Sunday, August 26, 2007


What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas

Previously on Design Star: 11 designers. Las Vegas. Penthouse. Lisa got the boot. Kitchens. Bickering. Team leaders Neeraja and Josh got the boot. Individual roomlets. Not-quite-a-dollar store. Josh squeaked through as Adriana and Scott got the boot.

Morning. The remaining six designers do morning stuff. The editors inflict Robb on me some more. If you have to keep him around, could you at least not make him talk at me? The designers are hanging out in the master bedroom when Clive arrives and bangs the door. They hustle downstairs to rally around and get their next assignment. To wit: design a wedding reception for Stephanie (25) and Bruno (29), a Las Vegas couple who can't afford a wedding right now. Well, they can't afford the kind of wedding they really want. If there's one place you can get married on the cheap, it's Las Vegas. They'll be getting the wedding dress and the diamond ring as donations; the diamond people are also giving diamonds to the challenge winner. I'm feeling cynical about diamonds; I think they're overrated and prices are artificially inflated. But then, I don't wear jewelry. The designers get $10,000 to throw a reception for 75 guests, which seems more than ample to me, especially since the dress isn't coming out of their budget. They'll make presentations to the happy couple in the morning; the couple will pick a winning designer, who will get to lead the team in realizing that vision in just 16. However, they'll have to do it without the designer who had the least successful presentation. Left unspoken is the ritual of the judging and booting, so we'll be down two designers. Kim interviews that the designers are "dropping like flies" with all the double eliminations.

Stephanie and Bruno arrive to brief the designers on what they want. Stephanie has the usual princess fantasy, with the specific detail of "lavender and white roses." Bruno likes 50's ad 60's "rockabilly style." He also likes "retro" Vegas and the usual gaming gear. He'd like the tables to look like roulette tables. Stephanie wouldn't. But she does like his idea of having the tables all be different, rather than uniform. Will asks if she means the table decorations would be different, or the shapes of the tables? Stephanie is cool with either. Christina asks Bruno about his color preferences; he's into black, white and red. Should look sharp with lavender. Christina wonders if they could describe their idea for their wedding "together" but Bruno thinks the designers should handle the mix. He's sure he couldn't do it. Robb interviews about the weird color scheme. Yeah, that's twice he's gotten solo time on my screen, and there are more pleasant designers we have yet to hear from at all. Mix it up, editors.

The designers get to go on a field trip in a limo. Todd figures Bruno needs to just give in to the cult of the bride and let the day be "all about her." After all, boys don't start dreaming of their weddings from infancy. (Or if they do, they don't confess it.) Robb insists that the reception should be "a fifty-fifty compromise all the way" because "that's what a marriage is." So now I'm against compromise in a marriage.

First stop is the reception room. It looks like your standard hotel reception room with paisley carpet and fold-away walls, although this one seems to have a skylight. The designers measure and sketch. Next stop is a flower wholesaler, and then a rental company for table settings, and finally a big warehouse of random stuff for throwing events. Josh's saleclerk decides he's a she, perhaps thinking of a drag queen in mufti. Kim reveals that she was overwhelmed with all the stuff they had. Considering they have giant painted flames suitable for hanging, I'd be overwhelmed, too.

The designers head back to the penthouse. As they arrive in the workroom, they have 10 hours left to get their presentations in order. Josh is prepared to stay up all night to get it done. Will thinks he can give them everything they asked for. Kim is staying with her own "clean" style, so she's going for Las Vegas of the Rat Pack era. Josh hopes he's getting his sparkle back. He's featuring the initial of their last name in his design. Todd has his shirt off again; his design has lots of records and giant amps. Christina is going with Stephanie's lavender wish, because she totally gets the whole princess thing. Time ticks. Robb, Todd and Will head off to catch a (very) few Z's. Christina tries to decide if one hour of sleep is better than none at all. Josh is sure that a miniscule amount of sleep will make him cranky.

The sun rises. Looks like Kim caught some sleep, but Christina's still up at 5:35 am. And apparently the presentations are at 6 am. I can't even decide what to have for breakfast at that hour, let alone what a wedding reception should look like. Kim is worried about having Stephanie and Bruno deciding the fate of the losing designer.

Clive greets the happy couple and the presentations begin. Josh. Will. Kim. Robb. Todd. Christina. Robb. Todd. Kim. Will. Robb. Todd. Christina. Will. Josh. Robb. Kim. Todd. Josh. Christina. Stephanie is wondering where the fun is. A couple of times, they ask about a jukebox, so that seems to be important. The designers all fall asleep as they wait for the decision. Clive and the couple review the presentations.

The sleepy designers return to learn their fates. Stephanie thanks them for the hard work. And the winner is -- Robb. Gah! Well, team leadership is usually the kiss of death, so I still live in hope. Robb gets the diamonds. He interviews that the others counted him out, but he showed them. The happy couple leaves so they don't have to experience the downer of booting someone. Christina is out; she has to go pack her stuff while the other designers wait downstairs. Upstairs, she cries that she feels "like a failure" but downstairs she gives everyone hugs. Kim interviews that this time, the elimination "hit me really hard." The designers now have 16 hours to implement Robb's design. He goes over everything with the team.

Robb, Kim and Josh head back to the giant prop warehouse. First job, nail down the spinning dice. Will and Todd head over the reception room. Todd immediately starts running around the room like a pre-schooler. They start setting up the tables and dance floor, only to discover that Robb's drawing is not to scale. Why would you not draw the room to scale? The shoppers get more big stuff. Todd and Will try to figure out the risers. Todd figures Robb will arrive all excited about his great finds, but then he'll have to settle down and make some hard choices about what to keep. Robb checks off a list of stuff; a jukebox is being loaded onto the truck, so that's covered. Robb pays out $8065.20. Fortunately, not in $1 bills. Back at the reception room, Will and Todd have everything set up, so Todd starts getting acrobatic on the tables. He does a handstand on one end of the head table, which tips off the riser. Todd bounces back up, unharmed. I admit, I'm disappointed. Not that I want him dead, but a concussion might mellow him out.

The truck arrives and everyone unloads. We discover that Josh is a good six inches taller than Robb as he pitches in to help raise an arch onto some pillars. Robb interviews that he's very "determined." He shifts a sign behind the head table, although Todd thinks the couple will need the room to manuever. Will is worried that the room isn't what Robb presented. He points out that the colors of the chip "columns" holding up the arch are different than presented. Robb says this is why he wants to cover up the wall with curtains and bring in lights. Lights are not going to make those poker chips white and lavender. Will works on arranging the 20' high curtains around the room so the original walls can't be seen. Robb interviews that he's feeling the pressure. Good. And Clive puts an end to the day.

Morning. The designers have 4 more hours to work before it's showtime. Kim reports feeling "physically ill" because "a wedding is a one-day shot and it is the biggest day of these people's lives and no one's going to come in after us and fix it." Clive starts them off and sticks around for interviews. Todd starts stringing extension cords for the lights. Will is still working on the curtains. He's worried that a "half-done" room will be terrible, since the design is so "varied." Kim isn't happy about some of the flashing things, but "it doesn't matter" because the wedding "has to happen." Clive observes that Robb doesn't look flustered; is that good or bad? Robb admits to being flustered inside. They have a lot to do, but getting the white covering on the dance floor should help pull everything together. Josh has to go get place settings. Yeah, those would be important. Kim sets the tables with silverware and napkins. She reviews the settings with Will. Two hours to go.

The flowers arrive. Kim isn't happy with the flashing martini glasses, and she'd rather have all white flowers, but Robb decided otherwise. She strips leaves off flower stems as she talks. She just wants to make things as good as possible. Will gets to work covering the mis-colored poker chips with white cloth. Todd assembles the spinning dice.

Meanwhile, Stephanie and Bruno get married. The designers all rush around doing things. Josh ties boas around chairs. Robb and Will cover the wood parquet with white vinyl. Kim tells Josh that the tables still need setting. She's not trying to recruit him from his boa tying, she's just observing. Yes, I think table setting is more important than boa tying, too. Todd calls the five minute mark. Kim calls the two minute mark. Clive calls time. Robb thinks the couple will love it, but he's worried about the judges.

Speaking of which -- the Studio. Monitors. Judges. Robb recaps the couple's requests. Before: generic reception room. After: overdone Vegas monstrosity -- spinning dice, giant guitars and poker hands, "Welcome to Vegas" sign. Martha thinks the room looks very finished and Cynthia is impressed that they completely tranformed such a generic reception room. Vern wonders what the others would have done. Todd doesn't like the separation of the families, with tables on either side of the dance floor. Kim isn't into all the moving and flashing stuff. Will has issues with the space planning, especially with a lot of people moving around and through. Josh thinks the room was busy and he would have incorporated more of the princess element. Clive prompts Robb for a response, which comes down to, they picked me, so suck on it. However, he does say that everyone "did a phenomenal job" in pulling it off. Vern, that troublemaker, wonders if some people contributed less than others. "I don't want to say Will, you know, would be the weakest link, but in terms of contribution overall, I don't think that he did the most." Well, there are four people who didn't do the most; the issue now is whether Will did the least. Considering they all hustled their butts off, I'd be hard put to pick a weak link. Will lists all the things he worked on, which was a lot. Robb claims credit for the drapes, allowing that Will helped him out. Considering that Clive interviewed Will as he was working on the drapes, that's kinda nervy. Kim admits that Robb "has a strong management style," and is certainly better at leading than following. Robb is grateful for the kind words (although she did basically just say that he isn't good at following someone else's lead).

