Sunday, July 22, 2007


Cookin' It Old School

Previously on Top Chef: Even previouslier (episode 1), Howie failed to plate his frog legs and got chewed out by the judges. Joey brought this up in the second elimination judging, along with rumors of dry pork. Back in the pantry, Joey and Howie ordered each other to "be a man." CJ complained that Sandee's braising of her lobster the day before was a technical violation. Sandee got the boot for being insufficiently barbecue.

Annoying wakey-wakey shots, accompanied by a close-up of Sandee's goodbye note on a bed. Lia interviews that Sandee's dismissal was a surprise to everyone; the mood is becoming less congenial now that the competition is on. Howie reports that he's not fretting over his fight with Joey; "I'm not here to be liked," he assures us for the umpteenth time. Joey's like, "Yeah, you shout, you forget about it." I get the feeling he does that a lot. I suspect alcohol is often involved. Micah gets this week's pushups shot; I like Tre's form better. She reports on her rollercoaster ride from top to bottom to top. But she's a fighter, having "brought over" her business from Italy with just $400, a suitcase and her daughter. "That's unbelievable," she sums up. Well, if she doesn't believe it, I won't either. Camille (who?) rallies everyone out the door.

QuickFire. Padma introduces Alfred Portale of the Gotham Bar & Grill, latest recipient of the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef (beating out Hubert Keller and Tom Colicchio). Since he's from New York, we go to Joey for the eulogy; he compares Chef Alfred's plating to the Sistine Chapel. In a dramatic reveal suitable for The Price Is Right, Padma pulls the cover off a giant tank of shellfish. Hung and Brian are both confident in their mad seafood skillz. The chefs have 30 seconds to fish out their ingredients and 30 minutes to turn them into something yummy.

I don't know how they determine the order, but Hung gets to go first. He charges across the kitchen, drags the step in front of the tank, yanks the net out of Padma's hand and digs into the seafood. Dale interviews that his fishing technique was "extremely aggressive." Sara N. speaks for everyone, I think, with her stunned protest of "Jesus, Hung, save some for the rest of us." No, wait, Lia interviews that she wasn't worried about running out of shellfish. Hung dumps his net into the bowl so vigorously that, as CJ reports, "One of the poor crawfish falls awry, down below." Onto the floor, specifically. Everyone "aw"s at its plight. Hung figures he has enough seafood without the poor, unwanted crawfish and there's another "aw." Lia protests that he shouldn't leave it on the floor and Hung asks what he's supposed to do. I suspect he doesn't want to get charged with going over his 30 second limit, but the "whatever" attitude doesn't go over well as Lia tells him to clean up. She thinks that chefs should behave a certain way in the kitchen regardless of whether they're competing, and leaving messes behind is a violation of the Chef Code of Behavior.

The rests of the chefs get to go. Micah's world tour continues as she mentions living in the Bahamas, where she became familiar with conch. Sara N. thinks this challenge will be hard, what with the flimsy nets and the getting stuck with whatever you pull up. Tre's net gives out at a critical moment and his haul is particularly small.

Time to cook. Chefs run around. Lia reports that this QuickFire is particularly rough, since they're having to spend 8-10 minutes (1/4-1/3 of the allotted time) just cleaning the shellfish. Dale reports that conch was prevalent in the catches. It takes special tools and some wrangling to spring the conch from its shell, and he figures, "I don't have time to dick around with a conch." Someone asks Sara N. if she's using conch and she says, "Absolutely not." Sara M. reports that she's been working in Florida for a while, so conch don't scare her. We see her deftly extract conch from shells. Cut to Micah, who apparently doesn't have the right tool and is stuck improvising. She pounds on the conch shell with a big pan, and then she pounds scissors into the conch shell with a big pan, and this all works about as well as you'd expect. Sara N. reports that Micah is inconsistent because she has been at the top and bottom, conveniently forgetting she was just bottom and top with Micah last time. A crawfish makes a break for freedom.

Howie figures ceviche will work with the time and ingredients available. Since ceviche involves cooking food in acid, I think it would take a while longer than 20 minutes, but since I've never made it, what do I know? Brian figures to keep it simple; less is more with seafood because "it's already phenomenal." Hung is unimpressed with this approach: "Yeah, it's simple, but my monkey can do that." Ah, but can your monkey do it well? That's the thing with simple -- there's nothing you can use to hide mistakes, so you have to be right on.

Padma calls time. Howie is worried because he didn't taste as much as usual.

Decision time. Chef Alfred dings Micah's conch salad for insufficient conch and seasoning, Camille's heavy tea flavor and Tre's skimpy shellfish. Receiving praise are Howie's "intelligent and well-presented" ceviche, Brian's "smart" simplicity and CJ's "well-integrated" flavors that won over his initial skepticism. And the win goes to: Brian. Perhaps Hung should have brought his monkey. Brian does the usual "I won't rest on my laurels" QuickFire winner speech. Howie is just happy to be in the top for a change.

