Tuesday, June 26, 2007


Cooking with Sunshine

Previously on Top Chef: Padma interrupted the meet-and-greet cocktail party with a QuickFire challenge. Micah won. The main challenge was an extreme surf-and-turf. Brian was applauded for choosing rattlesnake and eel. Howie ran out of time. Tre took the win with his ostrich and abalone dish. Howie didn't plate his frog legs; Brian got too complicated; Clay's stuffing was inedible. And Clay got the boot.

I find myself watching the credits now, just to watch CJ bend down to fit in the frame. One of my old college friends is 6'8" (or 5'20" as he puts it), so I almost feel like I know him.

The scenic Miami shots are so much better than the scenic LA shots, but my heart still belongs to San Francisco. However, I still hate shots of people lying around in bed. Boooring. Brian does the "I need to step up" interview. Sandee carefully crafts her mini-mohawk as we learn that she started cooking only three years ago and made the jump from line cook to chef in only two months. Okay, now I'm wondering what kind of restaurant she worked at, because that's not how things generally work. She's learning a lot in "chef camp." Camille (who?) prods Micah to get up. Micah explains that she's not comfortable sharing her living space with 13 strangers. As she strolls through the kitchen area, she warns the others that she's not a morning person, and them flips them off double-handed to illustrate. Sigh. "I'm not a morning person" is an explanation, generally following up an apology; it doesn't mean you're entitled to behave badly. Howie does the "I need to step up" interview. Time to go cook.

QuickFire challenge: There's a ginormous table attractively piled with varieties of citrus. Padma introduces guest judge Norman Van Aken; Howie helpfully describes him as "one of the godfathers of South Florida cuisine." The chefs have 30 minutes to create a dish using citrus. And go!

Sara N. is optimistic, but Micah is not yet running on all cylinders. Tre is confident, but he's keeping an eye on Hung. Fortunately, Hung is keeping an eye on Tre's pan and shifts it before the contents burn. Even though it's a competition, I think once they start cooking, their kitchen camaraderie just kicks in. Hung also is confident. Various shots of chefs almost colliding, and Tre observes this is the first time they've had all fourteen chefs cooking at once. Various mishaps as we come down to the wire. Sara N. discovers that her shrimp aren't even peeled and she has five minutes to clean and cook them. Oops. And time's up!

I guess Sara M. and Camille (who?) didn't make anything. The bottom three are Sara N. for lack of focus, Sandee for the non-functional garnish and Micah for being unremarkable. Micah recaps that she went from the top to the bottom in the QuickFire. The top three: CJ for making something "both complex but coordinated," Hung for three little dishes that worked together and Tre for his plating and creativity. And the winner for "today only" is Hung. He expected nothing less. Joey pouts that he shoulda been a contenda. So the reason he goes through life ready to pick a fight with everyone is that he has a persecution complex. Great. Who's doing the psych exams for this show?

Elimination challenge: It's the product-placed barbecue challenge hosted by Lee Schrager. Hung interviews that Lee Schrager is da man. Or at least da party man. The chefs must create "high-end barbecue food" for the "sexy and sophisticated" party-goers. They have $200 for shopping, two hours of prep today and two hours of cook time the next day. So it looks like they're going with the Yankee definition of barbecue meaning grilling food outdoors, rather than one of the Southern definitions involving arcane rituals, fetish objects and blood feuds. Probably a wise choice. Tre's all, "Texan. Barbecue. Mine." Howie does an "I need redemption" interview.

Shopping. The chefs converge on the meat counters. "I don't know, I guess the number system starts right in the middle," Casey "jokes." She so wants to kill the butchers for ignoring her. But at least she's putting a good face on her hostility. She asks CJ how many slices to a pound something gets. His shoulder refuses to help her because he's using the same meat. It's hard to tell if his shoulder is joking or not. Casey is all, "Oh, you." She doesn't want to kill him because he's at least paying attention to her. Brian goes for the seafood since everyone is going for red meat. Micah goes even further, to the produce section, where she can sulk over missing her daughter. She eventually wanders back to the meat counter and sees that lamb is on sale, so she goes with that. Sara N's cylinders still aren't firing as she nearly blows her entire budget on meat before Hung walks her through the math.

Prep time. Much rushing around. Hung, in particular, has taken to zipping around the kitchen at high speeds. Lia thinks it's a little hazardous. CJ has mummified a pineapple. If this were the 50s, I'd suspect he used prune whip. Brian is "going for it" with some radical seafood sausage. Tre does an "I'm not arrogant" version of "Texas. Barbecue. Mine." Sandee decides to ditch the whole Southern barbecue stereotype.

Micah is feeling grumpy. Apparently there's a huge debate amongst the chefs as to whether it's caused by missing her daughter or blowing the QuickFire challenge. "Both" does not seem to be an option. Hung is contemptuous that she's bringing up her daughter "as an excuse." At first, I thought Hung needs to have children, so he can have the experience of missing them, but then I thought maybe that wouldn't be fair to the children, so now I think he needs to be slapped around and fed a big dose of Shut Up. I'm sure there are a lot of things throwing Micah off her game, but she'd probably be able to recover her equilibrium if she could spend time with her daughter, so I wouldn't be surprised if her sense of homesickness is particularly acute when she's down.

