Monday, January 29, 2007


Whole Lotta Luau

Previously on Top Chef: A bunch of chefs showed up to compete. Conflicts! Cliff pinned Marcel. Marcel punched a camera(person?). Cliff had to leave. Marcel proclaimed that it was all about the food. People won. People lost. Sam, Elia, Ilan and Marcel made the finals in Hawaii.

Las Vegas. House of Joël Robuchon. Marcel works in a black and white kitchen. He explains that, despite what the competition looked like, cooking is like a "team sport" with everyone pulling together. A co-worker says she's never seen someone work so hard to keep up with the latest foodie developments. Marcel interviews that he has been "working really hard" in the hiatus. He and two friends (Gary and Kenny) cook busily in a smallish kitchen (looks like a condo/apartment). Marcel explains that they've formed an "super-exclusive gastronomic society." I can't wait to see the secret handshake. They try to advance their skills above what they learn at work. Marcel interviews, "Studying the science of food ultimately makes me a better cook." He explains that the chefs are allowed to bring their own equipment and ingredients. He painstakingly transfers xanthan gum from one Tupperware container to another. "I've got a whole new culinary repertoire to choose from," he announces. So, no more foams? He threatens to make food "they" have never seen. If he means the judges, I'm thinking there's not a lot they've never seen.

In another part of Las Vegas, Elia works at her hotel's restaurant. She interviews that she started researching as soon as she heard the finals would be in Hawaii. In addition to the usual book and Internet resources, she spoke with Hawaiian chefs who worked at the hotel. The assistant manager is all, "She has what it takes." Elia emphasizes that she really wants to win. As opposed to just sort of wanting to win, I suppose. At home (unless it's her parents' house), the walls are covered with medals and certificates. The medals are from swimming. Elia claims she was two seconds away from qualifying for the Olympics. I only watch swimming at the Olympics, but two seconds is easily the difference between first and eighth place, so not that close. She switched her passion to cooking. She interviews that she's not thinking about losing.

New York. Ilan has gone back to his usual routine, working at his Spanish restaurant. The chef/owner is proud to say that Ilan has "put his stamp" on the menu. Ilan has been researching Hawaiian food, but "not too much" because he doesn't want his brain to explode. (I'm paraphrasing.) Back in his typical tiny apartment, a nice-looking dog watches him pack. Ilan says he wants to win the money and the publicity. "I think I deserve it," he says. Okay, other than an outsized sense of entitlement or beating out the rest of the field, what makes someone "deserve" to win a competition?

Sam interviews that he tracked down one of Chef Tom's former pastry chefs and begged her to teach him. His teacher praises him for his work habits and lack of ego ("in the kitchen"). Sam interviews that his main competition is himself; he has to manage his nerves. He packs a bunch of ingredients in his suitcase as his dog watches. He knows how to cook, so he's going to go do that.

At the Los Angeles airport, Sam checks in and discovers that he'll be flying first class. He interviews that he has already gotten "a lot of buzz" from the show. Elia arrives. She interviews it was good to see him again. Ilan arrives. More hugs. Ilan interviews that he has never been to Hawaii. Since Sam and Elia have already claimed their seats, Ilan realizes that he'll be sitting next to Marcel, who arrives at the airport next. He interviews that it surprised him to be seen as the villan and outcast. Huh. Back in the GiantChainRestaurant episode, he told Elia that he expected to be the "odd man out." I suppose he was expecting to be the outsider from choice rather than rejection. Greetings are exchanged but no hugs. Marcel interviews that it's a competition, so there's tension. Elia reviews that Marcel aggravated people during the show. She explains, "I've been putting up with it because he has never been a threat for me." She could mean that he was beneath her notice, which doesn't sound quite right; she did stick up for him at times. (I suspect, from other comments, she means that he didn't do aggravating things to her.)

The chefs get a special appetizer created by Chef Roy Yamaguchi, who is a Hawaiian culinary star. Marcel interviews that it's strange to be sitting next to Ilan since he has started watching the show; Ilan is friendly in person but who knows that he's doing "behind my back." But it would be even more unpleasant if Ilan did the "behind your back" stuff to your face, so don't pooh-pooh the upside of hypocrisy. Ilan interviews that he'd thought he'd have gotten over his unhealthy Marcel obsession during hiatus (paraphrasing again) but he's "sick of him already." Yes, it's amazing how annoying people just pick up where they left off, Ilan.