Clive introduces a clip of the couple arriving. They look around astonished. Stephanie calls it "so beautiful" and Bruno loves all the big stuff. Stephanie loves the boas and the inclusion of the lavender. Well, of course they're happy -- they just got married and the room isn't a shambles. An amusement park, yes; a shambles, no.

Vern, that troublemaker, has the designers name their main threat. Todd picks Robb, of course. Robb picks Todd. Kim picks Todd. Will picks Kim. Josh can't choose. Martha thinks they're "neck and neck" and someone needs to "stand out."

The judges confer. Martha is looking at how they present themselves, but Vern concerned with design. Martha picks Will as her least favorite. Will calls out Robb for the "weakest link" nonsense. Vern can't pick someone. Cynthia thinks they all have "at least two of the three" qualities they're looking for. Cynthia likes "a bit more eccentric personality." Vern points out that a series is at stake. It's going to be hard sending someone home, but they'll have to do it a couple more times. Martha wants to have concensus, but Vern doesn't see it happening.

The designers return. Clive reveals that the decision was based on previous challenges -- so apparently no one failed this time around. Robb is called forth. Clive says he was a "strong leader" who involved the whole team, so he survives. Dammit. Todd and Kim are also safe. So it's down to Will and Josh. Dammit. Clive brings up the bond between them. Will "would rather be standing beside anyone else." They hug. Clive says Will's "passion for design is clearly contagious" but Robb sold him out. Josh is a better shopper than designer. Josh gets the boot. Waaahh! He makes a graceful exit, though, so good for him. Will returns to the green room. Todd squeals, "No way!" and Robb is clearly disgusted. Good.

Right winner? Gak. The drawing had some elegance, but the room was more of a cartoon. I've been thinking about what I would do with the room, and it's easy to drop in big, "fun" elements. Beauty and elegance are a lot harder. Robb was able to lead and motivate his team without being a jerk, although I think he should have prioritzed a little better. But I still don't want him on my television.

Right loser? I think Christina's design was the weakest, so that was a reasonable choice. But Josh? The fact that the judges went back to previous challenges mean they didn't buy Robb's attempt to sell out Will because that, combined with his shaggy presentation, would probably have gotten him booted. But the judges didn't pick a loser for this challenge, so they went to their overall impression. I don't think one individual challenge is enough to give us a sense of Josh's skill as a designer, but he did establish his shopping skills and his taste. I think he was still a strong contender. Everyone executed well on the challenge. The only one who can be judged on design is Robb, and he certainly had some problems. Unfortunately, they can't boot him without insulting the happy couple's taste.

Of the pleasant people left, Josh had the strongest personality and that's what holds a show together. I have no interest in watching Robb or Todd. Will is a better designer than Josh and no shrinking violet himself, but he needs to work on his presentation. He's too colloquial for prime time. Kim has a nice warmth and she seems to be holding her own on the design side, so she's probably my favorite at this point. But if Will manages to win, I hope they team him up with Josh.


Wednesday, August 22, 2007


Sending It Back

Previously on Top Chef: Even previouslier, Sara M. nagged Howie, who expressed his utter disdain. The chefs got dressed up in party clothes to cook for drunks. Brian threw his own party, to CJ's admiration. Sara N. was slow. Tre won because he cooked bacon. Chef Tom blamed both Sara N. and Howie for their team's loss. Howie called Sara "the baby of the house" and she finally told him, "T'hat's enough." Howie was comfortable with being a jerk. Sara got the boot.

Various chefs mourn the departure of Sara N. and designate Howie the pariah of the house. Howie informs us that he's willing to leave for his own screw-ups, but not someone else's. Except that he has been screwing up, so what's his point? Sara M. is a little sad that Sara N. is gone, but she'll deal. That's the sole remaining Sara's approach to everything -- "Gotta cook with my boobs falling out of my dress? Eh, whatever." On the one hand, it's kind of relaxing; on the other hand, doesn't anything matter?

The chefs enter the kitchen to find Padma standing next to Daniel Boulud, who is such a high-powered food god that CJ, Hung and Dale are all called upon for eulogy interviews. The chefs practically stand at attention, awaiting their orders. QuickFire challenge: make an "adventuresome" burger for the product-placed "gourmet" hamburger chain. What, you wonder, does a high-powered food god like Daniel Boulud have to do with the pedestrian hamburger? Howie helpfully explains that he was the creator of the high-end, high-priced, truffle-enhanced hamburger. Chef Boulud reveals that he loves hamburgers, and his famous burger was his marriage of "the best of French cuisine with the best of American casual dining." Padma drops the bomb: the winner no longer receives immunity. Brian interprets this to mean "there's no more hidin'." The chefs have 30 minutes to create. And go!

The racing around the kitchen begins. Hung bangs on some shrimp. Sara is going for something lighter than the usual beef. Brian decides to revisit his winning seafood sausage. Since CJ noticed a lot of fish in the product-placed restaurant's menu, he's going for seafood in a different form. Casey is "surprised" to see all the seafood being used; she's sticking to beef. Tre aims to fill a gap in the product-placed restaurant's menu. Dale is incorporating a fried egg because "in my world, everything is breakfast." Howie is relying on truffle butter. Huh, truffles in a hamburger. However does he come up with an idea like that? Sara calls the roughly-halfway mark and the hustling intensifies. Casey flips a burger and then presses it down into the pan. Since the top side was raw before she flipped it, I suspect she's searing the meat to keep the juices in, not squeezing the juices out. Brian relates his race with the clock. Padma counts down the last few seconds and time's up!

Hey, that's everybody! Chef Boulud is happy with everyone's execution, but thinks some entries were more sandwiches than burgers. In the sandwich category are Sara and Tre, who at least had the "most French execution." Chef Boulud apologizes to each before naming names, because he's a nice guy. In the top are Howie ("satisfying"), CJ ("texture" and "fire"), Dale (good bread choice) and Hung ("I like the fire you put in your work but I also like the fire you put in your food"). And the win goes to: CJ! He's pleased, of course. Padma reminds him that he doesn't have immunity. "Yes, I'm excited about that," he deadpans. However, he will get an advantage.

Elimination challenge: It's Restaurant Wars! A whole two episodes early. Brian is psyched for this one. Chef Boulud reminds them that this is all about the teamwork. Unlike all those other team challenges. Instead of getting immunity, CJ gets to pick his own team. Right off he chooses Tre, and then Brian. There's a pause while he considers his last choice, and finally he goes for Casey. The leftovers all feel the Howie Cloud of Doom hanging over their heads. Hung worries that both Howie and Sara are "hot-headed" -- "Even though you're competing against each other, if you're on a team you have to work together to beat the other team, not each other." Succinctly put.

Padma leads everyone out to the restaurant spaces, which are just blank concrete rooms with wide openings. The teams have 30 minutes to come up with a concept and assign roles: head chef, front of house, design, sous chef. They'll have $700 for food and $2500 for furnishings. Each restaurant will get 30 diners. The spaces conveniently connect to the challenge kitchen, which is a bonus because they don't have to get used to a new workspace. The teams run off to confer.

Howie immediately jumps in with "a French-influenced, American contemporary, like a bistro style." Care to vague that up a little? Dale and Hung are into the bistro thing. Next, Howie suggests a pasta or risotto course. But that would be Italian. Dale determines that the first course is therefore tuna. Of course! Elsewhere, CJ thinks Brian should take front-of-house while Tre is head chef, Casey handles decor and he is the sous chef. Tre explains that he's fine with the head chef job, since he's an executive chef at work. Casey asks about a name and CJ volunteers his sister's name, April. The other team is pondering names as well. Hung likes "Ambrosia" but Dale wants something quirky. They settle on The Garage. Then they settle that Hung and Dale will handle the decor shopping while Sara and Howie are the cooks. Sara nominates herself as head cook and Howie declines to fight over it. Since the competition is "a war of attrition," the team has to move on to the next round, so they have to get along and he'll put aside their "little differences." Like not respecting her enough to let her wash dishes for him. Is this team success angle something he just worked out? Or does he think he's been all "Go, team!" on his previous teams?

It's morning. Tre and CJ are lying in bed. Because there's nothing more dynamic than people lying in bed. Brian has a secret weapon for his front-of-house post: a suit. He buttons it into his chef's jacket on the hanger so he can smuggle it in without the other teams spotting it. Then he'll unleash the suit at the last moment and the other team will be all, "Oh, no! Brian's wearing a suit! We're doomed!" Or something. Tre observes the big mix of personalities over on Team Leftovers; he figures they're toast. No, not the interview of cockiness! Now Tre is doomed! However, Dale confirms that everyone on Team Leftovers is "headstrong," so he's worried.

Shopping. CJ and Tre go for food while Brian and Casey shop for the inedibles. CJ reveals that he wanted "a woman's touch" for the decor, since guys "would have the whole place black or something." Yes, aesthetic sense is a genetic trait; no man has ever had even a smidgen of it. Dale and Hung handle the inedibles for Team Leftovers, leaving Howie and Sara with the food. CJ describes his restaurant as "new American cuisine with a contemporary sort of vibe." Oh, good, more vague. This really makes me appreciate Tiffani's contribution in the first Restaurant Wars -- she had a very specific idea, so it was clear what fit into the concept and what didn't. This "new" "American" "contemporary" thing leaves the menu wide open. I think you often see much more creativity in response to constraints; when you let people do anything, they tend to bland out on you. You can tell Sara is in charge when she and Howie wind up buying lamb instead of pork. Sara interviews that Howie is, of course, "hard-headed" but "you just have to know how to deal with it." And how would that be? She was not entirely successful on her first attempt, so it would be nice to know what she's doing differently this time.

