Sunday, August 05, 2007


Latin Lovers

Previously on Top Chef: The chefs formed teams of three to produce a tasting menu of trios. Howie was unhappy with his team and Joey got defensive. Dale switched to a pastry course; his team had "a little" pastry experience. Then he messed up his plating. Ted raved over the first course. Lia got the win. "Yay!" Tom spanked Dale for being the pastry ringleader, but Camille (who?) got the boot.

Chefs do morning things. Lia interviews that it's sad Camille (who?) is gone just as she was starting to "come out of her shell." Joey laments that he's stuck in the lower tier. He and Dale hang out on the balcony. "It's going to be like this from here on out," Joey observes. "Every day non-stop." Back in the interview, Joey figures he's established himself as an underdog, but now he has to get it in gear. Hung plans to cook as if every day were his last (does that mean he'll cook badly enough to get booted?); he figures "finesse, style, grace and elegance" will take the win.

In the kitchens, Padma introduces guest judge Maria Frumkin, noted pastry chef. Tre gets the eulogy interview. Padma announces that the challenges this time are "about timing." For the QuickFire, they're using one of the major time-saving advances: the frozen pie crust. (Time-saving is not the same as timing, I feel obliged to point out.) Dale is still feeling sensitive about the "dessert debacle" from last episode (which Padma brings up), as demonstrated by his one-fingered salute in his reaction interview. Padma gives Chef Maria a chance to badmouth the pie crust, but she just says the chefs will need to use their "talents and creativity." The chefs have 90 minutes to make whatever they want with the crusts. And go!

Hung is going for bananas, peanuts and chocolate, and tempts Fate: "How can you go wrong with that dish?" Dale is looking for redemption. Sara N. does another chorus of "we're not pastry chefs." But wait! Joey confesses to having some pastry experience. He didn't 'fess up in the last challenge because he was afraid of getting sabotaged -- yes, this crew has been so darn underhanded with the competition. Howie explains that "there are cook's desserts and there are pastry chef's desserts." He's going with a tart, which is a cook's dessert, but using some savory flavors. Tre indulges his "feminine side" and dresses up his tart with little pastry cutouts. Hung's pie didn't set up. He claims it's "still a mousse" despite being "runny" but I think it looks more like pudding. The ridge of the pie crust falls over in embarrassment. Hung props up the sides with strawberry slices. Dale is feeling good about his entry.

Time's up!

Presumably Sara N. and Casey also made something, but we have no idea what. The bottom three are Lia (the artichokes and pears didn't go together well), Dale (too much saffron) and Hung (sagging mousse). Hung looks incredulous at being singled out, like his runny pie still has to be worlds better than anything anyone else made. Getting good news: Tre (simple but elegant), Sara M. ("exceptional" cheese tart) and Joey ("You have a future in tarts"). And the win goes to Joey. Everyone claps for the big, lying lug.

Elimination challenge: Catering lunch for the cast of the telenovela Dame Chocolate and other Telemundo stars, who (Padma warns) "work a tight schedule that is constantly being adjusted." The food should be "Latin." Since Latin America includes Mexico, Central America, South America, Cuba and Puerto Rico, that covers a lot of possibilities. They'll have 30 minutes to shop and 3 hours to cook before packing up and serving on site. Hung is feeling confident because he spent three years in Puerto Rico. Lia is not feeling confident because she doesn't have much experience making Latin food. She has eaten it, but that doesn't necessarily mean she can turn around and make it.

The chefs go shopping with $125. Joey is looking forward to the "hot Latino women." Lia has seen grilled fish with Latin food, so she's going to smoke some rainbow trout. Joey -- speaking purely in the interests of friendship, since they're pals now -- would like Howie to get off the pork train for a change. Casey observes that being in Dallas puts her "close to the border" -- compared to, say, Topeka, sure. Those Western states are so big, it really throws off your sense of scale. (I grew up in Texas, and when I moved to New England, I would look at maps and think trips would take twice as long as they did.) She's going to do something like mole, but with coffee. Sara N. plans to make her own tortillas to up the difficulty level, but she buys some at the store as a backup.

Back at the palatial penthouse, Brian wonders if anyone is making dessert, what with "chocolate" right in the show name. Like anyone's going near dessert after the last Elimination challenge. Casey says she's seen the show. Lia interviews that she and Casey have gotten to be friends. Casey has a sandwich while Lia ponders alound about her dish. Casey appreciates having someone supporting her; she's sure they're friends for life.

It's morning now, as evidenced by the people lying in bed. Sara happily recaps the three-hour cooking window. From his bed, Hung predicts success because he speaks some Spanish. Oh, and his food will "taste good." Brian is from "San Diego but by way of the Northwest," so his "Latin flavors aren't explosive." Unlike his speaking style.

