Sunday, January 14, 2007


Hash Houses

Previously on Top Chef: Padma assigned a seven-course meal inspired by the Seven Deadly Sins; Cliff celebrated. Sam ordered an unimpressed Marcel to buzz off. Betty served sloppy soup. Michael triumphed with envious fish. Marcel got spanked for constant foaming. Ilan got spanked for dissing Marcel's cherries. Betty and her bug eyes got the boot.

Elia interviews how it's odd to have a room to herself now. She's just hoping to make it to the finals, now tantalizingly close. She joins the guys and relates that Mike made Top Chef history with his episode sweep. Mike recaps his achievement. Elia wonders where Marcel is and Mike thinks he's "crying." Sam or Cliff says he's on the roof, "trying to jump."

Actually, he's trying to write. He interviews that he tends to prefer his own company these days. It turns out he has spent some time composing a poem called "These People" which he dedicates to "all the haters." I'm starting to wish he jumped. I contemplated just ignoring the poem. Then I contemplated not transcribing it because the full version (in Bravo's bonus video) is longer and I could "protest" the alteration of the artist's original work, but I'm actually grateful for the editing. So here it goes. Marcel starts performing his creation. I suppose he's treating it as rap, but I'm pretending it's more of a poetry slam because it's just more palatable that way.

"As soon as I came to this spot
You started trying to make me out to be something I'm not.
It's taken every ounce that I got
Not to pop you in the face.
And you have no grounds to base your accusations off of
'Cause your building's built on quicksand.
And you say my food lacks fundamentals like salt 'n' pepa
And I'm like, "Yo, man, whateva!"
I don't even get stressed
Because I know at the end of the day
My food is (bleep)in' soigné."

Okay, that was just horrid. Nonetheless, Marcel is thoroughly pleased with himself. I'm not entirely sure he should be. Poetic merit aside, he's playing the same "aren't they awful?" audience conspiracy game that Betty and Ilan have been playing (or trying to play). I liked it better when he was just keeping it about the food.

The chefs head off to the kitchens. Padma is there with Mike Yakura, the taste test/pushcart judge from last year, formerly with Le Colonial and now associated with Sutra and Aura. Sadly, he has shaved all his hair except for a skunk-like stripe down the middle, and he is not wearing a bowling shirt. Padma babbles about vision and execution. The QuickFire challenge is to use the product-placed condiments (mayonnaise, Italian dressing and barbeque sauce) and other selected ingredients to create "the humblest form of culinary life: the snack." I thought junk food was the lowest form of culinary achievement. Snacks are really not that different from canapés or appetizers, and they've done those repeatedly. Cliff interviews that everyone was a little iffy about the challenge because 'it's mayo," which doesn't get used much in gourmet cooking. But mayonnaise is French! How could it not be gourmet? Chef Mike gives them a few things to think about when it comes to snack construction. Padma gives them 30 minutes to work. And go!

Sam confesses to mayonaisse love; this is what his parents got for sending him to an expensive culinary school. Ilan also uses mayo. Marcel interviews that he found some nice lamb loins, so he's using the mayo in a kebab recipe because "everybody loves meat on a stick." And the debate about Marcel's sexuality (or lack thereof) rages on. Mike interviews that the competition is tough now that they're down to the top six. He also loves mayo, and eats it "right out of the can." Canned mayo? Ewwwwwww. He's confident about his dish. Ilan interviews that he tried foaming some Italian dressing as an "homage" to Marcel. Well, if he's trying to say that Marcel can't foam, that would work. Otherwise, I can't imagine why he'd think he could get anything as oily as Italian dressing to foam. Shoulda tried the barbeque sauce, dude.

Padma calls time. The hands up look like a robbery where everyone is humoring the bank robbers. Marcel interviews that he was confident when he saw what the others had done. This is no time to be turning into Stephen, dude, not when you're so close to the finals.

