Friday, April 28, 2006


Fried Cooks

Previously on Top Chef: Lee Anne got stuck with the big thinker and the no-thinker. Dave's style was ordinary but Stephen's style was much more refined. Serving food? Ordinary. The contest was not Top Sous Chef or Top Sommelier. Miguel got the boot.

Stephen and Harold go through their morning routine. Stephen believes that he and Harold are the two best chefs left. Tiffani sees people getting more desperate as their time runs out. She refuses to attack anyone. Translation: she will say bad things about people, but in a objective way, not a mean way. Lee Anne wonders what the next challenges will be. As long as Harold doesn't have to shop at a gas station or cook for kids, he'll be happy. Which is kind of true, since I think Harold enjoys being cranky about the challenges. Lee Anne is ready to win and go home. I'm not sure which would please her more at this point.

QuickFire Challenge and Elimination Challenge: This round is about working for a client. They'll all work together to cater a wedding reception. The QuickFire Challenge is to come up with a menu and a cold prawn canape to present to the couple. The Elimination Challenge is to produce the winning menu for the wedding reception. There's no immunity this time. Katie brings in the clients: Scott and Scott. Stephen interviews that he thinks a non-traditional couple means that the food might have a little more flair. Stephen is kind of a ninny in so many ways.

The Scotts would like a "Pan-Asian meal with fusion influences." They'll serve the prawn canapes at the reception. The meal will consist of an amuse bouche and four courses. The fourth course is the dessert course, and they'd like a wedding cake. Harold is less than thrilled with the prospect of baking a big ol' cake. The chefs have 90 minutes to sketch the cake, design a menu and create the prawn canape. The budget is $3000 for 100 guests. And go!

Stephen interviews that the menu had to be practical. Tiffani thinks wedding menus have to be able to appeal to a wide variety of people. Dave has done a lot of catering, so he knows his menu can be done. Harold feels confident about his background with Asian food. Lee Anne gets crafty with her presentation supplies, using watercolors to show what the food will look like and folding origami. Harold is not very confident about his artistic ability. He's a cook; he doesn't draw. There's a lot of things that Harold doesn't do. But he doesn't have any insecurity about it -- he's got his talents and he's happy with that. So good for him.

Katie announces the five-minute mark. There's a montage of everyone finishing their dishes, and the Scotts return.

The Scotts confer. The winner is Lee Anne. She's stunned. Now she's responsible for catering the reception. Which is being held tomorrow afternoon. Nobody looks really mindboggled to hear it, but they're clearly not happy. Stephen wonders if they can do it. Lee Anne thinks it's essentially impossible to pull off. No, Lee Anne, think Pollyanna! The Little Engine That Could! Optimism!

Lee Anne thinks it's a good thing they all spent the previous day sleeping. They'll be working at the Grand Cafe at the Hotel Monaco. They can divvy up the work however they want. The Scotts wish them luck. Harold suggests just parceling out tasks, but Lee Anne goes over everything with the group so they can pitch in as needed. Harold interviews that most wedding caterers have weeks or even months to prepare, but they have just 16 hours. Lee Anne passes out assignments:

Everyone will contribute to the dessert course. Harold brings up cake mix and Lee Anne agrees to go with it. Tiffani wants confirmation that they're really going to go with boxed cake mix, and everyone but Stephen is a definite yes. Stephen doesn't say anything, but later he asks Harold if they're really going with the mix. Stephen, the decision was just made right in front of you. I think his brain was busy trying to compute a reality in which he'll be associated with a box mix, and it just couldn't. Stephen interviews that he wasn't going to have anything to do with some mediocre box mix cake. Not that he's going to propose a better alternative, mind you.

Chef Tom drops in to see how the planning is going. He asks about catering experience, and there's a general noise of everyone saying they've catered before. The team will be pulling an all-nighter to get it done. Stephen interviews that he thought the all-nighter was unnecessary, since 100 people isn't that many. Chef Tom thinks this will be a test of their stamina. Lee Anne rounds up everyone for their shopping expedition. Since night has fallen, the only thing open is grocery stores.

As usual, they have 1 hour for shopping. Harold thinks it's ridiculous to cater a wedding out of a supermarket instead of using specialty purveyors. Stephen needs to get oysters. Harold asks about salmon at the fish counter. They have frozen wild salmon and fresh Atlantic (farm-raised) salmon. Harold is stuck between frozen good salmon and fresh crappy salmon. He goes with the fresh salmon because it's fresh, even if it's crappy. I'm not so sure he made the right choice. If the difference in basic quality is that great, then maybe it's better to go with frozen, unless they just don't have time to thaw it. So then the supervisor doesn't want to sell Harold the fresh fish because she's planning to use them for sashimi. Harold is forced to get stern with the fish people about all the money they're spending (and I'm sure the cameras don't hurt), and they wind up selling him three whole salmon. Harold tells Lee Anne about it. She's ready to jump in, but Harold's already gotten his fish, so they're good. Tiffani picks up eight boxes of cake mix. Harold calls out five minutes as Dave is getting seafood. They hustle through checkout, Lee Anne handles over a wad of cash, and a parade of shopping carts makes its way out the door.

They head over to the Hotel Monaco and check out the workspace. Okay, now the countdown says 16 hours to reception. So instead of starting the whole project at 10 pm, they're arriving at the kitchen at 10 pm. Dave wants to get as much done up front as possible, to avoid last-minute scrambles. Harold preps his crappy salmon. Lee Anne rolls out scallion pancakes, which will be crispy instead of soft. Dave makes truffles: milk chocolate/sesame, dark chocolate/ginger, white chocolate/sake. Tiffani takes on the cake batter. She wants to get the cake baked right off so it can cool. Chef Tom drops in and discovers the cake mix boxes. Stephen seems to be anticipating a righteous smackdown. Tiffani explains it was a team decision to go with the safe bet, and Chef Tom commends her honesty. Tiffani interviews that she'd rather have a box mix cake than explain to the clients that the cake fell and they didn't have time to make another.

The countdown shows it's 3 am, with 11 hours to go. Stephen is working on his little lobster spring rolls. He pats, pats, pats the filling into place, then folds and creases the sides of the wrapper, then carefully rolls it up. Harold interviews that Stephen is extremely slow at prep work. Lee Anne warns Stephen about his dumplings running low on stock and Tiffani checks them. Lee Anne figures she could have gotten Stephen's job done in half the time. The dish has a lot of components, but it's not complicated. The timestamp is 6 am when Stephen finishes the spring rolls. So, 100 spring rolls in three hours works out to roughly 30 spring rolls an hour, which is about 2 minutes per spring roll. Two whole minutes to: lay down a wrapper, drop on a dollop of filling, smooth it down, fold the edges and roll. Why is this taking longer than 30 seconds a roll? Was he measuring to make sure every spring roll was exactly the same?

The sun rises. Tiffani yawns. Harold sips coffee. Dave interviews that they were running behind, so he jumped in to help with whatever needed doing plus his own canapes. Tiffani appreciates Dave's work ethic but worries that taking on too much can dilute quality. Around 10 am, the Scotts arrive at the hotel. They're not too nervous, but one of them worries that a sleepy chef nodded off into the wedding cake. There's a montage of chefs looking like zombies in the kitchen. Lee Anne is worried about time. I'm sure they're fading fast. Not only have they been up all night, they've been stuck in that kitchen for hours on end. If they had taken a break to shower and brush their teeth, just the change of scenery would have given them a little refresher.

With an hour left, the chefs are summoned to meet the judges. In addition to Chef Tom and Gail, they have Marcy Blum, a "wedding planner to the stars," who happened to plan Katie's wedding. Chef Tom is looking rather natty in his black suit. Katie is also wearing a black pants suit, while Gail has on a little black dress. Marcy Blum is wearing something dark that might be black, but she has a rosy/peachy jacket over it. Pet peeve time: I don't think women should wear black to weddings. Men can wear black because that's the color of men's formal wear (colored tuxedos are an abomination), but for women, black is too somber a color for a festive occasion. Over the last decade or so, the "little black dress" has gone from classic to cop-out.

Back to the food. Lee Anne starts decorating the cake. Stephen thinks everyone is too tense. Wedding ceremony. Pet peeve time again: I'm not so fond of "personalized" wedding vows. One of the points of a wedding ceremony is wrapping yourself in tradition. That's what gives the occasion a sense of solemnity. You don't get the same weight from personally-written vows, no matter how heartfelt. Which is not to say you can't tweak the traditional vows -- the "obey" part is a great candidate for modification -- but don't just toss them out.

Back in the kitchen, it's 2:40 and the canapes will be served at 3 pm. So the countdown was for the ceremony, not the reception. Stephen discovers that the canapes will be served from 3 pm to 4:30 pm. They don't have enough food for that long, so it's time to improvise. Lee Anne shows Dave some leftover crab, and Tiffani volunteers to chop up some cucumber. With their help, Dave assembles another set of appetizers. The waiters start serving. Dave is happy that his food went out first, so it still had some integrity. Whatever that means. The guests love the prawn toasts. Lee Anne is happy that trays are coming back empty; it means people are enjoying the food. Gail tells Katie she thought the canapes were greasy and Marcy finds them flavorless.

Stephen is out in the dining area, drawing up a chart. Harold interviews that the next course up is Stephen's. Stephen is lecturing the wait staff about their jobs. They look like they're not getting paid enough to deal with him. Stephen is babbling about where the wine came from, like the waiters care. This is the problem with Stephen's brand of "education": he doesn't think about what people need (let alone want) to know. He just summons up everything he knows and dumps it on his audience. Lee Anne interviews that they had a captain to handle communication with the kitchen, so they didn't need Stephen to do it. Meanwhile, the spoons they got for serving Stephen's dumplings still have stickers on them, which means they haven't been washed. Everybody is thoroughly pissed about the spoons and Stephen's absence.

The guests are seated in the dining room. The rest of the team plates Stephen's dish while Stephen instructs the wait staff about pouring the wines. His belief is that the execution is the most important part of the event. That would be the execution of the service, not the cooking. A chef is supposed to lead and delegate and manage in the kitchen, and no one took that role except Stephen. Who is managing outside the kitchen. Wiener. The amuse bouche goes out - lobster harumaki, glazed oyster with yazu-marinated roe, and crab soup dumplings. The guests enjoy it and Marcy is pleased with it.

