Padmé, Padma. Padma, Padmé.
The “Top Chef” crew get a visitor from a galaxy far, far away.
Padmé Amidala, as you may recall, is the queen/senator/cradle robber Natalie Portman portrayed in three “Star Wars” movies and, as Eli informs us, this role is the “only important thing she ever did.”
Graduating from Harvard? Not important. Oscar nomination for “Closer?” Not important. Slapping on some kabubi makeup and a gilt head vise to share screen time with Jar Jar Binks? Vital.
So Padmé brings her entourage to meet Padma and her entourage over dinner in a steakless steakhouse, where they nibble on various slivers of beet and puddles of pureed turnip, and they talk about, um, oral prickling sensations.
But before we get to that — and rest assured, we will get to that — we have a lot of handwringing and angst in the desolate McMansion that was once so full of life and kerchiefs.
Bryan methodically sharpens his knife in the kitchen, thinking he could just plunge it into his brother’s heart and be done with this whole business. Jen of the increasingly wild hair and teary disposition is distraught with her performance and seems on the verge of self-flagellation. Robin, talking a mile a minute after her 57th cup of Seattle’s Best coffee says, “I know I’m here for a reason.”
Yes, Robin, that reason is called “naked ratings ploy.” You know, I know, we all know, you could microwave a Twinkie and still eke by.
Over in Top Chef kitchen, Padma greets this glum bunch with her usual bag of tricks: pantsuit, semi-famous chef, silly prop, Knife Block of Destiny.
This time around the chef is Paul Bartolotta (cut to Mike I. with the boilerplate “he’s a stud in the food world” speech), the prop is an “I Love Lucy” era living room set, and the knives reveal names of television shows.
It’s time for the:
QUICKFIRE CHALLENGE: Make a TV Dinner based on a Classic Television Show (or: Do Double-Dipped Chips count?)
Kevin pulls….”The Sopranos.” Buonissimo!
Eli gets…..”Gilligan’s Island.” How oddly fitting!
On it goes. Jen? “The Flintstones!” Bryan? “M.A.S.H.!” Robin? A PBS documentary on the Donner Party!
Actually, Robin gets “Sesame Street” for her inspiration, and after deciding against a roast saddle of Elmo or piggy head cheese served inside a tiara, she comes up with a scheme to make some kind of hamburger thingie with a yolk in the center to look like Cookie Monster’s eye. I’m serious. Eyeball burger: that’s what we’ve come to.
Eli kvetches because “Gilligan’s Island” was so before his time but gets busy coconut-crusting shrimp.
(Quick aside #1: Don’t we think senile Baby Boomers will remember “Gilligan’s Island” plots long after they forget their grandchildren’s names?
Quick aside #2: Do we miss Ron here? Yes! He would have prepared some kind of fish and plantain business that would make Lovey Howell limbo from gustatory rapture. )
Jen, whose nervous breakdown seems to creep closer by the hour, finds the larder fresh out of brontosaurus meat. So she decides to make a Flintstonian chicken roulade. I do not understand this, because I never once saw a chicken roulade tip over Fred’s family sedan. i don’t even think Ann Modrock asked for chicken roulade when she played the Bedrock Bowl. Perhaps Jen was thinking of Wilma’s French twist.
Mike I., who has never seen “Seinfeld” and therefore can’t summon references to twice-dipped chips and imperious soup makers. So he makes sausage and peppers because, you know, Seinfeld is an Italian name.
Bryan? He updates good ol’ American cooking for our boys in Korea and makes crepinette-wrapped “updated meatloaf” and Mom’s tarte tatin.
Kevin thinks of his extended family, who all live on the same block, when he contemplates his filial Sopranos dinner. So he fills the compartments of his cool-looking porcelain TV dinner tray with meatballs, polenta, roasted cauliflower and a honey roasted pear.
Padma and chef Paul take their seats in the living room and begin their TV dinner feast. All that’s missing is George and Gracie.
They care not for Robin’s eyeball burger and Jen’s prehistoric roulade. But they thrill to Bryan’s M.A.S.H. loaf and Kevin’s meatballs. Kevin wins!
Alas, Padma says, “Immunity is no longer on the table,” but Kevin’s Sopranos-inspired meal will somehow inspire the new “Top Chef” frozen food line by Schwan’s.
“Can I get my picture on the box?” Kevin asks. His sweet granny actually gets Schwan’s home-delivered frozen dinners, and he thinks she would love to see his face on the box. (That, or it might scare the bejeezus out of her.)
Padma sidesteps this request by announcing the:
ELIMINATION CHALLENGE: Cook at Craftsteak at the MGM Grand Hotel (or: What exactly is on the tip of Padma’s tongue?)
