Monday, November 27, 2006


Turkey Day

Previously on Top Chef: Marcel annoyed Betty, who chewed him out. The chefs paired up to make lunch for Stifler's mom and 60 of her closest friends. Marcel reluctantly agreed to Frank's prom invitation. Marisa and Josie got the boot.

The three remaining women rattle around their half-empty loft. Mia interviews that Josie was one of the most talented contestants, so her booting was a reality check. All the chefs are hanging out waiting to go cook when Ilan shows Michael one of Marcel's business cards. On the back, Marcel has written "The Next Top Chef." Ilan and Michael laugh. Elia interviews that the others don't like Marcel; maybe it's because he's too cocky. But she likes him because she knows him in a different context. Marcel interviews that maybe all the other chefs got together and randomly picked him to hate. He insists that the competition should just be about the food. It doesn't matter if people like each other, so long as they work together. Which would be true if this were only a competition. But it's also a grown-up version of summer camp, with people crammed together into communal living spaces. It's not going to be just about the food when they spend all that time together not cooking.

QuickFire challenge: Chef Tom and Padma stand in front of a pile of canned goods. Carlos interviews that he's done better with the guest judges than the home team. Chef Tom blinkfully pretends that it's the "holiday season" and talks about donating to food banks. You don't have to have access to fresh food to eat well (although it helps). The chefs have 15 minutes to use at least three canned items to prepare a dish. Marcel interviews that it's tough to make canned food tasty. Mia was homeless once, so she's not intimidated by canned cuisine. And go!

The chefs charge the table of cans. Betty is at least a head shorter than everyone else and has to wiggle her way into the pile. Michael interviews that they had to see what was in the cans and come up with an idea in just a minute. Yup, that would be the challenge. Sam recaps the chaos. Mia interviews that she was surprised to see people cooking on the stove; she went with a salad option. Frank recaps the "turn canned goods into something yummy" aspect of the challenge. Frantic cooking. Padma calls time and has the chefs put up their hands, like she and Chef Tom are robbing them.

Chef Tom is happy that they all got into the challenge. Cliff is praised for clean, fresh, un-canned-like flavors and Sam for frying the anchovies. He tells Marcel that clams and coconut together need to be "ice cold" for the flavors to meld. He likes the two components of Elia's entry, but he doesn't get the combination. Next, he rearranges the order in which the chefs are standing. The winner of the challenge is: Sam. Mia interviews that she was thisclose to winning once again. Then Chef Tom announces that she also won, and she jumps up and down with glee. And Cliff won. Cliff: "Wha?" Elia interviews that she was just in shock; she tried Sam's and Cliff's entries and she spit out Cliff's potato salad. Ilan and Frank also win. Frank laughs that he was delighted with his first immunity. So half the chefs have immunity; furthermore, they get to sit out the next challenge. Marcel shows off his math skils as he interviews that the chances of getting booted have doubled. Well, that assumes that they pick the next chef to boot randomly. I'm sure it seems that way sometimes. On the plus side, their chances of winning have substantially increased, too.

I'm not loving this twist. It's a competition; they should all compete. Immunity has never meant sitting out the challenge. In fact, immunity is meant to encourage the winner to take risks in the big challenge. If you're going to give people a pass, don't call it immunity. As for giving half the field immunity, it's more about creating interpersonal drama than competitive drama. As experiments go, I'd call this one a failure.

Elimination challenge: The bottom five chefs will cook Thanksgiving dinner. However, they must take the traditional ingredients and use them in new ways to create a "cutting edge" Thanksgiving meal. The look on Padma's face says, "Is this making sense to you? 'Cause it's not to me." Carlos interviews that "cutting edge Thanksgiving dinner" is an oxymoron. I like this challenge. I had been thinking that it would be nice to see an alternative to the traditional eat-yourself-into-a-stupor starchfest, although "cutting edge" takes it farther than I was imagining. They will be serving the judges and the five chefs with immunity. Betty recaps this point with a winners/losers perspective. The cooking team can decide on the number and content of the courses; they will be judged on their "individual contributions." Nothing says "Go, team!" like "individual contributions." They have 1 hour of prep time tonight and 4 hours of cooking the next day; they'll be cooking in the lofts rather than the product-placed kitchens. I guess the home kitchen is a traditional ingredient. The top half gets to take the remaining cans to the food bank and then relax. Sam interviews his sympathy for the bottom half.

The bottom five confer. Betty explains that they had an hour to plan and collect what they needed from the competition kitchen. Betty starts off by looking for non-negotiable elements. Marcel starts listing out courses and Michael suggests twice-baked potatoes but he's ignored. He interviews that the team had too many egos. He suggests doing family-style service, but Marcel argues that it needs to be cutting edge. So it seems that the first problem is defining "cutting edge." Marcel naturally interprets this as his favorite molecular gastronomy, but I think you could argue that a "new traditional" style is also very current. Michael proposes a turducken lasagna but gets shot down again. Carlos decides that the pepper mill is the speaking stick. Betty seizes it and clutches it to her chest. They're going to have to wrestle it away from her. She thinks everything should be plated except the entrée, which would be family style. Carlos tries to guide them into having a discussion. As Betty holds the pepper mill, she tries to put her hand over Michael's mouth. Michael interviews that Betty wasn't interested in anyone else's input. Marcel interviews that he suggested everyone work together to come up with a four-course menu, which shows that he can learn from experience. Unfortunately, Betty can't, so she disagrees. So Marcel outlines his ideas for the menu. As he talks about his custard-soup idea, Betty and Carlos try to comment, but he waves the pepper mill at them.

This is what happens when you try to brainstorm without a whiteboard or easel. Seriously. You need to have a big surface so you can write down everything anyone suggests -- no editing -- and just spend 10 minutes pouring out ideas. Then everyone can see their ideas up on the board and know they're being represented.

Elia volunteers to take the soup course. She interviews that she's completely demoralized. Marcel asks what she'll make; she proposes a shot of vinegar (to match her sour mood). Marcel warns against "any kamikaze action." He interviews that he'd hate to see Elia take herself out. Betty claims the salad and dessert courses, but Elia protests that she can't do both. Betty palms the salad course off on an unethusiastic Carlos. He interviews that his strategy is to play it safe and hew to the middle.

It looks like the menu discussion is done, as the chefs start gathering ingredients. Elia tells Betty that she makes a nice mushroom soup. Betty says that's a good fit with the menu, but it's up to Elia. Elia really doesn't care any more. Betty suggests Cheez-Whiz.

The bottom half goes shopping -- $400 and 1 hour. Elia heads off to the restaurant supply store, since she no longer cares about food, while the rest hit the grocery store. Marcel recaps the division of labor and reminds us about the "cutting edge" twist to the traditional dinner. Carlos interviews that he's trying to integrate fall flavors like butternut squash and pumpkin seeds into a salad. I think a medley of different types of squash or even differenty types of root vegetables would be interesting. Of course, it's the middle of summer, so getting good fall ingredients might be a little tricky.

Michael has decided to give it his all: he's doing his twice-baked potato, plus a cheese plate, plus a canapé. I guess being on the winning team last time has left him feeling a little more ambitious. He figures three solid dishes will keep him in the game. Marcel, on the other hand, plans to stun the judges with his "cutting edge techniques." He'll be making cranberry gelée with cranberry foam, as well as a roulade with turkey and stuffing. I think he has the right attitude. Betty is going to make two crème brûlées: chai pumpkin pie and chocolate hazelnut. Sounds yummy, but not exactly cutting edge. I think pumpkin ice cream might be nice, given the climate. (Not wildly cutting edge either, but fresher than crème brûlée.)

Carlos calls Elia to find out where she got the queso fresco; she tells him she found it at the salad bar. Elia is wondering why she should even bother cooking any more. However, she is apparently still able to find purpose in buying platters.

Over at the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank (I don't mind product-placing charities), the top half arrives bearing turkeys. Mia interviews that she and her mom wound up homeless for a while when she was thirteen, so she knows how important the food bank can be. Too bad Otto can't be around for this part. The food bank guy is delighted with the turkeys, which fit right into the season. They have a traditional Fourth of July turkey dinner? We know how shows get made; let's stop pretending it's really Thanksgiving. More importantly, let's stop making perfectly nice food bank people pretend it's really Thanksgiving. They shouldn't have to play games for their donations. Frank interviews that it's important to give to the homeless and the poor, and the restaurant industry has great opportunities to do that.

Carlos recaps the cooking schedule. Betty comments that she's glad the three women cleaned up. She delegates Marcel and Michael to the men's loft, which is fine with them. Michael interviews that Marcel and Betty clash, and he didn't want to work with her because she's bossy and assumes people don't have any skills (although if people don't bother to demonstrate their skills, it's hard to blame her), so he was just as happy in what we're told is "Marcel, Frank & Ilan's loft." Does that mean they have another guy loft to work in as well? Michael observes the mess and calls it a "nice, sanitary place" for cooking. He and Marcel have to clean up the kitchen. Marcel interviews about the mess; he took all the toiletries off the counter and put them in a corner. It would have been better if he had put them on a table or bed or some other surface than the floor, but at least he didn't just throw stuff off to the side.

Back in the women's loft, Betty and Elia gripe about being in the bottom. Elia tells Betty that it's not about ego; she can take criticism "when it's fair." Elia has a bowlful of chocolate and a big whisk. She tells the others that her school taught her not to lick the whisk, which she promptly does. Betty interviews that Elia started going off the deep end. Now she has a towel around her head, while Carlos and Betty are sitting in chairs, laughing. Carlos interviews that Elia had "a chocolate meltdown, no pun intended." She smears chocolate on her face and on Betty's face; they smear Carlos together. Betty interviews that it was the perfect antidote to their frustration about the challenge; unfortunately, she tries to act out the frustration and confusion. A simple narrative will do fine, thanks. (The poor abused chocolate was never part of the meal, but just a failed experiment with candy-making, so no need to feel icky about all the germs.)

Over in the other kitchen, Marcel and Michael are working away. Marcel discovers that cranberries float. Apparently he has never seen them in their natural habitat, the cranberry bog.