Beauty shots of Hawaii. The chefs are greeted by Pilialoha Gaison, Miss Hawaii. She's wearing her tiara and sash, so she's all official. Marcel interviews that she told them they were getting a special lunch; he was half-expecting to have to cook something in an airplane hangar. Miss Hawaii leads them to a helicopter. Elia is psyched. She interviews her happiness. Sam confesses to feeling a little wimpy. Miss Hawaii gets left behind. Elia describes the view. Elia, Ilan and Sam have the back seats and they're yelling with excitement. Sam interviews that he was clinging to Ilan's leg at one point, "freaking out." Ilan describes flying into a valley. The helicopter lands and the chefs walk over to the judges. Along with Chef Tom and Gail, Padma introduces Chef Alan Wong. Chef Wong says they're in Waipio Valley, which is a "special and spiritual place." This is where the first Polynesians landed, and it's also a taro farm. He has prepared traditional Hawaiian food for their lunch. Ilan does the "ooh-ahh" interview.

But first, a traditional blessing. Elia recaps; everyone holds hands as a Hawaiian woman prays aloud. Marcel recaps the spread of food. Chef Wong explains that poi was a sacred food; they have poi made from breadfruit, sweet potato and taro root. Every part of the taro plant has to be cooked thoroughly or a chemical will cause the throat to itch. Ilan interviews that it was nice to have a chance to eat the food he's been reading about, since you don't find real Hawaiian food much outside Hawaii. Lau lau is a dish with any kind of meat wrapped in taro leaves. The lomi lomi salmon looks a lot like salsa. Poke is cubes of raw fish. Elia recaps how Chef Wong told them all about the food and that's what is "beautiful" about being a chef -- "Food tells a story."

Padma winds up the lunch, sending the chefs off to the hotel. Next day, she and Chef Wong will get them started on the elimination round. The chefs are all, "Whoa, reality check." Elia interviews that this is when they all realized that not all four would make it to the finale. Well, that depends on whether you call this the last round before the finale or the first round of the two-part finale. Elia says it's kind of sad, but "someone has to win and someone has to lose." Yup, that's the way it works.

The helicopter takes the chefs to the resort. A bunch of rocks spell out "Top Chef." Sam recaps the arrival. The chefs check out their suite. They find two bottles of champagne on ice. Run, Marcel! Remember what happened the last time these people got drunk? But they all have a big toast. Elia, Marcel, Sam and Ilan interview about their anticipation. Everyone goes to bed.

The kitchen has been set up on a big, open stone patio. Hope it doesn't rain. Padma welcomes them. Chef Wong explains that his birthday was the previous day, and the chefs get to prepare the food for his birthday luau tonight. Padma explains that they have to prepare traditional Hawaiian dishes but with their own interpretation. Chef Wong has invited 30 guests, and they're expecting good food. Padma assigns three hours to create two dishes. The criteria: taste, presentation and invention. The judges will boot two chefs at the end. And go!

Ilan recaps the jangle of emotions as the chefs run around. Elia turns on the front left burner of the big gas range. (This will matter later.) Marcel is impressed with the hamachi and the salmon, so his picks them to work with. He's making a lomi lomi salmon of seared salmon with tomato water and chili pepper foam, and hamachi poke with pineapple poi. Sam claims the opakapaka (Hawaiian snapper) to make a poke with sea beans; he also found mascarpone cheese for a mascarpone mousse with Hawaiian salted coconut milk and citrus tuile. He explains that he usually does both sweet and savory, and the judges want to see their styles. Elia falls in love with a tuna filet, so she'll make an ahi poke with olives, capers and lemon confit (which she calls "Mediterranean flavors") and her special tuna juice. For her second dish, a luau of snapper steamed in ti leaves with carrots and bell peppers. Ilan likes the lau lau, so he's boiling up some taro leaves for a long time, just as Chef Wong advised. His version will have squid and morcilla (blood sausage). He'll also do a dessert with coconut and saffron.

Elia interviews that she has never made Hawaiian food, so the luncheon was a big help. Ilan begins working on his dessert; it will really be a blend of Hawaiian and Spanish. Marcel is psyched to be using his gadgets and goodies for a change. He'll be using a few "bumps" of xanthan gum to create a poi-like texture from fresh pineapple without sacrificing the fresh taste. Sam pooh-poohs Marcel's use of chemicals; he could make "rat crap" look nice, but how would it taste?