Harold is talking to Stephen in the kitchen. In an interview, he explains that he was telling Stephen to step away from the front of the house. Stephen tells Harold that the wait staff doesn't know how to serve, that they were just going to bring food out on trays and the food would get cold that way. Harold's like, "Oh, well, that's no good." Not so forceful after all. Dave interviews that Harold was having issues with his dish. Harold preps his salad course -- seared salmon salad over noodles with Thai green papaya and lime/chili vinaigrette. He's not happy with the salmon. The Scotts are a little disappointed; the salmon doesn't go with the noodles. Chef Tom and Gail's food is cold. A pair of guests in striped shirts compare the salmon to boiled chicken.

Lee Anne, Dave, Harold and Tiffani are all pooped out. Lee Anne interviews that they sensed things weren't going well. Next up is Tiffani's Lover's Nest -- seafood and fresh vegetables in a potato taro root basket with mango and coconut. At least some of the plates have origami birds for decoration. I can't imagine they folded 200 origami birds with their schedule. The dish is well-received by the guests.

Now it's time for Lee Anne's Peking-style steak, crispy scallion pancakes and cucumber salad, but there's a timing mix-up. Stephen tells them to fire the dish, but then he comes back and says there's a pause while they have a toast. Harold is pissed; he doesn't think Stephen knows what he's doing. After the toast, one of the wait staff (not the captain, but he's wearing a dark shirt, so he's management of some kind) says they've cleared for the next course. Stephen is surprised at how fast that was. The captain comes back and says they're ready for the course now. Gail has more temperature issues. The Scotts' verdict is "solid, not stellar."

By now, it's 6:30 pm and they've got to wrap it up. Stephen wanders off as the wedding cake goes out, because he still doesn't want to have anything to do with it. He thinks it's a mockery. Lee Anne presents the cake. She's looking for Stephen as she carries the cake out, and I really want her to watch where she's going. The last thing they need now is for her to trip. Dave plated the truffles earlier, so they send those out and do the cake service. One guest found eggshells in the cake. Gail thinks the cake is really sweet. The Scotts like the truffles.

Finally, it's over. The Scotts are just so happy about the day that they haven't the heart to look for flaws. Chef Tom asks what they loved about the meal, and they can't think of anything. Chef Tom finds that telling. Lee Anne interviews that this was definitely a humbling moment. Back in the kitchen, the chefs all look exhausted.

Judges' table: Katie asks Marcy her opinion. She thought it was a lovely wedding, but the food didn't contribute to the experience. Gail thinks Lee Anne was too ambitious with the menu and they just didn't deliver. Chef Tom thinks the team settled for just getting it done. Marcy agrees, nothing wowed her. Chef Tom doesn't see a winner. Gail just wants to know what happened, so the chefs are summoned to the table.

Chef Tom expresses his disappointment; he's had better take-out. Nobody is surprised to hear it. Or perhaps they are, but they're too tired to move their faces. Tiffani volunteers that they did an okay job given what wedding food is usually like. Marcy doesn't like that Tiffani is down on wedding food; her clients expect extraordinary food. Of course, her clients expect to pay in the high six figures for a wedding. Chef Tom asks if Tiffani would serve that food in a restaurant. When Tiffani says no, he asks why they would serve it at a wedding. Tiffani doesn't have a response. Chef Tom asks Lee Anne if she tasted everything. She did, but not everything met her satisfaction. She's unhappy because it was her menu, and they didn't do well with it. Chef Tom didn't find much flavor. The salmon tasted like it had been sitting around for a while before getting plopped on top of the other ingredients. Harold said it tasted good to him. The salmon was the least favorite dish of the evening. Katie asks about the cake mix. Harold says he proposed the idea. Gail reveals that a guest found eggshells in his cake.

Chef Tom asks if everyone pulled their weight. Lee Anne praises Dave for jumping in wherever he was needed, so she thinks he should be safe. Chef Tom asks him who should have contributed more, and Dave gives up Stephen. His soup spoons weren't washed but he was out "selling wine." Tiffani volunteers that Stephen was the only person who worked solely on his own dish and didn't contribute to the dessert course. Stephen protests that he was in the kitchen. He did leave a few times, but he claims the director of catering wanted to know how they wanted the food served, and he was only gone for five minutes. Stephen's sense of time is about as good as his sense of money. He figured the team was capable of handling things in his absence. Gail asks if he told them where he was going. Stephen says he did, but Tiffani disagrees. Stephen says someone had to be the liaison with the front of the house. He gets annoyed because he was trying to make the event great, not "selling wine." The way the servers laid the plates was a thing of beauty. Marcy thinks "sweeping the room" was very sophisticated. Gail asks Lee Anne if she assigned Stephen the liaison role. She did not. Katie asks Stephen who he would boot and he gives up Lee Anne, since the meal was her responsibility. He says the menu couldn't be "executed under these circumstances." This from the guy who thought pulling an all-nighter was unnecessary. Lee Anne accepts responsibility, even if that means being sent home. Harold says that Lee Anne did a lot of things right from a chef's viewpoint, and he respects her. They leave to let the judges confer.

Chef Tom is disappointed. Gail points to Stephen as not accepting their criticism. Chef Tom says he told Stephen at the last judges' table that he needed to be a chef, and he's out in the front of the house again. Marcy still likes the orchestration of the serving. Chef Tom thinks Lee Anne should have dragged Stephen back into the kitchen. She dropped the ball in a lot of ways. Harold was responsible for the disappointing salmon salad. The judges come to a decision.

Katie announces that they're not awarding a winner. Chef Tom expresses their disappointment in Harold's dish. Lee Anne needed to invest herself in the menu, not abdicate responsibility. Stephen is a good cook, but he's concentrating on the wrong things. Tiffani needs to take a stand about things she thinks are wrong. Katie boots Stephen, who just nods. She asks if he has anything to say, but he doesn't. Everyone sits awkwardly for a minute, until Katie dismisses them. Back in the kitchen, Harold shakes Stephen's hand. He would have been willing to support Stephen if he hadn't gone after Lee Anne.

Stephen expects to raise the standard of excellence in the American restaurant industry. He takes pride in providing "an unbelievable experience for the guest." I can certainly see Stephen's guests asking, "Can you believe this guy?"

Did Stephen deserve the boot? Lee Anne didn't rally the team and Harold's dish was disappointing. But at least Harold was there to plate his own dish. Stephen was explicitly told to step up to the chef role, and he was the least use in the kitchen. His prep work was slow, he didn't help anyone else out and he left some of his own work for the others to do. Worse, Stephen failed his own definition of a chef's responsibility to lead and delegate and manage. Telling people exactly what to do is not delegating. Delegating is telling the captain what kind of service you'd like and letting him instruct his staff. Delegating is telling the captain how much wine you have and letting him figure out how much to pour for each guest. Delegating is letting people do their jobs. As for leading and managing, they both involve communicating with the rest of your team. Stephen didn't see himself as a team member; he was busy being a crusader for high service standards. That's not the job he signed on for. Lee Anne failed in her responsibilities, but at least she recognized what those responsibilities were.

Personally, I'm happy to see him go. It was an entertaining run, but we're now getting down to some serious competition. There's no room for lightweights. With his emphasis on style over substance, Stephen is a lightweight.

Controversy: Was a wedding reception in 16 hours a fair challenge? In his blog, Chef Tom states that it was a manageable project. If they were in their own kitchens with their own tools and coworkers and suppliers, I could see it happening. But when they're hamsters in some reality TV habitrail, maybe not. Granted, they all got rest the day before, but sleep isn't enough to eradicate the strain of being in this kind of competition, away from their normal sources of mental refreshment. Especially since they're fast approaching the final competition, so the pressure keeps building. It's harder and harder for them to achieve excellence. Now add in the emotional significance of a wedding, so they really want to achieve excellence, and you're putting them in a situation where their aspirations are likely to exceed their grasps. Given their dedication to their craft, that's actually fairly cruel.

Since fatigue was such a factor as the day progressed, should they have gotten some sleep? Chef Tom thinks they should have done all their shopping and chopping, and then gotten a few hours of rest before starting early in the morning. In his opinion, they panicked and sabotaged themselves with the all-nighter. I did get a sense of panic -- everyone but Stephen thought it was impossible. And I do think they ran into problems by cooking things too early; some of the food didn't reheat properly. I think it would have been useful if Lee Anne had worked out a timeline of what needed to get done when, so they could see where (if) they had a place to take a break and at least get out of the kitchen, even if they couldn't sleep. So I don't know if Chef Tom is right, but I would have liked to see a more "let's do the best we can" attitude than "oh, crap, we're screwed."

Controversy: Was it fair to criticize Lee Anne's menu as too ambitious? She knew at the time that they'd be preparing the menu, but she didn't know how much time they would have. But when Katie said the reception was the next day, no one seemed too surprised. Dismayed, sure, but not shocked. The elimination challenge always follows the day after the QuickFire challenge, so that was foreseeable. But they might have expected an evening wedding instead of an afternoon wedding, which would allow another five or six hours to work. I wonder if Lee Anne's background makes her feel more comfortable about pulling off events. She handles events in her job at the French Culinary Institute, so she probably has an experienced team to work with. That's going to color her expectations of what can be accomplished. She was also called out for being too ambitious with Sabor menu. In both cases, she didn't get much contribution out of Stephen. If she had at least chewed him out, it would have showed that she was trying to manage him. Actually managing him is possible, I think, but it would require almost constant monitoring and redirection in the early stages, until he gets into the habit of obedience. It's nice that Harold tried to straighten him out, but that came far too late to do much good to the team.

Should Lee Anne have modified the menu? On the job, I think she would have at least considered it. Especially in the event of not finding good quality ingredients, like the salmon. In the context of a competition, it's hard to tell if changing the menu would be construed as cheating. The show has had a consistent standard of putting the best food you can in front of the customer, so I think she would have been safe as long as she made the case that it was for the customers' benefit. I suspect this was another consequence of their fatigue and panic -- they felt trapped by their menu, and couldn't see the possibility of changing it.

