'Top Chef': Hogtied in Puerto Rico
TV EDITOR'S NOTE: Perhaps it's only all too appropriate given this week's episode, but today's blog is being prepared by me, your sous-scribe for this week. Regular blogger Jennifer Frey will return as soon as the power to her storm-hit home does.
This week's run-up to next week's season finale is not for the squeamish. Not because slaughtered swine abounds in the cramped, shoulder-to-pork-shoulder kitchen, though that's not for the faint of eye, either. No, we mean because Lisa and her Sour Demeanor live on to linger in the Puerto Rican air. To pervert Jimmy Buffett's song: Since Chicago, there's been a change in latitude but no change in attitude. Even Richard flat-out snarks about the constant acid-rain cloud that is whiny Lisa, looming toxic over San Juan.
Speaking of Richard the Great, he and Stephanie continue to battle it out, having gone neck-and-neck for weeks like mid-primary Democratic candidates. Only we're not so quick yet to cast Stephanie as the de facto Hillary. We'd love to call Richard the presumptive winner (and our track record tabbing "Idol's" David Cook nine weeks out was accurate), but Steph keeps reasserting her presence. This week, she wins the fritter-filled QuickFire and, as such, also wins the chance to assign sous-chefs to each of the four competitors for the Elimination Challenge. For herself, she chooses Dale the Livid Locker-Puncher; Richard gets Spike, who seems to do porkpie hats better than he does pork; the resurgent Antonia gets Nikki; and Hurricane Lisa gets Andrew, who unlike some island swine still has his sharp tongue intact.
The chefs are asked to go the whole hog. Literally. They butcher each eyes-a-poppin' pig, and viewers who have soft spots for Wilbur or "Babe" surely blanch. The chefs each stab it with their steely knives but they're not so skilled with this beast. Lisa, in fact, is better at wielding irony, as she notes that she's carving up a porker despite being Jewish. The cleaver-happy Richard evokes memories of Jack Nicholson in "The Shining" (then again, this island is expert in the ways of red Rum). Antonia, however, talks about popping out pork parts like she's an old porcine pro.
The challenge: Prepare at least three dishes for a swank catered affair, two of which must have pork. Antonia, Richard and Lisa all do takes on pork belly. Stephanie, on the other hand, is dealt a blow when Dale the Absent-Minded Confessor leaves their dry-rub pork bellies out all night, unrefrigerated. Give major props to Steph: On camera, at least, she's remarkably composed as she resolves to come up with another pork dish; Dale, meanwhile, rightly feels absolutely sick over his mistake; perhaps if he'd only brought handy-dandy labeling tape as Richard "Boy Scout" Blais did.
Antonia, seemingly preoccupied, miscooks her rice, and ultimately claims her undercooked pigeon peas (or gandules) are "al dente." Meanwhile, Richard "Inspector Gadget" Blais pulls out a demi-blow torch and fires it up toward the pig's feet. The man is nothing if not as well-prepared as his food is.
Ultimately, Stephanie serves pork satay, braised pork and plantain pancakes (a personal fave when done right) and fruit & proscuitto salad. Richard does belly, ribs and shoulder as well as ham (for his ribs, he notably uses Malta, that heavily malty drink that he remembers from his childhood, when "a Haitian kid" in his neighborhood drank it). Antonia does honeyed belly, curried pork with yuca (or cassava), plus her woefully underdone gandules. And Lisa's offerings include yuca rellena, an adobo pork (another personal fave, though we're longing for some aji caballero, to boot) and a citrus pork belly with a plantain mash.
Guest judge/famed P.R. chef Wilo Benet (Pikayo, Paya) has praise for elements of the work from each chef. Richard and Stephanie are in a class by themselves, however, and Richard looks sincerely stunned when he's awarded a 2009 Toyota Corolla for his Elimination-winning effort -- perhaps he's amazed by the brand-new car that's just been wheeled in, or maybe he's just ecstatic to have something on hand that can actually hold all his cooking gadgets.
Antonia and Lisa are next on the firing line, and both look nervous. Lisa's sins seem to be largely of execution, while Antonia's entire concept of going rustic appears to have resulted in her own BackFire challenge -- not to mention her bizarre plating, putting all her dishes together and making them, in Tom's words, almost indistinguishable from each other. Ultimately, it's Antonia's chances that receive the cleaver-blow. She's voted off the island, as it were, while Lisa's Acid Stormcloud continues to loom, like the kitchen hurricane that just won't blow over.
-- MICHAEL CAVNA,
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