Chef Tom arrives to check up. Sam explains his dishes. Chef Tom sums it up as "kind of halfway between tradition and new stuff." Sam figures that was the challenge. Elia is working on her snapper in ti leaves. She's going to sear her tuna, even though she knows poke should be raw, and then add her "Mediterranean flavors." Chef Tom figures seared poke could be her twist on it. Chef Tom teases Marcel about his "experiment;" he's making tomato foam. Chef Tom suspects this is the first time Hawaiian food has been made with a thermal immersion circulator. He doesn't seem disparaging of the molecular gastronomy approach; his joking comes from it being Marcel's shtik, I think. Ilan is doing a version of haupia for his dessert, and then he's working on a lau lau. Chef Tom recaps it as Hawaiian food with Spanish flavors. Out by the pool, he sums up the main ideas of the contestants. He thinks Sam is "playing it safe" by not introducing many new flavors, unlike Elia and Ilan with their Mediterranean and Spanish influences. Marcel is deconstructing, making lots of little pieces. He's happy to see them all busy with cooking and not "backstabbing."

So, Ilan's pan is on fire. He looks for a place to dump it and winds up setting on the stone floor. Marcel teases, "Ilan, you should have done that for the flambé challenge." Later(?), Ilan points and says, "Can somebody stop turning this to low?" Marcel agrees to stop. Ilan interviews that the "animosity" towards Marcel is because he acts superior when everyone -- including Marcel -- "knows he's not." Elia wonders who moved her steamer. Marcel says he did; there wasn't any heat under it and he says he announced it when he did it. Well, there's steam coming out of it, so it got hot somehow. Elia recaps that Marcel moved her "handcrafted steamer." She complains about his failure to respect "the dynamics in the kitchen." She's fed up with it. Marcel asks, "It's okay?" Elia does not reassure him. If Marcel has always been fiddly with other people's stuff, I can't blame them for wanting to feed him hair-first into a meat grinder. (I could blame them if they actually did it, but it's hard enough to correct people's behavior without having to police their thoughts, too.)

Night falls. Sam interviews that when it's 10 minutes to serving, he gets nervous even when he's working well because it's "go time." Elia explains that she was going to sear her tuna, but she ran out of time. Guests arrive. Miss Hawaii is wearing her tiara but not her sash, so perhaps she's incognito. Plating starts. The timer goes off.

Marcel interviews that his "adrenaline is pumping." Elia is feeling confident; she does this every day. Chef Wong welcomes the guests and explains the challenge. Ilan interviews that he didn't have everything ready when the timer went off. I'm surprised I haven't seen a rehash of the great "Tiffani should be disqualified because she continued to plate after the timer went off" debate. I figure, if there isn't a disqualification, there wasn't a rule. Sam is the first to serve the judges.

The judges visit Elia next. She interviews that she had everything "done traditionally" -- presumably, with traditional techniques -- while having her own flavors. She feels confident, given the guests' reactions. One diner gives her a big thumbs up across the patio.

Marcel's turn. He's happy to be able to explain to the guests what he was doing. Elia interviews that Marcel spent a loooooong time explaining the dish to the diners while he's plating. Marcel, stop turning into Stephen! One is enough. Marcel interviews that he wasn't trying to charm people, but a charismatic delivery comes naturally to him. If he means "charismatic" in the sense of "evangelical," I'll let that pass. Otherwise, you don't get to claim you're charismatic. He continues that he's just trying to respect the people and the culture and the food, but with his style. Guests make happy noises. Ilan interviews that Marcel's food probably tasted good, but it was "extremely deconstructed, maybe destructively deconstructed."

Last up is Ilan. He thinks his food has "high quality" and strong flavors, and he's proud of his creativity.

Ilan mopes to Sam that his plate "wasn't beautiful." Sam scoffs. Ilan interviews that he tries to ignore the guests' reactions. A fire dancer winds up the festivities. All the chefs interview their anxiety/anticipation.

[Sam wins Fan Favorite and collects $10,000. This is not a huge surprise.]

Judges' table. As usual, Padma asks the guest chef for his impressions. (Happy birthday! Now dash the aspirations of two chefs who just cooked for you.) He's very happy; everything was "perfect." Except for all the little nitpicky things the judges are about to point out. Padma thinks the decision will be a hard one. Chef Wong enjoyed Sam's version of haupia. Chef Tom nominates Ilan's lau lau; he's impressed that Ilan attempted the taro. Gail brings up Marcel. Padma thinks the pineapple poi was a stretch. Chef Wong reviews his poi lecture and agrees that pineapple poi is "kind of a stretch." Gail liked the airy texture, but Padma found it runny and it didn't work for her. Chef Wong found Elia's olives creative. Chef Tom complains that it wasn't Hawaiian. Chef Wong gives them all credit for doing so well in the allotted time. Chef Tom decides it's time to grill the chefs.

