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.

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