Sunday, October 22, 2006


The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Hair

Welcome to the second season of Top Chef! This time we're in Los Angeles, which has a lot of restaurants, but they seem to be valued more for who shows up than for what gets dished up. Also, not much in the way of trolleys. New host Padma Lakshmi reviews the concept and introduces the judges. The finale this year will be in Hawaii. I'm sensing a poi showdown in my future.

Time to meet the latest herd of reality hamsters:

This year, everyone's in a big loft space in a downtown building. Ilan interviews that the first guy he met -- Marcel -- started showing off his knives. Oh, great, it's like Stephen on steroids. Marisa has packed for every wardrobe eventuality. Suyai (soo-jeye) of the lovely accent bonds with Betty over their blonde locks. Michael's wife packed some panties for him. How, uh, sweet. The guys gather in the kitchen and anticipate meeting the contestants of the female persuasion, which immediately happens. There's much scoping out of the competition. Carlos just got his first four-star review; people clap for him. In an interview, he confesses to being self-taught; people with culinary degrees look down on the self-taught. Cut to Marcel's disparaging stare. Although I'm pretty sure he looks down on everyone who isn't lucky enough to be him. Mia has cooked for cowboys -- and apparently was paid in straw hats -- who have a different palate than fine diners.

Off to the kitchens. Padma welcomes them and pitches the sponsors. With her are Chef Tom and first season winner Harold Dieterle (yay!), the guest judge. Chef Tom starts off by explaining his role: he's not a mentor, he's the head judge. When he circulates in the kitchen, he's making observations that he'll take back to other judges. So we shan't expect him to urge the contestants to "carry on" or "make it work." Just as well; I don't think the challenges allow enough time for mentoring. Padma explains the structure of the QuickFire and Elimination challenges.

The QuickFire challenge: create a flambé dish. They can choose any alcohol from yonder table, and any ingredients from the pantry. Otto explains the technique, which basically involves setting alcohol on fire. Suyai didn't learn how to do this in her program. Alcohol, fire -- not sounding too tricky here. They have 20 minutes. Go!

Sam interviews that it was chaos with 15 chefs running around. Michael doesn't want to get too fancy. Emily describes flambé as a "big show" that produces "a lot of flavor, a lot of heat." Marcel decides to experiment with bananas and avocados so he can wow the judges. He needs to get booted right away; I can't handle all the Stephen flashbacks. Cliff talks about adrenaline rushing. Padma calls the 5 minute mark and the flames start going up. Elia can't get hers to light because she used red wine. Marcel explains that red wine has a low alcohol content, so it doesn't flame well. Time's up!

Padma and Chef Harold sample. With all the chefs, they're skimping on some of the food details. What we learn:

Chef Harold (I love saying that) compliments everyone, especially with the use of seasonal ingredients. His bottom three are Carlos (for non-functional garnish), Elia (for poor alcohol choice) and Suyai (for poor execution). His favorites are Sam (great flavor profile), Emily (yummy home cooking) and Betty ("spot on"). The win goes to Sam. Sam interviews that he was pleased. Elia is bummed, but tomorrow is another day. Padma sends them all off to rest for the big challenge.

Party! Much drinking ensues. Ilan interviews that Michael got a little toastier than the others. It looks like his roomies lock him out so he won't keep them up all night.

[Did the prospect of previously unaired footage entice any Project Runway viewers to stick around if they were not previously so inclined? Now that Jeffrey has won Project Runway, they can stop trying to make us feel sorry for him and go back to showing him act like a jerk to everybody. Yay?]

Morning. Michael gets nudged for his overindulgence. He interviews that the other chefs think he's crazy. If you can impress a bunch of chefs with your drinking, you are one heavy-duty drinker. For whatever reason, Michael says his mother hit him only once growing up, and Marcel(?) says maybe he should have gotten hit more. Ilan interviews that Marcel is an instigator. No Miss Congeniality ribbon for him. Marcel interviews that the contest is about food, not relationships, and it doesn't matter if you're his best friend. At least he didn't say he wasn't here to make friends.

