Sunday, August 12, 2007


Together but Apart

Previously on Top Chef: The kitchen atmosphere was more stressful and consequently more dangerous, as Hung zipped past Casey with a knife. The chefs catered lunch for a telenovela cast and crew. Hung did bad things to the classic arroz con pollo. Howie's braised pork made Gail exuberantly happy. Howie won, but he gave his prize wine to runner-up Joey. Hung worried that his cooking was "too classic." Lia's dish was bland. She got the boot.

It's stormy in Miami. Aw, the sky is crying because it misses Lia. The chefs lie in bed. STOP IT WITH THE STUPID BED SHOTS! What the hell am I supposed to learn about these people from the way they lounge around in bed? Brian figures that Lia was destined for a slot in the finals, so now the people who weren't destined for a slot have a chance. CJ is bummed that his pal is gone. He thinks the "dwindling numbers" are causing a corresponding rise in competitive feeling. Dale thinks it's anyone's game. Joey is in the "whatever it takes" school of competition -- including throwing people "over the bus" or "over the balcony."

The chefs arrive at the kitchen to find Padma and guest judge Rocco di Spirito -- "in all his Rocco glory," CJ sums up. I never saw his reality show, so reports of his utter toolishness are all I have to go by. That, and his excellent performance at Union Pacific. Brian gets the eulogy interview, and successfully sounds like he's singing Rocco's praises without actually saying anything. Padma and Chef Rocco lecture the chefs about lifelong learning. The QuickFire challenge: a "culinary bee." Howie is confident, because he's a thinker. In fact, he's even kind of "academic." Uh. Okay. It's hard to see the mental cogs turning, so perhaps I just didn't notice. CJ thinks Hung could take it if his ego doesn't trip him up.

Round 1: Howie starts things off by recognizing tomato paste. Joey is presented by a rather obscene-looking root vegetable, which apparently short-circuits something: "You got Padma looking at you looking all sexy today, and then you know, you got this ass<bleep> right next to her, and your mind just goes blank." How come they bleep "hole" instead of "ass"? Sara M. starts off thinking peanuts but then works her way around to tahini, but Padma is taking the first answer, so she's out. Brian gets quail eggs. Sara N. is so overwhelmed by the vinegar she tastes that she gets cherry instead of raspberry for the flavor. Dale can't identify taro root. CJ guesses pepper cress instead of daikon radish sprouts. Hung gets oatmeal. Tre mistakes mirin for simple syrup. Casey gags but gets it right with fish paste.

Round 2: Howie recognizes tapioca pearls. Brian knows his kidney beans. Padma gives Hung something to taste, which he visually identifies as anise seed. Padma prods him to taste anyway, and he realizes that it's celery seed. Too late! At least he afforded amusement to his fellow chefs. Casey gets "bow tie pasta." Howie summarizes that some people got easy things and some people got hard things. "Not to take away from Casey" -- which is why he's mentioning her -- but bow tie pasta was easy. Unlike, say, tomato paste.

Round 3: Howie identifies the oh-so-exotic cheese slicer. Must have been all those academic wine and cheese parties. Brian recognizes lime leaves and Casey gets Chinese five spice.

Round 4: Howie guesses bamboo shoots instead of hearts of palm. Brian gets miso and Casey recognizes chayote.

Round 5: Brian is stumped by Japanese eggplant. Casey guesses "roasted red bell? peppers." She claims victory and immunity.

Elimination challenge: Padma and Chef Rocco do some product-placed shilling. The chefs pull knives to form teams of two. CJ is pleased to be paired with Tre, who doesn't bring the drama. The four most difficult people, in his estimation, have been compactly arranged into two teams: Sara M. and Howie, and Joey and Hung. Sara M. is concerned about Howie's "bulldoggish" tendencies. The assignment: create 15 servings of "an Italian-style, Mediterranean frozen pasta meal" that can be reheated in a skillet in 10 minutes. Howie summarizes Mediterranean style as treating the ingredients "very simply and letting those flavors speak for themselves." The chefs will have two hours to cook and pack their food into the freezers, and another hour in the morning to pack up. There are various shots of chefs thinking, "An hour to pack? Hmm, what can that mean?" They'll serve their food to customers at a local upscale supermarket. And there's a prize: each winning team member gets two tickets to Italy, courtesy of the product-placed product maker. The chefs all squeal and jump up and down. Dale and Brian interview that everybody perked up. Joey, that big lug, wants to send his mama and his sister, since they've never been to Italy. What a good boy he is. Somebody pat his cheek.

