Top Chef: Battling the legacy of seasons past

Places I'm not likely to go any time soon: Scott Conant's Scarpetta. What a friggin' douchebag, and I don't use that term often or lightly. Leering, smarmy, rude, and altogether distasteful--dude almost brought down this entire season of Top Chef.

Let's keep this roughly chronological, though. Not that the integrity of time and space means much to the TC producers. This week, like an episode of LOST, sees our chefs preparing for the Super Bowl in the middle of the summer. They even have a number square sheet!

This sheet, actually a large posterboard construction, will assign the food category and specific ingredient each chef will have to work with in the Quickfire Challenge. Things like seafood, fruits, vegetables and the like appear along the Y axis. Along the X? Oats. Oats. Oats. You get the picture. Yes, it's the Quaker Oats Quickfire Challenge. Ugh.

I like how Fabio refers to someone as "guys" even while talking in confessional. Does he not know he's supposed to be just talking? Is he talking to the camera crew? It's funny. Carla's crazy fervent support of Quaker Oats? Not so much funny as sadly believable.

With 45 minutes to work, and no immunity on the line, the chefs get a-crusting. Really, that's all anyone does with the oats. Jeff crusts fried chicken paillard. Hosea makes wiener schnitzel, which is German for "crusted," Fabio oat-shellacs the hell out of some eggplant. Everyone but Stefan, who does a banana mousse and some kind of oat/almond petit fours, makes some kind of oat-coated meat (or in Carla's case, tofu); guess who wins?

I don't want to sound like I'm not enjoying this season, or that I'm belittling the product or the contestants, but this crew of chefs is really pretty low on inspiration. Listen to Leah as she snoozes her way through explaining her dish: "Mine was seafood, soo..." WAKE UP AND COMPETE! Jesus!

Anyway, Stefan wants to remind us that he's won five challenges in a row. Not exactly, buddy. You didn't win the Restaurant Wars Quickfire, although you have been at the top half of Judges' Table for five weeks in a row. Jeff, meanwhile, is in the weeds. Carla describes him as being unable to "quiet the creative monkeys." Leah, too, is struggling with motivation and execution (more pin bone wrestling this week, as opposed to Hosea-bone wrestling. Hey-oh!).

I'd also like to point out now that the guest judge belittles Fabio at the Quickfire for being a little heavy-handed with his oat encrusting; to be fair, he was. But Fabio takes umbrage with that treatment; remember that for later.

To the Elimination Challenge, where Padma tells the chefs there's a surprise in the stew room (Fabio: "a dog?"). No, it's a bunch of Top Chef jerseys, with the chefs' names on the back and the number five (Leah: "what's the five?" Everyone else: "It's the fifth season, you moron.").

The chefs return to the kitchen, and Padma finally explains the challenge. It'll be Top Chef Bowl, and the opposing team is....Top Chef all-stars from past seasons! Andrew, Spike and Nikki from S4, Camille (Camille??) from S3, Josie from S2, and Andrea and Miguel from S1 (truth be told, the season I didn't watch--I have it saved on my Netflix queue though!).

There are NFL helmets on the tables, and the chefs will compete head-to-head a la football. Culinary students will comprise the audience, as well as a small percentage of the judging. The helmets are Miami, Green Bay (WOOO!), Dallas, Seattle, New York (Giants), San Francisco, and New Orleans. A pretty respectable spread, as the challenge will be to pair off and make a dish that represents the regional cuisine of the team, and make it somewhat Super Bowl party-friendly.

Stefan's non-immunity reward for winning the QF is that he gets to pick region and opponent before anyone else. He takes Dallas (really, Stefan?), and chooses Andrea, who was eliminated twice in Season 1. She's kind of cute, and Stefan's thought process is clear: cop a feel, get an easy win over a "sucky" chef.

The rest of the chefs huddle in their respective teams, and each one takes a region. Fabio, who likes to pretend he knows nahhthing about nahhthing when he wants to wash his hands of something, just lets everyone else pick and takes what's left: GREEN BAY, BABY. Fabio, dude, come on up to Wisconsin and I'll show you some good food. Come on through, buddy.

The pairings: Jeff v. Josie in Miami. Fabio v. Spike in Green Bay. Stefan v. Andrea in Dallas. Hosea v. Miguel in Seattle. Leah v. Nikki in New York. Jamie v. Camille in San Francisco. Carla v. Andrew in New Orleans.