Time ticks away and the chefs start to pack up. Howie promises that he will eventually get it right. Preferably some time before he gets booted. Sara N. discovers that Scotch bonnets are, in fact, hot when they set her hands tingling. She's worried that those darn peppers are going to ruin her pickled cucumbers.

Morning. Tre and Hung do push-ups, but Tre's are way more hardcore. Sandee and Joey chat about the challenge, and then Sandee does martial arts. Brian explains that he and Hung decided to dude it up for the party, even if they'll melt under the heat. Sara N. is worried about looking bad. Does she care about looking like a space cadet? 'Cause she's already done that. And away we go.

The chefs wheel their ice chests over to a line of barbecues assembled between the pool and the ocean. Micah's feeling better now that she's by the water. Some of the chefs (they seem to be mostly female) have grilled before but never actually fired up a grill. Gas grills? Or territorial males? Grilling aficionados flinch at the liberal splashes of lighter fluid. No one loses their eyebrows, though.

CJ hunches over a table next to Lia, doing prep. I suspect the table is about 30" tall, so he's working slightly above knee-level. Okay, mid-thigh. Chef Tom strolls through. He tells Hung that he could just kick back and hang out, since he has immunity, giving Hung the opportunity to declare himself a go-for-it kind of guy. Then he prompts another variation of "Texas. Barbecue. Mine" out of Tre. Brian refuses to reveal what his dish is, which I find much too coy. Chef Tom wonders if Joey's drumsticks are gourmet enough, but Joey figures barbecue should be "fun." Micah declines to predict victory. She and Chef Tom are both hoping she'll have a good day.

Chef Tom sums up: It's probably going to "come down" to "execution." Sandee doesn't seem to be using the barbecue as more than a heat source; "It's like putting lipstick on a pig," he opines. Howie has started cooking too soon and runs the risk of having his meat dry out. Chef Tom figures organization is key; you don't want folks lining up waiting for food. Time ticks. Padma introduces the judges: Gail, Chef Tom and Chef Norman.

The guests arrive. Sara N. decides to stop worrying and get into the party spirit. Brian has organized his space so he can keep schmoozing with the guests as he works. Camille (who?) feels like she's falling behind, having to cut food for the plates while trying to grill. Micah explains that 60 people is "a lot of people."

One of Tre's customers wants some acid for her salmon and Tre says, "I can fix that." CJ registers a protest that Sandee's lobster was braised the day before, so he doesn't think she's barbecuing. Howie confesses that he sliced his tenderloin too soon, which caused drying. Joey tattles that people were complaining about the dryness of Howie's meat, which wouldn't cut it in New York. I so want a Parisian chef to come condescend to Joey about he'd never make it in France, where they really know how to cook. So then Joey starts griping that Hung stole his drink idea, because watermelon & Grand Marnier with coriander oil is exactly the same thing as watermelon & champagne with berries. He continues griping that Hung is a "kiss-ass" who went to Las Vegas because New York was too much for him. Because God forbid Joey say anything without bringing up the superiority of Noo Yawk City. Hung interviews that watermelons and barbecue go together, and that's where the idea came from. Joey threatens to buy Hung some knee pads (for kissing ass, get it?) and Hung's like, "Ho, ho, you're killing me." Casey nails it: "It's always somebody else's fault when it comes to Joey." Padma thanks the chefs and tells them to clean up using the product-placed trash bags.

Due to our extended coverage of Joey's whining, we are unable to bring you Dale or Sara M.'s dishes. What, you think this show is about food? You'd never make it in Noo Yawk with that attitude, I'm tellin' ya. Fuggedabowdit.

Judges' table. Chef Tom and Padma agree that no one screwed the pooch this time. Gail observes that Hung had fun, but he had a very simple dish. Padma thought Tre's salmon was salty, but Chef Tom and Gail thought it was underseasoned. Consistency is not Tre's strong suit. Padma and Chef Norman agree with the customer that it needed acid. Gail wasn't a fan of Sandee's not-barbecue. Padma nominates Brian as a favorite and Chef Norman concurs; it was high-end sausage. Gail liked the compactness of Sara N's dish, and Chef Tom jumps on the band wagon. He brings up Micah, and Chef Norman had her on his favorites list.

Padma summons Sara N., Brian and Micah. Everyone looks very stern until Padma reveals they're in the top. Sara N. looks ready to faint, but she sweetly says that she's honored and surprised. As much as Gail liked the flavor and the simplicity, she appreicated most how easy it was to eat. Padma commends Brian on his salesmanship. Gail asks about the Asian chimichurri, and Brian indicates that he just has all sorts of wild and crazy ideas. Now, if he could just learn to edit out the bad ones. Chef Norman likes his attitude, but recognizes that it doesn't always produce good results. Micah explains that lamb is synonymous with barbecue to her. Gail was impressed by the flavors. Chef Norman is pleased that Sara N. and Micah pulled themselves up from the dregs. Brian gets the win. He's happy to go from bottom four to top three himself.

