Saturday, May 27, 2006


Stick a Fork in It

Previously on Top Chef: My tape missed it. You'll have to read the recap.

Palatial hotel suite. Pregame pep rally time. Tiffani deserves to be in the competition. The title is important to her, especially since she doesn't have formal training. She's here to win and take the prize money home. Harold is ready to go finish the job. He definitely wants to win.

Katie Lee and Chef Tom await them in the Las Vegas Craftsteak. Katie provides a generic spiel, and Chef Tom introduces the challenge as something they've been waiting for. No kids (Tiffani looks abashed), no microwaves, no carts, no gimmicks, just "straight up cooking." They have to prepare a five course meal for eight diners. The guest judge is Lorraine Bracco, who has also provided a selection of wines for the meal. The other guests will be major players in the food business. One chef will cook at Nob Hill, the other at Craftsteak. Naturally, they'll draw knives to see who gets what. Harold goes first and gets Nob Hill. There's not much suspense when Tiffani pulls the Craftsteak knife.

Katie provides them with some assistance in the form of the last four bootees -- Dave, Lee Anne, Stephen and Miguel. Harold is pleased and Tiffani claps. They compliment Stephen on his tie. I know it's traditional to bring back former contestants for the finale, but I would rather have seen brand-new sous chefs. I think that would be a better test of their ability to motivate others, because it completely avoids the whole peer/subordinate issue that fellow competitors bring to the table. Also, you usually don't spend a month sharing a house with your future coworkers, so anonymous sous chefs are just more realistic. But reality show producers just can't resist making their hamsters run through yet another maze.

Chef Tom announces that a top chef inspires others to work with them. Cut to Tiffani looking concerned. Chef Tom goes down the line and asks who they want to work for and why. Dave says he has worked with them both and would like to work for Harold. No reason given; I appreciate his restraint. Lee Anne enjoys working with Harold. Stephen is pondering. He would like to work with both of them, but he'll choose Tiffani to "keep it interesting." She smiles and thanks him. Stephen is really having some moments of grace lately; I was also impressed with his work as a guest judge. Miguel wonders if he should even it up, and Tiffani is looking a little pensive. Chef Tom says that if Miguel chooses Harold, then Harold will have to decide who he'll give up. Miguel chooses Harold because he thinks they have a good connection. Harold swears because he has to choose now. I like Harold, but he's a little too much of a nice guy. When push comes to shove, sometimes the guy in charge needs to be a boss instead of a pal. Harold picks Lee Anne; for the others, he opts to leave it to the luck of the draw and puts the knives to work again. Tiffani likes the way he's turning the tables. Dave swears and looks stressed; cut to Tiffani looking anxious. Dave grabs a knife and says "It's all good." Miguel grins as he clasps the other knife. Miguel lands on Harold's team. Tiffani smiles and easily tells Dave, "Happy to have you." Which I suspect is not entirely true, but I prefer gracious fakery to honest screaming and crying. Chef Tom diplomatically frames the teams as East Coast versus West Coast. Katie lays out some logistics: they'll have the afternoon to prep and meet with the hotel staff to order anything they need; the service will happen the next day. As she and Tom leave, I finally notice she's wearing a seriously ugly lava-lamp print dress. Maybe the next Project Runway could devote a challenge to helping her out.

Harold summons his fellow New Yorkers and they head off to Nob Hill. Back at Craftsteak, Tiffani tells her helpers that she's "really happy to have you both." Dave interviews that it's ironic to be working for Tiffani. Only if you're Alanis Morrisette. But he'll keep it together because he's not going to -- he fails to mention what he's not going to do. Tiffani still looks nervous. I can't say I blame her. Dave is a potential disaster for her, and Stephen can be slow and hard to manage. I like that she's saying the right things about working with them, but I just don't think it will make a real difference. Their opinions are just too firmly ingrained at this point.

Lee Anne is happy that she can help Harold out. Harold interviews that they got an hour to taste the wines and assemble the menu. They all sit and drink and plan. Lee Anne says Harold invited their input and made it a team effort. He remembers Miguel's duo of beef from the first elimination challenge; it's a strong dish and he knows Miguel can do it. He thinks people will take more pride if they've contributed their ideas. Over at Craftsteak, Tiffani explains that she's dealing with duality in her life, so she's going to do two preparations for each course. Dave looks at Stephen in alarm. She acknowledges that it's risky and will be harder to pull off. Stephen interviews that this is the sort of thing he would do. However, putting the menu together with the wine was the most difficult thing he has done, since Tiffani came in with a planned menu. Except for dessert. This makes me think she didn't come up with the menu during the break between Napa and the finale. They've all been nervous about desserts since day one, so if she planned the whole thing out, she would have dealt with the dessert issue. Dave offers a panna cotta recipe and Stephen probes if that's the style she wants. Tiffani asks Dave if he wants to handle the dessert course. Dave says he came back prepared to tackle desserts, and Tiffani is relieved at her good luck. Dave interviews that he and Stephen and Tiffani are working as a team, even though he and Stephen would both probably prefer working for Harold. Tiffani asks them what they think about the menu, and they're both fine with it. I'm not sure I believe them; they have an "I'm not going to rock the boat" kind of vibe going on.

Next comes prep. They have four hours to get things ready. The chefs pick out table stuff from the commissary and request ingredients. As they're working, Chef Tom drops in. Tiffani explains that they're doing two tasting menus, with different preparations of the same ingredients. They're starting with scallops, then artichokes, fish, veal and desserts. Chef Tom interviews that the key right now is food and execution. Tiffani might wow the judges, but if something goes wrong, it could drag down both dishes. Tiffani and Dave taste something. Chef Tom checks in with Harold. He's also starting with scallops, then poached bass, roasted quail, and beef duo. Chef Tom recognizes the beef duo; Harold nods to Miguel and says he has the champ. Chef Tom tells Miguel he thought it was the strongest dish he did. So it was all downhill for Miguel? The last course is three cheeses with a fig tart to show off Harold's "fabulous pastry skills." Chef Tom interviews that the menu is interesting and intricate, but safe. Since Harold has a solid team, he doesn't have any excuses not to pull it off. Dave is glad he memorized his dessert recipes; he won't get the benefit, but they'll "benefit Tiff." Tiffani urges someone to "go quick" at the one minute mark. She high-fives Dave as the time runs out. Harold's feeling good about the next day; he worked well with his team and he knows they have his back. Tiffani thinks it's all about the next day; Stephen and Dave are working really well and "executing [her] vision." Dave interviews that this is Tiffani's "thing" so he's just letting her say whatever she wants and he'll just execute as best he can. America, don't be mad at him if she wins because he's just being a good sport. Yes, if Tiffani wins, it will still be all about Dave. Well, it's nice to see everyone getting along and being professional...

The next day, Harold gets ready. His adrenaline is taking off. He's happy with his menu. Lee Anne is really happy to help Harold; she wants him to win. Lee Anne and Miguel keep calling him "chef" and it kinda freaks him out. He'd rather they just call him Harold, since he considers them peers. The waitstaff comes in. Flashback to Chef Tom advising him to stay in the back of the house. Harold decides to write out his menu. The servers read through it. Harold goes over things with them; he'll come out of the kitchen only at the beginning and end. The cooking gets underway, and Harold is nervous. Things are going too well. Miguel is getting "eerie" about the smooth sailing. Fortunately, he clangs some pots, so I guess that helps unjinx them. Harold has to point him to the white pepper instead of the black a couple of times before he gets it.

The guests arrive. It looks like they each have a copy of Harold's menu; he listed the chefs with his name at the bottom. Chef Tom interviews that Harold doesn't know who the diners are; they have some heavyweights. As Harold comes out, he observes that there are some tough judges in the room and he's in trouble. Harold has a very self-deprecating humor that works because he's really not insecure about his limitations. Katie performs the introductions: Lorraine Bracco; Dana Cowin, editor in chief of Food & Wine; previous guest judge Hubert Keller; Michael Mina, chef/owner of Nob Hill; Drew Nierporent, owner of Myriad Restaurant Group, which Harold describes as a "culinary empire." He knows everyone but Ms. Bracco. (I just feel like calling her Ms. Bracco.) Harold explains that they all tasted the wines, which he thought were "fantastic," and put a menu together. Back in the kitchen, he tells the other it's a bunch of heavy hitters. He takes a swig from a mini-bar booze bottle to settle his nerves; with that kind of judging panel, he needs a kevlar vest. Time to start.

  1. Seared diver scallop with blood orange and fennel salad: Chef Hubert compliments his presentation. Ms. Bracco likes the wine pairing. Harold asks the waitstaff to eavesdrop for him. Chef Mina appreciates the light hand with the vinaigrette. Gail thinks the salad might have been dressed a little early, so it's a little bit wilted. The server repeats Gail's comment; Harold says it wasn't a "home run."
  2. Bass poached in olive oil: Katie's piece of fish is mostly the bloodline, so it's basically inedible. Harold paces. Lee Anne asks how it's going, but he has no idea. Chef Mina thinks the seasoning is off; you have to season again after poaching. Ms. Bracco doesn't think it was the right dish for the Brunello. Chef Hubert thinks the fish is upside-down. Miguel tells Harold the judges are just nitpicking.
  3. Pan-roasted quail with herb spaetzle, cherries and foie gras: Drew asks Chef Hubert about cooking quail; he's seeing undercooked quail as a trend now. Chef Hubert thinks it's a little overcooked. Dana likes the classic combination. Harold worries about letting down his team, but Miguel gives him a pep talk. Harold takes another swig from his mini-bottle. Chef Tom thinks the dishes have all worked well with the wines. Chef Mina likes the progression of dishes.
  4. Duo of beef with Kobe beef and braised short ribs: It's served in an enormous bowl -- like family-sized pasta bowl -- for each guest, which is striking but I find it too much. Harold feels good about it. Chef Hubert thinks it's the best, especially with the wine. Ms. Bracco loves it. Chef Tom has no criticisms. Gail thinks it's great. The server reports it's a home run.
  5. Fig tart with cheeses -- Lee Anne hopes the judges like the pairing with the Amarone. Chef Hubert loves the plating. Chef Tom likes the combination of the tart and the cheeses. Ms. Bracco finds the cheese delicious. Drew thinks they were well-chosen.