The top half is hanging out in the "communal loft." Ilan and Cliff are sleeping, which seems like an excellent use of free time to me. Frank interviews that having time off is great, and he expects animosity from the losing chefs. Marcel strolls in and tells them that he threw all the stuff left on the counter onto the floor. Which sounds a lot worse than what he actually did, so I have wonder if he's trying to stir up trouble. Sam interviews that Marcel is selfish and conceited. Sam tells Frank that his roomie (Marcel) has been disrespecting his stuff. Frank goes back to the loft to check and discovers that his toothbrush is on the floor. Well, technically, no, the toothbrush is in his toiletry kit, but that's on the floor, so Frank isn't completely exaggerating. Frank stares down Marcel and threatens to beat him to a pulp if he ever messes with Frank's stuff again. Except Frank doesn't really sound furious, so as threats go, it's more theater than anything else. Marcel looks at Michael like, "Can you believe this guy?" Marcel recaps that Frank was a "crazy wildebeest," which isn't what I saw. Marcel asks what prompted Frank's behavior, and Frank reminds him about the toothbrush on the floor. Marcel points out that it's in the toiletry bag -- although he himself said he put their stuff on the floor when he came in, so it's a bit late to be splitting hairs. Marcel interviews that things are getting "personal" now. Well, yes, messing with people's personal property will do that. I do think Marcel was perfectly justified in clearing off the counters, but it would have been better to put the stuff someplace up off the floor, and it would have been much better not to walk in bragging how he tossed everyone's stuff in a corner. It's more to the point to complain that he had to waste time cleaning up the kitchen.

The next day, Michael stoners that they have four hours to cook. Betty, Carlos and Elia are having breakfast. Betty is trying not to think about the elimination aspect of the challenge. Carlos changes the subject, asking people what they're thankful for. He prompts Elia, who opens her mouth to show her half-chewed cereal. "Food," Carlos concludes. Man, when she goes into a funk, Elia doesn't do the thing halfway. She interviews that she's still demoralized. Back at the breakfast table, she deadpans, "I'm thankful because I have Tom Colicchio as my judge."

In what is now called the "men's loft," Marcel and Michael get to work. Marcel interviews that it was quiet because he was focusing on his work and so was Michael. So his usual color commentary is not really part of his work ethic? Interesting. Marcel confirms with Michael that he's doing both baked and mashed potato. That's a lot of potato. Throw in a yam somewhere, dude. Michael stoners that he's cranking out five dishes (although we only hear him list four). Carlos interviews that he was concentrating on his salad. He asks Elia how her soup is coming, and she says it's "dandy." Betty complains about the oven; she interviews that she's having trouble getting the right consistency.

Cliff interviews that the non-cooking chefs got to go out for breakfast. Ilan wonders if the others picked a leader; Mia figures Marcel decided to go his own way. Ilan thinks that might work out to Marcel's favor. Mia argues that they have to work together at some level or the meal is going to be a "disaster." Granted, they're sitting out in a sunny courtyard, but I think I just spotted some foreshadowing.

Chef Tom stops by the women's loft and finds the chefs not terribly interested in volunteering information. He gets Elia to 'fess up to doing a mushroom soup. Now that she's talking, she decides to ask him about the QuickFire judging. Specifically, she wonders what he liked about Cliff's dish, since she spit it out. Chef Tom says he really liked it, and you had to try the whole thing. Elia tells him that she was upset about the judging (Chef Tom kind of rolls his eyes). She interviews that she realized he was sincere in liking Cliff's food, so it seems they just have different palates. So now she's happy again, and she respects him. That could have been a really awkward and ugly conversation, but Elia presented it the right way about wanting to understand. And she wasn't asking why he picked Cliff instead of her (which would assume Cliff placed 5th and she placed 6th); she wondered how he could like something she found so distasteful. And now she knows, and she's ready to compete again.

Amid the cooking montage, Marcel interviews that he was the only one who understood the challenge. Carlos interviews that his salad wasn't his best work, but at least it was better than Michael's "beige, beige, beige" side dishes. Michael, in turn, interviews that Carlos just did a salad, so he won't have much of a defense at the judges' table.

Betty tries to get confirmation about the serving schedule when Chef Tom walks in with the guest judge: Anthony Bourdain (who, breaking the tradition of guests who need no introduction, does in fact not get introduced). Michael gets the "ooh, ah" interview for once. He hopes the guest judge won't tell him he sucks. Chef Tom and guest head over to the dinner table, where the top half reacts with applause and amazement. Sam describes Bourdain's presence as "huge;" he's grateful not to be cooking. And it's dinnertime!

Well, that sucked.

Judges' table. Tony Bourdain sums it up: no one really stepped up and delivered. Chef Tom recaps the challenge. Gail starts with Carlos, who failed to break out of the usual. Tony Bourdain calls the mesclun "pedestrian" and Gail calls the whole thing "really lame." Padma brings up Elia. Chef Tom likes the taste and texture. Gail didn't find it avant-garde, but at least it was good. Tony Bourdain thinks it showed the most "chefly qualities" but Chef Tom would like to see her stretch. Padma still likes the idea of Marcel's roulade. Gail gives him credit for pushing the boundaries; the presentation was good and she liked the cranberry flavors. Chef Tom points out that it would have been much improved if he had just basted it. Padma moves them on to Betty. Chef Tom calls it pumpkin pie filling topped with burnt sugar. Tony Bourdain says just remembering it is making him "comatose." Now it's Michael's turn. Chef Tom just can't understand how he could make those side dishes. Tony Bourdain says it was so "perverse" and "inappropriate" that he starting to respect him; the twice-baked potato was the best offering of the day. Chef Tom complains that none of the sides were cutting edge. Gail points out that Michael had other contributions. She liked the canape and Padma liked the cheese plate.

The chefs are summoned. Gail asks if they had a leader. Michael volunteers that he had some good ideas, but "they were shot down." He mentions the turducken lasagna, which sounds good to Chef Tom. Gail says that they liked the canape and Padma tells him he redeemed himself in the amuse bouche category. (But I think he still owes Suzanne Goin an apology before he can be fully redeemed.) Chef Tom asks what's cutting edge about twice-baked potatoes. Michaelf figures the shrimp were a "spin." Which is not quite an edge. Chef Tom just covers his eyes and laughs. Tony Bourdain declares, "I love you like a son already." Michael's non-conformity and sheer contrariness have won him over. The twice-baked potato was his favorite dish despite the "absolutely Flintstonian execution."

Tony Bourdain turns to Carlos and asks about the salad. Carlos explains that he didn't volunteer, but no one else would do it so he took it on. Technically, that's volunteering -- he just didn't seek it out. Chef Tom points out that he wasn't forced to do the salad. Carlos agrees, and he's proud of the salad. Because you should be thankful that you have food at Thanksgiving instead of being hungry -- which doesn't actually explain what was good about the salad. He chides the judges to "be nice." Chef Tom asks how he spent his four hours and Carlos gets defensive.

Gail asks Marcel his opinion of his own dish. Marcel likes the idea but thinks he could have executed better. He'd poach it at a lower temperature, although it's hard to do that without a thermal immersion circulator. Chef Tom gripes that he doesn't need the fancy equipment. He observes that "cutting edge" means something different to Marcel than Carlos or Betty, and his idea was more advanced than the other dishes.

Gail asks Elia about the soup. Elia thinks the flavors were good. And that's it.

Gail moves on to Betty, asking if she was happy with her dish. Betty volunteers that it could have been a lot better, but she accepted the help of others on the brûlée step and she should have done it her way. She liked the textures and flavors, though. Chef Tom says that it was a pie filling and Betty agrees, still aggrieved. But no, Chef Tom means that it wasn't really a crème brûlée. Tony Bourdain asks how it was cutting edge. Betty confesses that her style is more comfort food. But shouldn't she show versatility? That's what she said in the GiantChainRestaurant challenge.

Chef Tom announces that the top two dishes were Elia's and Marcel's. Padma gives Tony Bourdain the final decision. He compliments Marcel's audacity but gives the win to Elia for her "flavorful" and "sensible" soup. Elia interviews her pleasure; she was happy with her flavors and the judges agreed. Chef Tom rains on her parade a little by observing that her soup wasn't really cutting edge, but it was well-executed. I think the judging tends to favor execution over conception; good food matters.

Chef Tom says they still have to decide who gets booted. He asks Betty to nominate someone, but she demurs. That's a question you don't want to look too eager to answer. Tony Bourdain prods that you have to be able to make that kind of decision in a leadership position. Michael volunteers; he nominates Carlos, whose salad was easy compared to all his hard work. Padma asks Carlos, and he admits Betty's dessert was "a little bit lacking." Padma brings it back to Betty, who proclaims, "Carlos is out! Gone!" Complete with thumb action. She explains that the salad was the weakest dish. She finds Marcel hard to work with, so she'd nominate him for that reason, but of Michael and Carlos, she chooses Carlos. Although there's probably not a person in the room who doesn't think her vote was payback. The chefs leave so the judges can deliberate.

In the back room, Betty announces, "Carlos threw me under the bus again!" If the judges make you choose someone, I don't think it counts as bus-tossing. Michael says the judges were "trying to get Betty to crack" and they wouldn't get to go until she did. Betty says that she chose Marcel and some of the chefs are surprised. She explains that she still thinks he's selfish. Er, no. He's full of himself, yes, but he's not selfish. Marcel points out that he helped her, but she never offered to help him. She says he didn't help set up the kitchen, but he argues that she didn't help set up his. Betty protests that she helps him "all the time." Marcel asks, "Did you ask me if I needed help today?" Betty starts to answer, and Marcel interrupts that "It's a yes-or-no question." I hate that. I think Marcel is basically right here, but I hate that particular tactic. Betty yells that it's not yes or no, and she's trying to answer, so shut up. Which is what I would be saying, although I hope without shifting into screaming harpy mode. The other chefs are enjoying the show. Betty reiterates that Marcel is "still selfish." Marcel sums up that Betty "is still a bitch." Which -- well, yeah. He hopes she goes home. Betty finally has the sense to shut up.