There's a product-placed phone call, and Casey reveals that the phone-calling means they were all "helping each other." At the non-product-placed decor store, Brian lobbies for something tall. He describes their goal as a "nice, modern, clean restaurant." Casey explains her job as keeping Brian calm as he runs around; they seem to mesh as a team. Casey wants to get "smell goods" but Brian vetoes them on the grounds that customers find them offensive. Cut to Dale and Hung enthusiastically purchasing smelly candles -- something floral. When I use smelly candles -- like when I'm waiting for the power to go out during the ice storm -- I go for pine or cinnamon scents, nothing sugary or flowery. But I don't think they're anticipating any power outages at the restaurant. Dale and Hung buy random stuff to suit their restaurant's theme. I don't think the non-product-placed decor store has a lot of stuff suitable for a garage. Dale finds "silver rocks" and Hung comes a-runnin'. The shopping winds down. Brian begs Casey for a Buddha statue as they finish up, so she gives in.

The chefs have 4 hours to get everything ready to go. Casey wonders how their cooks are doing and Brian assures her that they're perfect. Cut to Tre speaking shorthand to CJ. I don't think they're firing on all cylinders, but there are no obvious flashing red lights, either. Tre is busy cutting meat, so he doesn't want to be distracted with talking. Sara runs down their division of labor: Hung will make the first course, Howie the second, Sara the third, and it will be a team effort for dessert. (No, not dessert! The Course of Doom! (Doom! Doom!)) She reveals, "Howie and I were very, very focused for this particular challenge because, you know, we want to win." As opposed to the last time they were paired? Howie reports that he has some dozen years of risotto experience. "I like my risotto because I don't make it like every other chef makes it," he testifies. Tre jogs through the kitchen (far less frenetically than Hung's usual speed) and Sara reports that he did a lot of running around, which is not his usual thing. Tre reveals that he gave CJ the job of prepping artichokes, which took longer than he expected.

Bustle, bustle, bustle. Dale jokingly compares himself to the Queer Eye guys (one of whom he'll be seeing later). Chef Tom wanders through for his look-see. He gets the menu from Team CJ. Over at Team Leftovers, he observes that risotto can be tricky to time properly, but Howie reveals that they're par-cooking. Chef Tom steps outside and reviews. He thinks Team CJ should cook larger portions of meat and carve it table-side, instead of cooking individual portions -- it's showy and it's more efficient to cook. He thinks Team Leftovers has more restaurant experience. He thinks it will come down to leadership.

Hung knocks over a large container of brown liquid. Sara tries to get him to slow down, but he's too busy to listen. With 30 minutes to go, the black-clad servers arrive. Dale recaps this point, emphasizing that the servers have no idea what's going on. Tre gets distracted and leaves his potatoes in the smoker for longer than he intended. Bustle, bustle, bustle. Out front, Brian and Dale hug and the challenge begins.

The judges hit Restaurant April first, and a bunch of people follow, so Brian is immediately busy.

Over at The Garage, Dale schmoozes the clientele. He claims 8 years experience waiting tables -- "You're half prostitute, half performer." He keeps his cool with the customers, but in the back rooms, he claims to turn into "a raging bitch." He gripes at the servers to speed it up. The judges arrive while Dale is busy, so they seat themselves, but he greets them when he comes out. Ted is immediately struck by the scented candle. Chef Tom asks Dale to remove theirs. Another customer takes matters into his own hands, setting the candle on the floor.

Team CJ sits around a table and drinks. Team Leftovers holds a post mortem in the kitchen. Dale is worried about the service; he could get booted without having cooked.

Judges' Table. The chefs settle in the pantry. Howie assures the group that opening a restaurant never goes smoothly; he's has opened lots, so he knows. Padma explains that a blogger was one of the diners; presumably, she'll have some input. I guess you can't count on people to fill out the comment cards anymore. Padma reviews the criteria: concept, decor, food, service. On the decor side, Restaurant April takes the lead with a quiet, tasteful but unscented atmosphere. The smelly candles at The Garage are roundly panned. I notice we've skipped right over the concepts. Both were pretty generic, so I guess there's not much to say. As for food, Hung's tuna tartare is a hit. Everybody hated Howie's risotto and Tre's smoky potatoes. In the service category, Brian got "flustered." The judges ponder.

In the pantry, Dale thinks he at least worked hard. Padma summons Team CJ. Left behind, Hung sighs that at least they did their best. Sara rah-rahs that everybody did great. Team CJ gets the bad news -- they didn't win. However, it doesn't seem that they won, either. Padma reveals the guest blogger twist. Chef Tom admits that it's "harsh" to review a restaurant in its infancy. The judges read blogger comments for the chefs to respond to. Padma reads praise of the decor, and Brian suggests she quit while they're ahead. Ted reads the part about Brian having "a sweating problem." The flaw is not sweat, as Howie has amply demonstrated, it's the flop sweat. Padma defends his hygiene but questions his composure. The judges establish that Brian, like his teammates, has no front-of-the-house experience. Brian claims responsibility for whatever happened with service. Turning to the food, the blogger calls the granita on the oyster amuse bouche a "watermelon slurpee." CJ agrees that if she got a slurpee, that's something no one would want. He then jokes that she's right about Brian sweating. I suspect he's just trying to lighten the mood, but Brian's not feeling any lighter. I don't think comments about sweating constitute throwing someone under the bus; they're not being judged on their regulation of their body temperatures. The smoky potatoes come up, and Tre explains how they got away from him. Chef Boulud likes the idea, but the smoke was "very aggressive." Chef Tom wonders if the cooks are willing to throw Brian under the bus, but they all disagree that his was the fatal flaw; they made mistakes in all aspects of the restaurant. CJ jokes that it's hard to talk about imperfect restaurants with Chef Boulud on the judging panel.

Team Leftovers marches in to receive their spankings. Sara states that she jumped for the head chef spot, but they all came up with the menu. Padma reads blogger comments about the smelly candles. Dale takes the blame for it, confessing to a "weak sense of smell." Hung doesn't confess anything. Dale also took the lead in the decor, with Hung's assistance. He explains the choice of black tablecloths -- the white plates would "pop" against the background. Unfortunately, they made the blogger think of Billy Idol. I don't know why; he hasn't been culturally relevant for a while. I think black tablecloths can work, but a pure black-and-white color scheme needs a deft hand. Chef Tom points out that these decisions "add to the overall aesthetic of the restaurant." Padma asks Hung how he feels about his dish; Hung is quite pleased with it, of course, and so are the judges. Chef Tom cavils that there was a bit too much white asparagus, so Hung doesn't get too pleased with himself. Like everyone else, the blogger pans Howie's risotto with it's "sticky and gummy" texture. Howie reveals that he finished the risotto with "Parmesan cheese, a touch of heavy cream and black truffle butter." It's like black truffle butter is the new diver sea scallops. Chef Tom is adamant that risotto doesn't need cream for its texture. Howie brings up his risotto experience again, but Chef Tom ain't havin' it. Howie protests that risotto "tightens up" when it sits around; he burned his tongue tasting all the risotto before serving and none of it was gummy. In other words, it's the servers' fault for being slow. Not Howie's fault for cooking it in big ol' batches. Ted asks if they considered "seasonality" in their menu planning and Sara confesses concern about the menu's heaviness. She figured a couple of lighter courses leading into the heavier lamb shank would work. Ted mounts his recent hobbyhorse about the chefs looking out for themselves instead of the team; both Howie and Sara produced heavy food. Howie protests that he doesn't care about seasonality; if there's something braised on the menu, he's eating it. Padma fingers Sara as the head chef, and Sara cheerfully assumes responsibility for the menu.

The chefs go away. The judges ponder. Ted thinks Brian "lost it." Padma is surprised that a chef would admit to lacking a sense of smell. Chef Tom agrees he lacks a sense of smell, and also "a lack of taste when it came to the design." Poor Dale sighs that he felt beat up on. The other big blooper is Howie's risotto. The judges are not impressed with Howie's risotto resume. But Chef Tom thinks Tre's smoky potatoes were worse. Ted recognizes that Team CJ had bad service, but he preferred their restaurant. Chef Tom expects better out of this group. He has a solution. Padma checks that Chef Boulud is on board with their decision.

Dale sees how he could get booted. Howie commends him and Brian for stepping up and taking a risk. So then Padma summons Brian and Dale to the table. "Damn skippy," Dale sighs. They shake hands and head out. Chef Tom tells Dale that they had some problems with the food -- like he had anything to do with that -- and they didn't see any relationship between the decor and the menu. Brian's team had less problematic food, but the service dragged them down, and that was Brian's bailiwick. Padma boots -- nobody! The teams get to open their restaurants again the next day, and Chef Tom warns them that the judges expect a much better showing. Chef Boulud has a copy of his book for everyone, because he's nice that way. Dale and Brian break the good news to their teams and there is much rejoicing. Sara recaps the resolution, because we're probably still numb from shock and having trouble absorbing it. Tre is a little bummed, but happy to see another day. Dale thinks his team is well-positioned for the second attempt. Brian is thrilled.

Right decision? This wasn't a cop-out. Given the production schedule, this "twist" had to be planned, or at least allowed for. And I think it's an interesting approach. We all know that opening a restaurant in one day is an absurd proposition; this just recognizes what we all know. And I think it will be interesting to see how the teams adjust. So I'm okay with the twist.

