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.

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