Top Chef - Judging in a vacuum

Yes, it's Tuesday. Let's say that it took me this long to get over the results of this week's Judges' Table, and get on with the review.

Food and Wine's Dana Cowin stands in on this week's Quickfire Challenge, explaining to everyone that wine and food pairings are generally split into 10% genius, 10% awful, and a staggering 80% at varying degrees of pedestrian. The chefs get to choose a wine, with Angelo winning first pick. Tiffany admits she's got no sense for wine, while Kelly explains that her husband (who looks an awful lot like an older Angelo) does all the wine pairings at their restaurant. This challenge, which will give the winner a trip to the Park Lane Hilton in London, asks the chefs to create one dish to pair with their wine.

Kelly can't pronounce "Federalist," the name of her wine ("fetterless" is all that comes out), but she pairs it nonetheless with wild boar, blackberry conserve, and a blue cheese emulsion. Kevin has to scrap his pressure cooked pork belly due to poor time management, and has little hope for his quail standing up to the big merlot he picked. Angelo is confident in his wine pairing mojo, and chooses foie gras, cumin, basil and fennel for his white wine. Tiffany and Ed's mind meld continues; they both choose wagyu beef and risotto.

With the field this narrow, decent dishes are going to find their way to the bottom. Kevin's quail is perfectly cooked, but just as he feared, it can't stand up to the meaty red wine. Kelly's dish sounded pretty tasty to me, but Cowin says her blue cheese emulsion took it "off the chart"--apparently that's a bad thing. The top two were Angelo, whose dish walked the fine line between light and heavy, and Tiffany, whose cocoa and black pepper crusted tenderloin was elegant. But proving the point that if you can succeed with foie gras, you'll always get credit for it, Angelo takes the win and the trip to London. And hey, that's that much closer to his "fiancee." Plus, cheaper shipping rates!

To celebrate the first international final round in Top Chef history--Singapore!--the chefs head to NASA's Goddard Flight Center to get their challenge from the currently-orbiting crew of the International Space Station. The challenge: make an "out-of-this-world" dish (groan) that can be adapted to freeze-drying and preparation in orbit. (In space, no one can hear you mispronounce "tartin"...Ed.) The winning dish will be sold by Schwan's! No, kidding--though it'd be pretty similar. This one will go to the ISS on an upcoming mission.

The earthbound meal will be served to scientists and astronauts from NASA, as well as noted fame whore Buzz Aldrin, whom we sincerely thank for his service and now wish to go away for a while. Among the limitations for space food: not a lot of sugar, not a lot of big pieces, and please include a lot of spices and seasonings. With these in mind, Ed and Tiffany both go international (Moroccan and Thai-ish, respectively); Kevin sees this and immediately bristles (as he has done many times this season). Everyone's going all ethnic (his words), so he's going to do a mainstream American dish. Because fuck you, world! USA! USA!

Tom arrives for a kitchen visit--it's kind of sad that he doesn't have Amanda to completely befuddle and frighten anymore. He makes a frowny-face at Angelo's short ribs, takes note of Tiffany's momentum of late, and listens to Kevin complain about how nobody cooks 'Merican food anymore. Tiff heads to the fridge to retrieve her mussels near the end of the day, only to discover that they're dead and frozen--unusable. Sadface. She scraps them, and the chefs finish their prep and head home, where Kevin immediately starts walking around with his collar popped. There is no justice.

As the chefs prepare to head out to the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center, they find a note telling them that their ride is out front--and the winner gets to keep it. It's a black Toyota Avalon, decked out. Not a bad prize, considering the show's already given out a trip to London this week.

Kelly clarifies any confusion you might have had, telling the confessional camera that "somebody's gonna have to outcook me to send me home." Yup, that's pretty much the concept. Tiffany offers up an interesting biographical tidbit: she worked at IHOP (that's the International House of Pancakes, ahem) when she was in tenth grade, and there was a company policy that prohibited women in the kitchen. Seriously? I'd like more background on that. And Ed just does not appear to be grasping the whole "outer space" part of this challenge; he appears to be serving rack of lamb on the bone.

Alongside Buzz Aldrin are some NASA scientists, former astronauts Sandra Magnus and Leland Melvin, and Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert at the same table! Yeah! Let the high-fiving commence!