Chef Wong thanks them all for his party. Chef Tom compliments them for the overall excellence. Gail thought their personalities really came through. Marcel goes first. Padma asks how he chose his ingredients, and he explains how he fell in love with his proteins. Chef Wong asks if he put any onion in the tomato water; that would have kicked it up a notch. Padma asks about his pineapple poi; he explains that he was trying to preserve the freshness of the pineapple. Chef Tom compliments him for using an over-used technique in an appropriate way, since it was the only method to accomplish that dish. Chef Wong calls it "adventurous."

Elia enjoyed the chance to experience authentic Hawaiian food. She was happy with her tuna juice, which Padma agrees was "very creative." She thinks she took a risk in cooking the snapper with traditional methods. Gail agrees that the fish was beautifully cooked, but the method reminded them of a traditional French method, which is something Elia could pull off. Chef Tom talks about the poke straying too far from the traditional. Elia says she wanted them to taste her style. Padma reminds her that they were supposed to use the Hawaiian flavors; Elia thinks she did.

Padma prompts Ilan to talk about the Spanish influences. He says his first dish was sort of a cross between a luau and a lau lau. He used sausage that he had made and tried to separate the layers of flavors. Gail points out that he was the only one to use meat and the only one to use taro leaves. She likes the bold flavors. Chef Tom thinks this is how Hawaiian food would taste if the Spanish had arrived a few hundred years ago. Padma brings up the itch. Chef Tom didn't get that, but Chef Wong says everyone reacts differently. Padma asks about the croqueta and Chef Wong would have liked it better without saffron, just because it's not a big Hawaiian ingredient. Ilan said he's had a lot of saffron and coconut dishes, so he wanted something he knew would work.

Sam explains how he took a risk in using mascarpone cheese to replicate haupia. Padma calls it "spot on" and Chef Wong also loved it, especially the balance of the salt. Gail really liked the pickled sea beans in the poke; they were very Sam. Chef Wong liked it, but maybe just a little more yuzu. Sam is surprised; he thought if anything they would say he used too much yuzu. Chef Tom thinks his knife skills were a bit lacking; the opakapaka was a little ragged.

The chefs go away. Chef Tom asks about favorites. Gail proposes Marcel's poke, which was Chef Tom's favorite poke. Gail says it showed a lot of thought. Chef Wong pegs him as a thinker, and Gail says sometimes he's an overthinker, but this worked. Home run!

The three non-Marcel chefs sit around a table and complain about him. Ilan claims he was on the chopping block a lot and Elia thinks he's "rude" and "disrespectful." He was cheating all the time. Ilan wants Elia to back him if he speaks up. This is their last chance to say something. Sam advises the cheating angle.

Chef Tom gets consensus that Elia strayed too far from traditional Hawaiian. If he had eaten her poke in New York, it wouldn't have made him think of Hawaii. Chef Wong observes that she used very European vegetables in her snapper dish.

Time to talk about Sam and Ilan. Chef Tom complains that Sam didn't actually cook anything. Padma doesn't care, but Chef Tom laughs, "It's a cooking competition!" He didn't find any progression of flavors. Padma disagrees; Sam just didn't use heat. Chef Tom argues that he took the "easy way out." (Cooking provides more opportunity for things to go wrong, so it's riskier.) Chef Wong is surprised to realize that he didn't cook. Gail wonders if Ilan was playing it safe; using Spanish is bold, but that's what he does everyday, so it's not a stretch for him. Chef Wong observes that coconut milk is common to many cuisines, so the saffron took it out of the Hawaiian realm. Gail thought it was great; the filling did taste like haupia. Chef Tom points out that he was the only one to use taro; that's his nomination for his favorite. Gail is finding it hard to choose. Padma observes that Sam has the most QuickFire wins but Ilan has more Elimination wins.

The chefs return to learn their fates. Chef Tom says they're not picking two losers but two winners. He compliments Sam's dessert for the flavor and the yuzu in the poke. Ilan is praised for using taro and Spanish flavors. He compliments Elia's fish, although the Hawaiian flavors could have been stronger. He thinks Marcel found the right way to use his techniques. But two will have to get the boot.

