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.

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