Harold comes out to receive his feedback. He tells the judges he's ready with his bulletproof vest and they laugh. Chef Hubert thinks the quail was overcooked, but thought the beef was a standout. Ms. Bracco's favorite pairing was the Amarone with the cheeses. Dana liked the progression but felt the bass dish had too much happening. Drew asks if he cooks to please the guest or himself. I think the question comes down to, cooking as art or cooking as commerce? Harold answers that he likes to address both. It's a safe answer, but I think it's true for him. He likes people to enjoy their food, but he wants to make food he can be proud of. I do think his sensibility is more high-end rather than populist; this is the guy who tried to peddle seared tuna from a street cart, after all. But since he's in the process of opening a restaurant, he has to be thinking about making food that's attractive to diners.

Tiffani arrives at the hotel commissary to pick up her supplies. No Dave or Stephen, so the director of stewarding helps her ferry everything over to the restaurant. She hopes being late will inspire them to work harder. When they show up, she asks if they're okay. Dave interviews that he and Stephen had a "great evening" on the town. We see them drinking, drinking, drinking. They're wearing the same clothes. Dave thinks they should start tasting the wines now. Tiffani interviews that she was happy to have them in whatever state -- sober, hungover, still drunk. But I'm sure she would have been happiest with sober. Tiffani tells Stephen that he needs to "get a move on." She interviews that she had to keep repeating herself to him, and we see her ask for a low oven with plates. She says "please" a lot, too.

The guests arrive and Tiffani comes out. Katie is going to introduce them, but Tiffani says, "These people don't need introductions." The guests chuckle. Tiffani explains that she doesn't think the cook can be separated from the food. Since she's dealing with duality in her life -- some good things, some bad -- they're doing two preparations of the same ingredient. She leaves to get things going. The duality idea creates a stir. I think it's Dana who asks if they know more about what she means by duality. Ms. Bracco wonders if she needs to suit up as Dr. Melfi. Back in the kitchen, Tiffani says, "I don't wanna talk at all until we're completely done with this. I'm sorry." Stephen says, "Call it." She wants plates; time to go. She interviews that she needed them to flow with her. She warns Stephen not to disappear on her. Dave plates one scallop dish while she does the other.

  1. Seared diver scallop wrapped in charred ramp with squid ink emulsion/scallop crudo with grapefruit, lemon and kumquat: Chef Hubert thinks the citrus overpowered the scallop a little. Chef Mina thinks his scallop was beautifully prepared. Dana found the squid ink emulsion delicious. Chef Tom thinks Tiffani might run into trouble with the comparisons between her two dishes. Ms. Bracco liked them both.

    Dave tells Stephen they shouldn't be socializing when Tiffani comes back because -- gesture of some sort. I dare not try to interpret what Dave means; I don't want to get that much into his head. Stephen reports that artichokes are the hardest food to pair with wine. (Apparently there's a chemical reaction in the tastebuds that makes wines taste sweeter.) Tiffani reseasons the fried artichokes after Dave already seasoned them. Stephen interviews that she didn't taste them before doing it. Tiffani interviews that she trusts Dave when it comes to sauces, but "your palate's not there" when you're hung over. Dave says the bossing is "already starting." It's in Tiffani's interest to "keep it low," but if she pushes it, he'll "push off." So much for letting her say what she wants and executing as best he can. I liked these guys better before they went out drinking. Tiffani moves Dave's glass of wine off the prep area, saying she doesn't care if he drinks, but not on the line. Dave makes a bitchy face behind her back. Geez, the risk of spilled wine is bad enough, but a broken glass could ruin everything. Dave interviews that drinking is the only way he can get through the ordeal of helping someone he doesn't respect. Which makes me wonder how he managed four hours of prep the day before without getting plastered. He thanks "Lorraine" for the wine. Hey, that's Ms. Bracco to you, bub.

  2. Artichoke risotto with porchetta/crispy braised artichoke with lemon, parsley and garlic dipping sauce: Dana wonders why you would serve an artichoke dish with a wine pairing. Chef Tom asks if anyone thinks the wine suffered. Ms. Bracco says, "Not at all." Gail liked the risotto better; Chef Tom agrees that it "completely outshone" the other dish. Gail says Tiffani's not playing it safe.

    Dave interviews that with all the dishes in a limited amount of time, "You have resources. You can use them." If you want to be considered a trustworthy resource, perhaps you should try showing up on time and ready to bring your "A" game. Dave thinks she did too much herself and dishes sat too long.

  3. Steamed branzino with ratatouille (seared tomato, red pepper emulsion)/crispy branzino with black olive papprdelle: Tiffani likes to keep fish lightly sauced or no sauce at all. Katie complains that she talks too much; Chef Tom and Ms. Bracco agree. Chef Tom calls the dish an "absolute disaster."

    Tiffani tells Dave and Stephen, "You guys have been fantastic. Thank you." Dave warns they still have time to screw things up. He asks, "What number are we on?" Tiffani says it's the meat course, number four. Dave drinks some more. As the servers start bringing out plates, Katie decides they should just eat while Tiffani talks. So they do.

  4. Saltimbocca with Primitivo glace/veal with minted peas and spinach crema: Dana thinks the wine service is perverse. Ms. Bracco thinks they could have used a sommelier. Katie tells her the team has a sommelier. Chef Tom thinks both dishes are good but not great. Ms. Bracco laments, "I'm not needing to lick my plate, and that makes me sad."

    Tiffani and Dave work on a set of dessert plates. Stephen pours out a tumbler of liquor while Tiffani places giant ice cubes in glasses. Dave rejoices that the dessert will be "yum" as he watches Tiffani arrange a layer of gooey stuff on the panna cotta. It would have been so fun to do this. Although he did actually do it. Tiffani says, "I'm glad you got to help." That sounds strangely unlike, "Shut up, I'm trying to concentrate." Dave says Tiffani let him run with the desserts and didn't overpower him. Stephen commends Dave for giving Tiffani his recipe.

  5. Golden raisin bread pudding with rum cocktail/vanilla panna cotta and passion fruit reduction with amaretto cocktail: The judges all make rapturous noises. Katie annouces that it's the best bread pudding and Ms. Bracco doesn't want to share hers.

Back in the kitchen, the cooks share a toast. Tiffani says she "cannot begin" to thank them enough. Dave says he's happy he got to cook in the finale, although he doesn't look all that happy when he says it. Tiffani heads out to take her medicine. Ms. Bracco says, "I think you have a lot of balls." Tiffani appreciates the compliment more given the source. Drew poses his "who do you cook for" question and Tiffani answers, "I cook the way I want to eat. That's really important to me. Cooking to please other people to me just falls short." Which puts Tiffani pretty squarely in the "cooking as art" camp -- she has a vision and she wants to follow it. I think that's a fine attitude in an artist, although it tends to make one's life a lot harder. But any art form needs people who aren't hewing to the tried-and-true; if people never followed their vision, we wouldn't have Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. Dana says that she appreciates the risks Tiffani took, but she has some questions about the wines. Chef Hubert loved the dessert.

Judges' table: Katie starts with Chef Tom. Hey, what happened to starting with the guest judge? Manners, people. Chef Tom thinks they both did great work. Harold played it safe but was solid. Gail says that Tiffani took more risks and pushed some dishes "to the next level." Chef Tom says he has to consider some risk/reward, and Ms. Bracco and Gail agree. Chef Tom's favorite was Tiffani's artichoke risotto. That and Harold's beef. Katie raves some more about Tiffani's dessert. Chef Tom wonders who made the desserts, so Katie brings in the sous chefs for their input. Considering that Chef Tom's blog said the desserts were very much in Tiffani's style, I have to wonder if his wondering was a scripted lead-in to bringing in the sous chefs.

Chef Tom asks Stephen about his role in the wine pairings. Stephen says he definitely brought his input, but it was a very difficult pairing with such a complex menu. Chef Tom asks how they felt when they heard it would be ten dishes. Stephen says that as much as he'd like to "hose" Tiffani, he thinks it was cool. Lee Anne laughs. Stephen gives Tiffani props for going for it, as does Lee Anne. Gail says they do, too. Katie asks the other two what they thought of Harold. Miguel says he really made sure they were taken care of. Lee Anne says he knows he couldn't have gotten to this point without the support of his castmates. Which sounds nice, but it seems Tiffani was able to get to the finals without the support of her castmates, so we need a little clarification on which point "this point" is.

Chef Tom asks Dave how he felt ending up on Tiffani's team. Dave says he's a professional and he puts forth his best effort for anyone. So if he weren't putting forth his best effort, how late would he have been? Katie asks if she was good to them. Dave says she was as good as she could be. There was still "snappy" stuff, like "Get the wine off the line." I wonder how snappy Chef Hubert would sound saying that. Dave mimics Tiffani telling them to stop talking. Too bad we never actually saw her doing it. If only someone had thought to put a camera in the kitchen to capture these moments... Stephen thinks she should have let them get away with anything, since she needed them so much. And then she could get criticized for not knowing how to run a kitchen. Dave thinks when you're competing for money, it's time to be cool and considerate. I really don't think there's enough consideration in the world to make Dave think well of Tiffani at this point. Chef Tom asks what role he played. Dave says he did the dessert. Chef Tom asks, "Start to finish?" and Dave says it was all him. So the part where we saw Tiffani adding the passionfruit reduction to the panna cotta, Dave was manipulating Tiffani's hands by telekinesis? Katie raves about the dessert some more. She polls them for their votes. Miguel says he loves them both, but chooses Harold; the rest just pick Harold. Katie thanks them and sends them out. Dave wants to find a bar.