They're pretty obvious pairings, and you wonder if that's why these past chefs were asked to participate. Clearly, Jeff would do Miami (Josie's from there, too), which leaves Seattle as the best other seafood option: that means Hosea's there like white on rice. Jamie's from SF, and could do nothing else; same with Leah and NYC (duh, Nikki). And Carla's from the South. The fact that she got paired with her favorite all-star, Andrew, is just serendipity.

The chefs will get 2 hours to prep, and then go head-to-head in a 20-minute challenge. You lose your matchup, you stand a chance of elimination. They all run to the coolers holding their key regional ingredients, and get working. Well, almost all of them. Jamie's totally befuddled. That's kind of odd, but she did say that even she was a little intimidated by these former chef contestants. Why? It's not like any of 'em won or anything. Another indictment of the capabilities of this season's chefs.

Hosea's dishing out seafood trash talk in the confessional; he doesn't think much of Miguel's cedar planks (that's so 2004!). Fabio gets to work with venison; perhaps he'll be interested in my recipe. Stefan's clearly trying to get Andrea drunk and slutty (not working). And Leah...I wish I could feel sorry for you, because you couldn't sound more beaten down. But I don't, because you're a skeez.

In the mid-break vignette, we learn that Spike looks a little bit like Brett Favre when he puts on the GB helmet. He also calls Fabio "Fabian," which is actually pretty good international trash-talk. Too bad he's a complete dingus.

The worst possible sequence of events occurs, when Fabio starts talking in voice-over confessional about how he wants to win this competition FOR HIS MOM, who is SICK. NOOOOOO!!! Don't you know you can't say shit like that??

On competition day, the chefs trudge off to the Institute of Culinary Education, where the find the previously-excused chefs from Season 5 as well as a bunch of students. They've all got foam fingers and jerseys and whatnot. The scoring will be as follows: the judges' pick will garner 7 points. The panel of 5 student tasters will garner 3. Ties from the judges will put all 10 points in the students' hands. Head-to-head score determines winners there, total point totals determine whether S5 or all-stars win.

Leah v. Nikki (NYG)
Leah makes a seared strip steak with creamed corn and snap peas, with an arugula salad. Nikki picks chicken livers, and serves them with arugula, goat cheese, and some toasted challah. The judges like Leah's dish, but the fans pick Nikki. 7-3, home team.

Hosea v. Miguel (SEA)
Hosea is cooking some salmon to medium rare, then deep-frying it in eggroll form. He's also continuing the trash talk: "I want you to like me so it doesn't hurt as bad when I win." He serves his rolls with a ginger blackberry sauce. Miguel doesn't stand a chance with his noodles, and the judges and fans all pick Hosea. 17-3, home team.

Carla v. Andrew (NO)
It's Battle Crazypants as Andrew comes out with his crawfish live and angry (they'd been getting taunted back in the kitchen). Carla's voiceover talks about how she doesn't know football at all; does it really matter? Her 20-minute gumbo is still daunting. Andrew serves up, in typical smug Andrew fashion, a small, square pile of food. Carla does a crawfish and Andouille gumbo with stone-ground grits. The judges unanimously pick Carla, but the fans feed off of Andrew's brand of crazy and pick him. 24-6, home team.

Stefan v. Andrea (DAL)
Clearly, Stefan thinks very little of Andrea as a chef (but professes love for her personally, of course). How else to explain that he -- the Terminator -- makes a duo of salads? Corn and pepper salad with beef, queso fresco, and tortilla chips, and pork with cole slaw. Andrea makes a chili with chipotles, and a cole slaw as well. The judges tie. The fans, as tie-breakers, give the full ten points to Andrea. 24-16, home team.

Jamie v. Camille (SF)
Jamie whips up a cioppino (Fabio, I'm sure, writhes at her ugly pronunciation) of crab, tomatoes, olives, and basil, with sourdough. Camille takes the dartboard to the pantry approach and combines sweet potato and miso for a mash, and crab with stone-ground mustard. Whoa. Her wacky combo still manages to take in two of the judges (including Tom, surprisingly), but the fans break the tie in Jamie's favor. 34-16, home team.