I am curious about the shopping rules, though. They ordered the Chinese spoons for plating Stephen's dumplings, so they were able to get something from a source other than the supermarket. Which makes me wonder, why couldn't they have ordered salmon? Did Stephen pout until he got his soup spoons?

The other thing that feels off to me is the last minute discovery that the reception tray service would run for 1 1/2 hours. The event had a service captain, and I'm sure he would have consulted with the chef -- Lee Anne -- about the schedule and the service and such. For that matter, why would the director of catering approach Stephen to find out about service? If the chefs were all in the kitchen, why would the director approach Stephen specifically? ("Oh, look, it's noted sommelier Stephen Asprinio. Let me beg him to favor us with the benefit of his service expertise.") Surely someone else would have noticed and redirected the director (ahem) to Lee Anne. So Stephen must not have been in the kitchen when the whole service question was raised. Worst case, he sought out the catering director and introduced himself as the liaison to the kitchen, leading to the "how do you want the service to go?" question. And then Stephen failed to get the necessary information and pass it on. Actually, the worst case would be that the producers kept the captain from consulting with Lee Anne so they could create a "crisis."

Sunday, April 23, 2006


'wiches and Bitches

Previously on Top Chef: Ted Allen hosted a dinner party. Miguel screwed up the beets. Tiffani was willing to boot Miguel. Miguel hissed at Tiffani. Dave cried a lot. Andrea didn't care about impressing the judges, so she got the boot.

Tiffani thinks Miguel can't handle the truth. Miguel recognizes that the competition is getting tougher, and he'll just have to be tougher. Dave figures Tiffani and Miguel will be going all out now, so he needs to get a win and boost his confidence.

QuickFire Challenge: Katie and Chef Tom await. I hate Katie's outfit. There's another array of ingredients strewn about the kitchen, but no prices this time. Chef Tom does a little self-promotion. From all the blinking, I suspect he's not entirely comfortable with it. He has a casual dining concept called 'wichcraft and they're opening a restaurant in San Francisco. The challenge is to design a sandwich for 'wichcraft. The winning chef does not get immunity; instead, the sandwich will be added to the 'wichcraft menu. They have 30 minutes. And go!

Miguel interviews that everyone was worried about the lack of immunity this late in the game. Tiffani thinks a spot on the menu is a cool prize. Lee Anne figures it will be tough to impress Chef Tom. Miguel knows he needs a comeback. Harold has been to the New York 'wichcraft several times, so he's familiar with the menu and he knows what will fit in. Stephen is working on a brunch sandwich. Dave has no patience with foofy brunch sandwiches. Tiffani warns him to watch his bacon. Time ticks down as everyone rushes to finish. Miguel is sure he has the most creative sandwich.

Chef Tom liked the big flavors in Dave's sandwich, Stephen's flavors didn't come together, Harold made a good call with the mortadella but he should have put his garnish grapes into the sandwich, and Miguel could have won if he had just used some bread. Chef Tom could use a good vegetarian sandwich. But since Miguel biffed it, Harold gets the win. The others clap. Harold interviews that he's happy about the win, but he'd rather have immunity. Miguel thanks Chef Tom for the almost win, because he's now a big camera hog. He's disappointed that he didn't win because his sandwich was far and away the best. Except for the not actually being a sandwich part.

Elimination Challenge: Yet another team challenge, this time to create a restaurant concept. Their empty restaurant has two dining rooms, so each team will get one. They have to come up with a name and a menu. Red team: Dave, Harold, Tiffani. Blue team: Lee Anne, Miguel, Stephen. Tiffani interviews that she'd rather swap Dave for Lee Anne; Dave is hard to work with because he makes everything personal. Lee Anne figures she's screwed. Chef Tom works in a product-placement for their rides (blink, blink) and off they go.

In the product-placed vehicles, the teams brainstorm. Tiffani wants to make it clear up front that nobody should take anything personally. Yeah, that's gonna work. It's nice that she's trying to address their different styles, but basically saying "Adjust to my way of doing things" is not going to get results. Especially since she starts ignoring Dave's input. The most basic courtesy you can extend to people is to recognize their existence. If you can't manage to do that while working, you need to improve your people skills. Although I suspect she has already exceeded her recommended daily quota of Dave.

In the other car, Miguel is starting to brainstorm the menu when the others say, "Whoa, concept first." Stephen wants to go cutting edge, which means Spain. Lee Anne was also thinking Spain. Miguel makes some more menu suggestions. It quickly becomes clear that they meant Spain as in "European" rather than "Latin" or "Hispanic," which leaves Miguel with not a lot to offer. Mr. Cutting Edge isn't sure if gazpacho is Spanish.

At the restaurant, Chef Tom explains how the challenge will work. Thirty guests will arrive at the space and they'll choose one of the concepts. The chefs will be judged on the customers' feedback, as well as the ambience, teamwork and, of course, the food. Chef Tom takes them to look over the dining areas. Everyone is feeling a little overwhelmed by the challenge of creating a restaurant out of the raw space. They have tables and chairs, but that's about it.

Dave describes their space as a "(bleep)ing (bleep)hole" and Harold cracks up. It's wicked cute. Harold interviews that Tiffani supplied the name "American Workshop," which he loves. Tiffani wants it to be a greatest hits of American cooking, distinguished by execution. Dave will handle the front of the house while Tiffani and Harold cook. Dave explains how he wants the tables to go and the others agree. Harold interviews that they're doing family style service, which will make things easier on Dave. Dave acknowledges that Tiffani is the leader, but he has the experience running a restaurant. Tiffani thinks they'll be doomed if Dave psyches himself out, but at least they don't have to deal with Stephen.

Miguel interviews that their restaurant is named "Sabor," which is the Spanish word for taste or flavor. Stephen will handle the front of the house while Lee Anne and Miguel cook. Stephen thinks their concept will be distinguished by their style and "esoteric technique." Yummy. He warns the others that he'll be "yapping" about the wine all night, like they couldn't have guessed. Then he disses the other team's set up, because we can't have a challenge without Stephen feeling superior to the competition. He thinks Dave's style is ordinary, while his is more refined.

The next day, everyone goes shopping at Bryan's. Each team has $1000 for the project. The blue team has reserved $500 for food. Lee Anne sends Miguel to price red snapper and mussels at the fishmonger down the street. Miguel interviews that there's no room for error with the budget. Stephen keeps wanting to buy fancy ingredients, and Lee Anne shuts him down. Tiffani wants a smart hour of shopping rather than a rushed hour. Miguel reports that the snapper is $7.99 a pound, so Lee Anne authorizes him to get another pound. She was expecting it to run more like $16 a pound. Miguel comes back with the fish and Lee Anne discovers that the price is actually $17.99 a pound, which is quite different. Miguel's like, "Oops, made a mistake." Off her glare, he finally offers to take it back. Lee Anne interviews that she's teamed with "the big thinker and the no-thinker." And she's usually quite the optimist, so you know it just sucks to be her right now.

Everyone brings foodstuffs back to the restaurant. Stephen interviews that their menu was rather ambitious, so there was a lot of work to do. Tiffani tells Dave not to cut the onions, but he says Harold wanted them quartered. Tiffani proposes leaving them whole. Dave interviews that Tiffani is very opinionated and he feels shut out. He's letting her run with it, though, because if they lose, he's going to sink her with the "failed leadership" torpedo of righteousness. Lee Anne interviews that Stephen didn't really check in with his team. He's off in the dining room, futzing around. Lee Anne thinks whatever Miguel is making is salty. Miguel doesn't like being micromanaged, but he's going along with it because Lee Anne has a clear idea of what she wants. I suspect Miguel is really more comfortable being bossed around.

Chef Tom drops in. The red team at American Workshop is doing classic American food: tuna tartare, roast chicken with fall vegetables, fruit crisp. The service will be like the food -- unpretentious and approachable. Okay, since when is tuna tartare unpretentious, approachable or classic American? Try pigs in a blanket -- there's some classic Americana. The blue team at Sabor is doing a tribute to Spanish flavors: tapas trio (white gazpacho, bocarones, prosciutto-wrapped stuffed fig), red snapper over a paella cake, olive oil ice cream. Lee Anne and Stephen say the Spain idea was a consensus opinion. Chef Tom asks if anyone has been to Spain. Fortunately, Lee Anne has. Stephen hasn't been to Spain, but he has stood next to Lee Anne, so that's almost as good.

Dave and Stephen go off to Economy Restaurant Supply for tableware. Stephen starts picking out items. Lee Anne interviews that Stephen has expensive taste, but their budget won't accommodate his desires. Dave is his usual price-conscious self. He sends a picture of his proposed wine bucket back to the team. Harold interviews that Dave has a lot of responsibility. Harold knows his limitations; he's a kitchen guy. Tiffani would have liked to work on the decoration, but she's also happy not to be sharing a kitchen with Dave. Dave resents Tiffani's high-handedness some more. On his solo, entirely up to his discretion shopping spree. His shopping comes in at $479.57. Stephen tells the salesguy that he needs to keep it under $400, and is astonished to learn that he's selected over $1000 in merchandise so far. I'm guessing math was not his strong suit. Kinda makes you wonder how he calculated the top three percent.

Dave gets back with 2 hours to spare, but Stephen is still shopping. His team wonders where he is. Stephen returns the gravy boats(?!?) and swaps out some wine glasses for tumblers. Miguel reports that the red team has linen on their tables, while Stephen still isn't back. Lee Anne is seriously annoyed. He finally pulls in with 1 hour to spare. Miguel interviews that Stephen is too detail-oriented.

Katie summons everyone to meet the guest judge, but it turns out introductions are unnecessary -- it's Jeffrey Chodorow, a financier who owns several successful restaurant concepts. Katie explains how things will work: 30 guests arrive and choose a concept; they fill out a survey card before leaving. The judging criteria: the number of customers and the satisfaction of the customers. The most significant contributor on the winning team will accompany Jeffrey and some of his chefs to the Cannes Film Festival. Katie summarizes that "the winning chef will be going to Cannes and somebody else will be getting canned." The chefs manage not to groan.