Elimination challenge: Padma promises a move from the fresh to the stale. She and Chef Alfred roll out some displays of old-fashioned entrees. The chefs are unimpressed. Dale describes dishes as "very bad-for-you, nasty foods that, you know, we all eat every day." Padma calls them "traditional family favorites." The task: update a classic dish to make it more "modern" and lower in cholesterol. Lia interviews that she has no experience with healthy cooking. Hung sneers that his "classic" food is steamed rice, fish and vegetables, not this gloppy stuff. Padma lets the chefs choose in the reverse of their fishing order, so Hung will be going last.

We don't see Joey choose, but he picks lasagna. Yeah, there's a surprise. I think the common thread among the dishes is "economical meals" -- they're ways to stretch meat with the addition of starch or to dress up cheaper cuts of meat (like hamburger).

Shopping allotments of 30 minutes and $75. They'll have 2 hours to cook at the Miami Elks Club lodge, where they'll be serving "two generations." The chefs are all, "Holy cow, real people!" Padma warns them to make sure their healthy versions are still appealing. Micah thinks meatloaf and mashed potatoes "can't be too hard to improve upon." Depends on the original meatloaf recipe. Some are pretty darn tasty. Dale reveals, "My style is based in reinventing the classics. So our elimination challenge is absolutely perfect!" Hey, where's my grump-about-the-challenge interview?

Shopping. Casey recaps the challenge. Sara N. interviews that she's still stumped. CJ hopes the judges will dock the people who are throwing cheese all over their dishes. Brian decides to stuff his cabbage with lobster. Micah responds with a "huh?" interview. Sara N. points out that he has immunity, so he can "take chances." That would be one way to put it. Sara M. needs one of those little crane-thingies to pick out her chicken breasts, because she's having trouble directing the counterperson's hand to the right one. Lia's sausages have beer in them, so she buys more beer to enhance that flavor. I'm guessing the Elks will like how she thinks. Dale reveals that dumplings are an old family dish on the Russian/Lithuanian side of the family. He goes for convenience, picking up a rotisserie chicken and instant mashed potatoes; without them, he'd be insanely pressed for time. CJ is all, "No, Dale, come back from the dark side!" Eh. I use instant mashed potatoes for my shepherd's pie because I want predictable consistency and quantity; I just add lots of pepper and onion for flavor. If Dale had more time, I'd ding him for being lazy, but I think he's being smart.

Back at the kitchens, the chefs get an hour of prep time. Micah interviews that traditional food is harder because people come to the table with expectations. Yep, that would be part of the challenge. Take out the "family favorites" angle and it's just "come up with a heart-healthy family dinner." Which is laudable, but not quite so twisty. Lia laments being in the middle all the time and never getting any feedback from the judges. But she's hopeful with her franks 'n' beans; it's both appealing and easy to make.

Back at the hotel, chefs indulge in the hot tub. Except for Howie, who's still not here to make friends.

Elks Lodge. The chefs roll their coolers up the sidewalk. CJ sums up the puzzle for the chefs: make the dish healthy, but keep the appeal of the traditional version. With 40 minutes left on the clock, Chef Tom swings through. CJ describes a tuile he's making out of flax seeds to substitute for the crust on top of the traditional casserole. Dale confesses to using instant mashed potatoes for his dumpling dough. I think it's a good choice as an ingredient. (As a side dish, maybe not so much.) Chef Tom sums up that the chefs are being very "literal" with their dishes, instead of reimagining them.

Elks file into the dining room. Chefs continue to cook. Sara M. explains that she didn't want to cook chicken in cream (presumably too fatty), so she grilled it on skewers. But when she checks, the oven has been turned to "cool down." Hung interviews that he turned off the oven after cooking his chicken and it's Sara's fault for not checking the temperature. Which sounds entirely reasonable, unless you know that ovens don't get turned off during restaurant service because they're constantly being used. Sara M. asks Hung about the oven and he disclaims, "I didn't turn anything." Maybe his monkey did it. Sara reveals the problem to Tre, who's helping her plate. He immediately scopes out the chicken in front of him for doneness.

CJ, who's up first, is having problems of his own: his sauce broke. The usual fix is to add fat to help it all blend together, but the dish needs to be low-fat. Also, when he stacks the tuna on top of the rest of his ingredients, the juices leak out and destabilize his stack. It ain't pretty. And everyone else's food is looking pretty, so he's sure he's in trouble. Hung doesn't know what to do. Maybe they should ask his monkey. And there's a lingering close-up of CJ's sad-looking tuna casserole. Which has never appealed to me anyway. It's not like he ruined macaroni 'n' cheese. That would suck.

Padma thanks the Elks and asks them to fill out their opinion cards. One Elk gives something a 4 (out of 5); another Elk isn't sure how to spell "mediocre." CJ thinks Lia, Tre and Howie will be the top three. Dale is pleased with his entry and thinks the judges will like it better than anything he has cooked so far. Padma thanks the chefs and threatens them with judging.