Padma asks Chef Mike for a review. Mike gets bopped for being too busy and too heavy-handed with the mayo. Ilan's dish was too dry with the tortilla and the salmon and not enough sauce. Sam is complimented for his take on a lobster po' boy and for using all three condiments. Elia gets praise for a "clean" dish with nice flavors. Marcel's technique gets a nod; the mayo improved the dish. Cliff is praised for his "ingenious" use of mayo in the tartare. Padma announces that there will be two winners, who will both get "a special prize." Chef Mike chooses Sam (who interviews that his "love of mayonnaise really came through" for him) and Marcel (who interviews that he "kicked ass"). Sam and Marcel shake hands and offer congratulations. This convinces me that, although Sam dislikes Marcel, he has not boarded Betty and Ilan's crazy train of hate, where all pretense of civility has vanished.

The Elimination challenge is a rehash of last year's Restaurant Wars. As their prize for winning, Sam and Marcel get to choose teams. For reasons unknown, Marcel gets to go first and naturally chooses Elia. He interviews that he knows they work well together, with no personal issues. Sam picks Ilan. I'm not sure why he didn't pick Cliff, with whom he worked on the Social/Stifler's mom challenge, forcing Marcel to choose between Ilan and Mike. I'm guessing Sam doesn't play chess. Marcel tells Mike that he doesn't want him to feel like the last guy picked at dodge ball (Mike: "Oh, please") but he picks Cliff. Mike celebrates his inclusion on Team Sam. Cliff interviews that he has wanted "to hit Marcel more than five times" since meeting him, but he'll tolerate him in order to win. This ought to go well. Padma sends them off to inspect their space and meet with designers. They'll shop and cook the next day, and then serve with the help of a waiter. Ilan interviews that it's a "very difficult challenge." Well, at this stage in the game, I should hope so. I actually like this challenge, even though it's a team challenge, because they have to do more than just cook. So I don't mind the repetition. I just hope we don't get Return of the Zombie Wedding Caterers next week.

Product-placed vehicles cruise down the street. In the Team Marcel car, Elia wonders what they're going to do. Marcel interviews that this is the Restaurant Wars challenge, for those of you still catching up. Elia pitches that she's a fast cook, or she could handle the front of the house. Cliff interviews that teamwork has not been his best attribute, so he's "hoping for the best but expecting the worst." In the car, Cliff volunteers to take front of the house. Elia pouts that she wanted to do it, and in an interview elaborates that she is good with smiling at people. She asks Cliff if there's a particular reason he wants it, and Cliff explains that it's what he does at his restaurant. Elia interviews that she's "not here to fight" but to compete; she tells Cliff he can do it if he really wants to. And then she'll hold a grudge forever. If she's here to compete, then she should compete for the role she wants. Perhaps she doesn't want to put Marcel in the position of having to choose between them, or leave him stuck in the kitchen with Cliff.

In the other car, Sam suggests "rustic Tuscan." He interviews that he's happy with his team because Ilan's a great cook and Mike's a great guy. Yep, there's a ringing endorsement. The discussion has turned to names, and Ilan suggests using their lady friends as inspiration. He interviews that they combined Mike's Lacy, Sam's Lauren and his Carolina to get "Lalalina." Okay, that's just way too precious. If I find out any children are being named Lalalina after this, I'm going to have to smack some parents. They start anticipating the final in Hawaii. Mike hopes he's there, and Marcel is not.

The chefs arrive at a big, empty space, unpainted except for a line down the middle. Sam interviews that he hopes the designers get cracking, because the space needs help. Marcel confirms to Elia that the teams will share the kitchen. It's a pretty big one, at least. Marcel interviews that "we definitely have our work cut out for us." Unfortunately, he pantomimes the last four words (and points to himself only for "us") and I am reminded why charades is not considered a cool game.

Elia recaps the challenge. A graphic lists the details:

Last year, the teams had $1000 to divide up between food and supplies, and those supplies included tablecloths, which seem to come out of the design budget this year. Team Sam meets with their designer, Marla. Sam interviews that whether in real life or on the show, opening a restaurant is "complete insanity." Especially considering the life span of the average restaurant. It's a tough business. Fortunately, people always gotta eat. Sam describes a family-style Italian restaurant, and Marla picks up on the Tuscan aspect. "Think like 80-year-old grandmother in the back," Sam conceptualizes.

