Top Chef: It’s MY bar of chocolate!

Okay, so I’ve got to have out with it. By some cosmic twist of fate, the theme of this week’s Elimination Challenge was in almost perfect synchrony with a feature I wrote back in March for the Isthmus newspaper’s upcoming Dining supplement. If you’re in Madison, Wisconsin, or have access to the print edition of Isthmus, check it out in a week or two. If not, please trust that I wrote the piece long before this episode aired, and wasn’t trying to cash in on Top Chef.

That being said, I can appreciate the specific difficulties some of these chefs encountered in the Elimination portion of last night’s show. But I’ll get there in due time. Patience, patience, little dears. Everything has to be in order.

The theme of this week’s installment is fish out of water. Odd-fitting combinations. Loneliness. The chefs begin the episode talking about missing Erik, and missing their families and friends waiting for them to come back home. Everyone, that is, except the touchin’ lovin’ squeezin’ couple of Zoi and Jennifer. I said previously that this thread of the season’s “plot” won’t end well. Have you noticed that each subsequent episode has the couple being more and more couple-y? The promos for next week don’t bode well, if you ask me.

Anyway, that’s all well and good for our boy Spike, Mr. Misogyny, but he’s had about enough. It’s too much of an advantage, he opines, for a couple to be in this competition much longer. It’s time for one of them to go home. What a romantic. And again, I refer in advance to the promo for next week's ep.

After being told that they better know who Daniel Boulud is (and getting a tepid, slightly patronizing laugh from Padma), the chefs are tasked with creating a veggie plate that highlights at least three techniques of chefitude. Stephanie was worried about Mexican food last week; Lisa is apparently an inherently sloppy chef, and showed significant consternation about a technique challenge. Nikki, too, is concerned; her plans include a quenelle. Pardon me, but I could do a quenelle. Step it up, woman!

To the cutting boards they go, and Andrew asks if anyone else’s hands are shaking. (No, dude, it’s just you.) Richard is comfortable, Ryan is slightly apprehensive; they’ve both worked with Chef Boulud in his restaurant, and Ryan didn’t much enjoy the experience. Uh oh.

Two contrasting efforts from Spike and Dale. Spike uses a quick-cut tool (he is a tool; doesn’t mean he should be using a simplifying tool in a technique challenge), whereas Dale is slicing up cucumbers and avocados like they’re gyro meat on a spit. I’ve bristled against the Dale/Hung comparisons because I’ve thought they’re more ethnic than anything else, but Dale’s got the same incredible knife skills. For the rest of the chefs, they’ve got to be worried about that ace in Dale’s pocket.

Lisa (Daniel: “it’s back-to-basic”), Nikki and Manuel occupy the bottom tier. Chef Boulud likes Zoi’s offering, Richard’s restraint-as-a-technique palette of sliced and stacked vegetables, and Dale’s “amazing” planning, composition, and knifework. Dale wins, immunity in the bag, an extra benefit in the elimination round, and 2% butterscotch ripple.

I don’t know, I hate chocolate!

Here’s the million-to-one similarity to my upcoming feature. The Elimination Challenge asks the chefs to create a plate for a six-course meal (boo, more teamwork, but hooray, not catering!) that is inspired by their favorite movies. Film critic Richard Roeper and Aisha Tyler (24) will be part of the dining party, and right off the bat, the drawn-knife pairings promise some interesting developments. Dale’s bonus is that he gets to pick what pairing he works with, rather than involuntary number-pairing.

The teams break down like so: Dale/Richard/Andrew: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Right away, I’m intrigued by this one, especially when Richard references the meal-in-a-stick gum. Perfect for his brand of cuisine. Spike/Manuel: Good Morning, Vietnam. Wow, is this uninspired. Manuel sacrifices of his own skills and interests in favor of mixing it up (what’s that first rule of Magical Elves-produced shows? Anyone?), and Spike just wants to make what he’s doing in his restaurant anyway.

Nikki/Jennifer: Il Postino. A tale of love from a distance, told by—is that a slightly jealous look from Zoi to the fast-friends, high-fiving teamwork of Jennifer and Nikki from across the room?? Antonia/Zoi: Talk to Her. It’s a real bringer-upper about comas, stillborn babies, rape and bull gorings. They’re going with lamb chops. Hello, cognitive dissonance. Stephanie/Lisa: Top Secret. A single entendre-filled goofball comedy. This should be interesting.

