'Top Chef': Depressed, Perplexed and Definitely Turned OFF
This is one of the more creative and fun elimination challenges I've seen. But first, the Quickfire.
It's the dreaded pastry cook-off. And, really, I have to wonder about these guys, who watch the previous seasons and then show up without at least two to three decent desserts memorized. Some obviously do, but others just wing it. Spike, who does have a planned dessert (the classic chocolate molten cake), inexplicably chooses to try his hand at a souffle instead. As he explains it, he wants to look as if he's taking a risk. Risk fails: he's in the bottom three.
Also joining him there are Antonia, who seems not to care one bit about this challenge, and Mark, who isn't doing very well of late.
The top three are Richard (no surprise), Dale (again, no surprise) and Lisa. Richard's take on banana "scallops" wins the challenge, earning him immunity yet again.
Then the chefs are told they are getting a fun night out at Chicago's famous Second City comedy club, which -- as Mark tells any viewers who might not already know -- spawned the likes of James Belushi and Bill Murray and, more recently, Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert. Anyone who thinks that this is just going to be a lark is an idiot; obviously, this is a setup for the Elimination Challenge.
So, surprise, surprise, when the cheftestants are introduced and the audience proceeds to craft their next, "improv" challenge by throwing out random words in three categories: color, emotion and food. The chefs are then told to form teams of two -- no knife-drawing, they get to pick -- and each team must prepare one of five courses for the Second City crew using the color/emotion/food combo they get.
As always, this kind of challenge poses quite a conundrum for the person who pairs with the guy who has immunity -- lose and you're out, buddy -- but mega-confident Dale wants to be with Richard, so that's a done deal. The two of them get what is easily the hardest emotion -- "perplexed" -- and one of the less exciting foodstuffs (tofu). Their challenge: to create a green, perplexed tofu second course.
The other teams include Andrew & Spike, whose assignment (a yellow/love/vanilla first course) affords Spike the opportunity to make that squash soup Antonia fought against a few weeks back. Mark gets Nikki (poor Mark) and they pull a third course of purple, depressed bacon. (Anyone who gets bacon in anything should rejoice, I strongly contend). Stephanie and Jennifer are next with orange/turned on/asparagus. And last is Antonia and Lisa -- who I'm about ready to start calling the bad-attitude twins -- with magenta/drunk/Polish sausage.
Richard and Dale carry this one with a truly excellent (and creative) team effort. Dale makes a smoking, complex green curry sauce with eggplant and Richard gets the butcher to give him a bunch of beef fat, which he grills up and uses to flavor his tofu "steak" so that it looks like a happy veggie entree but tastes like meat. Everybody loves it, they get a tandem win, and the two of them continue to be front-runners in the competition.
Standing next to them in the top two are Andrew and Spike with the soup, which turns out to be perfectly seasoned and totally yummy even though part of the "improv" surprise to this challenge is that all the electric tools in the Top Chef kitchen are AWOL. In other words, no food processor, this soup has to be pureed and strained by hand. It's yellow, it has a lovely vanilla creme fraiche, and it screams mommy-love.
In that never-never land of neither great nor terrible are Mark & Nikki. Their purple depressed bacon takes the form of a pork tenderloin with a slice of crisp pancetta and a potato base for the color. One of them seems due to go home, but they skate this week.
So on to the bottom two:
The Bad Attitude Twins get all huffy and pretentious over the mere concept of Polish sausage. Apparently, they are waaay too good for that staple of my childhood. Ditto their attitude toward beer, which they reject out of hand. (Hey, beer-braised Polish sausage with some kraut and some magenta-y red cabbage? Please. Toooo pedestrian for them). So they decide to thumb their noses at the challenge and make a sea bass with a piece of chorizo hidden underneath. Huh. Interesting take on the term "improv." As for the drunk part, they use a little tequila in the finish, then drink tequila shots in front of the guests, who are clearly put out that they do not get any tequila for themselves. Yeah, well done, ladies.
Meanwhile, Jen and Stephanie are trying to be sexy, so they make this big hideous slice of toasted (and soggy) bread as a prop so they can make their asparagus look, ahem, "turned on." They also buy a big log of cheese to grill, and put the cheese between the orange and the asparagus for their version of a menage-a-trois. Nobody likes it.
In the end, it is the judges who are perplexed by the ingredient choices. It seems to be self-evident that either Antonia or Lisa should go for totally ignoring the directions for this competition, but somehow Tom manages to equate the big hunk of cheese (which he deems the centerpiece of that dish) to Antonia's fish, and lumps both teams in the category of not focusing mainly on the assigned foodstuff. Hmm. At least Jen and Stephanie *used* asparagus. Seems like a pretty lame comparison to me. And while we're on that bandwagon, then what was up with Mark & Nikki? The bacon was a teeny slice and what they really focused on was the tenderloin. Then again, if we're slicing this rule in a lot of different ways, bacon and pork are both from the pig, so I suppose they could be safely considered to be "improvising."
Anyway, back to the bottom two. After successfully managing to tie the two teams to the same sinking ship, the decision comes down to which dish is less tasty, and that's the asparagus. Again, I'm feeling cheated. I mean, if Jen and Stephanie had decided to go way off the reservation and cook a filet mignon and hide some asparagus stalks underneath, I think their dish might have been pretty tasty, too.
But the judges are set in their decision, and so Jen is toast. Technically, it's probably Jen because she is the one who made the bad bread, but in reality, there's no way the judges want to dump Stephanie -- the most promising woman chef this season -- this early in the game. So off Jen goes to reunite with her poor, lost Zoi. Perhaps tomorrow they'll cook up a nice batch of purple depressed bacon.
-- JENNIFER FREY
April 24, 2008; 8:47 AM ET
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