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?

The whining was not attractive.

Not two hours before this episode aired, I watched The Food Network's Ultimate Thanksgiving Challenge - four chefs who each had five hours to produce a turkey-and-5-side-dishes.

The goal was traditional flavors with creative new spins. They may have had a lot more time than the TC folks to think up their menues in advance, but it was definitely balanced out by having to cook an entire meal. You could definitely tell the difference in professionalism.
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