Team Marcel confers with their designer, Christine. Elia interviews that they came up with a Mediterranean restaurant. She asks Christine about tablecloths; Marcel says their table looks "diner-ish." He interviews that the space will look great because the designer totally gets what they want to do. They're calling it "Medi." Marcel tells Christine that they'll call her later if they make any adjustments.

Team Sam confirms with Marla that she gets the picture. Sam interviews that it's a big challenge for her, too. Marla takes off. The chefs head back to the lofts to plan. In the car, Elia says that they should have done a diner, with the burger they made the other day. The idea sparks with Marcel and Elia, but Cliff is munching. Elia interviews that she made burgers for the chefs the other day, which they loved, so she proposed the diner idea. Marcel laughs that he can't believe they're changing everything. He interviews that they were just joking around with the diner idea and suddenly it was the concept. By the time they're at the lofts again, Medi has become M.E.C. I'm not sure about Cliff's role in the reconceptualizing; we haven't heard him say anything. But apparently he didn't object. Around the dinner table, Cliff calls Christine to drop the bombshell. Fortunately, she gets on board with the change. Elia interviews that Christine sounds confident, and she feels confident. Marcel confirms that Christine has the "upscale diner" picture and tells her to "run with it." Team Sam is also planning around their table. Mike interviews that they made up their menu and lists of everything, just another step closer to the finals.

Come morning, Ilan is sitting in Betty's old bed while Elia seems to be waking up. They're both wearing sunglasses. I don't know if Ilan is just visiting or if he has actually changed rooms. Anyway, he tells Elia that they both need to be at Hawaii. He interviews that it's elimination day and he has confidence in his team's idea. Back to Elia. He says, "Not to be mean, but I hope that your team loses and Marcel goes home." Elia interviews that Marcel has been having problems with everyone else. But he's her teammate, and she wants to win and go to the finals. Ilan tells her that if they're the losers, she should just blame everything on Marcel. Elia protests that she doesn't want to be on the chopping block ever again. I don't know why Ilan thinks Elia would be willing to conspire against Marcel, so this whole business is just stupid.

Mike interviews that he has the $500 for supplies and the others have the $500 for food, and they all have their lists. Mike asks for help at the store (Charlie's Fixtures again, and I'm sure they're hoping no one will start fighting this time). Sam lays out the Lalalina menu andrecaps the division of labor. Ilan phones Mike, who sends a picture of some bowl choices.

Cliff is handling the supply run for M.E.C. Over the phone, Marcel tells him they're getting beer and root beer for beverages and asks about quantities. Marcel explains that the menu is based on classic diner food.

Mike is on the phone asking about wine, and Sam says they're not doing it. Mike recaps that he called to ask about the wine glass situation and found out the wine had been cut. So he has over $100 left, since the wine glasses were also cut. In the store, Sam frets about not having wine for an Italian restaurant. As well he should. He interviews that he was worried about that, and also worried that Mike "overlooked" something because he had that extra money. Although wine glasses for 24 would have chewed up a lot of the surplus.

Everybody's back at the restaurant. Marcel and Elia are slicing the filling from the Oreos. I'm sure they have now received several strongly worded letters about messing with the pure integrity of the Oreo experience. Out front, Christine is working on the space. Cliff interviews that he was handling the front of the house, so he had to interrupt his prep work to check with her. They confer. Mike interviews that his team is prepping away without anyone being team leader. But then we see Sam ask Ilan if their designer (or "that girl," if you're Sam) has arrived. Ilan pops out and pops back to report she hasn't. Sam interviews that they haven't spoken to her since the day before, and their space still needs serious help, and they're getting worried.

Team Marcel is prepping together. Elia interviews that she has worked with Cliff before on teams, and he raised his voice during the planning. We hear Cliff react to something with "You just decided on twice." He sound stern, but not angry. Elia interviews that this shows a lack of respect. I don't know, maybe Elia is expecting a competition to work differently than a kitchen, but as far as kitchens go, Cliff's tone is hardly remarkable. I suspect Cliff is one of those laser-focus people who gets really intent on what he needs to do, and changes make him cranky.

