Sunday, December 17, 2006


Cocktail Wieners

Previously on Top Chef: Marcel and Betty verbally duked it out. The chefs cooked on the beach for surfers. Frank was screwed. Mia dropped her salt. Elia got the win. Gail had egg issues. Frank got the boot.

Marcel interviews that he's sure he'll sleep better without Frank's snoring. Michael shows off his naked torso, which is at least not as disturbing as Frank's naked torso, so I can live with it. Elia does more yoga. Sam tells someone that Frank broke his knife bag (actually, the strap on his knife bag). Sam recaps that he was in the bottom with Frank, so he needs to keep his focus, but it's getting hard. Mia interviews that they've been competing for weeks now and she's homesick. Ilan rallies the chefs to head out.

QuickFire challenge: Betty interviews that there was "loads of booze" in the kitchen, sounding like she has already indulged in most of it. Padma greets the chefs with "Happy Holidays." July 4th? Flag Day? She introduces Kristin Woodward, an "award-winning mixologist" from Oysters. Padma tells the chefs that "this is the party season" -- sure, if picnics and cookouts count -- and they have to create an original cocktail and snack using the heavily-featured product-placed booze. Cliff interviews that he leaves the pouring to others; he just does the drinking. Au contraire, I recall a certain critical pitcher of sangria several episodes ago. Marcel approves of the challenge. Good to know.

Padma sends the chefs scurrying around the kitchen; they have 20 minutes to work. Mia thinks the challenge is "bogus" because she doesn't drink mixed drinks. Not seeing what one has to do with the other. As for "bogus," chefs don't really have to work with cocktails, but essentially this is all about blending flavors, so it's not outrageously out of line. Ilan reports that he's making a Hanukkah snack, since Christmas isn't a holiday he celebrates. Sam decides to make something pretend-seasonal involving hot chocolate. He uses a packet of cocoa mix, and now I get to look forward to a rehash of the "boxed cake mix" brouhaha. Betty (who apparently has picked up Marcel's trick of narrating her own cooking) interviews that Product-Placed Liquor (henceforth PPL) is more of an after-dinner drink; it's harder to come up with a (before-dinner) cocktail because it's cream-based. Cooking, cooking, cooking. Michael voiceovers that he has a lot of bartending experience (some of it perhaps even professional rather than personal), so he'll get some heat from the home crowd if he can't win this. Padma calls time. The hands in the air definitely look like a bank robbery this time.

Padma asks for the bad news first. Mia's drink presentation was too simple. Mia interviews that it's a bummer to get called out in the bottom; she's frustrated and homesick. Betty's drink was unacceptable. She interviews that she was embarrassed and needs to step up. Yep, that pretty much covers it. The good news: Cliff had yummy beef and a good cocktail; Sam also had a good cocktail and the egg nog French toast was "seasonal;" Mike had a "wonderful" cocktail and ice cream sandwich. Cliff gets the win. We get another excerpt of Cliff's previous "immunity is good" interview.

For the Elimination challenge, Padma has them draw knifes. Crap, another team challenge. I am willing to put up with one team challenge, when they're down to ten contestants, and they choose up teams schoolyard-style so we can see what the chefs think of each other. But that's it. Padma pretends it's December some more, talking about the party season and the demand for catering and restaurants. The chefs will be attending a Christmas party for Los Angeles magazine produced by a big special events company -- as caterers. They'll get $1500 to cater a cocktail party for 200 guests. They have 4 hours of prep time plus a day on site. They'll be judged on "taste, originality, leadership and wow factor." Oh, goody, another stupid "leadership" challenge. First, the judges shouldn't consider anything they can't see, and if they don't watch the teams work, they can't accurately assess leadership. Second, I'm tired of them pretending that "leadership" is some sort of magic cure-all that overcomes any and all problems. If a team succeeds, they praise the leader, even though a team can pull together without one; if a team fails, it's all the leader's fault for not fixing everything. Feh.

So, we have the orange team of Betty, Sam, Ilan and Marcel and the black team of Cliff, Mike, Elia and Mia. They get together and start planning. Betty interviews that a loss would damage her professional reputation, since she caters parties for exactly this crowd. Betty and Ilan bond. Ilan proposes Sam as leader and Betty agrees. Ilan joins Sam and Marcel at the freezers and says he's sure they can "all agree" that Sam is their "organizing leader." They can. He's really the only choice, given the tension between Betty and Marcel, and Marcel and Ilan. Speaking of which, Sam tells Marcel and Betty that they have to "get over" their animosity. While they've shown an ability to put emotions aside and work together, that was before their second altercation, so I think it's fair for Sam to bring it up. Better to address it right up front than wait for a problem to erupt. Sam interviews on the hazards of the leadership position. He usually leads a crew of 15 chefs, so he's sure a crew of 4 won't be a problem. In their planning session, Betty recommends 8-10 different items, including some sweet stuff. Marcel makes some suggestions. Betty interviews that they came up with a list of 13 choices. An LA party needs good food, and lots of it.