Howie, Joey, Sandee and Tre get the bad news. Tre recognizes that he had salt issues. Chef Norman expected more; perhaps he got complacent. Joey was missing the upscale element. Gail also complains that it was too hot to pick up. Joey says, "I like to serve my proteins super hot." Why, because you hate your customers? Food is for eating; people with burnt mouths have trouble enjoying their food. I can't believe that sort of thing flies in Noo Yawk. Joey pulls out the old "I tried something and it failed." Feh. He wasn't being experimental; he just screwed up. Sandee doesn't understand why she's in the bottom rank, so Chef Tom explains the not-barbecue issue. Chef Norman and Gail add that the lobster flavor got lost among the other elements. Howie thinks he was too simple -- er, his dish was too simple -- and he let his pork dry out. Gail wants to know what he learned this time, so he will finally get it right. Howie non-answers that he'd like a chance to perform up to his potential. Dude, you've had four chances already. Padma asks Joey if he tasted any food from the bottom four; he sampled Tre's and Sandee's. But he nominates Howie to go home, for screwing up the last elimination challenge (sorry, but that ship has sailed) and for having dry pork. Not that he tasted it. Howie fingers Joey for playing the blame game instead of leading.

Padma sends them away so the judges can confer. Joey and Howie have a "be a man" fight, whatever that means. Joey offers to go home. Yes, please. Howie says he doesn't care about what Joey does because "I'm here to do my best." You might want to get started on that sometime soon. The judges settle in for a tough decision. Nobody made bad food, so they have to look at other things. Chef Tom goes back to the challenge being "upscale barbecue." Sandee poached her lobster, so she was missing the barbecue element. Joey barbecued, but Chef Tom thinks it was just home cooking, not upscale. Tre made a sauce and slow-cooked his salmon, so he covered the bases. Howie had poor execution again, and Chef Tom doesn't feel inclined to give him another chance. Chef Norman thinks the competition is very tight, and no one can afford to relax. Chef Tom cuts to the heart of it: "What's the bigger sin -- no barbecue or not upscale enough?"

The bottom four return. Chef Tom reviews the decision criteria. Tre did upscale barbecue, but it didn't quite work. Joey did family barbecue. Sandee didn't barbecue her upscale lobster. Howie wasn't upscale, and didn't cook to his (assumed) potential. Sandee gets the boot. The remaining chefs are all disappointed. Hung eulogizes her as "a really cool girl." Lots of big hugs. Sandee explains that she never expected to make it to the end, but she's ready to take advantage of her opportunities.

Right winner? I was not surprised that the only male contestant won; I had a feeling it would go that way. I just wish I had a better sense of whether I'm being unduly cynical. I don't think Brian has the discipline to go all the way, but he did have a cool idea and he put together the right package for the venue.

Right loser? I suppose. You can argue about whether something is upscale or not, but the whole barbecue issue is more clear-cut, and chefs can be picky about the technical stuff. So that makes sense. At the personal level, I'd much rather say goodbye to Joey than Sandee, but that's not what the competition is about (darn it). Howie still has some good will left, but he'd better do something to earn it soon or it's going to run out.

As usual, there's a big fuss about the judging. Me, I don't see any inconsistency. Bad food gets you booted. Last time, Clay had bad food. Once they determined that the rules didn't force them to boot Howie on a technicality, the judges booted Clay. This time, no one had bad food. Some food was less successful, but it was all edible. So the judges turned to their secondary consideration, which was how the food answered the challenge. And when multiple offerings fell short there, they had to decide which aspect of the challenge was the most important. They picked technique. I'm okay with that.


Wednesday, June 20, 2007


Extreme Cuisine

Miami! Bikini babes, beaches, boats. If David Caruso shows up, I'm changing the channel. We see various chefs arriving. The final tally:

The chefs gather at Casa Casuarina, the home of the late Gianni Versace, who was murdered on the front steps. I hope this isn't their new digs, 'cause ew, gruesome. (Apparently it's now a fanch-shmancy private hotel, but I think it would make a fabulous fashion museum.) There's a meet-and-greet cocktail party in a courtyard with a spread of hors d'oeuvres. Drinking, noshing, chatting.

In walk Tom and Padma, and the party's over. Tom gives his "I'm not your mentor" speech. If he's going to be wandering around the kitchen, the chefs ought to know what he's doing there. Padma hits them with the QuickFire challenge. Howie interviews that it seemed like a bad time: "We didn't have our knives, the girls were in high-heeled shoes."

The challenge: make a signature amuse bouche from the party leftovers. Casey uses a lot of words to define "amuse bouche" and she still doesn't cover the "one bite" aspect of it. They have ten minutes. And go!

Chefs run around a lot. Sandee has trouble cutting a kumquat with a plastic knife. That's not a fair match-up. Padma calls time and sampling happens. The dishes we hear about:

Casey lets us know that she knows what an amuse bouche is, and Clay clearly doesn't, because his dish is way too big. I get the feeling Casey spends a lot of time making sure people know what she knows.

Tom is generally pleased. The bottom three: Dale for a too-aggressive cheese, Clay for a too-big dish, Tre for insufficient acid. The top: Micah, Sara M. and Hung. And the winner is Micah. She gets immunity.

Padma sends everyone off to their penthouse suite at the product-placed hotel. Incredible views, huge bathroom, giant patio, hot tub -- you'd think they were supposed to enjoy their stay. Where are the bunk beds and lack of storage space?