And lastly, the most entertaining multinational buddy team since Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, it’s Ryan/Mark: That Christmas Movie. The one where they eat Asian food. It’s a fucking Christmas movie. Yeah, okay, Ryan finally figured out the title. A Christmas Story. Could it have been more uncomfortably hilarious watching those two polar opposites trying to pick a movie? Ryan: “New Zealand…New England…where’s he from?” Not too surprising that Ryan’s favorite movie is Dumb and Dumber. Not that I’m badmouthing Dumb and Dumber.

At this point, I’m thinking, “I don’t see how Team Wonka and their very solid concept could do anything but win this thing.” Spike wants tilapia for his summer roll, but goes with Manuel on wild Chilean sea bass (trivia: did you know that the actual name of this fish is the Patagonian toothfish? I’d go with Chilean sea bass, too). In discussing the concession, Spike accidentally (?) refers to Manuel as an employee. What a turd. Plus, I’m a little surprised that Whole Foods would even stock wild sea bass, since it’s on the advisory list for fish Americans shouldn’t eat.

Problems inevitably arise, as Mark and Ryan’s hoped-for duck is out of stock. They go with quail instead, and it seems like they’re bound for a sloppy and ill-defined disaster. Again, more emphasis on everyone tasting their food during prep. Is this the lesson the chefs should be clinging to? Seems kinda basic. Meanwhile, Richard’s strange little smoker device breaks in the middle of prepping the finished plates. Oh no! The danger must be growing! Eh, maybe not. They ditch the big puff, and plate with minimal smoking from a simple burning hunk of wood.

There were very clear delineations between the courses. Everyone at the table loved the oddball combo of Team Wonka’s salmon with tapioca pearl “caviar” and white chocolate wasabi, and a pear-celery soda/foam/thing. Chef Boulud called it “surprising,” and the most professional of the bunch. The biggest surprise, to me, was the rave reception for Team Christmas Story’s quail breast and carrot puree. Ted called it his new favorite dish, and there was general lid-flipping all around. Team Top Secret also won praise for their very Asian, very tasty short rib wontons and New York Strip. The thin (at best) connection to the movie was a big negative, but Chef Colicchio called it “flawless” as a dish.

Team Postino’s tortellini and cavolo nero was middle-of-the-road. It was obvious they’d get no further commentary. But Team Vietnam’s food was cheap, simple, and totally disconnected from the film. Sadly, Spike earns a point for his hesitance to use sea bass; the judges thought the flavor overpowered the other ingredients. Team Talk to Her, meanwhile, totally failed to translate their passionate story onto the the plate, which lacked both color and big flavors. The cost of their lamb doomed them to cutting the chops too thin, and the rest of the dish was boring.

At the Judges’ Table, we saw Andrew at his most overamped, as his team was announced as the obvious winner. Tom didn’t want to like the wacky combos, but couldn’t help himself. At this point Richard and Stephanie look like the juggernauts, with Dale coming up fast. But all that momentum means nothing to the sourpusses in the stew room, who are bashing Richard’s method and ingredient choices as they pat themselves on the back for a sure victory. If celery, wasabi, and white chocolate are what the judges want, Zoi whines, then I’m walking.

Walk, my dear! Walk your way to the judges, who have found you and Antonia, along with Spike and Manuel, to be the worst chefs of the night. The ladies oversold their dish, and did a better job of promoting it at the judges’ table than the dining table. Spike and Manuel, meanwhile, were the consensus worst course of the night. There’s no way, the judges thought, that they could have possibly spent their entire budget. It’s an $8 townie restaurant summer roll. Ouch.

However... I am forced to give Spike yet another point in his favor for refusing to answer the all-too-familiar “which one of you should be eliminated” question. He’s a dink, but good for him for not taking the bait. As the doomed teams return to await the results, Zoi continues to rail on Richard while he’s in the room, as if he weren’t. STFU, Zoi. Who do you blame when you’re a brat? Manuel, on the other hand, is smoothly resigned to his fate. A resignation that proves appropriate, since he gets the boot. Both at the judges’ table and in the stew room, Manuel performs quite the dismount, making a surprisingly flowery goodbye speech. Gotta wonder how long he’d been practicing it.

And the aforementioned promo? Looks to me like Spike might be sabotaging Zoi, if Jennifer’s reaction is any indication. Unfortunately, it also looks like yet another catering challenge. Even with the preternaturally charming Ming Tsai at the table, I’m not sure I can take more teamwork contests. So much spotlight on individual talents, so little focus on big-event hors d’oeuvres plates. Wait a minute. Strike that. Reverse it.