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.

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