Top Chef All-Stars - Unforced errors

[A]s of now it's very, very painful to watch her showing no skills of leadership. So therefore, if you cannot be a leader, you cannot be a chef. She has no good technique or skills, so she cannot be a cook. So what are you doing on Top Chef?

That was Eric Ripert on BravoTV.com, talking about a chef who is not going home at the end of this recap. We'll get back to it, but I just wanted to put this out there now. If Eric "The Sweetest Man in Cuisine" Ripert has this much to cut out of you--really, how bad are you?

This week's show starts with the chefs getting a bar to themselves, and ordering tea and crudite platters; let it not be said that these chefs don't know how to party. When the next day's competition starts, former Top Chef Masters competitor Tony Mantuano is there waiting with Padma. Chef Mantuano wants the competitors to know that what he really likes around the holidays is stuffing. Good story, Tony!

No, really, chefs. Make stuffing. That's your challenge. Use Swanson Broth maybe if you want to perhaps. But no utensils. Pots and pans and your inborn creativity only. I'm less than thrilled about this challenge, because it distracts from the kitchen ingenuity and puts too much emphasis on finding bizarre implements by which to pit an olive or some shit. See: Fabio grating parmesan on a metal storage rack.

So it's particularly grating (see what I did there) that this challenge is not only an immunity challenge, but one that'll put $20,000 in the pocket of the winner. Quick! Someone MacGyver me a way into this can of San Marzanos!

Casey and Carla both step aside in the interest of self-preservation, while everyone else makes like a British soccer match trying to get to the easily-accessed ingredients. As a result, Carla ends up with black quinoa--a grain she knows will be nearly impossible to cook properly in 45 minutes. She brilliantly and charmingly refers to it as "un-done-te quinoa" when Tony and Padma come around. Casey at least gets chicken livers.

I thought this was going to be Richard's first misstep, but his sea slug-looking pressure-cooked onion stuffed with raisins and pine nuts garnered neither tops nor bottoms. Similarly, Dale's (I guess I don't have to call him Little anymore) Spanish-influenced crab and oyster stuffing didn't get the praise I thought it would. And Angelo, Isabella, Antonia, and Tiffany didn't even get screen time for their dishes.

Tony singles out Carla's obviously undercooked quinoa, Tiffani's oversweet soy maple stuffing with quail (a flaw she acknowledged before judging), and Casey's un-stuffing-esque mushrooms and crispy chicken livers as the bottom three dishes. Tops are Tre's spicy but well-balanced Southwestern stuffing with apple-smoked bacon (yes, Tre, we get it) and cheddar, and Marcel's delicious-sounding whole squab stuffed with raisin brioche, cherries, currants and ras al hanout gravy. I'm at a loss as to how Tre's pedestrian Tex-Mex takes the win over Marcel's dish, but it does. Tre gets to cash out, and goes so far as to run up and hug Tony and Padma. Between that and the laugh, I think Tre really has gone bonkers.

After the very timely and seasonal Quickfire Challenge of making stuffing (a holiday tradition, dontchaknow), the chefs learn that their Elimination Challenge will be….at the summer New York tennis classic, the U.S. Open! Hooray for chronological dissonance! They'll have to cook relatively healthy food, with high energy content. Yellow and Orange tennis balls separate the chefs into two teams. Team Yellow: Angelo, Spike, Tiffany, Tre, Tiffani, Casey, Jamie. Team Orange: Richard, Dale, Carla, Isabella, Marcel, Fabio, Antonia.
 
Teams will serve one dish at a time, head-to-head style, and winning dishes will accrue points in the tennis style (0-15-30-40-win).
 
The teams get 15 minutes to plan. Yellow wants to put their weakest dish up first, thinking that Orange will put their strongest dish forward to establish momentum--thereby wasting it. Okay, but a point's a point, guys. Carla sticks to her guns despite Dale's pooh-poohing, and will make a peanut stew; she's a runner, and knows her energy foods. Antonia, on the other hand, acknowledges that she smoked a lot of pot in high school rather than playing sports. Look for some sort of Frito-based dish from her.
 
Fabio still has a culinary boner for gnocchi, but without the right implements he's forced to make them by hand. More power to ya, buddy. Angelo's fish turns out to be slimy and gross; he hits up Tre for some salmon, but he declines. Tiffany assents, and hands over some tuna.
 
Tom arrives in his chefly vestments, and encounters a lot of cloak-and-dagger about Team Yellow's strategy. Angelo and Spike, safely ensconced in the back of the kitchen away from prying ears, finally give up the plan. Tom is, appropriately, bemused. And after the shark finishes circling, Carla draws blood; she chops a chunk of her fingertip (or nail) off. The medics advise a hospital trip, but Carla asks what they'll be able to do--she's already made a clean cut. She tapes it up, puts on a glove, and gets back to work while the camera lingers on morose Jamie, trying to disappear in her pot of hardly-cooked chickpeas.
 
