Top Chef - Wait, chimichurri isn't Brazilian?

Okay, this definitely isn't Thursday anymore--sorry about that. One of my best friends, and the best man at my wedding, is getting married later today (Saturday). The last couple days have been busy, and this afternoon has been my only time to slow down.

This is my first shot at discussing the pea purée incident of 2010. My first thought is that Ed needs to perfect a Christopher Walken imitation. Just hear it in your head: "Where...inthehell...is my pea purée?" He's not angry, just confused. So am I. If this was Project Runway Tim Gunn would have cornered Alex on the fucking rooftop and wrung the truth out of him. But if the TC producers aren't going to do anything about it, I guess we'll have to let it pass for now.

In a Quickfire Challenge lead-up crammed full of classically awful ADR, Padma and Top Chef Masters winner Marcus Samuelsson introduce the chefs to Ethiopian cuisine. For non-District residents, the whole "nothing says DC like Ethiopian cuisine" might seem a little odd. But according to Urbanspoon, there are more Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurants in the DC coverage area than either Spanish or American Southwestern restaurants.

Marcus looks a bit worn-out. But he describes berbere, injera, and wat for the chefs, who are given ample quantities of the first two for their use. They'll have to make one dish inspired by Ethiopian cuisine to earn elimination immunity.

Most of the chefs have no clue about Ethiopian cuisine; Kenny, Kevin, and most of all Angelo have some experience. Amanda goes for the "other people eat this" tactic and chooses goat--she does, at least, speak honestly about not knowing the spirit behind Ethiopian food. Alex picks two types of tongue (and despite the producer blindness to any evidence regarding the purée, they certainly give everyone else a shot at bagging on Alex in confessional). For his comfort with Angelo, he describes it as a "spice-induced cuisine." Angelo, I do not think that word means what you think it means.

Everybody does all right. Alex's tongue and cabbage stew feels a little more Eastern European, and there's no heat from the spice. I was worried that I'd be saying the same thing about Tiffany's self-described goulash, but Marcus points out that goulash is conceptually very similar to Ethiopian food, so it's a natural riff on wat--good call, Tiff! Angelo's sophisticated doro wat inspires Marcus to ask, "You sure you're not born in Ethiopia?" Alex and Kelly's response is about the same as mine.

Ugh. Figures.


The bottoms are Kevin's braised chicken ("too shy"), Stephen's stew with lamb meatballs (interesting, but dry), and Alex's tongue stew (like Stephen's, bold but too dry). Marcus likes Amanda's stewed goat wat (good balance, combinations, Angelo's doro wat, and Tiffany's goulash. Seems like an obvious choice--how do you not pick the one who could have been born in Ethiopia?--but Marcus pulls a fast one and chooses Tiffany for the win. Angelo couldn't look more pissed.

For the Eliination Challenge, the chefs are given the ol' knifeblock to determine draft order. The draft? Countries off a world map on a big chalkboard. Immediately, a number of chefs start kvetching about Brazil, with Stephen announcing boorishly that he wasn't even aware that they had a cuisine outside of churrascaria steakhouses. But spirits are high at Irony or Mayo HQ, because Tiffany takes her Quickfire mojo and turns it into drawing Knife #1. Tiffany (Mexico), Kelly (Italy), Amanda (France), Kenny (Thailand), Alex (Spain), Angelo (Japan), Kevin (India), Ed (China), and Stephen (Brazil) get shopping.

The extent of Kevin's expertise on Indian food? "India's in Asia, right?" Ed, on the other hand, is a total player. When not sleeping with Angelo's girlfriend, he's also had some Chinese girlfriends in the past, so he's comfortable eating Chinese. ...What? Amanda got the cuisine she was hoping for, and Alex is just spazzing around the kitchen tripping on things and annoying his fellow competitors. Tom's visit to the kitchen felt mostly like a panther stalking its prey; he didn't do much confrontation, and I'm left thinking that he really doesn't think much of these chefs. As Amanda announces that there's no room in her hot box (and I announce that I'm 14), the chefs pack up for the night.

After a call home for Kevin and a care package for Kelly that includes some Jack Daniels, the chefs rest up and start the next day a-preppin'. [Author's note: It is at this point that I pick up the recap on the morning after the wedding. So if the tone shifts markedly, it's because of the couch-sleep headache that's rocking my brain right now. Sorry.]

Amanda and Tiffany are chopping like mad; Tiffany because she's behind on her salsa, Amanda because her beef is too dry to be that big, and she hopes smaller cuts will mask the toughness. Good luck with that. Guest judge José Andrés (and what a guest judge he is) swoops in with the judges, and it's on.