The chefs decompress on the patio. Clay invites everyone to tell him that he was a loser at the QuickFire challenge. He confesses that his father was also a chef, but the "restaurant business, it got the better of him" and he committed suicide. There's something in Clay's expression that makes me worry about depression running in his family.

Morning. There are a couple of wakey-wakey shots, but then the chefs get up and interact. Howie interviews that competing is more important than socializing. Well, yeah, but what about when you're not in the kitchen? Hung doesn't care about everyone's personal information; he can read people from the way they work in the kitchen. You can also read people from the way they present themselves, and Hung's monologue says, "Look at me, I'm a character! Give me camera time!"

The chefs file into the gleaming kitchen. There's a spread of "proteins" on a giant table. And not the usual proteins, either. It's like Crocodile Dundee and Jaques Cousteau handled the provisioning. The challenge: a surf-and-turf entree from "exotic" ingredients, including kangaroo, alligator, geoduck and rattlesnake. Each choice has only two portions, so it's time to bring out the knife block and draw for turns. All the early chefs take the easy choices first. The contestants ooh-and-aah when Brian takes both rattlesnake and eel.

The chefs get 30 minutes and $30 to shop for ingredients. They'll be cooking in two groups, so the ones who had limited choices get longer to plan. Chef Tom drops the kicker: the guest judge is Anthony Bourdain, who has a lot of experience with exotic food, so he'll be tough to impress.

Shopping. Sandee recounts how everyone was wandering around, getting used to the store. Micah helpfully points out the okra to Clay, who's looking frazzled. She tells him to calm down. Joey revs himself up to have it out with Micah if she ever tries telling him what to do. I'm pretty sure Joey goes through life ready to have it out with anyone who crosses his path, and is frequently disappointed when most people just ignore him.

Back in the kitchen, the first group has two hours to cook. And away we go! Sandee is sure that there will be chaos. Joey informs us that he's a schedule "freak" while Howie isn't used to the whole ticking clock thing. He's taking his time, making sure his prepwork is all in place. CJ has to duck under the hood to drop his crab in a pot.

Chef Tom strolls through on his look-see. Clay thinks the guest judge will go for his fried fish tail. Chef Tom kind of nudges Lia to clean up the knifework on her wild boar chops. Howie reviews his menu with Chef Tom. He leaves and someone calls the 10 minute mark, which means it's time to run around even more frantically. Actually, it's an interesting situation. While chefs have to get food ready in certain time limits, they usually have the prep done in advance, and they're coordinating with other people. So the whole "race the clock" thing has to be a little new, and the timing can be tricky. You don't want to be ready too soon, or your food will cool down, with corresponding changes in flavors and textures. But you don't want to get caught at the last minute. Speaking of which, Howie runs out of time before he can plate his frog legs. He figures he'll be heading home.

The judges dig in. Gail is judging tonight; Ted will be taking turns with her later in the season. Tony Bourdain appreciates Howie's presentation of the risotto, served in a hollowed-out sea urchin. Gail puts in a good word for Sandee. Chef Tom likes that CJ made a single dish with both ingredients. Padma and Bourdain ponder Howie's missing frog legs. Chef Tom reports that Howie had everything under control when he did his walk-through, so he doesn't know what happened. Gail pans Clay's dish and the others concur.

Group 1 cleans up the kitchen and now it's time for Group 2. They get right to work. Hung interviews that he's not paying attention to anyone else; he's just there to prove himself. But I notice he has time for a quick glance at the camera when he flips a morsel of raw geoduck into his mouth. Dale has never tasted his ingredients, so he's taking a risk. Brian has to butcher his snake and eel, which he doesn't really know how to do.

Chef Tom makes a second pass. Hung is going to try to sous-vide his black chicken to make it tender. Chef Tom observes that Tre doesn't seem like a guy who is used to losing, and Tre politely tells him that he's right. So yes, redemption is on the agenda. Chef Tom sums up: this group seems very confident, even though they got stuck with the weirder ingredients. Hung has Tre sample something and Tre is impressed. He calls out a 5 minute warning and the rushing about starts. Brian doesn't finish plating; he's sure he's going home.

More eating. Chef Tom singles out Tre's dish. Bourdain is impressed with Hung's dish. Gail is not happy with Dale's alligator. Brian made bar food.

Judges' table. The chewing-over begins. In general, much happiness with the performance. Bourdain thinks the weak dishes showed "failure of nerve" rather than bad conception or technique. Padma is surprised that Chef Tom and Bourdain like Sara M's presentation with the chicken claw. Bourdain nominates Hung for top honors. Gail offers the "tiny" critcism that it didn't have much color. Chef Tom mentions Tre's dish and Bourdain likes the classic presentation of non-classic ingredients. Padma fetches the two chefs. Tre interviews that he knew Hung would be his main competition.

Padma asks if they were satisfied with their dishes. Hung says it came out just the way he "tasted" it in his head. Padma asks about the lack of color. Hung protests that the eyes might get the food first, but the mouth and stomach have to be satisfied in the end. Tre felt very comfortable. Chef Tom asks if they checked each other's dishes out. Tre just revels in the memory of his taste of Hung's dish. Padma points out that we've had two winners of the first challenge go on to win the whole shebang. She lets the guest judge sum up. He tells Hung that his dish was excellent but a bit lacking in color, while Tre's dish had a good combination of elements but was a bit conservative. The win goes to Tre. He's pleased to be redeemed. Bourdain seems to be aware of the cheesiness of the prize as he awards Tre a pile of his books, autographed with "obscene doodles." He also promises to get him "savage drunk" if they're ever in New York at the same time.