And I'm still fond of the challenge, despite the impossibilities. I'd rather have it among the final six, though, and concentrate on concept and menu. While decor is important to a restaurant's success, it's silly to have chefs judged on something that's really outside their experience. Chefs at least interact with the service staff, and anyone who competes for the title of Top Chef should have some ideas about how service works (or should work). But decor? Not their thing. So, how to factor decor into the restaurant without having chefs trying to cultivate their inner Martha Stewarts? I think they should get restaurant spaces that are already decorated. Then they have to come up with concepts and menus that suit those spaces. Not only does this get them off the decorating hook, but I think it will encourage a little more specificity in their concepts, which will guide the design of the menu.

But what if they hadn't gotten a mulligan? Hung was clearly safe, and would probably have taken the win, with the only dish that received universal praise. Casey stepped up when Brian flaked out and performed smoothly, so she would be safe. CJ didn't get any bad press, so he's under the radar. Dale claimed the smelly candle decision, but gave a stellar performance tableside. I think he deserved to move on. Sara was probably safe, since the menu might have worked if Howie's risotto hadn't been so heavy. I think the judges are no longer expecting anyone to be able to control him. Brian failed in his role, but he was at least attempting something new. And he does look nice in a suit. So I think it would come down to Howie and Dale. Howie picked a tricky dish and executed it badly. Tre's mistake was not over-smoking the potatoes, but serving them. Mash them with something bland to dilute the heavy smoke flavor or throw them out and come up with a substitute, but don't serve something you know is bad. It's like Tim Gunn's famous "Make it work" -- find a way to fix the problem, but don't send crap down the runway or out on a plate. So there's a real possibility that Tre could have gotten the boot. Naturally, I'd prefer to see Howie go, but he has a knack for failing slightly less than someone else.



Solo Acts

Previously on Design Star: 11 designers. Las Vegas. Penthouse. Lisa got the boot. Kitchens. Squabbling. Crying. Neeraja and Josh got the boot (in that order, contrary to Clive's narration). Who will be next?

Morning stuff. Robb interviews that living quarters are becoming more comfortable with fewer residents, but "bathroom lines are still heinous." Can we please just boot him now and get him off my screen? Christina sits on the vanity to shave her legs. Scott's downstairs getting his latte when he spots a note. He summons the designers and reads it aloud -- they have to meet up with Clive. In the van, Adriana is hoping for an individual challenge. Christina suggests sketching nudes. Because that's what design is all about, really. The designers arrive at their destination and find individual white roomlets, and there is much rejoicing.

Clive arrives and has everyone stand behind the paint cans on the table. Yes, indeedy, it's an individual challenge. The designers open their cans to find huge wads of cash - 399 $1 bills. They'll be shopping at the not-quite-a-dollar store. They can buy two gallons of paint; otherwise, it's all about the not-quite-a-dollar stuff. Clive specifically says that the design is "all about looks, not functionality," so we don't hear more complaints about David's pet litter rug. The winner will get to assist at an InStyle photo shoot; two losers will get the boot. The editors inflict Robb on me again to repeat the whole two-people-getting-booted thing, and I can only hope all this airtime means he's one of the two.

Will warns that stuff from the not-quite-a-dollar store will look "tacky" if you pile on too much, so he's going to avoid that. Designers measure and sketch and poke around. Josh expects to find the shopping "challenging." Scott thinks he's the only designer who hasn't experienced the not-quite-a-dollar store before. Time to shop!

The designers line up at their registers with their carts and Clive starts the clock -- they have 99 minutes to shop. Josh heads to the gift wrap section for his inspiration. Christina is trying to keep everything in proportion, since the cheap stuff tends to be small. Scott is in danger of overstimulation. Adriana wants her room to look more high-end; she's pursuing a couple of ideas so she can choose the best from either. Having learned last week that the judges hate fake plants, Will is happy to find some live bamboo. Kim knows she's good at reimagining the stuff she finds in the store. Josh can't find spray paint. Robb takes all the LED lights and hides other good stuff so the others can't use them. "Gotta win, right?" he figures. Is he clear on the whole America-votes-for-the-winner thing? Or does he just think his boorishness is adorable? Scott asks for help getting some Chinese lanterns as they hit the five minute mark. Robb and Todd race their carts down the aisles, fortunately not ramming any customers. Time's up! The designers have to count out their singles at the registers. I don't think we'll be seeing this challenge again. At least not at this store.

The designers have a total of 12 hours to work, 7 hours today and 5 hours tomorrow. Scott breaks something as he unwraps. That's not-quite-a-dollar down the drain. Todd has his shirt off again. Will is still working out his details. Josh is trying to avoid "cheap and cheesy." Everybody paints. Christina is keeping it symmetrical. Scott staples handkerchiefs together and stuffs them with trash to make pillows. Christina worries that Josh is "down." He's dealing with scale issues. Adriana has a lot to do. Scott worries that he has too much stuff. Robb's tape pulls up paint, so his straight lines aren't straight and he'll have to touch them all up. Todd thinks everyone else is "playing it safe" and he's the only one innovating. Clive calls time and sends them all back to the penthouse.

Josh still has lots to do. The designers sit around, eating and talking. Todd wears a stupid furry hat, mere possession of which should be grounds for disqualification. Scott worries that he has too much stuff some more. Robb expects to be pressed for time. The spectre of not finishing is raised.

Morning. Josh is fretting about his room coming together. The designers assemble at the workspace and Clive starts the clock. Robb repeats that he has a lot of work to get done. Clive goes around to pester people.

Clive leaves them in peace to finish. Scott uses a camera to see his room as the judges will see it. Kim creates a rug effect with rice and peas. Time ticks and designers scurry. Clive calls time and the designers all "Woo!"

Back at the penthouse, the designers hang out around the pool and Will grills. "It will be sad for two more people to go home," Christina sighs wistfully. "Like, the house will have such a sense of emptiness." So, she's assuming she won't be one of the two leaving.

Studio. Purple walls. TV monitors. Judges. The criteria: creativity, resourcefulness and the final result.

The designers go to wait in the green room. Cynthia is impressed with Todd's vision. Todd is back in the green room, cheering himself on. Adriana checks on Scott, who's sure he's on the chopping block. Martha sees too much stuff, but Cynthia defends his taste. Adriana isn't too confident either. Vern doesn't think her room was bad, but everyone did well. Kim thinks every detail mattered. Martha is looking for some pattern. Josh is worried, too. Vern was hoping for a brilliant room.

The designers return. Will and Kim were impressive, so they can stay. They go back to the green room. Christina, Todd and Robb are the top three. Sigh. Todd wins for creating a "unique experience." All three go back to the green room. That leaves Josh, Scott and Adriana. Bigger sigh. Martha tells Josh that he didn't rise to expectations; Cynthia tells Adriana that she was "inventive" but lacked "cohesive vision;" Vern tells Scott that he had a terrific foundation but didn't know "when to stop." Scott gets the boot. He's "surprised" to be leaving this early. "You make one wrong decision and you're done," he analyzes. Well, about 150 wrong decisions in his case. With some editing, it would have been a really beautiful room. Adriana and Josh clasp hands. Adriana gets the boot. Josh hugs her. She's also surprised to leave so early. She's sure she disappointed people, but she still believes in herself. Josh is warned to get it back into gear and Cynthia cheers him on. The remaining designers celebrate his return.

Right winner? Sigh. It was a distinctive space, but not exactly a room. I can see why the judges would choose him, but I'd rather see a more well-rounded room on top. Robb's room was a little stark and Christina's was too symmetrical; I preferred Will's and Kim's rooms. It was a relief to see Kim do so well after being concerned about her inexperience.

Right losers? Scott's room was way too cluttered with stuff. He just lost his nerve. Perhaps he missed everything so much that he couldn't bear to cut anything, but he needed a big dose of detachment. Adriana didn't overdo her accessories as badly, but she didn't tie everything together as well as the others. I was worried for Josh, who had done so well previously. I think he was a bit out of his element and just stumbled. It was easier to pinpoint the flaws in the other two rooms; his was off a bit, but in a less obvious way. So I had guessed that he might survive. Now lets see if he can recover his stride.

Overall, the rooms this year were a big step up over last year. They all have reason to feel proud of themselves.


Wednesday, August 15, 2007


All Night Long

Previously on Top Chef: The chefs paired up to create a frozen pasta meal. Howie and Sara M. had different communication styles. Brian and Sara N. had different speeds. Hung tried to explain the winning secret to Joey, who was concentrating on working, not thinking. They had mushy pasta. Chef Tom thought Sara M. sat in the back seat. Sara pointed out the times she was a backseat driver. Howie griped about Sara. Joey didn't pay attention, so he got the boot. The big lug sobbed uncontrollably.

Morning. Brian relates that Joey's departure was emotional for the whole house. CJ and Dale hope to visit "Joey Pickles" in New York. Dale observes that Sara N. is the only New York chef left. Howie reports that he and Joey "forged a friendship" -- "but you can only get so close. If it's them or me, it's going to be them." Consider that our weekly chorus of "I'm not here to make friends."

The chefs arrive at the kitchen to find the product-placed product heavily featured. Hung does a good corporate do-bee eulogy of the product. Padma introduces guest judge Govind Armstrong. Tre gets the eulogy interview, since Govind is African-American. Also, easy on the eyes. The QuickFire challenge is to create original mix-ins for the product-placed product. Chef Govind advises, "Speak from your heart. Think of what really turns you on and what you're really gonna want to eat right then and there, and just keep it simple." CJ is happy with the challenge because it's completely open. The chefs have 45 minutes and all the ingredients in the pantry. And go!

