Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Law & Order:Special Fruit Division

Previously on Top Chef: Fifteen chefs showed up in Los Angeles to duke it out. Suyai told Chef Tom she was tanking. The chefs chose the top and bottom entries. Otto and Suyai got nominated for booting (along with Carlos and Marcel). Suyai got the boot. (Ilan took the win.)

Elia mourns the eviction of Suyai. The chefs are all, "Oh, hey, people are getting booted. Like, for real." Marcel asks the gathered chefs if the judges were right, and Betty agrees with them. Otto appreciates his narrow escape. Josie warns everyone to be on top of their games.

Night falls. At 4:30 am, Chef Tom goes around and wakes everyone up. (How early did he have to get up?) Time to go buy the fishes. Mia slumps on a sofa; she interviews that she wasn't feeling well. Carlos recaps the morning activity.

At 6 am, Padma welcomes them outside the market. She announces that the QuickFire challenge is to prepare sushi. Mia looks ready to barf. Marcel flirts with the camera as he interviews that sushi is hard. Michael is a sushi novice. The chefs have $100 and 30 minutes cook time in the kitchen. Mia struggles with her stomach. As soon as Padma releases the chefs to shop, Mia heads in the other direction and barfs behind a truck. Despite her discretion, we still get to see it. Because, you know, without real, actual barf, we'd have no idea what was happening. She interviews that she doesn't get time off when she's sick. Just what I want to hear from a person preparing food.

Everyone else charges into the fish market. Josie is happy because she knows sushi flavors. Elia loves the little fishies. Mia doesn't bother to get complicated; she's just trying to stay in the game. Everyone heads out with boxes of seafood.

Back in the product-placed kitchen, the guest judge awaits. Padma introduces Hiroshi Shima, corporate executive chef of Katana and Sushi Roku. He has brought along his partner and interpreter, Tom Cardenes. We go to Marcel for the "ooh, aah" interview. Padma grants them the use of a tableful of ingredients, plus everything in the pantry. And go!

Much rushing around. They have a giant steamer full of rice. Frank interviews about the joys of immunity, in case we haven't figured out how that works yet. We see Cliff doing some mighty fine slicing and he laughs (in disbelief) over the time limit. Otto interviews that he has to impress the judges to recover from his previous stumble. Frank calls out a time check. Workety work. Cliff interviews that "you turn around" and time has just vanished. Mia gives herself a pep talk as she finishes her assembly. Padma counts down the last few seconds.

And now for our abbreviated tasting segment.

And the winner is: Cliff. There are clapping and congratulations. Chef Hiroshi enjoyed how the mangoes blended with the oysters without overwhelming them. Cliff gets immunity and interviews his gratitude.

Elimination challenge: Padma talks about the multiculturalism of the LA food scene. They'll divide into two teams: Korea and Vietnam. Each team has to work together to create a hot and a cold dish for a charity event. There will be 1000 attendees. Otto interviews that he was thrilled because he's very involved with hunger issues; he thinks chef have a responsibility to feed everyone, not just the paying customers. (He's assuming Project By Project is a feed-the-hungry charity.) The judging criteria: their use of their country's flavors and their teamwork. Each team will get $500. Elia interviews that it's "very weird" to work with competitors.

Back at the living quarters, Team Vietnam gathers around a table to plan. Betty explains a catering trick she and Mia know: if you need to make 250 plates, you make spring rolls, because you can make just 125 and then cut them in half. Sam's like, "Ooh, sneaky." Betty interviews that she feels confident. (Oh, no, the kiss of death!) Mia suggests a "braised, spicy pork dish." Josie interviews that they decided to go traditional with a basic stew called (as she pronounces it) "fah." Emily wants to use bok choy. Josie points out all the other ingredients they need to use; it sounds likes she's saying they can't afford yet another ingredient. Betty interviews that Josie has experience with Vietnamese food, so she's in charge. She's happy with the team dynamic.