Back at the relative calm of the judges' table, they're trying to choose the worst of three bad entries. Tony Bourdain calls Michael's sides "inexplicable" but he seemed to believe in himself. He doesn't see why Carlos picked the salad; Gail condemns him for not trying. Padma brings up Betty. Gail recaps that Betty seemed to think she gave it her best (although Betty said she had execution problems) but that best isn't good enough for this level of competition. Chef Tom isn't impressed with her "comfort food" excuse; he does comfort food, too.

The chefs return. I suspect Michael is safe. The judges liked at least some of his food, and he really made an effort. Betty has a couple of wins under her belt. That leaves Carlos. Chef Tom complains that nothing was good. He dings Michael for a bad concept, Carlos for not trying and Betty for not stretching. Carlos gets the boot. On the way out, Michael shakes Tony Bourdain's hand and gets some pithy advice: "Focus, dude." Let's hope it does some good.

Carlos makes his goodbyes in the back. He laments that he's leaving so early, when he still had a few tricks left. Next time, put them into play instead of leaving them up your sleeve.

Right winner? While Elia's soup wasn't cutting edge, at least it wasn't a stereotypical Thanksgiving dish. And it was actually good. Marcel's dish, while creative, was not. So I think it's a fair decision.

Right loser? Betty is losing ground fast, but she still has some momentum. Michael attempted a lot and occasionally succeeded. I'm surprised he's still hanging in there, but he has shown signs of improvement lately. Carlos, sadly, got tripped up by the math. If you're in the middle of a five-member pack, you're still in the bottom three. If you want to stay in the middle of the remaining field, you have to aim for the top of the five-member pack. I really don't like for the whole "lie low and play it safe" strategy. The judges don't care about the strategy; they care about the food. And they want to be impressed. Nobody thinks of a Top Chef as someone who just gets by. A Top Chef flaunts his stuff. And if he occasionally overreaches, well, it happens. I think the judges would rather see you fail with ambition than succeed with mediocrity, which is how Marcel landed in the top. (Elia succeeded with something better than mediocrity.) As far as Michael's fear that frontrunners are targets, that's not how it's playing out. No one is going after Sam or Cliff, perhaps because they are so strong. The weaker members of the herd are trying to pick each other off.

So Carlos deserved to go, but he takes with him a large measure of the group's remaining sanity. Of the frontrunners, only Cliff is steering clear of the drama (so far). Ilan seems mostly content to watch and laugh, although he was stirring up trouble with Marcel's business card. Sadly, Sam decided to wind up Frank and aim him at Marcel, which was a rather nasty bit of meddling. Frank is quite capable of winding himself up, thank you very much. I don't think his threat to Marcel was a good example of his anger management issues (he seemed rather too mellow at the time), but I'm convinced he has anger management issues. Marcel is doing his own instigating, such as bragging how he threw people's stuff on the floor. If it were really just about the cooking, he would have complained about the damage to his schedule instead. Mia is naming names in front of the judges and then pretending it never happened. Elia fluctuates between bouts of having her head screwed on straight and bouts of sheer screwiness. Michael has clearly overindulged in the available intoxicants. And then there's Betty. I don't think she's two-faced or hypocritical; I think she has no sense of moderation. If she's in a good mood, it's morning smoochies for everyone. If she's in a bad mood, it's screeches of "Off with his head!" I suspect she was trained as a stage actress, because she projects like she's playing to the peanut gallery.

Last season, it was pretty much just Stephen, Dave and Tiffani bringing the drama. And yeah, they were all seriously dysfunctional, but they were passionate about their food. This bunch? I'm not getting the passion. They're just dysfunctional. Isn't that what we have families for?

Sunday, November 19, 2006


Variety Show

Previously on Top Chef: People other than Marcel got screen time and I found them annoying. The chefs had to make a low-calorie meal for kids at the unfortunately-named Camp Glucose. Nutritionists monitored the menu creation. Betty's cookies biffed, so she started over. Cliff hoped everyone was abiding by the honor system. Frank's team offered pizza, a winning strategy. Sam wouldn't say if people cheated, but Mia would. Betty confessed to adding extra sugar and misunderstanding the rules. Chef Tom grumped that no one would get the boot.

Chefs eating breakfast. Marcel cheerfully interviews that he was full of emotional distress over the tainted win. Frank consoles the others that everyone gets to keep competing. Betty reiterates that she made a mistake but didn't cheat. Josie interviews that it was sad to hear about all the backstabbing at the judges' table. She declares that she and Marisa are the only ones who trust each other. I suppose she could have asked everybody who they trusted, and then found that no one named the people who trusted them, but I suspect she just made an assumption. The chefs head out.

QuickFire challenge: Padma introduces Michelle Bernstein, chef/owner of Michy's and consulting chef for Social. Carlos gest the "ooh, aah" interview since they're both from Florida. The challenge theme for the show is leftovers. Padma reveals a table full of offal, more kindly known as "variety meats." She claims they're the leftover parts of the animal after butchering, but some people go for those parts first, so "leftover" is kind of a stretch. Chef Michelle points out that they're a hard sell, and many require long cooking times. Padma gives them two hours to prepare their food. Josie helpfully interviews that "oh-full" are the parts that no one wants to use, and they regularly appear on fine-dining menus. So that's not exactly "no one," is it?

And go! Sam is psyched. Mia recognizes that two hours is not a lot of time for pigs' feet. So why did she pick them? Betty observes that Marcel's choice of pigs' blood is consistent with his vampiric appearance. Only if his teeth are as pointy as his widow's peak. The editors flash Marcel in a negative black-and-white image. Still not looking that vampiric. Cliff is sticking with the familiar, but time is once again tight. Elia uses kidneys and sweetbreads, which are common in French cooking. She helpfully illustrates the glands which make up sweetbreads. Carlos interviews that many of the cuts are tough, and require long periods of soaking or braising. Michael tells us once again that he really can too cook. He interviews that he'll be "upset" if he loses the QuickFire; even though he hasn't worked much with these ingredients, he knows what flavors go together. Betty hunts for garlic. Hmmm, perhaps she should ask Marcel. Ilan interviews that "lots of people" were stressed.

Overall, Chef Michelle was pleased with the taste and innovation. Josie gets dinged for unchewable oxtail. She interviews that it's her first time being singled out in the bottom and "I didn't realize how comfortable the middle was." Elia gets dinged for not soaking her kidneys or making a sauce. Elia is indignant about the sauce criticism -- she tries to feature the flavors of her ingredients, not hide them. But her statement that she prepares ingredients to bring out their best flavor is belied by her failure to soak the kidneys. On the plus side: Cliff did a good job with his oxtail, Sam was innovative and Ilan had "beautiful" flavors. Chef Michelle gives the win to Sam for his ideas. Sam interviews that he just nailed the challenge.

Padma leaves them dangling -- they'll find out about the Elimination challenge "bright and early" the next morning at Social. So, it's morning and they all file into the giant ballroom at Social. Despite it being bright and early, Padma and Chef Michelle are dressed for the big occasion. The challenge: prepare a six-course lunch for Jennifer Coolidge and 60 of her closest friends. Josie chortles over Jennifer Coolidge. Michael reveals that he has "always wanted to meet Stifler's mom." Of course he has. She won't be a judge, though. Padma tells them that they can only use what they find in the kitchen. Cliff recaps the challenge for those of you who are still thinking "Stifler's mom!"

Chef Tom throws out yet another twist: they have to pair off. Everyone starts looking around. Betty interviews that Mia was standing next to her, so they teamed up. I so want to be at Betty's viewing party right now. Marisa elucidates that she was "really shocked" by Mia getting all pal-sy with Betty. Cliff and Sam are also adjacent, so they reach a quick agreement. Marcel interviews that he was looking around when Frank (standing next to him -- I detect a theme) asked to team up. He compares the situation to being asked "to go on prom" with someone you don't really care for. Now I'm wondering where Marcel is from. Cliff points out Ilan and Michael as an odd pair. Ilan interviews that he gets along fine with Michael and was "excited" to work with him. He thinks they'll have some cool ideas.

The knife block comes out so the teams can choose courses:

  1. Frank & Marcel
  2. Cliff & Sam
  3. Ilan & Michael
  4. Betty & Mia
  5. Josie & Marisa
  6. Carlos & Elia

Chef Michelle has a final fillip: the winner will work with her on the South Beach Food & Wine Festival. Marcel helpfully explains the signficance of the prize (networking/advertising/self-promotion). They get 3 hours to cook and 20 minutes to plate. Chef Tom will be playing kitchen monitor.

In the kitchen, Betty tries to get everyone to talk menu. Mia recaps, explaining that she and Betty were making the effort, but the others blew them off to examine the contents of the walk-in refrigerator. Sam recaps the chaos in the walk-in. Marcel suggests beets and salmons and maybe candied walnuts. Ilan interviews that the place was really well-stocked, so it wasn't just leftovers from the previous night's dinner service. Betty interviews that she and Mia decided to do napoleons for a nice presentation.

Marcel tries to convince Frank to "keep it simple." They decide on salmon tartare. Marcel interviews that he was getting out his knives when Frank started "butchering" the fish. Frank interviews that he has carved more fish in his "vast experience" than all these whipper-snappers put together, so he was the right guy for the job. Cut to Chef Tom's look of consternation.

More chopping. Cliff reveals that he and Sam are using scallops and foie gras. He teases Sam about coasting on his immunity. Sam interviews that he and Cliff are both "workhorses" and Cliff knows immunity won't change his cooking.

Chef Tom checks on Ilan and Michael, who have come up with paella baked in individual dishes. Ilan interviews about how paella gets crusty on the bottom because it doesn't get stirred much. He explains to Chef Tom how they're going to use partially cooked risotto. Interviewing some more, Ilan says Michael came up with just as many ideas, and his cooking is more "refined" since the contest started.

Chef Tom asks Mia about her duck preparation; she wants to keep it simple. She interviews that they're doing a variation on the napoleon with "pan-seared duck breast" and green beans. Michael demonstrates some actual cooking expertise by questioning Betty and Mia's timing with the duck; it's traditionally served rare, but they're cooking it early and then they're going to have to heat it before serving, so rare seems unlikely.

Josie and Marisa propose a trio of "palate cleansers," including an apple/fennel salad, sauteed pineapple salad and then a fruit salad. Cliff interviews that their "intermezzo" was inconsistent with the typical fifth course of a protein (specifically, the entree).