Marla arrives and summons Team Sam to see what she's up to. Ilan interviews that she arrived late and then needed to requisition a body. Mike apparently got delegated, but he's not having any luck putting together whatever needs to be assembled. Marcel comes out front to visit Cliff, who's laboring alone while Christine fetches a carpet. Marcel worries because they're just 45 minutes away from opening and things aren't done. Mike warns Marla that he's having no luck with the easel, so she figures she'll get her helper to do it. (So why does she need a chef as well?) Back in the kitchen, Sam suggests Ilan take the bacon off the heat and Ilan reports that it's almost done. Sam interviews that they were short a cook for a long time. Sam is out front telling Mike that he'll get him in about 20 minutes when Chef Tom strolls in. Mike reports that everything is "crazy, trying to open up a restaurant" and Chef Tom jokes that he has some experience with that. Marla gives the status on the decor. Chef Tom asks if Mike has been helping or whatever, and Marla goes with the "whatever" and laughs. It looks like she's going to give Mike his props, but Sam seizes the opportunity to reclaim him. They return to the smell of burnt bacon. Sam gets Ilan's attention; he's working with plates of something. Sam tells him to throw out the bacon. Ilan interviews that he was distracted doing three things at once, and lost track. He apologizes to Sam, who interviews that it threw them off schedule.

Chef Tom arrives, with the aroma of burnt bacon still lingering in the air. Ilan has to 'fess up and Chef Tom chides him to keep track of stuff. Chef Tom checks in with Marcel, whom he had not figured for a "diner guy." Marcel agrees, but they revisited their idea based on their target market and they're hoping to pull it off. Out front, Chef Tom is perplexed that a diner is presenting an amuse bouche -- "in a diner, your amuse is a cup of coffee." But otherwise, he thinks the food fits the diner concept. As for the other team, Ilan burned the bacon and Mike's prep skills are uneven, so Sam's nervous. Chef Tom talks about execution again; diners will excuse a lot of flaws if the food is good enough.

Last-minute rushing about. Elia pipes bright yellow goo onto circles of Oreo crumbs; my appetite is not whetted. Lots of cooking and sweeping and adjusting. Finally the timer beeps and Marcel announces that they're open. He interviews that prep time was over, the front still needed some work, but the food was ready to go. Cliff rehearses their server on the table layout. Ilan interviews that the customers got to look over the menus to select a restaurant; he had one of Elia's burgers, so he's worried about the competition. Team Sam has a much nicer-looking menu than Team Marcel. One woman is intrigued by the watermelon gnocchi and a man figures you can get a burger anywhere. Mike interviews that once the customers showed up, it was just like being at work. Cliff interviews that Lalalina filled up with people, so he was worried. A man interviews that they had chosen the Italian option because it seemed "more adventurous" but the place was full, so they wound up at the diner.

M.E.C.'s waiter offers a choice of beer or root beer float. Ilan greets some customers at Lalalina, where the customers find little bowls of olives. One man has an olive seed, which he has no place to put except on the side of the table. Ilan interviews that he's never handled the front of the house, but he thinks none of the others have, either, so he decided to give it a try. The meatball is served, and someone comments that now they have a place to put the olive pit. Another table makes optimistic comments about a wine list.

The judges arrive at M.E.C. Cliff interviews that FOH is a big challenge, which he embraced. The judges wait for service. Cliff serves other people. He interviews that things were busy, so he concentrated on serving food, and he might have overextended himself. The judges wait. The server stops at the judges' table to review the menu and presumably get their drink orders. Elia announces that she has food ready. Marcel interviews that Cliff didn't do a good job expediting orders and he's not sure why Cliff took on the job. After 10 minutes of waiting, the judges have drinks poured by Cliff. Gail asks how things are going and Cliff says it's going well. Chef Mike wonders how long it takes to cook a wing.

Sam gives Mike some instructions while Ilan serves the second course. One woman complains that it's "salty, way overdone." Sam instructs Mike some more. Mike interviews that Sam is "freaking out a little bit;" he's a line cook and he'll be a team player, because that's how you survive a team challenge. Mike continues to not work up to Sam's standards. Sam interviews that Mike is a line cook (which is apparently not all that impressive) and he's been helping him out, but now he's tired of it.