As the chefs arrive at Arthur Ashe Stadium, Spike is pressing for Jamie to go first because her dish doesn't appear to have a chance of A) winning a point, B) being done, or C) being good. She was never really keen on this "weakest first" plan (to be honest, I thought it'd be a tough sell to whomever was picked as "weakest"), and refuses. They're all standing around as Padma yells at them to put someone forward, so Casey just speaks up and there you go. She'll be up against Fabio, who has "the best gnocchi in town." (Said in inimitable Fabio fashion.)
 
 
Fabio v. Casey
Whole wheat egg white gnocchi, pork loin ragout, caramelized fennel, zucchini goes up against grilled brined pork tenderloin salad with farro, cherries, sugar snap peas, and a vinaigrette. Fabio's gnocchi are going over well, especially with Tom. Casey's dish, though nominally a salad, is too heavy. Fabio takes the point, and goes apeshit--in a fairly charming way. Casey actually looks hurt.
 
15-0, Orange
 
Dale v. Tiffani
Edamame dumpling, spicy carrot froth, crispy soy nuts goes up against black bass sashimi, avocado, and ponzu vinaigrette. Padma is the lone holdout for Dale; the rest all prefer Tiffani's bass, and she takes the point. Prior to this matchup, Angelo proclaims that now, with the Big Plan out the window, they just need to go for the win. Good plan!
 
15-15
 
Angelo v. Marcel
Smoked tuna, yuzu gelée, red onion, capers, camphor foam goes up against cauliflower couscous, pomegranate seeds, golden raisins, and yellowfin tuna. Who knew camphor foam was something edible? Angelo's got almost all the makings of a great bagel and smoked fish platter in Montreal, and Marcel…well, Marcel's got nothing in this one. The judges run with Angelo's dish all the way.
 
30-15, Yellow
 
Tiffany v. Antonia
Spiced tuna (fennel, peppercorn, coriander seeds), lentil salad, mustard vinaigrette goes up against scallop, Indian lentil purée, mint, dandelion (misspelled on-screen) greens, cilantro, chives. Both of these sound pretty good, and the judging bears out the tough call. Tom breaks the tie for the Black Hammer; Antonia takes the point.
 
30-30
 
Spike v. Richard
Tomato tamarind soup, olive oil poached shrimp, pineapple, tomato, dill (and a dab of yuzu gelée that Angelo and Tiffani decided was really vital to Spike's dish, without Spike's explicit approval) goes up against "Thai-bouleh" with lamb, herbs, and yogurt. Neither protein really wows Mantuano, which is bad for Richard since Spike's was a last-minute recook. Tom loves Spike's soup but hates the shrimp. Richard doesn't exactly plate a behemoth, but he takes the win in decisive fashion.
 
40-30, Orange
 
[At this point, it's worth noting a couple things. 1) In tennis, the next point after 40 wins the game. That makes the upcoming pairing a match point scenario. 2) You'll also note that there are two pairings yet to serve. If Team Orange wins the next point, the match is over with two chefs never having plated. 3) Only the point losers from the losing team are up for elimination, while only the point winners from the winning team are up for the big win. And 4) Jamie is literally hiding crouched behind her beanpot as her teammates decide who's up next.]
 
Carla v. Tre
African groundnut soup, baked sweet potatoes, adzuki beans, peanuts goes up against Coho salmon (cooked by Angelo to "assist," though Casey thought it might be a little overdone), parsnip purée, olive oil sauce with citrus, tomatoes, and olives. You'll note that Tre has immunity, and is still being put up in the decisive pairing. This should make it clear how tiny Jamie is trying to make herself behind those awful, awful chickpeas. The judges still split, with Gail preferring spicy stew over crispy/overdone fish. That gives Carla--and Team Orange--the win. Isabella and Jamie are left out of the competition, for both victory and elimination. Had Jamie lost the last point instead of Tre, she'd be heading to Judges' Table.
 
But first, the top four. Fabio, Carla, Richard, and Antonia--the winning team's point-winners--head out to see who gets a trip to Italy from Terlato.

Top Chef All-Stars - Mise en someone else's place

Sorry for my lateness. I had to bust some chops in state government this week, and the recap got back-burnered.

Looks like this season will have each episode start with that cool shot of the empty judges' table and a snippet of conversation in the Stew Room post-dismissal. I dig it. The chefs kind of take shots at Jamie for leaving with her insignificant injury--though to their credit, they mostly do it to her face--and we're off for the races on another week of Top Chef All-Stars.