Cut to the black team, where Elia is proposing two different appetizers, but she wonders if anyone thinks they should have four. Ooookay then. Elia wants two really stellar dishes. Mia says they'd better be pretty damn good if there's only two. Elia interviews about her preference for quality over quantity. Oh, dear, Elia has fallen into the trap of giving the people what they "should" want. I don't care what they are, two kinds of canapes for a cocktail party is nuts. Elia proposes a smoked salmon roll, or perhaps a gazpacho. Mia mentions figs with prosciutto on Gorgonzola. Elia doesn't want cheese, but is enough of a team player to ask if the others do. Cliff says he'd stay away from Gorgonzola because some people don't like it. But you could say that about any ingredient -- which is why a smart caterer gives guests a variety of things to choose from. Mia interviews that they have three people who tend to lead, and she has a lot of valuable experience to contribute. So why isn't she telling them why two canapés is seriously stupid, instead of just saying, "Well, they'd better really good, then"?

During the discussion, Mia verifies that they're doing two seafood dishes, and Elia thinks it will be okay. Not if somebody's allergic to seafood. Are they assuming that the orange team will provide the variety? Mia says she has a problem with doing all that seafood, but Elia says they've already decided. The team members are arranged differently around the table as Mia says she doesn't feel her experience is "being appreciated." Elia assures her that it is. Mia says she's done and they should just work on the equipment list. So, she complains that they aren't listening to her, and when they pay attention, she refuses to say anything. Grr. If you're done, then be done; don't make a production out of it. Mia interviews her team isn't "allowing" her to be the successful, professional caterer that she is. Back in the kitchen, Elia protests that Mia shouldn't get mad and they're trying to reach a consensus. Mia understands, but all her ideas have been "shot down."

Obviously the planning session has been heavily edited, but I haven't seen Mia talk about her catering experience, or how events work, or what guests expect. She obviously disagrees with the current menu, but instead of saying "Here are the problems" or "Here's what we need to do," she pouts that they aren't using her ideas. I just don't see her communicating effectively with the others. Elia clearly has strong opinions, but she's at least trying to build consensus. I'm not sure why Cliff is on board the "quality, not quantity" train with Elia -- maybe he sees it as a way to stand out with the judges -- but he's offering opinions instead of dictating. Mike is just staying out of the way, which leaves Mia as the only opposition, and she's talking about her feelings instead of addressing the problems. In some ways, the orange team is lucky to have all that personal animosity, because everyone knows it's there and can deal with it. The black team is busy avoiding their issues. Cliff and Mia just don't get along, but Elia wants everyone to pretend they do and Mike just wants to cook something and drink some beer. They're doomed.

Half of each team arrives at Restaurant Depot for bulk shopping while the other halves hit the grocery store. Mia recaps the challenge for those of you just tuning in. Mia and Mike look for produce while Betty and Sam start working the herb aisle. Sam interviews about the division of labor for his team. Cut to Ilan and Marcel buying mussels. The guy at the fish counter wants to put them in a plastic bag, but Marcel asks him not to; the mussels will die. The fish guy proposes paper instead, which works. Ilan tells Marcel not to "be a dick" and Marcel protests that he wasn't. I agree, he wasn't. Unfortunately, he just has a naturally dickish tone of voice. Marcel interviews that he's trying to work as a unit to get the job done, but he's also aware of the individual nature of the overall competition. He calls Sam to say he's going to do an endive dish if Sam agrees; Sam agrees with an "okay, if it will make you shut up already" tone.

Elia interviews that she and Cliff were talking about Mike's idea; while it could be good, it's not "high end." Cliff calls Mia and tells her they're worried about the lobster/potato thing and they have another idea. Mia says she's not cool with changing horses in midstream "with no discussion at all." Cliff says that's why he's calling. Cliff interviews that Mia "wanted to fight about everything." Mia tells Mike that they're cutting his dish, which she disagrees with. Mike asks what they're substituting, and Mia gets back on the phone. Mia interviews that Cliff is stubborn and bossy. I believe he can be; I believe he can come off that way even if he doesn't mean to. But we haven't seen him being bossy; he didn't just order Mia to pick up new ingredients. Mike moans that he knew they'd pull this stuff, and Mia tells him she did, too, but she's "just trying to be cool." Mike goes ahead and gets a box of lobster tails anyway; he voiceovers that he needs to contribute, so he'll do a surf-and-turf thing.

Once again, we didn't hear the whole exchange, but Cliff called to talk about things and Mia didn't talk, she just told Mike that the others were changing things and then grumped about it. Did they even discuss the idea for a replacement dish? At least find out what they're suggesting before you get all bent out of shape about it. Maybe it really is a better idea.

At the checkout, Sam tells Betty he feels like they just did one of those sweepstakes shopping trips. Mia observes that the orange team has a lot of stuff. Betty interviews that they had two full handcarts, while the black team had half a cart. She wonders what they'll be serving. Me, too. The teams should be serving roughly equivalent volumes of food, even if they've divvied them up into different numbers of dishes. Mia interviews that she has a catering company, and if she loses the challenge, she doesn't need people thinking that she doesn't know what she's doing. Both Mia and Betty need to ratchet down the egos a bit. First, on a team, the problem is if "we" lose. Second, on a team, your individual reputation is most affected by how you contribute, not whether you ultimately win or lose. Third, who picks a caterer based on her win/loss record on some reality show?