At the 18 minute mark, the judges get their chicken wings. Padma is not impressed with the sauce, and it seems the chicken isn't thoroughly cooked (Chef Mike calls it "mid-rare"). Cliff serves up some tempura vegetables. A couple of customers are impressed and the judges react well. Cliff checks with Elia about some burgers and she warns him that they've been sitting for several minutes. Elia interviews that her burgers kept waiting for delivery, so they were overcooked when they finally went out. Marcel interviews that Cliff was struggling and FOH is not his thing. The judges get their burgers. Gail doesn't think that it's the best burger ever, and it's too well-done. Padma likes the chips. Chef Mike and Chef Tom find good things to say about the burger. A customer calls it "delicious." Back in the kitchen, Cliff tells Elia, "Just give it to me." Elia protests, "Don't raise your voice." I don't think he did. The volume didn't seem to change; he just got more emphatic. Elia interviews that Cliff has temper problems and she hadn't seen this "air of superiority" before. The judges get their desserts. Chef Mike thinks it tastes like a crushed Oreo, and Chef Tom confirms. The M.E.C. customers fill out comment cards. One woman didn't care for the dessert. A man compliments the "veggies" but didn't like the chicken. The judges rise from their table. Cliff interviews that he's not feeling entirely confident. The M.E.C. menu:

  1. Barbeque/coffee chicken wing
  2. Tempura vegetables & mozzarella with cornichon aioli
  3. "The Best Burger Ever" with prosciutto and mushrooms served with homemade potato chips
  4. Oreo lemon pie

Given how long the judges had to wait at M.E.C., I suspect service is almost over at Lalalina. Perhaps they should have sent two judges to each place, and then switched. Ilan explains the name. Padma spots an olive pit sitting on the table. The server distributes water and also offers Italian orange/tangerine soda. Chef Tom wants to grab some beer from the diner. Ilan reports the pit debacle to the kitchen. Chef Mike says, "I'm going to put my bread right here" and drops it on the table at his place. Sam asks the server what the judges are saying, and she reports their desire for beer or wine. Sam worries. Gail thinks the service here is better. The meatball arrives. Padma and Chef Tom prefer it to the burger. Mike flames something on the stove, probably not intentionally. Sam interviews that his work is "amateur night." The linguini arrives. Chef Mike and Chef Tom are not impressed with the dish. Ilan serves the roast pork. Chef Mike asks why the polenta is served on the side and when Ilan circumlocutes, asks if there's "too much (bleep) on the plate." Ilan interviews that it was tough serving the judges. He answers Chef Mike that they thought it would look better. In other words, too much (bleep) on the plate. Ilan interviews that Chef Mike was rude, and the FOH guy just has to roll with it. A customer finds the pork a little bland. Ilan offers advice on the dessert, which is being torched. Mike interviews that Sam doesn't think he can brûlée, so he's like, here, take the torch, let's get it done. Sam tells Mike, "It's not that I don't trust your brûlée skills, dude." Which means he totally doesn't trust Mike's brûlée skills. Sam interviews that he was experimenting some months ago with watermelon and Gorgonzola, which turned out well. The team liked the idea, and he hopes the judges do, too. The customers are a bit leery. Chef Mike likes the salt, which brings out the sweetness of the watermelon, but that's it. Sam peeks out and relates he's not seeing a great reaction from the judges. The server passes out comment cards. Ilan interviews that service went well, but not so much the food, so he's worried about the comments. One woman wanted more information about a dish, and a man wonders if he should ask if the chef was on crack. The Lalalina menu:

  1. Fried meatball on toast with parsley pesto and sugar-roasted yellow tomato
  2. Linguini with walnut parsley pesto and roasted mushrooms
  3. Roasted pork loin with sofrito sauce, bacon-roasted Brussels sprouts, creamy polenta
  4. Watermelon 'gnocchi' with Cabrales and asiago cream

In the kitchen, Marcel and Elia ponder the odds of making the finals. Marcel interviews that he feels good about the food, but he's not happy with the service. He thinks "anybody" could have done better. Even Mike? Who's rallying his teammates with good thoughts. He interviews that he's feeling confident because they had a real restaurant, while anybody can make a burger.

