Top Chef: What’s cooking?

I grant you this: the show is called Top Chef.

It is not called Top Meal, Top Food, or Top Refrigerator-Pilfered Pseudo-Paella. But boy, has there ever been an episode of Top Chef that was less about the food than last night's episode? This episode so completely gave up on the usual dish focus that I'm still not entirely sure who made what

I'll tell you where I am sure. I’m sure that Spike and Andrew are going to be an ever-lovin’ irritant for as long as they don’t get themselves booted. To open the episode, the dynamic doofuses inducted the viewing audience into Antisocial Personality Disorder Tickle Fight Club. And as you might know, the first rule of Antisocial Personality Disorder Tickle Fight Club is "Don’t talk about Antisocial Personality Disorder Tickle Fight Club, unless you do so in an obnoxious, kinda French, vaguely Borat-ish voice." From downstairs, Stephanie bore a look that said, "Haven’t they already done a Real World: Chicago?"

With that absurdity behind us, we followed the chefs to a big ol’ Mexican two-by-four upside the head in the form of an over-decorated ingredient table and Frontera Grill head man Rick Bayless. Padma introduced him as the man who, more than any American chef, brought Mexican cooking into the lives of non-Mexican diners. Take that, Bobby Flay.

Bayless and his Sesame Street voice welcomed the chefs to the Quickfire Challenge, and we learned that they would be responsible for taking the humble taco and transforming it into fine dining. I know that nothing says "fine dining" to me like "street food," and I am apparently not alone. Multiple chefs went a distinctly gritty route in crafting their dish. Spike specifically said he was going for a street vibe. Ryan did too, and we should know by now that when he starts free-associating (see: chicken piccata), run.

Mark the Kiwi called it right away. Confused by the unpolished approach in this fine dining challenge, he attempted to class it up. Andrew, of all people, went for the combination of duck and plantain—a mouthful and a half if I say so myself. Fortunately, no one used a flour tortilla (that I could see); I'm beginning to sense my expectations lowering for this group of contestants, and wouldn’t have been shocked to see a ready-for-Applebees mess.

I did see a mess, though. Freud would have a field day with Erik's continual call-backs to the Anal Stage of Development. That’s three for three, buddy. He continues to tread a fine line, and his development as a chef isn’t looking promising. More worrisome was his complaint that he didn't think Mexican food was compatible with fine dining. Ahem. We'll let that stinker sit where he laid it. Erik, along with Lisa’s unchewable rare skirt steak taco and Ryan’s paper-wrapped taco, made up the bottom three.

Richard, ever the innovator, used thin jicama slices instead of tortillas. Call me crazy, but that looked more like a spring roll than a taco. No matter. Rick liked it. He also, strangely, liked Spike’s vendedore offering. And while Andrew stumbled upon Bayless’ most favoritest taco filling (duck), Richard’s pale cave taco took the prize. And it was an actual prize! Bayless’ Topolobampo restaurant will serve Richard’s dish, and of course Richard got immunity.

You don’t always get what you want

At the end of this challenge, the judges would bemoan the cooking-by-committee approach of both teams. But really, what did they expect when they began the Elimination Challenge by telling the chefs to divide themselves arbitrarily into two teams and follow the lead in their Highlanders (I said, HIGHLANDERS...Toyota, have I fulfilled my obligation?) to some anonymous residential neighborhood? I mean, give ‘em a little structure.

The headless scamper continued, though, when Padma unloaded the Red and Blue teams onto a public thoroughfare and had them stand there for a while. (I wonder if she was waiting for traffic to come and do her dirty work for her.) They were then told that they’d be doing the cooking for the neighborhood block party, but that their ingredients were to be pilfered from the houses surrounding them.

Thus began a sequence that was obviously edited to seem frantic and harried, but c’mon. I wasn’t buying it. Did you? Spike and Zoi came away from one house with no fewer than five paper grocery bags full of raw materials. This wasn’t tough. Send ‘em to a lower-class neighborhood if they want it to be a challenge. We did get to see more of Spike’s not-so-latent misogyny, though, as he shooed some of the Blue team’s ladies from the Whole Food-stocked wonderland he had previously visited. Tee hee hee, he snickered. He’s officially the Season 4 insufferable prick.

Did I mention that this challenge was sponsored by mealstogether.com? Did you know that website is owned and operated by Clorox Brands? Would it help if I told you that Clorox owns KC Masterpiece, Hidden Valley, and Kingsford charcoal? This was some top notch product pimping, if completely transparent (hold that bottle of barbecue sauce closer to the camera, please).