The judges find that all very interesting. They bring in the chefs. Katie asks Harold why he took a relatively conservative road. He didn't want to trip himself up and he likes simple food. He's sorry if they didn't find it "extravagant" enough. Katie brings up Tiffani's talking. She mentions that Harold wrote out a menu, and Tiffani is surprised that he didn't talk. Given that all the chefs talked at the Napa challenge, I wonder if she figured it was a requirement. Tiffani assumed the guests would just start eating, and says, "That was my misstep, for sure." So if anyone says that Tiffani never accepts criticism from the judges -- well, you're not going to change their minds, so don't even bother trying. Chef Tom elaborates that with the dual menu, she had to explain two dishes, which took longer. Chef Tom asks Harold what he would have changed. He brings up Katie's fish; she wasn't happy and he wasn't happy with it either. Chef Tom asks about the well-done quail. Harold made it, but it's not his habit to make it well-done. Ms. Bracco was not happy with Tiffani's pairing of the Amarone with the bass (the branzino). Tiffani says if they missed once in ten dishes, she's sorry. Chef Tom asks Tiffani what her favorite dish was. She's proud of all her food, so she doesn't really have a favorite. She calls the panna cotta with passionfruit a "firecracker." Katie says everyone loved it. Tiffani says she gave Dave a directive of "exactly" what she wanted and he really came through. Chef Tom reports that Dave said he worked on the recipe prior to the competition. Tiffani says that they discussed it at length; Dave brought something to it, and she brought something to it. We didn't see them discussing it at length, but there was a lot we didn't see. One thing we did see was Tiffani working on the bread pudding plates with Dave, and then Dave watching her add the passionfruit reduction. So clearly the dessert wasn't "all" Dave. I'm inclined to believe there was at least some discussion, even if it didn't happen at the menu planning stage. Tiffani says she was "blessed" with the people she worked with, and they were "tremendous" assets. Chef Tom finds that "admirable" but reports they both voted for Harold. Tiffani doesn't know what to say; she finds it "heartbreaking" in multiple ways. Katie asks why she should be Top Chef. Tiffani says she takes risks, and if people didn't take risks, it would be to everyone's detriment. Gail nods in agreement. Harold gets the same question. His food is consistent. Also, a chef needs people who want to work by his side. Katie thanks them both and sends them out.

Chef Tom says Harold played it safe. Tiffani's high points were higher, but her lows were lower. Gail thinks the quail was overcooked but the concept was good. Ms. Bracco loved the cherries and foie gras. Chef Tom thinks Harold's beef beat out Tiffani's two veal dishes. Ms. Bracco thinks it could have been served in any top restaurant; it was "magnificent." Chef Tom thinks a Top Chef should be able to inspire others to work with them, and Harold won that.

Back in the kitchen, Tiffani says it was tough to hear all the sous chefs wanted Harold to win. "My back just ran into your knife." Harold's face reflects a universal puzzlement about what she means, but he apologizes. Tiffani says, "It's fair enough." Hello, editing? Interview? Anybody? Bueller?

Ms. Bracco enjoyed Tiffani's boldness. Chef Tom thinks the artichoke risotto was possibly the high point of both meals. "On the other hand," Gail criticizes the fish with the fennel (not sure which), for the color and plating. Ms. Bracco loved the desserts, and she doesn't care about the drama and who doesn't get along with whom; it's just about the food. Chef Tom checks that everyone is ready to vote.

The chefs are summoned back to the table. Chef Tom proclaims them both worthy. Tiffani did some great food and some not-so-great food. She has shown growth through the competition, and they love her passion, but her ambition has gotten in the way of relationships. She's working on it, but she needs to work it out. Harold played it safe, but his food was consistently good. He had a strong team, but in the end, it's not a popularity contest. Tiffani looks hopeful. Katie announces that it was a very difficult decision. They drag it out, and Katie gives the win to Harold. Tiffani and Harold shake hands and she kisses his cheek. Harold is ready for a cocktail. Katie apologetically delivers the kicker line to Tiffani.

Tiffani finds it tough to get this close and not win. She starts to tear up thinking about what she could have done with the money, and walks off.

The sous chefs come in and congratulate Harold. The win is overwhelming. The money will come in handy with his restaurant, and he'll be calling on some of the great people he's met in the competition, because he's going to need help.

Results: A good competition should be close, with everyone putting forth their best efforts. So I'm happy with both the contestants. Let's check the scorecard:

  1. If Tiffani's citrusy crudo didn't beat Harold's slightly wilted salad, her seared scallop with squid ink did.
  2. Tiffani's high point artichokes beat Harold's underseasoned fish (with an inedible piece for Katie).
  3. Harold's overcooked but well-conceived quail beat Tiffani's low-point fish dishes.
  4. Harold's "magnificent" duo of beef beat Tiffani's "good, not great" veal dishes.
  5. While Harold's cheese selection was universally praised, he wasn't getting spontaneous raves from the judges hours afterwards, so I'm giving this to Tiffani's desserts.

Yes, I said Tiffani's desserts, just as I said Harold's duo of beef. If you're the chef, you get credit for what comes out of your kitchen. That's the way it works. In terms of menu design, I think Harold did a better job of pairing with the wine, while Tiffani's menu was more difficult. In the "inspiring others" category, Harold clearly won. However, Tiffani inspired admiration (grudging or not) in Lee Anne and Stephen. Anonymous sous chefs would have made this evaluation far more realistic. Kitchen staff doesn't generally feel entitled to keep a wine glass in the prep area or have the chef fawn over them. If Tiffani is really impossible to work for (which I don't believe, but let's go with the premise), we'd see that just as easily -- perhaps more convincingly -- with total strangers. And if Harold really is such a great guy (which I do believe), he wouldn't have any trouble winning over his team. Have them pitch their menus and philosophies to a handful of hotel sous chefs and see who wants to sign on. But what's realism to a reality show when there's drama to be generated? Part of being a top chef that wasn't touched on (because they couldn't come up with a challenge?) was fostering new talent. The kitchen of a top chef is a breeding ground for the next generations. I think a young chef would learn good habits in Tiffani's kitchen, but Tiffani doesn't have the mindset to nurture other people's sense of vision. Harold is more collegial in his approach, which makes him a more complete teacher. So overall, I think Harold is a fine choice for Top Chef.

I'm trying to remember when this stopped being fun. The reunion show was definitely a sour exercise, but the Napa episode didn't have much lightness, so I think that's when the tide turned. I'm just tired of all the energy devoted to Tiffani-bashing. So many people have said they tuned into Project Runway and Top Chef because these shows are a refreshing change from the usual reality shows; they're about people who have skills and who take pride in creating things, instead of the usual backstabbing and bitchery. And then Top Chef turns into a show that's all about backstabbing and bitchery.

Clearly Harold and Tiffani have different styles. I happen to think both styles have their place. The thing is, there's no one right way to lead and manage people. There can't be -- people are different. They want different things. Some people just want to work without any nonsense or distractions. These people might well prefer working for Tiffani, and that preference doesn't make them crazy or masochistic. Tiffani works perfectly well with people who are all about food, like Harold in the restaurant challenge. She is a deep focus person -- she concentrates deeply on the cooking, which means she doesn't easily spare thought for other things. She can congratulate her team between tasks, but she probably won't think of it during a task. She works well with other people who share that same deep focus, and who find fooling around distracting. Think of scientists and artists and other single-minded people. It's very hard to lead them if you're not one of them, because you don't have their respect. Tiffani might not be liked, but her skills are definitely respected. Harold clearly has a stronger social orientation. He just automatically connects with people. That serves him well when he connects with skilled people -- but what if he were stuck managing a bad team? His attempt to manage Stephen during the wedding challenge was hardly impressive. Had Harold been working with Tiffani's team, I think we'd have seen him be pretty cranky with them (we saw him getting cranky with Miguel over the white pepper). And people would have placed it in the proper context, as a guy who gets cranky sometimes, as opposed to "Harold is a horrible cranky old codger" and everything he says is cranky.

So, in summary, it's nice that Harold won, and I'm glad it's all over now.

Saturday, May 20, 2006


What Happens in Vegas

Previously on Top Chef: Twelve chefs arrived in San Francisco. Everybody had ambitions. Dave zoomed around the kitchen. Harold didn't want to cook that. Miguel ordered the oil to fry faster. Lisa thought the time limits were ridiculous. Stephen glared at his team when the monkey dogs fell off the table. Lisa told Candice to hang up. Cooking, cooking, cooking. Tiffani had a good time at the sex party. Dave was just over it. Ted Allen could have been a cranky judge. Miguel was in the weeds. Dave cried. Miguel hissed. Tiffani lectured Lee Anne about time management. Dave wasn't Tiffani's bitch. Stephen was a tool and a douchebag. Candice was doomed to fail. Horribly. Chef Tom found most of it inedible. Gail reported the customers' disappointment. Chef Tom had had better Thai food from a takeout place. Chef Tom didn't like Tiffani's attitude. Chef Tom was ready to boot the entire bottom three. Katie delivered the kicker line. Nine chefs were cut. Three are left.

Dave thought his flavors were an advantage, but he needed to elevate his presentation. The Napa chefs loved his dish. Harold needed to get his nerves under control. He made the finals. Tiffani was competitive and passionate; she came to show she can cook. She was selected for Las Vegas.

Dave is first to arrive at the hotel. He thinks Vegas is a global city, not just in terms of tourists, but in terms of cooking. A hotel guy shows him to their palatial product-placed suite. He's happy no one else is there. Harold is a competitive guy; he wants to win. He's trying to open his own restaurant, so the prize would come in handy. So would a new shirt; a V-neck tee under a blazer is not the best look, even if Miami Vice is coming back into fashion. (Is Miami Vice coming back into fashion? I know they're remaking the movie, at least, if not the clothes.) Harold and Dave hug, and Dave shows him around the suite. Harold thinks they could have used digs like this in San Francisco. Dave shows him the guys' room and then Tiffani's room. The pillows have embroidered monograms for each contestant. I wonder if there's a little room in a sub-sub-basement with a seamstress sewing monograms for high roller pillowcases. Dave likes Harold, but Tiffani is mean to people in the kitchen. Man, I wish they hadn't aired the reunion first. I'm sick of Dave's whole "Tiffani was mean to me, wah, wah, wah" refrain. We didn't even see her being mean. She was hard sometimes, but I never saw her being nasty in the kitchen. Tiffani pulls up. Dave thinks he and Harold are it tonight. He wishes. But "it's all good." Tiffani is awed by the place. She and Harold hug. Tiffani is different now. She and Dave hug. I'm so confused -- how can you hug somebody when you hate her guts? Stick out a hand and act civilized, sure, but hugging? Seeing herself on TV was a wake-up call. The top three have some wine. But she hasn't lost her competitive streak and she doesn't live with regrets.

