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.

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