Team Korea starts out with Cliff, Ilan and Frank mixing up a batch of sangria for the team. Marisa wants to make sure they get the meeting part done before they get hammered. Ilan interviews that he started getting drunk during the planning phase. Yeah, this is going to go well. Carlos and Marcel try to shush each other. Marisa declares that they're doing jasmine panna cotta with lychee pearls. That sounds better suited to a fusion challenge than a national cuisine challenge. She interviews that she's stoked to strut her stuff as a pastry chef. Marisa tries to suggest something but the guys are fooling around. Elia tries to get the planning back on track, with no visible success. She interviews that they spent a lot of time because no one would focus. She tries again to get people to plan, but the guys just ignore her because she's no fun.

In the morning, Betty recaps the challenge. Team Vietnam looks chipper. Over at Team Korea, Ilan swears off sangria for "a while." Good plan. Marcel interviews that the team is nervous, what with all the sangria they guzzled, and now they have to get down to it. He makes a shopping list with Otto's help. Otto interviews that he needs the win.

Shopping. Team Vietnam hits their specialty store. Sam interviews that he wanted watermelon, since it's refreshing in summer. Josie interviews that they were looking for seasonal ingredients to help mix it up. Shopping complete.

Team Korea roves their store. Marcel explains the menu: braised pork with kim chee & sticky rice; jasmine tea panna cotta with tapioca. Otto calls to Elia to check on the lychee fruit. Marisa interviews that the shopping expedition was a bit "chaotic." Cut to chaotic shopping montage. Otto asks a store clerk to put the case of lychee fruit under the cart, since it won't fit inside, and calls out that they've got the lychees. At the checkout, they're over budget and have to return stuff. Shopping accomplished, they load up the product-placed vehicle. The store clerk wheels the cart away as Otto shuts the "trunk" door and observes to Marisa and Elia, "I think we got a case of lychees for free." Marisa recaps the comment and frets about the situation. But the product-placed vehicle heads back to the product-placed kitchens with the possibly purloined lychees in the back.

In the kitchen, the teams have three hours to cook. It looks like Marisa and Elia are handling the panna cotta. Otto asks them where they want to set up. Marisa interviews that she cares about the rules and "Otto put me in a terrible position that I didn't want to be in." Yes, Otto mentioned the lychee fruit just to put you in a bind. She confides to Ilan that she's worried they'll be called on for cheating. Ilan recaps her concern. He doesn't think Otto stole the fruit; it was just a mistake. He figures Marisa is just trying to make sure she isn't blamed. I don't think the real issue here is theft -- it probably was just a simple oversight. If they had a leader, Marisa and/or Otto and/or Elia could have said, "Hey, we have this situation" and someone would decide how to handle it. But Otto didn't bring it up with anyone else, and Marisa and Elia already spent an evening failing to get anyone else to listen to them. Add in the producers trying to wrangle lots of bodies according to schedule, and I can see how the fruit made it back to the kitchen. The real problem is that the fruit would put them over budget, so they're violating the challenge constraints.

Over at Team Vietnam, things are much calmer. Sam outlines the menu: braised pork pho with carrot vermicelli; summer rolls with pickled watermelon; cucumber & aloe refresher drink. Betty checks that Josie is performing her oversight duties. Carlos recaps the selection of Josie as team leader. Emily checks with Josie to make sure they're "on the same page."

Team Korea bustles. Marcel curses when he loses track of a pot. As he chops red cabbage, he explains that it naturally makes sense to put the pastry chef on the dessert course. He has to call several times to get the attention of Otto, who is also chopping red cabbage at the far end of the table. In the background, the case of lychee fruit is sitting under a counter along the back wall, so it seems they have been taken out of play. Marcel interviews about the hugeness of their undertaking to create kim chee in the time allotted, since it usually ferments for weeks.

