Top Chef - Cherchez la femme

Seems like on Thursdays after these super-sized episodes of Top Chef, I'm waking up tired ... tired of COMMERCIALS WHO'S WITH ME. UP TOP. Ugh. Enough. Sure, it's nice that I have enough time to run downstairs to see if my iPhone's done installing OS 3.1, but come on. The veneer of "added content" is pretty thin, Bravo.

This week, we begin facing the prospect of Isabella going out in a blaze of douchey glory for the insult that was his inclusion in the losers' bracket last week. Also possible: Robin de-evolving into a junior high-schooler before our eyes--she thinks women rock and the boys shouldn't start thinking they're the bomb. As if!

With all that extra room to lounge around in, this episode's Quickfire blazes by. Ironic, given the details. Daniel Boulud, slightly marble-mouthed chef of renown, joins Tom in announcing the challenge: make a dish featuring snails, a dish that hasn't KEPT PACE (GET IT) with the rising popularity of French cuisine in America. You have 45 minutes.

Oh, and one more thing (hat-tip to the return of Steve Jobs to the stage yesterday)--this is a High Stakes Quickfire. Before anyone beyond Ashley can start seeing dollar signs, Tom announces that it's more a loser-based challenge: while the winner will have immunity, the loser of the Quickfire's gotta go. Cue the Crunchy Bravo Synth-Guitars of Doom!

Challenged to make an escargot dish that even Daniel Boulud has never seen before, the chefs immediately start softening the ground in the confessional--chef after chef professes total lack of experience with snails, or being mystified by why people would eat snails, or in the case of poor Hector, a total bewilderment at the existence of something called a "France."

Isabella, fresh off his sucky "Greek" shrimp salad, still harbors notions of a Hellenic heritage; he'll be making a Cretan dish. Shocker. (That's--I say, that's a homophone joke, son.) Kevin's perspective on the intricacies of cooking snails seems intelligent, and it looks like it'll serve him well. Mattin is traipsing around the kitchen like he was just handed a shiny new toy.

The chefs line up in threes to present their dishes to Tom and Daniel. Looking at my notes, and thinking back on the episode, I can't recall seeing Eli present his dish. Anyone? Anyway, you can see the wheels a-spinning in most of the chefs' heads. Acid acid acid. Jen uses yuzu, Bryan goes with red wine, Laurine and Isabella each go for lemon. Fava beans show up a couple times, and the chefs who are floundering make it clear they're not jumping up any time soon. Ashley: soup. Hector: generic escargot with "Caribbean flavor."

For this QF the winners are less impactful than the loser, so the top three are given first billing: Isabella, Jen, and Kevin. Turns out Isabella knows something about Greek food after all. Jen's yuzu provides just the right kind of acidic pop. Kevin's fricassee with candied bacon jam blows Tom and Daniel away, and he takes the win.

The bottom three, no surprise, are Ashley, Jesse, and Robin--thus ensuring that another female chef will be leaving this week. The title of this week's recap means "look for the woman" in French. It has a slightly antiquated, Mad Men-esque connotation: when a man does something stupid, look for the woman; she's probably at the heart of it. But for this week, let's have it mean simply that in this season of Top Chef, if there's a sucky dish to be made, the likelihood of a female chef making it is startlingly high.

Before getting the axe, the bottom three chefs are given one last chance. "One bite to save your life," as Tom puts it in his inimitable fashion. Twenty minutes to create an amuse bouche of whatever's available in Daniel's kitchen. Best two are safe, worst one goes home.

Ashley continues her long and glorious tradition of freaking out in the kitchen, while Robin shows that she is even worse than Ariane in terms of failing to understand the "cuisine" in cooking. Jesse, on the other hand, is more confident than her bottom-dwelling ways would seem to indicate. All three bites come out slightly poorly proportioned, but Tom seems generally complimentary of all three. In what can only be considered a crap-shoot, Robin's avocado crab soup with yuzu and green apple and Ashley's foie gras with pineapple, tarragon, and ramps are spared in favor of Jesse's tuna tartare with sorrel, gooseberries and a quail egg. Jesse's fortunes dropped like a stone from Week One and stayed there; her time is up.

The surviving chefs, with the exception of QF winner Kevin, draw knives. Words like poussin, chasseur, bearnaise, and frogs' legs should tell the savvy viewer that this will be a French-themed challenge in more ways than just the nationality of the judges (as teased in last week's closing moments). The knives wear on their steely faces six sauces and six proteins that are near and dear to the heart of the French chef. Our chefs will have to pair off (again?) and create a dish using the ensuing protein/sauce combo.