Back in the pantry, Howie tells Clay that he'd rather get booted for an incomplete than for bad food. The lucky editors hit some foreshadowing gold there. The top two return and Tre gets a round of applause. Howie, Brian, Clay and Dale get summoned before the judges.

Padma asks Brian why he thinks he's in the bottom. He thinks he "got a little excited" and made things too complicated. Chef Tom wonders why he chose frying; Brian figured the textures would work with frying. Padma objects that you could fry anything, including her toe, and it would work. Chef Tom thinks he should have cooked the meat on the bone. Brian says he spent too much time scoring the snake and eel to expose the ribs. Chef Tom wondered where that was, and Brian says he just had too much going on and didn't finish. Bourdain is down on dithering.

Padma turns to Dale, who thinks his problems were unfamiliar ingredients. He experimented with searing some alligator slices and didn't like the texture when it was cooked through. Chef Tom says they all found his medium-rare alligator chewy.

Howie knows exactly why he's on the chopping block: an incomplete dish. He was recrisping the frog legs and had them right next to the plates when time ran out. He was just trying to make everything perfect. Bourdain beats him up hard for not getting his food done on time. Howie agrees, but references a Bourdain story about Ecuadorian line cooks who only deliver the goods "when it's right." "You son of a bitch," Bourdain lovingly coos. Chef Tom points out the need for it to be right and fast, and Howie thoroughly agrees that he messed up and that he could be going home because of it.

Clay doesn't know why he's on the block, although it looks like his dish "could have been better." Chef Tom asks about the timing on his wild boar chops; he cooked them pretty early. Clay says he was going for par-coooking them. Maybe he should have cut them thicker. Bourdain thinks par-cooking is for serving a crowd, not for messing up a lovely wild boar. Clay admits he might have played it safe. Chef Tom wonders if he stands behind his dish. Clay says he does, but he can recognize a mistake at the same time. Chef Tom isn't having it. Also, he didn't like the dressing. Gail thinks the chop was worse. Bourdain thinks he screwed up his "fundamentals."

Padma sends them off so the judges can deliberate. Brian didn't do anything impressive with his ingredients, but he didn't screw up, either. Dale gets credit for analyzing what happened with his dish, although Chef Tom is worried about his "taste level." Clay is in trouble. Gail thinks he just couldn't execute his idea; the judges all hate it. Howie obviously screwed up. Gail is bummed because his risotto was good. Padma gets to the heart of the matter: what is the greater sin? Chef Tom thinks Howie has potential, but Bourdain thinks Howie is right to be worried about his fate.

The chefs return. Chef Tom isn't happy with Clay's failure to stand up for his inedible dish. Howie definitely screwed the pooch. He'd be okay in a restaurant, but this is a competition. Brian just fried food. Dale picked the wrong texture for his alligator and needs to watch his taste level. Clay gets the boot. He thinks he succumbed to nerves. But he managed to make some friends already, and he doesn't need "a fancy title" to feel great about himself.

Right winner? Tre was dinged for being "conservative" but that was also a plus -- making exotic ingredients look familiar and appealing. Hung's lack of color had no upside. So without tasting anything, I can make sense of the decision.

Right loser? This is one of those questions that leads to interminable debate because it's all about X being more important than Y. If you think an incomplete is an incomplete is an incomplete, then you're never going to get behind Clay's dismissal. However, Chef Tom's blog says they reviewed the challenge rules to see if they were obliged to boot Howie, and it turned out they weren't. So the rules left it up to the subjective opinion of the judges. Clay's dish sounded pretty bad overall, while Howie's risotto was good and boldly presented, so it isn't completely out of the question to give Howie the win. Unless you think an incomplete is an incomplete is an incomplete.

It was interesting to watch Howie and Dale defend their dishes. They admitted their faults while making it clear that they did a lot of things right. Dale wasn't familiar with his ingredients, but he experimented and made a choice based on the results. Howie was late, but he was aiming for perfection and his timing was only slightly off. Meanwhile, Clay didn't make a case for what he did right; the discussion was all about what he did wrong. So now we have a better idea of what the judges are looking for when they want contestants to "stand behind" a dish.



Seasons in the Sun

Outside, it's Miami. Inside, it's the usual Top Chef kitchen. Dave, Tiffani, Stephen and Harold file in and are greeted by Padma and Chef Tom. He, by the way, is clearly delighted to have some real professionals back in the kitchen. Me, too. Padma prompts Harold to talk about his restaurant, opening "this spring" in New York. (It's open now and getting nice reviews. Not a destination restaurant unless you're a Top Chef fan, but a welcome addition to the neighborhood.) Padma explains that Lee Anne isn't competing because she works for the show now. Lee Anne comes out to say hi. I'd rather have her in front of the camera, but any Lee Anne is good Lee Anne.

Marcel, Ilan, Elia and Sam file in. Chef Tom is not so delighted to see them, but he is impressed by their hair. Ilan has shaved the sides and done some kind of etching; Elia's hair reminds me of Sharon Stone on a bad day. Ilan has nothing much to say about his career since winning.