Elia describes their chilled pomegranate juice with mint, first to Chef Tom and then in an interview.

Chef Tom briefly turns his back on the work (quick, everyone cheat!) to review. He doesn't think they've all conferred about the courses, so they're missing the big picture. He's not sure what's up with Betty and Mia's pastry thing; napoleons are normally a dessert, layered and creamy. Also, some of the courses will be tricky to plate. Both course 5 (Josie and Marisa) and course 6 (Carlos and Elia) are trios of small items. He expects to see some angst in about an hour as people realize what they've taken on.

Marcel and Frank aren't agreeing on the tartare flavors. Marcel suggests that they each make a sample. He interviews that Frank had some "gnarly" ideas for the sauce. At the tasting, Frank agrees that Marcel's is good and subtle, but he likes his own better. Frank recaps the action. Cliff gets summoned and decides in Marcel's favor; Frank's is too oily. Frank is a little miffed. Marcel interviews that Cliff had an "easy" choice to prefer his, and now Frank is disappointed he won't get to put his stamp on their dish.

Marisa discovers that Carlos and Elia are putting a drink in a shot glass, which she and Josie were also planning to do (using cucumber and prickly pear rather than pomegranate juice). Marisa recaps in an interview and then confides in Josie. The course five team blinks and changes to a coconut/lime/prickly pear drink served in Chinese soup spoons. Oh, lordy, not the friggin' soup spoons again.

Time ticks away as people work. Marisa elucidates that cohesion was lacking, although they were getting things done. The guests begin to arrive. Marcel interviews that everyone was running around frantically while his service was "very regimented." Jennifer Coolidge drops in briefly to thank them all for cooking.

The usual judges and Chef Michelle are joined at the table by Joseph Ojeda, the executive chef at Social. Marisa recaps the challenge for those of you just tuning in. Frank and Marcel have a little assembly line going for their plates. Chef Tom has to eat in the kitchen, since he's still playing knuckle-rapper. Marcel interviews that, with the first course, they had the opportunity to set the pace of the meal, but I think the 20-minute plating limit will do that.

The chefs all emerge to receive the guests' applause. Jennifer Coolidge thanks Social for hosting and the chefs for cooking. She doesn't have anything to do with the judging (rightly so, she explains) but she wishes them all luck. Betty and Ilan are both happy with the day's work. Back in the kitchen, the chefs raise wine glasses and Marcel proposes a toast to the winner, whomever that might be.

Judges' table. Gail feels the results were mixed. Chef Tom observes that the kitchen was pretty well stocked, so the chefs got off easy. Chef Michelle blows her own kitchen's horn of plenty. Chef Tom points out that no one used the baby purple artichokes or sea bass or duck confit. Chef Michelle says these are featured on the Social menu, so she's feeling snubbed. Gail and Padma both think the chefs should have been more impressive. Chef Tom thinks people are playing not to lose rather than playing to win. He points out that they obviously didn't work together on the menu. Chef Michelle found some lovely things, but she was shocked to the point of anger by other things. Chef Tom doesn't want two or three things; he wants one good thing. For a six-course meal, I agree. There's enough variety in the meal that you don't need to add more variety within each course. Gail nominates the paella as an example of what Chef Tom was looking for and Chef Michelle agrees. Gail brings up Cliff and Sam's dish, which Chef Michelle found "beautiful."

The top two teams -- Ilan & Michael, Cliff & Sam -- are summoned. Chef Tom wants to hear about the scallops and foie gras. Sam explains that both ingredients have a creaminess that they thought would blend. Gail compliments their cooking. Chef Tom would have liked to see the two elements combined into a single dish, but overall, it was a good job. Padma asks about the paella. Michael explains how Ilan spotted the crabs and he spotted the risotto. Chef Michelle asks how the Spanish angle came in, and Ilan volunteers that he works in a Spanish restaurant. Chef Michelle talks about the crispy outside/tender inside textures, comparing them to a crème brulée. Both teams did well, but the paella takes the top prize. Chef Tom asks Michael how it feels to be with the winner for a change. Michael stoners that Sam urged him to strut his stuff instead of playing it safe. Chef Michelle awards the prize to Ilan, since he had the greater influence on the dish's direction. Ilan does the usual "yay, I'm so happy and proud" interview.

Padma wants to see Betty & Marisa, Carlos & Elia and Josie & Marisa. That leaves Frank & Marcel as the also-rans. Chef Tom asks Betty and Mia if they were happy with their dish. Mia says she was so proud, she cried after serving. Chef Tom gives them a big hint when he asks, "If you could have taken one thing off that dish, what would it have been?" Betty and Mia both volunteer the pastry. Chef Tom is cranky because the pastry wasn't brown and the duck was overcooked. "Could have been good, wasn't," he sums up.

Josie and Marisa's turn. Marisa explains that they both jumped onto the intermezzo idea. Padma asks who paired the coconut and prickly pear, and they say it was a joint decision. The chefs try to figure out the thought process and Marisa explains that they looked over the available ingredients first and decided what they could do. Chef Michelle asked if the soup reminded them of anything. "Pepto-Bismol, maybe?" Josie chuckles. Chef Michelle isn't smiling. Gail asks about the trio idea. Marisa said they discussed doing a salad or cheese, but they wanted to do more. Gail asks if she thought the three dishes went together, and Marisa points out that they all had citrus components. Josie says she serves a fennel salad at her restaurant; this one was "water-logged, and that was a mistake." Chef Michelle asks about the pineapple salad with feta. Marisa says they wanted something with a little cheese. Chef Tom asks if they thought they would stand out, and Josie says they thought it would cleanse the palate.

Gail asks Carlos and Elia who made the drink, and Carlos steps up. Chef Tom asks if he tasted the juice and Carlos looks dumbfounded. Chef Michelle explains that it tasted like it sat out for a day or two and was put back. Chef Tom asks about the three dishes. Carlos explains that they wanted to intrigue rather than overwhelm. But too many things can be overwhelming, too. Chef Tom again brings up the point of concentrating on one really good thing instead of three things where maybe only one is good. Carlos thought they were all good. Gail points out that the three dishes weren't related in any way, and Elia admits that was a mistake.

Chef Tom rants about problems not being fixed. If it looks like Pepto-Bismol, fix it. If the pastry doesn't belong, get rid of it. If the juice doesn't taste right, do something about it. I don't see how Carlos and Elia could have made that drink without tasting it, since it was a blend, so I can't explain how they didn't notice the flavor problem. Chef Tom sends them away while the judges deliberate.

Chef Michelle rehashes the "don't serve it if it's bad" argument. Chef Tom grumps some more about bad choices. Mia stood back and let the pastry go through even though she disagreed with it. Carlos and Elia were happy with their juice, which Chef Michelle pronounces unacceptable. Gail says some dishes have redeeming qualities, but some don't. Gail is kind of upset that Josie and Marisa didn't actually cook anything. Well, I think the pineapple was sautéed. She continues that the course lacked focus. Chef Tom wants to know more about the decision-making; they're "banding together" but "one person's responsible." I don't see how. They're both on the team; they're both responsible. Is Betty the "one person responsible" for the pastry for pushing it? Or is Mia the "one person responsible" because she didn't veto it?

[Marcel walks away with the "most annoying" vote with 60%. I wonder how he'd hold up against Josie and Marisa, though. I don't know how Elia wound up in that poll.]

The chefs return. Chef Tom talks about choices some more. Betty and Mia chose presentation over flavor. Carlos and Elia chose to scatter their focus over three unconnected dishes instead of doing one thing well. Josie and Marisa had three hours, but didn't cook anything. "That was the downfall," he pronounces. Padma boots both Marisa and Josie. Mia is shocked. Josie acknowledges that she made mistakes; Marisa rehashes the lesson and calls the experience "challenging" and "educational." Elia interviews that it was a shock to see them both leave, especially since Josie wanted to "go all the way." And Marisa didn't? All the other chefs look to be taking it pretty hard.

Josie grumps that she got booted on her first appearance in the bottom; how could they boot someone with so much talent? But she said herself earlier, she was in the middle. If she wants to claim talent as a mitigating factor, she needs to show some. Marisa would certainly do it again, but she'd make some different choices. Josie is still griping about how talented she is, and it's hard being booted for making a mistake. But competition -- any competition -- isn't just about being talented; it's about executing without making mistakes. If talent alone were enough, Michelle Kwan would be an Olympic gold medalist. (If you're confused: she's a figure skater.)

Right winner? Ilan and Michael provided a better example of teamwork. Ilan probably had more to do with the final flavors and he had an impressive showing in the QuickFire challenge, so he takes the top prize. Sam and Cliff are pretty much the front runners at this point. Their ability to work together speaks well of their professionalism, too. Ilan has been a little bit uneven, and he's one of the youngest competitors, but he's looking like he might contend. Michael actually justified his presence on the show. That pretty much counts as a victory for him.

Right losers? I think Betty and Mia were pretty safe. Their dish was misguided in presentation, but no one said it was actually bad. I'm not sure why Carlos and Elia didn't get the boot, though. It seems like the judges become stronger and more hardened in their positions the more they talk about things, so maybe the pomegranate juice wasn't actually about to send everyone to the hospital in wretched (or retching) distress, but that sounded like a serious mistake. Maybe the other parts of their dessert were quite acceptable, so they got credit for having two out of three good items. Josie and Marisa got dinged for the appearance of their coconut/prickly pear soup and Josie admitted the apple/fennel salad wasn't stellar, so that's two disappointments. The idea complaint about not actually cooking seems kind of silly, though. If they're blending flavors, they're cooking, even if nothing gets hot. But perhaps the judges felt they didn't put much effort into their entry and felt dissed. Or maybe they were just cranky from extreme hunger, and took it out on the people who should have served up an entree.

I'm fine with the judges' decision; I just wish I understood it better. But I didn't see either Josie or Marisa as better than middle of the pack. Of course, Carlos and Elia aren't top contenders, either. But Carlos is a nice guy -- I expect he'll be happy with the good opinion of his peers -- and Elia has hit some high points in between her occasional inexplicable lapses, so I'd like to keep them around a bit longer.