The chefs have several bags of product-placed product to examine. Tre, CJ and Hung all quickly realize that the ingredients were frozen separately and then packaged together. Hung is feeling confident: Joey's Italian, and Hung understands how the packaging works, so they've got it covered. Casey and Dale both have a meatball brainwave. Dale interviews that he hadn't spent much time with Casey before, but they "instantly, instantly clicked." Sara N. thinks Brian is talented, but she's worried about their different styles: she keeps it simple and doesn't care for "too much going on." Of course, "too much going on" is pretty much the definition of how Brian cooks. Howie proposes peas, but Sara M.'s not feeling it; she had thoughts of spinach. Howie interviews that his partner is "negative" and "a whiner." He continues, "People specifically like Sara think my food is too simple to be good. But people like Sara don't realize that putting a bunch of bull<bleep> on a plate does not make you a chef." Which "people like Sara" -- Jamaican cheesemakers? Curly-haired women of Indian ethnicity? If Sara has dissed your cooking, say so. If not, then stop putting words in her mouth.

The chefs go shopping -- 30 minutes and $100. Joey, Sara N., CJ and Tre all purchase chicken. "It's a no-brainer for me that shrimp is the way to go because everybody loves shrimp," Howie reports. And that's why it's hard for me to believe he's a thinker. Tre reveals that he came up with the truffle idea. CJ explains the magical allure of delicious, delicioius truffles (not that I would know). Sara M. and Howie browse the pasta section. Sara M. suggests shells but Howie is unenthusiastic. He wants monochromatic pasta, but she wonders why you wouldn't go for the colorful kind. Howie waits until his interview to vent that tricolor fusilli is the "cheesiest, corniest pasta" ever. So, he can veto shells but not tricolor fusilli? Next, Howie is unhappy with the amount of some leafy thing they have. Sara M. interviews that she will "move on and do something else" rather than have a confrontation. Although she is capable of disagreeing with Howie, so "confrontation" probably means "fight" rather than "exchange of opinions." Howie doesn't want to get booted because somebody else's "inability to work as a team." Given their respective team performances, I think Sara has more to worry about than Howie. Hung and Joey also have pasta drama -- Hung wants penne, but Joey goes for the tricolor fusilli. Man, I hope Howie doesn't find out.

Time to cook. Sara asks Howie about the stock that he's making. Tre interviews that he and CJ were so focused on their work, they didn't even speak for the first 25 minutes. CJ describes their strategy as making sure "every flavor stands out on its own." Casey explains that she and Dale picked things that freeze well -- pesto and meatballs. Joey handles the pasta and the sauce while Hung does the old sous vide on the chicken. I'd think you'd need more time than two hours for that, since it's at a lower temperature, but they don't want the chicken fully cooked. Brian complains that Sara N. is slow: "In the time that she cut the peppers, I cooked the pasta, dried the herbs, cut the pancetta." However, Brian still loves his irritating partner

Howie tells Sara that he put the fennel into the stock, but she worries that they won't have enough, so maybe they should use it raw. Well, too late now. Sara confides that Howie's hard to read, which is frustrating because "we all want to communicate properly." She asks Howie several questions about the pasta. And yes, she's nagging -- but given her interview, it seems likely that she's trying to prod him into keeping her in the loop. Howie objects to being second-guessed by "somebody who hasn't even shown anything in any challenge." Let's see:

Howie has the better record, but Sara M. has made some good showings. She has placed higher than Howie 4 times, while he's beaten her 3 times and they've essentially tied 3 times. So he's wrong about her performance. He's also wrong about teamwork. Teams work best when everyone -- even the inexperienced -- feels free to contribute; shutting people out of the process leads to tunnelvision. In summary: Shut up, Howie.