Back to cooking. Lee Anne discovers that the red snapper wasn't scaled. Miguel is surprised, but he doesn't think it has anything to do with him. I admire Lee Anne's self-discipline, what with the sharp knife in her hand and all. Stephen is doing his version of frantic rushing, which is oddly robotic. Chef Tom gives him a hard time about the state of his space. It looks like Stephen has a helper in the background. Dave is happy that the two restaurants are so completely different. Lee Anne checks with Stephen; he thinks he'll make it. Dave and Stephen hang their menus and the customers arrive.

The American Workshop has brown paper draped along the tables for a homey touch that you never actually see at home. Dave explains the concept to a couple of suits. Stephen lectures a pair of diners about the wine (did you know Stephen is a sommelier?) while a line forms, waiting for seating. Lee Anne needs the food to go out, but Stephen has talking to do. He doesn't need to be hearing demands from the kitchen that he get down to serving. Dave serves some customers and they admire the chicken. Stephen criticizes the warm, welcoming style of the red team; his team was the opposite of that. So, cold and hostile? He wants the food to be the star and everything to focus on that. Which is why he keeps ignoring the food to talk about wine. Some Sabor customers enjoy their long-awaited food. Dave asks a customer for feedback, and she points out that the tuna tartare makes a high-falutin' statement and the rest of the menu is more relaxed, so the whole thing doesn't quite gel. Back in the kitchen, Lee Anne is running out of room for plates.

Stephen seats the judges. Jeffrey has just gotten back from Spain, so he's tickled to be eating Spanish food again. The helper shows up again, pouring water. Stephen babbles to the judges about fish and red wine, like he has anything to tell them that they don't already know. Lee Anne frets that her food is getting cold. Stephen interviews that he knows service was delayed and he found it frustrating, but he kept his composure in front of the customers. Chef Tom finds scales on his fish. Lee Anne is mortified. Katie thinks Stephen's educational treatise is condescending, but Chef Tom is more tolerant of youth. The judges move to American Workshop. Gail and Katie get their own little table. Dave works at making a good impression. The judges start discussing the contrasts.

The survey cards are passed out. The American Workshop customers comment on the disjointed menu and the engaging seating arrangements. Stephen interviews that Sabor served 17 people to American Workshop's 13, so they were clearly superior. A woman who's either a drag queen or a smoker of very long standing enjoyed Sabor's complexity; a man is iffy because he thinks service is important. Tiffani thinks Cannes would be nice, but the real prize is not going home. Stephen is, as always, confident of success.

Judges' table: Katie asks the guest judge to start. Jeffrey likes the stark contrast between the ideas. Chef Tom agrees that it comes down to execution. He doesn't like how American Workshop switched from family-style service to individual service halfway through the menu; he wants consistency. Gail points out that Sabor customers had a long wait between courses. She thinks something must have gone wrong in the kitchen, but Chef Tom says it could also mean the kitchen wasn't getting cues from the dining room.

Katie summons the red team. Miguel wonders if they're taking the losers first now. Stephen is sure they must be. Roast chicken is ordinary, but their food was "fly." The red team is vastly relieved to learn they won. High-fives all around. They got 26 out of 30 points -- customers loved the food, loved Dave, loved the family style service. Jeffrey wants to know why they think they should go to Cannes. Tiffani says that she has nutured the name for five years, and she gave it over to the contest. She compliments the others for their contributions, but she thinks she could have done their jobs just as well. Dave says that his contribution was integrity, and he excelled at creating a great experience for the customers. While Tiffani had the vision thing, no one can fill every role in a team of three. Tiffani starts to say something, but stops as Dave continues. He tells her that he's talking now, and she agrees. He's tired of hearing her talk. She says go ahead. So he goes ahead. "I also didn't bash you," she interrupts. Dave protests that she was constantly bashing him, telling him not to touch things. Tiffani wonders when she said that, and he says it was all the time. Finally, the long-awaited, much-anticipated "I'm not your bitch, bitch." Tiffani is surprised by the animosity. Chef Tom brings it back to the original question: Why should you be the one to go to Cannes? They're curious to hear what Harold has to offer now. Harold takes himself out of the running; he was just working in the kitchen like he does every night. Jeffrey asks for his choice. Harold loved working with Tiffani, but he chooses Dave for coming through under enormous pressure. Katie tosses it to Jeffrey, who diplomatically says he'd like to take them both. But since they won because of service, Dave gets the win. Katie sends them away; they all thank the judges and go off to give the news to the blue team.

Lee Anne congratulates Dave on the win. Tiffani does a little "Dave's going to France" chant that peters out as the blue team heads off to meet their doom. They get the stink eye from Chef Tom. Jeffrey thinks they had the potential but not the execution. Katie points out that service was a big factor in the results. Stephen protests that they provided an educational experience, and the customers' "eyes widened, their mouths dropped". From delight or utter astonishment? Katie lays it out: the red team scored 26 out of 30; the blue team scored 22. Theory has encountered hard data, and theory's now feeling bruised. Stephen says that he could have gotten the food to the table faster if he hadn't been so busy talking. From the way he says it, he clearly thinks talking was more important. Gail says learning is not the same as satisfaction. Chef Tom points out that the customers are adults who "don't need to be force-fed education." Katie asks Lee Anne what she thinks went wrong. Lee Anne wasn't happy with her team. Miguel didn't know much about Spain, so he was the sous chef. Miguel says he's never been to Spain, and he wasn't able to persuade them to go in a different direction. Chef Tom says the contest isn't "Top Sous Chef." Miguel is proud of his efforts, and whatever happens, happens. Chef Tom asks Lee Anne if she would fire the sous chef, and she says she hasn't really been impressed with his work, so yeah. Miguel's eyes narrow. She apologizes, and Miguel says, "If that's how you feel, that's fine." No hissing? Katies asks Stephen, who thinks Miguel is the weakest of the three. Miguel offers up Stephen, who is front of the house, while Miguel has proven himself in the kitchen. Katie sends them away for the deliberations.

Katie asks who was responsible for the loss. Chef Tom says Lee Anne prepared the menu, and Gail thinks it was a little too ambitious. Jeffrey calls out poor planning. Chef Tom doesn't like Miguel coasting again. Gail doesn't think he's a leader. Katie asks about Stephen. Gail thinks he's too green. Jeffrey observes that Stephen didn't recognize that he was creating a problem; his attitude was that the delay would be worth it because of the education. But Gail just cares about getting her food. Jeffrey says the competition isn't "Top Sommelier" either. They come to a decision.

Lee Anne, Miguel and Stephen return. Chef Tom dings Miguel for coasting, Stephen for not being enough of a chef, and Lee Anne for being a failed leader. Katie boots Miguel. He looks forward to working with them in the future and thanks them for the opportunity. Back in the kitchen, there are hugs. Lee Anne eulogizes that Miguel hasn't found his style yet, but he's a great cook. Miguel even gives Tiffani a big hug. Which is nice, but what happened to war? If you're going to declare war on somebody, then by golly, you should mean it.

Miguel interviews that he's not sure where his career is going, but he's sure success will follow from his passion for food. Let's hope he can remember where he left it.

Did Miguel deserve the boot? I think Stephen should be thanking his lucky stars. He didn't help with the prep work and then he decided that lecturing the customers was more important than feeding them. I'd say he definitely contributed more to the loss than Miguel. So that's clearly not how the judges decided the boot. What saved Stephen is that he took ownership of something. Miguel chose that lame strategy of trying not to lose by ducking responsibility. If he's not responsible for anything, then he can't be held responsible for the loss, so he won't deserve the boot. Except now he's been booted for ducking responsibility. So for all you potential season 2 contestants, the message is clear -- you can't half-ass your way into the finals. You have to produce.

Now Harold also played sous chef. But that seemed more like simple team dynamics -- Tiffani had the vision, so she was in charge, so he took the supporting role. For him, it was the logical thing to do. If Miguel had argued that there's room for only one boss in the kitchen, it might have helped him. But that would require the perspective of a team player, which Miguel lacked. Even if you're a subordinate, you need to give your best to the team. The whole snapper fiasco, from price to scales, showed that Miguel wasn't paying attention to what was needed; he was just following orders. Again, that's refusing to take responsibility.

Controversy: Did the right team win? The red team had higher scores, but the blue team had more customers. Both factors were judging criteria. Since the red team won, satisfaction had more weight than popularity. And yeah, that's probably valid. If you can get people in your restaurant, but only once, you're going to fail. If you have fewer customers but they keep coming back, you have a chance to succeed. Tiffani's concept wasn't cutting edge, but it's always going to appeal to some number of customers. Plus the satisfaction scores reflect what the teams did, rather than what the customers anticipated.

Controversy: Dave or Tiffani? I say both or neither, depending on what's really being asked. Dave is too sensitive and Tiffani is too bossy. The fact that Harold can work happily with Tiffani means it's not just Tiffani's fault; it's the combination of Dave and Tiffani that is so toxic, like ammonia and bleach. It's nice that Dave finally told off Tiffani instead of fuming and feeling picked on, but (like Chef Tom) I wish he hadn't thought telling off Tiffani more important than answering Jeffrey's question about their contributions. And as far as that goes, I'm afraid that "I have integrity" is really a nothing answer. Integrity is one of those virtues that means different things to different people, to the point that it doesn't mean anything any more. Two people with integrity in the same situation will make two different choices because they're being true to two different values. Anyway, I don't see what integrity has to do with making people feel happy about their dining experience.

As for Tiffani, she reminds me of hardware engineers who described people skills as "charm school." They thought communication should be a simple mechanical process of exchanging data. Tiffani does better than that, but she tends to see customers as people who need charming, not coworkers. In the kitchen, Tiffani just wants to get the job done. When she told Dave not to cut the onions, she was essentially offering a suggestion -- well, a strong preference. But what Dave heard is, "I don't trust you to do anything right." And that partly comes from Tiffani's sense of her vision being "right" and other ways needing justification. It's a natural tendency. But it's also Tiffani's issue and she needs to take some ownership.

When they got to the judges' table, I suspect Tiffani was willing to let Dave have his say at first. But when he got on his high horse with her, she deliberately provoked him by interrupting. Possibly a tactical move, but I suspect Tiffani is also a nitpicker. Being a nitpicker myself, I recognize the signs. Since Dave accused her of "bashing" him, she wanted specific instances of cause and effect. When he couldn't offer a specific example, that only increased her contempt.

