceived Vulcanized halibut with egg-gushing raviolo. Who did what, the judges begin to ask when Ash, practically throwing himself on his knees, begs not for the mercy but the full wrath of the court.
Ash did nothing — nothing! — (except pick out those fetching red peonies for the centerpiece). Mike is such a brilliant chef that Ash deferred to him on all counts.
“Do you mind washing paintbrushes for Michelangelo?” he asks with startling rhetorical flourish. The camera pans to Mike’s face, which registers…nope…nothing…just the old Voltaggio fisheye.
Eli and Ashley face down a battery of questions. Why serve gnocchi for an alfresco summer party? Who checked the doneness of the prawns? How did a cup of salt find its way into the sauce?
“The shrimp was really undercooked, and the gnocchi was salty and tough,” says Tom, staring straight at Ashley.
She must pack her knives, but not before having a good, cross-contaminant cry with Jen.
Jen, with her first elimination challenge win under her belt, twirls the red Macy’s card in her hand and wonders how she’ll use it. Maybe the Las Vegas store has a pharmacy, a nurse on call or perhaps even an outpatient clinic. Success feels — hack, wheeze — good.