Back at the kitchens, the teams have 4 hours for prep work. Betty recaps that fact in case you missed it in the captions. Betty suggests dividing up the work so they know who's doing what. Marcel immediately asks to see the shrimp. Betty takes notes as Sam explains some division of labor. Betty interviews that the orange team has an "astronomical" list of dishes. Mia interviews that the team put Elia in charge, since she has the best classical technique and the most experience with "high-end product." Ilan interviews that he doesn't understand how the other team could serve only four dishes for a cocktail party. Me, either. Time winds down. Mia says, "Trust me on this, you guys. Let's make some [bleep]ing extra crostini in case we break some so we can have some extra. Please, can we?" Sure, she's smiling, but it's just so incredibly hostile and passive-aggressive, I want to bitch-slap her into next week. If you want to make extra crostini, make extra crostini already and don't act like you need to get their permission to friggin' breathe. Mia interviews that she's worried and depressed; she doesn't have the sense of camaraderie that she's used to. Yeah, go figure. The teams pack up their food. Cliff interviews that he feels they're good to go.

The next day, they arrive at a set of a city residential area (lots of brownstones) covered in fake snow. They find two mobile kitchens. Sam interviews about the wonders of it all. It's a definite "boy and his toy" moment. The orange team explores their kitchen. Cliff interviews that he's feeling positive. Elia interviews that she's excited to work with their ingredients. Sam interviews that there's a lot at stake -- not just the overall competition, but also looking bad at the party. Sam tells the team he wants to work on one thing at a time. Marcel interviews that he's going to be an all-out cooking machine. Sam interviews that they had a lot to prepare, and it was non-stop work. Over at the black team, Mike chops some onions. Betty interviews that the black team isn't "working at the same pace" as the orange team. Mia asks Mike if she should put garlic on the crostini, and Mike says they certainly have time for it. Mia interviews that with their high-end ingredients, they didn't want to cook things too soon and have them sit. She and Elia watch the other team working through the kitchen window. Mia observes that they have too much "going on" and she likes being able to focus on their fewer items; Elia agrees.

Sam warns Ilan that Chef Tom doesn't like skin on bell peppers (is that a warning to be careful with his fingers?) when the man himself arrives for a walkthrough. He asks what the orange team is doing and they list some of their items. Chef Tom asks about quantities. Sam says it's 75 of some up to 200 of others; they want to have people come back to their table. Over at the black team, Elia explains they're doing four canapés. Chef Tom says the other team has 10-15 items; did they make a mistake? Cliff explains that they wanted to do four really tight dishes. Chef Tom asks about the team leader, and Cliff points to Elia, who raises her hand. Chef Tom wishes them luck as he leaves. Cliff interviews that he's still feeling confident and he decided not to let Chef Tom's comments bother him. Hello? He's a judge. You should darn well care what he thinks. Oh, wait, Cliff has immunity. Mike marvels at the count for other team -- "That's crazy!" Elia agrees. She does some math -- 200 people, two hours, 800 canapés is perfect. So, wait, each guest gets one of each canapé? And four canapés each to hold them for two hours? Elia's math isn't looking so good. Elia interviews that she doesn't like comparisons; she makes up her mind and sticks with it instead of letting comparisons sway her. Marcel interviews that on the one hand, his team is going to blow away the judges with all their dishes but on the other hand, the black team is playing it safe and they could have four solid dishes. "Simplicity is a sign of perfection."

Shortly before the party begins, Padma introduces the judges. She's wearing a gold and black dress that reminds me of a tablecloth. Subbing for Gail today is Ted Allen (yay!). The guest judge is Lee Hefter, executive chef of Spago in Beverley Hills. He looks like someone made a copy of Chef Tom and then squashed him slightly. The chefs run around, setting up their tables. Ilan interviews that they're excited and the team worked well together. Mia's interview hits the "quality over quantity" angle once again. Guests arrive and grab drinks. Sam interviews that he and Ilan will cook while Betty and Marcel man (or woman) the tables. Betty starts working the guests. She interviews that she loves that kind of work and she's feeling confident about their food. Sam interviews that they immediately had a big crowd around the table, and the team's confidence was obvious. Marcel tells a guest that they'll have a whole different spread of food in about 45 minutes.

Elia interviews that she feels better in the kitchen, so Mia and Mike got table duty. Mike carries a tray of strawberries over to some female guests. Mia tells some guests the "quality over quantity" angle. She interviews that she was making people happy. A guest describes the black team offerings as "more high-end." Mia tells guests that the chefs are working on more food. Get used to saying that. She interviews that the guests kept asking where the food was, and she wondered why it wasn't coming fast enough, and she began to realize that they had a big problem. Elia interviews that she was cooking the surf-and-turf and scallops during the party. Mike interviews that he'd bring out food and it would be gone as soon as he put it out. Elia asks if he can't entertain them, which Mike rightfully pooh-poohs -- they want food. (Say it loud, Mike: "I'm a chef, not an entertainer.") Ted Allen asks Mia if she has been abandoned, and she explains that Mike is fetching food. He offers to help out but Mia tells him to enjoy himself. Mia interviews that she's just going to keep working. If she had shown this much positivity during the planning, things might not have come to this pass. I'd certainly have a better opinion of her overall. She's doing a great job now in a difficult situation, but that doesn't excuse her passive-aggressiveness during the planning and prep.

Ilan interviews that the great thing about variety is that people have lots of things to choose from, so if they don't like something, they can take something else. Marcel describes the bread pudding to someone. Betty schmoozes with someone I've seen in a commercial. The judges arrive at the orange table. Chef Lee asks where all the ideas came from and Betty says it was a team effort. He asks about a team leader and Betty names Sam. She interviews that the abundance gave their table a special vibe. Ted asks about any planning for their two "courses." Betty says it wasn't planned, except the sweets will come out later. Marcel describes a few dishes to the judges. Padma admires their presentation. Marcel interviews that he was feeling really confident when the judges came along.