Chef Tom invites some trash-talking and Stephen obliges; he's sure Season 1 will win. Chef Tom observes that the Season 2 chefs were so "competitive" that they fought with each other; Ilan and Marcel pretend that's all behind them. I'll just get this out of the way now: Season 1 was about cooking; Season 2 was about being on television (and cooking). Season 1 is so going to kick Season 2 around the kitchen.

Padma announces that they need to identify team captains, so they're doing a QuickFire challenge. All the chefs are like, "Well, crap. Contractually obligated." Each chef has two eggs. Stephen interviews that egg mastery is the sign of a true chef. The twist: they have to cook them with one hand behind their backs. You know, if people are competing for themselves, then you're entitled to treat them like reality show hamsters and make them dance. But when they're doing you the favor of competing for charity so you can get some publicity for your new season, you might want to think about treating them like human beings. So, not in favor of the whole one-hand gimmick. Save it for the newbies.

Padma gives them 10 minutes and the frenzy begins. Except for Stephen, who has it all under control. Ilan holds an immersion blender in his mouth and the Internet goes wild. The chefs all give quick overviews of their dishes amidst the cooking, and there are some interesting (and somewhat pretzel-like) shots of inter-chef cooperation. And time's up!

Chef Tom reviews -- everyone was typically themselves. Stephen takes the laurels for Season 1. He picks the Susan G. Komen Foundation for breast cancer research as their charity. Ilan's dish was too salty, so Marcel takes the win. In an interview, he demands props for the most awesomest "smackdown" ever. Yes, yes, the Guinness Book of World Records will be calling you any day now. He picks Save Our Strength (childhood hunger in America) as his team's charity. Chef Tom gives the team prize to Season 1. Stephen is pleased to have a completely unnecessary advantage over the other team.

"Elimination" Challenge: each team will prepare a four-course meal using scallops for the first course, lobster for the second, duck for the third and Kobe beef for the fourth. Ilan licks his lips and I think of serial killers, it's that creepy. They'll prepare 20 plates for the usual judges and some guests with "a wide array of discriminating palates." Season 1, with the QuickFire win, gets $300 for shopping; Season 2 gets $200. They have 10 minutes to plan, 30 minutes to shop and 2 hours to cook the next day.

Season 1 heads off to the pantry to confer. Marcel gathers Season 2; he wants to make sure they "maximize" everyone's talents. Marcel claims the lobster course. Elia wants the scallops. Sam offers Ilan the duck and he'll take the beef. Ilan isn't thrilled. Marcel interviews that Ilan is "limited" and duck isn't common in Spanish cooking. So much for maximizing everyone's talents. Ilan protests that he's not "comfortable" with only 2 hours to cook duck, but Elia tells him it's enough time. If this were a real team, someone would swap courses or at least give Ilan some suggestions. But this isn't a real team, so he's stuck with duck.

Back in the pantry, Stephen picks Mediterranean as the theme for the menu. Wait, you mean the courses of a meal are supposed to work together? Dave lobbies for a Miami flavor, but Stephen has already decided otherwise. Dave pouts.

Season 2 talks about what's available in the pantry and Ilan heads back there to check it out. While Season 1 is still planning. He doesn't even say "Knock, knock!" before wandering in. Meanwhile, Marcel thinks Elia should do both "seared and raw" scallops. Back in the pantry, Dave stops Stephen's suggestion as Ilan pokes around in the refrigerator behind him. The team finally heads back into the kitchen to continue planning. Stephen interviews that Ilan was the most "immature" of the Season 2 chefs.

Shopping. Dave interviews that his dish is about the team, not Dave. Not his style, not his flavors, not Dave. So, it's all about how it's not about Dave. Ilan is still trying to figure out his dish. He interviews that he's branching out from his comfort zone. That's because he couldn't think of anything in his comfort zone. Stephen naturally decides to spend the extra $100 on wine. (Did you know Stephen is a sommelier?)

Shopping done. The chefs return to a suite at their product-placed hotel and the booze starts flowing. Marcel starts with the trash-talking, first in an interview where he dismisses all the Season 1 contestants with "what?" because God forbid he should put forth a reasoned analysis of their weaknesses. He then starts rapping, which is where I start fast-forwarding, and could he be any more of a camera slut? He tells the other chefs that he doesn't have any molecular gastronomy super-secret ingredients on his prep list. Dave says, "If you can cook, you can cook. If you need [bleep] emulsions and creams and blah blah blah to [bleep] make it work, then that's all good, that's your thing. If the bitch can cook, let him cook." Marcel decides to overlook the content (supportive) and the tone (patronizing) to focus on the word choice: "You're calling me a bitch now?" I find it hard to believe that someone as plugged into pop culture as Marcel doesn't recognize that particular gay idiom, so I'm sure he's playing off Dave's famous catchphrase (and wishing he had his own). The Season 2 chefs are all, "Oh, crap, there he goes again." Marcel then starts trash-talking the Season 1 crew to their faces, and that's when Harold delivers the smackdown, telling him to sit down and grow up. Marcel apologizes and presumably shuts up.

