Wednesday, April 05, 2006


Too Cool for School

Previously on Top Chef: Stephen won the fruit plate QuickFire Challenge. Cynthia's father has cancer. Tiffani lectured Lee Anne on time management. Miguel won the sexy dessert Elimination Challenge. Andrea got the boot.

Lombard Street! Brian is disappointed that Andrea's gone because she was smokin' hot, but at least there are other babes in the house. I know chefs are all sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll underneath the linen tablecloths, but that exceeded my need to know. Dave isn't clicking with Brian. Candice wants to prove herself. Cynthia is spending a lot of time on the phone, dealing with her father's cancer.

Time for the QuickFire Challenge. Everybody heads into the work kitchen, and it stinks. They all have covered pots at their stations. Katie Lee presents the guest judge, Laurent Manrique, chef/owner of Aqua. Tiffani is once again the go-to girl for credentials, which are again impressive. The challenge theme is Nasty Delights. They remove the covers of the pots to reveal octopus. Katie explains that chefs often have to make something visually disgusting into something appealing. They have one hour to spin their octopus into culinary gold. Tiffani explains that one hour is not a lot of time to work with octopus. She decides to go Mediterranean. Stephen is using "spirits." (Did you know Stephen is a sommelier?) Brian is winging it. Cynthia is stressing. Time is up.

Chef Laurent is really nice about getting introduced to everyone and asking them questions about their preparation. He and Cynthia have a little bonding moment over her trick of adding a cork to the boiling water to tenderize the octopus. Overall, he's quite pleased with all the results, although Dave and Cynthia forgot salt and pepper. Dave beats himself up for getting flustered. Chef Laurent has four favorites: Tiffani, for the Mediterranean qualities; Lee Anne, because it was interesting; Stephen, for technique; Miguel, for color and interest. The win goes to Tiffani. She's relieved to have a win under her belt, because she knows she does good work.

Now the Elimination Challenge is revealed, and they'll be in teams this time. It's another "ew" to "umm" challenge: create a meal featuring a monkfish entree for forty children between 8 and 12 years old. The monkfish is about forty percent toothy mouth, with a monster underbite. "Unappealing" is putting it mildly. Tiffani is really unhappy about being judged by a bunch of kids who have no appreciation for what she does. Lisa is pleased because she has two children in that age range, so she has a lot of expertise and expects to win. They draw knives to divide into teams. The blue team: Lee Anne, Brian, Dave, Harold, Tiffani. Lee Anne is happy because she thinks they're all strong cooks. The red team: Stephen, Cynthia, Miguel, Candice, Lisa. Stephen regrets that it's impossible to raise Candice to his level. The teams will have 30 minutes to come up with a menu, and then two members of each team will shop.

Lisa dives right in, explaining what they need to make: fun finger food with dipping sauce. Stephen wishes he had a challenge worthy of his abilities. Over on the blue team, Brian makes suggestions for side dishes, but Dave reacts to them with a pissy face (maybe it's just stuck that way). Brian interviews that he felt shut out by Dave. I'd feel sorry for him, except he kept presenting his ideas like he was expecting applause. Stephen wants to do three preparations of monkfish, but Lisa thinks they need side dishes. Stephen proposes a cantaloupe puree. I begin to suspect Stephen was hatched. Miguel comes up with the idea of doing monkfish corndogs, called monkey dogs, and I give them the win on the spot. Harold inquires about vegetables, and Lee Anne suggests carrots. Brian volunteers to do candied baby carrots, which he makes all the time. The blue team finally takes him up on a suggestion.

Cynthia goes outside to take a phone call. Her father is fading fast and her cousin is worried about medical directives. Cynthia decides that she has to go home now. She returns to the kitchen and announces her withdrawal. Everyone is very kind and sympathetic. Dave interviews that Cynthia is someone he has come to love in this short time. Miguel volunteers to keep things crazy in her name.

They get back to work. Lisa and Candice go shopping for the red team. Stephen and Miguel call them to see how things are going. Candice asks if there's anything they want, and of course Stephen asks for wine. Not for the kids, for him. Lisa is disgusted and tells Candice to hang up, they don't have time for this nonsense. Stephen snots that they can't do two things at once, and I want to snap his neck, I hate him so much. But then it passes. (The homicidal rage, not the hate. Hating Stephen is eternal.) Dave and Lee Anne shop for the blue team without drama.

Back in the kitchen, Stephen is offended to learn that Candice got cookie cutters. He calls them completely childish and Candice agrees, because that's the point. Apparently Stephen is feeling out of his element because he can't use wine, so he decides to make himself feel better by going after Candice, attacking her lack of standards. Candice tells Stephen he's a tool and a douchebag, and I'm willing to let her stay an extra week just for that. Stephen is unfazed, possibly because she didn't say it in French. Harold interviews that a chef should be a teacher. Stephen tells Candice that she doesn't belong in the competition, and Candice tells him to get over himself. Miguel tries to calm things down, pointing out that they're already short a pair of hands. Stephen thinks it will be easy to whip through the cooking. Lisa moms that everyone needs to agree to work together. Candice is visibly upset by Stephen's attempt to "downsize" her. Okay, so she's not the brightest bulb, and she's clearly outclassed, but that just means she's no threat to Stephen, so why should he care? The blue team takes a moment to rubberneck before rejoicing in their own lack of drama.