Elimination challenge. Gail Simmons joins Chef Tom and Padma. The chefs draw knives to form the black and orange teams. This challenge is the Mystery Box of Ingredients challenge. Each team will cook; the other team will taste and select their top and bottom twos. Otto interviews that other chefs are the toughest critics. The black team gets to sit. The orange team has two hours to make tasting portions for everyone. Mystery ingredients:

It's not a good sign when they have to tell you it's food. Marisa is flummoxed by the peanuts. Suyai is flummoxed by both the peanuts and the "cheese." Cooking happens. Elia is determined not to wind up in the bottom again. Carlos observes that you must refrigerate the "cheese" when using "cheese products." I hope he's not reading from the label. Michael is once again keeping it simple. Ilan interviews that Suyai was "emotional" during the whole cooking period and he felt bad for her. I think Ilan might be the new Harold. That's a flashback I can deal with. Marisa is chopping and chops her fingers. Carlos helps her bandage since he's at a loss with his cooking. Marisa doesn't mind the pain but the time loss is a problem. Also, ew.

Chef Tom does his sweep. Marisa jokes about giving pastry chefs sharp knives; maybe he'll give her a lesson afterwards. Elia confesses that she hates the "cheese." She interviews that it shouldn't even exist, but they're stuck with it. Chef Tom warns Michael that he has to impress the other chefs. Well, if he wants to win. Michael's strategy seems to be "avoid losing." That will only get him so far in this competition. Suyai volunteers that she's completely sucking. Chef Tom wonders if she should be telling him this. She's just at a loss.

Outside, Chef Tom explains that the processed "cheese" is the big test. Carlos is using a lot of cheese in his sauce. He's not sure how Elia is working it in. Ilan's baked escargot is "intriguing." Suyai has no confidence. More cooking and time's up.

Padma sends the orange team away while the black team deliberates. For the bottom two, Betty volunteers Carlos and Suyai; the others agree. Suyai didn't have a good flavor and Carlos was unfocused. As for the top two, Ilan definitely has a spot. For the other spot, the nominees are Frank and Elia. Chef Tom asks which they'd rather spend $16 on at a restaurant, and that helps settles it.

[Poll question on the season's villain. Shouldn't we see who survives the first round before committing?]

Black team's turn to cook. Their mystery ingredients:

Frog legs and chicken livers? The other chefs got potatoes. Betty calls it a "friggin' wacky combination." Marcel interviews that Otto was a "train wreck" who was running around. We jump ahead an hour to Chef Tom's sweep. Betty confesses that she has never worked with frog legs; they joke about how they're supposed to taste like chicken. She doesn't like chicken liver, so she makes it into a paste that she can mold into cakes. Marcel has seen frog legs used, but he hasn't cooked them himself. He describes making frog leg "lollipops" and then he'll "leave a little bit to the unknown." Does that mean he doesn't know, or he's not telling? I'm sure Chef Tom won't blab to the other contestants. Mia knows and loves frog legs; she cuts them up like chicken wings and takes it from there. Cliff is breading the chicken livers with corn flakes, which is not how he normally deals with corn flakes.

Outside, Chef Tom reveals that Mia is the only one with frog leg experience. Emily is breading and frying them, which seems to be a common approach and not very challenging. Otto seems unsure, so he bears watching. Marcel is really confident.

Otto's rice is taking too long. He interviews that he's not sure how he'll do. Marcel puts himself in the top three. Time's up! And they're tasting.

The black team is dismissed. Top choices are Betty and Mia. Betty was original and Mia was flavorful. Otto and Marcel get nominated for the bottom slots. Otto was a mess and Marcel had too much garlic. Elia disagrees about Marcel. Carlos also nominates Cliff. Elia gets outvoted.

Judges' table. Padma tosses it to Chef Harold (hee!); he thought it was a good challenge. Gail likes the diversity of the orange group and agrees with the top choices. Chef Tom thinks Frank could have made it if he had improved his pasta. He liked Betty's cake but wasn't impressed with her salad; Chef Harold found her peanut sauce flavorful. As for Mia, Chef Tom is ready for Sunday dinner at her house. Gail points out that it wasn't the most refined, but it was the most satisfying.