Time to cook. The chefs get to work. Cooking and talking happen. Stephen explains he's going "head to head" with Marcel and Tiffani corrects him that it's "hair to hair." With 1 hour to go, Chef Tom drops in for his look-see. He confirms with Marcel that his team has everyone doing his or her own thing. I have to think, if the competition comes down to a tie, the cohesion of their menu could certainly tip the match to Season 1. But the Season 2 chefs never managed to put a cohesive menu together before; why should they start now?

And now for a classic moment: Chef Tom confirms with Stephen that his team bought wine. "Now, we're serving these courses head-to-head, right?" Chef Tom asks. Stephen agrees. Chef Tom waits for Stephen to get it, but he doesn't, so Chef Tom points out, "You're serving your wine with the other food as well. What if actually works better with the course that they're preparing?" And Stephen visibly deflates. Aww. I doubt the wine will work better for the other team, but since the proteins are the same, there's a good chance that it will complement the other team's dishes. So they spent $100 on something that the other team might also benefit from. On the other hand, the wines are just part of their menu's cohesiveness, so it wasn't a complete waste of money.

Chef Tom warns the chefs that they have 45 minutes left, and happily observes that they're all ignoring him in favor of working. Marcel announces that he's "so weeded." The next thing you know, Ilan knocks over his mango while fetching something out of the refrigerator. He offers to wash it off or cut some more. Marcel reports that he had spent 15 minutes chopping the mango so it looked pretty, so now he's even farther behind. Dave complains that everyone is still telling him what to do. However, I notice he still does what they suggest. What's up with that?

Time ticks away. The servers arrive and Dave starts hyper-babbling at them. The rest of his team cracks up; Harold interviews that it's great to be working with Dave and all his "passion" again. Sure, if it's just for a day. It looks like Season 2 is down to the wire getting their plates out.

Dave and Elia emerge onto a lawn where the judges are sitting at several umbrella-ed tables with some strangers. Padma introduces Ted Allen (yay!) and Gail Simmons, along with Chef Tom. The strangers are the Season 3 contestants. Elia and Dave are both displeased with the prospect of being judged by people who are not yet their peers, competitively speaking. Although I'd say the Season 3 contestants are their professional peers, and it's not like you have to cook eggs with one hand behind your back to recognize good food, so get a grip.

Brian appreciates the cold scallop, given the hot weather, but Joey thinks Elia's dish "rocks." Casey likes the combination of marmalade and endive. Howie likes the seared scallop, then the smoked scallop, but not the raw scallop; Elia should have skipped it.

Back in the kitchen, Dave breaks the news about the Season 3 contestants. Ilan predicts that the new contestants will be "hyper-critical" because they don't yet know what they're in for. Marcel rehashes the mango mishap and Ilan being at a loss with his duck. He's surprised to find his gelée melting in the heat. Who would ever have thought gelée would do that? The second courses go out. Marcel is greeted as "Marcy!" by Season 3 competitor Hung, whom he has known for several years.

Ted observes that Marcel is not only foaming, he's "doing table-side foam." Camille isn't into Marcel's dish, but Brian praises it. Sandee is kinda wierded out by all the liquid and Sara M. isn't impressed with his knife work. Howie and Sara N. both admire Stephen's presentation. Sandee doesn't care for Stephen's flavors, and Hung just doesn't like it. He doesn't think the wine pairing improves the dish. Padma thanks Stephen as he serves her drink; are the Season 3 contestants driving her to the booze already?

Time to revisit Ilan's duck trouble. Stephen rah-rahs to Harold that his duck is "way better" but Harold is all, "You never know." I'm so happy to see someone who's not all "grrr" about the competition. Now, if he'd just say, "It is what it is." Stephen interviews that Harold is the toppest of the top chefs. Ilan tries to be all "grrrr" about the competition, but I'm unafraid. The chefs present themselves to the diners. Ted is puzzled by Ilan's hair.

CJ is not sure egg yolk is the best choice for the weather. Ted breaks the yolk and questions whether his plate is now more appetizing. Joey wouldn't serve Ilan's duck. Brian declares that Season 2 "hates each other" because their dishes just don't work together. Sara N. and Hung praise Harold's meatballs. Micah likes how he took "comfort food" to a higher level. Brian observes that Season 1's dishes all work together.

Tiffani calmly assesses Sam as a strong cook, but she's confident in a win even though she hasn't seen much of what he's doing. She has dialed back a lot of her own "grrr" factor, which is nice to see. Sara M. observes that Sam is "kinda cute" and Ted questions the "kinda."

Micah faint-praises Sam's beef as "nice." Sandee and Sara N. like the flavor. Lia thinks it's a "good steak dish" -- her tone suggests it's more steakhouse than fine dining. Sara N. likes Tiffani's flavors and presentation. Tre is skeptical about the raw beef. Joey declares that any of the Season 3 contestants would kick Season 1 and Season 2's collective butts. Let's see how long it takes him to get booted. Chef Tom reminds them that they're going to be getting their share of criticism soon enough.

The chefs all emerge to applause and Padma thanks them. The team captains do some rah-rah interviews.

