Thursday, September 20, 2007


Fabulous People

Previously on Top Chef: Restaurant Wars, part deux. For real, this time. Sara was in charge. Team Leftovers started over. Tre produced a gagalicious salmon dish. CJ got beat up for not preventing Tre's bread pudding. Tre got the boot.

Aw, Tre's bed is empty. Perhaps CJ can annex it; he needs the extra square footage. He interviews that it "sucks" that Tre got the boot, but appointing him executive chef was the best thing for the team even though it put Tre at risk. Hung actually regrets Tre's dismissal; if he were going to lose, he would be okay losing to Tre. Not that he's going to lose. Brian is missing his wife and dog and everything at home. Casey has noticed the dearth of wimminfolk left; she'd like to make it to the final four to represent.

Padma introduces guest judge Michael Schwartz. Dale handles the eulogy interview succinctly. Padma talks about "making the most of what you have." Chef Michael says you have to make it "fabulous" in Miami. The chefs draw knives for the "Aisle Trial." Each knife has the number of an aisle in the grocery store. They have $10 and 10 minutes to shop the aisle. Casey recaps, and points out that this will be hard. Just in case you hadn't worked that out yet. They'll have 20 minutes to cook, using a limited selection of pantry items.

Shopping. Hey, this is not the usual upscale grocery store.

Presumably Sara was also there. The chefs head back into the kitchen. Howie is still grumpy about the challenge; he's sure he "won't be happy" with his dish. Hung starts having fun, "like a little child." Dale wonders, "Dude, are you building a Smurf village over there?" Brian is envious: "I have no idea what this guy was on, but I want some." Hung interviews that he loves being able to express himself with food. He loves eating -- in fact, he "grew up eating." Unlike the rest of us plebians. His whole family is in the restaurant business, so he grew up around food. CJ makes the tragic "salt for sugar" mistake and stares accusingly at his pan. Howie cooks up some Mandarin orange slices but they fall apart. He just tips over his glass and gives up.

Howie is obviously in the bottom, but he still thinks he made the right choice; you can't serve something if you don't like it. And of course CJ's salty risotto, which is a "bummer" for CJ. The win goes to Brian for a restaurant-worthy dish. Chef Michael is now a "Spam believer." Brian's happy to win again.

Elimination challenge: Padma wants them to "put on a good show" for the annual catering challenge. The party will be for some hot-shot designer. Sara describes the expected clientele, holding up one finger (no, not that one) to show how "skinny" they are. Hung claims to love fashion. I bet he grew up wearing clothes. Howie, on the other hand: "Do I look like I care about fashion? This is from Target." Actually, Target is a pretty happening store, design-wise. They'll have 60 "beautiful people" guests but a budget of $350. "Total?" gapes Brian. CJ recaps his catering experience so we know to trust him when he says this isn't a lot of money. As the QuickFire winner, Brian gets to choose the "team leader." Brian goes for it; he's in the restaurant business to "be a leader."

Back at their palatial digs, the designers brainstorm. Brian likes Dale's inexpensive idea; if everyone can be as cheap, they could "really blow it up." CJ argues that everyone should concentrate on one thing. He interviews that Brian's getting good ideas because they're all contributing. Brian outlines the division: Dale and Hung have paired up, as have Casey and Sara; both teams will produce three things. Howie wants to make up for his QuickFire omission, so he'll do two. Howie interviews that the QuickFire loss is no biggie, but the Elimination challenge counts. Loud discussion around the table. Hung's solution? Just tell everyone what they're going to do. But he's not team leader. The meeting breaks up and Brian asks if everyone is "okay."

Morning. Brian lies in bed, wrapped in green sheets. It looks like he wore a grade-school celery costume to bed. This is one of those situations where you have to ask yourself, do I really want to know? Casey and Dale recap the challenge. Brian is worried that they won't be able to supply their planned menu on their allotted budget. That would be something to consider during the planning phase, no? In particular, Brian is going to watch Howie, who's a bit of a shopaholic. Hung explains that they each had $50, which he feels is "definitely" enough. Shopping happens. Sara interviews that they wanted to have a variety of things. She and Casey confer in front of some freezer cases. Casey reveals that they teamed up for a dessert. Their pastry experience is limited but "risk taking is what will win this competition," Casey opines. That didn't work out so well for Sara the last time she tried it, as I recall. Perhaps she'll stay away from the pineapple this time.

