Top Chef Texas (-ish) - Finale

So, was it just really obvious, or am I getting good at this finally? Paul was one of my guys from the get-go, and at the top of my odds from gate to gate. Congratulations Paul Qui; you're Top Chef.

It works that maybe the quietest, meekest chef to win this competition served some a final meal of fairly soft, squishy dishes. Chawanmushi, congee, and ice cream topped with foam? Sounds pretty good, but Paul's skills with textural punctuation (puffed rice, pea shoots) were what kept his courses from being mush after unrelenting mush. The congee, noted as weakest by most of the judges, had the least dimension.

I won't slight Sarah for her output in the finale. She did a pretty solid job, with a first course that deviated startlingly from her usual milieu. Squid ink and coconut are not the usual tools in German/Italian/Chicagoan/Texan Sarah Gruenberg's toolbox. She and Paul both carried themselves really admirably in the kitchen during this challenge. For being easily the most starstruck chef I can recall ("OHMIGOD ITS ________ !!"), Sarah got her shit together and ran a tight and professional ship in Vancouver.

As far as narrative, it couldn't have been written any better than to have Tyler -- he of the toothy smarm and exceptionally poor butchering skills -- not only reappear in the finale, but be blind-selected as one of the competing chefs' teammates. He didn't, at least, appear to submarine Sarah's efforts, but how much better would her team have been with the unselected Master Chef Marco Canora? Paul seemed to really thrive thanks in part to Master Chef Barbara Lynch's presence.

Final thoughts. Smarty Paul bought those prawns when he didn't need them -- and then he needed them. (What exactly happened to that crab anyway?) It would have been great to see Nyesha competing in the finale rather than assisting. I think Paul would have really been given a run for his money with her, even as well as Sarah performed. A lot of this year's challenges were pretty mediocre. I don't think Top Chef should return to the "Last Chance Kitchen" concept, if for no other reason than because it won't carry the same surprise. (And this season's surprise was blunted by, I think, chefs who were just plain worn out by the season's rigors.)

Go forth, Paul Qui -- executive chef at one of GQ's 10 Best New Restaurants of 2011, and now Top Chef -- and bask in your new fame. And dude, don't sit anywhere between Heather and Beverly during the reunion special.

Top Chef (Texas) - Keep the hot side hot

After a first round of the finals wherein the chefs were inexplicably dropped in Vancouver (y'know, where they had the Olympics once?), chefs ran biathlon (poorly) to win ingredients for a very important dish, Beverly's luck finally ran out, and Paul and Lindsay returned at the end of the episode both wearing white like indoctrinated cultists -- after all that, we started tonight's action with our three remaining chefs twiddling their thumbs while Top Chef Masters loosened the lids on their pickle jars.

This, my friends, is a snapshot of this season.

But hey, Paul made it to the final finals like we all knew he should. You could make equally valid arguments for either [Lindsay's repeated low degrees of difficulty] or [Sarah's willingness to make a shitload of fiddly pasta] being the main reason why Sarah's moving on and Lindsay's going home.

Either way, Sarah's got her work cut out for her. In a challenge where Paul has no choice but to focus, his nattering creative monkeys are likely to be silenced. No stray arugula -- as it that could possibly have sent his dish packing this week over raw kale randomly slapped on Lindsay's halibut.

And tonight's Elimination challenge: was it giving anyone else flashbacks?

So next week is the real finale, I think. I have to hand it to Sarah; she's got more culinary chutzpah than I expected out of her. She's kind of a competition chef after my own heart, trying things on a whim when she's got zero experience with 'em. But I can tell you, you run a strong chance of flaming out with that philosophy. Paul's only got the Coco Chanel rule to remember; his kung fu is strong.

Every season, one judge says that that season's finale is the best one ever, so I don't put a lot of stock in the preview snippet from Tom Colicchio. Still, I'll be sticking it out just to see if he's not putting us all on.

Top Chef Texas - Ketchup

Let's just lay it out quick and easy.

-Grayson Schmitz has the honor of issuing the single greatest verbal takedown of Tom Colicchio. "Like a meatball?", she spat -- and won a spot in my heart forever. Sorry to see her go, and even sorrier to find that she didn't look upon her Last Chance Kitchen opportunity with much anticipation.

-Chicken salad was a terrible idea.

-Chris Jones is no Richard Blais.

-Peach is without question the ingredient of this season. Tell me otherwise.

-"Bike, Borrow and Steal" was a brutal-ass Elimination Challenge.

-I didn't mind Pee Wee. At least he wasn't pitching anything, and if you're looking for something non-obvious to tie the Alamo into the action, what's better? "In honor of the Last Stand at the Alamo, create a dish that stands up on the plate"? Come on. I'll take Pee Wee.

-I don't think Grayson had any business going home at the end of "Bike, Borrow and Steal".

-Of the five chefs that competed in the mentor challenge, I didn't particularly care for three of them -- and it's not a gender bias thing. I don't think I'm alone in wishing that it had been Grayson, Nyesha, and even Heather in that round instead of dour Lindsay, unstable Sarah, and spastic Beverly. Still, the tears and nerves and hugs were genuine this week, and that's appreciated at the tail end of a somewhat dry season. Nice to see Tony Mantuano (Wisconsin native, dontcha know), even if his mentee didn't have anything to do in the challenge.

-Packaged oysters? Oh, Edward.

Dude, have you never watched this show?
-Is there any question that Paul's going to have to give this one up for anyone but him to win?

-On January 19, I at least nailed the final five. I'm willing to accept that Beverly has another gear she can shift into -- if the sound of the transmission grinding doesn't freak her out and force a fatal error.

Paul: 3 to 1
Lindsay: 5 to 1
Beverly: 9 to 1
Sarah: 15 to 1, 14 to 1 that she develops frostbite in British Columbia and has to retire.

See you in the final round!

Top Chef Texas - War is hell, evil is great

(Heads-up: I'll be discussing the results of tonight's Last Chance Kitchen at the end of this post.)

Two weeks ago, we had the Restaurant Wars episode that for years has been the tentpole of the Top Chef season. This week, an overt media tie-in episode with a celebrity guest judge with unknown or questionable culinary bona fides -- the kind of episode we all sort of shudder at. (Hi, Rocco's frozen dinners!)

Who'd'a thunk that Restaurant Wars would be a total calamity, and the media tie-in (with Snow White and the Huntsman star Charlize Theron) would offer, from top to bottom, some of the most charismatic, adept, and truly appetizing cookery we've seen in recent seasons?

Maybe it's that, as fellow Top Chef analyst Carol Blymire noted, the show was willing to call arancini 'arancini', but settled for calling zeppole 'Italian doughnuts'. Maybe it's the "Battle of the Sexes" theme of Restaurant Week that felt just a little too Road Rules. Or maybe it's that, as I've noted before, the editing seems to be favoring the rope-a-dope strategy of the Japanese Iron Chef in portraying judges' positions one way during the meal, and wildly different during chef criticism.

(I don't know what's worse: that Team Half-Bushel, with Lindsay's vacant front-of-house work, lengthy delays, overcooked halibut from Lindsay by way of Beverly, and Sarah's lackluster Italian doughnuts, still managed to win over Team Canteen, or that Beverly's nineteenth braised short rib was good enough to overcome her deficiencies in cooking Lindsay's fish and beat Grayson's very well-received peach and bacon salad and elegant schaum torte dessert outright.)

The boys had their problems, of course. Chris Jones took the Ghost of Eli's Caramel Apple Peanut Soup to the limit with his sloppy...well, slop of Cracker Jack ice cream, cherry, and frozen peanut butter. And actually, what was with their very trademark-centric dessert courses? (Edward's "Almond Joy" looked and sounded tasty, but the insistence on going the Todd Wilbur route cheapened their efforts.)

And in the end, even though I thought Ty-Lör's dish was appealing, it had nothing to do with the vaguely mess-hall theme of the boys' restaurant; I can accept his dismissal at the end of Restaurant Wars, even though Chris Jones' flaws spoke louder to me.