Judges' Table. Padma recaps the challenge again. The judges were disappointed. Ted thought CJ's tuna casserole was "a big green blob." Chef Tom bemoans the lack of "finesse" from someone who's usually quite "sophisticated." Padma gives Howie some props and Chef Alfred agrees. Chef Tom reports that the Elks hated Micah's meatloaf. Chef Alfred detected an "odd aftertaste." Padma brings up Brian, and Ted can't understand his choice of lobster. Chef Alfred agrees, "He blew it." Padma mentions that Dale's dumplings scored well, and all the judges comment favorably.

Padma fetches Dale and Howie. When they appear, she informs them that they're the favorites. Dale offers a hand and Howie shakes without turning towards him, so his right arm is stretched across his body. He still looks very intent and Padma teases that he's allowed to smile. So he beams. Ted brings up the change from applesauce. Howie thinks applesauce is baby food, so he created the apple slaw to "lift the palate." Padma prods Dale and he cheerfully confesses to using the instant mashed potatoes; he knew it would work, so he's not ashamed. Chef Tom says no one noticed and the dish was really enjoyable. The win goes to Howie. Chef Alfred presents him three books and an invitation to spend a week at his restaurant. Dale claps for Howie, who does the interview of redemption.

Back in the pantry, the chefs clap for Howie. Micah, CJ, Lia, Sara M. and Brian get summoned. Brian is perplexed, what with his immunity and all. Chef Tom spanks Brian for going with lobster in a low-cholesterol challenge. He warns him to stop sticking with seafood all the time and then sends him away to rejoice in his immunity. Micah had the lowest score. Ted asks how she felt she elevated meat loaf. She pooh-poohs the original version, but Chef Tom wants to know what she thinks of her version. She says she "wasn't happy with the texture when it came out." Chef Alfred complains about the aftertaste. Padma asks Sara M. if she's familiar with chicken a la king; Sara confesses that it's not big in Jamaica. Ted asks how her dish related to the original, and Sara thinks the ingredients were the connection; she likes her dish. Chef Alfred doesn't see chicken a la king in her dish. CJ was trying to be creative and original. Chef Alfred found it overwhelmingly green and pea-flavored. Chef Tom thought the flavors were "muddy" but was impressed with the tuile. Lia explains that she was going for something that anyone could make for dinner. Chef Tom points out that she didn't really do much. "I guess I didn't really understand how complex franks 'n' beans are," she confesses, and the judges laugh. Chef Tom wants to make sure she isn't coasting, but she thought she had a winner.

Padma sends the chefs out. Back in the pantry, Sara complains, "They said that my flavors didn't go very well, the mushrooms, couscous, which that makes no sense to me." Me neither, because that's not what they said. The judges confer. Lia's dish wasn't bad, just underwhelming. Ted is impressed with CJ's tuile, but Padma regrets the lack of flavor. Micah's turn, and Chef Alfred sighs. Chef Tom says it got the only "yuck" reaction -- I'd have thought CJ's green mess could rate a yuck -- and Chef Alfred sums up that it was just bad. But Sara's was worse, completely missing the point. Also, missing the peas. Ted thinks it's a tough call between Sara and Micah.

The chefs return. Chef Tom delivers the spankings: Micah was unimaginative and the flavor was off; Sara wasn't cohesive and lost the appeal of the original; CJ was unfocused; Lia was unambitious. I'm pretty sure Lia's safe; this was more of a warning shot across the bow, much like with Brian. CJ showed some creativity, so he's probably also safe. So it comes down to Micah and Sara. With Micah's dish scoring the lowest marks, she's the most likely choice. And Micah gets the boot. Back in the pantry, it's hugs all around. Micah's says she's relieved to go -- and we cut to her face, all red from crying. This would be the part where she convinces herself that it all turned out for the best. She wishes she had "focused better" and done a better dish. But now she can be reunited with her daughter, so it's all good. Well, except for the meatloaf. She predicts that the competition will turn "cutthroat," and so she's better off getting now. Yes, it would be so much worse to be sabotaged than to screw yourself over.

Right winner? I don't know. I think Dale was more creative and Howie had an easier dish. But flavor and execution are always going to rank highest with the judges, and you can't assess them through a TV screen.

Right loser? Micah had the lowest score, which means she had the worst food. That pretty much takes care of that.

I think CJ assessed the challenge correctly when he said that they had to keep the original appeal of their dishes, but make them better. The chefs had to think about what it was that people loved and/or expected, and then find a healthy way to keep that quality. Some of them did better at one part of the challenge than the other:

So I can see how the judges were mostly unimpressed. Most of the chefs did a good job tackling the healthy angle, but few of them really devoted much thought to the original appeal and how to make the dish satisfying on that level. This batch of chefs all seem quite technically competent, but mostly lacking in razzle-dazzle. I'm not seeing passion in their food yet.


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