Jeff v. Josie (MIA)
At this point, we should note that only Stefan has lost his head-to-head. That means that if the final pairings went to the home team, he'd have to be eliminated. Hm. Jeff looks like he's going to make it through, as Josie whips up a warm shrimp ceviche (is that still ceviche?) with papaya, while Jeff puts together shrimp, sangria sorbet, jicama, mango, and cilantro. Jeff got burned in the QF for doing too little with too much, and whaddayaknow, he does the same thing here. Judges and fans agree, it's Josie's ten points. 34-26, home team.

Fabio v. Spike (GB)
Fabio dons the GB helmet (and also looks vaguely Brettish), comes out and starts working the crowd. Fabio is doing venison for the haahnting theengs in Weesconseen, and calls out Spike for not integrating cheese in any way. Spike's venison is a five-spice rub with cranberries, port wine reduction, pistachios (someone's been cribbing from Steph Izard's cheat sheet), microsalad. Fabio does venison with mustard, beets, and a stonefruit and cheddar salad. He worries that he overcooked the venison, and indeed he did. The judges pick Spike. Fabio needs the fans to salvage a win for the home team, and the Italian charm (as opposed to Spike's Chinese/Greek mother and dueling butcher grandfathers) kicks in. Fabio takes three points, and holds onto a 37-33 win for the Season 5 home team.

This puts together a worrisome bottom panel of Jeff, Stefan, and Fabio. As @swoonqueen reminded me on Twitter last night, the judges could very easily throw the judging as the competition progressed, in order to fill out the lineup of potential losers.

The winners go out first. The judges give Carla her props, telling her they tasted the love this time. Kind of sweet, and not really that condescending. Tom is impressed with Hosea's still medium-rare fish inside a deep-fried eggroll. Leah's dish is simple and fine (please, judges, don't spare the compliments! ... nothing?) While Toby was digging the sourdough scooping implement for Jamie's cioppino, guest douchebag Scott Conant clearly wanted on Jamie, and hard. Gross behavior. "I love watching you cook," he leers. ::shudder::

But clearly, this was Carla's week. In the top three of the QF, and she takes the win in the Elimination. Crazy triumphs! And gets two tickets to the Super Bowl, not too shabby. Good Sport Stefan responds with a "you're fucking shitting me" in the stew room. Tell us how you really feel, bud.

Remember how Fabio took none too kindly to guest douchebag Scott Conant mocking his food during the Quickfire? Well, Fabio's overdone venison takes even more heat from the judges. They were all a little harsh during the tasting, but Conant takes it to a new level. Fabio tries to defend the absence of acidity in his salad by pointing out, somewhat accurately, that cheese and acid don't always work well together. First, Conant mocks his accent. Mimics it and parrots what Fabio is saying. Then he gets irritated that Fabio's taking it to his sense of culinary right and wrong.

Maybe Conant's right, maybe Fabio's right. But talking to another professional like he's a child who just smeared his mac and cheese on the kitchen wall is another thing altogether. It was completely unprofessional, and Conant clearly let those three stars go to his head. He thought it was his show.

The rest of the judging goes fine. The panel calls out Stefan's choice of Andrea as looking for the weak link. Jeff is pissed about losing to a bland (in his opinion), hot ceviche. Tom rightly points out that Jeff's shrimp was pre-cooked, and thus not a true ceviche either. Jeff's, the judges agree, was the bland one; Josie's tasted more authentic.

Obviously, the judges knew what they were doing. They wanted to scare Stefan and they wanted Fabio there to make sure they didn't have to eliminate Stefan. But Jeff was the sacrificial lamb, and he gets the axe. It's a loss, he says too precisely, that will stick with him for at least a decade. So mark it on your calendars! See ya, Jeff, I grew to respect you this season but didn't expect you to take it all home.

Ask yourself this, as we close this week's action. Would any of the chefs left from this season distinguish themselves from the stiffs that were invited to participate from past seasons? Is there a Sam, or a CJ, or a Tre, or a Dale (or an other Dale, for that matter), or a Casey, or an Elia, or a Marcel, in the group of remaining chefs? They're all pretty middling as far as the combination of charisma and talent goes. Fabio kind of stands alone in that respect, and it's very possible that without sympathy generated by the bullshit attitude that Scott Conant threw at him at Judges' Table, he might have gotten eliminated this week.

Next week: RIPERT! And a sad return to Shitty Forced Analogy Land with Toby Young.