But you know what it really was that made this week's episode so much more enjoyable than last? Everything. Every single thing about this week's output bested last week's efforts. I hate to say it, but that includes Beverly's departure at the end of a very hair-splitting Judges' Table. At least now Lindsay and Sarah can get over their beef with Bev (who may not be the victim the editors make her out to be, but whose treatment by the other mean girls is nonetheless unjustified) and I won't have to see them talk down to her for using a plastic spoon to plate things.

The Quickfire was fun, with the chefs having to choose at least three ingredients from a conveyor belt of escalating quality. (The gamble: wait longer, and better stuff comes out, but you have less time to cook.) It was nice to see Eric Ripert back again. Everyone always wants to impress the Ripper (remember that nickname, Beverly; it's closer than 'rip-ERT'), and I thought for sure Sarah was trying too hard. Seemed like she was waiting for-EVER at the belt, but managed to pull off a cottage cheese sauce (hurk) for her fried soft-shell crab. Also, Chris: RUN FASTER.

(Padma told Beverly she'd have won had she plated her third ingredient, curried Rice Krispies, but gave the win on technicality to Lindsay's bouillabaisse -- galling, and understandably, but I can't help but enjoy that schadenfreude. "Since we can't give it to Beverly, um....Lindsay, I guess." I had high hopes for Grayson's fun Goldfish cracker-crusted Dover sole, but alas, Ripert dismissed its heavy citrus usage.)

Then Charlize Theron walked in, and the episode kicked into high gear. She's the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Huntsman -- the Snow White movie coming this year that actually looks good, and doesn't involve GOP presidential candidates in any way -- and the theme of the challenge was to cook for a wicked queen.

Lamb hearts. Forbidden rice. Black chicken. Fried fish skin. Even a poisoned apple. I am not kidding you, I was sure up until the point where Padma said someone would be going home that they weren't going to kick anyone off. Every single plate of food brought it. Brought. It. As dish after spectacular dish came out, wife and I were worried about Grayson; she'd chosen the black chicken despite no experience with it, and it just didn't seem like her admittedly-literal approach was going to work with a finicky new protein. It did, though she still ended up at the bottom. Her dish also looked amazing.

Chris Jones' MOTOisms finally worked in his favor. Edward's dual-sauced tuna tartare was right up my alley. I really expected Sarah to bork her lamb hearts and amarone risotto, and while she was nearly eliminated, she nailed the hearts at least. Paul's plating was risky -- his beet/bacon/pumpernickel hash (for lack of a better term) clung to the edge of a very avant garde platter -- and the handprint meant to look bloody could have been gimmicky. It wasn't, and he took home another win and two tickets to the SWatH premiere.

Charlize Theron was an adept judge and a fun presence on the show -- and yes, gorgeous -- and the regulars seemed to appreciate the greatness of the meal in its proper context. The plating and flavors were both terrific. Beverly's gone, but not; I've got no animosity toward her, but this household was really rooting for Nyesha in the Last Chance Kitchen. Beverly managed to knock her off in a challenge that was maybe just a pinch too cruel.

And so, updated odds:

Paul: 4 to 1
Lindsay: 6 to 1
Edward: 9 to 1
Sarah: 20 to 1
[Last Chance Kitchen winner]: 40 to 1
Grayson: 45 to 1
Chris J.: 75 to 1

Next week, the chefs cook head to head, Cat Cora shows up to guest-judge, Chris J. may just lose his shit, and Grayson continues to be adorably blunt.

Top Chef Texas - Hot links, weak links

Super-sized episode, super-late recap. Let's just hit the highlights.

-I like both the decision to extend a barbecue-centric episode, and to preface the Elimination with a Quickfire centered on Modernist Cuisine.

-The worst thing that could have happened to Chris Jones' culinary career was getting a job at MOTO. Take away Richard Blais' foundations in Southern cuisine, and you have Chris Jones, pulling out trick after trick to impress people, but without a real understanding of what people want to eat, not just look at.

-Chris Crary's apartment. He is so The Todd.

-Beverly's little technology meltdown during the Quickfire. Cringe.

-It's kind of ridiculous how much Sarah seems to be carrying Heather's torch. Not trusting Ed because he sold out Heather's use of his cake recipe after she was gone was just petty.

-An all-night barbecue challenge that culminates in a mid-day Texas-in-the-summer service is downright cruel. I'm shocked that Sarah was the only one to poop out. Though, I wonder if Grayson even remembers telling Tom Colicchio their food would be "like sex in the mouth". Heat delirium?

-On the other hand, not even Tom could argue with the triumvirate of Texas, Kentucky, and Kansas City -- aka Sarah, Ed, and Ty-Lör. Ty would not receive vindication after his steak debacle, however.

-Glad that Ed wasn't quite the cold-hearted complainer that the promos made him out to be after Sarah had to bail.

-I didn't care for the editing of commentary at the table and then the real thoughts at Judges' Table. A little rope-a-dopey.

-What in the world was Grayson thinking with her little frog song?

No, Grayson. Just, no.
-Paul, Lindsay, and Grayson pick up the win for their Asian barbecue. I like how barbecue translates from continent to continent, so I was happy to see them take a geographic chance.

-Chris Jones continues to be lucky that someone else screws up worse than him.

Sorry again for the lateness; I was in Minneapolis for four days, eating. I assume by now you've watched "Last Chance Kitchen", and saw Nyesha move past outgoing barbecuist Chris Crary with a strong dish made of gas station food. Love that girl.

Tonight's episode, "Restaurant Wars", has finished; I'll try to get my recap out  a little sooner.

Top Chef Texas - Kindly Tom, Bigfoot, and other legendary creatures

Much like Jesus and his role in Tim Tebow's success, I feel like karma's got bigger shrimp to devein than delivering some humility upon Heather for her shitty treatment of Beverly.

But boy, that did feel good, seeing Heather brought low for stringy, greasy mystery meat and not doing the smart thing that Beverly did.

I know I put Heather at 5-1 odds to win last week, and I wasn't fading you all. I think she could have won the whole thing, but her flaws (giant ego, constant desire to get over on a perceived opponent) were definitely going to get her in trouble. This first episode set in Austin wasn't nearly as boring (not Ty-Lör) as I thought it'd be after all.

Beverly could do it.
The Elimination Challenge was finale-grade serious: cook a dish inspired by the person who inspired you to cook. The reason this kind of challenge is normally saved for the finale was elucidated by Tom Colicchio at Judges' Table; no one here wants to send a chef home for a dish with this much heart at its core. It was a thoughtful and kind moment from Tom, a week after he was as incisively critical as I've ever seen him.

Of course, he did mention to Heather that if she'd really wanted to tenderize the ribeye for her beef stroganoff, she could have used a pressure cooker like Beverly did. And the Last Chance Kitchen segment broke with the template and showed a montage of all of Heather's worst bullying moments. It was kind of awesome.

(As soon as Heather lost, my first comment to my wife was that I couldn't wait to see Nyesha crush her like an empty can of soda.)

The Quickfire Challenge was a bit of a throwaway; Twitter users who had no idea who was at the kitchen end of the conversation were tasked with offering suggestions for what ingredients to use, how to cook them, and what twist to throw in. One takeaway from the Quickfire: had any of you non-chef readers heard of hon shimeji mushrooms before this season of Top Chef? They've appeared in at least four dishes so far.

(Okay, Sarah's burrata-stuffed squash blossom was pretty appealing, and Paul's assemblage of blackberries, bacon, clams, and chorizo was at the very least striking and avant garde; he ended up with his second QF win of the season.)

Where the Quickfire was doomed to produce some Frankensteinian creations of minimal culinary worth, the Elimination was all soul--and not just because guest judge Patti LaBelle said so. Paul's adobo quail and Ty-Lör's duck fat-fried chicken tender a la Japanese nanny were both good enough to be in the top three, but fell just short. That's how good the top half of the competition was this week.

Edward's poor childhood resulted in a meatless bibimbap that you just hoped would be appreciated by the judges (it was); Beverly pressure-cooked beef short ribs (her second pressure-cooking of the evening) and turned them into a classy interpretation of classic mom food. But it was Sarah, who seemed to be on an emotional mission from the opening bell, who made pork sausage-stuffed cabbage not only tasty, but good enough to stand out visually opposite the bright colors and flavors of Paul's dish during service.

