Top Chef - Missed it by that much

Remember when I told you I'd have my recap, titled "Which network is this, again?", ready to go on Thursday? Well, I hope you enjoyed it, because that was the extent of it! Things got real busy, and I decided that I hated that title. So here's the recap of a thoroughly depressing but ultimately satisfying episode of Top Chef.

Kenny's departure has left the Top Chef house reeling, swirling around a black hole as dark and black as... a steaming hot cup of Seattle's Best Coffee! (Try some today!) Kevin is at a loss, and missing his old pal. Angelo comes not to praise Kenny, but to bury him. Still, Angelo's damning-with-faint-praise routine reveals a certain lack of focus. Whether this is legitimate or not remains to be seen.

The Quickfire Challenge kicks off with that straw-haired scamp, Wylie Dufresne. He and Padma announce that this challenge will completely lift the concept of Food Network's Chopped: everyone gets a box, containing the same ingredients. They'll have to craft a dish using everything in the box. Oh, and more boxes will arrive throughout the 40 minute challenge.

To win this $10k Quickfire, the chefs have to use fava beans, an unlabeled can of what turns out to be hominy (on-screen credit goes to Tiffany for knowing what it was), and striped bass. Squid and black garlic come in the next box, ramps and passionfruit in another, and then jicama in the final box--all delivered by some Agent-lookin' dude to various outcries of doom and gloom. This does appear to be a pretty brutal challenge, judging by the sweat and ragged breath and Angelo talking to himself. (Though, if he wins, he'll have someone else to talk to; his "girlfriend" is suspiciously in Russia, and he needs money to get her "visa" in order. Ahem.)

Angelo goes for his usual overwrought Culinary Theory approach, using a lot of foreign words and fancy techniques (pot-au-feu, tataki, fruit gel); it lands him square in the middle. Amanda's crispy skin bass is oily and not nearly as crispy as billed. Alex's plate of yet another bean purée and basically every ingredient thrown together--to no one's surprise, it demonstrates a lack of composition. The top two are Kevin's pan seared bass, hominy purée, with jicama passionfruit and squid salad, and Tiffany's fish stew with hominy, fava beans, saffron and black garlic. The producers weren't entirely explicit about where all the ingredients fit in, but I assume they're all in there; Tiff takes yet another win, and another $10,000 check.

I refer now to my notes as the Elimination Challenge started: "blah blah cornball jargon, CIA." The chefs must create a new identity for a classic dish. By knifeblock, the following assignments are handed out: Amanda (French onion soup), Ed (chicken cordon bleu), Angelo (beef Wellington), Kevin (Cobb salad), Alex (veal parmigiana), Kelly (kung pao shrimp), and Tiffany (gyro).

The winner will get a trip to Paris, but the more exciting thing is that AMANDA IS ABSOLUTELY LIVING UP TO THE MATA HARI NICKNAME. You remember that, right? I told you then to look up German double agent Mata Hari. If you didn't, this is from Wikipedia:
Her relationships and liaisons with powerful men frequently took her across international borders. Prior to World War I, she was generally viewed as an artist and a free-spirited bohemian, but as war approached, she began to be seen by some as a wanton and promiscuous woman, and perhaps a dangerous seductress.
Amanda tells the camera that she'd get all up with CIA Director and guest diner Leon Panetta and try to seduce some secrets out of him. Seriously. Mata freaking Hari.

I know for a fact that Whole Foods, where our chefs take their $200 to shop for half an hour, sells AP flour, butter, and salt. But apparently they're not stocked clearly, because Angelo decides to buy pre-made, freezer case puff pastry rather than making his own. That can only lead to success, right John? Kelly isn't really buying store-brand stuff to use; she just wants to copy the ingredients because she's never cooked Chinese food before. (Ugh.)

There's a lot of lame going on in the kitchen. Ed's spy name (I'm guessing he used the same convention as the porn star name generator) is Muffin Winthrop; his great redefinition of chicken cordon bleu is to put the HAM...on the OUTSIDE. Alex, who had been a videographer before becoming a "chef" (and one hopes that he doesn't just mean through vertical blinds), has a new fan in Amanda, who wants to be called Natasha. Angelo is "sure the judges will be cool" with his storebought puff pastry. And Kevin is putting lettuce in a blender--truly, the most dangerous game.

I'm not so sure the chefs deserve to be putting their food on plates as cool as these--the CIA seal is pretty friggin' awesome. Amanda's worried that she didn't disguise her dish enough. What, you don't think turning soup into soup is enough of a transformation? Kelly's struggling to cook rice properly, blaming the low altitude of DC compared to the high skies of Colorado. Lady: this is a rice cooker. It's electronic. Going all old-school by cooking your rice in a pot is not some crazy hipster innovation. It's called talent, and you needed Tiffany to teach you how to boil water.