Ilan starts whispering to Elia, and Padma has this wonderful look of apprehension. Finally, Ilan speaks up that he was talking with Elia. She doesn't know "if it's worth it to be said or not." She waffles. Ilan jumps in that they "all feel" that some people "disrespect the kitchen and disrespect food." Chef Tom closes his eyes like he's praying for a volcano to swallow them, or him, or anybody, to make it stop. Ilan and Elia manage to say that someone tried to "gain an advantage." Marcel's like, go ahead, talk about me. Elia says, "Come on, Marcel. You cheated several times." Chef Tom asks if they're talking about that round. Elia says no, today was just the usual annoying crap, like Marcel moving her steamer. Marcel protests that the burner wasn't on. Although from the steam, it looks like the burner was on at one point. I don't know if the product-placed stoves are rated for outdoor cooking in windy areas. Elia says he didn't ask before moving it, but Marcel says he checked first. Chef Tom wants to know if it injured her dish, and Elia disclaims. She looks at the others and asks, "Am I the only one here?" Sam suggests waiting to see what the judges say. Gail asks for specifics, but Elia can't think of anything. Gail says it's hard to make a determination without facts. Elia agrees; it's just an example of his behavior. Chef Tom protests that they aren't judging the behavior, they're judging the food. He doesn't care. Elia says, "It's hard to hear that, but it's cool." If you're going to accuse someone of cheating, you need to have the specifics to back it up. Otherwise, don't waste your time. And if someone cheats, don't wait until the end of the competition to bring it up. There was a big fuss on Project Runway in the season 3 finale when Laura suspected Jeffrey of cheating, but she brought it up before the final shows and she was able to point to specific things about Jeffrey's clothes that bothered her. (One of the unintended consequences of this season is that people are revisiting their previous standards of villainy.)

Decision time. Padma tells Marcel he's in. Elia barely shakes her head. Elia gets the boot. Ilan kisses her on the cheek. Sam gets the boot. Marcel looks surprised. Ilan is in. There are hugs of congratulation and consolation. Elia interviews that she wasn't trying to save herself; she was Marcel's only friend in the whole competition. I'm not sure they were ever really friends -- more like acquaintances -- and the relationship eventually wore down. Sam interviews that he was surprised, but "for whatever reason" the judges didn't think his dishes stood up. But he is grateful for the experience, and it has definitely helped him. Elia interviews that her lesson learned is to be herself and stand up for her beliefs; she's proud that she didn't compromise herself. So, she really believes that Marcel needs his hair shaved? Marcel interviews that he's glad to be competing against Ilan because now it's personal. Ilan interviews that he has his own motivations to win, but beating Marcel would just make it better. The two stand around a table. Ilan looks forward to making Marcel cry in the next round. Marcel pooh-poohs that Ilan doesn't scare him.

Well, I wonder what they'll do for drama next week?

Right finalists? I have a philosophical difference with the judging. When it comes to naming the best whatever, I think an overall record of excellence is more important than a good day. As far as I can tell, they haven't looked at anyone's record. Padma mentioned that Sam had more QuickFire wins, while Ilan had more Elimination wins, but it didn't sound like that was a factor in the decision. So let's look at the results across the competition:

  1. Sam (flambé), Ilan (mystery box)
  2. Cliff (sushi), Betty (Asian fusion catering)
  3. Cliff (ice cream), Betty (GiantChainRestaurant)
  4. Carlos (vending machine), Frank (Camp Glucose)
  5. Sam (offal), Ilan (leftover lunch)
  6. five (canned goods), Elia (Thanksgiving)
  7. Marcel (raw foods), Elia (surfer breakfast)
  8. Cliff (cocktail/snack), Sam (red carpet cocktail party)
  9. Michael (color), Michael (7 deadly sins)
  10. Sam & Marcel (condiments), none (restaurant)
  11. Sam (chocolate), all (romantic dinner)

I'm ignoring team challenges when noting if people were in the top or bottom, because it's hard to parse out someone's abilities from team performance. However, I'm keeping (but noting separately) the pairings from the leftover lunch challenge.

If we're going strictly by their records, Sam and Elia would be the final two. However, that means the luau challenge didn't matter. So how did that turn out? The judging criteria were taste, presentation and personality. I didn't hear anything about presentation during the judges' table; that's the easiest thing for the view to judge. It sounded like everyone did well on taste, so that wasn't a deciding factor. It seemed to come down to personality or style.

Since Marcel hit a home run for the luau challenge, I would give him a spot in the finals. If there's a clear loser to the challenge (in this case, Elia), that person is out. The remaining spot goes to the person with the best overall record, which would be Sam.

I agree with your assessment. I was quite disappointed when Sam wasn't chosen into the top 2.

Please, PLEASE tell me you're planning on blogging Top Design after you finish up Chef...

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