At the kitchens, everyone settles into work, looking more relaxed than usual. Sara M. calls the atmosphere "more civilized." Howie figures he has just enough time to get everything done, as long as he doesn't goof off. "Timing is important," he reminds us. Yes, he would know.

Chef Tom arrives, but not for inspection. He pretends that they just got a phone call from the clients, and lunch has been moved up. Now they only have 90 minutes to cook. He skedaddles before they bludgeon him with stock pots. Brian and Casey are all "oh, crap" but Dale says "Knew that was coming" as he steps up the pace. He interviews that people started "hauling ass" and we see people doing just that. Howie mentions his previous run-ins with his nemesis, Mr. Clock. Casey interviews that the kitchen situation deteriorated. She finds something "nasty" lying around and interviews, "People are losing all sense of what is right and wrong in this situation." Howie discovers that his burner has gone out and struggles to relight it. Tre calmly acknowledges that people deal with stress in different ways, and he's not going to criticize as long as it works.

Now Chef Tom is inspecting. Howie explains that he's sticking with his plan to braise his pork, although he might have to finish in the ovens. Lia has to give up on grilling her polenta, but she's sure she'll be ready in time. "I think this is something we're all used to dealing with," she observes. Casey is also not grilling; her chicken will go in the oven. But she's pretty sure she'll be ready. Chef Tom thinks she needs some prep cooks and she urges him to jump in. Sara N. won't be making her own tortillas; Chef Tom commends her for having a backup. Elsewhere, he observes that Hung is moving "like a banshee." I think "bat out of hell" is what he was going for. Hung is, if possible, even more frantic than usual. Having chopped some herbs, he sweeps a handful against his cleaver and zips across to the stove with them, cutting off (but fortunately not cutting) Casey.

Outside, Chef Tom sums up that they all adjusted in different ways -- "Some of them work fast, some of them work hard, some of them work smart." He's worried about Hung zooming around the kitchen while carrying a knife. He thinks Howie is particularly stressed, given the way he was sweating. So, more than usual? How can you tell? He doesn't see why Howie doesn't switch to roasting his pork; it would probably turn out better.

Packing up starts. Hung decides to tempt Fate again by declaring, "If I can't cook rice, I should go home right now." Meanwhile, Casey's rice starts to boil over and Howie helps her scoop it out onto a tray. Padma is not there to call time, but the chefs put their hands up anyway.

On location at Dame Chocolate, which is filmed at a mansion. Sara M. explains that "all the fancy people live" on Star Island. The chefs set up the buffet. Lia explains that chafing dishes and hot boxes keep cooking food, which can be a problem, so she went with a cold dish. Howie gets Casey to write out his dish for him. They're terrible on a team, but great at helping each other out. If they had just seen teamwork as helping each other out, maybe last week wouldn't have been so horrible.

A production assistant calls lunch and the crowds head over, including the judges. Gail is looking quite fetching in her sundress and wind-tousled hair.

I'm sure Brian made something, too. Brian probably made ten somethings and they just didn't have time for them all. Various actors rave about the chile relleno. Howie's pork also garners praise. Hung's arroz con pollo flops; the rice is dry. Joey's stew is a hit, but the actors think it needs a tortilla. An actress is disappointed by Sara N.'s ceviche, which has too much avocado and not enough seafood. The judges think Lia's trout is bland, although that could just be in constrast to all the spicy dishes. One actress doesn't like the polenta; another agrees, but thinks the fish is good. Casey's dish is panned; Padma thinks the sauce has too much coffee flavor. Chef Tom reports the time switcheroo. A production assistant calls the company back to work, but not before they applaud the chefs. Joey is sure he'll win. Casey is suspecting she won't.

Judges' table. Chef Maria was impressed with the food knowledge of the actors. Gail brings up Joey's stew and everyone agrees that everyone enjoyed it. Padma turns to Lia, and Gail reports that diners left it on their plates. Padma remembers the mushy polenta and Chef Maria didn't think it was sufficiently Latin. Gail pans Casey's coffee sauce, but Chef Tom was more put off by the dry chicken and mushy rice. Gail raves about Howie's mojo sauce; Chef Maria is less effusive but still favorable.

Padma summons Joey and Howie, who turn out to be the top two. What happened to Sara M.? Her chile relleno was a crowd-pleaser; it would be nice to know why the judges didn't summon her. Joey reports that the stew is based on something the "Spanish guys" in his kitchen make for "family meal" (which is the staff meal); he dedicates his dish to them. Gail wonders what he would have done with more time. Joey's happy with what he had, but he wanted his vegetables to be perfectly diced. Chef Tom wonders about Howie's smirk, but he was just thinking of the timing change. Gail and Padma tease him about his timing issues, but then Padma praises his flavors. Chef Maria asks if he was happy with everything, and Howie thinks he jumped the gun a bit (again!) on carving his pork. Chef Tom asks if they sampled other dishes. Joey reports that Howie's pork was delicious. Howie says he knew he was in the top when he got called in with Joey. Chef Maria gives the win to Howie and presents him with a bottle of Argentinian wine.