Grayson's giant and nasty steak didn't do right by Wisconsin, and Chris Crary's spoogy filet of salmon was almost bad enough to be worse than Heather's mess (that Patti called "Bigfoot" for its unidentifiability). I'm thinking it's a blip for Chris, but Grayson's been on the bottom two weeks in a row; that's not a good streak. Lindsay, meanwhile, toils in obscurity, which could be just the trick to last into the final five or six this season.

And in the secret fight club basement, looking cute and cooking smart, is Nyesha, whose work was never so bad on its own to merit dismissal. I've got a feeling about that girl.

Next week, Grayson finds out how meats really get grilled (at The Salt Lick, which I'm frankly proud to say I recognized by its pit alone), Sarah needs oxygen, and Heather's still gone! So it can't be that bad of an episode.

Top Chef Texas - Don't hate the player...

Heather has heard that you might have opinions of
your own; she's got a better, more rustic idea.
Remember how Heather was kind of butthole last week? Yeah. Good times.

This week was Heather's ego going critical mass. And I'm frankly kind of pissed, because this episode should have hit my sweet spot. A Quickfire featuring food/booze pairings (tequila, specifically), and an Elimination of game meat cookery? Sign me up.

But noooo, instead I've got to witness Heather bossing Beverly around -- because you know they just happened to get paired up for the Elimination Challenge. And of course this was a double elimination episode, and one where there was no real sure-thing team and all of our favorites were paired with someone who could bring them down.

It was a good episode for one fella, though: the umlauted one, Ty-Lör. His confidence with tequila (he's been to Jalisco!) resulted in a Thai-style clam dish with Don Julio 1942 that took home the $5,000 Quickfire win. Beverly's cold-smoked oysters outdid Heather's popcorn shrimp, as they should. Grayson stepped up with her Wisconsin roots, repping beer instead of tequila; her sesame-crusted cod still sounded decent.

The Elimination pairings were announced as essentially random (the person next to you is your partner), and each team had to prepare a game meat for a renowned chef at guest judge Tim Love's restaurant. Our chefs would be the judges, though. They were tasked with selecting the bottom three teams to face elimination, with both members of the losing team leaving.

By the time we got to that selection process, we'd seen a number of chefs comment on Heather's shitty 'tude, and the camera lingered for a not-brief moment on Edward as Heather railed on Beverly to make sure the dish didn't end up "too Asian". I feel like that's a dangerous direction to go, tiptoeing around accusing Heather of even a little bit of racism. But clearly she's getting on everyone's nerves, and I could see it going in any number of directions.

We also saw Chris Jones come up with another ridiculous MOTO-style concept before the recipe's finalized -- this one some sort of sweet potato chain that I still don't entirely understand -- that ended up failing miserably and tanking the elk dish he and Grayson put together. He's on thin ice in this competition.

But worst is Dakota, who fussed over her venison rack and ended up putting Nyesha's butt on the line for a seriously underdone chop. They were almost spared by Heather's bizarre ego meltdown at Judges' Table, wherein she brought up last week's challenge and her opinion of Beverly's shrimp processing skills, overall work ethic, and sense of self-esteem. It was skin-crawlingly awful, and I don't see how Heather's behavior could possibly be explained away by Bravo editing.

If it wasn't for the nearly-raw venison, Dakota and Nyesha could have won this week's challenge, I'm sure of it. Instead, because this was ultimately a game challenge, they're the odd team out this week. Of course, there's always that Last Chance Kitchen...

With ten chefs remaining in the active competition, and one more in the basement Top Chef fight club, I'm still going with Paul as my overall favorite. Chris Crary is coming on, and Ty-Lör (who took the Elimination win with Edward for their quail with pickled cherries and eggplant) seems to have his confidence back. Sarah is faltering, and Chris Jones has no consistency.

So here they are: my first odds picks for the winner of Top Chef 9.

Paul (4-1)
Heather (5-1)
Edward (8-1)
Lindsay (15-1)
Ty-Lör (17-1)
Chris C. (19-1)
Grayson (20-1)
[Last Chance Kitchen winner] (30-1)
Sarah (35-1)
Beverly (50-1)
Chris J. (60-1)

Next week, the show heads to Austin. Patti LaBelle does some singing, and Emeril's back. Let's see if the lack of sizzle in the preview means that it's a boring episode. I'm betting yes.

Top Chef Texas - Burned at the [insert pun on steak]

God is watching: how many of you heard Chris Crary talk about how other chefs don't use roux for their mother sauces because they're too old-school -- and didn't roll your eyes? I better not see any hands, because that dude is a self-aggrandizing nut.

And then the judges come around at the end of the "riff on a mother sauce" Quickfire Challenge, and two chefs reply to the creepy-looking guest judge that they didn't use a roux for their sauce, and how in the name of god is it possible that Chris was right?

There were a couple "...holy cow" moments in this most recent Top Chef, in which the chefs had to first draw knives in the mother sauce challenge, and then group up to serve a boatload of steaks to a bunch of Texans at the Cattle Baron's Ball. No pressure there.

One such moment would be how much of a jerk Heather appears to be in the broadcast edit. She's busting Beverly down at pretty much every opportunity. She and Lindsay are turning into the villains of this season in a hurry; Lindsay sold Ty-Lör (cooking injured) down the river by blasting the steaks he'd par-grilled far too early, and she skated while he got put up for elimination at Judges' Table.

So I'm kind of rooting for Beverly now, what with the potential shitty treatment by the producers pre-shooting, and the crap she's getting from Heather for not going fast enough on 400 whole shrimp. (Those shrimp, by the way, were praised by the judges.) The fact that Heather ended up getting the win -- and a new car -- over Nyesha and Chris Jones by using Edward's cake recipe again only makes her superior attitude more galling.

(That peach cake with mascarpone and pecan streusel did look mighty tasty.)

The other "holy cow" moment was how brutal Tom Colicchio was with the chefs at the bottom during his final commentary. Whitney's gratin was sloppy and not up to Top Chef standards;  Edward's asparagus salad was too simple and boring, and Ty-Lör got dinged for Lindsay's steak mistreatment. But Tom wasn't in a charitable mood.

"We chose sixteen chefs, and quite frankly I'm starting to think maybe I chose the wrong chefs. Usually it's really difficult to send someone home, but tonight, you really made it easy."

And with that, Whitney is sent out in the most gutting, blunt elimination I think I've seen in all of my seasons of Top Chef watching. Which makes her win in the Last Chance Kitchen all the more surprising. You did watch that, right? I really hope someone sticks around long enough down there to at least generate some momentum that justifies their eventual inclusion in the finale.

Tonight, more Heather-on-Beverly bullying, Heather-on-Grayson bitchiness, and a double elimination. Can Heather go home twice?

Top Chef Texas - Too rich for my blood

Here's the problem: this was a pretty cruddy episode. Added to that is the fact that I've been pretty busy this last week, and you've got a late recap for events that I can barely force myself to remember. How awful were those "dinner party" scenes? How much did you empathize with Tom Colicchio? And how nasty does a cheese-stuffed salmon fillet sound? Come on, Chuy!

I don't watch the Real Housewives shows, not even ironically. They're horrendous, made worse knowing that even when the cameras and production trappings and sweeps schedules are stripped away, these people are probably still not very good people. Certainly not a crowd I'd willingly lower myself into. So this episode, with its vapid caricatures of Texas power couples, just made my brain shut down a little.

The juxtaposition of an Elimination round that catered (literally) to the Texas upper class with a Quickfire that had the chefs cooking with the meager fare and hardware of a survival pack could have been handled with some winking social commentary. Could have. It wasn't. Instead, we got the ewwws and yukks and "boy I ain't never seen this" of a Saltine/tuna/sardine sandwich standing in a pool of french onion soup with Vienna sausage chunks--like a stack of boxes you want to stay dry in a flooded basement. Congratulations (or something), Lindsay.

John Besh as a guest judge is okay, I guess. He strikes me as a slightly more down-to-earth, though no less toothy version of Bobby Flay: a golem of a chef, brought to shambling life solely for food television's sake.