Chef Tom visits Team Vietnam and inquires about the cucumbers. Betty explains the refresher drink they're making. Chef Tom gets confirmation that it's her project and she agrees that she's the "bar wench." Betty interviews that they're going above and beyond to lure the guests over. Outside, Chef Tom recaps. He makes the usual observation of the leader (Josie) being in danger if they lose.

Chef Tom checks in with the dessert duo at Team Korea. They look at each other like, "Should we? You first?" Elia explains that "one of our team members took something from the store without paying for it." Well, actually, all the team members took it from the store; Otto was just the one who noticed. Marisa recaps the lychee observation inaccurately, which just goes to show how unreliable eyewitness testimony can be. Chef Tom immediately summons the rest of the team. Marisa swears softly. Chef Tom wants to know, when did they realize the lychees weren't paid for? Marcel volunteers "Just now" and Chef Tom says "Not you." Marisa explains that Otto observed they got a case of lychees for free. Chef Tom asks Otto if that's true, and Otto agrees that it is. Chef Tom wants to know how come Otto knew that when the rest of the team didn't. Otto babbles that he wasn't thinking too clearly and Chef Tom is frowny. He sends Otto to return the case of fruit. Chef Tom recaps that there are no "hard and true facts" about the situation, but they've lost a person for something like an hour. Otto recaps that he felt bad about the lychees not being paid for, so he took them back. Which is good, but it's still not clear to me how this came to be All Otto's Fault.

Team Vietnam begins to assemble their summer rolls. Betty assures Josie that they'll be wrapped in plastic so they don't touch. Over at Team Korea, we have some non-lychee drama as Marisa discovers the panna cotta is becoming hard. She interviews that she doesn't know how it happened; everything was "chaotic." Isn't that a common kitchen environment? Ilan describes how they're trying to finish things that should have been done earlier. Frank interviews that Otto's diversion to the lychee situation cost them momentum. Otto returns and gets back to work. He interviews that he doesn't think there's tension. It happened; time to move on. The teams pack up and time ticks out.

Is it the next day? They're at the venue unloading trucks in bright daylight. Marcel interviews they had an hour for setup. Emily interviews that she's having a good team experience and she's glad she's not on Team Korea. Speaking of which, Marisa and Elia think Otto's table decoration is problematic. Marisa interviews that she didn't feel a lot of bad vibes working with Otto; the issue was more of a distraction. So presumably she's feeling awkward about the situation, but Otto isn't holding a grudge.

Padma welcomes the teams to the event and introduces the judge. Instead of Hiroshi Shima, the guest judge is Ming Tsai. Big grins from the chefs. Mia does the "ooh, aah" interview. Padma asks Ming about his judging criteria; he's looking primarily at flavor. The teams go back to work. Marcel interviews that Team Korea started to fall apart a little. More like Team Korea never got it together in the first place. Team Vietnam has a problem when Michael hacks up a summer roll. Josie thinks they need a better knife, but Sam says the problem isn't the knife. It's not clear if he's blaming Michael or the construction of the summer rolls. I'm willing to vote for both. Josie interviews that she was freaking out, although we don't see it. She tries cutting one herself. Michael gets his feelings hurt because Josie treats him like a 10-year-old, which seems about right to me. His attempt was a total mess; he has no high ground to stand on. Josie tries to smooth things over a bit after the crisis is handled.

Betty, Josie and Emily work the front line at Team Vietnam. Betty in particular is a great shmoozer. At Team Korea, Otto is talking to Elia about coping with the press of customers. Elia wonders if he's asking or telling her about their ability to keep up; he's asking. Elia interviews that the personalities didn't gel into a team. Chef Ming samples Team Vietnam's food and corrects Josie's pronunciation of "pho" (it's more "fuh" than "fah"). The other judges zip through, then head to Team Korea's table. Chef Tom likes their pork dish. Elia interviews that the dessert was tough, but they didn't have time (or presumably ingredients) to redo it, so she went the optimism route. Chef Ming also likes the pork. Marisa interviews that you want to impress knowledgeable judges; she thinks they have a chance at winning. Chef Ming sums up: the summer roll was refreshing, the pho was a smidge dry, the braised pork was yummy, the dessert custard was "really heavy." The event winds up and the teams celebrate.