Eric Ripert is blessedly back on camera this week. Unfortunately, he has to judge a frequently dismal showing.

Angelo: Beef Wellington turned into a puff pastry tartlet "pizza" topped with slivers of beef. Director Panetta calls out beef Wellington right away. Eric calls out "shortcuts," aka "pre-made puff pastry," equally fast. It's salty, and the pastry is hard. This would be a long way to go to maintain the ruse of stressed-out-edness, so we've got to think that Angelo really has been defining his performance on having an "archenemy." He's in the weeds.

Kelly: Kung pao shrimp turned into spicy shrimp broth with rice and Szechuan shrimp tempura. Most of the CIA diners guess pad thai, but Tom Colicchio gets kung pao. Wylie likes the spin it puts on the original dish, but there's too much broth and not enough substance.

Tiffany: Gyro turned into roasted leg of lamb with smoky eggplant, tomatoes, and pickled onions. Actually, it was gyros turned into GI-rohs; both Panetta and Ripert choose the grating and awful Anthony Bourdain pronunciation of the word. (My wife asks about Eric, "okay, did he just say it like that so he wouldn't embarrass the other guy?") Missing both pita and tzatziki components, Tiffany's dish nevertheless impresses everyone around the table.

Kevin: Cobb salad turned into romaine lettuce, tomato, bacon, Roquefort, avocado, cucumber and turkey. Now, I know that you're thinking: "That's basically the recipe for Cobb salad, minus the egg." BUT DON'T YOU SEE THE INNOVATION OF THAT DISGUISE? No? Well, that's fine, because there really isn't any. He turned a salad into a salad, and one that the CIA HR director picked out without prompting. Tom thinks it tastes fine, but there isn't anything approaching a disguise here.

I'd like to tell you about Amanda's dish, but I've just received a communiqué that requires my immediate attention. No, not really, but Leon Panetta did, right at this point in the meal. Seriously. A card delivered by a staffer, and Leon gets up, apologizes, and takes off. Whoa.

Amanda: French onion soup turned into consommé with oxtail marmalade, caramelized onions, and shaved Gruyère. So...it's a soup of French onion soup. The oxtail marmalade is a good idea, but way too sweet. This took hours to create?

Alex: Veal parmigiana turned into veal and parmigiano reggiano tortelloni with tomato sauce and tempura cheese. The veal is geologically tough, and it's been so tortured and reworked that CIA HR lady guesses lasagna. Eric would like "less disguise and a better deesh." I'd like less Alex and better other chefs.

Ed: Chicken cordon bleu turned into roasted chicken breast, ham and cheese croquette, and spring onion soubise. The Frenchman at the table picks it up right away, but Padma confirms that it's not very well-disguised. However, the chicken is very well prepared, and the overall dish is cooked nicely. Chicken this good, Jon Waxman would have not only given Ed the win on this one, but marched into Leon Panetta's office and told him to clear out because Ed would be taking over.

Anyone ever seen the Doctor Who episode, "Midnight"? A lonely entity infiltrates a group of humans (and the Doctor), and slowly filters through all of the people, copying their speech. Slowly, the entity settles on the Doctor as the most powerful being in the room, and starts not only duplicating his speech, but stealing his mind with every word he speaks? I think that's Angelo. He's back in the kitchen, after service ends, remarking with Tamesha-grade fake awe over Tiffany's eggplant. Look out, Tiff! You're the biggest dog in the yard, and there's a lonely, hungry flea hopping around.

Padma wants Tiffany, Kelly, and Ed (I called it). They're on the top of this somewhat sad challenge. Tiffany's eaten-by-hand dish was well hidden. Wylie and Eric both praise Ed's execution. Kelly's soup is outside the box, and Eric really appreciated the rice (as Tiffany is shown looking down her shoulder toward Kelly). The winner? Tiffany, again! Another two-fer! She gets a vacation trip to the Hilton Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Alien Alex, Listless Angelo, and Clueless Amanda are called out to suffer the wrath of Judges' Table. I started out thinking that Alex had to be the one going. Wylie was excited about his plating, but his disguise was merely "poor execution." It was the wrong time to go out of his element. But then the judges got to the other two. Angelo's dish had no disguise at all. The pastry was dried out; was it frozen? (Yes, yes it was.) And Amanda...she struggles to defend her dish, trying to acknowledge her weaknesses. But she cannot escape Tom's simple complaint: "You took a soup and made a soup."

The editing in the Stew Room makes it seem like Angelo and Amanda are the most at-risk. Angelo storms into the Stew Room, no smiles, no jokes, no apparent games. Tom calls them all back out, and tells them their best disguises were as poor cooks. Thankfully, the editing was just a swerve; Alex gets excused, at long last. "Seventh sucks," he grumbles. Yes, Alex. Yes, you do.

Next week: there's no 'O' in Natinals, but two in Moonen!