Dave would rather have seen Lee Anne. He thinks Tiffani's passion is kind of contrived. Regardless, she's not a nice person. So then Tiffani asks Dave what he's been up to (how mean!). Dave's restaurant got sold while he was gone. He has been doing catering and living off his reserves. Tiffani has been working. She hasn't had an opportunity to travel. She'd like to explore food on a deeper level. Harold is attempting to start his own place.

Tiffani goes up to bed. Dave checks his product-placed mail. It's about believing in himself and using the positive energy from family and friends. Tiffani unpacks. She wants to win more than anyone else. I suspect Harold and Dave would have something to say about that. Her teddy bear gets center stage on the pillows. Dave and Harold are tucked into bed. Dave just wants to hang out in the suite. He'd be good at that. Harold assures him that he'll be good in the competition. They're ready to start now and get it over with. Dave thinks they'll take a 20-mule team out to the Grand Canyon, where they'll be given a Bunsen burner and a bow and arrow. Harold is a little nervous; he has no idea what to expect. He says, "Good night, honey" and turns out his light.

In the morning, Dave is just trying to breathe. He gears up. Harold hopes the challenge will let him excel. He doesn't have a strategy, so he'll just deal with what comes. Tiffani just wants to go; overthinking only leads to trouble. They head out.

Down in the ginormous kitchen, Katie and the judges await. The guest judge is Hubert Keller from the first episode. Yay! We like Chef Ooh-bear. Katie drops the hammer -- the QuickFire challenge is an elimination challenge. Everybody is just stunned. And now very nervous. They have to cater to customers in a very short space of time. Yeah, there's a shocking twist. They'll be cooking for room service. Everyone will fill the same three orders. They'll have 30 minutes to fill each order. A judge will accompany the carts and report back on the guests' reaction. Customer satisfaction is a key judging criterion.

They get to spend 10 minutes getting familiar with the kitchen. Tiffani interviews that before they've been working with limited resources, and now they have the whole world spread out before them. It's a really big kitchen and there's tons of food in the various storage areas. Harold calls it a "great spread." He thinks it's a little too abundant. Chef Tom thinks they won't be able to use a lot of this stuff in the time allotted. Dave rehearses himself on what's where. There's a lot on the line and he isn't an on-the-fly guy. After nine QuickFire challenges and a heap of speedy Elimination challenges, you'd think he'd have come to grips with the whole speed-cooking thing. Harold understands that a top chef has to cater to a variety of customers, but (you'll be shocked to hear) this room service challenge just isn't his thing.

Order up: Three high rollers want seafood -- one hot course and one cold course. Dave wrestles with a balky industrial can opener. Harold knows he can get a soup hot, so he's making a mussel soup for the hot course. For the cold, some sliced red snapper with cucumber and avocado. Chef Tom is surprised no one chose caviar, or took some Kobe beef (very high-end stuff) for a surf-and-turf plate. He thinks they're flustered by having so much choice. Tiffani says there was no time to plan. She wants something simple that will stay hot, and lobster does that. She tears one up and puts it in the frying pan; the spidery legs wave around. Like lobsters aren't squicky enough already. She wants clean flavors for her second dish, so she has a campeche carpaccio that works well raw. Dave calls the challenge extreme. He thinks something is awful. He's doing grilled prawns with Thai crab stack and court bouillon and then a cinnamon-rubbed opah flash-grilled for his hot dish. Everybody gets their dishes on the carts.

Chef Hubert accompanies the serving carts to a room. The three high rollers turn out to be Lee Anne, Miguel and Stephen. It's great to see them again -- but they're not high rollers. I'd rather have real high rollers judging than fake high rollers. As they say, the rich are different, so I think it changes the reaction. They all have cards to record their comments.

They start with Dave's dishes. Lee Anne describes them as sauteed prawns with a lemongrass crab salad and an opah filet of fish. Stephen is not into peeling the shrimp. Lee Anne likes the flavor profile. Miguel agrees, but his shrimp flies off the plate. Stephen doesn't think high rollers would be impressed. Miguel would like a sauce on the fish. Next is Tiffani's. Miguel describes them as lobster with fennel and sashimi. Lee Anne doesn't like the plating or the garnish of the crudo. Miguel likes the flavors, but he's not wowed. Stephen thinks the lobster needs salt, something acid to bring the flavors together, but it's more upscale than the previous entry. Finally, Harold's. Stephen describes them as coconut soup with mussel stock and black mussels, and a sashimi of snapper. From the way Miguel laughs, I suspect he's recognized Harold's hand. Lee Anne likes the plating and textures of the snapper crudo, but she'd like a little more acid. Stephen agrees lime or lemon would have been nice. Lee Anne wouldn't necessarily consider the soup an entree. Miguel thinks it makes a nice appetizer. Stephen thinks a high roller would feel well-treated by this entry.

Order up: The poker room wants a fast-food platter with four different types of snacks. Chef Tom recalls Dave's performance in the Snack Master challenge, but chefs are all junk food junkies. Tiffani plays poker in poker rooms, so she knows the audience. Dave is feeling rusty; he doesn't cook like this. Harold doesn't want to think about food when he's playing poker. He works on opening a bottle of beer; he's not a beer drinker. So what does he drink while playing poker? He's just doing a chain restaurant snack platter -- onion rings, mini pizzas, wings, mini grilled cheese. Tiffani has potato chips from three kinds of potatoes; quince paste, goat cheese and sesame crackers; grissini wrapped in truffle butter; brie and tomato sandwich with curry mustard. Dave has a "partial fry daddy" with fried shrimp and fried egg rolls, a panini sandwich and then some chocolate-dipped strawberries. He doesn't really like something he's doing. Chef Tom thinks sticky or chocolatey are not the best choices for card players. Harold realizes he needs color for his plating. Tiffani is surprised Harold used frozen chicken wings and onion rings; that goes against the grain for her. Although she does love corn dogs, so I'm not exactly sure what the problem is. Time runs out as Dave starts saucing his egg rolls.

Dave recalls the junk food challenge when he made nachos; he tries to do too much. Tiffani finds it hard to judge how she's doing. Harold doesn't think this type of food displays his skills.

Gail accompanies the carts to a table in the poker room. Four guys are at the table, including somebody who's working on Bravo's poker show, so I consider him a product placement. No name for him. Dave's cart goes first. Gail describes the dishes as spring rolls, crawdaddy fried shrimp, Genoa salami panini, and chocolate-dipped strawberries. They like the shrimp and the egg rolls. Generally, they just say "Mmm." Next is Tiffani's. Gail describes the dishes as quince and goat cheese stacked with flatbread, breadstick wrapped in pancetta, four kinds of potato chips tossed with aged Gouda, and tomato panini. The panini seems to need a fork. In general, the food is fancier than they were expecting. Next is Harold's. Gail describes the dishes as onion rings, mini pizzas, mini grilled cheese, and honey dijon wings. The mini pizza gets an "eh" but they love, love, love the wings. They give the edge to Dave's cart because of the strawberries. The favorite item overall was the wings. Product Placement Guy says Tiffani's cart might have won except for the flabread. They all fill out their comment cards.

Order up: The cast of Ka in the Cirque du Soleil theater wants three platters of high protein, high carb and low fat food. It's not clear to me if that's one platter of each, or three platters combining all three. Commas are tricky beasts. Tiffani has cooked for athletes before. Thirty minutes is not a lot of time for high protein. Harold finds it challenging to cook for people with special dietary needs. He doesn't know what gymnasts need, but runners are always eating pasta, so he goes with that. Dave makes a Kobe beef tenderloin with a brown sugar, shallot, fig reduction. He also does a big bowl of pasta with a liquored-up marinara sauce. Does alcohol count as high carbs? It's certainly low-fat. Since the pasta dish has no fat, Dave isn't sure how it will taste. Harold has lobster fettulini, Kobe beef, and chicken with gnocchi and peas. Chef Tom is surprised that they're all choosing Kobe beef, which is high fat. Tiffani has blueberry and blue crab salad, a pork dish without breading, and Kobe beef with the fat trimmed. She doesn't think you should eliminate fat, but rather look for good fats. As they're loading up the carts, Dave realizes that he was supposed to make three dishes. He's too stunned to scramble something together in the remaining few seconds. (He was still loading his cart when Chef Tom called 45 seconds, so he had even less time to react.)

Chef Tom accompanies the carts to the theater. If they're going to count Dave as a disqualification for not doing all three dishes, I think they shouldn't send his cart to the performers. Disqualified means you don't get to compete. But that would have removed a lot of suspense from the judges' table, so I understand why they included him. Five(?) performers fly and flip about before gathering around the carts. Harold's cart first. Chef Tom describes the dishes as tomato and bread salad with Kobe steak, chicken breast with gnocchi and wild mushrooms, and a lobster and pasta dish. They like the variety, especially the chicken for low fat. The flavor and texture of the meat was good. Next is Dave's. Chef Tom describes the dishes as spicy penne with tomato sauce and Kobe tenderloin with a fig/balsamic glaze. Someone notices a dish is missing. They like the tenderness of the meat and the flavor of the pasta. Tiffani's next. Chef Tom describes the dishes as seafood salad with caviar and blood orange viniagrette, Karabuto pork with morel mushrooms, and tomatoes and steak. The pork is salty and a little rubbery. Someone doesn't like rare meat, but Harold's beef was also rare. The salad tastes "fishy." Looking at the plates, Dave's food got eaten up; Harold's food was about half-gone; Tiffani's food was about half-gone except for the crab salad, which didn't get much interest at all.

The chefs are doing the traditional sit-around-and-worry-over-your-performance when Miguel, Lee Anne and Stephen stroll in. Miguel announces that they were the high rollers and Dave looks disgusted. He says they all can be very critical, especially Stephen. Well, that would be their job as judges. Tiffani knew they'd be coming back, but she didn't know they were the high rollers. Lee Anne asked how they did. Tiffani thinks they did well, considering. Lee Anne interrupts that they're all in the top three. Tiffani agrees, she just thinks they all did well. Dave announces the twist of the QuickFire challenge being an Elimination challenge. The three guest judges are shocked; Lee Anne says, "That sucks." Miguel asks if everyone can agree that they've seen better during the competition than what was produced today. It's a good thing they're all pooped, or Miguel would be face-first in the deep fat fryer. Schmuck. Tiffani thinks Miguel is eaten up with envy. She replies that it's easy to "step outside the game." Harold chimes in, "And be critical." Miguel says he's not playing mind games; he's just asking questions. Well, don't. Or ask decent questions.