The Chrisses got off really lucky this week. Chris Jones proved that not just any chef can throw MOTO technique and aesthetic out there and succeed; his "cigars" proved that really no one should ever make anything described as a cigar on Top Chef. (...Howie.) Meanwhile, Horny Chris Crary, when not cooing over the handsome John Besh, served up a ridiculous melange of various sweet things around a sweaty-looking cupcake. 

My boy Paul Qui took home the win for fried Brussels sprouts with prosciutto; it's his second time at the top. Dakota served, with zero confidence, a tasty-looking and crowd-pleasing banana bread pudding; her dessert chops will either typecast her with the other chefs (her fear), or keep her around longer into the competition.

Look for Ty-Lör (RULER OF OMICRON PERSEI 8!) to either shape up or ship out; he's been scraping the bottom since the start of the real competition. The two Chrisses won't be far behind. Or ahead. And...if you've been keeping up with "Last Chance Kitchen", you know that big Keith finally ran out of steam and lost the secret chef's coat to newly-dismissed Chuy.

So, yeah. That was the rich folks episode. Coming up tonight, more blood, more big Texan meat, and from the looks of it, more beating up on Beverly. Stay tuned!

Top Chef Texas - The delicious sound of chili being poured from a height

What did we learn in the pre-Thanksgiving episode of Top Chef? Well, we learned that Mary Sue Milliken would make a great recurring guest judge. We learned that Susan Feniger likes acid--probably not a surprise. We learned that Beverly is a total nut.

I'll tell you what I wanted to learn, but never did: whose breast milk is in the Top Chef House's fridge?? Seriously: did anyone else catch that, off-camera, when all the chefs were running in to start cooking their pots of chili? "Nobody touch my breast milk!"

Hey, maybe breast milk is the best relief for the burning heat of chili peppers (the star ingredient of this week's Quickfire). Maybe someone is lactating--my bets for most hormonal are Chris Crary, who appears to have a boner for anything that walks by; Beverly, who probably would cry if someone spilled her breast milk; or Richie (see previous).

Richie made an inoffensive Quickfire dish of scallops, and an apparently-delish cornbread side for the Elimination challenge, and then made a fine looking Frito-breaded pork dish for the "second chance to save your season" portion of the Elimination round--and still got sent packing. He wept. A lot. Into the bosom of his MOTO buddy Chris. It was a little awkward, especially with Richie's shuffling, looks-like-he's-got-to-poop gait.

This week's Quickfire was fun: prepare a dish highlighting one chili pepper, choosing from the selection in the kitchen. From anaheim to ghost, they covered a wide range of Scoville ratings. In addition, the hotter the pepper, the higher the cash reward for the winner. A nice concept, and the gamble paid off for one of my horses (Paul Qui of Austin, who was the only chef to use the ghost chili).

The Elimination challenge had the chefs teaming up in threes to cook a pot of chili for the Tejas Rodeo. This was hard for us Sconnies to watch, particularly my wife; we're Midwesterners, and not only do we like beans in our chili, but noodles as well. Elbow macaroni. If you're my wife, you like them as an independent bottom layer under the chili, a la Cincinnati style. In Texas, we'd be run out of town on a rail for that.

(That the White Team of Ty-Lör, Lindsay, and Grayson made a three-bean chili and managed to survive the rodeo, is a mystery to me.)

Blue Team (Heather, Paul, and Edward) made a winning pot of chili in my estimation--the pickled peaches sounded great and it was disappointing that Tom's Tom-ness in the kitchen took Heather off her game. But Green Team (Chuy, Sarah-who-is-from-Texas-by-the-way, and Chris aka The Todd) took the collective win.

It was another week with no individual winner; this--combined with the relative cruelty of making the losing team cannibalize their leftovers to salvage their competitive lives that the judges themselves acknowledged--makes this very loss-heavy season a bit hard to manage. The "Last Chance Kitchen" is maybe the counterbalance to all the dismissal-happiness, but it still represents another kick to the teeth of a chef who's been eliminated at least once already.

And speaking of "elimination", who loves to hear chili being poured from one vessel into another one a foot below it? Anyone? Yum!

Next week, Dallas. No, really, it looks like they're visiting the TV show Dallas. Timely!

EDIT: From an anonymous commenter (so take it for what it's worth) at The AV Club's recap of this episode:
I spoke to Beverly's sister, who happens to run the San Diego Asian Film Foundation. She says that Beverly had a new baby, still in the breast-feeding phase, when she got the call from Top Chef to get on a plane within 24 hours. Apparently this batch of chefs weren't allowed to contact their families during the filming, so she was an emotional wreck.
If that's the case, the Top Chef producers should be a little ashamed for leaving so much crying and breakdown in the final edits. It's cheap and exploitative.

Top Chef Texas - Goat rodeo

Well, I sure put the whammy on Keith, didn't I? Pre-cooked shrimp and pre-made tortillas? To say nothing of being the wrong kind of tortilla? I'd say something about prison food, but dude had to have earned his James Beard attention for something other than nutraloaf.

(I'll give you time to look that up.) (Also, do check out the second Last Chance Kitchen.)

I thought the Quickfire was cute, making all the squeamish chefs think they were not only going to have to dispatch a live rattlesnake, but coax it out of a friggin' mailbox. It was good to see the guest judge stick to his guns, giving the three simplest preparations of rattler the top spots. Dakota Weiss BS'd her "when I think of rattlesnake, I think of beer" line into a victory, but I would have picked weepy Beverly Kim's rattlesnake nigiri.

This season is clearly not going to be about outsized personalities; there are some real bummers in this cast. Chuy "Official Mexican Palate" Valencia, Paul "The Lone Lone Star" Qui, and Heather "Does Anyone Have a Mallet for This Cake" Terhune struck me as having good temperaments for the competition and all of its oddities.

It was nice to see the show return to elevated Mexican food; it seems like the last time we had this kind of challenge was Season 4, when Erik expressed doubts of Mexican cuisine's upper limits. Fortunately, everyone played nice for young Blanca's quinceanera. Beverly was clearly working through some personal issues, serving Mexican-by-way-of-Korean food, and totally losing her shit over the daddy-daughter dance.

Chuy cranked out two fine-lookin' dishes: a pasilla-balsamic BBQ rattlesnake, and braised goat birria just like abuelito used to make. MOTO's Chris Jones (total nerd, by the way, and not the cool kind--the Star Wars-quoting kind) impressed with a cumin-breaded rattlesnake in a Jackson Pollock presentation, and a really appealing mushroom empanada.

The Team With the Mexican took the win, though no single chef was credited with the grand prize. But then, being given a pass from standing at a really whiny, blame-gamey Judges' Table--way too petulant for the first real week of competition--was reward enough.

Sarah Grueneberg and Lindsay Autry botched the cochinita pibil that Blanca requested, and used store-bought tortillas to boot. Sarah gave up Keith Rhodes' shrimp screw-up (which would have otherwise been invisible since Lindsay never served them), and Keith had to own up to it with the judges. Ty-Lör Boring served a bad fritter, but his carne asada ensured that he was never in danger of elimination; his umlaut stayed in place.

At the end of deliberation, Keith was sent packing for a mushy, unrefined enchilada that didn't live up to regional standards of construction anyway. His poor judgment on the shrimp was probably what spared Lindsay the axe. Ah, but then the Last Chance Kitchen... I'll say that it's definitely the right choice to not tell the chefs about it until after they've been cut.

This week we got the clowns; next week the real rodeo--and more tears from Beverly!

Top Chef Texas - Deep cuts

So now we have our familiar 16 chefs; it only took us two weeks to get there. Anyone else think we're going to see more double-eliminations than usual this season? (This "Last Chance Kitchen" online shadow competition seems interesting, but are they hiding the surviving chef away from the rest of the contestants? How did it work in the real world of filming?)

It seemed like there was a little more focus on the food this week, or else last week's food was really that underwhelming. I liked a lot of the big flavors at play, even if not all of them made it through. The seared trout with Asian tomato salad from Paul, Edward's duck chawanmushi, and Beverly's octopus nakji bokum all speak to some strong Asian dishes to come. (The eliminated short rib and oxtail were victims primarily of the cooking technique rather than their Asian flavors.)