Dale is happy with his idea. Howie goes for berries: "If it ain't broke, you know, don't fix it." Hung is not on the berry train. "Any monkey can make fruit berries and add nuts and make it taste good," he sneers. Where is Hung meeting all these monkeys? Dale reveals that Hung created a whole heap of textures, including white chocolate/cauliflower foam. "And I think that's all I'll say about that," he finishes. It does kind of speak for itself. Tre reveals that Casey is going the "wild" route. Time's up!

Unseen are Brian, Sara M., Sara N. and CJ. Presumably at some point we'll have few enough chefs that they'll manage to squeeze in all the dishes. Maybe for the finals, if we're really good and eat our vegetables. Chef Govind gives the booby prize to Hung, for being too busy with all the flavors. Hung shrugs it off: "Judge wanted something very simple, very catchy for the common people. I think I just missed the whole flavor of adding fruit purées." Hmm, going for flavor instead of texture -- I wonder if that will catch on some day. Casey is also in the bottom with her failed experiment, but she takes the news with a smile. On the plus side, Dale's peach cobbler "made sense" and Howie kept it interesting with the textures and the salt. Chef Govind calls it a tough choice, but the win goes to Dale. He is relieved to finally have a win.

Elimination challenge: "You're off the hook for now," Padma announces. The chefs wait for her to say, "Gotcha!" Instead, she says, "Tonight you'll get a chance to enjoy Miami night life." The chefs burst out with cheers and clapping and jumping up and down. I'm thinking, huh? Reality competitions take place in hermetically sealed environments, so how's this going to work? Brian reports that everyone needs to let off some steam. CJ looks forward to seeing something of Miami. The chefs head out to get ready.

Back at the palatial penthouse, Dale and Sara N. do an adorable Snoopy dance as they talk about what they'll wear. Dale reveals that Sara has become his "little sister." They go through her closet. I guess the remaining women do have a lot of closet space now. Sara calls Dale "my new gay boyfriend." Howie doesn't care about clothes, because the camera crew is enough to get them into clubs. He interviews that he grew up in Miami and spent time on the South Beach club circuit before growing out of it. Casey looks forward to seeing some new faces. Brian thinks everyone is cleaning up "real nice."

Outside, the chefs find a loooong stretch limo waiting. CJ demonstrates some of the "goofy happiness" that freedom inspired. The limo pulls up to a club. Standing outside are Padma and Chef Govind. Behind them? Two mobile kitchens. The party mood crashes. "We just felt like idiots," Sara N. summarizes. Casey has the most awesome expression of disgust as she stands waiting for her marching orders. "I certainly don't usually do elimination challenges in my nice clothes," she grumps. Sara M. explains that Casey and Sara N. were bothered because "cleavage was showing" -- not that Sara M. has any right to throw stones, her dress is like a bikini top with a long skirt attached -- but she didn't care.

Elimination challenge: create food for the drunks who will be stumbling out of the club in the wee hours of the morning. Although Padma dresses it up a little better. They'll split into two teams, go shopping for 30 minutes with $300, and prep for 1.5 hours before service starts. Okay, but they have nine people. Turns out Dale really does get immunity -- he gets to have dinner with Chef Govind instead of cooking. Dale interviews that he felt the hate and envy from his fellow chefs. CJ confesses that he is "just envious and mad." Padma has them draw knives to form teams, and I would have felt rather nervous about putting weapons in the hands of some of these people right at this point. The black team is Brian, Hung, Tre and Sara M.; Brian calls them all "aces." The orange team is CJ, Casey, Howie and Sara N. CJ observes that Sara is slow, but "thoughtful;" he considers her "very talented." As for Howie, he doesn't have a good track record, plus he is "the center of all the controversy in the house." Brian worries about poor CJ over on Team Doomed-from-the-Outset.. Sara sulks about getting stuck with Howie. Just think, if Govind had given Howie the QuickFire win, the orange team wouldn't have this dark cloud hanging over their heads.

The chefs go check out the kitchens. Brian outlines the black team strategy: each team member takes a station so they won't bump into each other. Dale makes his escape with Chef Govind in the limo. Hung explains how everyone had some ideas of what they wanted to do, so they just ran that by the others. Over at the orange team, Howie wants to talk. He reads off a list of things they need to make, including sliders, crab cakes and chorizo corn dogs. Casey chimes in that she had said sliders and corn dogs, only she wants to do the corn dogs with pancake batter. CJ suggests letting Howie talk, and then they'll go around. He interviews that Howie has done bar menus in Miami, so his experience was valuable. Howie discourses, "There's very little about being liked that has to do with being a good leader. Like, I don't need you to like me, to be, for me to lead you. You just need to respect and understand what I'm saying, and know that if you follow me, we're going to get to the promised land." Well, that was interesting. The underlying assumption is that Howie knows better than anyone else what needs to be done. And perhaps he does -- but there's more to leadership than just telling people what to do. From what I've seen of Howie, he wants to be in charge, but he doesn't understand getting the best out of people. Sara proposes falafels and French fries with different dips but, as she explains in her interview, the team wasn't really listening. What happened to going around to everyone? They really needed to do that. At the end of their planning session, all they have is a list of dishes.

The chefs bang on the front doors at their favorite grocery store. Hung does a lovely corporate do-bee interview for some of the sponsors. CJ tries to divvy up the shopping, but Casey figures they'll miss something that way, so they all walk the aisles together. Sara is still in a funk. CJ tries to get people to think instead of rush around. He suspects Howie just doesn't get the whole team idea. From the way Howie ignores CJ's cheerleading efforts, I suspect the same thing.

The black team gets through checking out; the total was $299. They celebrate their precision shopping. The orange team strolls the aisles. CJ keeps trying to get the team to focus and develop some positive energy. The black team whispers to each other their joy in being Howie-free. CJ interviews that his years as a pro volleyball player taught him about teamwork. I watch indoor volleyball during the Olympics, and those teams operate like clockwork, so I think CJ knows whereof he speaks. Unfortunately, I'm guessing all the stuff CJ thinks is important, Howie disdains as unnecessary frou-frou.

The orange team menu:

The black team menu:

I think the orange team menu looks stronger, but I think the black team has a better plan for execution. The orange team does a lot of bumping as they start to work. CJ hunches over the counter getting busy with all the slicing and dicing for the ceviche. I doubt he can stand up straight in there. The black team looks a little more comfortable as they get to work. Hung confesses that he's always dreamed of working the fryer in a roach coach. No, not really. Dale has a lovely dinner, but he seems to be struggling to find conversation.

Chef Tom drops in on the black team. Brian is working on the table out front, so there's more room inside. He'll work the front with help from Sara while the other two guys cook away. Chef Tom heads inside to see what's up there. He asks Tre if Brian is their designated leader, since he's handling the hype. Tre, in a wifebeater, jokes that the people are going to want to jump inside when they get a load of his muscular arms, and then cackles with laughter. The party spirit is clearly infectious. I do love that no one is helping Chef Tom in his search for a designated leader. A group of professionals with a clear plan don't necessarily need a leader. It might be different if they had to coordinate their courses, but really all they need is a willingness to provide mutual support and feedback. Over at the orange team, CJ summarizes the menu as "fried drunkard food." He explains that Howie has experience working some of the local night clubs and Casey jokes, "He was a go-go dancer." Okay, that's kinda scary, actually. Chef Tom sums up: He's not sure the black team's raw bar is going to have general appeal. As for the orange team, Howie's a powder keg and Sara is subdued, but the menu sounds good.

Howie suggests Sara start making milkshakes. She explains that she finished her prep work, so she volunteered to help out with other stuff. There's some back-and-forth about Sara's recipe, which uses ice, and Howie's recipe, which doesn't. Sara voiceovers, "Howie's whole demeanor is very, like, aggressive and it just seems like he's attacking you every time when he's talking to you." He didn't sound all that aggressive to me, at least in that exchange, but he wasn't all that friendly, either. Sara tells Howie they're his milkshakes (presumably he insisted on them) and he disclaims, "They're our milkshakes." Except he seems to be washing his hands of them, especially since he tells Sara to make them however she wants. Brian bounces in his seat as he pretends to be driving the mobile kitchen. CJ decides to ignore the black team's boisterousness. Time ticks away. CJ is worried that they didn't finish prepping.

The drunkards arrive. Brian is their ringleader. Casey offers a guy a burger; he looks like he's more interested in her phone number. She interviews that the guests didn't really know what was up; they were just there for free food. Brian reports that his team pumped out a lot of food. Tre thinks Brian really understood how to deal with a bunch of partygoers. "I heard Malarkey was being cheesy as all hell and it was fantastic," CJ reveals. So he tries to compete, but he just isn't that over-caffeinated. Sara describes how people were just grabbing at food. She can't find the blender top to make milkshakes; there are dirty dishes in the sink and it looks pretty disorganized. Her mood has not improved. CJ analyzes Howie's performance -- "he's not smooth about anything and he doesn't communicate well with anybody." Meanwhile, Sara is only doing a few burgers at a time. So the teamwork is not going well. Howie interviews that he thought Sara was getting all burgers going, but she wasn't.