Judges' Table. Padma asks Gail to compare the teams' performance to all the events she attends; Gail thinks they did good. Chef Tom thinks the interesting difference is that Team Vietnam had a leader and Team Korea didn't. Chef Ming loved Team Korea's braised pork but the rice was mushy. If you mess up rice, you should toss it and do it again. Padma still prefers the Korean pork dish; everything about it was superior to the Vietnamese pork. Chef Tom brings up the panna cotta, which everyone agrees was too hard. Gail also thinks the Korean pork dish was superior, but Team Vietnam had better teamwork. Padma brings up the refresher drink, and Chef Tom compliments Betty's customer interaction. Gail agrees that they really did sell the drink to the customers. Padma sums up that it was a hard decision and fetches Team Vietnam. Marcel tells the other Team Korea members that he's "very pleased" with what they did and he expects a win. He bumps fists with the others.

Team Vietnam lines up, looking somewhat defensive. Chef Ming asks who cooked the pork and Michael raises his hand; Chef Tom reveals that it was a little dry. He confirms that Josie was team leader and that Betty had sole responsibility for the refresher. Padma finally reveals that they won and there is much rejoicing. Team Korea hears it and realizes they've lost. Cliff is angry because they couldn't work as a team. I'm thinking next time, maybe they shouldn't use sangria as a team-building exercise. Also, maybe the guy with immunity could step forward to play final arbiter. Chef Tom tells Betty that her refresher carried the day for the team, and Padma pronounces her the winner. That's different -- usually the whole team wins. Chef Ming presents her with a limited edition sushi knife; Betty is thrilled. She interviews that it was really a team effort, so it was embarrassing (if nice) to be singled out. Chef Tom sends them away to celebrate. Maybe they can get Cliff's sangria recipe.

Team Korea lines up for its spanking. Padma wastes no time delivering the bad news. Ilan goes on the offensive -- the other team's dishes were underseasoned and the pho was "a joke" while their pork was great, aside from the rice. Gail grants them the pork advantage, but that's not the only decision point. Padma asks why they think they lost, and Cliff volunteers the teamwork issue. Padma asks about the rice; Frank says it was his work. Prodded by Chef Ming's questions, he says it was good when it left the kitchen but bad when it hit the plates. Chef Tom brings up the lack of creaminess of the panna cotta. Marisa explains the gelatin ratio. She tried it and thought it was hard, but not inedible. Chef Tom asks Elia if she would serve it. Elia explains she doesn't have a taste for gelatin. Marisa challenges that she didn't say that before, as if she had just dissed the dessert. Elia tries to explain herself, but Marisa complains that everyone was confident about winning when they tasted the food, and now "there's a lot of backpedalling." Elia didn't even render an opinion yet, so step off, Marisa. Chef Tom asks Marcel to nominate someone to go and he picks Otto for lack of production and also for introducing the integrity problems with the lychee incident. Still not seeing how it was All Otto's Fault. Elia agrees with Marcel; she's subdued about it, but doesn't waver. Padma asks Otto to dress the lychee incident. Otto explains how they paid and loaded the stuff, he asked if they paid for the lychees and no one said anything. Marisa does a big double take. Chef Tom asks if he was thinking along the lines of "Yay, free lychees" but Otto disclaims. Marisa makes another face, so Gail asks her to comment. Marisa charges Otto with lying. Otto says, "I'm not going to get into a he said, she said situation with you." Good choice, since he probably doesn't remember exactly what he said. I don't know if Marisa is exaggerating his statements for effect or if all her fretting has reshaped her memory of the events, but Otto's description was pretty accurate. Marisa thinks this refusal to engage is "pathetic." Otto reports that the lychees were returned, and that's that. Elia apologizes, but she thinks he was dishonest in keeping the lychees. Well, since she and Marisa knew about it, why aren't they just as dishonest? They're pretending that Otto had more control over the lychees than everyone else, which isn't true. Marcel agrees that Otto jeopardized the team. Frank is pissed that team members are turning on each other. Padma notes that Ilan is being quiet; he doesn't think anyone is at fault.