This was the gut-punch round, though. Only four chefs were eliminated in the first and second rounds combined; today, five of ten competing chefs were eliminated before the bubble round even started. Another four were booted in that bubble round, including the 51-year old Laurent. I could almost hear Colicchio thinking, There's only enough room for one bald-headed, soul-patched chef in the Top Chef Kitchen, and it ain't you, Laurent.

Lots of references to the old ball and chain back home--or in Janine's case, the heartless bitch who dumped her over the phone after a commitment ceremony that fell short of a Shakespearean sonnet. And actually, everyone who focused on their significant others this week got booted: Janine, Chaz (whose 40-minute risotto never made the plate), and Ashley (wife of a Filipino man whose mother will have some disapproving comments over the strength of her oxtail kare-kare).

Happy to see Wisconsin-born Greyson make the cut in the bubble round--even if she never mentions her New Holstein roots on-screen. (They're right there on the Bravo website, Greyson. Just embrace 'em!) Beverly seems fun, and Lindsay reminds me just a little of another Lindsay I know; she also appeared to really impress Tom with her braised veal.

So at the end of these preliminary rounds, we can draw a couple conclusions. Seattle is down (0-for-4, Chicago is up (6-for-6). Gender is split 50/50, and everyone's under 40--though, in fairness, only Oldy McOlderson Laurent was over 50. Paul Qui all by himself carries the home state's flag going into the real competition, unless Andrew brings his A-game to the D-league of the Last Chance Kitchen.

And Edward, in slicing up his hand but good, proves that every single chef is tougher and more dedicated than Jamie Lauren. (Sorry Jamie, but we shoot straight here in Texas.)

Looks like a good crew this season, and if Hugh Acheson can get over his verbal affectations the judges should do well, too. Me? I'm reeling from the previews, just waiting to see Padma say "motherfucking snakes on these motherfucking plates" again.

Top Chef Texas - Pack your speech quirks and go

Howdy, Top Chef fans! I bet you didn't see this coming; frankly, neither did I. Let's make some blog magic happen.

Things are going to run a little differently than they did in seasons past. I'm not taking notes, so this will be more analysis than recap. Call it a spoon-drag of consciousness approach. And anyway, there's no way in hell I'm going to try to keep up with the bios of all twenty-nine preliminary contestants.

Many of these early hopefuls were pretty obnoxious, and the knobbiest of those range knobs was shown the sad side of the glass doors exiting the Top Chef Kitchen: Tyler Stone, toothful braggart who would have been subject to numerous Justin Bieber jokes from me had he advanced. (Let's see how long chin-wobbling Edward Kim and Janine Falvo's clenched jaw survive in the Stew Bubble.)

As a Seattle fan, I'm bummed that 75% of that city's chefs were dispatched. Especially Nina Vicente, who had the worst case of timer blinders ever, leaving the rabbit off of the plate in her rabbit challenge. My two early favorites--or at least the chefs I'm rooting for--are Nyesha Arrington, whose resume is impressive; and Keith Rhodes, who turned a prison education in cooking into a successful career as a chef.

Of the rest, I have mixed emotions. Two MOTO chefs are among the official 16; Chris Jones has an odd attitude, and Richie Farina walks like he has to poop. But I dig MOTO's head honcho, Homaro Cantu, so I'm hopeful that these guys can pull off some intriguing plates. Chris Crary is shaping up to be this year's Angelo, though I find it unlikely that Crary will grow on me in any way.

I am fervently hopeful that Ty-Lör Boring sticks around, because I want to see if that ridiculous umlaut wanders around onto other letters in his name, like Richard Lewis' mole in Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

But this is a show that's at least 50% about food. I thought Dakota Weiss (a chocolate/vinegar combo?) and Ty-Lör (who, seriously, looks like he should be bare-knuckle boxing with John L. Sullivan, and it was a fish-sauced rabbit that raised my eyebrow) did way too much monkeying with their food, and yet the judges loved both plates. Both my wife and I are dubious of Emeril's ability to be a stern judge, but I'm looking forward to Hugh Acheson's critical debut. Should be fun. [Edit: I'm told he was a guest judge on Season 2 of Top Chef: Just Desserts, but I wouldn't know, because I've steered totally clear of that hot mess.]

I liked Keith's trio of rabbit preparations, both for how appealing it sounded and how challenging it must have been. Molly Brandt (fighting the preconceptions about cruise ship cuisine) seemed to be a real sourpuss early, but Tom's cold-blooded axing of Tyler and his butchery of butchery scared her into a more circumspect mood. I wished she'd made the pork cheeks more prominent; everyone loves a prominent pork cheek. (Don't think it's just me.)

This episode ended with the final one-third left to cook, plus the bubble round to fill out the official 16. With 11 already slotted, that leaves (by my estimation) four chefs from the last group and one from the bubble chefs yet to move on.

Reserving final judgment on this season's cast until then, I bid you adios until next week. Here's hoping for a strong season!

This space NOT intentionally left blank

I just turned 33; it was no big deal. But mileposts are mileposts, and this one is as good as any to use as instigation to refresh my commitment to this blog. So I'm going to do my best, marshal my thoughts, and try to produce something worthwhile here again.
If you happen to follow me on Twitter--and also follow Wyndham Manning--you were treated to a far-too-long-for-the-medium conversation on Madison's bedeviled Overture Center for the Arts, the general arts scene in Madison, and how city government plays a role in fostering the growth of that scene. We ended the conversation with a friendly gauntlet-slap to produce a blog post on the subject in the near future. You'll find mine here; I have yet to determine where Wyndham does his blogging, but I'll be sure to give you a link once I do.
I'm sorry to say my time as a Top Chef recapper has probably come to a close. Not to say that I won't post thoughts on the empire as they come to me, but full recaps are a thing of the past, I suspect. It's just not an expenditure of time I can still support. But I'll see you all again soon, with something scintillating and fresh.
Or, just something. One or the other.

Top Chef All-Stars - The pre-finale breakdown

Poor Richard. He flamed out so hard in his first finale, and his attitude was so frank and contrite; did the "I fucked up, and can do nothing right" complex start then? And then the one criticism he receives in the first Bahamas episode (occasionally undercooked lobster), he doesn't believe?

Dude, are you trying to scare me off of my odds-on pick for you to win it all? Because this has all the makings of another spectacular crash-and-burn.

Regardless: I nailed the final three with my last revision of the betting lines. I'll admit, though: I didn't see Mike Isabella's ascendency coming. No way, no how. Whether he's got the judges bamboozled, or he's in Richard's head, or he's just on, dude is a serious threat to puncture my predictive balloon in the next two weeks.

And what to make of Antonia, once again becoming the Black Hammer? Her defense of straightforward cookery in last week's episode was honest, fair, and convincing. But is there a good enough justification to propel her past the developed flavors that Isabella's bringing lately? Or the creativity and daring of Richard Blais? Personally, I doubt it. But she's capable, I won't take that away from her.

The promo for this week's episode reveals some confusing drama; I honestly don't know what to expect. This season has, almost without fail, lived up to its promise. I hope the last two weeks continue to deliver. Or at least show more of Padma's model-walk in a bikini and sarong.

Top Chef All-Stars - A few thoughts

So, Dale! He always looks so sad when he's sad. And honestly: who saw Antonia and Tiffany in the final five?

The last odds revision I posted looked like this (eliminated chefs in italics):

Fabio - 50:1
Marcel - 30:1
Tiffany - 25:1
Tre - 25:1
Isabella - 23:1
Antonia - 12:1
Dale - 9:1
Carla - 6:1
Angelo - 4:1
Richard - 4:1

Well, okay. My powers of prognostication look a little better with the original lines.

Jamie - 100:1
Fabio - 50:1
Tiffani - 35:1
Casey - 32:1
Isabella - 30:1
Tiffany - 25:1
Tre - 20:1
Spike - 15:1
Antonia - 11:1
Little Dale - 10:1
Carla - 7:1
Marcel - 5:1
Angelo - 4:1
Richard - 3:1

My attention is stretched over bigger and thornier issues than Top Chef right now, but here we go. The final betting lines.

Tiffany - 50:1
Carla - 12:1
Isabella - 6:1
Antonia - 4:1
Richard - 3:2

Also, shrimp fried in grits was literally the first thing I thought during the Quickfire last night. I'm not sure that I'd hang my hat on blowing Paula Deen away if I was Mike. ....fried butter. Come on.