Chef Tom visits the orange team, looking for food. Out front, CJ serves him some cafe con leche and lets the cooks know who is waiting. While he waits (and waits), Chef Tom asks CJ what he thinks of the crowd over at the other kitchen. CJ jokes about Hung and Brian, and claims their kitchen has "more of a hugging atmosphere." Chef Govind is over at the black team, where Brian offers him oysters with watermelon mignonette and Granita, and a spicy ceviche taco. Sara M. presents her jerk flank steak soft taco with cilantro cream and pico de gallo. Tre has a bacon-wrapped shrimp on cheese grits with tomato chipotle butter. Tre is pleased to report that Chef Govind liked the flavors, and also felt it looked like a composed dish. Not the standard drunkard food, then. Hung has teriyaki chicken wings and onion rings. Ted Allen also drops in (Hi, Ted!) and wonders who's making more noise: the customers or the cooks? My money's on Brian.

Back at the other kitchen, Chef Tom finally gets some food when Sara N. brings over a slider -- a mini-hamburger with caramelized onions and plantain chips. Ted also picks up a slider. Padma gets CJ's spicy ceviche taco with shrimp, scallops, chili, green onions and cilantro. Next is Casey's four-cheese quesadilla (including Muenster and Cheddar) with roasted tomatillo salsa; Padma seems to like this better. Finally she tries Howie's "Media Noche" Cuban pork sandwich with plantain chips. There's a big crunch when she bites into it, which CJ tries to talk up, but to me it looks like the sandwich is too big of a mouthful.

The party continues. CJ thinks his team had good food, but they needed to produce faster. Brian is certain they'd be rolling in money if the food wasn't free. Guests comment favorably on Brian's ceviche, Hung's onion rings and Sara's sliders. However, Howie's Cubano used the wrong kind of bread. Padma puts an end to service and summons the chefs to be judged. Dale asks CJ how it went; he gets cussed out and then hugged. Sara M. has no idea who might be getting the boot. Sara N. is still down; she doesn't think the team worked well together.

Judges' Table. Dale joins the others in the pantry. Chef Tom thinks the black team was able to attract and handle a crowd, while the orange team was slow. Chef Govind starts his list of favorites with Tre's shrimp and grits dish and Ted approves. The cheese grits are "classic comfort food" and Tre used Ted's favoritest food ever, bacon. Chef Tom also liked Brian's ceviche, but Ted thinks that's an easy dish if you have good ingredients. Padma brings up the onion rings. Chef Tom liked them, but not the chicken wings. Padma and Chef Govind disagree about the chicken. Ted likes the orange team sliders, but Chef Govind found his a bit dry and underseasoned. Chef Tom observes that Sara N. seemed to be "out of it" as we watch a clip of her pat, pat, patting a little hamburger into shape. He also pans the milkshakes, which he found weak. Everyone liked Casey's quesadilla. Ted thinks Howie's Cuban sandwich was merely "fine," which is not good enough for a town where people know their Cuban sandwiches.

Padma summons the black team. "So there's that," CJ dryly sums up. Padma wonders how they felt when they got hit with the old switcheroo. Brian says they're all used to cooking for the party, and they made their own party. He also explains how they organized the kitchen and came up with the dishes from there. Chef Govind compliments Brian on his energy and crowd management. Ted continues to drool over Tre's dish. Chef Govind gives the win to Tre, who gets a book and a membership card for the product-placed clubs. Tre is pleased he won one for the South with the grits.

Brian sends in the orange team. Padma asks how they felt about the challenge, and Casey explains that she never wears social clothes in the kitchen. Sara nods. She found the whole thing "demoralizing" and felt "out of my element" running around in heels and a skimpy top. Padma wants to review the food. Casey did the banana dessert (which we never saw) and the quesadillas, and served as expediter. Chef Tom wants to know about Howie's unpressed Cubano. Howie explains that they didn't have a sandwich press -- so why make Cubanos? -- so he pressed the sandwiches with sheet pans, with limited success. I don't think crunchy sub rolls are the kind of bread that presses well. Sara 'fesses up to owning the hamburgers, clearly expecting to get beat up. Chef Govind thinks they needed more salt. Chef Tom noticed their team dynamic when he checked in; he thinks Sara's mood must have affected the team. Howie volunteers that Sara wasn't pulling her weight. "There was no food coming out," he complains. From what we saw, that was a problem for everyone. Howie reveals that Sara only cooked her burgers a few at a time. Casey is surprised to hear it; she doesn't understand why the burger cooking wasn't an all-out effort. Chef Govind observes that they didn't communicate. Casey says she would have gotten in there and grilled if someone had said something. Chef Govind wonders why CJ didn't step in, but he explains that putting another person into the kitchen wouldn't have improved things. Sara says that no one said anything to her about the matter. I agree that the time to say something is when the problem can still be fixed. She continues that she and Howie just don't mesh, and her ideas got stomped on. Chef Tom wonders why she didn't just make what she wanted anyway. Sara realizes she should have, but she has worked for inflexible chefs and she recognizes Howie as one of them. Howie tells Sara that she's "the baby of the house" and she needs to have things done for her. CJ says, "I think that's a little extreme." True. Sara's young and she tends to fall into the subordinate role, but she's not helpless. Howie figures if she's going to blame him for not doing her share, then he'll go after her -- but he went after her first. Sara says, "That's enough." Howie wonders, "What's enough?" and Sara says, "You!" Padma sends them away before they start giving each other cooties.

Back in the pantry, Sara is upset and Dale is concerned. Finally Sara cracks: "Apparently I'm the baby of the house!" Howie protests, "That's how it came across, that's not what I'm saying." No, that's actually what he said. Sara and CJ both think it's a horrible thing to say. Howie says he was just pointing out that the others were "on the same page" but one person wasn't. Except CJ, Casey and Howie weren't a well-functioning team being dragged down by an inept Sara. They were all slow. Casey thinks he isn't being fair, and CJ thinks it's hypocritical to "play this integrity role" and then sell out Sara. Howie protests that he's not a role-playing; he's just being Howie and he doesn't need their approval. Which is good, because he's not getting it. Last week he was all outraged because Sara M. "betrayed" him by listing her contributions, and now he's preemptively selling out Sara N. So if he's just being himself, he's a self-serving, hypocritical jerk and that's nothing to be proud of. Any monkey can be a self-serving, hypocritical jerk.

Back at the judges' table, Chef Tom observes that Howie talks big "after the fact" but doesn't speak up during the challenge. The judges are all bothered by how no one said anything about the slow sliders. Casey didn't even notice anything wrong, which is a problem. Padma didn't care for her banana dessert and Ted thinks she played it safe. Chef Tom thinks CJ tried to pull the team together but then kind of gave up. Well, pounding your head against a brick wall does tend to discourage repetition. Sara gets credit for the sliders, but she's dinged for the milkshakes. Ted thinks Sara made a tactical error when she admitted to being "demoralized." But then he completely misses the point: "Because of the outfit? You can't cook because you don't like your outfit?" Padma kind of understands how you can be all charged up to do one thing and have the rug pulled out from under you, but she thinks Sara should have been able to recover. Which is fair -- Sara got into a funk and never got herself out. Padma and Chef Govind shake their heads over Howie's "doughy" Cuban sandwiches. Chef Govind recalls that Howie had a lot of input into the menu. Chef Tom concludes that Howie will say what he needs to say to stay in. Back in the pantry, Howie tells the others that it's a competition; he's not trying to hurt feelings or be a jerk, but maybe sometimes it's necessary. Chef Tom and Ted suspect people are trying to cover themselves, rather than trying to win.

The orange team returns. Chef Tom spanks Casey for missing the burger backup, CJ for not rallying the team, Sara for not having her head in the game, and Howie for not getting along with a single team. He thinks Sara and Howie both caused the team to fail. Ooh, double elimination? Chef Tom continues, "Probably for this competition, one of you is better suited." Okay, just one of them is going home. So, who got all the attention in the opening segments? Yup, Sara gets the boot. She does the "I didn't get to show what I can do" interview, which is okay coming from the first or second booted chef, but not the seventh. She had 14 challenges to strut her stuff; what was she waiting for? There are hugs from her pals -- so not Howie, who's over on the other side of the room. Still, she's happy she was able to hang with older chefs. She decides that she's not as competitive as she thought she was -- "I think I'm too nice for a competition." No, I don't think that's it. She didn't punk out because she was nice; she punked out because she was just tired and fed up. Not everyone is cut out for the marathon grind of a reality show competition, and the world would be a really aggravating place if they were.

Right winner? If it's based on food, Tre is the right winner. If it's based on team contribution, then Brian should win. Not only did he handle the front beautifully, but he had the incredibly efficient idea of organizing the team by station. So good job from both of them.

Right loser? If it's based on food, I think you can make a better case against Howie's wrong-headed "Cuban" sandwiches than Sara's slightly underseasoned burgers. However, I think Sara pretty much volunteered to go. Perhaps she decided that the sleep deprivation and the head games just weren't worth it any more. However, Howie's days have got to be numbered. The bloom is off the rose for the judges; now instead of being impressed with his forthright manner, they're put off by his self-serving attitude. His inability to get along with anyone is a huge mark against him. Even worse, I think, is his unwillingness to speak up about problems during the challenge. If you don't care about getting it right for the customer, then what are you doing in the business? It's possible that some of the other chefs will screw up enough to let him into the finals, but he'll have to really outcook the competition to overcome the deficits of his attitude.

