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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