If you want to get Myers-Briggs about it, Dave is pure Feeling and Tiffani is pure Thinking. People at opposites ends of a personality spectrum can work together, but you have to recognize that people are simply different, and that's the way it is. On the one hand, try to recognize what people need from you and provide it. On the other hand, if you're not getting what you need, say so. Overall, Tiffani did a better job of giving Dave his own space, but some compliments along the way would have really helped. It's a minor investment in effort with a big payoff, so why not do it? Dave needs to do a better job of speaking up when things bother him, rather than bottling things up and then exploding. It's good that he expressed himself to Tiffani, but he should have done it over the onions, not at the judges' table.

Mostly I felt sorry for Jeffrey. Travel is exhausting enough without having to deal with Rigid Gal or Overwrought Guy. It's a poor reward for being nice enough to guest judge. But then I googled Jeffrey Chodorow, and it turns out he's essentially a charter member of the Greed is Good club, so now I'm thinking "karma."

Friday, April 14, 2006


Whining and Dining

Previously on Top Chef: Miguel threw Andrea under the bus. Lisa got the boot.

Lee Anne asks Andrea how she feels about getting thrown under the bus. Andrea interviews that Miguel is going to be the next to go if he doesn't start conducting himself with more grace. Miguel interviews that he wasn't attacking Andrea; he was just saying that he can't rely on anyone else. That's an interesting translation of "it was all her idea." Miguel loads the dishwasher; sometime later, Dave discovers it full of suds. Looks like someone confused dishwashing liquid and dishwasher detergent. Miguel gripes that no one is offering to help him clean up the mess he made and pity-parties that he'll have to do it all by himself, then. He interviews that he doesn't trust anyone and the competition is starting to turn ugly. Man, what a whiner. Now I'm sorry I ever liked him.

QuickFire Challenge: Tiffani is delighted to see guest judge Ted Allen of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. I've never watched it. I suspect Carson Kressley would give me nightmares. Katie Lee announces that the theme for this round is Pressure, and Dave is like, "Isn't it always?" They have 20 minutes to create an appetizer from the ingredients displayed in the kitchen and from pantry items. The display ingredients are marked with a price per ounce; they have to keep the cost under $3.00. Pantry ingredients are free. Ted starts the clock ticking.

Everybody rushes around. Dave would like to win a challenge but he recognizes the caliber of the competition. Stephen interviews that he kept calm while everyone else stressed. Lee Anne was too busy working to notice anyone else's mood. Miguel discovers that the heat was turned down on his burner. He interviews that some people want him to go, but he's just going to work harder. Tiffani enjoys pressure. Dave believes he has an advantage with his flavors but he needs to get his presentation to the same level. Andrea thinks appetizers should be light and refreshing. Harold is bummed that he hasn't won a QuickFire Challenge, especially since he's been so calm for all of them. I guess winning the first Elimination Challenge erased all memory of his Fleur de Lys experience. Stephen's dish manages to embody everything he's about. Miguel just keeps coming up with ideas. Time's up! Ted is quite charming as he visits with each chef.

Ted's favorites are Lee Anne (lovely presentation), Stephen (exquisite presentation, wonderful flavors), Tiffani (variety), and Harold (rich, very seasonal). He congratulates them all and finally anoints Stephen as the winner. Sigh. Ted, I was liking you so much up until then. Nobody claps. Stephen, as usual, knew he was the best. Harold finds Stephen's food soulless. Dave critiques Stephen's plate as "that's not an appetizer, that's a painting." Ted did say he liked the flavors, so it wasn't just a matter of presentation. But I agree that it was rather sparse, especially on such a large platter.

On to the Elimination Challenge. Ted is hosting a dinner party to celebrate the launch of his new cookbook. His guests are food and wine types. Since there are seven chefs left, they'll produce a seven-course meal, one chef per course. The party will be held at Frisson, which will be closed that night for the party. Ted warns that any embarrassment will render him a very cranky judge. The total budget is $400. They'll spend the day planning. The shopping will come the next day, and then cooking at Frisson.

The dessert course quickly becomes a sticking point. Tiffani interviews that no one is a pastry chef. During the sexy dessert challenge, Miguel said he had been a pastry chef for a year, but apparently he's not going to claim any expertise now. So whoever does the dessert course is working with a handicap, which is more of a risk than anyone wants to take. Harold suggests doing a cheese plate, but Tiffani thinks the judges will accuse them of wimping out. Chef Tom drops in to see how it goes. Tiffani suggests that Stephen take the dessert course, since he's not at risk. She interviews that Chef Tom's presence really put Stephen on the hook, which worked out nicely. Stephen agrees, saying he likes to either start or end the meal. So crisis averted. Now that it's settled, Chef Tom wishes them luck and wanders off. I begin to suspect a twist from the way he's smiling.

Miguel will take the first course; he wants to do a cold appetizer. Dave gets the soup course. Andrea will do the fish. Tiffani has the poultry dish. Harold volunteers for the meat dish. He's fed up with fish and vegetables; he wants something to sink his teeth into. Poor Harold, forced to work with wimpy seafood all these past challenges. Where he got to choose his own ingredients. Except the monkfish. I could see how that would loom large in someone's memory. Lee Anne takes the pre-dessert course and Stephen has dessert. Lee Anne is optimistic about everyone working together. She's kind of a Pollyanna, but fortunately not in a cloying way.

Back at the house, they have a product-placed barbecue that isn't even amusing, so enough said. Stephen does a product-placed web search for dessert recipes. Fortunately, they're not sleeping on product-placed sheets. Although I'd put up with product-placed sheets if Martha Stewart showed up as a guest judge.

The next day they go shopping at Bryan's. The menu:

Stephen also steps up to play sommelier for the meal; Lee Anne consults with him about the wines.

Next stop: Frisson. The dining area has a cool arrangement of lights in concentric circles. Looks swanky. They haul food into the kitchen. Chef Tom arrives. As if the pressure of a high-profile dinner party isn't enough, the show is going to kick it up a notch. All the chefs start with the sidelong looks, like they're ready to stuff Chef Tom in the wine cellar but they're just waiting for somebody else to make the first move. But nobody does, so they're stuck with the twist: they're pulling knives to see who gets which course. Now they're kicking themselves about the lost wine cellar opportunity. The new assignments:

Harold swears in Italian (so it doesn't get bleeped) when he gets the dessert knife. Chef Tom lays out the rules: you will be judged on the course you prepare, but you can help each other out -- or not. So we'll see if anyone decides to sandbag the competition. Chef Tom figures this shouldn't be a problem; top chefs have to be able to handle anything that's thrown at them. Stephen gives Harold his recipes and tells him it's a "piece of cake." Harold's looking at all Stephen's ingredients like, "What the hell?" But he's stuck with the ingredients. Stephen refuses to sabotage Harold, so they decide to team up. Dave realizes that he needs to start showing some confidence right about now. Andrea isn't happy with Miguel's dish, since it's so far outside her realm of healthy food. Tiffani is happy with Harold's dish but she needs to execute.

Miguel sprinkles something into his beets and then realizes he makes a mistake. Time for the Miguel show! He tries to get everyone to guess what mistake he just made, but they're busy with their own work. Finally he announces that he added salt instead of sugar and Lee Anne's like, "Are you serious?" So now Miguel flaps around, he's screwed, it's over, he's toast. Everybody is like, "Look, just settle down and figure out how to fix it." Chef Tom drops in and checks on Harold. Stephen thinks everything is going fine with the dessert course, but Harold's the one actually making it and he has his doubts. Chef Tom asks Miguel what cheese he's using. Miguel thinks it's Camembert but checks with Lee Anne; it's actually fourme d'Ambert. He flaps around some more, informing Chef Tom he's having a hard time. Chef Tom leaves him to it.

Andrea interviews that Miguel needed to make a contribution to the dinner, so he switched his attention to her appetizer course. Since it matters so much to him, she's just doing the latkes and letting him handle the rest. Tiffani thinks Andrea's making a tactical error.

The guests' arrival is intercut with frantic cooking. The names we're given: Rodney Williams and Andrea Smalling (Robert Mondavi private selection), Thomas McNamee (food writer and critic), Laura Werlin (cheese expert and cookbook author), Andrew McCormack (owner of Frisson), Steve Dveris (Food & Wine magazine). Ted gives the guests the rundown and encourages them to talk about the food. The guests are seated at two round tables, which I find somewhat awkward.

Stephen starts things off by sabering a bottle of champagne (did you know Stephen is a sommelier?) and the dining begins.

Ted summons the chefs to receive compliments and applause.

Judges' table: The judges are sitting at the usual long, rectangular table and I wonder why they didn't seat the guests at that table instead of the two round ones. Ted was impressed with the teamwork. The food was generally good; he sees the differences being in the presentation. Gail liked that everyone did their best, even with someone else's dishes. Chef Tom thinks that's just how a kitchen works -- people pull together to put out the best meal they can. They're dealing with relative rather than absolute failures. Gail brings up the dessert; she thought it was too rich. Chef Tom has some quibbles about execution, but finds the degree of difficulty impressive. He was less pleased with Dave's work. The elements didn't really work together. Gail thinks there could have been more flavor.

In the back, Dave asks Miguel if he's okay. Tiffani says she's never seen him so quiet. Miguel huffily asks her if she jumps for joy after a bad day. Dave says no and Miguel says, "Okay. Thank you." And with that pitched rhetorical battle, he has now successfully defended his right to be quiet. Perhaps he'll go back to exercising it.

Katie summons Tiffani, Lee Anne and Stephen as the top three. Gail commends the soup and the pancetta-wrapped mushroom. Stephen smiles but doesn't say anything. Chef Tom liked the foie gras fat in the bordelaise sauce in Tiffani's dish. He cavils that the meat rested too long (a timing error) and the onions were slightly undercooked, but overall, it was a very successful effort. Ted enjoyed the unity of the various components in Lee Anne's dish. Lee Anne gets the win. She gives due credit to Tiffani for coming up with the dish.

Katie asks how things went in the kitchen. Lee Anne talks about Miguel's mistake with the salt. Chef Tom asks, if they were booting someone based on their kitchen performance, would Miguel go? Lee Anne equivocates; Tiffani does not. Miguel had a meltdown and was slow to recover. Stephen found it disappointing, although he thinks Andrea and Dave are still weaker than Miguel. Tiffani's frowny face disagrees. Lee Anne smooths things over by saying Miguel recovered as best as he could.