At the black team table, Ted asks about the strawberries; he's heard raves. Mia describes them and Ted spots bacon! (Pancetta, but close enough.) Mia also points out the scallops. Padma asks what was in the blank spot, and Mike arrives with a tray of surf-and-turf just in time. Ted asks if anything was planned as a featured item. Mike says he came up with the surf-and-turf "on the fly" at the store and it's turning out to be a star.

When the cooking is over, the teams toast themselves. Marcel interviews that they were celebrating a great team effort, but you never know what the judges will do. Mia interviews that they don't know what the judges will want, but she believes in Elia's talent. Elia says teamwork during a competition is hard; she was chosen as leader and she doesn't want to get the boot.

Judges' table: Padma asks for general opinions. Ted is astonished that the same resources could produce such different results. Chef Lee thinks the orange team looked like they had $5000 instead of $1500. Ted points out that the orange team kept their table overflowing with bounty while the black team kept running out of food. Padma reports that they had empty stations and "poor Mia" was all by herself when she stopped by. Chef Lee points out that the black team's food was better: the scallop on endive and the strawberries were the two best dishes of the evening. Chef Tom didn't care for the orange team's shrimp. Ted observes they didn't have anything you couldn't find at a decently-catered party. It looked and tasted "pretty good" but didn't hold up to the black team's offerings.

Padma summons the orange team, and promptly pronounces them the winners. Chef Tom asks if the win surprises them after seeing what the black team put out. Ilan says, "No" and Sam says, "Not so much." Chef Tom confirms that Sam was the team leader. Marcel interjects that he's a big boy and can cook all by himself, so he didn't really need a leader. Ted asks if he's trying to say that he made a strong contribution or if there's another point, and the rest of the team just laughs, "Oh, that's Marcel." Marcel says he just did his own thing. Look, they're congratulating you on your teamwork; this is not the time to announce that you're not a team player. Padma lets Chef Lee choose the winner, and naturally he picks Sam, who gets a 20-piece Global knife set. "The whole thing?" gawks Sam. Chef Lee says he could divvy them up among the team, but personally, he'd take the knives and run. Sam interviews his pleasure with winning a prize for once in his life. He gripes that Marcel was trying to undercut him; he should have just shut up and enjoyed not being on the chopping block. Okay, I agree that Marcel was stealing some of Sam's thunder, but he's still entitled to talk. And he wound up making himself look silly, so that worked out to Sam's benefit in the end.

The black team arrives for their spankings. Padma asks Elia what she thinks went wrong, and Elia blames "a lack of organization at the end." Padma confirms that she was the leader. Chef Lee says none of their dishes made him feel compelled to go back for more, although the best dish was the scallop; when he asks, Mike replies it was Elia's dish. Chef Lee would have liked to see eight dishes like the scallop. Padma asks Mike what he did; he explains that he was running back and forth delivering food and handling communication. Chef Tom asks why they kept running out of food. Cliff volunteers that it was a lack of communication between front and back ends. I don't buy it. Perfect communication might have helped, but I don't think it would have solved their delivery problems. Mia looks a little disgusted and Chef Tom picks up on her disagreement. She says she had a problem with the lack of food. Chef Tom turns to Elia, who says they were cooking during the party and just didn't work fast enough. Padma points out that they only had four dishes and Elia agrees. Mia says she suggested doing six and was told, "Let's do three." Cliff makes a frowny face. Padma asks if they heard her say that; Cliff shakes his head and the others don't say anything. That suggestion wasn't included in what I saw of the planning.

Mia states that she didn't feel like she was heard and her professional experience wasn't appreciated. Cliff interjects that he "can't allow Elia to get thrown under the bus." But Mia was complaining about the whole team. Cliff says Elia had to deal with some tough circumstances, because not all of her cooks were "in line" all the time. Specifically, Mia was "bitching and moaning." Mia says she didn't; she disagreed and she made her "voice be heard" but her voice wasn't heard, so she "stepped off" and went along with the others. And bitched and moaned about it. Chef Tom asks what problems she saw; Mia says she disagreed with having three seafood dishes. She says she and Mike decided that they had money, so they got the steak and lobster. But that was their third seafood dish, and it sounded like Mike came up with the steak-and-lobster idea. Elia volunteers that she thinks they worked well together. Ted kindly tells her that the judges are seeing a difference between them working together well and them just liking each other or whatever, and the result was that they kept running out of food. Chef Lee adds that "the result wasn't a team of structure and cohesiveness."

Chef Tom observes that Cliff is safe with immunity. Padma asks him who should get the boot, and he names Mia. She explodes, exclaiming that he can't deny that she spoke up for herself when she felt things went wrong. Cliff is like, "See?" She says, "Throw me under the bus, I don't give a [bleep]. I don't give a black bone." She continues that they all talked over her (even Mike?), and Cliff needs to "put your dick away" because he has immunity. Well, that was awkward. Chef Tom asks Elia if she wants to add anything, and she says that "of course" she wants to stay. Chef Tom confirms that she's taking responsibility for the loss; she says she was the leader and "we're all together." I do think the judges appreciate that Elia isn't making excuses, but I suspect that's not enough to save her. Chef Tom shoos them out.