So the big controversy this week stems from Casey's remarks during judging about her clothes. Should Casey and Sara N. have felt put out about having to cook in party clothes? Sure. They should also have felt put out by the "enjoy Miami nightlife" switcheroo. They shouldn't let their feelings affect their performance, but they're perfectly entitled to those feelings. The challenge put them at a disadvantage. Men's dress clothes aren't all that different from men's work clothes, so the men didn't have much adjustment to make. It's perfectly reasonable to feel uncomfortable working in a professional kitchen while wearing party clothes. In addition to not being comfortable or safe, they're not professional. Casey's remarks about not wearing party clothes in front of her chefs wasn't about "Oh, I don't want anyone to see me looking like this." She was talking about keeping her professional life separate from her social life. She keeps a clear distinction: in the kitchen, she's a professional who expects to be treated like a professional; in her private life, she's a woman who expects to be treated like a woman. Being treated like a woman when you're trying to act like a professional is disconcerting, but it's worse when you're trying to act like a professional in unprofessional clothes. Comments on a woman's appearance imply that her appearance is a noteworthy contribution, but women have worked long and hard to establish that we belong in professional settings as more than decoration. A point Ted managed to work his way around to by the time he wrote his blog, thankfully. The challenge was badly designed because only the women had to deal with the issues of mental and physical discomfort. It would have partially evened the field if the men had had to button their collars and wear ties (making them wear heels themselves isn't fair because of the learning curve), but a better approach would be to let everyone have professional attire to work in.


Sunday, August 12, 2007


Faux Finish

Previously on Design Star: Las Vegas. 11 contestants. Penthouse apartment. Will, Sparkle Josh and Todd were awesome. Lisa folded paper. Organic Josh managed not to decapitate anyone with flying lumber. Robb was on the chopping block, but Lisa got the boot. She was sad.

Morning. Scott threw out his back and spent the night in pain (also, tears). Neeraja is concerned for him. He's sure he's toast if it's a solo challenge. Fortunately, a doctor is able to make a house call to shoot him up with pain killer. Oh, right, it's Vegas.

Clive arrives and summons the designers to the work area, where they each stand behind a paint can on a stool. Two designers will be getting the boot, but the winning designer gets a $5000 gift card from Sears. I love the way they whip through the eliminations early. Two of the cans will designate team leaders. Clive asks who wants the job, and Robb loudly volunteers. He's looking for redemption. I don't think a leadership position will render him any less obnoxious. But Clive was just being rhetorical. And the real team leaders are: Neeraja and Organic Josh. Robb could probably be more disgusted, but it's short notice and that kind of emotion really needs to simmer. Josh is happy to have the chance to demonstrate his leadership. I'm guessing he doesn't watch reality competitions much. The leaders have $10,000 in cash and a star designating their challenge family. The teams will be renovating the kitchens of two neighbors; they'll have 28 hours to work. Time to pick teams:

Clive lays out the judging criteria: overall design, functionality, teamwork and satisfying the clients' requirements.

Sparkle Josh summarizes the two teams: it's Paul Bunyan versus Paula Abdul. They load up in their vans and head out to the houses, congratulating themselves on their teams. Neeraja thinks she has a strong design team. Todd's sure they'll crush the other team. Everyone on Neeraja's team is happy she didn't pick Robb. Todd tells the others he wouldn't trade them. Robb interviews that Adriana is a "dynamo, awesome carpenter chick" but she's one carpenter to his team's three. Kim confesses to being a kitchen novice. Will is worried about money and time, since it's a kitchen.

And we see the kitchens. Yep, they need makeovers. The teams watch DVDs of the families explaining what they want. Josh's kitchen has white tile floors with dark grout, dark wood cabinets and white countertops. The family would like a peninsula to separate the kitchen from the dining room, with cabinets for storage, and new countertops. For style, they like "old world." Robb claims lots of experience with that style. Robb claims lots of experience with everything. Neeraja's family wants to replace an ancient cooktop in their island. Also going: the orange laminate counters. The wall between kitchen and dining room has a pass-through with a bar counter on the kitchen side; they'd prefer to have the counter on the dining room side. A wine chiller would be nice, and maybe get rid of the paneling in the dining room. The team notes that they didn't give any direction on style, or even color.

Back in the "old world" kitchen, Todd wants to preserve the faux-painted stone arch around a doorway. In fact, he wants to make the stones bigger. Will can't figure out how Todd came to be in charge, but he is. Todd interviews that Josh's position as leader only entitled him to pick a team, as far as he was concerned. If Josh had a little spine, he could quickly derail this little mutiny -- Todd can design all he want, but Josh is the one with the money to make it happen. But Josh apparently has no spine, because he just sits and watches. Christina proposes turning a pantry into a fountain or some other kind of "wow" element. Will can't believe she wants to eliminate storage in a kitchen.

Neeraja's team discusses countertops. She interviews that she has done a lot of tiling, so she's "comfortable" with it. Kim points out all the wine paraphenalia, so they use wine as a starting point for the palette. Adriana proposes building out the island as their "element of surprise." Neeraja sums up the changes they want to make. She and Scott head out to shop while the others tackle demolition.

Josh explains his team's dynamics: they vote on something, the majority rules and the minority has to shut up. Sounds healthy. Sparkle Josh works with Kim to rip out panelling. He jokes that his experience with chisels and crowbars is limited to his morning routine. I think he needs to tone down the comedy just a smidge; he's working a little too hard at it. Will interviews that the whole design discussion took longer than it needed to. Robb sneers to Will that he doesn't even know about drop-in stoves, so obviously Robb has more kitchen experience. Will is not impressed. Josh summarizes the design plan: Tuscan, Tuscan, Tuscan. Robb, Todd and Josh head out to shop, because that's obviously the best use of their carpenter resources. In the van, Robb gripes to Todd, "I didn't hear anything coming out of Will that you could substantiate as professional designer speak." Could I get that in English? But if we're going to be picky about professional terminology, it's a drop-in cooktop, not a drop-in stove. Josh interjects, "You have no frame of reference." Robb tells him to go away, since Robb was the one being insulted. He and Josh bicker about who's calmer.

Over with in the grown-up van, Scott worries about the tiling because he doesn't have any experience with it. Neeraja assures him that it will zip right along. Back at the soon-to-be-Tuscan house, Will frets that Tuscan should be different than what they're doing, but he doesn't have enough experience with it to back up that feeling. Neeraja and Scott shop. Kim, Josh and Adriana work. Adriana interviews that she planned a lot of work, but she knows she can get it done. Christina explains that she and Will did prep work and primed the cabinets, but they were stuck waiting for supplies. Robb and Todd race their carts around the store. The manager is going to be so happy when they leave. Bored with waiting, Christina and Will climb over the cinderblock back wall (using the handily-placed ladders) and visit the other team. They've done a lot of demolition. Christina is envious of their progress. Robb finds "the most spectacular dining Tuscan set" ever. Todd pronounces it "epic." It's a big, dark wood table with armless chairs upholstered in some green fabric. The guys invoke the majority rule and buy it. They start invoking the majority rule a lot. Good thing they sent three people shopping.

Neeraja and Scott return; they're thrilled with all the demolition progress. Josh tells Will and Christina that they have a truck full of Tuscan stuff. Neeraja reports that the home improvement store didn't have glass tile, so they'll have to check the tile store. She and Scott display their finds and the team finalizes their choices. Will seems less-than-impressed with the new Tuscan dining set. The teams unload their stuff. Kim reviews her team's situation at the end of the day; she's pleased with the progress. Will's not so happy; his team didn't get any work done. I feel so sorry for Will, trapped on Team Tuscan with the bozos in command.

It's morning. Designers get ready and head out to their houses. Clive straddles the cinderblock wall and starts off the workday. They get 14 hours. Neeraja's team extracts the ovens. Neeraja warns the others that Scott should take the lightest weight. Scott gets verklempt as he praises his team for their decency in helping him through the challenge. It helps, of course, that he's trying his best to contribute despite his pain. But he is fortunate to wind up on the team with most of the nice people, instead of the jackals on Team Tuscan.

Team Tuscan gets to work. Robb is sure they can whip out the execution. Neeraja and Kim go looking for tile while Scott sands the existing countertops and Josh helps Adriana with island construction. Will describes the faux painting technique he used on the walls; a plastic sheet knocks down the fresh paint for a weathered effect. I think the result looks more subtle than sponge painting. Scott drops in to see how the competition is doing. He's worried: the other team looks farther ahead and they haven't started on the tiling yet. With 8 hours left (so 6 hours into the day), Neeraja and Kim discover that the glass tile is too expensive. Kim explains that they based the design around the glass tile backsplash. "Maybe we should have bought this first," Neeraja concludes. It's called a budget, people. Look into it. So they buy some tile at the specialty store, but they're also using tile from the home improvement store. Scott frets that they haven't returned. Kim calculates they have 7 hours left in the day, which has her worried.

Team Tuscan keeps chugging along. Shirtless Todd bangs out a fountain. Neeraja and Kim finally get back to the house. Scott is desperate to see the tiles, and then he doesn't like them. Shiny black tile would not be my choice for a countertop. I don't see how it fits into their earthy palette, and it gives the countertops far too much visual weight. Also, they have 4" tiles, and they would be much better off (especially at this late juncture) with larger tiles that go down faster. Scott brings up the bad news that the other team "looks good." Kim wisely says they can't care about that; they have to think about their own project.

