Top Chef - The China syndrome

Well, I wish I could say that it was a happier "Welcome Back" episode of Top Chef than last night's gloom-n-doom-fest turned out to be. Here I go and move into a new house, get all settled in, have a great blog-assist from Jessica Underwood, and after a hiatus week, I get this? This Green Mile-esque parade of bad moods, illness, weariness and despondence?

I mean, shoot. What a cruddy performance.

The whole thing kicks off with a strange air of "what did we do last night?", as Ash wanders into the apartment kitchen looking sheepish, Michael's looking worn out (missing his daughters, it turns out--just don't call 'em!), and they all eat breakfast in sullen silence. On top of that, Jen's sick and feeling all door-slammy.

Y'know what's good for what ails ya? Some Tyler Florence, that's right. Mr. Perma-Smirk is there to string together a ragged plot of cooking at home, cooking for family, charity, and amazingly few frozen entree meals. It's really kind of a mess this week, the narrative.

From cookster.com, we are given the following sponsored Quickfire Challenge (another High Stakes QF, but one whose stakes are a mystery until later): make a dish based on three words as chosen by slot machine. They'll represent a mood, a flavor profile, and a type of cuisine. We're in for an emo, navel-gazing hour of UGH, folks. It only gets worse from here.

In 30 minutes and the TC Kitchen's pantry to work with, the chefs are forced to cobble together dishes with the moods "adventurous" (3), "stressed" (4), "romantic" (1), "tired" (1), and "blue" (1). The majority cuisine is "Asian." Stressed and Asian might sound like the atmosphere in the math lab around finals time, but no, it's the unofficial theme of this week's episode. Just see how much Asian stuff gets made, and not by people who tend towards the Asian.

Yeah, there was a ceviche, and some mushrooms, and even a mushroom ceviche. Two folks did scallops, and yet I don't think any baconification was implemented. Ashley's feta pudding with sumac-dusted halibut and preserved lemon foam sounded good (for blue, cheesy, Middle Eastern), but didn't get any love from Florence.

The losers were: Robin, who is just sucky enough to mistake curry for a Middle Eastern flavor, especially damning when you've got an Indian judge; Eli's mushroom ceviche whose umami essence was squashed by too much citrus; and sickypoo Jen, who overestimated just how adventurous it would actually be to serve caviar atop salmon.

At the top of the heap: Isabella's light, fresh, clean raw mushroom salad with yuzu emulsion (stressed, umami, Asian); Kevin's char-grilled pork (stressed, hot and spicy, Asian), which he made with no real experience cooking Asian flavors; and the great flavor profile of Michael's yogurt and seaweed what-have-you (notes are lacking, but they didn't spend much time on the food anyway).

The winner, however, is Kevin once again. For his High Stakes win, he can choose immunity, or $15,000 from the M Casino. Dude's feelin' it, because he takes the money. He and the rest of the chefs are told to go home, enjoy a home-cooked meal--you'll learn about your Elimination Challenge when you get home. If there's any moron among these chefs that didn't put two and two together, he or she deserved to be shocked by what happened next.

What came next, of course, was a truly catastrophic wardrobe choice by Ms. Lakshmi. Her green harem-esque jumpsuit (Michael Kors is in his cage, repeating "That crotch is insane! That crotch is insane!") almost takes away from the revelation that this week's Elimination Challenge will have the chefs cook their food in their apartment, in teams of two, to be served family-style to a group of judges who also happen to be on the Macy's Culinary Council.

Alongside Florence are Takashi Yagihashi, Govind Armstrong, Nancy Silverton and Tom Douglas. Silverton is the founder of La Brea Bakery, so you might know her. Armstrong has appeared on Top Chef previously, as well as Iron Chef America. I know Tom Douglas having been to his Dahlia Bakery--plus my good friend who lives in Seattle (and just started her own blog, check it out) swears by his other joints. They've all got bags of groceries and equipment, and the chefs will draw knives to see who works with which judge's bags, and with which other contestant.

Isabella, one of many who feels this way I'm sure, has but one wish: don't make me work with Robin. Of course, that's exactly who he gets paired up with. They will work with Takashi Yagihashi's palette/palate (see what I did there?). Ashley and Eli get Govind Armstrong. Michael and Ash draw Nancy Silverton. Kevin and Jen have Tom Douglas. And Laurine and Bryan get Tyler Florence--and this is the last you'll hear about them until the end. They get remarkably little screen time this week.

Colicchio stages a little home invasion and immediately cuts right to the issues. Ashley and Eli's planned prawns over gnocchi draws that repetitive response from Colicchio that every contestant should dread. "Prawns over gnocchi, huh?" RUN!! He also elicits the true feelings of Isabella concerning Robin. Tom figures out that Isabella's running the show even though Robin's got much more experience with Asian ingredients; Isabella's response is "Yeah, but I can cook, so..." And right in front of Robin, no less! I know how he meant it, but I also know how he meant it.

Meanwhile, Ash is totally overrun by conspiring circumstances. 1) Michael's a much better chef than him, and 2) Ash is deeply enthralled by Michael's ability. He imagines that Michael is like him, and defers all decision-making onto him. It's actually a little creepy, and makes the awkward dynamic of the opening scene even more awkward. Leaving himself little to do in this team, he goes downstairs to set the table. Alone.

His objet d'amour is having problems back in the ad hoc kitchen. The griddle (and I love how Michael insists on calling it a plancha, a technically accurate but way over-fancified term for the same item) that they're using for the pancetta-wrapped halibut keeps on killing the circuits. Elsewhere, Eli is fussing over the state of Ashley's prawns, to say nothing of oversalting the gnocchi after Ashley hands them off. Isabella fears for the doneness of his tuna, as he sees Robin burning it, by his estimation.