Back in the pantry, the orange team asks if they know anything. Elia announces that she'll be getting the boot. Mia thinks Elia should stay because she has more talent than "a lot of us." Mia has a business to go back to and maybe she belongs in the country.

Padma prompts the judges for discussion. Ted says Elia clearly has more talent than Mia and Mike, and perhaps shouldn't have been chosen as the leader. Chef Tom says leadership requires listening to other people's input and not closing yourself off to other ideas. And I agree, Elia had her own idea of how to approach the challenge and she really stuck to it. Chef Lee says she wasn't strong enough to master the other personalities and direct them. Also true. She has technical skill but her youth means she has limited experience with management, and this was no team for a novice.

Back in the pantry, Mia announces that she'll go home to save Elia. Elia tells her not to do it. Mia continues: it's like Cliff says, she deserves to go, so send her home, she doesn't care. She's the only person in her family to ever make anything of herself. She "should have been a statistic" with her background; she was selling crack as an 11-year-old to feed her family. Okay, this is all very interesting, but what does it have to do with whether she should leave? Cliff asks if she's done playing martyr and Mia tells him to "kiss my ass" because he threw her under the bus. He agrees wholeheartedly. I still don't think it's throwing someone under the bus if the judges ask you a direct question, but yeah, he definitely made her a target. Mia says he should have let the others come up with ideas since he had immunity, but he kept stomping on everything she said. So she'll go home and live a happy life (away from him).

Back at the judges' table, Chef Tom observes that Mia's still pretty angry. Ted finds it interesting that she's mad at Cliff more than the others. Chef Tom can't believe that she fought as hard to be heard during the planning process as she did during the post mortem. Ted thinks she should have. Chef Lee calls it "too much, too late." Padma brings up Mike. Chef Lee thinks he played it safe and doesn't have the experience of a top chef. Yeah, he's due for the "Top Sous Chef" cut any day now, but probably not tonight. Perhaps if Cliff had managed to convince the judges that communication was the real problem, but that's a tough sell.

The black team returns. Chef Tom wonders if Cliff would have "done more" if he had been team leader. Mike is "coasting." He didn't do anything to get himself booted, but he didn't do anything to win himself a spot, either. Chef Tom thinks Mia voiced her suggestion to do more dishes, but not as loudly as she defended herself. Elia was the leader; she's talented, but even perfect execution might not have been enough to provide more "wow factor" than 13 dishes. Her idea of perfection doesn't necessarily match everyone else's. Before Padma can make the announcement, Mia interrupts. Elia is talented, and Mia has gotten farther than she expected. Chef Tom is surprised; he thinks Mia has fought a lot of battles and he can't believe she's just going to give up. Mia agrees that she has struggled; she repeats that she's the only one in her family who "made something" of herself. But if she goes home, she'll have made her family proud. I assume she means her husband-and-child family and not the shiftless bunch of no-accounts she grew up with. Chef Tom is still surprised she's quitting, but Mia figures it's time. Chef Tom accepts her resignation. Padma sends them all out.

Mia announces that she's going home because she "wouldn't let them send Elia." She says Elia belongs in the contest and Betty protests that Mia does, too. Mia interviews that she meant what she said about Elia staying. Elia tells her she "didn't have to do this" and Mia agrees. She interviews that she has her restaurant, and she hopes Elia will one day have similar success.


So, right winner? The black team had better food but hungry customers; the orange team had ordinary food but happy customers. If you're a hostess looking for a caterer, it's a no-brainer. If the black team had fixed their execution problems, they might have gotten the win -- but I have a feeling they would have run out of food before the party was over. Four canapés per guest just isn't going to do the job. So I'm good with the team win. As for the individual win, Sam did a necessary job well. He was lucky that his team didn't make his life harder, but he also didn't screw anything up. They had a lot of work to do, and he coordinated the team so it all got done.

Right loser? Chef Tom's blog reveals that they would have booted Elia. I think that's the right choice for this challenge -- she underestimated the execution problems, and she led the team in the wrong direction during the planning stage. It's hard luck for Elia, since she seems pretty talented; I think the team did her a disservice by making her leader. She didn't have the experience to handle those personalities. Cliff has more experience, but he also had immunity, so the rest of the team could have been accused of taking the easy way out by making him leader. I'm sure Mia would have liked to be named leader, but I don't think Cliff would tolerate being subordinate to her. I got the sense in an early episode that he didn't like her and (venturing into the murky waters of racial issues) I did wonder if perhaps he didn't approve of her "type." But he's never said anything, so we'll never know. Suffice it to say, I think he and Mia have different ideas about what it means to be black. My sense is that he had more animosity toward Mia than she did toward him, until he acted on it.

Cliff: sneaky strategist or straight shooter? He couldn't criticize Elia, since he backed her up at every turn, but she was already on the hook as the leader. Mike is not a threat. So he could afford to undermine Mia with the judges. On the other hand, I think he definitely has more respect for Elia and he seems quite capable of competing on his own talents. Throw in a dislike of Mia, and he could have been perfectly honest, rather than calculating. We have so little sense of his personality, it's hard to tell.

Mia: noble sacrifice or self-satisfied martyr? I'm going to have to go with "both." I think her respect and affection for Elia are genuine, and her offer to take Elia's place was obviously sincere. However, I think martyr is a familiar and comfortable role for Mia. (I can just see 11-year-old Mia: "Fine, I'll sell the damn crack, I don't give a [bleep].") During the whole challenge, she was struggling with her control issues, and then she found a way to regain control. She took the decision out of everyone's hands, and I think that compensated for her sense of powerlessness during the planning. And she was a long shot for the final four, so she got to turn her inevitable departure into a victory instead of a defeat. I just don't want to hear anything during the reunion about how Elia should be grateful to her.