Chef Tom comes through. Howie's slaving away, so Sara handles the interrogation. She explains that they're using shrimp, which she's marinating in olive oil. They'll add it to the stock and it will get cooked during the reheating process. Casey and Dale have picked orecchiete pasta to go with their meatballs. Chef Tom notes "tinned artichokes" with poorly disguised disapproval. Dale says they didn't have time to make their own artichoke hearts. Brian has naturally come up with a name for their dish -- "Trojan Chicken Rigatoni." Chef Tom wonders if a surprise will pop out and Brian assures him it's "loaded with surprises." I don't think surprise is really what I'd be looking for in a frozen pasta meal. Joey jokes that he's "teamed up with Flash Gordon." After Hung joins them, Chef Tom asks what they learned from their examination of the product-placed product and Hung leans in to explain the secret of individually frozen ingredients. CJ and Tre also explain how they're on the individually-frozen-ingredients train.

Chef Tom sums up: He doesn't see Casey and Dale's turkey/pork meatballs as Mediterranean. He's not impressed with Brian's name -- "When someone tells me it's a surprise, often that means they don't really know what they're doing yet." He's curious how Hung and Joey will mesh, since Hung zips and Joey plods. He reveals that the secret is, in fact, freezing the ingredients individually and assembling them the next day.

Hung tries to tell Joey about freezing the sauce, but Joey is busy getting stuff done. He interviews that Hung is nagging at him and "it's not the end of the world." So now Joey has plastic containers with all the ingredients assembled into meals and he's ready to pour the sauce on top, but first he checks that it's okay with Hung. Hung tries to remind him how the sauce was frozen separately, so Joey slides the rest of the food over so he can pour the sauce on the side instead. Hung gives up and lets Joey decide. Joey interviews that he just wanted to make sure everything got packaged up and they'll "just hope for the best." An ancient, if unreliable, cooking technique.

Casey has raptures over their meatballs. CJ is not quite as excited, but he still likes Tre's chicken. "It's true what they say about black folks, man," Tre jokes. "Black folks know how to cook chicken." If super-serious Tre can joke around with CJ (especially with racial humor, which can be a touchy thing), they must really be getting along well. Tre reports that everybody else assembled their food into bags as meals -- there's a clip of Sara M. saying "We can separate it tomorrow if we have to" -- but he and CJ were the only ones who froze things individually. Howie grumps that Sara M. was constantly checking up on him instead of doing her jobs. Dale and Casey are packed early, so they help Brian and Sara N., who are running behind. And we're done!

The chefs return to the palatial penthouse. Dale reports that he could see that people didn't work well together. Hung complains to CJ and Tre that he figured out the freezing secret, but he couldn't implement it. Why not? What was Hung doing that Joey was able to assemble all the ingredients into meals? CJ wonders if perhaps Hung could have been "firmer." I think Hung believes he's blunt and emphatic (witness how he "called out" the product-placed booze guy) when he's really not much of a verbal sledgehammer. Joey worries that the guest judge is going to expect more from the Italian guy. Howie grumps to Dale that he wants a partner who will crank it out, not pester him for updates. Sara M. interviews that they're both good chefs; they just have different styles. If Howie could adopt that perspective, he might find it easier to work on a team. Howie thinks perhaps he "gave her too much leeway." So, Howie's idea of teamwork is being the boss of his partner? He vents that he'd never hire her, not even to wash dishes, because "she thinks way too much of herself." Yet Sara can acknowledge Howie's prowess as a chef, while Howie is the one who has decided he's above Sara.

Morning. The chefs arrive in the kitchen to pack up. Tre observes that most of the chefs had already packed, so there wasn't much work left. Sara M. asks Howie if he wants to pack things in dry ice or put them back in the freezer; Howie votes for dry ice. The other teams get to sit around and watch CJ and Tre package up their individually-frozen ingredients. Hung and Joey, in particular, have front row seats. I'm thinking Hung dragged Joey over there saying, "See? That's what I was talking about." Hung interviews that he had a bad feeling when he saw that CJ and Tre had cracked the secret code.

Off to the supermarket. Each team has a table with a burner and two skillets, plus a bunch of cardboard boxes for packing up meals to go. They'll be "selling" their free food to customers. CJ is happy to be located by the potatoes -- presumably a high traffic area. Howie claims the cooking job for his team. "Okay," Sara chirps. Dale says he'll cook and Casey can charm the customers. The other teams divvy up cooking and customer service. Sara asks Howie if he wants to rearrange anything at their station, but he declines. The judges arrive; we have Gail this week. (Hi, Gail!) Padma gives the chefs 10 minutes to cook up their sample meal.