Groceries loaded back into the Warthog (or is it Puma?), teams Red and Blue moseyed back to the kitchen to concoct their street fair fare. Blue Team (Stephanie, Nikki, Manuel, Lisa, Richard, Mark, and Antonia) decided to go upscale; good food is good food, they though, even if it’s not batter-dipped and deep-fried. Red Team (Spike, Dale, Ryan, Erik, Andrew, Jennifer, and Zoi) went with batter-dipped and deep-fried. I sense an outcome making itself obvious.

The food had to feed 40 adults and 70 kids, and Nikki’s two huge blocks of Velveeta might have done the trick all by themselves. Blue’s menu, which included Richard’s paella, Stephanie’s sugared wonton dessert, Nikki’s mac and cheese, plus pulled barbecue, slaw, bean salad, cookies, and ribs, also featured a "sexy drink." That’s what they called it. Weren’t there going to be more kids than adults here? Red Team’s "gotta please the hoi polloi" menu started out reading like a state fair: sliders, corn dogs, pasta salad, taco salad, pork skewers, Waldorf salad, s’mores, and sangria.

The editing in this episode was not as obvious in showing us early who would exit. Richard had a little bit of the Edit of Doom going on, but the real red herring was Zoi. Zoi was disappointed at having to do a pasta salad; it wasn’t her idea, and she didn’t want to go home on [expletive, natch] pasta salad. Jennifer put just as fine a point on it. Not only did she not want to go home, but she didn’t want Zoi to go home either. Those sounds you hear are drums...drums in the deep.

The food was a mixed bag. Nikki’s mac and cheese looked great….for granola. It had dried to a mealy brick in the warming boxes, and I’m sorry, but no amount of cold heavy cream poured straight into the pan was going to fix it. She’s got no sense of improvisation when things go bad. Just slather dairy on it! Quick! On top of that, she had to defend the naming of the lavender-infused "sexy drink" to Tom, to whom she said that it was the lavender that made it sexy. Tom: "Oh? Lavender is sexy now! Okay..." Ouch.

Red Team seemed to think that the only reason Dale and Spike got hammered for Nikki’s mushrooms last week was that they didn’t taste them before serving them. Red’s mantra, to a person, was that they were a team, they were tasting everyone’s food, and that’s what made their product good. Erik said that no one was afraid to tell someone else to add salt, or pepper, or… Jeez, guys, you’re chefs. I would hope no one’s afraid of salt or pepper. Erik should have been less concerned about hurt feelings and more concerned about his corn dogs continuing to cook in the hotboxes and getting soggy. Because boy, did they.

At the end of the party, Red went to play basketball and dunk tank. Blue got, well, blue. Wracked with self-doubt, the Blues could only sit and wait as the judges withheld all commentary until the Judges’ Table. That was a nice addition of drama for the chefs, but boring as hell for us. The most exciting part of the tasting was when Padma dropped her s’more on Ted’s shoe. I half-expected Carson Kressley to come flying in to clean it off.

The vote was close. The judges were not impressed much with either team. As Blue was led out to the table by a very slinky Padma, Red immediately got paranoid and defensive. Strange. Blue’s commentary was not entirely glowing. Bayless scolded Nikki, saying that she didn’t know how to use Velveeta. Who thought we’d ever hear that on Top Chef? Richard’s paella, Tom admonished, was not a paella. But they liked everything that Stephanie did, including her "genius" dessert, and with that, Steph took her second win of the young season.

So while Mark played a little digeridoo on some PVC tube in the stew room, Red met their fate. Or not. There was an awful lot of sass for the third episode, including Andrew’s psychokiller wild-horses determination to not leave until security escorted him out. Spike: "I thought we kicked their ass." Pause. Padma: "You didn’t." Hello, Padma! Ryan’s Waldorf was a soggy mess, the pasta salad was terrible, and would definitely have sent Zoi home...had it not been for Erik’s ill-advised corn dogs. Rick Bayless wisely intoned, "Good food sells to everybody." In other words, don’t condescend to your patrons (are you listening, Top Chef producers?). Good bye, poop-smear Erik.

After a Padma-as-Kali promo sequence, we got to see a veritable all-star panel of tasters for next week. Let’s hope that the food comes back in Episode 4.