Sweeeeet! The chefs can’t wait to get their hands of the fine steaks and chops at Tom’s steakhouse, and so they all take to their beds and discuss the merits of sous vide as they lounge.
The next day is even better than they imagined as they discover racks upon racks of gorgeous beef. Hello, Kobe!
But then Tom arrives with guest judge Padmé, a.k.a. Natalie Portman.
“I love food, I love to eat all kinds of things, but I’m a vegetarian,” she says sweetly. “And if you serve me animal flesh I will thrust a light sabre through your eye.”
“Bleep. Bleep Holy bleep,” go all the chefs except Robin, who loves cooking vegetarian food, and Mike, whose mom was vegan.
Kevin recalls the grim feeling of meatless non-satisfaction during Lent. Eli denies vegetarians their humanity (”they’re lesser human beings”) and poor, poor Jen, at wit’s end, starts looking for a cat-o-nine-tails so she can beat herself. This is it, her goose is cooked. She is lost without meat.
But the chefs soon discover a walk-in cooler stocked with all manner of fantastic vegetables that Tom has procured from a LA. farmers market.
Eli and Jen must flip a dehydrated orange peel to determine who will get the tender Japanese eggplants. Eli wins, leaving Jen with the firm and suspicious Indian eggplants.
“I’m not happy I didn’t get the eggplants I wanted,” says Jen, smashing lemongrass against the side of a counter.
Mike I. is in his boastful/chill mood. He’s got it down. He makes veggies all the time at his Mediterranean small plates restaurant, Zaytinya. He’s got leeks. And some kind of orange mush. And pretty little purple slivers. Padmé will eat it up.
But his leeks don’t poach, set as they are in a warped rondeau. Jen spends so long beating her lemongrass, she barely has time to slice her inferior eggplant and fling it in despair on a plate. Robin is thrilled with her fresh green chickpeas but can’t get them on the plates in time and three of her guests must go chickpea-less.
Padmé brings Jar Jar and a few other friends to the table; Pamda arrives with Tom, chef Paul and Gail Simmons, who has returned in a green satin gown with frills crawling up her shoulders. She looks a little “Real Housewives” I’ve gotta say.
Robin is first up with her confusing dish of beets, possible chickpeas, a fried squash blossom and a chermoula sauce so salty that Padma says, “I can feel my ankles swelling.”
But Eli follows with confited eggplant over creamed lentils and an herbed radish salad that everyone loves despite the soapy lavender note.
Mike V. makes a fun and fascinating dish of asparagus salad with Japanese tomato sashimi and banana polenta. Not everyone loves the banana polenta, but they are charmed by the humor and originality.
Mike I serves his undercooked leeks and makes some big bouchedaggy claim that the leeks stand in for protein because they’re kind of cut to look like scallops.
“I want to like it more because I love leeks and purple is my favorite color,” says Padmé, reaching for her light sabre.
Bryan follows with a barigoule of artichokes in lemon sauce with garlic blossoms that startles everyone.
“I’ve got a little prick on my tongue,” says Padma.
“Don’t say that,” laughs Padmé.
Gail tries to bring back a serious food discussion and talks about the flavors lingering and developing in her mouth.
“So it went from a little prick to big in your mouth?” asks Tom.
Dear Top Chef, Thank you for this.
Just when things were getting a little tough to swallow, Kevin brings everyone back to the here and now with his fantastic if casual composition of mushroom, smoked kale, roasted turnips and turnip puree.
Without question, Kevin gets called to Judges’ Table, along with Eli (who hoots and hollers) and Mike V.
Gail loves Eli’s “beautiful garlic puree” while Padmé applauds the trippy delight of banana polenta.
“Who is his dealer and does he want any clients?” she asks.
But Kevin wins again! It’s a twofer! Tom applauds the “mouthful of flavor” in his dish. No one sniggeringly recalls earlier conversations, and Kevin wins a suite of GE appliances.
Mike V. is not happy that Kevin got the win for his sloppy plate of yummy stuff.
“I could have made that in the second year of my apprenticeship,” he grouses.
Mike I., Jen and Robin get the call for loser’s table. Wild-eyed, contrite Jen gets dinged for a dish that tasted like a good side but not a full vegetarian entree. Robin…well…she made Robin food.
Mike I. tried the old “chill out about the raw leeks” line, but Padmé pointed out the dish sucked in toto. He’s outta here.
After hugging everyone but Robin and never fully admitting his shortcomings, Mike packs his knives and slips a Kobe ribeye into the knife roll for good measure.
Neither the jerk nor the fine competitive cook he seemed to be from early episodes, Mike returned to his yogurts.
Six little Indians remain.