Wednesday, June 20, 2007


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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