After some well-meaning but completely boring and scripted jive about the goals of the Macy's Culinary Council, it's dinner time.

Ashley/Eli: Grilled spot prawns with a red beet crème fraîche and kale. The prawns take a beating for being undercooked, which the gnocchi are equally blasted for being tough and of course way too salty.

Robin/Isabella: Marinated mushroom and pickled Asian pear roll, seared tuna and scallop, chilled. There's a mixed reaction here. Most of the dudes dislike it, while Nancy Silverton at least is enjoying it.

Bryan/Laurine: (yes, they're still on the show) Pan-roasted halibut, sherry chorizo vinaigrette, corn cake. Toby Young, who made a ridiculous stand for pronouncing "paella" phonetically last week, mispronounces "chorizo" by adding too much accent. Can someone tell me why he's back on this show? Anyway, of the two Voltaggio brothers, both of whom prepared halibut, this one gets the praise. The judges and diners are digging on the chorizo in the vinaigrette.

Kevin/Jen: BBQ-ish Kobe beef, cardamom tomato ginger broth. (Am I slowly getting more Alinea in the way I'm describing these dishes? I realize I'm basically going off my notes, but I feel like they're taking on a decidedly Achatzian bent.) Oh, it's lurve at first taste for this one. The judges are heaping praise.

Michael/Ash: Pancetta-wrapped halibut, egg yolk ravioli, shaved asparagus and fennel salad. As Michael suspected, the halibut was all kinds of fucked up from the griddle incident. The fish was overcooked from going back onto heat over and over, while the pancetta never crisped up due to a lack of consistent high heat. Worst of both worlds. The ravioli, which had a chilled egg yolk placed inside so it would run out when punctured, was an unpleasant combo texturally, and an awkward one visually.

The stew room looks like the bus to Sing Sing. No one appears to be in a good mood, which I'm sure makes this a sponsorship Macy's is thrilled to have purchased. Michael in particular looks like he should be on suicide watch; stunningly, this is how he looked this morning. Did he and Ash get drunk and do something untoward that previous night? Very strange dynamic.

Padma comes back and calls out Laurine and Bryan, Kevin and Jen. They're at the top, and never have four chefs looked less like they just got good news than these four. Maybe Laurine dosed everyone from her Xanax stash. I'm getting a little worried about her pulling a Lisa and sticking around way longer than she should; she's getting sneaky-good, showing up in top fours to build up unconscious good will with the judges.

The judges, for their part, will have none of the "it was a team effort" nonsense. They want to know who was responsible for what; they're so serious about it, the chefs moo and get into line with little prompting. Jen did the broth, Kevin did the meat. The judges loved the broth, thought the beef was very well-prepared, and give Kevin more love for working so well with Asian flavors this week. Bryan, on the other hand, did most of the creation on the other team. Laurine made the corn cake and assisted on the vinaigrette. The concept for the vinaigrette, and the entirety of the halibut, was Bryan's. Florence thought the vinaigrette was "a stunner."

For all that, though, he declares the beef to be the best dish, and from that team, the win goes to Jen. I guess I can live with that, since she did a little more fancypantsing with the flavors and spices. She also wins a $10,000 Macy's gift card--whoa! Line of the night: "Kevin will probably get a suit out of it or something." Back in the stew room, Bryan gives the bad news to his brother, Ash, Eli, and Ashley. Robin is safe for yet another week. Ugh.

Another odd moment in the stew room, after the endangered chefs leave. Kevin asks Bryan about Michael's dish, wondering what the fennel and asparagus were for. Bryan curtly replies that Kevin will have to ask Michael, and he's tired of critiquing other peoples' dishes. "Did you taste it?", he asks Kevin. Bryan is low, grumpy, and in no mood to brook even a little discussion about his brother or his dish. Meltdown?

At Judges' Table, Michael acknowledges that the fish was overcooked, and mentions the griddle problem; Florence has no sympathy for that as an excuse. Tom just points out that halibut didn't seem to be the right choice of fish. Ash, when asked about playing second fiddle, goes on this strangely gushing rant-analogy about washing Picasso's paintbrushes, all the while making Michael obviously uncomfortable. But then, backtracking, he defends his presence on the show by saying that if Picasso can overcook a piece of fish, then he can pull out a win if he does his best. Mixed metaphors, mixed messages--very, very, strange.

Perhaps you've noticed that when Ashley's on the bottom of Judges' Table, she has this tendency to just assent to whatever angle it appears the judges are critiquing her from. This is true for this week's judging; she's already less than brimming with confidence, and she just takes the hit for gnocchi being a heavy choice in an al fresco setting. No clear argument. She just says "Yeah. Well--yeah." The gnocchi were her deal, but for some reason Eli is getting a lot of the blame for them, and not just because he oversalted them. No matter who did what, it's clear that the judges thought the whole dish was a mess.

While Ash abdicated all responsibility, and Eli didn't do much more, it's apparent as the show goes to commercial that a "leader" is going to hang for this one. When we come back, that's exactly what Tom tells the four. Tonight's loser is Ashley. It's too bad, because she was creative and had come on a little bit in the last couple weeks. But she was out over her skis pretty much the whole time, and the conversational tic she displayed at every Judges' Table was indicative of her lack of confidence.

Let's hope next week is a little more upbeat. Let's see...the brouhaha between Robin and Eli finally happens, and the Voltaggio brothers maybe come to loggerheads? All that and a bigtime guest judge who puts everyone on edge? Oh, I'm sure it'll be delightful!