The food hits the skillets. Well, most of the food hits the skillets. Tre and CJ are guessing they just need 6 minutes to cook, so they're waiting. Hung describes how he dumped out the frozen meal and "it was one big chunk." He's sure they're doomed. Oddly enough, none of the female chefs have cooking duty. Does a gas burner qualify as a power tool? After much shaking and stirring, people taste. Casey is happy with the results. Hung discovers that their pasta is soft. He explains that it absorbed moisture from the hot pasta sauce that Joey put on it. As Hung stood there and watched. Tre and CJ finally start cooking.

Customers arrive and start tasting. The judges circulate.

More customers, more tasting. After sampling the various offerings, customers return to pick a free meal. Sara M. and Howie decide they should have frozen their stock separately. Hindsight is 20/20. Joey stands behind his dish as something simple that appeals to the masses, who aren't looking for truffles. Except some of them are, since they pick up boxes from CJ and Tre. However, the first team to run out of food is Casey and Dale, so Dale's feeling confident about being in the top. Howie and Sara score their third "sale" but console themselves that Hung and Joey have apparently sold fewer. Howie interviews that a lot of people messed up the challenge.

The chefs file into the pantry to await the judges. Sara M. tells the others that the customers "loved" their dish, but they needed to use the individually quick-frozen technique. "IQF, IQF," Casey endorses. Dale reveals that they froze their sauce separately and Sara M. does the old woulda-shoulda-coulda.

Judges' table. Padma summarizes that the challenge was "all about timing" -- I thought that was last week's challenge -- and rehashes the IQF angle. Chef Tom reports that Hung told him he figured out the IQF angle, but their food wasn't packaged that way. Chef Rocco observes that two teams had obvious "discord." Yep, those two. Chef Tom thinks Hung and Joey had some decent flavors, despite the food being overcooked. Gail disagrees, she found the flavors forgettable. Chef Rocco thinks it was a failure from start to finish. Gail brings up Howie and Sara's saffron. Chef Tom pans the whole dish -- wrong pasta, no flavor. Now for the favorites. Gail picks Casey and Dale; she loved the meatball. Chef Tom liked it except for the taste of tinned artichokes. He did like the meatball, but he knows Chef Rocco had issues. Chef Rocco reveals the meatball he got was still "a little frozen." He thinks CJ and Tre got the technique right. Chef Tom doesn't get "Mediterranean" from the truffles. He and Chef Rocco do a little "is not," "is too" about truffles. Chef Tom liked the seasoning in Brian and Sara N.'s dish.

Padma fetches Casey, Dale, Tre and CJ. Chef Tom asks CJ and Tre if they thought it was a "difficult" challenge and CJ disclaims. Gail asks how they came up with the dish, and CJ explains that they just both thought of things -- Tre came up with truffles and CJ thought it was an "awesome" idea. Gail asks about the freezing technique. CJ says they got the trick from the product-placed product right off; Tre explains how the rules pointed in that direction, with the whole hour for packaging. Chef Tom brings up the truffles. Tre says they were trying to combine Italy and the Mediterranean; CJ chimes in that he's had truffles in Sicily. Padma wonders how they calculated the six-minute cook time and CJ admits it was a guess. He figures some teams had overcooked food, so it was dry, but they wanted their cups to have liquid in the bottom.

Padma observes that Casey and Dale also worked well together, and Dale agrees it was all about the togetherness. Padma asks how the meatball came about and Casey describes the meeting of the meatball minds. Chef Rocco asks about the preparation and Dale says they were "slightly" underdone. Chef Rocco reveals that his meatball was still a bit cold. Casey and Dale try not to have "we're so screwed" written on their faces. Chef Tom gripes about the artichokes again. Chef Rocco asks about their pesto choice, and Dale responds that it freezes really well. Chef Rocco calls their pesto "one of the most balanced and beautiful" he's tasted.

Chef Tom asks the chefs, what does winning a trip mean to you? That's such a beauty pageant question. Tre robotically answers that he'd improve his knowledge of Italian cuisine so he could open a better Italian restaurant. CJ wants to improve his relationship with the country. Casey says "amazing" a lot. Dale thinks just breathing the air would be educational. And the win goes to: Tre and CJ. Hugs all around. "I'll smile now," Tre concedes.

