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

“Top Chef” Recap, Episode 2: The Lunch Lady’s Revenge

topchefQuestion: Whatever happened to Glad? Where are you, freezer storage bags and snap-and-seal containers? This fine, fine family of food storage products appears to have migrated away from the culinary dust bowl, like the Joads.

Other than that, things are as they ever were in “Top Chef” world. Our latest installment begins with….

…I don’t know.

I’m sorry to admit this, but I missed the beginning. Yet I’ve watched enough “Top Chef” to be able to imagine the first few minutes.

A hazy orange sun rises behind the Capitol. Traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue goes zoom zoom. Cut to the Top Chef town home. We’re still early in the not-enough-beds part of the season, so we see our sleeping cheftestants spooning. Groggily they wake up and head to the kitchen. A caravan of black limousines pulls up to take them to the Hilton hotel.

“You know, this is where Reagan was shot,” one chef comments. An ominous chord of music swells. At that moment, Padma bursts through the door to “Top Chef” kitchen with a bald man who isn’t Tom. Cut to a closeup of excited recognition on a contestant’s face. It’s Sam Kass, the White House chef!

“Hello, chefs,” says Padma, starting her three lines of inane canned dialogue. The only way that anything gets accomplished in Washington is with a spirit of bipartisanship. So, you know, put on red and blue aprons and make sandwiches. Mmm’kay?

[UPDATE: A coworker who did not miss the beginning of the show informed me the aprons were tied together, so each pair could only use two of their four hands to cook. No word on the fate of the other two hands.]

QUICKFIRE CHALLENGE: The bipartisan sandwich, or: Nancy Pelosi’s midnight fantasy

Question: Does Padma actually call the result of this Quickfire Challenge the “bipartisandwich?”

Whatever. As I flick on the TV, I find the bipartisan sandwich commission of Angelo and Tracey kicking it.

“She’s like my twin sister,” Angelo, before whispering nasty things in her ear about Kenny the arch-nemesis. This promises evil machinations to come, which is a good thing. With any narrative luck, Tracey and Angelo will turn out to be the gay Boris and Natasha of this season. Ve vill get you, squirrel!

And look! Tracey and Angelo win big with their flounder sandwich! Sam Kass loves the herbs and Sriracha sauce on it, and so they both enter the elimination challenge with immunity.

If Sam Kass is behind the fork, you know what’s coming next. A big plug for First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! program to eradicate childhood obesity with better nutrition and exercise.

Did you know, you deconstructors of duck, that the average school lunch program has only $2.60 to spend per child? So let’s see if you can make something nutritious that kids will want to eat in the…

ELIMINATION CHALLENGE: Prepare a balanced meal for 50 middle schoolers with a budget of $130, or: The Lunch Lady’s Revenge.

The chefs break into four teams of four, with gay Boris and Natasha given the right to choose their teammates. Sneaky. They know that if their team goes down in the challenge, one of their teammates will take the fall. (I cchave fiendish plan to get squirrel!) So, of course they choose Kenny and some other anodyne dude who I’m not concentrating on enough to get his name.

They draw up their menus.

What do kids like?

Melon! Peanut butter! Tacos! Gnocchi! Gnocchi?

Are you serious? “If you bleep gnocchi in front of them, they’ll bleep!” Amanda (the olive-complected brunette of no discernible cooking style) warns Tamesha, and truer words have never been spoken.

Before long, the chefs find themselves at Whole Foods sobbing on the floor by $12 bunches of organic fennel. Kidding! They go to a place called Restaurant Depot, a store so vast and warehousey that it makes Costco look like Star Provisions. This store is so big you have to cross the Maryland state line if you want to buy that pallet of creamed corn in aisle 624.

Corners are cut and ingredients returned as the chefs come to grips with their $130 budgets. Jacqueline, the whiny caterer of low-fat chicken liver goop fame, must return her expensive chocolate. Yet Amanda gets to keep her bottle of sherry. If she can get the kids liquored up, she’s got them in the bag.

Much frantic chopping ensues. Kelly, a determined and hard working Coloradan, braises pork for carnitas and makes her own tortillas out of…oats, is it?

Jacqueline, still mourning her chocolate, finds herself in the midst of another food disaster. Her starchy bananas will not break down into pudding, so she keeps adding more and more sugar, thinking of the effect of sand on sea glass. Jacqueline thinks: Kids like sugar, right? They’ll go ape for this stuff, and those damn fool judges will think it’s healthy because bananas are fresh fruit. Heh, heh…

Somewhere in here, an interstitial snippet of film shows Tracey talking about helping to raise her girlfriend’s child, and admitting that they eat fast food at least once a week.

And now the chefs must decamp to Alice Deal Middle School and prepare their 16 courses of food that is inexpensive yet nutritious and still foofy enough for the judges. Somewhere, Jamie Oliver is laughing.

The children and judges descend. Tom and Padma bring Sam Kass and the Simpsons lunch lady as special judges.

So, yummy! Kelly’s tacos, Arnold’s corn salad, Lynne’s black bean cake and Tiffany’s sweet potato and sorbet dessert.

Boo, yucky! Angelo’s peanut butter and celery, a sorry excuse for a vegetable. Jacqueline’s banana stucco. Stephen’s mushy rice.

The judges pull a fast one and ask the losers to come first. “Childhood nutrition has become a huge health crisis in this country,” Padma says, and the chefs stare at their feet.

Sam Kass gets preachy. Why did Jacqueline try and rescue those sorry bananas? “That’s what happens when we don’t use good ingredients,” he sniffs. “We add more sugar.”

And Amanda. Sherry? Are you nuts? “I love vodka, but I’m not cooking with it,” Gail Simmons exclaims.

