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.


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