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.


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