Monday, November 13, 2006


Something from Nothing

Previously on Top Chef: The chefs had to create an entree for GiantChainRestaurant. Emily grumped. Michael was delusional. Gail found Emily's surf 'n' turf amazingly salty. Marcel irritated Betty, who told him off. Betty won, and screamed. Loud. Michael shadowboxed and got verbally beat up by Chef Tom for his sloppy attitude and food. Emily got the boot.

Wakey-wakey shots. Betty sits on Mia's bed to chat; Mia feels the need to do better. Betty's riding high on two challenge wins. Michael wants to sleep some more. He's not feeling so good, and his feelings are hurt from the last challenge. Let's see if this inspires him to buckle down and do better. He attempts to find comfort from his wife's underwear. Ilan uses some flip-flops as clappers to try to rouse Michael from the couch.

QuickFire challenge: The guest judge is Suzanne Goin of Lucques and A.O.C. Sam does the "ooh, aah" interview. Padma assigns an amuse bouche. Chef Suzanne explains she wants something that makes her want more. Padma leads them out to go shopping. Marcel interviews about the possibilities, like a nice little oyster dish. However, Padma only leads them to a back corridor, where they find vending machines. Each chef has $10 in quarters to buy up to 2 items per machine. There's a soda machine, a packaged snack machine and a machine with relatively healthy stuff like sandwiches and fruit. Sam calls the challenge "madness." Josie haw-haws that vending machine items are just what they need to impress Suzanne Goin (who is known for fresh, organic ingredients). Cliff interviews that everyone gave Michael the edge; apparently he can challenge Chunk Le Funk in junk food mastery. Carlos claims actual vending machine dining experience; he manages to find some stuff that sounds like real food. Marcel is stumped -- no oysters. But he spots a few items. Michael gripes that he was the last to go, so other people got to his ideas first. It's not illegal to make the same dish; just make yours better. He totally punts.

Padma sends them off for 30 minutes of cooking. Carlos voiceovers that the time limit doesn't leave room for error. Marisa has chicken Caesar salad, potato chips, trail mix and an apple. She's trying to infuse her dish with as much aesthetic and flavor quality as possible. Her interviews seem to take the "must add quality" angle, too; she's kinda stuffy. Frank is enjoying the oddball challenge; he goes after every challenge with the same attack. Much racing around and bumping and chopping ensues. Marcel narrates his notion of an amuse bouche; he prefers to go sweet rather than savory. Michael gripes about the "stupid" challenge. So much for this being right up his alley. Carlos interviews that Michael's concoction "was the most phallic thing I've ever seen in my life." It's a cheeto sitting upright in a wad of goop. Ilan observes that some people have rather big portions; an amuse bouche should just be a mouthful.

Padma asks for a summary. Chef Suzanne was impressed with some of the presentations. The bad news first: Chef Suzanne liked Mia's dish, but it missed the amuse bouche target, and she has the feeling that Michael didn't care. Well, he certainly didn't care enough to put much thought or effort into the challenge. Chef Suzanne figures no one kidnapped him and forced him to be on the show. She can't tell if he's really not trying or if he's trying to be some kind of "cavalier" cool guy who can't be seen to care, but she's not impressed. Michael claims that he just drew a blank. Chef Suzanne points out that everyone else managed to think of something. Michael mumbles inarticulately. My theory: someone (perhaps the producers, perhaps trashy Euroterrorists from a Vin Diesel movie) kidnapped Michael's wife (sending him her panties as proof) and they're threatening to harm her if he ever once drops the stooge persona and acts like a grown-up. Because otherwise, I can't explain someone going to this much trouble to demonstrate his complete and utter doofishness.

The good news: Frank gets a nod for his elevated product and his use of basil. Carlos gets a nod for his innovation. Ilan gets a nod for taste with his fried salami, although he should have skipped the pear nectar. And the winner is: Carlos. Cheers and clapping. He interviews that winning is better than having immunity. Well, until you actually need immunity, I suppose.

Elimination challenge: The knife block comes out and the chefs divide into four teams of three:

Marcel interviews that he wound up on a team with his "archnemesis," as if he really were a comic book superhero and not just styling his hair like one. Betty admits that it was "childish" of her to chew out Marcel, but he's still a "noodge." Well, that bodes well for Team Black.

Padma lays out the challenge: each team must create an entree, side dish and dessert that total to less than 500 calories. Betty does the "ooh, this is hard!" interview. Ilan explains that he doesn't like to be restricted when he cooks. Boy, is he on the wrong show. But there's more. This is not, in fact, a challenge for MajorLineOfDietFood. They're cooking for kids at Camp Glucose, which is not the worst name for a summer camp ever, but it's up there.

Off to shop: $100 and 30 minutes. Sam confesses to being a diabetic, so he's used to cooking this way. Cliff interviews that having Sam on his team is an advantage. Even without the diabetic leg up, Team Orange looks to be the strongest contender. Sam warns that their choice of turkey is a risk because it dries out easily due to lack of fat.

Marcel is thinking asparagus wrapped in a "minute amount" of prosciutto. Flashback! Betty asks if he would have eaten asparagus when he was a kid. We don't hear the answer, but I think it might be a yes. Betty promotes pizza. She interviews that she's childless, but she knows kids love pizza. If we ever have to do another Declaration of Independence, we can add that to all the other Universal Truths. Marcel points out turkey sausage, and Frank and Betty go for it. Marcel interviews that this is a competition about food, not feelings, so it sounds like he's going to be a team player. Good for him. (I suspect the reaction from the producers was a bit different.)

Everyone finishes shopping and head back to the kitchen to find visitors waiting. Elia explains that these are nutritionists (one per team), who will monitor the calories. Josie continues: the nutritionist will observe the cooking and sign off on the recipes, and the teams will not be able to deviate from those recipes. So they're not actually doing the meal prep today; they're designing their meals. That must have complicated the shopping. Team White learns that a cup of olive oil has 1909 calories. It looks like they're calculating the calories going into the meals -- but cooking would presumably alter the calorie count, so that doesn't necessarily equate to calories consumed. Josie interviews that everyone was thinking olive oil would be better than butter, but with that many calories, they might want to use butter after all. Hey, healthy food is not just about calories.

Mia interviews that she's feeling good as team leader. She thinks "Mikey" could be "the wild card," since he actually went to a fine culinary program. Who'da thunk it? It would be nice to see some of that culinary training for a change. She thinks they're both motivated after being in the bottom of the QuickFire challenge.

Marisa learns that her dessert will have about 120 calories before frosting or garnish. She elucidates that she wanted to make a chocolate fudge cake, which often has 500 calories all by itself.

Carlos tells the nutritionist that he'll wait until she's there to start mixing. He interviews that it was like having a "dietary Nazi." Can't we have tyrants and despots without dragging failed socio-political theories into it?

Betty asks about egg whites: about 20 calories. Marcel voiceovers that each team can divvy up the calories however they want between the three elements of the meal. Frank agrees to one ounce of cheese per pizza. He interviews that the nutritionist was doubtful about the low-calorie pizza, but Frank is counting on his Italian heritage to give the pizza a lot of flavor. Betty plans on making meringues (aka pavlovas), which are essentially egg whites and sugar. She has a ton of egg whites in the blender and they're just not firming up properly. Marisa elucidates that Betty was using Splenda instead of sugar, and baking is an exact science.

Chef Tom comes through with 40 minutes left on the clock. It's not clear how much time they had for menu development, but probably not more than 2-3 hours, based on previous challenges. Team Red has chocolate cake. Marisa is using beets to keep it moist and bring out the chocolate. Probably not an ingredient they'll be listing on their menu, which also has barbeque chicken skewers, coleslaw and grilled vegetables. The nutritionist puts them at 480 calories. Chef Tom samples the cake. Michael interviews that he's feeling confident, what with the cake and all, and he wants to win because he has "a little bit to prove." It wouldn't take winning. Just trying would do the job.

Chef Tom is excited about Team Black's pizza. He wants to know how they'll explain the pavlova to the kids; Betty is just calling it a "peanut butter/chocolate crispy cookie" topped with banana. The full menu has sausage & cheese pizza, melon & berry skewers, a "crispy cookie" and mixed berry lemonade. The calorie count is 440.

Team White has chicken parmesan, veggie lasagna and berry cheesecake pie. Josie seems to think chicken parmesan is a kid magnet. Maybe if you cut it into nuggets. They're using oat bran to substitute for bread crumbs, but they haven't cooked the chicken that we see, so I have to wonder if they know how it will taste. And they have the pie, which has granola and yogurt and sour cream. Chef Tom wants to know why they expect kids to go for the pie; Elia explains that she loves pie. Chef Tom asks if she's a big kid, and she admits to it "in some ways." Like with the little fishies. They're at 398 calories. Ilan interviews that he and the team are confident because they came in so low. I'm not sure that's really the point, though.

The Team Orange menu is spiced turkey meatballs, roasted corn on the cob and a summer fruit smoothie for dessert. Those meatballs look awfully big. I'd make them bite-sized for kids' mouths, so no cutting required. Carlos explains it all to Chef Tom, who wonders how they're going to compete against chocolate cake, pie and cookies. Sam explains that they're being healthy. Chef Tom explains back that they need to appeal to their customers. Carlos gets a little evangelical about learning to live the healthy lifestyle and learning to pass up chocolate cake for fruit smoothies. Yeah, but if you can get chocolate cake with your meal and stay under 500 calories, what's so bad about chocolate cake? Carlos estimates they're at 450 calories, and the nutritionist announces is 454. So, good guess.

Chef Tom leaves everyone to twiddle their thumbs or whatever for the last 17 minutes. Marcel interviews that he's feeling good about the entree and the side dish, but the dessert is questionable. Maybe they could call the lemonade the dessert and pretend the cookies got lost. Betty interviews that pavlovas weren't the best idea, because they have to sit in the oven overnight to develop their crispiness. Marcel recaps: Betty's dish is failing, so Betty is failing. He's sure she'll throw him under the bus if the team loses. I don't see how she can sell him out without Frank's cooperation, though.

