Top Chef - The Good, the Bad, and the Bullshit

Welcome to Singapore, everyone. If you were expecting durian, it's illegal to eat in public markets in Singapore, so it'll have to wait for next week. But don't worry, there was plenty that stunk in last night's opening round of the championship.

As the chefs greet each other at their table in the Singaporean market, there are indications that Ed and Angelo aren't entirely amicable. I don't really know what's behind this, since nothing has seemed particularly serious (lots of banter, not a lot of overt ill-will), but there's definitely something going on.

KF Seetoh, who appears to go by just "Seetoh," is the expert guest judge this week. He's appeared on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, and the chefs all appear to have read his stuff before arriving in Asia. He's charismatic, and knows everything about hawker stalls, which surround the chefs. Their Quickfire Challenge is to create a hawker style-friendly dish using only a wok. This doesn't mean steamer baskets are verboten, apparently, as Ed grabs a bunch and doesn't get chided for them.

The chefs sample some signature dishes--poached chicken in broth, chili crab--and everyone notes that Angelo's obviously in his element here. Ed clears up any confusion, telling the confessional that his main priority is beating Angelo. I find this distastefully disrespectful of the competition and the other chefs. At the risk of sounding like a reality competition cliche, Ed should be there to win the title, not get into a pissing match with a guy whose girlfriend you proudly claim to have fucked.

Oh, and the winner of the Quickfire gets immunity in the Elimination Challenge. That's a first.

Amusingly, the labels for the ingredients provided in their "kitchen" are in Cantonese (even Angelo is stymied); thus begins a lot of finger-tasting that will carry through the entire episode. Kelly's sweatin' through her culottes in the Singaporean night, whipping up seared Chinese noodles and a broth of lobster and cockles--a combination Seetoh points out is not often employed in hawker dishes. Kevin appears to be a curry expert now, but not a wok expert. He admits to Padma that he's never cooked with a wok before--even in the time between the last challenge in DC and now--and she bluntly asks, "What's wrong with you?" Kevin's all "I'm sorry if I don't speak Korean or whatever!" (He just don't like them foreign implements; what's wrong with the good old US of A?)

Ed looks to the noodle--or noodles, rather. He uses two types of noodle with steamed lobster and wood ear mushrooms with a black pepper sauce. Padma responds to his charm, but there isn't much said about the food. Angelo, meanwhile, is his usual whirling self. He does a last minute u-turn and swaps out crab for frogs' legs in his chili dish. He pairs it with a faux urchin made of rambutan (very similar to the lychee) and pineapple. Using only shrimp paste for savory flavor addition, he impresses Seetoh with his pineapple trick.

Using the old Iron Chef editing trick, we're fooled into thinking that Kelly or Angelo will win, but Seetoh praises Ed's infusion of flavor into the noodles, and gives him both the win, and the immunity that comes with it. Angelo is predictably frustrated, and Ed's positively giddy for having beaten him "at his own game." This is getting old, Ed.

Also getting old? Team challenges. Padma delivers the bad news, that the chefs will work together to serve the 80 guests at Dana Cowin's (of Food and Wine) beach party. Sure, why not? This is basically Restaurant Wars Redux, which I guess I'm okay with, but it's a bit too gimmicky for my taste given that we're talking about the finals here.

The chefs decide that with their limited space and time, they'll just do one dish each. Ed continues his overt antagonism toward Angelo, bumping him at the market and doling out more commentary in confessional. On his own, Ed decides at the market to plan for a second dish; he doesn't tell any of the other chefs, or let them catch on. In the kitchen, Ed asks Angelo (who has a bin full of what's obviously not pork) if he took all the pork. Angelo asks if his lamb looks like pork, and Ed cusses back at him. Ed, who dishes it out but can't take it in return. WTF, Ed. WTF.

As the chefs toil away in the kitchen, describing their dishes, Tom stalks his way into the room like a jungle cat. He's shocked--SHOCKED--that they'd only plan on one dish each. Ed pipes up that he always planned for two. This, of course, takes everyone by surprise. Tom tells them in no uncertain terms that he thinks they really should work on two apiece. Ed, bravely, agrees. Exchange of the night: (Ed) "That was predictable, huh?" (Kevin) "Fuck you." Amen, Kevin.

Kelly slices her finger pretty well, bleeding all over the floor. She's forced to work with ill-fitting rubber gloves, which hampers her dexterity. The end of cook time is marked by a lot of hectic energy, and we the viewers are left wondering what Ed's second dish is going to be; the show never gives us more than a glimpse of Ed buying batter mix at the market. Odd.

The chefs wind down after the first night's prep with some urban prawn fishing (band name). Kevin's too skeerd to bait his own hook. Kelly assists--"I'll do your worm." (I'm thirteen.) Kevin manages to catch a prawn, and of course backs away from the task of taking it off the hook. Kelly again steps in. He's literally jumping away from the live prawn. This guy is a chef?