Judges' table. Padma turns to Chef Mike for his impressions. He saw personality in their QuickFire dishes, but not in their restaurants. Gail was excited by the diner concept but was let down by the food. Chef Tom points out that most of the customers went for the Italian concept, so the idea was strong but not the execution. Padma grumps about her olive pit, and Gail blames the lack of dishware. Padma also grumps about the absence of wine. Chef Tom calls it a lack of follow-through. Gail wonders how Cliff and Ilan got chosen for the FOH jobs; they weren't strong presences. Chef Tom does a head-to-head comparison of the menus. The meatball wins over the chicken; Chef Tom thinks it might be the top dish. The tempura vegetables win over the pasta. Chef Tom felt the pork dish was incomplete, but the burger wasn't the best he'd had. I guess we'll count that as a draw. Gail claims the watermelon dish turned her stomach, but the Oreo lemon pie didn't impress anyone. Chef Tom grumps that they finally got some interesting food in the previous challenge, and now the contestants are back to coasting. He doesn't see a winner.

Padma summons the Lalalina crew. Elia wishes them luck and then wonders how her team lost. Padma starts off by saying Team Sam didn't win. Gail reads comments about the lack of wine and the weirdness of the dessert; the comments express the judges' reactions, too. Chef Tom asks about the concept, and Sam says it was "a rustic Italian sort of -." Chef Tom interrupts, "Sort of is not a concept." Sam sticks with "rustic Italian." Padma asks who owns the olive idea, and Mike indicates it came up in team discussion. Chef Tom complains about the lack of dishes for the pits and the bread. Mike was the supply shopper; he spent about $400 and the wine glasses would have cost $75. Chef Mike jumps on the lack of wine glasses and corresponding lack of wine. Chef Tom gets back to the shopping; Mike just stuck to his list. Chef Tom asks who made the first course and the team indicates a team effort. Chef Mike asks about the meatball part and Ilan cautiously volunteers. Chef Mike says it was good, maybe the best thing they ate. Gail brings up the front of the house; what does Ilan think it involves? He figures he's there to keep everyone happy. Chef Tom was looking for more enthusiasm; Ilan thinks he sold the food and was "proper" but Chef Tom would have liked more warmth. He brings up the dessert; it made a bad impression at the end of the meal and probably dropped their scores. Sam protests that if he were a big-name chef, the dish "would be huge." Gail disagrees; it just didn't come together.

Sam sends in the other team, wishing them a heartfelt "Good luck." He reveals that someone is going home from either of the teams. Ilan fondles a cleaver. That cannot end well.

Padma announces that nobody won. She asks about concept; Marcel credits Elia. Chef Tom wants to find out who did what. Marcel claims responsibility for the idea of the amuse, and they decided on the sauce. Cliff slightly shakes his head and Chef Tom asks. Elia says the sauce was Cliff's. Cliff says it sounds like Marcel is taking credit and he should be careful about that. Marcel clarifies that he cooked the chicken. Chef Tom says it was raw. Marcel is surprised and embarrassed. He also takes credit for the tempura, which the judges liked. Elia thinks the burger went pretty well, but Chef Tom says the parsley and onions were too coarsely chopped. Padma reads a comment that the burger seemed more like a meatloaf. Gail asks why Cliff went for the FOH job; Cliff says he wanted the challenge. (At least he didn't say he couldn't stand sharing a kitchen with Marcel.) Gail asks about the pace. Cliff thought it was going smoothly until the judges arrived, but perhaps he was too optimistic. Gail asked what happened then, and Cliff is waiting to hear that from the judges. Padma mentions the wait. Chef Mike needed more friendliness. Padma asks Cliff if he thinks he should get the boot, and of course he says no. Chef Mike asks who should get the boot, and Cliff orders, "Choose one of them." Bzzt! Wrong answer. When the judges ask that, they're not taking a vote. They're looking at how well you assess performances and contributions. But Cliff has his laser focus on getting to the finals, so that's not what he's thinking about. Padma sends them out.