Morning. People get ready. Betty asks if she's the only one who has packed her bags in anticipation of the judges' table. She interviews that she really doesn't want to get booted. In the common area, she kisses Cliff and Michael good morning. She offers a kiss to Marcel, who accepts. So they're really, really trying to be team players. Marcel interviews that if they lose, he'll be disappointed in his teammates, and there's nothing worse than having your teammates let you down. So he's assuming that whatever screw-up leads to their prospective failure won't be his fault. Michael gives another "I'm confident" interview. He reiterates that he really wants to be in the competition and he really wants to win. Less tell, more show, dude.

Mia recaps the 500 calorie challenge as the chefs return to the kitchen. Cooking ensues. Betty describes how she had to start over with her cookies. Josie interviews again on the "signed-off" menus. So far, she's the only person to talk about this angle. Cliff interviews that they're assuming everyone will abide by the honor system in the absence of the nutritionists "but you never know." Well, this is stupid. If you make a rule, you should enforce the rule. Sam interviews that he saw bottles of olive oil on the line, and "hands" would squeeze out olive oil wherever they wanted. Carlos interviews that Betty's cookies are now smaller and have a different consistency. Betty describes her changes: she had too many egg whites in the mixer bowl, so she removed some and then added two tablespoons of sugar. From the information she got from the nutritionist, she's sure she's in the 500 calorie limit. Everyone packs up and the convoy of product-placed vehicles heads out to Camp Glucose.

Padma greets the contestants and introduces the usual suspects on the judging panel. Suzanne Goin is still guest judge. Each team will have one member present the menu, and then the kids will order. The judges will check with the diners to see what they thought. The teams set up. Betty is psyched about the pizza, and Ilan is psyched about the cheesecake, and Sam thinks kids like meatballs. Mia decides to let "Mikey" present the menu, since he's basically a big kid. Well, he's immature, but I'm not getting that kid-like sense of fun and imagination from him. The kids show up. Elia interviews that she was happy to have an opportunity to give them "yummy" food that still fits within their diet. The kids look over printed menus.

Frank introduces the Team Black menu. His manner is cheerful but straightforward, which I like. One kid asks if they get both pizza and lemonade, and Frank confirms they get everything he mentioned. Josie handles the Team White presentation. She starts off saying how no one likes to eat vegetables, but you have to because they're healthy. Way to make a healthy diet sound like a misery. Shut up, Josie. She uses this revved-up voice that tries to spark some enthusiasm, but the kids look bored. Never get fake with kids. Carlos gets some enthusiasm from the crowd. He points out that Sam is a diabetic and Clifford has a "physical fitness background" so they know about counting calories. His manner is gregarious but his speech is pretty matter-of-fact. Michael does his "big kid" act, saying "like" a lot, along with "awesome" and "rock-n-roll." In the end, it doesn't seem to be resonating with the crowd. Here's the thing: kids know you're an adult, they expect you to act like an adult, they find it embarrassing if you try to act like a kid. Treat them more or less like adults -- give them the information they need in a friendly, helpful manner and don't bother trying to convince them that you're cool. Trying to be cool is not cool.

Time to take orders. Team Red has 5 customers, Team Orange and Team White each have 7 customers, and Team Black has 15 orders for their pizza. Michael grumbles, "That better be some damn good pizza." Carlos laments that he thought he had a good presentation, but the kids were all blinded by visions of pizza. The chefs scurry off to plate and serve. The judges eat at a separate table. One of the girls is ready to "marry the hot diabetic over there." The Sexy Sam angle never gets old.

After the meal, the judges visit the tables to get comments. One camper liked the chicken parmesan; the lasagna was good, but strange. The cole slaw gets a thumbs down. The pizza gets a nod for not being greasy. One boy volunteers that the smoothie was sour; another boy diagnoses the problem as too much grape and canteloupe. A third boy was expecting a thicker texture to the smoothie, and it was more like straight juice.

Now that work is done, it's time to play soccer. Marisa elucidates, "It was so nice getting to give these children an enjoyable but healthy meal, getting to play soccer with them." Glad you approve. Marcel kicks the ball and it smashes Ilan in the face -- no permanent damage, though. Elia recaps the event and laughs about it. Marcel goes over to help Ilan up.

Judges' Table. Padma likes the challenge -- it's easy to make food taste good if you don't care about making it healthy, but parents have to worry about nutrition. Gail asks Chef Suzanne for first impressions. She thinks some things were better than expected, but others were disappointing. The meatballs looked good, but turned out to be hard. Chef Tom found some things too salty and others sadly underseasoned. Everyone agrees the cole slaw was bland. Chef Tom thought the chocolate cake would entice more orders. Gail wants to focus on the positives now. Chef Suzanne observes that all the judges finished the pizza; Chef Tom thought it was a very smart choice. Chef Suzanne thinks the cheesecake was the best dish. Gail didn't think Team White's menu was balanced, but she was happy with the way the chicken was cooked.

Padma summons Team Black: Betty, Frank and Marcel. They're all very tense until Padma gives them the win. Chef Suzanne singles out the pizza, which was Frank's dish. She awards the win to Frank, for the pizza and also for his QuickFire performance; he gets a copy of her cookbook and the opportunity to collaborate on one of her Sunday Suppers at Lucques. Frank interviews that the win made him tingly all over.

Frank performs the chore of calling up Team Orange and Team Red. I'm sure they announced his win and he got his congratulations, but they just skipped it. Padma lets the two teams know they're at the bottom. She asks Mia why her team did badly. Mia doesn't understand their placement; their chicken was moist and tasty. Chef Tom asks about the cole slaw; it was a team effort. Gail explains their disappointment in that component. Chef Tom asks about having Michael make the pitch. Marisa explains that Michael wanted to show his commitment to the competition. Chef Tom asks Michael why the judges think he's not bringing it. Michael blames it on a bad couple of days, he's missing his wife, he just drew a blank on the QuickFire challenge. Mia interjects that she didn't like Chef Suzanne criticizing Michael's attitude because she knows that he does care. Chef Suzanne points out that she said he acted like he didn't care (regardless of whether he cared or not) and that's not how he should present himself.

Padma asks Sam about the Team Orange leadership; he says he was the leader. Chef Tom asks if they tasted the meatballs. Carlos says he thought the seasoning and sauce were good. Chef Tom is fine with the seasoning, but the texture was a problem. Cliff concedes that turkey was the wrong choice. Given the calorie constraints, turkey was a fine choice, but they needed to fix the preparation to keep it moist. I still think smaller meatballs would have helped. Gail asks about the fruit in the smoothie. Sam picked that out. Gail wonders if he thought about grapes being too sour. Well, no, since he put them in there, but they strained the mixture after tasting it, so apparently they realized there was a problem. Chef Suzanne asks about adding yogurt, but they all say they weren't allowed to change the recipe on the second day. So they only tasted the smoothie on the second day? What's up with that? Why couldn't they taste it on the first day and make adjustments while the nutritionist was still on hand?

Sam brings up the bottles of olive oil. Chef Suzanne wants to know, does he mean people were cheating? Sam's not willing to say that, because maybe people had accounted for the oil when the nutritionists were there, but it seemed carelessly applied. He goes on to say that problems that cropped up the previous day were "miraculously" fixed. Well, as the judges like to remind us, chefs are supposed to fix problems with their food before they serve it. Gail wants to know what these problems were, but Sam says, "I'm not that guy." You brought it up, you most certainly are that guy. If you bring it up, you better be willing to talk about it. Mia volunteers to "go there." She says she believes that the meringue cookies were made with all sugar and the Splenda was eliminated on the second day. Which is not what Betty described. The judges send them away so they can try to make a decision.

Chef Tom doesn't like Sam pointing fingers this late in the game. He's pretty stumped. Gail is annoyed that the chefs aren't giving up details about these accusations. Chef Tom thinks you should call out any possible violations when they occur. Chef Tom asks Chef Suzanne for her take; she'd rather not send anyone home. I see her point. It's like finding out the ballot boxes were stuffed. You can't just recount the votes; the whole challenge is compromised.

Chef Tom heads back to talk to the chefs. He recaps that accusations have been flying about extra olive oil and extra sugar. Betty looks interested. Chef Tom thinks people should be playing by the rules. Betty asks if they think people cheated on their ingredients. Sam recaps what he said about olive oil. Marcel protests that he doesn't know what they discussed with their nutritionists, which is what Sam said before the judges. Sam says he wasn't accusing anyone, but if Marcel's going to get defensive, perhaps there's something he'd like to say to Chef Tom now. Marcel says he's going to get defensive if Sam doesn't know what he's talking about. Carlos takes the opportunity to challenge Betty. She says she added two tablespoons of sugar, but she made the portions smaller and she knew she was still within the 500 calorie limit. Chef Tom points out that they were not supposed to stray from their official recipes; Betty says she must not have understood. Chef Tom wonders how that could happen, since everyone else understood. It's summer, so he hasn't seen Project Runway's Black and White challenge, when despite repeated statements that the outfit should include black and white fabric, Kayne made an all-black dress (not incidentally allowing Jeffrey to slip into the final four with his cheap-looking '80s video vixen outfit). Betty emphasizes that she wasn't acting with malice aforethought. Chef Tom believes her, but he doesn't see how she missed it. Carlos asks how they can be sure the adjusted recipe was within the guidelines, and Marcel says you have to use the information from the nutritionist. Carlos says, "Exactly." Except Betty had the necessary information from the nutritionist -- she didn't add any new ingredients, so she had the figures for the adjusted ingredients -- and after that, it's just basic arithmetic. Now, yes, it would be a good idea to get a disinterested party to certify the arithmetic, but figuring out the impact of the adjustment does not require a specialized degree.

Chef Tom puts an end to the back-and-forth: No one is getting the boot tonight, but they're all on notice. As warnings go, that wasn't very scary, and I think they need to be a little scared.