The bottom three: Dave, Miguel and Andrea. Harold is happy to have achieved mediocrity tonight. Gail brings up Dave's vegetables. Dave was trying to stay true to Andrea's vision of light and healthy. Ted thinks he put in too much of Andrea and not enough of himself. Dave is frustrated that he's getting in his own way, and he'd like more time to prove that he can really do it. I'm not seeing Dave as a top chef. Proprietor of a beloved neighborhood dining institution is more his speed. Chef Tom appreciates Dave's desire to do better, but the judging is going to be about the food. Katie asks Miguel how things went. He thinks he did a good job with the cheese and cracker part, but he still can't remember the name of the cheese when Chef Tom asks him. He confesses the salt for sugar mistake, but he thinks he regrouped with the beet salad. Chef Tom tattles that Lee Anne and Tiffani criticized his performance. Miguel disagrees; he had a bad moment but he put out a good dish. He thinks their criticism means they see him as a threat. Chef Tom asks Andrea if she felt constrained to follow Miguel's vision, and she reveals that she only did the latkes. Chef Tom says that's why she's at the table, plus cold latkes was a bad idea. Ted asks what of herself she added to the appetizer. She added scallions, which she sees as more than a garnish. Ted responds that philosophy is all very well and good, but she needs to be trying to blow the judges away with her food. The three are sent away while the judges deliberate.

In the back room, Miguel confronts Lee Anne and Tiffani about saying he should go home. Tiffani points out that he made some mistakes, probably due to nerves, and that she never said he should go home tonight. Which is technically correct, but in a very hair-splitting kind of way and Miguel is in more of a bludgeoning mood. Miguel wants to know if she's calling Chef Tom a liar, and only wants to hear "yes" or "no." Tiffani's not going to play that game. Miguel figures that means she feels threatened by him. It's war now. She's a snake. And to make sure she gets the point, Miguel hisses at her. Ha! But he's still annoying.

Gail and Ted think Miguel's dish was disorganized. Part was good, part not so good. Chef Tom thinks Miguel had good ingredients and he should have been able to make them work (to borrow a phrase from Tim Gunn). As Ted observes that Dave needs to get his emotions under control, we see him crying over his glass of wine. Ted doesn't care about personal problems; he cares about the food. Chef Tom thinks Dave should have made the dish as flavorful as possible. Ted figures a stick of butter would have taken care of the matter. Dave cries some more. Katie brings up Andrea's dish or, as Chef Tom phrases it, "Andrea's cold pancakes." Ted thinks she needs to care more, and she didn't do anything difficult. They reach their decision. Dave cries some more.

Andrea, Dave and Miguel return to the judges' table. Ted gears himself up to be mean to somebody. Chef Tom dings Dave for insufficient flavor, Miguel for freaking out, and Andrea for failing to impress. Katie boots Andrea. Miguel says he'll miss her, because she has been a friend. Way to make it all about you, Miguel. Andrea thanks the judges and the three depart.

Lee Anne was glad Andrea got to come back for a while; she admires Andrea's passion for healthy food. Tiffani observes that they all have different reasons for being on the show, and Andrea's was more about making a difference than winning. And since Tiffani is on record as being all about winning, it's nice that she can respect Andrea's goals.

Andrea has enjoyed the experience, but she's glad to be going back to her customers and doing what's she's good at: making good food that's healthy. Maybe she should have tried doing more of that here.

Did Andrea deserve the boot? They kept pointing out that she didn't really make her dish -- but Stephen didn't make his dish, either. Of course, he had immunity (thanks, Ted!) so that's a moot point. I think what really griped them is that she didn't seem to care about the food. She was more invested in letting Miguel feel good about himself than in giving the customer a good experience, and that's basically heresy. Dave was also at risk because he gave Andrea's point of view more weight than the customer's experience, but he did manage to get some flavors into the food. Miguel's meltdown was unprofessional, but he pulled it together eventually to make a decent (if not compelling) dish.

Controversy: Should the top three have been asked to judge a fellow contestant? I think it's fair to ask them about how other chefs performed. A top chef isn't just a cook; you have to manage a bunch of employees. It's okay to investigate their management styles. What was unnecessary was Chef Tom sharing their input with Miguel, particularly with names attached. That just didn't serve any purpose except stirring up drama, and I've had quite enough of Miguel's drama, thank you. I'm tired of self-proclaimed "competitors" who have paranoid freak-outs when they get friction from their fellow contestants. "They're so mean, they're just out to get me, they think I'm a threat!" If that's really true (a big if, but let's roll with the paranoia), then aren't they just being competitive? So stop whining and compete back.

Monday, April 10, 2006


Taking It to the Streets

Previously on Top Chef: Andrea returned to the competition; Stephen called her a "simple workhorse." Stephen bored Gail into a stupor. Andrea killed on the Elimination Challenge, but Candice and Lisa bombed. Chef Tom was ready to boot the entire bottom three, but the limit is one, so Candice was out. She just wanted her inexperience respected.

No touristy street shots. I guess we're supposed to realize this is set in San Francisco by now. Miguel snoozes while Andrea does yoga on the rooftop deck. Lisa is regrouping after her microwave disaster. Andrea is feeling some vindication with her win since Stephen has been snubbing her. Stephen is making his hair stick straight up. I want to introduce him to the BuffyBot. That would put the marzipan in his pie plate, bingo. He thinks the competition is fast approaching the "every chef for himself" point.

QuickFire Challenge: The guest judge is Mike Yakura of Le Colonial. Tiffani does not dish upon his credentials, so I'm forced to do my own research: Le Colonial presents a fusion of Vietnamese and classic French cooking (the French colonized Vietnam); Chef Mike is the executive chef; he takes a lot of inspiration from the street food of Saigon. The challenge is to identify a variety of exotic ingredients. The hard part: the chefs will be blindfolded during the test. Everybody has an "Oh, crap" expression. Dave interviews that he can identify a lot of ingredients by sight, but doing it by taste is going to be much harder. Lisa is pessimistic; Andrea is optimistic. Stephen is always in the top three percent of everything he does (but Mensa only takes the top two percent, so they're unimpressed). Chef Mike interviews that this is the hardest challenge the contestants will have to face in the whole competition. I love his bowling shirt. And his hair. And his smile.

Oh, right, so there's twenty ingredients and they have five minutes to identify as many as they can. Lee Anne goes first, and struggles. She's not allowed to speak when she returns to the group, but her expression delivers the news loud and clear. A montage of blindfolding and tasting and failing and succeeding follows. Many of the ingredients seem to be Asian fruits, but there's also agave and chili paste and nopal cactus and natto (fermented soybeans). Miguel interviews that the blindfold acted like a "blanket over [his] brain." Is that the reason behind his haircut? Stephen interviews that he expected to do well, and then we see "Pass. Pass. Pass." Heh. Harold admits to getting taken down a notch. Andrea interviews that she tried to take her time. Dave doesn't have much experience with the exotic stuff; a snack food taste challenge would be a different story. Tiffani cheerfully admits that she was totally lost. In the end, everyone is feeling suitably humbled, and perhaps a little nauseated.

Katie asks Chef Mike to sum things up. He observes that the challenge highlighted the importance of sight in how chefs cook. The results: Tiffani and Miguel both got one ingredient right. Harold, Lee Anne, Stephen and Lisa all got three ingredients. So Lisa didn't tank after all. Go, Moms! Chef Mike drags it out, but it turns out Dave got two right and Andrea is the winner with a total of four correct identifications. Wow, she's back with a vengeance. Dave is happy for her, and happy that Stephen got shown up, since he's made it clear that he doesn't think Andrea belongs in the competition.

Chef Mike wheels in a street cart. Lee Anne interviews that everyone was excited to be doing street food. Lisa interviews that she really didn't want to go sell stuff on the streets. The Elimination Challenge will involve fusing some of the cuisines popular in San Francisco. Everyone will fuse Latin cuisine with something else. Lisa interviews that Latin food isn't just tacos and burritos and enchiladas, so there are some interesting directions to explore. Everyone draws a knife to determine their second cuisine. There are two chefs for each cuisine, so it's another team challenge. Lee Anne gets stuck with Stephen doing Latin/Chinese. Miguel is paired with Andrea for Latin/Indian. Since she has immunity, he knows he's the one to get the boot if they lose. Andrea tells Miguel she's already got it figured out. Tiffani and Dave have Latin/Moroccan, and Harold and Lisa will be doing Latin/Japanese. They'll be offering their food for free in the Mission District, which is famous for its diversity. The judging criteria: how well they fuse their cuisines and how well their food works as street food. Each team gets $200 for supplies and one hour at each of two shopping locations.

Lee Anne and Stephen discuss menus on the way to the market; they're thinking sopes. Stephen is only accustomed to four star dining, so the street cart is new territory for him. Well, yeah, no room for a wine cellar in one of those. Tiffani and Dave are happy they got Moroccan. Tiffani thinks everyone will be doing burritos and she wants to stay far away from that. Her idea is a cubano sandwich with Moroccan flavors. Dave is happy to let her take the lead. Andrea wants to keep things simple. Miguel brings up canned beans, but backtracks at Andrea's reaction. Her idea is an Indian-spiced lentil burrito. Miguel figures he'll let her come up with the ideas and he'll crank out the food. Lisa also defers to her partner. She's pleased to be working with someone non-dramatic. Harold wants to do something with seared tuna. He's so happy with his partner, he predicts victory. Dude, have you never watched TV?

Everybody meets up at the Latin market. Tiffani explains the competitive shopping strategy: grab it before the other guys get it. Andrea defers to Miguel at the meat counter. He starts talking to the meat guys in Spanish, interrupting Lee Anne and Stephen. Stephen protests and Miguel joshes him. Stephen can't understand what's going on because his only foreign language is Pretentious Wine Snob. They manage to get their shopping done anyway. Stephen makes his usual "I'm confident, especially considering my competition" prediction. But winning this competition would only put him in the top twenty-five percent.