Howie tells Brian that he has everything, so he's going to run it through the checkout to see how it prices out. Sure enough, he's way over. Brian comes to check and finds Howie at $55 with only half of his ingredients. Brian reviews his selections. Howie figures Brian has the least catering experience of all the remaining chefs, which is why he has a lot of respect for Brian's assumption of leadership. Yeah, that doesn't entirely make sense, but whatever. Brian was worried because he and Howie have a "patchy" history -- wish we could have seen some of it -- but he's pleased to discover that Howie is being a real team player this time out. Dale sacrifices his goat cheese and goes for a lighter yogurt. Brian is pleased that everyone is coming together as a team. Howie doesn't want people thinking he can't "work as a group." Too late!

CJ thinks they're destined for a boat trip. Howie mentions a bad experience catering on a boat. Well, he gets to do it again, because sure enough, it's a boat. Padma welcomes them aboard. CJ is relieved to find he can stand up in the galley. Brian hopes everyone will manage to "keep their lunch down" with the rocking of the boat. The chefs get to work in their cramped quarters. Although there is room for all of them to work, so it's not eensy-weensy. Dale is making a variation on cream puffs, but without the goat cheese, his filling isn't as thick as it should be. Brian claimed the "money dish" as the leader's privilege, so he's making an ahi poke. At least it's not a ceviche. He thinks the ahi will be a luxury for the guests. Sara has a vegetarian dish. Casey freezes her beef so it's easier to slice. CJ's head is right up against the ceiling. His dish is time-consuming. Hung has a "classic dish that people with an average palate would appreciate." Take that, beautiful people! He and Dale team up for another "very common" choice.

Chef Tom drops in and checks with Howie. He's working on one dish; he hasn't started the other, but he says it will be easy to put together. Chef Tom asks Brian why he volunteered to lead, and Brian's like, "Well, duh." Actually, he says that chefs are leaders, so of course you take the chance to lead. It's kind of a beauty pageant moment. Chef Tom wants to know why Sara is teaming with Casey in addition to doing her own thing; Sara thinks the menu needed something sweet. Not exactly what he was asking, but he seems satisfied. They have about an hour to go when he heads out. Chef Tom reviews: the challenge was about wowing people and the menu has a lot of "safe" choices. He thinks they should have concentrated on fewer choices, making them impressive.

Brian wants to know who's feeling good about being ready. Howie explains that he's working extra hard to overcome his "not a team player" rap. Perhaps he could have tried that a little sooner, if he was so concerned about his reputation. He goes on to say that he's "obviously a pretty good chef" and not just some <unintelligible with bleeping>. Unfortunately, CJ reports that Howie's duxelles came out mousse-like and grey. Hung goes further, comparing the visual to "dog diarrhea." Howie has Brian taste, and it passes muster. CJ thinks Brian should be stricter. Brian sees his role as "facilitating," giving everyone "the opportunity to succeed or fail here." So even though the visual appeal isn't what he expects, he's letting it pass. Oh, dear. I don't think that's going to fly with the judges. They don't want to hear about giving everyone a chance to fail; they want to hear about how you're going to make sure the food is as good as it can be. CJ thinks Brian should be in everybody's business as much as possible. Brian reviews what people are doing and warns they have 25 minutes to service.

Padma summons the chefs upstairs to review the judging panel. Instead of Gail or Ted, we have Dana Cowin, the editor-in-chief of Food & Wine. Dale calls her "one of the most influential and powerful women in food writing today." As expected, Chef Tom and Chef Michael will also be juding. Beautiful people arrive as Brian counts down. The chefs start bringing up food. Brian has "the bright idea" to announce to the guests that the hors d'oeuvres are ready. "This was probably a mistake," he admits, as the guest come a-runnin'. Sara serves at the table while other chefs pass trays. The first wave is quickly demolished and people start looking for more. Sara assures Padma that more is coming while Brian runs down to rustle it up. Casey complains that she couldn't make her way through the crowd without having all her food picked off. She reveals that she's not good with chaos.

Up top, a couple of guests have heard rumors of chocolate mousse and they want some now. In the galley, Casey blends something chocolate while Sara says reassuring things. Casey explains that they bought packaged chocolate mousse, which they tried to stretch with whipped cream, but the mousse deflated. They try to re-aerate the mousse, but it's still pudding-like. Everyone tastes and concurs that the dish is just not happening, so they dump it. Casey hopes her carpaccio will shield her from any failed mousse fallout. The chefs emerge for applause and champagne and it's back to shore.

Judges' Table. In the pantry, Howie insists that everyone made good-tasting food. Yes, but what about good-looking? Brian agrees, he got compliments on everything. Meanwhile, Chef Michael found the food mostly uninspired. Dana observes that everything was served on some form of bread. (Not everything, but close.) Chef Tom asks for the good parts, and Chef Michael mentions Casey. Dana nominates CJ's seafood sausage -- tasty and "pretty." Padma pans Dale's yogurt texture and Dana thinks it lacked flavor. Chef Tom doesn't think "cigars" is an appetizing word. Dana thinks his mushroom tarts "tasted like mud." Chef Tom is not happy with Brian for letting bad food get served. See?