So, yeah. Love all you guys who come here for the food, but this blog started out political, and now the food is taking a back seat to political once again.

If you haven't been watching any other TV than Top Chef, you're missing a truly amazing event in Wisconsin. Workers public and private, union and non-union, adults and students, have been taking to the streets and the halls of the Capitol to protest the governor's proposed union-busting legislation.

I've been there in part for the past three days. I still haven't watched this week's Top Chef. I know I still haven't published last week's recap (Fabio bites it! Richard boosts someone else into the winner's circle!). I honestly don't know when I'm going to get back to recapping, and I'm not planning on recruiting any guest-bloggers because all my friends are as engaged with the rallies as I am.

So please--take a look at the news coverage of this event on MSNBC and BBC News. (You could see my flashlight in the crowd on The Ed Show last night!) When the time comes that I can return to food blogging, I will. Feel free to check out my latest review for Isthmus, on the new Great Dane Pub location; it'll be linked up to the right later today.


Top Chef All-Stars - The Italian food of Top Chef episodes

Strip away all pretense. Remove extraneous ingredients. Simplify preparation.

Italian food, or this episode of Top Chef?

I'm a week overdue, so this is going to be extremely brief. Just basic thoughts. The Quickfire Challenge, one without any tasting and based solely on plating and presentation, was an interesting one but standing in stark contrast to the Elimination Challenge--cook a great Italian dish for a bunch of guys with questionable mob ties.

(Yes, this place really does have a lot to do with organized crime. Recently, in fact.)

Richard totally got the Quickfire's challenge: get outside the normal mode of thought and stop thinking about flavor. I thought his dish was by far the best, and deserving of the win. Dale was inspired by graffiti? Austin Scarlett did it first! Carla's was nice, but not particularly inspiring. How Fabio's hot mess ever made it into Isaak Mizrahi's good graces is beyond me. And dude, by the way, can that bitch cut.

The Rao's crew--Frankie No, Jimmy Wingnuts and Stereotype Jones, or something--dined on the products of the Elimination Challenge with Lorraine Bracco, perhaps most well known for her role in The Sopranos. The chefs were split into the three typical courses of an Italian meal: antipasti, primi, and secondi.

Three Italians in the crop of chefs (Isabella, Antonia, No! Fabio.) dominated the conversations in their respective kibbutzes. Isabella wanted to try fresh rigatoni, and even Dale took a shot at fresh pasta. Tre decided that risotto was the way to go, but Antonia gave his efforts the stink eye.

It's hard to look back and say what looked good and what looked either bad or unambitious, since these dishes are ideally fairly simple. Antonia's mussels would have been a snooze in most challenges, but in this one it got her in the top group. Same with Carla's minestrone. Richard's panko-breaded pancetta cutlet blew the table away, but he got overlooked--because he had immunity?

Indeed, Antonia's mussels with fennel and a parsley ciabatta was so gloriously elegant that it took the big prize. The bottom group was the entire primi course: Tre, Dale, and Isabella. Dale didn't incorporate all of his otherwise deliciously promising components. Tre's risotto was undercooked and overwhelmed by huge chunks of vegetables laid over the top. And poor Isabella, who was told that using dry pasta wasn't a sin, soldiered ahead with his fresh pasta and undercooked it woefully. Lucky for him, Tre's risotto was worse; Isabella stays, Tre goes.

Tony couldn't believe Tre had never eaten a good risotto; my first thought was back to Stephen and Tre, dining at Marea in the third episode of the season. Tre refuses Stephen's good natured but pedantic insistence on trying the sea urchin, saying "my palate is my own" to the confessional. That kind of bullish self-assurance couldn't have served Tre very well this week.

So that's about it. Next week (I like to call it "tonight") we'll have to tolerate Jimmy Fallon mugging to the camera for the latter half of the episode. I hope we all make it through without breaking anything.

Top Chef All-Stars - "When you kill it, you have respect for it"