I'm not so happy with all the resignations this season. Next season, I think they should make it harder to withdraw. Like, okay, clean the product-placed kitchen with a toothbrush and then we'll accept your resignation.

Monday, December 11, 2006


To Cook or Not to Cook

Previously on Top Chef: Female solidarity. Chef Tom picked five winners. The five losers had to cook Thanksgiving dinner for everyone else. Elia bummed out and threatened to serve vinegar. Tony Bourdain came to dinner and quipped. Carlos aimed for the middle. Frank griped about Marcel. Elia snagged the win over Marcel. Carlos got the boot.

Elia does yoga in the half-empty women's apartment; we get a good look at her toe ring and pedicure. She interviews that she's happy and she just has to keep her emotions from messing with her head. Sam interviews that he's in a good position. Frank sits on his bunk in his shorts, and that's way more of Frank than I need to be seeing, thank you. He interviews that he's been doing well lately, and he's been the best over the past ten years. Well, there's a whole lotta confidence heading into the kitchen today.

QuickFire challenge: The chefs rally in front of the Redondo Beach Farmers' Market. Padma introduces guest judge Raphael Lunetta of JiRaffe (and Lemon Moon), who makes nice. Nobody does an "ooh, aah" interview, though. Have they not heard of him? The challenge: "create a mouth-watering, filling entrée" without using heat. Chef Raphael tells them that the market should provide them with the quality ingredients they need to make something good. Marcel interviews that he's happy to be cooking with real food. Padma gives them $20 and 30 minutes to shop, followed by 30 minutes of cooking.

The chefs hustle into the market and survey the bounty. Elia interviews that she's used to working with raw foods. Mia explains that she went for the fresh corn. She promises that right-off-the-stalk raw corn is a "wonderful treat." Mike interviews that he doesn't eat raw food -- color me shocked -- so he was a little stumped for ideas. But then he found the salmon jerky, and he decided to make a "stack" with various flavors, and winds up sounding kinda competent, even with the stoner drawl. Frank voiceovers that he was initially stuck for ideas, but found inspiration in scallops. Elia revisits her fish love and acquires some ahi.

Back in the kitchen, the chefs gear up and Padma starts the clock. Mia interviews that she's not worried because she's a raw veggie fan, so she went for a "hearty salad." Frank interviews that carpaccio is a "classic Italian dish;" he's doing a scallop version with a salad. Betty confides that she has had a little too much experience with the bottom three lately. Marcel interviews that great ingredients don't need cooking to taste good. This style of cooking isn't his strong suit, but he's sure he can "pull it off." Michael describes how he was trying to plate while Frank was shaking the table. He hopes Frank leaves. Frank returns the favor by calling Michael a "hack" who couldn't "cook his way out of a paper bag unless it had French fries." Eh. Michael's been looking a little more talented lately, but I still feel his very presence diminishes the show -- this is supposed to be a serious contender for the title of Top Chef?

Time's up! Padma has everyone wave their hands in the air. Maybe it's more hip-hop concert than bank robbery, but it's still weird.

Chef Raphael delivers general praise. He dings Betty for her knife skills and presentation. Betty interviews, "I'm chosen in the bottom again!" Like it's the fickle finger of fate and not her own fault. He spanks Mia for not using the lovely tomato she bought, which I don't like; the issue is what she made, not what she could have made. Michael also gets called out for the execution of his collapsing stack. Chef Raphael is kind enough to balance his criticisms by mentioning things they did right, though. On the plus side, Elia is praised for making a simple dish with a lot of flavor, Frank for taste and presentation, and Marcel for conception. And the win goes to: Marcel. He interviews his pleasure, describing his performance as "soigné." Just in case you were still wondering why all the other chefs find him annoying. I disagree with the decision; watermelon just doesn't seem substantial enough to make a satisfying entrée. Ilan also disagrees; he thinks Marcel is more into construction than taste.

Elimination challenge: Padma tells them that they'll have to make a tasty, satifying breakfast. Mia interviews that she worked brunch at a "high volume" restaurant (does that mean fast-food?), so she's got this covered. The breakfast clients will be athletes who have just finished an early morning practice. The chefs get $30 and half an hour for shopping; the cooking will happen at the training site. And they won't find out what they have for a kitchen until they arrive there in the morning. Cliff interviews how this is a really scary challenge, because maybe they'll have nothing at all. I'm going to guess they'll at least have a heat source, but I suspect Marcel will have to do without a thermal immersion circulator once again.

Shopping! Betty recaps the challenge. Cliff lists sports with early morning practice sessions. Sam interviews that he has lots of experience with brunch, but he's thrown by the problem of not knowing what to expect for equipment. Mia interviews that everyone was probably stumped. Frank interviews that he decided on quiche -- which assumes he'll have an oven -- and everyone went for the eggs. I can see that. Eggs are a breakfast staple, they're hearty enough for hungry athletes and they're incredibly flexible. Michael finds a roast chicken, which is conveniently already cooked, so he'll use it in some breakfast tacos. Cliff describes all the cereal grain ideas he had to toss because he didn't know what the conditions would be.