The chefs report for interrogation. Padma asks Brian for his assessment. He thinks they had a nice variety. Chef Tom asks about the ditched dessert. Brian reports that the group decided "it didn't meet our expectations." Next, Chef Tom wants to know if they talked about the wisdom of doing two dishes instead of one. Brian says it was discussed, and the people who chose two dishes "thought they could handle it." Well, of course they did. Padma points out that Brian, as executive chef, would have to approve of what was served. Brian argues that he was "executive chef" since the team members are his peers; he was the "leader." Chef Tom thinks he's "splitting hairs." I know how to split hairs, and Brian's not making that fine of a distinction. But yes, he is doding responsibility. If he's just there to coordinate, he can't be blamed for failure, but neither can he claim credit for leading the team to victory. I don't think Brian worked that out. Chef Tom thinks leadership requires "hard decisions." Since Brian "obviously" thought two dishes was a bad idea, why didn't he insist on everyone doing one? Brian has no answer. Perhaps he doesn't want to argue that he was okay with the two-dish thing.

Chef Tom asks Sara why she limited herself to one dish, and Sara corrects him that she did two, one being a dish that wasn't served. Chef Tom verifies that it was the dish she made with Casey, and asks the whole two-versus-one thing again. Sara again goes to the "variety" argument. Except seven different appetizers is a decent variety for 60 people, I think. Dana doesn't find the variety argument compelling when "80 percent were served on bread." Brian brings up the short shopping time. Yes, but what about the long planning time? Chef Michael was missing the color and presentation.

Chef Tom turns to Hung and asks how long he's been cooking, his point being that Hung's dish was as old as his culinary career. Hung readily agrees -- it's a "classic" that's 300 years old. Dana wonders if he considered an update. Hung blusters that everything has been done and everything they served is old. So, there's nothing left for today's diners but ordinary food? I don't think so. Chef Tom asks if he has a better appetizer recipe and Hung scoffs, "Of course I do, Chef." Chef Tom thanks him for making his point. Why aren't they serving their best dishes at this point in the competition? Well, I suspect budget has something to do with it. But I agree, ordinary is not going to cut it at this level.

Padma asks Howie what he thought of his dishes, and he thinks they both "went over well" so he was "pretty happy." Chef Tom points out the "fabulous" criterion; did Howie think his mushroom tart was fabulous? Howie is forced to admit that it was not. Chef Michael brings up his whole "I'm not going to serve anything I'm not proud of" stance in the QuickFire challenge, and here he is serving "crap." Chef Tom questions his decision to spread his money over two dishes, and Howie explains he wanted to make up for the QuickFire. Chef Tom wants to talk about the asparagus dish and Howie challenges him, "What was wrong with the cigar? I got compliments on both those dishes from the guests." Yes, but I suspect at some level, they were just happy to have food. Dana thinks that a dish like that would usually use "plump" asparagus. Howie says he just got what he saw at the store.

Padma asks Dale about his yogurt dish, and Dale explains that he saw yogurt as a "healthier" approach. Padma complains about the texture. Dale relates the whole "I was going to use goat cheese but I sacrificed it" story; instead, he got the chicken that he and Hung prepared. Chef Tom obviously doesn't think this was a good trade. Dale says they made a couple of mistakes and it mutated from the plan. Chef Tom cynically observes how everyone was all "Oh, yeah, everything was great" and then when you question things, everyone confesses to mistakes. Howie points to the budget. Chef Tom says Sara made a good dish on the same budget. He asks Casey and she good-do-bee's that she had enough for her dish and extra for her dessert with Sara. Chef Tom rewards her by complimenting her carpaccio dish. But then he puts the screws to everyone -- did they really think the duxelles and the chicken and the asparagus dishes were good? Everyone looks uncomfortable. "The silence is deafening," Chef Tom concludes.

Howie raises his hand, "Can I address the panel please?" No! The other chefs agree with me, making "Oh, God, no" faces. But Padma lets him speak. Howie observes that competition and teamwork don't go together when only one person can win, something he has always understood. But, he says, "I'm trying to see past that now for the first time in the past few weeks." I'm confused. How do you "see past" something you consider a fact? "Well, this teamwork thing is just nuts, but I'm going to ignore reality for a while" -- how does anyone think like that? Basically, Howie is admitting that he thought wrong. Anyway, he'd rather leave than see Brian get the boot, so he wants to withdraw. Various squizzly faces in reaction. Finally Padma declares, "It's a judges' decision, Howie." No falling on your sword for you! So Howie tells them to decide. Chef Tom sends them away so they can do that.