That night, the chefs relax by drinking heavily and staging the Fat Ass Snack Master Taste-Off between Dave and "Chunk Le Funk" (aka Miguel). Lee Anne takes the Katie role, but without the robotic monotone. Harold is the time keeper and Tiffani keeps score. Lee Anne interviews that this was a great way to salvage their egos after the brutal QuickFire challenge. So there are blindfolds and twenty little glass dishes of product-placed junk food items which Miguel and then Dave attempt to identify while everyone else nearly falls off the furniture, they're laughing so hard. Miguel "Don't Touch My Mayonnaise" Morales takes the win.

The next morning, Lisa feels confident. She doesn't want to let Harold down. Miguel is eager to sell his product on the streets. And off to the kitchen they go.

Chef Tom drops in as time winds down. Andrea and Miguel's rice is still crunchy when he tastes it. Chef Tom questions Miguel's strategy of letting Andrea drive, since he's the one with everything at stake. Harold is confident the seared tuna will go over well with the clientele, but Chef Tom has his doubts. He thinks the other two teams are working well together, with both team members contributing. There's a rush to the finish line for everyone but Lisa and Harold, who are ready with five minutes to spare. Chef Tom counts down the last five seconds and then wishes everyone luck.

Aaaand we're in the Mission District. The teams notice most of the people walking around are Hispanic, which is not as much diversity as they were expecting. Lee Anne isn't happy with their spot, which is near another cart and a trash can. Stephen is not in the top three percent of trash can movers. I'm surprised he was even willing to touch it. While unpacking, Harold and Lisa discover that they don't have their jicama, which was a vital ingredient in their whole fusion plan. Andrea and Miguel start connecting with the passersby, Miguel taking advantage of his bilingualism. Tiffani and Dave have a line right away, so Tiffani starts cranking out the food while Dave handles customer relations. He's wearing a silly little Moroccan hat that blends with his white hair. Lee Anne and Stephen have trouble rustling up customers. Stephen strolls around like a caterer with a tray of sopes and virjitos. His outfit today: an orange tie and a pink/orange/purple striped shirt under his pin-striped suit. I'm flabbergasted that these clothes are even made, let alone purchased by anyone. He's like the Miami version of an English butler. Stephen is amused (but secretly gratified) to find himself labelled the "Mayor of the Mission." Lee Anne thinks maybe he scared people with his incredible whiteness. Lisa and Harold push on without the jicama. Lisa interviews that she began to have some doubts about the seared tuna strategy.

The judges show up for tasting.

The judges' table is located in the Mission Cultural Center. The tile backdrop is so wildly colorful, just having it show up on your television screen violates every neighborhood covenant ever written. Chef Mike is pleasantly surprised with all the entries. Chef Tom likes all the creativity, especially the two who offered drinks. It will be hard to pick the winner and loser. Katie starts the discussion with Andrea and Miguel. Chef Mike liked the flavors but the presentation was unimpressive. Chef Tom thinks Tiffani and Dave nailed the street food part of the challenge. Chef Mike doesn't think Lisa and Harold's salad in a bowl works as street food. Gail likes Lee Anne and Stephen's fusion of flavors. Well, it didn't take them long to sort out a top and a bottom after all.

Katie summons Stephen, Lee Anne, Tiffani and Dave. Miguel realizes that he's in the bottom. Andrea thinks they did great (Andrea always thinks she did great), so she doesn't know what happened (Andrea never knows what happened). Chef Tom thinks the top two dishes were two of the strongest in the entire competition. Dave and Tiffani had great flavors in a very manageable package. Gail thinks the flavors were complex and well-balanced. Chef Mike can picture their cubano being sold on the streets. As for Lee Anne and Stephen, Chef Tom notes that they worked well together. Gail likes the layering of the flavors. Chef Mike is stealing the lychee mojito for his restaurant. Katie gives the win to Dave and Tiffani. They celebrate.

Harold, Lisa, Andrea and Miguel head off to the judges' table. Lisa hugs the winners before leaving. Harold interviews that he knew it would be bad; the top group gets "handshakes, kisses and champagne" while the bottom group is in for a "bloodbath." Harold and Lisa deal with the jicama issue. Chef Tom observes that Lisa was the last one he saw with it. She takes responsibility for overlooking it. Chef Tom questions the streetness of their food. Harold prefers to stick with the best of available ingredients; he hoped to educate some customers. Argh! "Educating the customers" means you don't care what they really want. You have to hook your customers before you can educate them. Chef Mike found it forgettable; the West Coast has been doing seared tuna and avocado forever. Chef Tom asks which team member will go home if they lose, and Lisa immediately volunteers. She has been in the bottom three already and she's the only one who isn't a professional. Harold grouses that she is too a professional, which is sweet but he's not exactly offering to go in her stead. Chef Tom says he'd love to eat at Lisa's house.

Now it's Andrea and Miguel's turn. Chef Tom questions their decision to serve their burrito open-face with a fork and knife and a drink when people only have two hands. Chef Mike is like, "It's a (bleep)ing burrito." Gail says that if they had just rolled it up, it would have been so much more convenient. Miguel answers that Andrea wanted to leave it up to the patron. Andrea interviews that she kind of expected Miguel to sacrifice her, since he's so competitive. Chef Tom questions Miguel's strategy of letting Andrea be in charge since she got voted off once before and she has immunity. Miguel figures he did a good job with the cooking. When Chef Tom complains about the rice being bland, Miguel points to Andrea's decision to use brown rice. Andrea volunteers to give her immunity to Miguel, since the competition matters more to him. He's stunned. Chef Tom puts the kibosh on that plan. Katie sends them off to await the final decision.

The top four ask how it went. Miguel says he was chastised for relying too much on Andrea, who has been booted before. He doesn't mention the "and who has immunity" part. Lisa agrees the criticism was brutal.

Gail didn't see much imagination in Harold and Lisa's salad. Chef Mike finds it rather arrogant to serve seared tuna in the Mission District. Gail blames Harold for doing what he wanted to do instead of thinking about what the customer would want. Chef Tom thinks Lisa isn't competitive enough. Chef Mike agrees that insecurity leads to failure. As for Andrea and Miguel, Gail is missing the Latin influence. All they had was the tortilla. Well, and the rice, but if it was bland, it wasn't making a contribution to the flavor fusion. Chef Mike thinks the burrito angle was unoriginal. Chef Tom is still stuck on Miguel's failure to take charge. Chef Mike says that if you have the drive to win, you have to fight to be the one flying the plane, even if it goes down in flames. Harold, Lisa and Miguel are brought back. Chef Tom dings Harold for his lack of creativity, Lisa for her lack of competitive fire and Miguel for his refusal to take his fate in his own hands. Katie boots Lisa. She thanks them for the experience, and invites Chef Tom over for dinner.

Dave eulogizes Lisa as a person with integrity. Tiffani was expecting a twist, with Harold getting the boot instead. Not that she wants him gone, but recognizing the possibility. People are teary-eyed at the farewell. Harold is pissed because he lost his partner. He interviews that Lisa was the mom of the group, and now he feels angry and guilty. It would be easier to get the boot himself. Miguel warns that it's just going to get harder.

Lisa interviews that her goal was to measure herself against professional chefs. She's pleased that she made it this far, and the experience was more valuable to her than the prize money. Which is good, since she's not getting the money.

Did Lisa deserve the boot? Both bottom teams were lacking in the fusion area. The missing jicama hurt the flavor of the tuna/avocado salad, but they still had a mix of their two cuisines. The lentil burrito was very biased toward the Indian side of things, so I think it comes out last in the fusion category. In the street food category, the burrito could at least be made more portable, although it looked a little full for rolling up. A salad in a bowl has no adaptability, so it loses that contest. The burrito didn't show much originality, but the seared tuna didn't show much appreciation for the customer's point of view. Who wants (partly) raw fish from a street cart? In the end, it's probably better for food to be unoriginal than unsuitable. So the team loss makes sense.

Now, do you boot Harold or Lisa? The jicama mistake is a tie; they both had the opportunity to notice and fix it. Harold made the mistake with the menu, but Lisa let him. A lot of what was said about Miguel applied to Lisa as well: if you care about winning, you can't just leave your fate in someone else's hands. And of course Lisa didn't care enough about winning. When she volunteered herself as the person from her team to go home, it was realistic but it was also defeatist. She didn't fight to stay. Harold didn't really fight for her either, although I think he tried to prod her to fight for herself. Lisa essentially told the judges that she didn't belong there. She booted herself.

It's interesting that the two top teams were collaborative efforts, while the two bottom teams had an "I'll just let you drive" dynamic. It's true that Dave let Tiffani set the direction, but their comments indicate that the details of the flavors were a joint effort. On reflection, the lack of drama in the Lee Anne/Stephen partnership is not that surprising. Like many status-conscious people, Stephen is only an ass to people he thinks beneath him. Lee Anne has very respectable credentials, so he wouldn't give her a lot of attitude. That left them free to get the job done.

Controversy: Is Miguel a jerk or what? I guess that depends on what you value more: honor or winning. In the real world, it's pretty weaselly to stick someone else with all the decisions, and then stick them with all the blame. You can't be just an innocent bystander when you're supposed to be doing a job. At some point, people are going to start wondering why they need an innocent bystander around the office. (This is why I can't watch The Apprentice for more than five seconds. Well, one of the reasons.) In a game -- and I count this as a game, even if it is a career gambit -- each player has to decide his own strategy and his own win scenario. Miguel is not going to play the game like Andrea because he has a different definition of winning. The big question is, how much can you predict someone's real life strategy from his game strategy? Some people treat everything in life like a game, while others make a clear distinction between the two -- and you can't necessarily tell who's who just by watching them play a game.

Thursday, April 06, 2006


Chefs Who Microwave

Previously on Top Chef: The chefs divided into teams to feed children. Candice and Stephen exchanged insults. The carrots were mushy. The monkey dogs won. Harold was not an entertainer. Chef Tom told Tiffani that the restaurant business is about making people happy. Brian got the boot, and went back to cooking for stars.

Lombard Street again? Dave is worried he might be the next to go if he doesn't "step it up." Stephen liked winning the team challenge but didn't enjoy having to work with his substandard teammates; he hopes all future challenges spotlight individual talents. Candice wants to pull out a big win so people will stop picking on her and take her seriously.