Elia recaps Betty's confession, which makes her think that Betty wasn't cheating. (Which is not the same thing as saying Betty didn't break the rules.) Back at the living quarters, the chefs get into it. Josie announces that her team was clean, so whatever was said had nothing to do with them. Also, if people are up in front of the judges throwing other people off (or under) the bus, they shouldn't come around making nice afterwards. Carlos tells Josie it's not about her. Cliff swigs some Pepto-Bismol. Mia says that only the people who were in the room can say what happened, and no one threw anyone under the bus. Except for Mia, who pointed the finger at Betty. Marisa voiceovers that she was "shocked" by Mia's hypocrisy in failing to 'fess up to Betty. I'm wondering if Marisa has any emotional states other than "pleased" and "shocked." Carlos tells Betty that he didn't throw her under the bus, he just wanted everything out in the open. Which is true -- Mia threw Betty under the bus and Carlos was giving Betty a chance to go on record. Ilan tries to put an end to it -- the rules weren't followed strictly, there were misunderstandings, but everyone should be happy they're all still in the competition. Josie thinks the whole winning team should have been disqualified, which means her team should have won. Betty leaves.

Well, that was fun. Did the judges at least pick the right winner? That depends on two things. First, does the challenge even have enough legitimacy to allow a winner? With accusations flying, is it safe to assume anyone is in the clear? If the accusations had come up ahead of time, I wouldn't have chosen a winner. But neither am I inclined to strip Frank of his victory after the fact. It seems unlikely he was throwing olive oil or sugar into his pizzas. Second, do you buy Josie's argument that the whole team should have been disqualified? If the whole team connived at the recipe change, then yes, but since Betty appeared to act alone, I don't think the whole team should be penalized. So in that case, Frank's pizza was the best dish on the menu and had the most to do with their win, so yes, that's the right choice.

Now then, should Betty have gotten the boot? We saw with the lychee incident that the judges were willing to let Otto stay if he admitted that he had made a mistake, since he had already taken steps to fix it. So mistakes do not require a booting. Betty clearly broke the rules. No one can prove that it wasn't a misunderstanding, so it gets ruled as a mistake. But if they wanted to boot her, they could certainly find grounds in the technical error. I believe the judges were reluctant to boot her because she broke the rules for the right reason: she was fixing her food. The one constant refrain is, if you find a problem with your food, fix it before you serve it. If you care at all about food -- which the judges clearly do -- it goes against the grain to penalize someone for doing that.

Should Sam have gotten the boot? He was certainly heading that way, with the rock-solid meatballs and the sour smoothie. If it weren't for CheaterGate, I think he would have been the one on the chopping block. I'm not terribly annoyed about the olive oil issue; he did say he didn't know if it was cheating, just that it looked bad. But when he went on to say that problems were "miraculously" fixed, he should have said what those problems were. Either talk about it or don't talk about it -- pick one.

So, did the judges make the right decision? If they can't make a determination about cheating, everything is up in the air. In that case, it's better to do nothing than make a mistake that can't be corrected.

It's pretty clear that the challenge was intrinsically flawed. First, it looked like the recipes were certified before they were completely cooked, let alone tasted, which gave the chefs no chance to make adjustments. If you're going to lecture contestants about fixing problems, you have to give them the opportunity to do so. Second, if you make a rule about following recipes, you need to enforce the rule. Maybe you have kitchen proctors, maybe you distribute premeasured ingredients and make sure everything gets used, but you have some way of telling whether the contestants followed the rule.

Should the challenge have been a kid challenge as well as a calorie challenge? I think people tend to be more careful about making healthy food for children. Grown-ups can always spend more time at the gym or eat salads for a week, but kids are pretty much stuck with what they're served. It's more complicated for the chefs, in that they have to pick something kid-friendly that can be low-calorie, but obviously it can be done. I do think they should have said something about whether the calorie count was a factor in the judging, because I think some teams went too far. Team White (chicken parmesan, veggie lasagna, berry cheesecake/pie) was over 100 calories below the limit. Kids at camp are active; while their calories might be restricted, I think they need all they're allotted. I'd rather see them try to get as close to 500 as possible, rather than skimp.

Final question(s): What's up with Mia? I had high hopes for her early on, but now she's throwing people under the bus and then proclaiming that no such thing happened. Well, then, what did happen? How did she not throw Betty under the bus? Between that and all her sour expressions, I'm not liking her any more. And what's up with championing Michael? Why is he a guy you want to risk your neck for? If he's happy to be there, let him act like it already.

Saturday, November 04, 2006


Everyday Eaters

Previously on Top Chef: Team Korea and Team Vietnam cooked for a charity event. LycheeGate! Chef Tom interrogated people. Betty schmoozed. Her customer service earned her the win. Marisa's custard had too much gelatin. Marcel and Marisa wanted Otto to go. Otto fell on his sword.

Frank snores. Loudly. Marcel throws his earplugs in an attempt to wake him up. Dude, if he keeps sleeping, you're going to want those. Plus, ear plugs? Very low impact. Marcel interviews that his specialty is molecular gastronomy. Second only to playing to the cameras. He strolls shirtless across the room and Frank throws back the covers. I'm really not seeing anything appealing here. Marcel has noticed that some of the other contestants don't have much experience. "Other"? His performance so far hasn't earned him any bragging rights.

Betty interviews that everyone has different strengths. She, Mia and "Mike" have led in the "comfort food" area, but Cliff, Sam, Ilan and Emily are the "fine dining" stars. Various people make breakfast. Around the table, Michael confides that he thought they'd get to sleep in late. He really has no idea what he signed up for here. He interviews that he's not threatened by the other chefs; he knows he makes good food. But he's trying to stay in the middle so he won't be a target for sabotage. Well, I don't think anyone is really worried about Michael stealing this thing from under their noses, so mission accomplished, I guess. Too bad he's also convincing the judges that he's mediocre.

QuickFire challenge: Padma reveals that today's slant will be populist food, rather than elitist fine dining (consumed by only 38% of the population, and half of those get dragged there under duress). The first challenge is to create a new ice cream. Marisa perks up. She interviews that she uses ice cream all the time on desserts. Yes, but that's not the same thing as making ice cream. Padma authorizes use of a table of ingredients, the pantry and a product-placed ice cream maker. They have 2 hours and 45 minutes to produce 3 quarts of ice cream. Cliff reveals himself as an ice cream novice. They'll take their ice cream out on the road, to the beach. Since it's a hot day, they should get lots of interest. And go!

Betty recaps the challenge; she's another ice cream novice. Carlos apparently has made ice cream, because he knows he can't cook something on the stove and then cool it down in time to freeze. He's going to use avocados for creamy consistency instead of eggs. Emily tastes her mixture and cusses it out for being too hot. She interviews that chocolate and lavender is a happening combination, so she jumped on it. Sam interviews that he's not only not a pastry chef, he's diabetic, so he doesn't make sweet stuff. Cliff decides to please himself with textures and some cookies. Ilan likes breakfast flavors, so he's doing bacon and waffles. Marcel wants "to create new flavor profiles and make them taste really good" so he's going with bacon and avocado. For ice cream? Ilan interviews that he was worried at first to see Marcel with bacon, too, but then he noticed the other stuff and realized he had nothing to fear. Ilan has a taste of Marcel's and Marcel asks for an opinion; Ilan fibs that it's "nice." Padma calls 5 minutes. Marcel interviews that he was happy to at least have the right consistency. Betty interviews that she knew his flavor was a dud. Padma calls "Scoops down!" and it's off to the beach we go.

Frank interviews that the kids were lined up "300 deep." Emily interviews, "I was hoping the demographic was not going to be a bunch of snotty little kids. It was a bunch of snotty little kids. I hate kids." Hello? Summer. Beach. Ice cream. Hell yeah, you're getting kids. Padma explains that the tasters will vote for their favorites. The tasting begins. Marisa interviews that it was "chaotic" and not what she expected. I suspect Marisa has a low mess threshold. It's just a crowd of people, not a mob. Ilan interviews that he got a mixed reaction from the kids, but he's happy with how his turned out. Emily interviews that Sam's going to win because all the tween girls think he looks like Ashton Kutcher. Marcel's ice cream is a hard sell. He interviews that he was worried when he saw the clientele. It's exactly the clientele that Padma told them to expect, so I don't see why he's suddenly nervous now. He knew who he was cooking for. Mia interviews that the kids would spit out Marcel's ice cream and then wipe their tongues with napkins. Okay, that's bad. Marcel tells a customer, "It's an acquired taste." Josie calls the voting a "popularity contest," which evokes memories of not being popular in high school. Emily is offended that a woman criticized her ice cream: "The last thing you need with your four teeth and your huge ass is sugar." I had no idea Emily was such a lookist.

I guess Elia and Frank didn't make anything interesting.

Back in the kitchen, Padma has changed out of her beach clothes. She announces the bottom three: Marisa, Emily and, in last place with all of 7 votes, Marcel. Michael gives him a consoling thump on the back. There's a tie for runner-up: Carlos and Sam. They bump fists. The winner is: Cliff. Everyone claps. Cliff interviews that immunity is freeing, in case we still haven't figured out how this immunity thing works. Padma congratulates him on his second QuickFire win. Cliff is looking pretty good so far. Let's see if anyone tries to sabotage him. Marisa is feeling down because Cliff won -- wouldn't she feel down because of her own placement? -- but she doesn't think he won because of "the quality of his ice cream." Sadly, we do not hear what his win can be attributed to.

Elimination challenge: Padma introduces Stephen Bulgarelli, senior executive chef at GiantChainRestaurant. So we're continuing with the "cooking for the masses" theme. The challenge is to create something that will appeal to his customers. Marisa combines the "I need to win" interview with the "I'm not into this challenge" interview. Padma prods Chef Stephen for more information. He explains that their customers really enjoy childhood comfort food made in a grown-up way, so the challenge is to update a childhood favorite to create something that would fit with their entrees. So it seems that he's looking for an entree, although Padma described the challenge as a "dish." The winning dish/entree will be featured on GiantChainRestaurant's menu. Everyone cheers, even the fine dining chefs. Betty is psyched, because her restaurant does "California comfort food." They will have the afternoon to shop and 2 hours for cooking. Then they will have 15 minutes to finish their dishes "on location" at the South Pasadena fire station. More cheering. Josie is psyched because she has firefighter friends. Although presumably not in South Pasadena. Final detail: Michael used to work at GiantChainRestaurant. He interviews that he worked their briefly, and he has worked for a lot of "corporate" restaurants, so he feels confident. Padma announces that this experience will not give him any preference or any demerits. Which: yeah, but I guess they had to get it on the record.