The judges will be some of the world's greatest French chefs, including Hubert Keller, Jean Joho, Laurent Tourondel, Boulud of course, and the host of the whole event, Joel Robuchon. The sound of bricks being shat must have been cleaned up in post; the contestants are in awe, and none more so than Kevin. As Quickfire winner, he will not only be spared from competition this round, but he'll get to dine on the products of the competition at the table with the Mt. Rushmore of French cuisine. It's hard not to get a little excited seeing his big hairy face light up like it did.

It's also hard to not get a little annoyed with Mattin, who thinks this challenge was a gift specifically for him from the show (as the mid-break vignette shows us, it's his 29th birthday during this challenge). Using the phrase "All eyes on me," I'm forced to picture the wee Gaul wearing his scarf as a doo-rag a la Tupac.

With ten minutes (not to mention classic French chefs to cook for), the chefs organize in fairly obvious fashion. Rabbit/sauce chasseur. Lobster/sauce Américaine. Chateaubriand/sauce au poivre. It would have been entertaining to see them fuck with tradition a little , but given the audience at dinner I can't say I blame them for going with the usual pairings. They did, at least, mix up the standard trout Meunière. Food nerdery over. Back to usual recap.

The 30 minute, $200 shopping trip gives us the following teams. Ashley/Mattin: poussin (chicken) velouté. Robin/Ron: frogs' legs Meunière. Jen/Michael: rabbit Chasseur. Bryan/Isabella: trout Béarnaise. Eli/Laurine: lobster Américaine. Hector/Ash: chateubriand au poivre.

Shopping done, the knives come out. Literally. Michael's butchery skills are on display as he breaks down the bunnies with the quickness. Also figuratively, as Ron shows the viewers at home just what he thinks of Robin's capabilities (see: massive eye roll). Every spazzy idea she blurts out, Ron quietly shoots down or just withholds comment on until Robin just decides it's a bad idea and moves on.

There isn't much time in this challenge, so the chefs are sweating details left and right. Isabella's second-guessing his deconstructed Béarnaise despite Bryan's experience in making such a thing; he's preparing to be a cautionary tale to young chefs everywhere. I think he might already be on his way. Eli and Laurine are worried about their lobster being cooked enough. Hector is futzing with his beef, and Ron's just worried that the French chefs are going to enact a new Code Noir and put his Haitian butt to work.

Kevin seems to have trimmed his beard up a bit, and look at that he's even got a little bald spot in the back! He's just a cuddly little guy, definitely inspirational for all the nicknamers out there ("Ginger Santa" is the new one, thanks to the aforementioned @junderwood--my wife loves that one like I love "Yukon Cornelius.") The rest of the chefs are obviously just as enthusiastic as Kevin; Eli speculates that the demi-godly Robuchon might actually have been a unicorn for all he knew.

With that, the meal.

Ron/Robin: frogs' legs Meunière with lemon confit and a fried caper arugula salad.

-Eli talks trash as it leaves the kitchen, and the reception at the table isn't much better. It's heavy on the flour, and the legs are overcooked.
-There's some originality there, and frogs' legs are challenging, but Robuchon notes that the flavors are all somewhat masked.

Bryan/Isabella: warm-cured trout and a deconstructed Béarnaise, with pickled shallots, a raw egg yolk, and fennel pollen.

-I think fennel pollen is one of Isabella's tricks; seems to me he's gone to this well before. Boulud seems to be lightly mocking the decon work, but at first bite is impressed. "A perfect translation." Joho calls it simple but sophisticated.
-Our boy Kevin nails his analysis, garnering a nod from Keller. Robuchon "likes it a lot," to which Gail can only say, "Wow."

Eli/Laurine: lobster Américaine with cauliflower pureed and raw.

-The lobster, not so much undercooked as, well, overcooked. Joho finds it tough, and the sauce too bitter.
-Robuchon offers the interesting take that the dish generally is a success, but that upon closer inspection falls short in most critical measurements. Basically, a passable mimicry of French cooking from someone who doesn't have the depth to actually do French cooking.

Mattin/Ashley: ravioli of seared poussin with bacon velouté and asparagus.

-Mattin, to whom Ashley ceded almost all authority over this dish, introduces it in French before Ashley does so in English. Robuchon might not have known Mattin was French, or was just being drily funny, but he compliments Mattin's pronunciation nonetheless.
-There are a litany of complaints about this dish. Chicken bland. Velouté unconvincing as such, and way too bacony; Tom notes that this is something not made better with bacon. Joho's analysis is that it's a dish full of half-measures, not quite carrying off any of its characteristics. Keller feels that with a better sauce, it could have been a successful dish.