Back in the pantry, Sara wonders about Howie's decision; he had said not long ago that he "still had a lot of fight" left. Howie agrees that he does, but he also has pride: "I will be in control of my own destiny." Well, then, you made a mistake signing up to be judged. Padma asks about favorites. Chef Tom nominates Casey's carpaccio. She seemed to get more bang per buck. Dana thinks she also got a lot of bang per minute. Padma mentions CJ's sausage, and the judges agree that it was colorful with good flavors. Padma also brings up Sara's bread pudding and Dana endorses it. At the other end of the spectrum, Chef Michael thinks both of Howie's entries were boring. Chef Tom is stunned that Dale sacrificed his goat cheese for the chicken. Dana agrees; the chicken was unnecessary. Also on Dana's naughty list is Hung's salmon on cucumber, which was "so bad!" Hung swears a lot as he gripes about having to defend his dish to the judges, and CJ interjects, "Hung, you did it because it was easy. You said that." Chef Tom rolls his eyes at Brian's poke, which is just another tartare, and his lack of leadership. Meanwhile, Brian is angry about the criticism of his role. Casey assures him, "You did a good job." He emphatically agrees.

All the chefs return. Chef Tom announces that three dishes met the challenge of being fabulous: Casey's carpaccio, CJ's sausage and Sara's bread pudding. And the winner is: Casey! She is happy with her first big win. She gets a 17" MacBook Pro. Say what? Where did that come from? Casey thinks maybe this is time to pull out all the stops to go for the win. Ya think?

The top three get to skedaddle. Casey wishes the rest luck and Sara gives Brian a kiss before leaving. Dale gets spanked for bad budget allocation, Hung for underachieving, Howie for being boring and Brian for ducking the responsibility. Howie gets the boot. Big surprise. Howie kind of admits that he made a mistake coming into the competition regarding everyone as an enemy, but cooking is "a team sport." Today was the first time he felt like they were a team. He insists again that he's a good cook. His fellow chefs all hug him farewell.

Right winner? Sara's bread pudding might have been a bit homey for a fabulous party; CJ and Casey probably had the most attractive dishes. So Casey is a reasonable choice. But I wish they could come up with something to replace the Chinese soup spoons, because I now hate the sight of them. And I have no idea why she's walking off with a computer. That's just odd.

Right loser? It was a race between Howie and Brian. It looks like Howie just gave up during the QuickFire challenge and, despite his talk of redeeming himself with two dishes, never really got back into the competition. I don't know why he wasn't allowed to withdraw. Cynthia left during Season 1 because her father was dying faster than expected; there's no way the producers could have insisted she stay. In Season 2, Otto resigned over the Great Lychee Fruit Incident, which involved a rules violation. Then Mia resigned to spare Elia, which is the same thing Howie tried to do. It seems quite possible that the producers decided not to allow that any more.

I do think Brian could have done a better job running the team, though. The big disconnect is that the chefs dealt with the challenge as a competition, while the judges considered it a catering job. All they cared about was the quality of the food. If you want to succeed with the judges, you have to concentrate your efforts on making the food as good as possible. Brian needed to exercise tighter control of the menu. Instead of letting everyone do what they wanted, he should have picked the best ideas and divvied them up. A lot of the appetizers were surprisingly ordinary. I think they panicked at difficulty of doing the job at all, and generally couldn't wrap their brains around doing it well. Given the budget, the requirement for "fabulous" food and the clientele, I think they should have loaded up on the fruits and vegetables -- colorful and low-calorie.

It's interesting that we finally saw not one but two decisions not to serve something. I think the "if the dish is bad, don't serve it" admonition is just another version of Tim Gunn's famous "Make it work." In both cases, what they're saying is, "Don't send out crap." Fix it before it goes down the runway, or fix it before it goes out on a plate. If you can't fix it, find something you can send out. Dead simple is better than bad. In the real world, Howie's decision to give up in the QuickFire would mean someone goes hungry. If the dish isn't working, cut up some bananas and find something to sprinkle on top. That's better than serving nothing, and much better than serving something distasteful. In the case of the deflated mousse, they were able to dump it because both chefs had already contributed dishes. Perhaps in the planning stage, they should have alloted a couple of backup dishes in case something went south; mistakes are a fact of life. Since Brian had the leadership thing going for him, he could have given up serious cooking in order to exercise some serious quality control -- kinda like an executive chef.


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