Summoned for a scolding are the two tempestuous teams. Big surprise. CJ wishes them luck. Padma asks Hung and Joey how they screwed up. Hung rehashes the freezing individually thing. Gail wants to know why Hung didn't do what he knew needed doing. He says he told Joey they needed to freeze but Joey insisted they had to get everything packaged. Joey doesn't remember Hung saying that. Turns out Joey doesn't know what Hung said because he wasn't listening; he was only thinking about getting fifteen bags of food into the freezer. Hung protests that he's not blaming Joey. Right, he's just making it clear that Joey was to blame. Padma wonders if Hung, then, is to blame for not insisting. Hung wants to know how much insisting is enough. Chef Rocco asks Joey if he's really "that stubborn" and Joey says he just didn't get it. Hung should have slammed some stuff around to get his attention and beaten the idea into his head. So, that would be a "yes." Chef Tom asks about the fusilli. Hung says he wanted penne. Joey says Hung wanted fusilli. Hung says he wanted penne. Joey says Hung wanted fusilli and Joey then suggested the tri-color version. This is where Hung is supposed to smack Joey upside the head and yell, "Pay attention, you oaf! I wanted penne!", right?

Chef Tom asks the other team why they chose fusilli. Howie says he wanted a short pasta with ridges that would grab the pesto sauce. Chef Tom asks why their pasta was dry, and Howie says it got better when they switched to the larger skillet. But they both realized they should have done things differently. Sara says they applied the individually-frozen technique "halfway" -- huh? It all looked frozen together -- but they realized they should have frozen their stock separately from their pasta. Chef Tom wonders why they didn't get a clue from the product-placed products they examined, and Howie claims it wasn't "obvious" that they did anything special. Chef Rocco disagrees and Howie's got nothing to say to that. Chef Tom thinks Sara was coasting. She argues that she did, too, contribute -- she got Howie to use mirepoix in the stock, and then when Howie didn't use tomato paste, she campaigned again for tomato paste. So naturally, Howie hears, "This is how Howie screwed up and what I did to fix it" and naturally, he goes for all-out thermonuclear annihilation. He vents that he wanted rigatoni instead of the stupid fusilli, and that Sara's contributions to the flavors were fennel and "saffron, maybe." "I shut my mouth to be a team player," he gripes. "This has been coming." Well, yeah, if he sits on his objections during the planning phase, then he has only himself to blame; the judges have made that clear before. Sara says she's not going engage in a "shouting match" so she was trying to "be civil." Chef Tom doesn't get the whole shying away from conflict thing, but Sara says it was like "running up against a brick wall." The judges do not ask Howie if he really is a brick wall.

Padma thinks this will be a tough one. Chef Tom thinks both teams failed to communicate. Well, Joey admitted he didn't listen and Howie admitted he didn't speak up, so yeah. He puts aside all that, though, and asks which dish was worse. Chef Rocco thinks they both were "depressingly bad." Gail again calls Hung and Joey's dish "forgettable" and tacks on "mushy" for added insult. Chef Tom thinks the sauce had some flavor. Padma points out that nobody "bought" their food. "They couldn't sell free food," Gail marvels. She suspects Hung didn't know what to do because he didn't deliver, but Chef Tom thinks he had the right idea; the problem was Joey. Chef Rocco agrees with Joey that he's the kind of guy you have to beat up to get a message across. As for Howie and Sara, their dish was dry and overcooked. Chef Rocco wasn't into their flavors. Gail brings up Howie's "explosion" and Chef Rocco found it informative. Chef Tom didn't see Sara contributing.