Judges' Table. The chefs all file in. Padma outlines that the team with the most course wins gets the charity donation. First up, the dueling emotional meltdowns, Elia and Dave. Dave's posture is so "just hit me now" that the chefs burst out laughing. "I don't miss this," he mutters. He explains that he was trying to do something with his layered flavors in the team's Mediterranean theme, but not to be typically Dave with the flavors. Gail appreciated the "smokiness" of the scallops and the cool dish on a hot day. Chef Tom felt the scallops were a bit grainy. Dave brings up the flavors and Chef Tom assures him that the flavors worked, but the texture was a smidge off. Gail confesses that she didn't love the tapenade. Elia explains how Marcel suggested doing both seared and raw scallops. Chef Tom thinks she should have stuck with just the seared scallops; the cooked and raw parts worked better on their own.

Second, the battle of the hair gels, team captains Stephen and Marcel. Stephen says "saffron beurre fondue" and that's all we get. Marcel likes the lobster/mango combo. Padma asks if he had any qualms about the gelée (she pronounces it correctly) in the Miami heat, especially given his experience with Hawaiian humidity, but Marcel wasn't worried. Because if he can keep his hair up in this heat, a gelée should be no problem. Padma thinks this was his best foam effort, "flavor-wise." Chef Tom thinks avant-garde cooking needs precision, and his knifework was off. Marcel brings up the spilled mango and Ilan volunteers that it was his bad. "it wasn't on purpose," he feels the need to clarify. With most people, that would be assumed.

Third, the season winners, Harold and Ilan. Chef Tom is astonished that they didn't taste each other's food. I don't think the competition was friendly enough for that. Harold was just doing his rustic Italian roots thing. Chef Tom thought it was a "little incomplete." No indication of what he was looking for, though. Chef Tom wonders if Ilan was "happy" with his duck, and Ilan explains that he had to improvise when his original approach didn't pan out. Gail found the duck overcooked but the skin insufficiently rendered (so solid fat still remained under the skin). Padma says a lot of diners "missed" the sherry gastrique -- so it wasn't plated? Ted's table loved that part. He recognizes their irritation at being judged by the newcomers -- "What's up with that?" wonders Tiffani -- but assures the chefs that "they'll get theirs." Everyone chuckles. "Are we done here?" prompts Harold.

Finally, Tiffani and Sam. It would have been interesting to see Sam take on Harold -- two New York chefs with Italian roots -- but Sam and Tiffani are both serious about the craft of cooking, so this is a good match, too. Ted wants Tiffani's recipe and she volunteers to cook it for him. Ted thinks the seasoning was perfect. Chef Tom is happy to be eating Tiffani's food again. Sam was just trying to keep it simple. Gail liked the flavor combination. Chef Tom is again surprised that they didn't look over each other's dishes. Stephen volunteers that he looked at everything, and Marcel confirms that he did as well. Stephen's analysis put his team well ahead of the others; Marcel disagrees and rates his team's work as more "solid." Ted is pleased that they're being partisan.

Padma asks if they learned anything from their time on the show. Well, that's not uncomfortable at all. Marcel rattles off a whole bunch of stuff. Chef Tom wonders if he does anything different now, since he didn't "come across" the way he wanted, but Marcel's all "I just gotta be me." Or whatever gets him camera time. Tiffani volunteers that she learned to "loosen up."

The chefs go away. Ted was worried by the description of Dave's dish, but it all "came together" in a "sophisticated way." Gail really liked the smoke but not the tapenade. Chef Tom praises the balance in Elia's dish. Gail, Ted and Padma are all "foam from Marcel again." Padma claims she had "Marcel disciples" at her table and two people voted his their favorite dish. Chef Tom thinks Stephen's dish was just "stunning." Padma says her Marcel fans thought it was too heavy, and Gail's all, "They're nuts." Gail found both duck courses disappointing. Harold's gnocchi were "superfluous" because she couldn't tase the mint. Ted thinks something was missing. Gail agrees, although she does appreciate Harold's whole back-to-basics movement. Chef Tom reiterates his "incomplete." However, Ilan's duck gets a "what were you thinking?" Gail is sure he could do better. Ted points out that the sherry gastrique was "excellent" and Gail snarkily observes that it was "the one Spanish element." Chef Tom thinks Tiffani's dish was typically her: "Very thoughtful food, and correctly prepared." Gail loved the crudo garnish. Ted thinks Sam's beef was a touch overdone. Padma liked his pickling spices, which were typically Sam.

The chefs return for the verdicts:

  1. Chef Tom declares the vote was close, but a "slight edge" gives Elia the win. I got the sense that everyone liked her dish better (or at least the seared part), but Dave wasn't too far behind.
  2. Stephen and Marcel were both "strong contenders" but Chef Tom gives the "slight edge" to Stephen. Perhaps it was a tighter race amongst the Season 3 contestants, but the judges had nothing but praise for Stephen's lobster, while Marcel's usual embellishments suffered from the heat.
  3. This one isn't close. Since Ilan's dish went "haywire," Harold gets the win.
  4. The critical vote goes to Tiffani over Sam.

So Season 1 wins, 3-1. Big surprise. Clapping, handshakes and hugs amongst the chefs ensue. They provide tips for the upcoming season. Marcel recommends "astronomical amounts" of saffron, but no duos. Tiffani reminds the contestants, "Don't forget who you are as a cook and don't forget what got you here in the first place." Padma tells the chefs to "pack your knives and go" and we're done.


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