Back in the pantry, Howie awards Joey the bottle of wine because he loved Joey's food so much. Joey summons Lia, Sara N., Casey and Hung. The grilling starts with Hung, who's not sure why he got summoned. Perhaps his dish was "too classic"? Chef Tom wonders why he picked arroz con pollo, and Hung explains that it's a classic. Cheff Tom points out that the rice was dry and a little underseasoned. Hung is surprised; he suspected he might be on the block for too much seasoning. Not that it was inedible. The judges are all, we're not talking about rookie errors. Chef Maria says the customers weren't happy and Hung chalks it up to "your personal decision." Well, no, it's the decision of lots of people. Chef Tom warns him about running around with knives.

Chef Tom asks Casey about the rice, and she explains how it boiled over. So she's not surprised to be called up. Padma asks if her coffee/molasses sauce turned out as envisioned, and Casey thinks it did. It was supposed to have the same kind of "punch" as a mole sauce; she liked the interaction of "heat" with the coffee flavor. Chef Tom doesn't think it came out Latin.

Lia thinks her dish had Latin flavors, but "in a slightly different way." She knows it wasn't traditional, but chefs are supposed to be creative. When Chef Tom asks, she's "not entirely" surprised to be in front of the judges. But she doesn't think her dish is a loser.

Padma asks Sara N. if she really made a ceviche. Sara explains how her L.A. roommate made a guacamole ceviche, which she adapted. Chef Maria asks if she was able to taste the scallops, and Sara admits they might have been "masked" by the other, stronger flavors. My understanding is that scallops don't have a big flavor of their own, so they don't seem like a good choice for a bold dish.

Back in the pantry, Joey declaims, "We're all going home at some point." The not-so-fab four return and wait for the decision. Padma sums up that all four dishes had "major" problems. Hung was sure his dish was fine. Chef Maria observes that he had the same reaction in the QuickFire challenge. His arrogance makes Gail want to knock him down a peg. Meanwhile, she thinks Sara's entry was more "chips and dip" than entree. Chef Maria thinks it's just guacamole. Padma wonders how she could think of that as a winning dish. I suspect Sara thought of it as an authentic dish she could make. Gail pans Lia's dish as bland and mushy. Chef Maria thinks that even without the Latin aspect, the dish lacked balanced flavors and Padma sadly calls it "inedible." Chef Tom thinks that's going too far, but it wasn't good. But Casey's rice and chicken were bad as well as not being Latin. Gail found the sauce overpowering. Chef Maria didn't find her mole explanation convinced. Padma thinks the sauce tasted like "cough syrup." Chef Tom is still stuck on the bad rice and chicken.

The chefs return. Chef Tom spanks Sara for calling her dish a ceviche when it really wasn't one. If that what it comes down to, I'm thinking she's safe. Hung did a classic dish that everyone knew, and did it badly. Casey let the rice boil over and the chicken dry out. Lia should have been able to make a flavorful dish, even with the time change. Lia gets the boot. Aw. Back in the pantry, Casey announces that the "inspiring and talented chef Lia will be going home" and Lia hugs her. She interviews that she's embarrassed to leave so soon. There are lots of hugs and clapping as she says how she enjoyed working with everyone. She'll keep cooking because it's fun and she loves it. I don't think she had enough flair to go all the way, but I did think her basic skills would take her a little farther. She just got tripped up by a gap in her experience.

Right winner? Hard to say without tasting. I suspect Joey's lack of a tortilla or other bread might have counted against him; the opinions of the diners did seem to be a factor in the decisions. I really wish we knew why the judges didn't include Sara M. in the top tier, given the rapturous response to her dish.

Right loser? Sara N. seemed safe, so it was between Hung, Lia and Casey, all of whom had food problems. Hung was probably safe because Casey messed up both the rice and the chicken. I'm really not sure what tipped the balance against Lia. Perhaps it was the fact that people left her food uneaten. I've read claims that Chef Tom protects his favorites, but this shows that he doesn't. He was clearly nonplussed by Casey's chicken and rice. Meanwhile, Lia is his kind of chef -- strong fundamentals, no-nonsense demeanor -- and he just seemed to like her. If he were playing favorites, Casey would definitely be gone. And I'm not sure she wouldn't deserve it. I can't say that Lia was the wrong choice, but I would like to have an idea of how the decision was made.

I admit was rooting for Hung to go. He's got the right skills, but his arrogance stopped being amusing and I'm really not looking forward to the very special episode where someone has to get stitches.


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