Judges' table: Katie starts with Chef Hubert and the high rollers. He reports that Harold was the best; Tiffani and Dave were close to each other but not near Harold. Chef Tom asks what set Harold apart; Chef Hubert says it was presentation first, and then taste. Dave's fish was a little overcooked and had no sauce; it was just sitting in a bowl without much excitement to it. Chef Tom is not surprised that Dave's dishes were sloppy and unfocused, because Dave was sloppy and unfocused in the kitchen. The other judges agree. Chef Tom points out that one of Tiffani's dishes (the crudo) was similar to Harold's, so it offers a good point of comparison. Chef Hubert thinks Tiffani's plating was too simple and there wasn't enough seasoning.

Gail had a great time in the poker room. She reports that Tiffani's food was liked, but it didn't work as snack food. The poker players would have liked it better as appetizers or dinner food. The favorite individual dish was Harold's chicken wing. Gail is amazed because the wings were frozen. She describes his other dishes, and Katie chimes in that they're not what you would expect from a top chef. Gail gives Dave the win for the poker challenge. Chef Tom recalls that he is the King of Snacks. Gail says he's also the King of Flavors -- the players liked the soy in the spring rolls, and they loved the shrimp.

Katie reviews that Harold has won one and Dave has won one, so Tiffani is behind. She asks Chef Tom about the last challenge. He says they "gravitated" towards Dave's food. Harold's was the next most popular; Tiffani's was pretty much ignored and the pork was salty. Gail asks what happened to Dave's third dish; Chef Tom reports he didn't have one. He thinks the streess level and Dave's disorganization finally caught up with him. Chef Hubert thinks it's unacceptable. Chef Tom says it's a shame, but he's left off someone's order. It can't be overlooked. Chef Hubert agrees, it's unfortunate.

The three chefs sit on bar stools across from the table. That's gotta be uncomfortable. What's wrong with chairs? Katie does the usual "one of you will be going home" announcement. Chef Tom thinks everyone did well across the board; it was a tough challenge. Well, it ought to be. He comments on the lack of luxury items for the high rollers. Tiffani responds that she lives in Vegas, and high rollers tend to order simple things. She wanted to keep it clean, rather than shower them with stuff they probably see all the time. Katie asks, didn't the ticket say "impress us"? Tiffani thought she did. Chef Hubert announces that Harold won the high roller challenge. Tiffani congratulates him with a pat on the leg.

Katie moves on to the poker snack food challenge and asks Harold about his approach. He made stuff that he would want to eat. Katie brings up the chicken wings. Harold's not ashamed; the pantry had a big selection of snack stuff, and they had to put together four dishes in thirty minutes. This is the guy who proposed the cake mix, after all. Gail drags it out, but announces that the wings were the favorite dish. Tiffani singsongs, "That's so good to hear." The world is just full of junk food junkies, I guess. Chef Tom asks the King of Junk Food about his approach. He did the panini to class it up a little and added the strawberries for sweetness. Gail says it was the favorite "much to our surprise" and he knew his audience. Tiffani pats him on the back. Gail asks Tiffani about her food. She plays poker in poker rooms a lot, and she thinks the face of poker is changing like the face of kitchens is changing. I think she means there are more women. She tried to satisfy both the old and the new audiences. I think she skewed more toward the new, who weren't represented in this challenge. Gail says the players found the food a little confusing; they weren't used to the sophistication. Tiffani thinks that as they win at poker, they'll get more accustomed to being "pampered by food." Since Product Placement Guy liked her cart, I guess he's already started. Gail gives Dave the poker win and he seems puzzled. Tiffani looks worried.

Chef Tom turns to the final challenge. Harold seemed to be having a hard time. Harold says he did more thinking about this one and it left him rushing around. Chef Tom reviews Tiffani's dish. She thought about breading the pork, but then she would have had to pan-fry it. The salad had a lot of antioxidants and good fats from the olive oil. Chef Tom turns to Dave's dishes. He did the Kobe beef grilled with no oil, and then the turbo carbs. He starts babbling away about carbs and working out. Tiffani gives him a little shoulder rub to settle him, but she and Harold are cracking up. Dave says he needs turbo carbs when he's working out. If he had a salad with greens and blueberries and <bleep>, he might crap out. Tiffani makes a playful protest. Dave babbles on about pasta. Chef Tom says his beef dish was the favorite. Tiffani takes a deep breath. Chef Tom brings up the missing dish. Dave says he was thinking about his two dishes and just made a mistake. Chef Tom confirms with him that he didn't plan a third dish, so it wasn't a matter of running out of time. Chef Tom thinks Dave could have won if he had just completed a third dish, but he definitely lost the performer challenge without it. Tiffani lets out a little sigh of relief. Chef Tom commends the variety in Harold's dishes, so he gets the win. Katie passes Harold on to the final round. Now it's down to Tiffani and Dave. Dave looks ready to stroke out. Tiffani smiles and pats him on the leg.

Chef Tom reviews for Tiffani that Harold took two and Dave took one, so she's kind of skating by. Tiffani nods. He asks if there's anything else they want to say. Dave wants to stay and cook some more, preferably with more than 30 minutes to work. Tiffani agrees. Dave just wants to cook. Tiffani says she's reallly passionate about food and she wants to cook some more. Chef Tom thinks Tiffani was strong but she missed the mark in the poker room; she needs to nail it. Dave did his usual layering of flavors, but he left out a dish. Katie promotes Tiffani to the final, and delivers the kicker line to Dave.

Tiffani kisses his hand. Dave jumps down and hugs Tiffani again. I suppose the shock of getting booted could have temporarily erased all his feelings of rancor towards her, but honestly, what is hugging supposed to mean if you hug people you don't like? Tiffani is sad to see Dave go, but she didn't want to go herself. Harold hugs Dave. He eulogizes Dave's passion; he just got caught up in it, and it's a shame. Dave hugs Gail and Katie, and Chef Tom hugs him, too. Dave reflects that it was a great experience for learning and growing. He wishes he could have gone further, and that he hadn't lost to Tiffani. He doesn't want to be forgotten. Food is his passion. Second only to hating Tiffani.

So, results. Harold clearly won his way through to the finals. He definitely had the edge on presentation in the high roller challenge, where it's important to look good. Tiffani's crudo wasn't elegant enough to be that sparse; Dave's fish looked ordinary and he left the shells on his shrimp. It sounded like Tiffani beat Dave in terms of impressing the high rollers. Dave clearly lost the Cirque du Soleil challenge with an incomplete entry. Harold's dishes seemed really well balanced with carbs and proteins, and he had a good variety. Tiffani had more protein than carbs, and the salad wasn't well-conceived. In the poker challenge, Dave won with some freshness and variety. Tiffani was too ambitious; Harold wasn't ambitious enough. Guest judges get to pick the winner, but they don't get to pick the loser. I suspect the judges put Tiffani above Harold because she was more creative. The guys liked most of her food. They loved Harold's wings, but that was about it for him.

So, Tiffani or Dave? Overall, Tiffani has been stronger than Dave. If they're essentially tied, then Tiffani's past performance should give her the edge. Tiffani beat Dave in the high roller challenge; Dave beat Tiffani in the poker room challenge. But with Dave's disqualification in the Cirque du Soleil challenge, Tiffani has the edge. If Dave hadn't forgotten the third dish, I think he'd be in the finals with two wins. But he let the pressure get to him. It could even have been an unconscious kind of self-sabotage -- if he loses on a technicality, he doesn't have to risk being judged the lesser cook. If so, that would be too bad, because he lost the chance to be judged the better cook. But it could have been just the accumulation of stress. He was complaining during the challenges about the time pressures. Harold complains about the challenges, too, but usually after the fact. During the challenges, he sucks it up and applies his creativity to the problem at hand. Harold has the self-confidence that Dave lacks.

Controversy: Was Dave unfairly devalued because he's not "high class" enough? Dave tends to do "ordinary" kinds of food. They always describe his flavors as "layered," which is considered less impressive than flavors that are "clean." Is there a snob factor at work? I think it's not just about the food. You also have to look at technique. Simple foods tend to require simple techniques. Chefs are going to be impressed by people doing things that are hard, that they would find difficult to do well. It's the nature of any craft. Dave has lots of talent, that's clear, but he's also relatively new to the field. Harold and Tiffani have both been working at it a lot longer. When you're working at a craft, talent is good but it only gets you so far; experience is the key to mastery.

Controversy: Was Dave unfairly devalued because he's a guy who cries a lot? Well, no. The whole point of a competition is to see who can rise to the challenge. Dave generally didn't. Yes, he won the Napa challenge -- the one challenge when they had time to plan. Otherwise, he let the stress get to him. I watch figure skating; I know about people who are talented but who crumble under pressure. It's unfortunate, but that's the nature of competition. Some people just aren't wired for it. Dave is one of those people. That doesn't make him a failure; it just means he needs to find another arena for showing off his abilities.

Controversy: Was it fair to boot somebody before the final round? What happened to three chefs going head-to-head in Vegas? The producers get to do whatever they want. The three chefs have competed head-to-head in Vegas. They all had the exact same requests, the same judges, the same resources. That's as head-to-head as it gets. But the conspiracy theory is that the challenge was there to eliminate Dave from the final round. I think the challenge was there because Bravo gave them a two-hour finale, and they had to find something to do with all the time. With just one hour, I doubt they'd have had time for a QuickFire challenge at all. Of the three rounds of the challenge, two were right up Dave's alley. Sure, he stresses under time pressure, but the challenges always involve some kind of time pressure. So I don't see the QuickFire challenge being specifically designed to eliminate Dave. Especially considering how close he came to winning.

There are lots of things they could have done to keep three people in the mix until the end, but this is what they chose to do. And it's entirely up to them. Two people were going to lose eventually; one lost a little sooner. I don't see that much difference overall.