Angelo: Ginger-lacquered short ribs, horseradish crème fraîche, pickled mixed mushroom, pea purée. The diners generally seem to like it; Buzz is pleasantly surprised by the mushrooms. Tom doesn't much like the candied ginger, which he thinks is heavy-handed, but is overall positive. Eric finds the mushrooms too acidic, while Tony disagrees with his buddy "The Ripper," saying it's sophisticated and would adapt well. HIGH FIVE.

Kelly: Pan-roasted halibut, artichoke and fennel barigoule, parsley sourdough garnish. The fish is nicely cooked (that's a relief any time Ripert's judging), but there's more broth than could be reasonably frozen. One of the NASA peeps thinks the crunch of artichoke would be a nice contrast in space.

Ed: Yogurt-marinated rack of lamb, eggplant purée, couscous croquette. Ed apparently scrapped the grilled lamb satay he'd originally planned, and Eric's first comment is about the bone. Sandra Magnus notes you really can't bring a lot of trash with you into space (the space rangers will write you a ticket). Tony thinks that Ed nailed this on a Moroccan cuisine level, but Ripert remains mostly unimpressed--too much going on. Imagine if he'd stuck with the satay!

Tiffany: Pan-seared halibut, coconut curry, jasmine rice, snow pea shoots. Without the mussels, this is clearly a hobbled dish. Eric's not too thrilled about the combinations, but Tony's happy any time fish sauce is involved. That's about it.

Kevin: Grilled New York strip, bacon-jalapeño marmalade, corn purée, Vidalia onion rings. Okay, I have to hand it to him, this is a pretty all-American dish. His cooking and seasoning choices are lauded, and the sauce gets props. The onion rings, while tasty at the table, couldn't be maintained as crispy into space. Still, this dish is one of the two that sounds the most appetizing to me.

The chefs are generally morose, even as they taste each others' dishes prior to Judges' Table. All five are called out for commentary. Ed says that he tried to embrace the astronauts' advice; Tony and Eric repeat their comments, but Eric adds that he can see the talent in the dish. Tom says that a chef can get away with complexity if everything is done well, and in this case everything was done well. It was a delicious dish, with amazing presentation.

We all basically grimaced as Tiffany's name was called. She gets credit for nicely-cooked fish, but the tomatoes were extraneous and mealy. Tom notes that she left the skin on her peppers, which adds an unpleasant bitterness. Eric wanted for some acidity in the sauce, a brighter palette. Tony just wanted more fish sauce--typical. Error in polish obscured a good stab at authenticity.

The critique of Kelly's dish left little doubt that she'd be moving on to Singapore. Tom tells her that her artichokes were cooked about as well as he's ever seen them prepared. Eric asks if she's ever spent any time in Provence--she says she has, and learned a lot there. He's impressed. That said, it was an easy dish. She cooked without restraint, but with a pretty big margin of error.

Tom takes the opportunity to knock Angelo's crystallized ginger. Angelo says he tried to take a submissive role in the preparation of the dish, and that he felt like he made love to the short ribs. Tony brooks none of this giggling nonsense, telling Angelo, "I have no idea what you're talking about," but both he and Eric liked the dish. Tom can't get over the ginger, though it seems that everyone else has.

This is the face a real chef makes when
you talk about fucking your short ribs.

If Tom was irrationally against Angelo's dish, Tony busted out the food rage at Kevin's choice of sirloin for his steak. Tom would have preferred a thicker cut, but thought Kevin cooked it perfectly. The judges seem to appreciate Kevin's xenophobia-as-conciliatory cuisine, though Tony shakes his head at the safe cut of meat.

A late surprise: the winner will get to watch one of the last two shuttle launches at Cape Canaveral. That winner, who also gets a copy of Bourdain's latest book (Medium Raw), is Angelo. He retires to the Stew Room to praise Jesus and creepily stroke the key to his new car. The next person to join him in the Stew, the person who Angelo initially greets with praise because there's no other reasonable conclusion to draw, is Tiffany--and she's gone.

But it's a cold truth: in the vacuum of this specific challenge, her dish was clearly the weakest. At the Judges' Table, Kevin whispers a prayer while Ed looks shocked. Tiffany almost keeps it together, but completely breaks down for the confessional. She was easily the fan favorite at this point, and now it's down to the megalomaniac, the ice queen, the snooze, and the jerk.

Let's hope Singapore can work some wonders on at least one of these chefs, and turn the winner of this season into anything other than a big disappointment.