'Top Chef': The Reputation Rehabilitation Edition
You know the chefs aren't going to love a challenge when it starts out with guest Art Smith --personal chef to Oprah and the king of simple & healthy -- and a lot of containers of microwaveable Uncle Ben's rice. Kick in the fact that the Quickfire has to be completed in 15 minutes and faces are miserable. That's right: complete meal, using the rice, in mini-time.
Guess who comes out in the top three? Um, let's see. Richard (d'oh!), Dale (d'oh!) and Antonia, who embarks on what I'm calling the Reputation Rehabilitation Edition, which is practically an entire show cut to show that she's not really as witchy as she has come across in previous weeks.
Of course, before we get to the rehabilitation part, we do have to start out the episode with Ms. Attitude-Ness announcing back at the house that she thinks she should just (expletive) everybody. Can I just say that all the bleeping-out of curse words is getting tiresome? And really, Antonia, if what we're to learn about you is how much of a great single mommy you are (complete with cute cellphone call to daughter at home and, later, tears!), perhaps it would be best to stick to child-friendly language. Isn't that lovely little girl of yours watching this at home?
So Antonia wins the Quickfire by making a rice salad -- a mixture of warm and cold flavors -- to go with a simple grilled skirt steak. I personally want some of Dale's scallops with pineapple fried rice and long beans but, alas, with all our fabulous new technology, I still can't eat through my screen.
On the bottom are Mark, with his dried-out miso-glazed turkey breast, Lisa, with an unoriginal grilled shrimp, and Stephanie (uh-oh, what's up with the women's fearless leader of late?) with a rice pancake of sorts involving seafood.
Onward to the Elimination challenge, which is another one of those set-ups that the cheftestants normally can't stand: Cook a delicious, nutritious and simple meal for a family of four on a budget of $10! So everyone stampedes to the chicken at Whole Foods, and as person after person loads his/her cart with chicken breast or thighs or a whole bird, it's easy to start feeling sorry for the judges and all that poultry in their future. But hey, as Lisa puts it, it's healthy and cheap! What else are they supposed to make?
This week's twist involves a parade of cooking "assistants" -- all of them children from Art Smith's "Common Threads" program. Much to my shock, all the cheftestants accept these additions to their kitchen with attitudes ranging from enthusiasm (Richard) to tears (Antonia, reminded of cooking with her daughter), to general acceptance and patience. Even cranky Lisa informs us that her partner has a kid and he sometimes helps her cook. There isn't a grunt in the bunch.
In addition to the chicken, a lot of the grocery lists look markedly similar as the cooking begins, with lots of black beans and apples on many of lists. Andrew and Dale decide to depart from chicken nation; Spike with a pasta puttanesca and Dale with the risky turkey sausage. Only one child gets hurt by a vegetable peeler, and no fingers are lost. And Richard finishes up by announcing that "I want to go home and I want to make some babies!" Alrighty then. Please wait until the show is over, thank you, because I'd prefer not to be privvy to those plans.
The diners are more kids, plus the judges, of course, who pluckily never comment on how many birds make it to their table. Stephanie makes chicken with peanut butter, tomato and lemon juice, and let's just say it looks (and tastes) as bad as the inexplicable combination sounds. Really, this is totally her off day. Mark decides to make a veggie curry without a lot of veggies and no protein (what did he spend that $10 on?) and Lisa fails to season her black beans and edamame, so her roast chicken winds up on a bed of blah. Bottom three, everyone.
In the top three are Andrew and his chicken paillard; Antonia with a chicken and vegetable stir-fry over whole-wheat pasta that she's made with her daughter; and Nikki, who wins heart-strings story of the day by telling anyone and everyone that her one-pot roasted chicken with potatoes and vegetables was something she used to cook for herself as a kid with a single working parent. Her story is better than Antonia's, but Antonia's pasta still wins, giving her a double-dip and an overall personality resuscitation. Not a bad day.
Lisa (who remains in need of more image adjustment) thinks she's going home, and she has a reason to worry -- if there's anything we learned last week, it's that Stephanie can have the worst dish and still be safe. Which is true again this week. Instead, Mark finally runs out of time and is sent packing with his knives.
Speaking of last week, I asked Tom Colicchio about his whole ruling that chorizo qualifies as polish sausage from the Improv challenge. He said that the judges really discussed it a lot longer than was seen on screen and in the end, the decision was to buy Antonia and Lisa's argument that if they have the license to "improv," then substituting one kind of sausage for another was okay. (If they'd made stuffed cabbage, he says, it would have been another story).
Other little morsels from Tom, speaking to us by phone:
* When Stephen got sent home in Season 1, several members of the crew actually applauded his demise. "We're like, what's that about? And they said, 'You have no idea what a jerk this guy is.'"
* Also from Season 1: Tiffani really, really isn't that awful in person. Tom says he's gotten to know her in the aftermath and she's actually "one of the nicest people you could meet."
* He also defends the decision to send home Zoi and her carpaccio in the elements challenge (remember, she was on Team Earth?) rather than go after a member of Water--namely, Richard--for serving fish covered with scales, arguing that the public diners felt the same way as the judges. "It may have seemed worse," he says, "but we didn't think so and the comment cards agreed with us 100 percent."
* He also says that a lot of people have expressed that they find this season to be pretty disappointing. "Maybe it's the level of personality," he says. "People aren't identifying." Agree? Disagree? Let's hear your thoughts.
* And any hints as to where it's going from here? Chef Tom did say that there will be surprises. "Going back to Season 3, Trey was a very accomplished chef. He was working in a great restaurant in Dallas and most people thought he has going to run away with it. And he messed up. It's not an accumulation. If you mess up one challenge, you're gone."
May 1, 2008; 10:55 AM ET
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