Friday, May 12, 2006


Wretched Excess

Katie Lee stands on an empty set with lots of chairs and introduces the show. Contestants return in the order of elimination, intercut with the scenes of their bootings. Ken has his head sticking out of the sun roof of his product-placed ride. His dish was unfocused. The top three of Dave, Harold and Tiffani are in a green room with alcoholic beverages, awaiting arrivals. Ken strolls in. Cynthia had to withdraw. Ken doesn't have to give her a hug, but he does anyway. She says he still smells the same. And what does crazy smell like? Brian's ready for an "adult beverage." He engaged the customers with his personality, but lost them with his food. Candice has lots of bouncy curls. Her inexperience showed. Lisa screams with excitement at seeing everyone, or perhaps because she just caught a glimpse of her gilded hair. She was the last person to handle the jicama. Andrea hugs Tiffani. Andrea wasn't enough about food. She talks about sources of fiber. Miguel is all duded up and ready to party. He was competing in Top Sous Chef. Stephen is wearing a T-shirt and jeans. He was competing in Top Waiter. He tells Lisa he doesn't wear a suit in the shower, although some people think so. Lisa screams for Lee Anne. Her execution fell just a little short. There's a big group toast and then Katie summons them all before the judges.

Katie welcomes everyone, including Gail Simmons and "firm but fair" head judge Tom Colicchio. Right away, Chef Tom asks if the show has done anything for people's careers, and Lisa loudly says it has. Lisa is just bustin' out tonight. Brian says there's just more recognition and people wanting you to do events. Ken got called by Howard Stern, which figures. Cynthia wants to know if they were talking about all the hot girls, and Chef Tom chimes in that they thought the bald guy was sexy. Gail announces that Chef Tom won Hottest Judge on the Bravo boards. Chef Tom asks if anyone has been reading the Bravo boards. Miguel says he has -- Harold and Dave are heroes, and Miguel was okay up until he called Tiffani a snake. Tiffani hisses for him. Chef Tom asks how many eyes he has, and Miguel goes through his two in the front and one in the back routine. He then alludes to a fourth eye, but it's too much information, so moving on.

Katie asks how it felt watching yourself being eliminated. Andrea jokes that she was so into "elimination" that they had to eliminate her twice. We take a look at Ken's behavior from the first show, and Katie asks if he has any regrets. Of course not. Gail wants to know about the finger in the sauce thing. Lisa says she hated it because she has to practice what she teaches. Harold says that every chef has stuck a finger in the sauce, and Cynthia hugs him. Chef Tom says it didn't fly in that kitchen, and Miguel agrees that "you don't put your feet on someone's end table if you do it at home." Lee Anne thinks Ken didn't have the worst dish that first night. Ken calls out the judges for accepting a plate with sand on the kale, even though the competition is supposed to be about food. Chef Tom reviews the bottom three and the problems they had. Ken wants to know, if you're in a restaurant and you have a choice between a bad dish with sand and a bad dish with no sand, which do you pick? Chef Tom says neither. Ken thinks he has proved something. Stephen finally outshouts Ken long enough to pose the choice as "sand or <bleep>" and the crowd goes wild. Stephen is carting around a big, half-empty wine bottle. I suspect it's his third.

Katie asks about watching mistakes, and what they regret. Miguel immediately volunteers, "Salt and sugar." Katie says that one chef seemed to think "he was a cut above the rest" and Stephen looks abashed as he gets a montage. Katie asks if the experience has been humbling, and Stephen says it has been a huge learning experience. Lisa reports that everyone she heard from hated him because of his arrogance. Harold sticks up for Stephen. Gail asks about his "obsession for educating people." Stephen says it's in gratitude for everything he's had the opportunity to learn at such a young age.

Katie congratulates Dave for making it to the finals and asks if it was an emotional rollercoaster. Dave rolls his eyes, "Oh, God, the emotional thing." He says he never cries at work, but before he can get much further, Katie cues the montage. Chef Tom tosses him a box of tissues. Dave says he has a different view and his passion is so extreme. Tiffani disagrees that his view is so different from everyone else's, and Dave gets annoyed that she's trying to take away his "thing." It's Dave time, so step off. Dave never interrupts anyone, because he respects them. Tiffani respects Dave. So why is she talking during his time? He can't even answer the question without her shutting him down. So apparently he stops trying, because he never does finish his answer and we're left wondering why Dave was weeping all over the show. I was wanting to thump Dave for the "so different, so passionate" thing, but sometimes it's better to let people run on for a bit. If he had said that he was more passionate than the others, he'd have hung himself out to dry without Tiffani being the bad guy. And if he had gone on to say something else, maybe I wouldn't have felt like thumping him.

Chef Tom asks Tiffani if she thinks Dave should be in the final. Dave says, "Of course not." Hey, Dave, this is Tiffani's time, so shut it! Oh, sorry. Anyway, Tiffani blandly says that she thinks Dave should "totally" be in the finals. Ken laughs his head off. I wish. So glad he got booted first. How on earth did he pass the psych review? Chef Tom asks Dave if he had more at stake because it was a career change. Dave agrees that it was a validation for him, and he could use the money, but it's really about people. He looks like he's about to tear up, but he shakes it off. Miguel offers that every chef has cried from time to time. Dave interrupts Miguel to say he just wears his emotions on his sleeve and that's his problem. Cynthia argues that cooking is the only art form that engages all the senses.

Katie redirects things to say they've proved that chefs have a way with words, and it's time for another montage. We get to see Brian put the moves on Candice while she ignores him. Almost all the chefs are guilty of "it is what it is." At the end, Katie breaks out a Top Chef "I'm not your bitch, bitch!" T-shirt for Dave. Tiffani laughingly tries to steal it, because she's not his bitch. Katie scolds her like a kindergarten teacher. Dave wins out in the end and gets his big moment in the spotlight.

Gail has a question for Brian from a viewer: Are all chefs naturally competitive? Brian says yes. Even at home, although it's not about being the best so much as winning people over. Lee Anne reaches for Stephen's wine bottle. Cynthia doesn't think all chefs are competitive, but they love that they can all do their thing together. Katie wants this to be about competition, and it's another montage about gamesmanship. According to the captions, Ken was bellowing "Final hour!" as he sharpened his knives. That doesn't sound nearly crazy enough. Everybody wants to win. Lee Anne's oven, Miguel's burner, Cynthia's missing pomegranate, Miguel copied Tiffani's Krispy Kreme idea, Miguel threw Andrea the bus. Miguel protests that he wasn't planning to throw her under the bus, but she didn't have anything to lose. Katie asks for Andrea's take, and she demurs. She thinks Miguel is great and she looks good in tire tracks. I think Andrea pretty much disengaged from the whole experience even before she got the boot, which is probably the sanest thing she's ever done.

Gail asks another question from a viewer: Who did turn off the oven? And did Tiffani know a board conspiracy theory has fingered her as the villain? Tiffani knows, and mocks the drama of it. Dave shakes his head. Tiffani talks about the new equipment and there's a chorus of protests, like "Ovens are ovens." Dave urges her to "admit your <bleep>." Tiffani walks off; she doesn't want to be someone's monkey. Katie calls for a break so they can sort some things out. Are we really supposed to believe that Tiffani was a saboteur? They have footage of the cooking; if she was messing with people's ovens, they should be able to prove it. Or they should be able to prove that she wasn't. The producers have no business being coy about it when they're sitting on the answer. Beat up on people for stuff they've actually done, not stuff you'd like to think they've done.

It's Harold's turn for a montage. Afterwards, Tiffani kisses him on the cheek. Yeah, I'd say she's had a few. Katie asks if his shyness is a problem, but Harold is comfortable as he is. Gail has a question from several viewers: is Harold single? He declines to answer. Ken chimes in that he's gay, and Harold asks Ken what he's doing later. Gail presses, and Harold admits he's not single.

Gail asks what they all thought about the challenges. Andrea says they were creative and let everyone showcase the great and/or not-so-great parts of themselves. Chef Tom knows Harold feels differently. Harold doesn't even want to get into the wedding challenge, so of course they do. Chef Tom thinks they had enough time. Harold talks about the supermarket, and Chef Tom agrees that was a challenge. Dave says they really had more like 12-14 hours, but Chef Tom still thinks it got done, so what was the problem? Harold says they got beat up for the wedding cake. Tiffani interjects that they didn't know that at the time, and Harold asks if he can answer Chef Tom. Tiffani giggles, "Of course." Harold is totally frustrated, and then he doesn't answer Chef Tom because Katie interrupts that it was all pretty stressful.

Another montage about unwinding, aka drinking heavily. Gail asks about sleep. Lee Anne says they slept as much as they could. Andrea would go to bed early, but she couldn't fall asleep until around 3 am, when the house quieted down, and then she got up at 5:30 to do yoga and meditate. Harold's roommates were "professional" snorers, and Miguel takes a bow. Time for a "Chunk LeFunk" montage. Apparently "funk" applies to the odor around him. Katie asks if he landed any babes with his sexy party costume. He laments that Madame S led him on and let him down. Chef Tom asks where the name came from, and someone urges Tiffani to step up as Miguel says it was a collaboration. Tiffani says it was hers, and it just suits him perfectly. Katie asks who Miguel roomed with. Stephen and Brian raise their hands, and Harold says the snoring the first couple of nights was intense. Brian asks if he snores, but before that can be clarified, Lee Anne announces that Chunk farted. Katie waves a card in front of her face, like that's going to help. They cut to commercials while Miguel looks proud of himself.

Katie announces that Tiffani is the most controversial character of the bunch. Tiffani doesn't think so, but we have a montage to prove it. Dave makes faces behind her like a bratty little brother. Tiffani asks what issue they want to address. Cynthia brings up something she made early on and Tiffani asked, "What is this mess?" Cynthia wanted to shoot her. Dave announces that Tiffani is projecting with the being mean, and she needs to accept it and be real with herself. Dave and Tiffani are arguing while Andrea tries to speak up; Katie asks Dave to let Andrea talk now. Andrea thinks Tiffani always treated her with respect. Brian thinks she does whatever it takes. Tiffani responds, but Brian flips out that he needs to finish talking. When he finishes flipping out, he says that she takes it too far and doesn't have any respect for anyone.

