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.

Thanks for continuing your recaps! I discovered them halfway through Project Runway's Season 3 and caught up on the backlog plus Top Chef Season 1. You manage to be both amusing and informative.

I find your thoughtful analyis inspires me to think things through -- aspects of competition and cooperation, the nature of "reality" television (audience manipulation both overt and incidental, the complicity of the audience in allowing over-simplification of issues, etc.), and even my own character (if I were being documented, would *my* words and actions paint an accurate - and consistant - portrait?).

I'm looking forward to your take on the rest of the season.
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