A decision is reached. Not only must Jacqueline pack her knives, but she can no longer go within 500 feet of a school, and she has to take the rest of the banana pudding with her. Harsh. Goodbye hapless caterer.

18 comments Add your comment

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by John Kessler, andrea weigl. andrea weigl said: jdkess A must-read for #topchef fans: @AJCFoodandMore's John Kessler's weekly "Top Chef" recap – [...]

Ga Peachy

June 24th, 2010
11:29 am

It was sooooo dirty that Angelo thru that challenge just because he had immunity, I mean come on celery and peanut butter, thats not even cooking anything. Do you want to win because you are Top Chef or because you cheated to get your biggest competition kicked off. The Top Chef Masters would never do such a thing! I hope Angelo is kicked of his high horse real soon! In order to be a true Top Chef integrity and class is needed!

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June 24th, 2010
12:47 pm

Love the narration, John!


June 24th, 2010
1:02 pm

I don’t understand these contestants on these cooking shows – it seems as if pretty much all of them smoke. Doesn’t smoking impair your ability to taste food correctly?

I don’t think Jacqueline should have gone home – she had poor ingredients and did what she could with them. The girl with the Sherry should have gone simply for the fact that you don’t serve alcohol to kids. I doubt it’s even allowed on school grounds. Plus it didn’t seem like the judges liked the dish much either.


June 24th, 2010
1:21 pm

1164mgc: I didn’t see the show, did the woman COOK with the sherry or did she just serve them sherry shots? You see, when you COOK alcohol, the alcohol disappears. It just leaves flavor. I’ve been “serving alcohol” as you put it to my daughter since she was old enough to eat real food. I’ll bet John has too. I put red wine in s’ghetti sauce, white wine in marinara. John will shudder in horror, but I also sometimes put wine in my bulgogi marinade.

Just a tip for you. Vodka cream sauce on your pasta ain’ta gonna get you tipsy ……..

Just damn.


June 24th, 2010
1:29 pm

People were walking by my office wondering what in the heck I was cracking up about. Last week the bong water comment and this week the gay Boris and Natasha one. John, I’m offically hooked!

John Kessler

June 24th, 2010
1:56 pm

Thanks, all. And, yes, Fred, I’ve always cooked with alcohol. The secret to my meatloaf is a mixture of Drambuie, Absinthe and Creme de Menthe. But of course I cook off the alcohol first. And seriously — has Gail never had penne alla vodka?


June 24th, 2010
2:12 pm

Second episode and Tracey is still awful…but the real thing is that the whole ensemble is extremely unlikable unlike past seasons


June 24th, 2010
2:45 pm

Re: 1164’s comment about smoking. I’ve wondered the same thing in the past and again with the current show. I am not a smoker, never did, but I do remember when my dad quit smoking years ago, he put on 25 pounds in a few months. He said it was because he could taste food again. John?


June 24th, 2010
3:05 pm

John, real Absinthe, or the stuff you get here?


June 24th, 2010
4:55 pm

I understand about cooking alcohol off, but we’re talking about public school lunches here. Cooked in bulk, do you really think ALL of the alcohol will be “cooked off?” And like I said, I doubt they’d even allow alcohol on school grounds. Think of all the people opposed to alcohol, then finding out their kid is “eating” it at school. I also think Gail (I think) made a good point when she said Jacqueline had to get rid of the chocolate but this girl was allowed to keep the sherry? Jacqueline had to make a totally different dessert, which unfortunately cost her a spot in the competition.


June 25th, 2010
9:36 am

Like it or not, smoking is a quick way to blow off steam (pun intended) after a busy few hours on the line. As a 12-year restaurant vet, I can attest that many cooks fetishize the celebratory cig. You get to walk out the back door for a few minutes and relax before it’s back to the grind.


June 25th, 2010
2:27 pm

Unlike Gail, I drink my vodka. Great recap, I’m not finding this season to be as interesting as last season. It seems very clear that it’s Angelo, Kenny and those who will compete for spot #3 in the finals only to be demolished by the aforementioned Angelo and Kenny. We’ll see.


June 26th, 2010
5:21 am

To all those who believe that when you cook with alcohol that the alcoholic content simply “vanishes”, you should do a little more research. In fact, every method of cooking will not burn off all the alcohol and actually a substantial amount of it remains in the finished product. Here’s a little guide for you all if you don’t really know the breakdown:
I was totally bewildered that Amanda used the sherry in her dish, as well as the top chef producers just sit there and let it happen. Schools don’t even allow any form liquors on school grounds so I’m wondering how this got by.


June 28th, 2010
10:27 am

“A hazy orange sun rises behind the Capitol.” “Cut to a closeup of excited recognition on a contestant’s face.” Bravo, Mr. Kessler!


June 29th, 2010
9:21 am

I think the point with the sherry is whether kids would like it or not- likely not. And will the teetotalers please go catch up with Sadie Fields to pray for us sinners rather than try to dictate whether the rest of us can cook with alcohol. Do the math- say she used a cup of sherry in her sauce. 8oz x 18% ABV x 40% retained / 50 servings. You probably get more from the average mouthwash usage.

I think the point is that several were felled by the bulk quantities at RD. The girl who went home had to skip the chocolate b/c cocoa powder was only available in a 10-lb bag.

You should check out the RD in Norcross, John, it’s lots of fun.

Carrie Neal Walden

June 30th, 2010
4:32 pm

Love the post!! I am not (yet) enjoying this season as much as last, but Lynne is a friend so it’s fun to watch and hope for her to get more air time. And, wait, today’s Wednesday!! And yeah, what was Amanda thinking, given that she was cooking for kids, and at a school? Fine for home or restos but not really the best decision-making . . .