Shopping: 30 minutes and $100. Marcel interviews that he doesn't "do" comfort food, so the challenge kind of threw him. Michael's brother is a fireman, and he's confident they'll love meat and potatoes, so he's making a steak sandwich. Emily also doesn't "do" this kind of mass-produced food; she has spent the last six years working in only the highest quality restaurants. So she decides on surf-and-turf, for lack of any better ideas. Michael picks up some beer for himself. At the checkout, he's over by a few cents, so he decides to sacrifice some cheese. They sell that stuff by weight; just get a slightly smaller wedge. Sam interviews that he's not sure Michael is in it to win. At the checkout, he advises Michael to get the cheese. Michael thinks there must be cheese in the pantry; Sam disagrees.

Time to cook. Cliff recaps the challenge. He remembers macaroni 'n' cheese and fish sticks from childhood; he hasn't met anyone who doesn't like mac 'n' cheese. Much chopping. Chef Tom comes through. Betty checks that he's allowed to taste her soup; he is, but he can't say anything about it. She tries to see his reaction, but he closes his eyes. Chef Tom asks about Frank's childhood memory. He's doing a "mushroom fantasy" that can be served as a salad or an entree. "Is the childhood memory a drug experience?" asks Chef Tom. When Frank stops laughing, he explains that it's from a favorite of his daughter's, which he also used to watch. Chef Tom arrives at Emily's post just as she's forking up a sample to taste, which she gives to him. "At least you're tasting your food," he comments. Sam has no GiantChainRestaurant experience, so he's "flying blind." But Chef Tom has heard about Michael's experience, and then he learns about the firefighting brother. "You have too many inside tracks," he jokes.

Outside, Chef Tom recaps the challenge once again. The fine dining chefs are stumbling over the casual dining concept. Honestly, what do these people eat? Marisa is playing off her strengths again, doing a fruit crisp. Because the dessert thing worked out so well for her last time. It looks like her oven temperature got reset. What is it about ovens? Marcel remembers his mom's mashed potatoes; he's adding pork chops and onion rings, but Chef Tom thinks the potatoes will be the critical element. Sam is making a vegetarian fruit option; Chef Tom figures some firemen will be tired of the heavy stuff, especially with the heat.

Marcel calls out the halfway mark. He tries to remember if he's ever made onion rings before. He interviews that he really wants to win; after all his focus on fine dining, it would be a huge blow to lose a casual dining contest. Back in the kitchen, he reveals that the secret to making onion rings is to "keep on hand dry at all times." Thanks for sharing. At the adjacent station, Betty is tired of listening to Marcel blather; she figures he's just trying to make himself sound more experienced. I think he's playing to the cameras. She complains that Marcel thinks fine dining is in a different category than comfort food (well, yes, that's why they have different names) but she thinks versatility is the hallmark of a top chef. Marcel announces to the camera that he got everything done. The last few seconds tick away.

The next day, a herd of product-placed vehicles ferry everyone out to the fire station. Padma sends the chefs up to the kitchen, and the firefighters arrive to settle in at the tables with the judges. Padma asks her table if they cook, and one guy answers that they have some serious cooks, and they try to balance out the four food groups. You know, it's an interesting balance: they need calories to sustain the hard work of firefighting, but they don't want to be weighed down with heavy food when they're on a call.

The chefs assemble downstairs. Padma thanks the "brave" firefighters and the chefs all clap. She sends them off to await judgement.

Judges' table: Padma has Chef Stephen recap the challenge. Gail asks for his impressions; he thought there would be more innovation. You know, GiantChainRestaurant and innovation don't really go together. Neither do comfort food and innovation. Comfort food is comforting precisely because it's familiar. He did find one dish innovative, though. Chef Tom guesses that was Sam's salad. Chef Stephen raves about it. He also liked the grilled cheese and tomato soup from Betty, which was precisely what they asked for. Gail asks about Ilan's corn, which she loved. Chef Stephen raves about the flavors, but he wanted it built into an entree. Chef Tom brings up Cliff's dish; Chef Stephen liked that the fish was light and not greasy. Gail reports that the firefighters kept eating the mac 'n' cheese; Chef Tom thinks that dish is classic comfort food.

Betty, Cliff and Sam line up before the judges. Chef Tom praises Sam's flavors and health-consciousness. Gail thanks him for doing something refreshing on a hot day. Chef Tom praises Cliff's fish and Chef Stephen raves about the mac 'n' cheese flavors. Chef Tom reminisces about grilled cheese and tomato soup; Betty did a good job updating it. Chef Stephen gives the win to Betty and she screams. She interviews that she's not going to coast on her laurels.

The backroom has guessed the results and everyone claps. Betty delivers the bad news to Emily, Michael and Frank. Padma asks Frank why he's there. He figures a conceptual dish would need tweaking, but he thought the components were good. Gail reports that people were confused. Frank reiterates "conceptual dish" and Gail says, "Food is for eating." Frank concedes. Chef Stephen has issues with difficulty of execution and it needed more flavor. Padma asks Emily if she tasted her food. Emily says she did taste, but she got frazzled. She can't explain what happened. She gets nailed for using frozen corn and skirt steak. Michael is all "bring it on." He has "no idea" why he's in the bottom. He talks about all the corporate restaurants he's worked at. Chef Stephen wants to know why he thought a steak sandwich would stand out. Michael hasn't seen many steak sandwiches on corporate menus. Chef Tom wonders why they should keep him. Michael protests that he loves food. Chef Tom doesn't see it; he's just sloppy. Padma sends them away while the judges deliberate.

Everyone agrees that Frank had the wrong idea. Chef Tom thinks "an incredible technician" could pull off an idea like that, but Frank's not that guy. Padma shifts to Emily. Chef Tom isn't impressed with the idea of surf & turf. Gail relates how she found it inedible. Chef Stephen goes back to basics: fix the food or don't serve it. Backstage, Emily wipes her eyes and tells Marisa(?) that the judging was rough. Michael's turn. Gail doesn't like his attitude. Chef Stephen and Chef Tom marvel at how he managed to mess up a steak sandwich, even with good ingredients. In the back, Michael is getting combative. The question is not "Is he drunk?" but "How drunk is he?" Michael threatens to throw down with Chef Tom, but Sam and Ilan try to calm him down. Sam interviews that he first thought Michael was a "yahoo" but he realized Michael just gets insecure. Marcel tells Michael he needs to stay and Michael sasses that he needs to knock Marcel out of the competition. Everyone laughs.

The bottom three return. I'm pretty sure Frank is safe. It was a wierd idea, but it wasn't actively bad. I can see Emily going -- her food was inedible, and that's a pretty serious mistake. But Michael seems to be the front runner for the boot. He claims he wants to win -- but not enough to put aside some beer in order to keep ingredients for his dish. Chef Tom gives Frank props for creativity, but it needed to be more refined to succeed. Emily's dish was too salty; you can't succumb to pressure like that. Michael starts shadow boxing and Chef Tom sighs. He wonders if he needs to say anything; Michael seems to be treating this like a joke. Michael protests that he's just being himself. Chef Tom spanks him for sloppy execution. Padma boots Emily. Frank looks stunned. I guess that settles the question of whether they judge cumulatively.

Emily starts to cry as she says her goodbyes and Cliff wraps her up in a big hug. It's a Harold-quality hug, but bigger. Betty and Josie add to the hug experience. Emily's going to miss being a part of the gang. Michael tells her, "This does not define who you are as a chef." That's more maturity than I expected from him. Emily enjoyed being a part of such a diverse bunch of chefs; it has sparked a lot of creative ideas.

Right winner? Sam came in for the most praise, but in the end, GiantChainRestaurant wasn't looking for innovation. I think there are plenty of customers who would want that salad, but enough to justify adding it to a menu? Both Cliff and Betty got the challenge right by referencing classic childhood comfort food. I'm not entirely sure where Betty had the edge; it could be flavor, or it could be suitability for mass production. One of the attractions of Cliff's dish was the non-greasiness of the fish; GiantChainRestaurant might not be able to pull that off.

Right loser? If the judging is challenge-by-challenge, then Emily was the right choice. Inedible is worse than sloppy. But Michael's ouster is imminent. I'm really not sure why he's on the show; who on earth thought he was Top Chef material? Granted, he has more real world experience than Candice, but at least Candice tried to learn from the experience. As far as I can tell, Michael doesn't aspire to be anything more than he already is. Which is fine, if you're happy with who you are. But I don't think he is, and I don't think a Top Chef settles.

Emily: heinous bitch or refreshingly snarky? Eh. She's gone. I can't make myself care.

Betty: heinous bitch or refreshingly honest? I'm more sympathetic to Betty, since I, too, am pretty tired of The Marcel Show, but she did go above and beyond. A simple "Dude, shut up already" would have sufficed. I can see how she might have snapped after having to listen him whine and whine, but it didn't sound like snapping. It sounded like "It's entirely reasonable for me to hate you, and I'm prepared to explain in detail why." That's really not a conversation people should be having. If someone is driving you bonkers, you tell them to stop doing whatever it is that's bonkers-making; you don't launch a wholesale character assassination. So Betty was wrong.

And Marcel was wrong. He ran into a problem, and instead of dealing with it, he whined. And after he finished with his competition entry, he whined some more to a bunch of people who had nothing to do with the problem, couldn't do anything about it and had nothing to do with the judging. And what was he whining about? "Fairness." An argument I never want to hear from anyone past junior high. Nobody set out to screw up his entry. Nobody did anything wrong to harm him. Stuff happens. Grow up and deal. Something Betty did when she found another way to make her grilled cheese sandwiches. Although Betty should not have engaged his sniping while she was cooking. If you're going to be the mature one, be mature. As for Marcel, if you're going to invoke a nitpicky tactic like tit-for-tat, get it right. Since Betty didn't pick on him while he was cooking, he doesn't get to pick on her while she's cooking. Although "nyah, nyah, you had equipment problems, too" doesn't have the same sting when she has already risen above it.

I need a break from The Marcel Show. I'm sure I could find plenty of other people annoying if they just got a little more screen time.

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