It's 3:30 in the pre-dawn morning and the chefs have to drag themselves out of bed. Bleah. Cliff gives Michael a five-minute warning. Ilan confides to Cliff that he didn't sleep much. Sam interviews that this is their "most challenging challenge so far." Maybe it's just the early hour, but I suspect verbal skills are not Sam's strong suit. But I agree, this is a toughie. Betty tells her roomies she hopes they're all still around the next day. Mia brings up being the only woman in a kitchen. Elia interviews that it's harder to get respect as a woman in a kitchen, which just makes her want to win more. Marcel interviews that his immunity is opportune. He does a little immunity boogie. I suspect no one else is looking, because he'd likely get flattened by his fellow contestants if they saw it. Having gotten a taste, he's now addicted to this immunity stuff.

And we're at the beach, with the sea gulls and the surfers. The product-placed vehicles drive across the sand. Elia stands up through the sun roof and waves peace signs like a returning former dictator. She interviews that she's excited to be at the beach. The regular judges await. Padma is wearing a denim mini-skirt and a bikini top, over which she has a furry vest, over which she has a big sweater. But unless she starts buttoning up, she's still going to be cold. Cliff interviews that they found "barbeque pits," an assortment of pots and pans, and "a lot of sand." It looks like a couple of big fire pits outlined in cinder blocks, and a blanket station for each chef with pots, pans and utensils. Each chef also has a cooler full of ingredients. Frank interviews his dismay; quiche and fire pits don't go together. Sam is also bummed; if he had known about the fire pit, he would have chosen something different. Well, yes, that was kind of the point.

Padma welcomes them and confirms their suspicions. Chef Raphael is still the guest judge, but since he's a former professional surfer, he's out enjoying the waves. Padma gives the chefs 45 minutes to cook. The surfers will fill out survey cards, which will be considered in the judging. Elia recaps the equipment setup. The chefs get to work. Mia drops her salt into the sand. Cliff interviews that the sand was a real problem as they tried to move around. Frank drops some strawberries in the sand. Mia clashes with Marcel as she claims a spot for her pan over the pit. Marcel interviews that Mia was "losing it" -- not even close -- and immunity isn't going to keep him from going for the win. Mia interviews that she's feeling good, with her chuck wagon and barbeque experience. She describes the importance of "regulating your heat" so there aren't too many hot or cold spots. Which I can see being difficult over an open flame.

Michael discovers that he forgot to bring his eggs. Of course he did. Frank interviews that Michael is his "dumb little brother" and he's shocked Michael is still competing. Me, too, but no need to be so happy about it. Michael half-heartedly asks if anyone can spare an egg. Betty interviews that she felt sorry for him, so she took stock. Michael announces that he can manage without them, but Betty volunteers some. She says that's what you do in a kitchen. Well, if you're not competing, then yeah, everyone pulls together. Sam and Cliff also make donations, and Michael is good to go again. That was nice, but I'm tired enough of Michael that I sort of wish they'd let him stew in his own ineptitude.

Frank eventually gives up on the pie crusts and has to find another approach. Ilan interviews that Frank was the only one he could see as he worked, and he saw the quiche idea crash. The sea gulls converge to scavenge the abandoned crusts. Elia is making a familiar dish (to her, anyway) involving a waffle, cheese, a fried egg, honey and olive oil. She promises it will be good. Mia figures surfers must like seafood, so she's confident in her crab cakes Benedict and mango cream sauce. I don't like seafood, but that does sound like a good breakfast dish. Sam was going for green eggs and ham, but his pesto turned brown when he added the eggs and he had to adapt his concept.

More cooking. The chefs also have to print up a little memo board with their dish. Padma calls time and a long line of surfers advances. Apparently the chefs were asked to cook for ten people, and they wound up with around forty. But not all the surfers are going to eat all the dishes, so I think it works out. Cliff recaps the surfer invasion. Sam is bummed because he wouldn't serve what he made, and he's sure he's doomed.

Betty recaps the surfer invasion. Mia recaps the challenge. She reports that her dish was really popular. Chef Tom schmoozes with some surfer chicks. The judges line up in front of a surfboard table. Elia reports that her dish was also popular. Ilan also has something of a crowd of customers. Betty interviews that she saw some of the guys looking like they were having a hard time, and her dish looked pretty good in comparison.

The surfers fill out comment cards. Elia's dish is praised for being just the right size -- filling, but not too filling. A surfer complains that everything fell out of the bagel hole on Sam's dish. Sam and Michael talk; Michael assures him that he's not getting the boot. Sam interviews gloom and doom anyway; his only hope is someone else doing worse.

Elia and Mia nudge each other to go play in the ocean. Mia reports that they had made a pact to get in the water. So they do. Betty also frolics with them. Marcel interviews that nothing would have kept him out, and he accidentally on purpose tackled Elia, which we then see.

Judges' table: Chef Raphael offers some pleased platitudes. Padma thinks the chefs were kind of thrown by the conditions. Chef Tom is surprised that only one dish had sand in it. Gail observes that this shows how difficult it can be to cook an egg well; she still has issues with burned eggs. Chef Tom tells the story of a chef who auditioned cooks by having them make an omelet. He brings up the comment cards filled out by the surfers. Padma reports that their favorites were Ilan, Mia, Elia and Betty. Gail praises Betty as having one of the stronger dishes, and Chef Tom agrees. Padma brings up Mia. Gail says the surfers all loved it. Chef Raphael liked the flavors but feels the presentation needed work. Gail mentions Elia. Chef Raphael thinks it was a risky dish, but she "executed it correctly." Gail found Ilan's dish appealing, even though his eggs were "a little" brown; Chef Tom agrees that the eggs worked in that dish. Chef Raphael thought it was a good portion size for eating and then jumping back into the water.