The next day, Candice is still upset. Lee Anne braids Candice's hair. Lisa is worried about looking really stupid if they lose. Stephen says, "If you can't stand the heat in the kitchen, it's probably best to remove yourself." That would be his version of witty.

Off to the kitchen to get to work. The blue team's menu: cereal-coated monkfish nuggets, cheesy tater tots, strawberry applesauce and maple carrots. The red team's menu: monkey dogs, handmade waffle-cut potato chips, fruit skewers and colored yogurt dipping sauce. Miguel says that the red team is going to work together today. Katie arrives to give the red team another member. Lee Anne wonders if Chef Tom will chip in and Lisa is afraid that Ken is coming back. But no, it's Andrea. Now that Cynthia has withdrawn, she's back in the contest. There are hugs and then everybody gets to cooking.

Brian interviews that the Boys and Girls Club means a lot to him because he started out there. Harold and Tiffani discover that Brian's making the carrots really soft, which they don't like, but then they don't say anything to Brian, either. Chef Tom stops in and visits first with the red team. Candice is working on the yogurt dipping sauce, and Chef Tom asks if kids like yogurt. The red team is confident they will, especially if it's blue yogurt. Chef Tom asks about the team leader, and Stephen says Lisa is in charge (even though he's the one doing all the bossing around). Chef Tom interviews that Lisa will look like a hero if they win, but it will get ugly for her if they lose. That would be the basic risk of leadership. Next Chef Tom checks in with the blue team. They're going to bake their monkfish nuggets instead of frying, going for a healthy meal. When he asks about a team leader, they say it's a group effort. Chef Tom tastes Tiffani's applesauce and tells her the other team is using food coloring. "Unnecessary," she snaps. She only uses food coloring on string. More cooking. Everyone packs up and cleans up as time expires.

At the Boys and Girls Club, the red team clashes during set up. Stephen interviews that his team just didn't have it together. Of course, he flawlessly performs his self-appointed task of walking around criticizing. The blue team just gets down to business. Next to Stephen, a pan of monkey dogs tips off the table and he glares at his team. Fortunately, some are left in the pan and they have enough to go around. Candice interviews that she has put aside her hurt feelings to get the job done.

Katie Lee arrives to recap the challenge and then the kids run in. Harold interviews that the kids were chaos. Lee Anne interviews that it was fun to see the kids all excited. Harold is starting to look a little priggish. Katie proceeds to ask the kids about all kinds of fun food they're not going to be eating. They're getting fish ("ewww!"). Specifically, monkfish. Chef Tom brings out a big chafing dish and Katie lifts the lid to reveal a panful of mouth. The kids are squicked out (great reaction shots) and the chefs are all, "Gee, thanks, they're not going to eat anything now." All the kids agree with Katie that the monkfish looks really yucky. Katie announces that the chefs think they've made something yummy, and the kids will vote on which one they like best.

So the competition begins. It looks like each child will get two lunches, which is a lot of food. The teams assemble plates and wait on the tables. The yogurt is a hit. Stephen instructs the children to dip their corndogs into the brown sauce, which is a mango ketchup. He explains that the criss-cross potato chip is called gaufrette in French. He turns, revealing a pristine white back, and I want the kids to pelt him with food, but they have more self-control than I do. Brian is having fun with the kids and Dave is out checking up with them. Miguel gets the kids cheering for the red team. Brian tries to get a counter-cheer going, but it's tough when it's just him. Harold grouses to Tiffani and Stephen that someone's going to get sent home because of these (bleep)ing shenanigans. Tiffani interviews that she's not about to do the "monkfish interpretive dance" for the kids; she thinks that's pandering. As opposed to having guests at a sex party eat their cookies off someone else's body.

After lunch, the judges go around and talk to the kids. Both fish entrees are well-received. Katie takes a vote, holding up a sample of each. The monkey dogs get 23 votes, the nuggets get 14 votes. The red team celebrates. Lisa's confidence gets a boost. Stephen implies that he wouldn't have minded losing because he knew he was safe, so someone unworthy could go home. Harold attributes the win to Miguel's entertainment. Tiffani thinks the kids don't have a palate. They just lost a challenge they consider beneath them; of course they're bitter.

So the blue team -- Brian, Dave, Harold, Lee Anne, Tiffani -- gets to sit at the judges' table. Chef Laurent is the guest judge. Chef Tom asked what went wrong. Tiffani and Harold argue that the blue team had good food; Harold thinks the red team just promoted their food better. Chef Tom says that since both fish entrees were popular, it comes down to the side dishes. Harold argues their food was more nutritious, but the judges think their vegetable was balanced by the red team's fruit. Tiffani feels the challenge didn't have anything to do with the skills a chef needs; children eat crap and only care if their food comes with a toy, and she won't pander to them with food coloring. Gail points out that satisfying customers is something chefs need to do. Chef Laurent picks up on the "pandering" issue by pointing out that sometimes customers make demands. Tiffani says she's never going to compromise the integrity of her food for them. Unless it involves putting a string through it. She tries to get Chef Tom to say that sometimes he refuses requests, but he doesn't play along because today's lesson is "Make the Customer Happy."