Next montage is LiarGate. Gail has a viewer question: why did Tiffani lie? She doesn't think she lied, and people have told her she was misrepresented. Dave interrupts, asking if she said it or not. Just admit it! Tiffani singsongs that she's guilty and she totally lied. Lee Anne scans the ceiling, hoping to spot some ninja assassins whose attack will let her escape during the confusion. No such luck. Katie asks Miguel what he thinks, and he thinks she should have said it to his face. She says she did tell him the truth. Dave disagrees and Tiffani tells him to let them all know when he's done talking. Dave tells her to <bleep> off, and he's tired of being nice to people he doesn't like. When did he start? Dave has come down with a bad case of Vindicated Reality Show Martyr Complex, and he needs to get over it fast.

I'm really tired of LiarGate, so this is how it goes: the montage cheated because it didn't show the full question. Chef Tom didn't ask, "Should Miguel go home tonight?" He asked, based on kitchen performance, "Is Miguel someone you think should go tonight?" These are different questions, decided by different criteria. If Chef Tom had asked, based on the quality of the food, "Is Miguel someone you think should go tonight?", the answers would probably have been different. So Tiffani didn't lie when she said, "I never said that I thought it was time for you to go home." It's all a great big game of Telephone that has gotten completely out of hand. I can totally understand how people thought she lied, because that's how Telephone works, but once you go back to the actual text, it's pretty clear she didn't. Feel free to say she's splitting hairs -- I think nitpicking is an underappreciated art, so it won't bother me -- but don't tell me she out-and-out lied without substantiation.

Katie sums up that Tiffani wins Most Confrontations (Tiffani shakes her head no) but she wasn't part of the longest fight. The next montage is a rehash of Stephen and Candice fighting for some 37 minutes while everyone else watches. I'm astonished no one managed to break it up before that. I'd have been ready to start throwing things at them at the five minute mark. Chef Tom asks Stephen if looking back he would have used cookie cutters. Stephen admits that cookie cutters are entirely appropriate for kids and he was on his education kick. Candice thinks she took it all too personally and it was a learning experience. Stephen protests that she didn't have anything to learn; she was totally right and it was wrong of him to hurt her feelings. Ken cracks up and Stephen tells him to shut up. The benches clear as the two get separated. Lee Anne looks like she's praying for the next big earthquake. Stephen thinks this is serious, but Ken will laugh if he wants to. Stephen calls Ken white trash, and Ken bounces it right back at him. People try to get Ken to shut up and finally it calms down. Stephen delivers a beautiful apology for being mean to Candice; he compliments her courage in competing and doing so well. Candice hugs him. He so has a crush on her. But seriously, that was like a master class in how to deliver an apology. Good job, Stephen. Even if you were sozzled.

Katie tosses the finalists so they can get trashed behind their backs. Why should they start sparing anyone's feelings now? There's a montage of the top three talking about what makes a top chef. Katie asks if the others think this is the right top three. Andrea would have liked to see Lee Anne instead of Tiffani, and Candice agrees. Chef Tom asks if anyone thinks Tiffani should win. Ken says she's a good cook and he picked out her pumpkin dish in the first episode. Cynthia wouldn't hire her. Lee Anne says Tiffani is smart and she has done good food. Lisa is okay with Tiffani's food but her behavior sucked. Gail says it's not a popularity contest and switches the subject to Harold (Mr. Popular). Miguel thinks its about being consistent. Lisa was initially going for Harold, but now she wants Dave to win. Candice nods. Katie asks if he's the underdog. Stephen agrees, but observes that Harold and Tiffani appeal to fine dining and that's only 13% of the market. Andrea loves Dave but she feels he fell apart under pressure. Candice is torn between Dave and Harold. Their styles are completely different, so it will be interesting to see who will win. Maybe Candice should have Katie's job.

Katie thanks them all for contributing and we're done.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


Final Four

Previously on Top Chef: The Scotts picked Lee Anne's menu for their wedding reception. All the other chefs played "Where's Stephen?" Striped shirts dissed the salmon. Lee Anne was disappointed. Chef Tom had better from a takeout place. The competition was not Top Waiter. Stephen got the boot.

Harold doesn't want to get out of bed. He feels bad for Stephen, but ultimately, he wants to win and be the best. Dave got into cooking after the technology business "took a dump." (Newsflash: Market crash caused by too much fiber!) So he's a late bloomer. He recognizes that he's had some close calls recently. Tiffani does not feel obligated to be friends with anyone. Friendship is never an obligation; that's the value of it. What she really means is that she doesn't feel obliged to be nice to people. She then speaks about herself in the third person, which is always weird. Lee Anne would prefer to go to the finals with Dave and Harold; Tiffani is too aggressive.

QuickFire Challenge: Katie Lee, Chef Tom and Gail await the chefs. Katie tries to ramp up the drama with a big speech about how close they are to the finish. No more immunity for the QuickFire winner. The challenge is about junk food. There's a big table arrayed with all kinds of junk food. Either that wasn't there when the chefs came in, or no one said anything about it. You will be shocked to learn that Harold is not into this challenge; he didn't sign up to make junk food. The challenge is to recreate an item and elevate it to a gourmet level. Harold overlooks his love of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and chooses popcorn because it's healthy. Dave goes for the obvious choice of nachos. Tiffani picks corn dogs and Lee Anne takes the hot dog. They have 45 minutes. And go!

Dave is tired, so he figures he'll do a high-end nacho. Harold is going in a different direction. He's not sure how it will be received. Tiffani likes corn dogs, so she doesn't want to mess too much with the formula. Lee Anne likes to be creative. Dave races around the kitchen. Tiffani doesn't think Dave is going to last.

Chef Tom praises Harold's clean flavors, Tiffani's strong flavors and Lee Anne's garnishes. Dave was too literal; he was clearly rushed, but the flavors were there. Dave comes out at the bottom. The winner is Harold. To me, he really stood out in terms of reinventing and elevating the original food. The cakes didn't look like popcorn, but they still tasted like popcorn. Of the others, I'd put Lee Anne above Tiffani. Tiffani upgraded the corn dog by using better sausage; Lee Anne shifted gears with a seafood sausage. Tiffani's creativity was more in her condiment; otherwise, she would have been only a little more ambitious than Dave.

Harold feels good about his position going into the elimination round. Katie warns Dave that he has to make up lost ground. The Elimination Challenge is the opposite of the QuickFire Challenge: they have to create a dish using black truffles and a rare bottle of wine. At last, a challenge Harold can get behind! They'll be cooking in Napa for some of the area chefs.

Back at the house, they all sample the wine so they can work out their menus. Tiffani finds it humbling to be in the presence of great ingredients, rather like being in the presence of a great chef. Dave is happy to have some time to plan for a change.

In the morning, Harold is under the weather. They drive up to Napa in their product-placed vehicles. Dave and Tiffani talk up Napa Valley. The chefs stop at Sunshine Foods for their shopping -- $250 and 1 hour. Lee Anne gets some lamb loins. Tiffani gets rack of lamb because she's tired of beef. Harold isn't paying attention to what anyone else is doing because he's ill, so he gets lamb, too. Dave knows he can't do lamb, so he gets beef. It gives him a bit of an edge. Harold regrets not going vegetarian. That could have been really interesting.

More Napa scenery. They arrive at COPIA, the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts. They're working in Julia's Kitchen. Executive chef Victor Scargle shows them around. Tiffani coos over the portrait of Julia. Lee Anne confides that she got to meet her. Tiffani says, "Awesome. I met her once, too." but it sounds more like "Anything you can do, I can do better." Lee Anne interviews that she and Tiffani have kind of broken the mold by being women and getting this far; we hear about Tiffani's abrasiveness some more.

Tiffani will serve first, followed by Harold, Lee Anne and Dave. Harold is coping with being sick. Lee Anne is using butternut squash because she thinks it will work with the wine. Dave says there are standard truffle preparations that he wants to stay away from, so he's doing a macaroni and cheese. Lee Anne and Dave josh around as he helps her reach something, and Tiffani asks them to be quieter, although her face kinda says, "Don't make me kill you." She enjoys herself in the kitchen, but the pleasure comes from cooking and creating, not joking around. Dave interviews that Tiffani's style doesn't work for him, since cooking isn't that serious.

Chef Tom does the rounds. Tiffani is making gnocchi stuffed with foie gras and truffle. Chef Tom observes that gnocchi is tempermental, but Tiffani has worked with it before. Harold has loin of lamb and sunchoke-creamed spinach; he'll have the truffles in the sauce. Lee Anne has truffle-crusted lamb with a butternut squash risotto. She comments that everyone is doing lamb except Dave. Chef Tom interviews that the preponderance of lamb is a concern; he wonders how they all wound up choosing the same thing. Dave is doing a cognac cream and black truffle mac 'n' cheese and a filet of beef. Chef Tom thinks the mac 'n' cheese is very much in Dave's style, and it could work well if he executes properly.

Cooking. The guest judges arrive: Douglas Keane of Cyrus, Cindy Pawlcyn of Mustards Grill, Phillipe Jeanty of Bistro Jeanty, Hiro Sone of Terra, Greg Cole of Celadon, James McDevitt of Restaurant Budo, Keith Luce of Press Restaurant, Lissa Doumani of Terra, Victor Scargle of Julia's Kitchen and John Shafer of Shafer Vineyards.

Tiffani is running behind. She's still plating when her serving window starts. She has rosemary and thyme seared lamb loin, cauliflower puree (with thyme, butter, salt & pepper), truffle and foie gras stuffed gnocchi and a lamb/truffle sauce. She also grated truffle into the gnocchi dough. Tiffani confesses that her time management was off. Chef Lissa Doumani thinks the cauliflower emphasizes the wine's acidity rather than its roundness.

Harold's service begins more promptly. He presents roasted lamb loin, sunchoke creamed spinach, sauteed chanterelles and truffles. Chef Victor Scargle asks how he came up with sunchokes. Harold tries to avoid dairy because it sticks to the palate, so he experimented with other ways to make creamed spinach. Chef Douglas Keane and Chef Cindy Pawlcyn complain about grit on the mushrooms. Harold reports that the judges are tough. He's bummed about the mushroom error. Chef Keith Luce thinks the flavors are very clean, better than Tiffani's dish. Chef Lissa Doumani likes how the sunchoke works with the wine.