Well, that was an unusual episode. No Quickfire to get the blood pumping. Just an early alarm clock. The chefs all want to hit snooze, and I think by the end most of the viewers did, too.
But let's backtrack for a moment. In the post-Judges' Table Stew Room, Antonia takes a pretty thinly-veiled shot at Jamie, saying that Casey attacked the challenge, and didn't want to just do a dumpling. Jamie, seemingly oblivious to the shot, just says "yeah." Marcel also takes a little bite out of Dale for what he perceives as Dale slow-pedaling his plating during service last week. On the rooftop of the TC apartment, the biting continues--as Marcel bites a little bit of Dale's hip-hop throwdown style all up in Dale's grill. Dale's been taking anger management classes, but that doesn't keep him from calling Marcel a little bitch to the confessional camera. I wonder: Marcel kinda seemed drunk. True or false?
There's no Padma in the kitchen the following morning. Just a sign that reads "GONE FISHIN'" and a map to Montauk. The chefs hop into their vehicles of unknown make or model and meet Padma and Tom looking all verdant and happy at the foot of a lighthouse. The chefs will be shopping for their proteins the old-fashioned way: grab a net and pole.
In lieu of the usual Quickfire, the chefs will spend 5 hours divided up onto two fishing boats, catching as much fish as they can to use for the Elimination Challenge. Anyway, immunizing someone from elimination this week would complicate Judges Table too much, considering this will be another double elimination episode.
The chefs are split into four teams of three (Dale/Carla/Tre, Tiffani/Jamie/Antonia, Angelo/Isabella/Tiffany, and Fabio/Marcel/Richard). Fabio and Dale both have fishing experience passed down from their fathers, so you know they'll be pumped. The first two teams above (1 and 3, respectively) are raking in the fish on their boat. Dale lands a massive striped bass that's about 2/3 his length. Teams 2 and 4 (the other two teams above, respectively) take a lot longer to start their luck, but eventually get some decent feesh.
The Team 1/3 Boat has a particularly masturbatory method for reeling in the big ones, which leads to some yuk-yuk humor from Mr. Yuk-Yuk, Isabella. Once the fishing is over, Team 4 starts menu planning right on the boat. Richard is trying to appease Marcel by giving him the credit for deciding to do a single dish. Fabio thinks his team will be engaging in some "syholohical warfare," whatever that is.
After the boats, the farmers' market. Antonia points out how buddy/buddy Fabio and Richard are becoming ("They're like the odd couple. It's like, the professor and...the strange Italian immigrant."), there's some really classic comedy going on between Angelo and Isabella. Angelo insists on spicy peppers. Isabella says they are, he tasted them. Angelo says, "No, spicy spicy." Isabella says, "Come here and taste this. Just a small piece." Angelo does, and proceeds to start coughing and watering at the eyes.
Angelo asks, "Why did you do that to me?"
After a beat, Isabella replies in a perfectly matter-of-fact tone, "Because you didn't trust me."
I actually watched it a couple times, literally LOLing.
Beachside preparation begins, with a charming montage of Jamie complaining about everything under the sun--and actually, the sun too, now that I think about it. Lovely. Tiffani's trying to keep competitive distance from her. Carla's just trying to wrangle the fishy, nasty blood line out of her blue fish, a specimen she's not particularly crazy about.
Richard's starting to worry about the one-dish approach, thinking two might have been better. Fabio probably would have been fine with that, as he's been relegated to knife boy--taking orders from Richard and Marcel (mostly Richard), and not really contributing to the creative process. Tiffany's under pressure, knowing she works in a seafood restaurant and can't imaging the heat she'd get for fucking up.
Tom comes in and of course starts to undermine the confidence of Team 4 for their single dish, Team 1 for Dale's market-bought tortillas, and Team 3 for Tiffani's general thoughts on proper usage for blue fish (often known as a trashy fish in food circles). Only Team 2 stands up to Tom's presence, pumping the value of fresh fish and a good market. That could also be the nigh-insurmountable egos of Angelo and Isabella keeping their confidence high, but who knows. (Another great exchange between Angelo and Isabella: Angelo says to Isabella, "You remind me of someone I fired once.")
As the diners enter the arena, the judges are introduced; once again, no Bourdain. Instead, Tom introduces his fishing buddy, chef Kerry Heffernan of South Gate Restaurant, who knows more about fish than anyone Tom knows. I wonder how Eric Ripert feels about this.
Team 1
Fish taco with striped bass, corn and avocado relish, crème fraiche, radishes, and cabbage (Dale). Nice fish, good texture. Smoked blue fish lettuce wrap, pickled watermelon rind, radishes, bagel croutons (Carla). Well-smoked, nice accents of dill, and the pumpernickel bagel provides a good side flavor as well. It's a play on bagels and smoked fish in a typical New York deli; smart move, Carla. Striped sea bass with gazpacho salad, tomato and avocado (Tre). The fish is cooked well, and it's a ballsy move to saute in this kind of environment.
Team 2
Angelo, Isabella, and Tiffany plate two dishes, both collaborative. Pickled blue fish, spicy watermelon, shallots, red chillies, confit potato and dill. The pickling seems to take the judges by surprise, in a good way. The potatoes and herbs are well-received. Also, striped bass with corn purée, tomato, aleppo spice rub and watermelon. A lot of competing flavors, but cooked well. Hard to read from here whether the judges liked it or not.
Team 3
Striped bass, watermelon salad with fresh dill, shaved radishes, cucumber water (Jamie). The fish is bland. The cucumber water would be nice in another setting, but here is redundant and too watery (if you can imagine that; only Jamie could make water too watery). Smoked blue fish with tomato, roasted corn and zucchini ribbon salad (Tiffani). It's a little crude, lacking in both elegance and acidity. Open faced porgy po'boy with Old Bay mayo and cabbage slaw (Antonia). This porgy is best (see what I did there) among this team's dishes, pleasing both the average diners and the judges. The judges are impressed that Antonia took such a lackluster fish and made it great.
Team 4
Richard, Marcel, and Fabio offer up a single dish. Sea bass, succotash, corn purée, tomato confit, Concord grape gastrique, jamón "air" (but really, it's foam--and you know who's probably responsible for it). The beans in the succotash--something about which Richard expressed concern during prep--are mushy, and the foam is irrelevant.
In an unusual move, the judges stop to chit-chat with some of the hoi polloi (a word that sounds like it should be a kind of fish, but isn't) about which dishes they liked. Carla's gets the primary mention. Tom notes, discussing the freshly-caught angle (puns! I'm full of 'em), provides the apt and true title of this recap. While the chefs wait, Jamie calls "people" out (to the confessional, I think) for copping out by only cooking one dish. If there is a single person who never, ever should accuse someone else of copping out, it's Jamie.
No one looks confident at all as Padma arrives to call out Teams 1 and 2: Dale, Carla, Tre, Tiffany, Isabella, and Angelo. Padma plays it up more than usual, before letting them off the hook (HAHAHAHA): they're the top two teams. The winner will get a 6-night trip, with airfare, to Amsterdam. Random, sure, but pretty sweet nonetheless. Compliments are paid to Team 2's duo of dishes, and Dale's taco earns praise despite the market tortillas. (I don't think they shopped at a Whole Foods at all this week, though, right? So it was at least farmers-market-bought.) Carla's witty, smart, and tasty smoked fish is the best of the bunch, and she's this week's winner. That makes Carla and Dale strong contenders, having traded blows as alternating winners for the last four weeks.
Carla arrives back at the Stew Room her usual, giddy self--and gets her balloon unceremoniously popped by Marcel, who couldn't be more of a dink. Thankfully, once he leaves with the rest of bottom two teams, Angelo and the rest of the leaders reassure Carla that she acted completely acceptably and shouldn't feel badly at all. Good form, guys.
Team 4, why one dish? Richard says he and Marcel came up with it at the same time; very crafty, Richard, broadening responsibility when vote-splitting becomes advantageous. Tom notes potential trust issues in that team, highlighting once again just how much of a ninja he is. Basically, a restaurant-scale dish in a beach setting, with a plastic dish, just won't work.
Team 3, y'all are bringing a sister down. Tom breaks it to Antonia that her dish, were it not saddled with Jamie and Tiffani's stinky offerings, would have been the winner. Tiffani didn't negotiate the blood line of the fish (hi, Carla!), leading to a funky flavor and mediocre texture. Jamie added water to her cucumber to give it that extra blast of watery goodness; this went over with the judges about as well as you'd expect. Antonia is put on the spot to address whether greater intervention on her part would have steered her team into more successful waters (heyoh!); her response is more weeping. Come on, Antonia!
So let's just pull this Band-Aid off quickly. Jamie's reign of error is finally come to an end. And Tiffani just didn't manage to maintain enough competitive distance from her; she gets sucked down right alongside the Sourpuss from San Francisco. The Black Hammer strikes again, as more teammates of Antonia fall while she remains.
NEXT: Restaurant Wars. Boom. Plus, Bourdain returns (yay!) and he's brough chef Ludo Lefebvre with him (bleh).

Top Chef All-Stars - Chinese revolt

Howdy, Top Cheffers! It's been two long weeks since the last episode, during which time I still haven't managed to finish the last recap. Yeah, sorry about that.

We return to the Stew Room where anger is simmering--before bubbling over for the confessional camera. Antonia's none too pleased with meddling Angelo, and Richard is being pushed to levels of disdain for Jamie heretofore unseen, apart from maybe his relationship with Lisa. But when the next day starts, that's all out the window. Padma introduces the Quickfire Challenge alone, telling the chefs that they'll have to create a dish against the time set by a renowned chef: our own Tommy Boy Colicchio.

This is pretty big, and the faces of the chefs prove it. They're giddy, terrified, in awe. Tom will make a dish, and in the time it takes him to finish it, the chefs will then be let loose to create their own dish. The winner will not only receive immunity, but a new Toyota Prius. Degree of difficulty will be figured into the decision, so don't just slice up some sashimi.

Tom moves like a panther, and commenters have wondered how many times he practiced making his seared black sea bass with clams, tomato and zucchini before unleashing this performance on the chefs. I ask: what if he didn't at all? Dude does have like a dozen restaurants or something. He knows what he's doing. Anyway, it takes him a measly 8 minutes, 37 seconds, to put together a dish that everyone agrees is a hell of a dish for 8 minutes, 37 seconds.

With no time to prepare, the chefs are cut loose. While everyone tears ass to the refrigerators, Marcel turns a 180 and grabs the rest of the black bass that Tom had just filleted--smart. Richard finds foie gras, Dale wishes for a wok where there is none, and Angelo decides that his technique is so amazing, his kung fu so strong, that he can make a crudo and escape judgment from the man who just said"don't do raw."

Tiffani plates a small pool of New England clam chowder. Fabio borrows most--no, all, really--of Tom's ingredients for his dish. Tiffany's own take on seared bass with tomato relish looks nice, but still resembles Tom's a bit too much for me. Antonia sears some tuna with a tomato salad. I liked the look and sound of Carla's shrimp with mango, cilantro, and mint--but there would have to be some major flavors going on to get that simple of a dish the win. Tre's grilled beef tenderloin and seared foie gras with mushrooms and brandy is very brown. Casey's spice-rubbed filet with tomato relish is boring.

Tom admire's Dale's intent to make pad thai with fresh egg noodles, but the three noodles and a splash of salty broth is obviously incomplete. Jamie had more clams in her pot than in the bowl with the bacon, tomato, and cream (there's got to be a joke there). And Angelo's yuzu branzino crudo with jalapeño and cilantro displays the amazing technique of alliteration, but not enough to save him from the bottom.

At the top are Richard's roasted foie gras with aromatics, corn, fresh coriander, and port (which looks and sounds incredible and I want it); Marcel's black sea bass a la Colicchio, dashi broth, bok choy, and chili oil--a dish Tom notes was not only craftily sourced but impressive in technique; and Isabella's pan-roasted branzino with a tomato, black olive and caper stew. This last dish sounds like the least demanding of the three, but it's tasty enough to get Isabella the win, the immunity, and the car. Feh.

The Elimination Challenge, at least initially, sounds like what Saturday Night Live would write in a Top Chef parody: "make a lot of food for a lot of people." Padma goes on to explain that the chefs will be going to Chinatown, leading to every blogger hoping that something goes terribly badly so he can use the line, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown" at the end.