Josh and Will go shopping for what Josh calls "very Tuscan-Italian" plants. Fake Tuscan-Italian plants. I guess they grow them there. Josh finds a grape vine. It's probably the same plastic grape vine that was draped along the other team's vent hood. They could get it for free if they just looked through Neeraja's trash. Scott paints while Kim and Neeraja tile. Kim disclaims expertise, so she's deferring to Neeraja, who is confident. Robb describes the crackle technique that he's using on the cabinet doors. Josh heads out to shop for some "big stuff." He grabs a huge mirror (probably 6' high and 3' wide) for a major discount, and scores some other speedy bargains. Neeraja's team is out of tile, so Josh will have to get more. The teams scramble to finish. Clive climbs the wall and calls time. They'll have 5 hours to finish everything up.

Morning. Scott is pleased that his back has improved, but he's worried about getting done. Robb rah-rahs that the other team will lose two people. Work happens. Clive drops in on Neeraja's team. They have a lot to do, so Clive scampers. Sparkle Josh goes out to get more tile; they figure they'll need 10 boxes. Clive checks in with Team Tuscan. Will reports that the cabinets are their only major project left, and Robb is tackling them. Will needs to stop saying "like" so much if he's going to be on televsion, though.

Sparkle Josh returns with tile and now even Neeraja is worried about finishing. Robb fauxs up some bricks on the backsplash "to match the faux work that they had." But they had faux stone, not faux brick, so how does that match? More last minute work. Robb bellows the 90-minute warning across the wall. Neeraja runs out of tile. Scott: "Neeraja will regret not getting out the tape measure and specing out that entire countertop surface." Wait, they didn't measure? How can you not measure? Time ticks and everyone bustles. Clive sounds the airhorn and that's a wrap.

Studio. Clive. Judges. The criteria: design sense, creativity, team work, execution and the final result. That's not what he said at the beginning. Team Tuscan goes first. The original space is one long room with the kitchen at one end and the dining room at the other. The kitchen has an L-shaped arrangement of dark wood cabinets; the refrigerator and pantry closets are on the long wall. In the dining room is a dark wood, rectangular table. The chairs have rounded backs with metal filigree around the upholstery. Both rooms have the same white tile floor with dark grout. The faux stone archway is opposite the pantries. The new room has white cabinets; the top cabinets have a crackle finish. The backsplash is painted green; the other walls are a mocha brown. The dining room table is a bigger and darker wood rectangle; the chairs are upholstered Parsons chairs. Curtains frame the stone archway. One set of pantry doors has been stained a rich brown; the other set was removed to create a lion's head fountain. There's a stone lion statue under the new peninsula, which also has bamboo barstools covered in black fabric with white polka dots. The sink is now stainless steel.

I don't see how any room with those floors could be considered Tuscan. In general, I'd expect warmer colors, stone or terra cota tiles, and warm wood tones. I like the countertops, the wall colors and the stain on the pantry doors. On the downside, the crackle finish looks dingy at a distance, the white cabinets blend into the floor and there's just a lot of crap strewn about. Who needs a lion statue in the kitchen? Or, for that matter, a lion fountain? The family asked for storage under the peninsula, so would they really be happy about losing a whole pantry?

Vern wants to know who the leader was. Josh brings up the democracy approach and Robb clarifies that Josh was not in charge. Vern is perplexed, because Tuscan style uses natural materials and they didn't. Martha points out a bunch of fake stuff, and then checks that Robb was the crackle guy. She wonders if they're happy with the results. Robb expostulates that yeah, they're happy, because they got the job done. Vern likes the laminate countertops, at least. Cynthia thinks they were successful on a "superficial level." Clive introduces the reveal to the homeowners, who are thrilled with the changes. The woman of the house loves the fountain; she had wanted one, only she was imagining a fake, painted one. Everyone claps. Martha is happy they're thrilled. Vern explains that designers should provide the "best possible version" of what the clients request -- which is a discreet way of saying that the clients have bad taste, and the designers shouldn't have catered to that.

Now for Neeraja's team. The original dining room was covered in medium-toned wood panelling, except for the stone around the fireplace. The table is a dark wood trestle and there aren't many chairs; the carpet is off-white. The kitchen is visible through the door and the passway. The cabinets are medium wood and the countertops -- including those of the island with the cooktop -- are orange. The cabinets are essentially L-shaped but the counter continues all the way around the room. The backsplash is a sandy brown, almost mosaic-looking tile. The new dining room is painted a sage green. The round glass table has been placed on a rug with reds and browns. The large mirror leans up against the stone wall that isn't adjacent to the fireplace. The passway has a wooden counter that protrudes into the dining room. The kitchen also has green paint in the few places where the walls are exposed. The cabinets haven't changed. The wrap-around counter is gone. To the side of the passway is a stained wooden counter; underneath is a wine chiller and above are two wine storage racks. The island is now L-shaped and stained darker; the countertops are stained wood (plywood?). Unfortunately, the tile isn't finished. The backsplash looks like a small, gray-veined marble tile while the countertops are mostly covered in shiny black tile.

The dining room looks very well put-together. The kitchen is a disappointment. Not just the countertops, but the island -- it's an awkward shape and the surface looks unfinished even though it's stained. As for the countertops, I think the tiles were a bad choice. The original backsplash looked like it worked with their palette. They should have gone with one of their backup tile choices for the counter, or used prefabricated laminate. Instead of painting the range hood red, they should have painted the island red and come up with a better surface for it. That would be the place to use tile, while the surrounding countertops were laminate.

Martha thinks the original might have been better. She has clearly forgotten about the orange counters. Neeraja explains that they didn't have any color or style instructions. Cynthia wants to know about the white grout with the black tile and Neeraja has to confess that they didn't get around to grouting. She and Kim both wanted tile rather than laminate. Cynthia thinks they had enough resources to get the job done. Vern thinks the condition of the countertops is "unforgiveable." Scott agrees; the whole team "left with a pit in our stomach." Kim thinks the team needed a realist. Vern wonders if Neeraja considered a balance of skills when she picked her team. Neeraja blames Josh for snatching up Todd, and she couldn't pick Robb because he was difficult. Vern wonders if maybe construction skills wouldn't be worth it. He clearly needs to spend more time with Robb. Adriana volunteers that she was the carpenter, so she did all the construction. Cynthia and Vern agree that the dining room works. Vern likes the mirror in particular. Neeraja gives Sparkle Josh credit for the dining room finds. The family gets to see the dining room and they're thrilled. On first impression, they love the kitchen with the new fridge and new wine chiller. But Clive prompts a closer look -- the counters are unfinished, the lower cabinetry has no knobs and the sink is missing a knob. Clive reveals that contractors finished up the work. Vern has a lesson: "The reason why you guys are designers, it's to improve the quality of somebody's life by improving the quality of their space." They have to manage their time so they can maximize the benefit to the client.

The designers go wait in the green room. Martha vents that no one on Team Tuscan knew what Tuscan meant and it was all just fake and wrong. Cynthia likes the design direction of Neeraja's kitchen, but not the execution. Vern notes that Scott didn't let his back injury sideline him. Robb wants to know why Neeraja was willing to throw him "under the wheels" when he's barely had anything to do with her, and Neeraja said she just answered a question. "How do you know that I would be difficult?" Robb challenges. Well, she has eyes and ears and a brain. Cynthia talks about something being "such a bad trait in anyone." Will explains to Robb that he is, in fact, difficult and nobody wanted him on their team. Cynthia might be a little delicate for judging; she doesn't like seeing "people upset like that" or "bad design." Vern thinks Robb's passion could be great if he could just channel it constructively. Kim thinks Vern's criticisms were on target. Vern grumps that the designers get to leave, but someone is stuck with the results. Scott tearfully confesses to feeling like a failure for not finishing. The tension ratchets higher and higher.

The designers return. Clive scolds Neeraja for making bad decisions. She gets the boot. Her perspective is "woulda-coulda-shoulda" -- it's too late to fix anything. But she made friends and she learned something from everyone, so that was good. Sparkle Josh is summoned forth. He's the winner (yay!), so he gets to escape to the green room. Todd, Christina, Will, Adriana and Scott all did good work, so they're safe. Robb, Organic Josh and Kim step forward. Kim hasn't shown her style, but she's a "good team player." She's safe. Josh failed to show leadership or design. Robb crapped up the kitchen. Josh gets the boot. He admits to feeling "out of my element" with the Tuscan design. Robb returns to the green room. He's greeting with glee by his fellow Lost Boy Todd, but the other designers are stunned and, I daresay, disappointed.

Right winner? Josh made the biggest contribution to the dining room, which turned out really well. So yes, he deserved the win.

Right losers? Neeraja's team was doing really well until they hung themselves up on the tile project -- and even after running out of tile once, they failed to measure to get the right amount. That's all on Neeraja, so her dismissal was fair. It's too bad, because it turned out she had people skills and design skills. She just couldn't adjust to the accelerated schedule of a competitive reality challenge. I do think that once again, Robb was responsible for the crappiest elements in a room. However, Josh could have put a stop to it by stepping up and being a leader. Todd and Robb can talk as much as they want, but money talks louder. As long as he kept the power of the purse, he could force the team in a direction. Unfortunately, he wasn't sure where to go and he wasn't willing to trust his instincts. Josh has potential, but he's just too green (ho-ho) to handle this competition.

Since Robb has displayed some truly bad taste in the last two challenges, I'm hoping he'll finally be gone next week when he gets a chance to strut his stuff in an individual challenge. I'm sure Todd will be a contender, but I'm not voting for him if he makes the finals. Christina continues to be useless. Sparkle Josh is still the front-runner. Will, Adriana, Scott and Kim are all useful and personable. So with any luck, Robb and Christina will be out next week, but given her inexperience, I suspect Kim could be at risk.


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