The judges send them away. Frank scolds the others for not acting like a team, although I think he's more concerned about the finger-pointing than the failure to work together. Marisa starts to apologize, but Frank goes on. He wasn't the only one to approve the rice, but he was the only to take responsibility for it. Everyone else was looking out for themselves. Well, I didn't see Frank speaking up for Marisa or Otto. Maybe it got cut for time. Frank gets quite vehement that everyone needs to back their teammates. I'm sensing possible anger management issues.

The judges deliberate. Padma starts them off with the rice. Chef Ming still thinks it was unacceptable. Chef Tom thinks the panna cotta was worse. Chef Ming calls it "substandard." Chef Tom thinks the dessert was the tipping point. So there's Frank and Marisa, and then Otto. Chef Ming says that whatever happened with the lychees, the issue was a "cancer." Chef Tom reports Otto's statements that he got "caught up" in the competition and that he was "embarrassed" but he didn't take responsibility. Well, neither did anyone else. Chef Tom would boot Otto unless he steps up, in which case he'd boot Marisa.

The team returns. Chef Tom tells Otto that he's "in the middle" of the controversy. When did he decide that they couldn't use the fruit? Otto says when the cooking started and they decided not to use them, he agreed and put them off to the side. Chef Tom asks if he would have used them if someone hadn't said not to. Otto thinks about it. "You know, people do things for a wide variety of reasons. I wanted this more than you could possibly imagine. But the bottom line is, it was dishonest. I should have just came clean from the get-go. This action disrupted the team. It created a situation that was very uneasy for everyone involved. It's highly unfortunate that my actions put me in a decision to bow out of this competition." By the end, Elia is crying. Chef Tom says they'll honor his decision if that's what he wants. Otto performs the Daniel Franco Memorial Ethical Swan Dive and agrees. Padma gives him the boot. Everyone else looks pretty wrecked.

Otto announces to the others that he has withdrawn. Hugs all around. He interviews that the lychee inicident was a mistake. Character comes from accepting responsibility for mistakes and learning from them. Speaking of mistakes, let's talk about that clown mobster stripey suit. He'll continue to pursue his passion to end hunger.

Well, that was probably Otto's best possible exit. He didn't strike me as a potential finalist, so it's better to go out as Man of (Belated) Character than Cook of Mediocre Talent. In terms of both cooking and teamwork, Marisa was a good candidate for the boot. I don't know if she went around to anyone else besides Ilan, but a whispering campaign doesn't strike me as the best way to address the lychee issue. I can see how she might think the team wouldn't listen to her, but at least try to bring it up with the team before going to Chef Tom. And if the team doesn't want to address it, then make sure they all take some of the blame, not just Otto.

The main culprit in the Great Lychee Scandal was the lack of team cohesion. That led to poor planning, which led to chaotic shopping, which created the opportunity for the lychee oversight. Then there was no one to make an executive decision about how to handle the problem, which left the person who noticed the problem getting saddled with the responsibility for it. I do think it's fair to make the spotter responsible for bringing the problem to light, so Otto should have been the one pushing the issue with the team instead of (or in concert with) Marisa. But once Otto airs the problem, the team is responsible for getting it solved.

Last time, I said I wanted the show to get out more into Los Angeles, which they promptly did. So that's good. Unfortunately, a fish market and a charity event can't compare to a sex shop party for local color. They need to make the LA food scene seem a lot more interesting. It is interesting, right?

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