Gail brings up the carrots. The kids thought they were overcooked, and Chef Tom agrees. Brian says that's the way he always makes them. They also hated the applesauce, which was Tiffani's contribution. She says she's not insulted by the opinion of a bunch of ten-year-olds. Chef Tom looks disgusted. Chef Laurent brings up the leadership issue. Brian fingers Dave as the leader, but everyone else is like, "Say what?" Lee Anne says it was a team effort. Chef Laurent brings up the question of who should get the boot, and Lee Anne doesn't want to boot anyone because they worked well together. Chef Tom says that means no one's to blame, then. Katie points out that it's a competition and someone's going. Dave reluctantly offers up Brian for feeling left out of the suggestion process. Brian says he was the best at working the crowd, and he again points to Dave as the team leader. Tiffani nominates Brian because of the carrots. Lee Anne still refuses to pick anyone. Harold decides to pick himself, since he didn't speak up about the squishy carrots and take responsibility for the team. They get sent out so the judges can discuss.

Gail thinks no one is willing to take responsibility for their mistakes. Chef Tom is sure they said there was no leader, so he's not pleased with Brian trying to hang responsibility on Dave. Brian made the mistake with the carrots, and everyone is happy to note that the kids did speak up about not liking them, which shows Tiffani is wrong about kids not having any kind of palate, and boy is she lucky she has immunity, because they all pretty much hate her right now. Chef Laurent thinks a chef needs a good attitude. They suspect Harold was kind of sucking up when he nominated himself. Dave is in trouble because of his previous time in the bottom group and because of his performance in the QuickFire Challenge. In general, the judges are disappointed that no one stepped forward to fix known problems, so they let substandard food go to the customers.

The team gets called back. Katie tries to get stern with them, but she's too much of a Barbie doll to pull it off. Chef Tom calls out Dave for his previous performance, Brian for his carrot mistake, Harold for his failure to step up, and Tiffani for her lousy attitude. If it weren't for immunity, she'd be out. She looks like she might want to cry. Katie boots Brian.

Lee Anne interviews that she'd rather have sent Stephen home. Now there's a plan. Tiffani interviews that Brian should have taken responsibility for the carrots.

Brian is pleased with his performance, since he presented himself well and wasn't a jerk. He's still a personal chef to the stars. Who apparently like mushy carrots.

Should Brian have gone? Sure, he made a mistake with the carrots, but he also did the best job of mixing with the customers. If it really came down to the side dishes, then he's the one who most contributed to the loss. "I always make mushy carrots" is not an impressive defense. If it was more about the monkfish or the presentation, then I don't think you can single out any one team member as the one who caused the loss. In that case, perhaps Dave should have gone, based on past performance. But for the judges (if not for the kids), I think it came down to the mushy carrots.

Controversy: Should a cooking competition be judged, at least in part, by ability to work the crowd? The red team didn't just present their food, they also campaigned for the win. If this is a cooking contest, only the food should matter. Except it's not just about taste, which is why we had the presentation challenges last episode and the "show us your personality" challenge before. A top chef has to show creativity and adaptability and leadership. Granted, a top chef doesn't have to be a top schmoozer, but I don't think the red team's win came down to the schmoozing. The blue team made a meal that kids would eat; the red team made a meal that kids would enjoy eating. That extra effort is something you want to see in a top chef.

So the outcome was fair -- but could it have been unfair? I think it's important to know what criteria you're judging by, and then set up a contest that tests only those criteria. Having chefs mingle with the kids is okay. Chefs should care how their food is received; in this setup, the only way to know was to go out and talk to the kids. And I think the people who didn't mingle (Harold, Tiffani, Stephen) were showing their disdain for their customers. But I don't like the campaigning. I don't know if it "stuck" with the kids, but a chef wouldn't do that. So I would have the chefs stay at the serving stations and then I'd have the judges walking around while the kids eat to catch their reactions.

Controversy: Who to hate more: Stephen or Tiffani? Stephen had no business attacking Candice. His behavior was inexcusable. I hope Candice outlasts him, just to piss him off. In fact, I hope he gets booted for picking on Candice (although that would probably mean another team competition). Tiffani has always been rather rigid, but this is her first venture into raging bitch territory. Sometimes she seemed as much hurt as angry, as if she were discovering her idols had feet of clay, that people of the caliber of Chef Tom and Chef Laurent would connive at such a debasement of the competition. Except how is feeding children an insult? Tiffani didn't wonder what fetish fans actually knew about food, she just set about making something they could enjoy. Why don't kids deserve the same consideration? In the end, though, I hate Stephen more, because ego is worse than pride.

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