Back in the pantry, Sara states that she wasn't backstabbing Howie and she's sorry he feels she did. Howie gripes that she was giving him attitude "every five minutes." Sara tells him that it's because of the way he speaks to people -- he's "like a bulldog." Gail thinks Howie is getting more wound up, and it's affecting his food. "I was pissed all day yesterday," Howie announces. "Then you should have said something!" Sara protests. Howie doesn't see the point. Sara thinks they might have solved the problem. Howie doesn't see how this would have changed anything with the food, but everyone protests that they might have done things differently. They probably wouldn't have gotten the damn pasta that's twisting Howie's shorts so tightly, for one thing. So Howie abandons that point and argues that he was standing up for their dish, but when Sara turned on him by saying "I did this and I did this and I did this" -- which would be exactly what Chef Tom asked her to explain -- then he opened fire in return. Okay, what? Howie described Sara's answer as listing the things she did. So how does that betray Howie? Does "teamwork" mean no one makes any individual contributions? "I have no problem speaking my mind," Howie announces. CJ feigns shock -- "You don't?" -- but Howie doesn't read the humor -- "You know what, don't analyze me. Please." CJ explains he was using sarcasm but Howie isn't mollified: "Well, you know what, just don't. 'Cause I don't need it." Yes, because it's all about what Howie needs. And if he needs to vent interminably about all the outrages perpetrated upon him, well, it doesn't matter if his fellow competitors don't need to hear it.

The chefs return. Chef Tom spanks Hung for not leading Joey down the right path, Joey for not paying attention to his partner, Howie for not delivering a good dish and Sara for not contibuting. Joey gets the boot. He thanks the judges for the "opportunity." Chef Tom says he's a good guy who had a bad day. Except the whole not listening thing happens every day. But that was a nice gesture. Hung offers his hand but Joey hugs him instead. Back in the pantry, Joey can't get out the announcement without sobbing. The chefs all gather around for hugs. Joey's still sobbing in his farewell interview. He's proud of himself for being selected to compete, but he breaks down when he talks about leaving all his new friends. Aw, he's just a big marshmallow.

Right winner? Tre and CJ were the only ones who did exactly what they were asked to do, so yes. Why didn't anyone else catch on? Casey and Dale at least froze their sauce separately, so they kind of had a clue, and Hung figured it out, but what's with everyone else? I think most of the chefs were too ruffled by the whole mass market aspect of the challenge and they missed the point. Like the season 1 microwave challenge, this is about the science of food -- do you understand food well enough to make something that cooks up well in these conditions? It's not something chefs normally do, but it's something they should know how to do, or at least be able to figure out. Especially when the product-placed product makes it obvious.

Right loser? Sara M. and Howie managed to "sell" three boxes. Joey and Hung? Zip. So if both teams made bad food, the customers at least showed some preference. And of the two on the losing team, Joey was the bigger problem. Hung really tried to get the point across to Joey. I still wonder, though, why he couldn't just start doing it, so Joey could see what he was talking about. He didn't try every possible means to get through to Joey, but he did try. So the decision makes sense.

Howie: misogynistic <bleep>hole or poor, henpecked slob? I think it's pretty clear by now that Howie doesn't work well on teams. He got everybody riled up on the trios challenge by trying to force through his ideas on the menu progression, then he decided Casey shouldn't have any ideas about their course. However, he did manage to get along with Joey. In fact, they bonded. Why? I think it's because they have some similarities -- they're stubborn, and they just want to put their heads down and work without any bother. Howie and Joey basically speak the same language. Not so with Casey, who kept complicating things by having her own ideas, so they got to team up against a common "enemy." This time around, Howie had only one teammate, and they had nothing in common. He realized that he couldn't claim leadership, since they were expected to work together. I'm sure he hates team challenges anyway, so it was an all-around uncomfortable situation. So Howie went to his comfort zone: a state of aggrievement. I think in some ways, he likes feeling resentful. It gives him a sense of moral vindication, and that makes him feel superior. And he could blame his refusal to speak up on "teamwork" rather than his own passive-aggressiveness. As a bonus, he now gets to say that he tried the whole teamwork thing and it didn't work, so he's not going to bother with it again.

Basically, Howie's insecure. But is he a misogynist? Or is it that women tend to shy away from conflict? Casey and Sara M. were both willing to speak up for their ideas, but neither is the kind to duke it out. Howie might easily see that as weakness. It would be interesting to see how he dealt with Brian or Hung, who have very different styles. It would be even more interesting to see how he worked with Tiffani. They have some similarities -- they both appreciate food done simply but well and they both like to work without a lot of fuss-- but Tiffani would not back down if she thought something was a bad idea. Would Howie respect her for standing up to him or would he feel threatened by her confidence?


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