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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