Tiffani thinks Lee Anne has too many ingredients. Chef Tom is saying that they're probably going to eliminate one of the lamb dishes unless the beef has problems when Lee Anne arrives to address the judges. Oops. Lee Anne has butternut squash and truffle risotto, braised treviso and mushrooms, pistachio/truffle-crusted lamb loin and cherry/red wine demi-glace. Someone (Chef Greg Cole?) asks about the demi-glace and she describes the process. Chef Cindy Pawlcyn thinks the cherry with the wine was a good idea, and Chef Hiro Sone comments that the wine has a cherry or berry tone. Chef Keith Luce is not impressed with the risotto.

Tiffani interviews that Dave's food is never particularly refined or innovative. Gail calls Dave a wild card, and Chef Tom agrees. He will refrain from expounding on that point. I think Chef Tom finds Dave's emotional excesses embarassing. He's more of a "I came, I saw, I kicked its ass" kind of guy, which is probably why he likes Tiffani. Dave's dish is truffle and cognac cream macaroni and cheese, filet of beef, collard greens and radicchio for bite. Dave explains the dish pretty simply, but then he goes on about the stress and being up all hours, and this is why Dave needs an off switch. Why on earth would the judges need to hear any of that? Chef Lissa Doumani finds lots of flavor in the cream, and Chef Cindy Pawlcyn likes the cheese selection. She also calls him a "black pepper monkey" because there's a lot of pepper. Back in the kitchen, Dave's done.

Chef Tom thanks Chef Victor Scargle for hosting them and John Shafer for supplying the wine. The judging criteria are the qualify of the truffle flavor of the dish and how well it worked with the wine.

Chef Hiro Sone likes Tiffani's dish but he doesn't care for the gnocchi. Chef Cindy Pawlcyn thinks all the textures were soft and it needed some contrast. Chef Greg Cole likes the innovation of the stuffed gnocchi, even if the texture didn't work. Chef Philippe Jeanty questions the cauliflower in combination with the wine.

Chef Keith Luce thinks Harold did the best job pairing the food with the wine, and he showed the most technique. Chef Hiro Sone is stealing the sunchoke-creamed spinach. Chef Philippe Jeanty doesn't like Harold's aspersions on butter and cream because he's French. Chef Victor Scargle thinks all the technique was there except for the mushroom grit, and that really put a dent in their enjoyment.

Chef Greg Cole votes Lee Anne for the best sauce. Chef Lissa Doumani thinks it was a little too sweet but worked well with the wine. Chef Cindy Pawlcyn says there was too much going on for her palate. Chef Keith Luce thinks she has technique, too, and she's just being young.

Chef Cindy Pawlcyn liked the vibrancy of the "pepper monkey's" food. Chef Lissa Doumani really liked the truffle at the bottom of the mac 'n' cheese. Chef Keith Luce thinks Dave showcased the truffle more than the others. Chef Douglas Keane liked the idea but didn't care for the seasoning -- too much pepper and not enough salt, which you need with cream. Chef James McDevitt finds the pepper too spicy for the wine, but John Shafer thinks the wine stood up to the strong flavor.

Chef Tom polls the table for favorite and least favorite dishes, but we don't see the votes. Tiffani thinks she did a good job with all the flavors. Lee Anne doesn't have a hidden agenda or multiple personalities; she doesn't have to win today, as long as she doesn't lose. Dave doesn't know how he did. Harold is out of gas and kicking himself over the mushrooms.

Judges' table: Chef Tom tells Harold there's always room for butter and cream, especially in Julia's Kitchen. Harold agrees; he's not completely anti-dairy. Gail thought he did a good job except for the mushrooms, which kinda ruined the impression. Harold throws in a reminder about his QuickFire win as he hopes he has done enough things right to win a spot in Las Vegas. Chef Tom likes the way Lee Anne took risks, but the lamb was a little overcooked and the risotto was cooked too early. Gail loved the sauce, but there were too many ingredients when only two needed to be showcased. She also hopes she has done enough right to continue. Gail calls foie gras and truffles in gnocchi "a little piece of paradise." The dough fell short. Chef Tom brings up the cauliflower. Tiffani went back and checked the combination, and she doesn't think she was wrong about it. Since it seems only some chefs didn't like the combination, I'm willing to chalk it up to personal taste. At least Tiffani was willing to go back and check the combination, so she recognized the possibility that she was in error. Gail loved the surprise of the truffle simmering at the bottom of the mac 'n' cheese, but the other elements of the dish seemed like afterthoughts. Dave did his best and loved cooking for the judges. If he has to go home today, he'll "take it in stride." Which, actually, I think he would. Not that he wouldn't cry, because that's what he does and it has been an intense experience, but he has to be expecting it.

Katie announces that the guest judges had two clear favorites. Chef Tom says Harold's was his personal favorite, perfectly cooked. He's going to Vegas. Chef Tom points out that Dave usually layers big flavors and this time he layered subtle flavors. Dave's dish was the overall favorite; he's going to Vegas. Dave cries. I'll give him a pass this time. Katie sends the two guys back to the kitchen to relax. Tiffani and Lee Anne are deflated. Harold and Dave congratulate each other. Dave retreats to the walk-in refrigerator to decompress, which cracks up Harold. Dave is pleased that he has been true to himself and to the food. He and Harold hope Lee Anne will be joining them.

Tiffani interviews that it was a surprise to find the two women still at the table; everyone was predicting Dave would be in the bottom half. Chef Tom asks Tiffani why she should stay in the game. She says that she has been "fiercely competitive" and that she brings humility because she admits when she messes up. Which she does, but not in a humble way, so "humility" is clearly the wrong word. She is proud of her food. Chef Tom asks Lee Anne why she should stay. Lee Anne says that she has been able to be competitive without putting anyone down. She has learned from her mistakes, and would like to regroup and knock it out of the park in Vegas. I'm not buying the "I'm not mean" argument. It's true that Lee Anne's not really mean (although she can be pretty snarky) but I don't think that has much bearing in choosing who should stay. The problem is that both Tiffani and Lee Anne are strong candidates, so neither has a clear edge in the kitchen.

Chef Tom is bummed that one of them is leaving. Lee Anne is organized and enjoys cooking. Tiffani is a bulldog in the kitchen; Chef Tom loves her passion. The Napa chefs had a hard time choosing between them. Tiffani gets the last spot. She thanks the judges and pats Lee Anne on the shoulder. Chef Tom tells Lee Anne that her dish was a great concept but it had execution problems. Katie delivers the kicker line. Lee Anne thanks the judges for a wonderful experience.

Back in Julia's Kitchen, Harold gives Lee Anne a big hug. Dave interviews that Lee Anne has been very supportive and she's done a great job. Tiffani hugs Lee Anne and says she respects her. Lee Anne wishes the others the best. She didn't have to be mean to anyone, and she knows she's a great chef. But sadly, not the Top Chef.

Well, that was certainly a surprise. Am I disappointed? Personally, yeah. Lee Anne was overall much stronger than Dave, so I would rather have seen her continue. Procedurally, no. Dave won the Elimination Challenge. Booting him after that would just be wrong, even in combination with his QuickFire loss. And the judging only considered those two events. You could argue that this decision should factor in their overall performance, but overall performance got them to the final four. Maybe they'll tweak the process next season.

So did Dave deserve to win the Elimination Challenge? He did the best job of infusing his dish with the truffle flavor. His mac 'n' cheese was a big risk in terms of style, but it really suited the featured ingredient, so the risk paid off. I don't get a sense of how well he paired with the wine compared to Harold, but the implication of the challenge is that the truffle and wine flavors would really work together. Flavor is Dave's strong suit, and it looks like he really understood the challenge and met it. So I'm okay with the win.

On the flip side, did Lee Anne deserve to get the boot? Dave was safe because he won the Elimination Challenge and Harold was the other favorite, so it comes down to Tiffani and Lee Anne. Tiffani had texture problems and Lee Anne had too many ingredients. I suspect what tipped things in Tiffani's favor is that her dish probably had a stronger truffle flavor, between the gnocchi filling and the gnocchi dough. It was a better concept than Lee Anne's, given the terms of the challenge. Would I rather see Lee Anne continue? I'm actually neutral on that one. They're both very good chefs, and they're both entertaining. So it's pretty much a draw.

Controversy: Hey, did you know Tiffani's a horrible bitch? Based on what we've seen on the show, I don't think she's a complete monster, but she's certainly not going to be to everyone's taste. I'm not competitive, but I do understand her rigidity and her intense task focus. These can be useful qualities in the right situations, but they have a downside. What sinks Tiffani is her deliberate disregard for others. Here's the thing: Ever since humans developed agriculture and started living together in communities, we've had to cope with the fact that people are inherently annoying. Over thousands of years, we have figured out the major friction points and come up with little customs to smooth things over. Everybody puts a little effort into following those little customs, the overal crankiness level drops, and people are less likely to snap and stab each other 19 times with the boning knife. For people in artificially claustrophobic conditions, like reality show contestants, those little customs are even more vital. I suppose there's a competitive advantage in getting everyone else cranky -- but the instigator always seems to end up cranky, too, so it never seems to work out like it's supposed to.

Is Tiffani too abrasive to run a restaurant? She'd probably run into trouble taking over an existing establishment, but she could start her own place. The thing is, she'd be fine managing other cooks who are like her, so she just has to hire a good team. And since she's perfectly clear about how she likes to work, that shouldn't be a problem. Her style isn't for everyone, but it can work in the right circumstances.

Can Dave run a restaurant? Actually, Dave has run a restaurant, and I'm not surprised. Really, he just needs time to plan and he's fine. He's not going to be doing the food equivalent of haute couture, but he wouldn't be an Applebee's knockoff, either. The average diner would recognize the items on Dave's menu -- and then be really surprised at how good they were.

Can Harold run a restaurant? I'm not sure he really wants to, at least not all the mundane business parts. He'd definitely need a business partner. He enjoys a very "pure" style of cooking, so he would be doing the equivalent of haute couture. I suspect Harold would really enjoy teaching, too.

Can Lee Anne run a restaurant? I think Lee Anne is extremely competent, although currently somewhat bitter, and would be able to do just about anything she wanted.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?