Padma summons Betty, Mia and Elia. They all look tense until Padma congratulates them. She prods Chef Raphael to talk about Mia's dish; he says it was enjoyable and met the challenge requirements. I don't think he intends to damn her with faint praise, though. Chef Tom announces that it was the surfers' favorite, and that counted towards the top three. Padma turns to Elia's dish. Gail says she was initially concerned that the sweet and salty combination would be overwhelming, but the taste changed her mind. Chef Raphael says it was a good combination, perhaps a bit reminiscent of childhood, and she got the egg yolk right. Gail wants to know how Betty came up with her presentation. She explains that she was trying to retain heat, so she stacked the elements, and then wrapped the delicate eggs. Chef Tom says she did a good job with her scrambled eggs. Padma gives the decision to Chef Raphael, who gives the win to Elia. She interviews that she's pleased. Betty interviews that she was happy to see all women in the top three.

The bottom three: Frank, Sam and Cliff. Ooh, this could be scary. Frank confesses his disappointment in his product and his planning; he originally intended to make a quiche. Gail asks what went wrong and Frank says his eggs were too dry. Gail lists all the things that were wrong with the eggs. She continues that they all liked the cream, but didn't get the connection with the eggs. Frank said the connection would have been there with the quiche, which has a creamier texture. Chef Raphael asks what he would change, and Frank thinks individual omelets would have worked better.

Sam's turn. He was going for a toad in a hole. Gail observes that they all were disappointed in the presentation and this was the surfers' least favorite. Chef Tom asks why he should stay, and Sam says he's a strong chef with good performances so far; this was just a tough challenge. When Chef Raphael asks, he confirms this was the toughest challenge for him. The vending machine challenge was easy, but this was hard. Gail points out that they were testing adaptability. Sam says he just didn't know what he had to work with. The whole thing was a gamble -- Elia chose frozen waffles and that worked, but his gamble didn't pay off. I don't think he's on the chopping block because he chose the wrong ingredients; he's on the block because pesto turns brown when hot and he put big holes in the middle of his bagels.

Gail asks Cliff why he's in front of the judges. He's not sure, but he's guessing presentation. Gail says it looked like it had the least effort, although the flavor was good. Okay, I'm thinking Cliff is safe. The judges like good food. Chef Tom reveals that his was the only dish with sand it in and Cliff doubles over in an "oh, no!" Well, he's a big guy, he probably displaced more sand than the others as he moved around. Chef Tom asks why they should keep him. Cliff says he's not done -- he made a bad decision, but there's no way he's the one getting the boot. Which is cocky, but probably true.

The three leave while the judges debate. Chef Tom was surprised to see three strong contenders -- Frank somewhat less so than the others -- in the bottom three. Chef Raphael thinks Frank can do better, based on his QuickFire performance. Padma thinks he was the most thrown by the fire pits. Gail just can't excuse the eggs. I suspect she'll be having nightmares for months. Chef Tom isn't buying Sam's complaints that the challenge was hard, because his mistakes had nothing to do with cooking his eggs. He made some mistakes in putting the dish together, but those had nothing to do with the fire pits. Gail agrees with pooh-poohing Sam's excuse; everyone else cooked very well and very smartly. Chef Tom thinks Cliff's idea was good, but the presentation was sloppy. Chef Raphael agrees that it was healthy, not greasy at all, but the presentation just wasn't there. The judges reach agreement.

The bottom three return. Chef Tom waxes rhapsodic equating restaurant work with riding waves -- you can't let anything throw you, and if something tries to throw you off, you have to recover with style.. He spanks Frank for not recovering from the loss of his quiche plan, Sam for not reworking his ingredients and Cliff for not doing better. (He does like that Cliff didn't make excuses.) Padma boots Frank. He says they're all welcome at his house. He admits to being the worst of the day, but not the worst of the field. He feels he has learned a lot, but the one thing that stays true is that a chef should be a gentleman. Even when he thinks his toothbrush has been mishandled? Frank's jovial gentleman act strikes me as a public persona that he pulls out as needed. And there's nothing wrong with putting on an act in public -- if pretending to be well-behaved causes you to behave well, I'm all for it -- but what he's covering up is kinda scary sometimes.

Right winner? Mia was the favorite of the surfers, which wasn't enough to carry the day. Chef Raphael thought her presentation needed work, which might be enough to explain why he gave the win to Elia. I think he was impressed that she pulled off something a little trickier and more demanding than Mia's dish. I suspect Elia was also dealing with more complex flavors than Betty, who stuck with more traditional breakfast ingredients. So that makes sense.

Right loser? Frank admitted he was the worst of the day. Sam's dish looked bad, but apparently it tasted well enough and Chef Tom thought the eggs were cooked properly. Cliff also had a good dish, and if he had bothered to do anything interesting with it, he would have been safe. Frank had bad eggs. I suspect Gail will never forgive him.

So the two frontrunners survive to cook another day. Of the two, I prefer Cliff's cockiness to Sam's wah-wah-wah attitude. If being Top Chef involves much talking, I think Sam is sunk.

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