Padma summons Elia, Ilan, Betty and Mia. Elia is nervous because she doesn't know if she's in the top or bottom. But then Padma congratulates them, so they know. Elia again expresses her discomfort with the "cheese." If she had more time, she would have topped the dish with chopped artichokes. Gail thinks that might have been a slight improvement, but it was really good as it was. Mia hunted frogs as a kid, so this was home territory. Chef Tom liked the sense of her personality in the dish. This was Ilan's first time with escargot. Gail congratulates him for pulling it off; Chef Harold thinks he has a talent for it. Betty incorporated a couple of ideas from her restaurant. Chef Tom again disses the salad, but he thinks the dish also represented her personality. Chef Harold gets to announce the winner: Ilan. Mia looks bummed. Chef Tom thinks Ilan improved the ingredients. Ilan celebrates in an interview. Chef Tom observes that their guest judge also won the first elimination challenge, so that's a good sign.

Mia announces Ilan's win; he's widely applauded. Then she sends Otto, Marcel, Suyai and Carlos to get spanked by the judges. Padma asks Otto why he thinks he's in the bottom, and he blames the undercooked rice. He tried to save it with some olive oil. Chef Harold disabuses him of the rice idea; he needed more depth to handle the disparity of the two meat ingredients. Otto says if he had a redo, he'd combine them into an amuse bouche. Chef Tom asks why he should stay, and Otto says even a top chef has a bad day. But the whole question here is, is he a top chef? Suyai admits she panicked and started cooking without thinking. Gail tries to find things to praise and comes up with "a lot of good potato in there." Well, nice try. Suyai promises not to do it again. Marcel doesn't know why he's in the bottom. Chef Harold thought he was more of a middle placer. As a member of the nominating team, Carlos explains the garlic issue. Marcel guesses that it was a strategic choice to remove a tough competitor. Dream on. He got the "jerk" vote. Chef Tom observes that Carlos finished with a good 40-45 minutes to spare. He confesses that he felt rushed and didn't take the time to think things through, as he should. Chef Tom asks if he would serve that dish at his restaurant. Carlos demurs that it wasn't his "crowning achievement" but neither was it "crap on a plate." Not exactly a ringing endorsement there.

The four get sent away so the judges can trash talk, er, deliberate. Chef Tom thinks they could justify sending any one of them home. Gail observes that Carlos obviously didn't think it through. Chef Tom found it poorly seasoned; Chef Harold says there was no complexity. Chef Tom almost couldn't choke it down. Gail doesn't want to discount the judgement of Marcel's peers. Chef Tom figures the others wanted to take him down a peg or two. If he actually thought of the others as his peers, maybe that would work, but as things stand, not happening. The consensus is that he didn't suck; the unspoken verdict is that he didn't shine, either. Chef Harold thinks Suyai succumbed to nerves (as he succumbed on his first QuickFire challenge). Chef Tom thinks her inexperience shows and reports the "I'm so sucking" story. Gail thinks she volunteered herself. Chef Tom thinks Otto did, too, talking about the rice problem. Chef Harold agrees that you should stand behind your food. But at the risk of looking like a doofus? If your rice is clearly undercooked and you blather on about how great your dish was, the judges are going to ask you about the rice, and then what do you say? If the point is to analyze the dish, then I think a truthful answer is better. But then talk about what you did right.

Marcel walks away with the vote for this season's villain. Great, now they're never going to boot him.

The bottom four return. Chef Tom tells Otto that his experience should have warned him to just ditch the unnecessary rice, Suyai that she might not be ready for this competition, Marcel that his dish did have issues (so don't be so surprised about being in the bottom), and Carlos that he made rookie mistakes. See? Marcel didn't 'fess up to the problems and now he looks like a doofus. Okay, that was a given with the hair, so now he looks even more like a doofus. Padma boots Suyai.

There's much hugging. Suyai admits that she sabotaged herself. She has some decisions to make but she'll definitely keep on cooking. At least she learned how to flambé. Aw, she was nice, and I love her voice. Oh, well.

So how's the second season stacking up? Too many people. Emily, Cliff and Frank have barely registered. Even big-seeming personalities like Josie are in the background. I hope this doesn't turn into the Marcel season. Of course, if they boot him early, they avoid that problem. Just a suggestion. But I think shrinking it back down to 12 contestants would be a good idea. The new host is an improvement in that she can actually move as she talks, but otherwise she hasn't made much of an impression. Since she doesn't suck, I'm willing to wait and see. I liked how the first season really jumped into the San Francisco food culture. So far, this season could be set anywhere. That needs to change right away.


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