Jen/Michael: rabbit Chasseur with mustard noodles and shiso.

-I find this dish to be really interesting, even if un-broken-down rabbit rack looks a lot like a centipede, and Jen appears to have a difficulty pronuncing "Chasseur." Definitely daring.
-Boulud loves the rabbit, well-cooked. Robuchon agrees. Tom describes it as "very mature work" from two young chefs. Two young chefs who look like they might have something in common with a couple of rabbits fairly soon...

Ash/Hector: chateaubriand au poivre with confit de pommes and spinach.

-A nice, classy-fied take on the 50's standard of steak with creamed spinach. Except that Hector totally botches the cooking time (and method), having to cut the meat with less than two minutes to go, leaving it both bloody and ragged. Ash's pepper sauce loses its integrity in the leaking juice, and he can see the train leaving the tracks.
-The apparent absence of sauce is the first thing everyone notices at the table. The meat, Robuchon notes, is absent of juice, sauce, everything. The cooking is uneven, with some parts very overdone. Robuchon notes to the clearly-irritated Gail that she must have gotten the end piece. "I got the end?", she replies. "Well, they picked the wrong lady." You tell 'em, sister!

Gail is very complimentary of this crew of competitors, and Robuchon invites any of them to come to him should they need a job. Pretty cool for all those crazy kids. In the stew room, Kevin returns to his mates to someone shouting, presumably referring to Padma, "There she is!" They needle him for scoop, but he plays it cool. Michael, Jen, Bryan, and Isabella are called out; these are the top teams by a mile.

Bryan and Isabella's dish is up first. The judges note that the sauce was very flavorful, a successful execution of the deconstruction idea. Tom knows the trout was much more complicated than it looked on the plate. The two chefs are basically up front about who did what, and who was responsible for which smart move--but there's no doubt that Isabella wishes he could take more credit considering he didn't really come up with either recipe.

Michael and Jen get credit for a meticulous dish as well. Michael comments on the priority he placed on butchery, and Jen compliments his skill. She notes that he was putting bones out for her sauce faster than she could put 'em into the pot. Seems to me that she wants Michael to put one more bone out for her. Seriously, this is a seething hot ball of sex just waiting to pop. Michael blows platitudes up her skirt, talking about how hard it is to work with a chef this talented, because you don't want to get shown up. It was verbal foreplay, and if this doesn't come to on-screen fruition, I'll be very surprised. Michael's cherchez-ing himself some femme in a big way.

There was, of course, a winner. The chef who will take the victory plus a week-long stage in Joel Robuchon's kitchen in Vegas is one Bryan Voltaggio. Quite a nifty little present, indeed befitting a higher level of talent at this point in a TC season, as Gail noted. Isabella must be wetting himself with relief that he doesn't have to call himself out again. Instead, Mattin, Ashley, Hector, and Ash get the call.

Mattin and Ashley come up first, and right away Mattin takes the hit for too much bacon and not much velouté-ness to his velouté. The asparagus was a false note, the judges comment, and ask Mattin about it. He pins it (rightfully, to be fair) on Ashley. Ashley's response is odd, kind of like she's uninterested in defending this dish that SHE HAD ALMOST NOTHING TO DO WITH. Okay, not so odd. Tom says it would have been better if it had just been an asparagus velouté, which Ashley says was "discussed," and Tom calls it on Mattin: "I bet you shot that down." Mattin, who did in fact shoot it down, says no. No? NON?? Zut alors, that's a whole bunch of bullshit! Mattin is desperate to not get kicked off on French Week, and Ashley-of-no-kitchen-chops is too worn down to put up a fight.

Ash and Hector are the other side of the coin, painfully aware of the mistakes they both made. But mostly, the mistakes Hector made. Ash defends the quality of his pepper sauce, but notes that the late and poor cutting of the meat killed it. (He also doesn't seem to be able to say "chateaubriand," adding an 'S' sound in there earlier in the show.) Hector, up front with his screwups, has to respond to Gail's incisive questioning of his knife: "Was it not sharpened?" Boulud notes that the team seemed to lack a solid game plan, and for the botching of Boulud calls the easiest protein to work with in the challenge, Hector is sent packing.

Ashley thus becomes the first person in history to ever be saved by an axe murderer. Ash tells the rest of the chefs that Judges' Table is "painful because they're right." Ashley looks like hell as she hears that she's safe, and it's obvious to the judges that she didn't have a fight in her. I don't see her making it much farther, even if a dude finally got his walking papers this season.

Next week, it's a wagon trail adventure and Colicchio spits out a bite! Man, you know that's got to be really bad.