Cliff sums up the experience: "Just when you thought it was that bad, it gets worse."

The judges run through the candidates to assess bootability. Padma starts with Cliff, who "barely acknowledged us." Chef Tom says he's not FOH material, and Gail agrees. Chef Tom thinks Ilan did a lot of work. Gail calls Sam's dessert a complete failure. Chef Tom thinks Marcel did a lot of work, but made mistakes -- specifically the chicken. But Gail nominates his tempura as top dish of the evening. Chef Tom gives Elia props for the diner concept, and the burger was decent, and she took on the dessert. He's not sure what Mike's contribution was. Chef Mike says he hewed to the list instead of making decisions. Chef Tom reiterates his impression that the chefs are trying not to lose instead of trying to win.

All six chefs line up before the judges. Chef Tom gives Elia credit for taking a chance on the diner concept, even if she didn't execute well. She's dismissed. Ilan did a lot of cooking plus he took on the FOH job, so he's dismissed. Marcel was another workhorse, and if he messed up the chicken, he didn't mess up the tempura. He's dismissed. Chef Tom reviews the bottom three. Cliff couldn't handle the FOH job and jeopardized his team. Chef Tom lectures Sam about the flip side of risk-taking -- you have to understand why a dish works (or doesn't). Mike left a lot of money on the table, and Chef Tom suspects he didn't pull his weight. Mike gets the boot. He smiles and tells the judges that "it's been fun." Padma wishes him well as he shakes hands with the rest of the team. Back in the pantry, he hugs the others. He's had a really good time. In a curious literary flight, he compares himself to the pig in Charlotte's Web. If he has a lesson to deliver, it's to "take the laid-back approach. It's cool to stay cool, you know?" If you want to come in sixth.

Right loser? I think so. It doesn't mean that the lack of bread plates was the worst mistake of the night; it means Mike was the worst contributor. When you're opening a restaurant, you need everyone on the team to think about "What do we need to do to pull this off?" and you need them to think about it all the time. Mike was thinking, "How do I get through this?" Which is exactly what Miguel thought last year, and it's exactly why Miguel got the boot. This challenge is specifically designed to get rid of the slackers. Mike was a slacker. Mission accomplished.

Right lack of winner? Yup. Everyone screwed this up. Granted, opening a restaurant is hard, but the teams made it harder. One big problem: the challenge called for a three-course meal, but both teams made four courses. I think this was the source of Chef Tom's coasting complaint; these contestants keep trying to impress by doing more instead of doing better. It was a particularly stupid decision for the Lalalina team. When the money came up short, they chose serving an amuse bouche over serving wine. That's not the way to make an Italian restaurant successful.

The diner team made their lives more difficult with a cooked-to-order entrée. If you open a restaurant and you expect communication between front and back to go smoothly right off the top, you're a nitwit. So why go with a dish that makes coordination and serving more complicated? I don't think of burgers as classic diner anyway. A good meatloaf is more appropriate and stands up better to some waiting around.

The other big menu faux pas was Lalalina's dessert. There's risk enough in opening a restaurant without getting all experimental with the food. Go with something you know will work. And something that fits the menu. The only thing Italian about that dish was the asiago, forget about the "gnocchi" thing. The shape of the watermelon chunks doesn't justify the name, unless you boil them.

During the judges' table, I kept thinking of the scene in Bull Durham where the coach throws bats around the shower room to scare the team out of its complacency. I don't know if the remaining chefs are scared, or what it would take to shake them up and start aspiring. I wonder if the show needs to work on its reward structure. On the second season of Project Runway, they stopped awarding immunity to the challenge winner and the designers turned conservative. On Top Chef, the chefs win immunity in the QuickFire challenge. That's a contest where they have everything to win and nothing to lose, so they can afford to go all out. But what's the incentive to go all out on the Elimination challenge, other than pride? Last year, the six chefs knew ahead of time that they were competing for an opportunity to work the Cannes Film Festival with Jeffrey Chodorow, which was a primo networking opportunity. This year, nothing. As long as they don't get cut, they're still headed for the finals. So there's no incentive to come in first instead of fourth. That needs to change.

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