Top Chef: Do not feed the animals.

MENU HUSBANDRY

Greetings, readers, and welcome to the unsanctioned TV Watch-ish column for Top Chef: Chicago’s second episode. I take no cruel shots at previous writers for this column; I just want you decide if I bring something worthwhile to the discussion.

As I sat down to watch the newest challenge with my fiancee, I reflected on Howie Kleinberg’s First Sweaty Rule of Top Chef Catering Challenges: MUSHROOMS LOOK LIKE POOP. But let’s get there first. We saw Stephanie channeling Rocky Balboa, basking in the afterglow of her Week One win. Turns out she and Valerie worked together once upon a time; Val wants to relive the experience. Stay tuned! Zoi and Jennifer determined to show just how separate and professional they could be by swapping shoes before heading out for the Quickfire Challenge. At least they didn’t skip hand-in-hand. Something tells me this won’t end well.

The Green City Farmers’ Market in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood was the meeting point for tonight’s Quickfire. Our contestants learned that they would need to create a dish (fill in whichever glowing adjective you’d like: fabulous, wonderful, delicious, dynamic) out of only five ingredients, not including a couple staples. In addition to the warm fuzzies, the winner would earn immunity in the forthcoming Elimination Challenge. And with that, they were off to the market! Watch out for innocent toddler bystanders!

Richard and his crazy-ass molecular gastronomy went straight for the eucalyptus. Spike sat and grooved on some music. Mark left one of his bags behind in a panicked and irritated rush to get things done. And at the end of the shopping, we found that mad scientist/general goofball Wylie Dufresne waiting to judge the product. I swear I could hear harps and swelling strings as Richard shared a tender glance with his culinary idol.

What’s the deal with peaches this season? In two Quickfires this season, we’ve seen three dishes utilize them. Meanwhile, in the 30 minutes given to cook, Erik managed to create a very small, very segregated buffet line of potatoes, carrots and lamb. He’s gonna have to step it up in a big way if he doesn’t want to make an early exit. The same appeared to be true of Andrew; the Dice Clay-ish twitcher used an extra ingredient (balsamic vinegar—who knew it wasn’t a necessary staple for everyone?) and thus was DQ’ed. Mark the Kiwi received a vaguely patronizing "nice sideburns" from Dufresne. His facial expression in response said, subtly, "Bite me." And yet, it was Mark’s handicapped effort that won the challenge, and the immunity. When knives were finally drawn for the Elimination Challenge order, Manuel drew first. The knife read…"vulture"??

AT LEAST THEY DIDN'T HAVE TO USE THE BOTTOM OF A MONKEY CAGE


Leaving aside that we knew the challenge would have something to do with a zoo, I was temporarily bewildered by the knives that came out following Manuel's "vulture": "lion," "gorilla," "bear," and (pleaseletAndrewdrawit) "penguin." Three knives per animal, and yes! Andrew got the penguin! You'd think he'd be crestfallen, but as he so eloquently put it, "F---in' game on, penguin!" Cat could get fired up about drywall.

So what do we have here? Base your fabulously wonderful and delicious dish on a character of the Egyptian hieroglyphic language? What's next, stork? Eye? Guy doing the Bangles dance? Or maybe it's a LOST-inspired challenge, but Bravo couldn't use Swan, Hydra, Arrow, Flame and Tempest as themes due to network copyright issues. No, nothing that crazy. Instead, the chefs would be teaming up to cater to a group of 200 people at the Lincoln Park Zoo. (Aside: it's a free zoo, and whatever you think about zoos, they do better things if they have more money. Consider a donation if you're in the area.)

As it turns out, the menus were to be based on the diets of the previously-mentioned animals. Some were great (Bears: honey! red meat!), others were somewhat frightening (Team Penguin gets anchovies and squid? Yeeee...). The all-girl Team Gorilla decided that gorillas need meat, dammit! A vegetarian menu just won't do. The one abstainer from that approach was Valerie, who thought that--strangely--the idea of a gorilla eating crabs and lamb was incongruous with the jungle-dweller's normal cuisine of fruits and leafy plants. But she gave up of herself and went along with the team, which of course comprises her Chicago BFF Stephanie. Anyone who watches Magical Elves' reality shows for Bravo should know that when you openly sacrifice your vision for that of others, it's like running up the stairs in a horror movie. You're done.

During the planning and preparation, we got to hear well-worn Top Chef terms like "sous vide" and "foam" (Marcel and Hung's Top Chef-watching party just passed high-fives all around), and met new ones like Andrew's yuzu and mint "glacier," which turned out to be a foggy Jell-O mold of hifalutin Kool-Aid and weird chemical stabilizers. Andrew's estimation of the effort? "Got the mothaf---in' glacier!!" in glam-rock falsetto. What a card.

The temperature rises. Anxieties reveal themselves. And Nikki's blueberry-stuffed mushrooms look like dog turds. Someone call Howie and that douchebag guest judge from Season 3's party yacht challenge to duke it out over poop-looking mushroom hors d'oeuvres! The answer, which doesn't ring as a bad idea even to Dale, who acknowledges that he's just trying to hide an ugly dish (as opposed to making something genuinely tasty), is to slap some cheese on top! ::Shudder:: I'm not sure even a bear would eat this, even if it was the first thing she saw coming out of the den in spring.

I am convinced that by the end of the tasting portion of the Elimination (whew, what a horribly appropriate term for this particular episode!) Challenge, Padma was absolutely wasted. Her exhortation to retire to the judges' table might just as well have been a call to boot and rally! But before that, we saw some twisted expressions and genuine praise. Team Vulture's Moroccan lamb meatballs went over very well, and I will definitely be printing out that recipe for future use. Andrew's charred squid ceviche, an odd combination of cooking methods to be sure, was apparently made with the quivering hope that Wylie would bless it with his appoval. While Mr. WD-50's praise was middling at the tasting (and wasn't that just enough to make Andrew shudder with restrained glee), he voted it the best dish of the night at the judges' table, and Andrew was given the win.

The Gorillas and the Bears (heh) were the bottom teams in this challenge, and rightfully so. Aside from the aforementioned mushroom "passings"--which Gail pegged perfectly--Tom and Co. had a problem with Dale and Spike's inability to diagnose and repair the team's broken dishes. Stephanie's crab-spiked lawn trimmings and Valerie's past-date blinis (and please, people, it's BLINIs, not BELLINIs. DICTION!) were equally awful in the judges' eyes, but at least Stephanie's banana bread with yummy salted caramel was a saving grace in her favor. And thus, Valerie, teamed up with her old pal from the Windy, was shown the (knife) drawer. Seems to me that their team was an all-around meh affair, while Nikki's mushrooms made her entire group's menu collapse in on itself.
But hey, I'm not a judge.

And this is something I'd like to address, and hope that it lands in the ears of the Top Chef producers. Please, for the love of Rocco's Italian grandmother, stop making the chefs throw each other under the bus with these "who would you hire/fire, Antonia?" interrogatives! They'll get catty enough without your prompting, and these morale-killing Sophie's Choices are just plain uncomfortable to watch.

Speaking of uncomfortable to watch, next week we get the mostly insufferable (but not as bad as his sports journalist brother) Rick Bayless. Can Paul Prudhomme or the apparently free agent Emeril be far behind?

::ADDED:: I'm really sorry, folks. In the rush to get the dogs set up and make it to work on time, I left my notes at home. The second section was knocked out from memory, with a little assist from fansoftvreality.com's recap for the particulars of certain dishes. Sorry!