Well, the opportunity is there; the chefs will take over popular Chinese restaurant Grand Harmony during the lunch rush, and serve dim sum to a couple hundred people. Tonight's for menu planning, tomorrow's for shopping at a Chinese market. Richard rightly posits that this is basically Chinese tapas, but with an added bloodlust. Really, if these chefs aren't prepared at this point for an unprecedented nightmare--well, they better get watching No Reservations before Tony gets back.

(sorry for the bad A/V sync)

Jamie's not worried about her reputation at this point; she's going back to the comforting bosom of scallops (see: every single challenge from her original season). Isabella's going to use his immunity to expedite, while Casey and Carla volunteer to be the cart pushers for the judges' portions.

After some Real World-esque talk of boobies and diddlies at the Top Chef apartment, the chefs get shopping. We learn that Fabio has a pet turtle that he takes for walks (seriously), Marcel knows to go for the MSG, and Tre breaks out the line of the night, describing the back and forth at a Chinese meat counter: "Whatchoo want?" "What's dead?"

The careful viewer should, at this point, see things teetering on a precipice. Casey, despite her aspirations for butchery fame, is taking on chicken feet. Jamie appears bewildered by wok technology (Dale, meanwhile, is thrilled; "this is my challenge to lose"). And Fabio's usual techniques for short ribs are stymied by Chinese kitchen appliances.

With each dish shooting for around 150 portions, the chefs are scrambling. Jamie's scallop dumplings aren't going well. Casey's trimming chicken toenails. Carla's summer rolls are "fiddly." Tre's orange custard-ish desserts are liable to turn to goo in the heat of the kitchen. But what's this? A "Top Chef MY-racle" (as only Fabio can say it)? His ribs come out perfect! It might not be all bad after all. The Italian, at least, seems safe.

But as Isabella checks in on the rapidly filling dining room, he gets the stinkeye from about 300 hungry Chinese people, and it's getting nasty in the kitchen. (There's also an odd, Guy Ritchie moment where Isabella, Carla, and Casey's roles are spelled out with on-screen captioning and freeze-frames.) And then there's the guest judge: SUSUR FUCKING LEE. There's no skating on this challenge.

Tiffani cooks a cabbage, cilantro, and sesame slaw with crispy chicken curry. Fabio's soy honey glazed pork ribs with peanuts look pretty spectacular. Carla finally finishes some of her vegetable summer rolls with lemongrass dipping sauce. Angelo, meanwhile, goes for a crispy spring roll with shrimp and pork. Marcel's boneless fried chicken wings look a bit like chicken nuggets, but topped with a dollop of scallion mayo.

This is the first service. Tiffani's slaw is good, but Gail's serving is almost all sesame. Everyone digs Fabio's ribs. Carla's roll is beautifully wrapped...and that's about it. Angelo's spring roll doesn't want for a sauce, and goes over well. Susur likes Marcel's concept, but they come off as bland. Richard apparently served something during this portion of the meal, perhaps some kind of trotter dish. But it never gets on-screen explanation and Gail's not crazy about it anyway.

Down in the kitchen, Tiffany's getting pissed about slow plating and service. Tom notes from the table that there's no food coming out. Richard, too, sees that everyone's pretty meticulous with their presentations, and it's not really suiting the speed required for a dim sum lunch service. Jamie and Antonia's shared dish isn't going very well, and Jamie wonders to the confessional if Antonia's got PMS.

Second service. Jamie and Antonia offer a simple preparation of long beans and Chinese sausage (which always looks incredible when I see it on TV, and still I have yet to eat it). Dale and Angelo create an Asian superteam for cheung fun with XO shrimp. Dale also presents sweet sticky rice with bacon steamed in a banana leaf. Tiffany's spicy pork with preserved vegetables on a steamed bun looks pretty classic, and tasty. And here's Tre's orange ginger dessert with fresh water chestnuts, toasted pine nuts, and Thai basil.

As one would expect at this point in the season, the curse of Jamie strikes the long bean and sausage. It comes out greasy and overcooked, reeking of hoisin. Dale and Angelo's XO shrimp roll is super-spicy, but flavorful. Dale's sticky rice, on the other hand, makes everyone unequivocally happy. So too does Tiffany's pork bun--very authentic. Poor Tre's worry about the temperature proves well-founded; his dessert would be liquid if not contained by the orange half.

Gail posits, in a not-so-sensitive fashion, that there's going to be a revolution in this restaurant if the food doesn't start coming out soon. The servers aren't sure what's being served, and one old guy apparently mutters "Caucasian dim sum" to his wife. I expect it was more derogatory than that, but he gets the benefit of the doubt. (Here, I think of Sleepless in Seattle, where Meg Ryan tells Bill Pullman that they'll go out for dim sum in New York and he, not knowing what it is, asks if there's wheat in it. Total tone-deafness for the cuisine.) Above, people are starting to leave, while below Casey's dish is getting mistreated slightly by Antonia, who said she'd plate for cart-runner Casey.

Tom, on orders from the gals at the table, goes to scare some movement out of of the kitchen. Dissent spreads through the ranks. Antonia thinks Dale should have been the expediter, while Marcel--never short on disdain--thinks Dale's dogging it, wiping down his shoes while Rome burns.

The third and final service begins, as the kitchen finally starts to find its pace. Casey's chicken feet over scallion pancake finally come out; they look pretty ragged compared to her instructional plating for Antonia. Antonia's own dish, shrimp toast with pickled scallions and mushrooms, looks much better. Hm. Isabella's meaningless pork and prawn dumplings with spicy soy are, well, meaningless. And at long last, Jamie's scallop dumplings with water chestnuts and Chinese chives.

Aside from Antonia's shrimp toast, this isn't much of a service. Casey's feet aren't cooked properly--not enough, surprisingly--and Padma notes how many are still sitting on plates despite the food shortage. The chili is good in Isabella's dumpling, but the soy is too salty. Can that happen? And Jamie's dumplings are too much dump, not enough ling. (I don't even know what that means, but she shorted the scallops and the wrapper is too much.)

The judges aren't thrilled, and in the Stew Room, Dale doesn't think there's going to be a winner. In the mid-break vignette, Isabella puts it pretty succinctly: "Everyone sucked and everything sucked." Yep.

Padma calls out Casey, Antonia, Carla, Jamie, and Tre--bottoms up, from the look of things. Indeed, they take heat not only for the slow and inadequate service, but the poor dishes. Jamie stands there looking pretty shitty, very Lisa. Susur tells Jamie that she bought the wrong kind of dumpling wrapper for her purposes. Antonia, having only prepped the long beans, doesn't take as much heat considering her successful shrimp toast. Casey tells the judges she was trying for something different, but thanks to Antonia's shoddy finishing, they didn't come out very spectacularly. And her pancake was leaden. Tre's dessert was goo, and Carla's summer rolls were all noodle and daintiness.

The bottom five are sent back to retrieve the top four while their fates are decided. Tiffany, Angelo, Dale and Fabio get the honors. Fabio gets credit for a good imagination, given his total lack of Chinese experience. Tiffany's bun was a savory marshmallow, Gail effuses. Angelo's rolls were downed in copious quantity by Gail and Padma. But Dale, with two quality dishes, gets the win in a nice rebound from a well-intentioned Quickfire failure. He's not exactly bouncing off the walls, though. "Feel like I robbed the bank on that one. We're all morons."

As the judges deliberate, Padma's being very charitable about Jamie even taking on two dishes, even though both failed. Antonia was brought low by her involvement in Jamie's bad dishes. Casey's dish was terrible, a disaster. Carla's rolls weren't worth the calories. Tre's dish evoked hospital food--Tony? Is that you?

Hard to see who's going home among these stinkers. But when the hammer falls, it is Casey getting a ticket home. Jamie gasps audibly. Casey doesn't mind telling the confessional that she, Jamie, and everyone else expected Jamie to go home. Jamie admits in the Stew Room that she took the brunt of the criticism at Judges' Table. All Richard can do is smile in disbelief. I think we're all there with you, Blais.

NEXT: Another double elimination, Long Island (this is the one you call "Strong Island," Dale), and Marcel tries to out-gangster Dale. DALE DALE DALE. This is what you get when you win, buddy. N'un but love, man.