Ed's tea-smoked duck with crispy duck and pork potstickers impresses some of the foreign dignitaries in the room, and even Marcus Samuelsson. But José Andrés feels it doesn't represent China very well. I'm with Ed: having Andrés judge my Spanish food would be extremely nervewracking. Alex doesn't show it, and offers up braised veal shank, jamon torta espanola, and tomato olive salad. Nevertheless, José isn't thrilled, nor are Gail and Marcus, who find it muted and sloppy.

[Please note that I say veal shank because that's what Alex told Tom he bought when Tom visited the kitchen; he said he wanted cheeks but couldn't get them. But at service, both the on-screen graphic and Alex himself calls them cheeks, which in my opinion would carry more culinary cachet. There's something going on with Alex and the production of this show, and I'm loathe to speculate. But I don't like it.]

Goofy troll Stephen whips up his Brazilian grill experience, consisting of flank steak marinated in coffee, with chimichurri, Brazil nuts, and pork black beans and rice. Padma likes the coffee, but that's about all anyone can find to compliment. Marcus doesn't see Brazil in the dish, and Tom notes that it's too simple a dish to screw up easy stuff like rice. When even the Swedish dignitary trashes your stuff as $5 food cart fare, you know you're in trouble.

Kelly goes cold with a lightly seared beef carpaccio (with local Virginia beef), spring vegetable salad, and parmigiano reggiano. She tells the judges that she wanted to do gnudi, but revised her plan when she learned there'd be no kitchen on-site. This, of course, impresses the judges. Everyone seems to be in favor of the food. Same for Kevin's first shot at cooking Indian food. He stews his chicken with the essence of curry flavor, and serves it with leek and parsnip purée, cucumber mango salad, and fried lentils. The aromas please the very multisensory José, while Padma likes the lentils and the salad in particular.

For wanting France so badly, Amanda doesn't do too well by it; her beef bourguignon (with pommes fourchette horseradish mousse) and is dry and the beef is just too minimized. José would have liked the sauce all on its own, but the whole dish is a disappointment. Angelo paints a pretty picture of Japan with his tuna sashimi (marinated in chili oil), candied wasabi, and soy infusion, but Tom sees the fish losing its prominence. Austrian Guy seems to like it.

Tiffany's got the mo' this week, and she's thrilled to be serving chicken tamales with queso fresco and tomatillo sauce. Tom appreciates being able to taste the husk they were cooked in, and José notes that the entire dish shouts "Mexico" from first glance onward. Kenny's Thai dish--a cold salad of tamarind-braised pork spareribs with rice noodle and Thai green curry--is a good balance of hot and sweet, with just enough coconutty creaminess for Gail.

At Judges' Table, Kelly, Kevin and Tiffany are called out first. They're the top three, and once again Kenny misses the cut. This isn't good for a guy who looked like a titan in the first week or two. But Tiffany's thrilled, having tried to cook like she didn't have immunity. Kevin gets credit for riffing on Indian flavors rather than struggling to be to-the-letter authentic. Kelly's nod to local beef gets props from Tom, and José thinks she honored the Italian cuisine she represented. But in the end, the win goes to the dish that left no one wanting: Tiffany's chicken tamales.

Tiff gets the win with immunity, a not-entirely-common feat. She earns perhaps the greatest prize in non-finale Top Chef history: $10,000 (which will pay for her TV-delayed wedding), plus a matching $10,000 donation to José Andres' favorite charity, DC Central Kitchen. José announces, in his trademark staccato, "A ten. Thousand. Dollar. Tamal?" Pretty awesome, indeed.

The stinkers this week are Alex, Stephen and Ed. Stephen's rice was a fine idea, but ended up mealy; his steak wasn't nearly juicy enough. And Gail points out that chimichurri is Argentinian, not Brazilian; I'll be honest, that was news to me. But that's why I'm not a TV food judge (yet). As for Alex's Spanish fare, José gives it the kiss of death; he calls it a "little nightmare." The torta was all wrong, and the dish reminded José of anything but Spain. (And again, his veal shank is called cheeks once again. I'm at a loss.) Ed's main flaw was overpromising and underdelivering; his duck skin was fatty and the flavors weren't up to the "sweet and sour" name of the dish.

All three exhibited a failure of technique, but there was really no way Ed was leaving for his error. Alex at least attempted a high-ish degree of difficulty, while Stephen's steak and rice was both unimaginative and poorly made. Stephen gets the boot, and none too soon. I never saw much of an inventive streak outside of his pie from a couple weeks ago. Time to start winnowing out the pretenders; can Alex be next, Top Chef producers? Or is he the mole?

Next: Perhaps the most disastrous Restaurant Wars ever?