The QuickFire Challenge takes place down in the Mission District, which is full of specialty stores. The challenge will test their versatility and invention. Except for dried herbs and spices from the pantry, all their ingredients will come from one specialty store -- which turns out to be a gas station convenience store. Miguel calls it a nightmare. Harold is disgusted. They have $20 and 30 minutes to shop. Katie Lee starts the clock ticking and everyone runs inside.

Stephen immediately starts looking for wine or some other beverage to serve with his dish. (Did you know Stephen is a sommelier?) He doesn't find anything. Candice is comfortable since she shops in convenience stores with her girlfriends on road trips to Vegas. A very hoarse Tiffani interviews that she knew right away she was going to do a bread pudding with Krispy Kreme doughnuts. I've never eaten a Krispy Kreme doughnut. Something about them just scares me. Lee Anne proposes deep-frying some candy bars. Lisa teases Andrea about being in a store dedicated to unnatural food. Andrea hopes she won't be serving anyone she likes. Dave feels pretty good, since his "white trash" background will help him put something together. Tiffani gets on Miguel's case for piggybacking on her doughnut bread pudding idea. She's not worried, but she is pissed that he's copying. Miguel doesn't see what the big deal is. Tiffani jokes that they should buy some Rolaids for the judges.

Back in the kitchens, they have 30 minutes to cook. Everyone runs around madly. Miguel hopes to win immunity for a change. Harold rather cutely admits to buying Spam. Lee Anne introduces him as the new spokesperson for Spam. Stephen expounds on the popularity of Spam in Hawaii. Tiffani informs Stephen that his Spam is burning, and I bet she never, ever expected to find herself saying that. Andrea just knows her clients are going to go into shock when they see what she's cooking with. Katie returns, announcing the 5 minute mark. Stephen starts rooting around in the refrigerators, and Harold calls him on the "dried" part of the herbs and spices restriction. Stephen interviews that Katie clearly said "dried," but he omitted that part. I'm not sure if he's confessing or reporting. Miguel gripes about Tiffani's attitude. Tiffani can't decide if Miguel is being irritating or unoriginal. One minute left, and everyone hustles. Time runs out before Lee Anne sauces her dish.

Katie introduces the guest judge: Jefferson Hill, executive chef from the Rotunda restaurant at Neiman Marcus in San Francisco. He must be bummed about getting stuck with the gas station challenge, because he's abrupt with everyone.

Katie asks Chef Jefferson if there were any real disasters, and he singles out Candice, who feels picked on. The winner is Lee Anne; he never would have guessed her spiedini came from a gas station. Lee Anne interviews that she has won two immunity challenges but no elimination challenges, so she's "flying under the radar."

Katie lays down the Elimination Challenge: they have to create a reheatable gourmet entree, which they will present to members of the Junior League. Harold's "not into" the challenge because he's a restaurant chef, so he's not about people heating food at home. They go shopping at the Berkley Bowl, $50 and one hour shopping time. Miguel manages not to cripple Candice in a shopping cart collision. Candice is still smarting from Chef Jefferson's smackdown. Tiffani is going to appeal to her female audience with fish. She chooses escolar, a sea bass with a high fat content that won't dry out in the microwave. Stephen is going to do a Oaxacan-style tamale to educate the Junior Leaguers. At first I thought he said "Weehauken-style" and my mind boggled. Harold's angle is to make a soup, since soups taste better the second day. Dave is going to do a lasagna with fire-roasted marinara and slow-cooked Alfredo sauces (he's all about the sauces). He also found a nice purple and orange cauliflower for color. Lisa will do herb-grilled chicken. She's not worried because she cooks with the microwave all the time. Miguel runs his meatloaf idea by Lisa and Andrea; Lisa says it depends on how good his meatloaf is. Stephen is over his spending limit. He interviews that he was taken back to when he was 16 years old and throwing flavors together, not really thinking about what would mesh. So, not much progress in the last 8 years. He has to put stuff back. Harold calls Stephen a mad scientist, and Dave says Stephen works like he's in a chemistry lab, but America doesn't eat like that.

Back in the kitchens, they only have 90 minutes to cook and package their meals. Lee Anne makes the acquaintance of Harold's lobster (a short-lived friendship). There's more oven confusion. Dave is frazzled by the time limit. Chef Tom does a pass with one hour to go. He thinks Candice is going to run into trouble with her quiche, and Stephen's fusion tamale could be more flash than food. He gives Lisa the advantage because she cooks like this all the time. Stephen expects Lisa to win, since this is her milieu. He didn't say milieu, but he totally should have. Lisa's doing a two-cheese gratin with her chicken. Tiffani is preparing her fish with Asian flavors (soy and miso) which will hold up overnight and in the microwave. Miguel thinks fish in the microwave is a bad idea. Miguel shills for a barbeque sauce that he uses in his turkey meatloaf cubes, but since they're not paying me, I'm not saying who they are. Lee Anne is making lemongrass chicken over steamed jasmine rice, very simple. Andrea's menu is quinoa pilaf with roasted curried sweet potatoes. Candice thinks moms will like quiche.

It's the five-minute mark and everyone runs around to get finished and boxed up. Lisa didn't have time to cool her pasta or get to the grill. Dave is melting down because he just didn't have enough time, and then Harold and Stephen picked on him. As time is called, Candice comes over and he tells her he's worried about getting booted. Candice tries to cheer him up. Dave says Harold and Stephen "can go make out somewhere, because I'm over it, I'm just pissed." Dave needs to score some Valium off the Junior Leaguers.

The next day, they drive out to a big ol' house in the country. Katie and the judges greet them. They'll make a presentation and reheat their food. The ladies will pick the winner, the judges will pick the loser. Andrea feels confident because women of this age are her core audience. Harold interviews that the competition isn't just about cooking; you have to be able to sell your ideas. Miguel thinks his dish has universal appeal.

In the big ol' house's big ol' kitchen (yet another dream kitchen used for microwaving takeout), Andrea confesses that she hasn't used a microwave in ten years. Candice isn't sure what the microwave will do to her quiche. Stephen tells Miguel that he has never had a TV dinner; Miguel feels sorry for him. Stephen guesses that Miguel would eat anything, and Miguel allows that he'd try anything. His mom was a working single mother, and they ate whatever she threw together and then did their homework and went to bed. Dave rehearses his presentation. Harold's like, "Go for it, dude. But you're still a loser." I don't know what is up with them.

The presentations take place outside by the pool, where a row of microwaves have been set up. Each chef talks to the Junior League while the food reheats. The remaining chefs wait and fret in the big ol' kitchen.

Katie gets up to solicit input. Stephen interviews that he was happy with his dish. Dave feels pretty good, but you never know. Harold interviews that no one seems totally confident.

Judges' table: Gail thinks it was a real change-up -- some stars underperformed and some slackers stepped up. Chef Tom thinks this was a tough challenge that took planning, and some people got ahead of themselves. Dave gets praised for his strongest showing and Andrea gets kudos for rebounding from a bootable performance. Katie summons Harold, Tiffani and Andrea. Andrea figures that being with Harold and Tiffani means she's not in the bottom three. Gail compliments Harold for loosening up and flirting, and she liked the soup, too. Chef Tom thinks the soup was better than what he finds in Thai restaurants. Chef Jefferson thinks Tiffani's fish was perfectly cooked. Chef Tom agrees, it was a perfect choice for the challenge. Gail commends Andrea for being educational and flavorful. Chef Tom is pleased that her food was good as well as good for you. Tiffani gets the win. She interviews that she is the Kenmore microwave queen, and it's very flattering. Yeah, as long as you're cooking for grown-ups. Lee Anne is bummed that she wasn't in the top three.

The bottom three are Candice, Lisa and Stephen, who is embarassed to find himself in this company. Chef Tom calls out Lisa for not chilling the pasta after cooking, and Gail brings up the over-seasoned chicken. Chef Jefferson dings Candice's quiche, which was too eggy. Chef Tom brings up the crust. She didn't have time to rest the dough, but she did cook the pie crust separately. Also, the presentation was messy. She apologizes, acknowledging that she took a risk. I think you have to know what you're doing before you can actually take a risk; she just made bad decisions. Chef Tom says Stephen's flavors were too confusing, and Chef Jefferson was bemused by the world tour of ingredients. Gail chimes in that the texture was too dry. Stephen takes all this in with a puzzled expression. He says he accepts their criticism and doesn't make excuses. The three get sent out so the judges can talk some more.

Gail brings up Stephen's "what on earth am I doing here?" expression. Chef Tom thinks Candice is really showing her lack of experience. He is surprised that Lisa didn't do better. I think she would have totally nailed it if she were working in her own kitchen, but she's just not aggressive enough to fend for herself in that crowded environment. The bottom three return to the table. When Katie says someone is going home, Stephen has kind of a smirky expression. Chef Tom is ready to boot them all because their food was mostly inedible. That gets Stephen's attention. Katie says the decision was unanimous -- burn! Candice gets the boot. She sweetly thanks the judges for opportunity.

Back in the kitchen, Candice thanks everyone who helped her, and anyone who didn't respect that she had the least experience can go "f" off. There are hugs. Harold eulogizes that Candice has "a lot of backbone," even if her technical abilities aren't up there. Candice even hugs Stephen, who apologizes for being hard on her. Which is nice, but it would have been nicer if he'd apologized right after doing it. Or, you know, not done it at all. Stephen interviews that he wasn't surprised by the outcome, although he's generous enough to say that she made a "youthful mistake." Now that she's leaving, he doesn't hate her any more.

Candice is glad she had the experience, and she feels she has won just by getting this far. She's more comfortable with who she is now. Because there's nothing like being on TV to make you a better person.

I think Candice won when she got on the show, and everything else was just delaying the inevitable. I don't doubt her commitment to becoming a chef, but I just don't see a flair or a passion for food. With her personality and yes, her looks, I think she could flourish in the front of the house, but I don't see her slogging it out in the kitchen year after year. She was smart to go for the public exposure, but I'm not convinced the producers were smart to give it to her. A student who's a prodigy, who has a real talent for food? Sure. A student who's basically a sweet, pretty girl? Doesn't belong in a compeition called Top Chef.

No controversy this week. That won't last.

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