So, the dishes:

Angelo: Lamb tartare with rambutan ceviche and curry oil. Second dish: Spicy shrimp broth with ginger and prawn dumplings.
Kevin: Clam chowder with flavors of Southeast Asian. Second dish: 63-degree farm egg, pearl tapioca congee, radish condiment.
Kelly: Seared prawns, spicy red coconut curry, crispy prawn heads (and an unbilled but important guava-apple salad). Second dish: Chilled cucumber-yogurt soup, bitter melon salad.
Ed: Sweet and sour pork belly duo with crispy rice potato cakes and gai lan. Second dish (which we don't see until service): Banana fritters with red chili paste.

With an hour and a half to get things ready for a la minute, the chefs still haven't met their waitstaff. Kevin knows that his congee is a risk (one that impressed the hell out of me, to be honest), and that if the judges don't get his egg, he'll be going home. Ed notes that his sarcastic style is often mistaken for douchebaggery, but that with Angelo he's actually being a douchebag half the time. Great, Ed. Thanks for taking this seriously. Still, Ed takes the lead in a challenge he doesn't need, to train the waitstaff and select one to be lead expediter--this is a necessary move, and keeps what turns out to be awkward and uneven service from appearing as such to the diners. (I mean, really--a ticket apparently written in Chinese? Come on!)

Tom comes out looking a little Gene Hackman-as-Lex Luthor, and cavalierly orders for the table (as if that's necessary at this point?). The meal begins.

Dana points out the acidity of Kelly's soup. Seetoh, having been intrigued by it on the menu, praises the concept. Gail likes the subtle heat. Alternately, Dana finds Kevin's chowder "delicious," and Tom likes it both in flavor and presentation. Dana also likes Angelo's shrimp broth, both tasty and complex. Padma, too, notes the refinement of the flavors. The prawns are well-cooked.

The meat courses are next, and it's Angelo vs. Ed. Dana exposes some surprising disinterest in tartares in general, but Angelo's lamb impresses her and makes her want to eat more of it. Seetoh likes the rambutan inclusion. Tom sees the refinement of the flavors he found at the market in Ed's pork dish. Gail likes the Chinese sausage (tee hee), and Dana wants a bottomless bowl of the stuff.

The last three dishes are Kevin's congee, Kelly's prawn curry, and Ed's fritters. It looks like the judges do indeed get Kevin's egg, pointing out that it's cooked beatifully--as are the tapioca pearls. Tom acknowledges the risk and praises the result. Seetoh is thrilled by Kelly's guava salad, but Tom starts out by saying "It's a nice dish"--and then the editors step in and move to Gail's praise of its authenticity. Still, sounds lukewarm to me. What isn't lukewarm is the veritable pants-pooping over Ed's fritters. Dana's leaning in, Tom's smiling and laughing a little. The judges are dying for these things. The chefs come out for their toast and applause, but the only real question is who's going home, because Ed has this thing in the bag.

At Judges' Table, everyone feels good about the team effort, and rightfully so. Tom thinks this was the best food they've had all season, and from my perspective, I agree. Angelo's tartare gets the most praise of his two dishes; the shrimp broth was too much like a sauce than a soup, and most of the panel found it too salty and just too much. Kelly gets dinged for the rough treatment of her fish in the soup, and for a slightly timid spicy red curry. Seetoh calls her guava apple salad "brilliant," saying he's going to steal it. Ed? Everyone's smiling, laughing, and praising. Tom calls it the perfect New York street cart stoner food, apparently high praise (ahem). Kevin's dishes were both missing a little something--heat in the chowder, texture in the congee--but both earn kudos.

Seetoh tells the other judges, after the chefs are excused, "There’s only two types of food in this world: good and bad. All the rest is bullshit.” There doesn't appear to be a lot of bad food this week, which is itself good. The bullshit? All Ed's. I've bagged on Angelo's ego all season, but Ed shows himself to be a vindictive bitch in this week's episode, selling the competition a bit down the river in a quest to get over on the guy he clearly has personal issues with.

But there's no question, he nailed his food this week. It's a total non-surprise that Seetoh announces Ed as the winner. (I wonder if this season has more two-fers, Quickfire and Elimination wins in the same week, than previous seasons.) It doesn't look like Kevin's at much of a risk of elimination, which leaves Angelo's overdone broth and Kelly's unmemorable soup and incomplete curry. When you put it that way...yep. Kelly's gone.

When the chefs came back out to Judges' Table, Angelo was teary-eyed and spendt much of the build-up to Kelly's elimination fighting back tears. When she was announced as the loser, he broke down. This was, I think, the single most genuine and unguarded moment for Angelo this entire season. I don't know if he really thought he was gone, or if this just showed how much he wanted to get to the final, but I don't doubt the tears at all. I can't say I'm rooting for him, but I think his bullshit posturing might finally be over.

And then, when the chefs have said their goodbyes to Kelly, and toasted their own good fortune, Padma comes back to the Stew Room and calls them all back out. Cut.

Nice cliffhanger, but then we see that next week will feature previous champions as sous chefs and that kinda takes all the drama out of the ending. Still, with Angelo apparently falling seriously ill, we'll be in for a pretty interesting season finale.