Supertrendychef David Chang joins Padma in greeting the competitors to the kitchen. Their random order of entry will group them into four teams of four. The Quickfire Challenge? A simultaneous mise en place race--three ingredients to be prepped by the team--and then creating a dish based on those ingredients. The catch: the first team to finish the mise en race sets the 15 minute timer for the rest of the teams to finish their dish prep. You fall behind, you're boned.

With no immunity but $5,000 per winning team member on the line, the chefs get to work. Racks of ribs are broken down, garlic is minced, artichokes are peeled. Team Green (Angelo, Fabio, Tiffany, and Isabella) are smoking, while Team White (Little Dale, Carla, Marcel, and Tiffani) are struggling in spite of Marcel's rib-frenching confidence.

Team Blue (Stephen, Richard, Tre, and Spike) get nitpicked by Chang on the fineness and neatness of their garlic mince; they eventually get enough done, well enough. Team Red (Antonia, Jamie, Casey, and Big Dale) are just happy that there aren't any onions in this race. (Video evidence is presented, reminding everyone how excruciatingly slowly Casey dices an onion.) At the end of the race, with Team Green setting the pace for the dish prep portion, two teams are left so far back that they're forced to do a carpaccio to save time.

After sampling all the dishes, Chang's bottom two teams are the speedy Greens--whose dill and thyme blew out the rest of the flavors in their lamb with garlic and tandoor yogurt-- and the time-pressed Reds and their carpaccio sans nuance. At the top, the Whites crafted another carpaccio so good that Chang called it "unique." But the winning team is the Blues, and their crispy fried lamb chop with artichoke served three ways and chili aioli--bold and tasty.

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs get to learn what it would have been like if they'd parlayed their original run on Top Chef into massive fame and success. Each team will hit a top-class restaurant in New York and create a dish that would be worthy of placement on the menu there. Green: Chang's Má Pêche (no Michelin stars, but two from the New York Times). Red: David Burke's Townhouse (no Michelin stars, but two NYT stars for its previous incarnation as David Burke and Donatella). Blue: Michael White's Marea (two Michelin stars, three NYT stars). White: Wylie Dufresne's wd~50 (one Michelin star, three NYT stars).

The chefs will compete within their respective kitchens, as opposed to working as a team, and the BUM-BUM-BUMMMM of this week is that two chefs will be going home. Fabio, always one to keep his eyes on the ball, is rendered speechless not by the increased chance of being eliminated, but in having to cook French-Vietnamese food in Ma Peche's kitchen.

At Má Pêche, everyone gets annoyed with Angelo's over-opinionating. (I know the feeling, buddy.) Stephen, who eats at Marea all the time you know, grates on Tre for much the same reason. Wiley Dufresne appears to halt a bit upon seeing Marcel in his dining room. Everyone at Townhouse is terrified by the wackiness--except for Big Dale, who is thrilled at the apparent license to let his freak flag fly.

Grocery shopping continues to go largely unshown, but at least we got to see the Whole Foods logo, amirite?? In the kitchens, Isabella is, amazingly, totally dismissive of Tiffany's crudo concept but very confident in his own. Broads, man--thinkin' they can be all competitive and capable an' shit. Carla busts out the nitro, trying to show that she can go outside her comfort zone in her own way and still succeed. Stephen's spazzing a bit; Richard notes that he seems out of his element. And it's possible that Tre has gone a bit bye-bye since his last run on the show. Lots of manic laughter that I don't remember from before.

Kate Krader of Food and Wine is along for the dine, and each restaurant's real chef also joins at the table. We get to see the chefs chit-chatting in the car between restaurants, which is a fun change of pace. The meals!

Marea

Tre: Grilled swordfish, braised artichoke, mushroom panna cotta, basil oil. In short: he nails it. Elegant simplicity, and a tasty panna cotta.
Spike: Seared branzino caponata, spicy prosciutto vinaigrette. The skin has a nice crispy texture, but in calling his condiment a caponata, Spike draws criticism for it being dry and loose.
Richard: Crudo of Spanish mackerel, braised veal shank, fennel mostarda. Elegant, delicious. The chefs all like it; Richard's introspection about self-editing while dining at Marea appears to have paid off.
Stephen: Coho salmon condito, black mission figs, broccoli rapini, fennel pollen. Bourdain's bon mot ("it tastes like a headshop") summarizes in his unique way what others also find: the pollen flavor is a bit aggressive.


Má Pêche

Fabio: Roasted lamb, hoisin plum barbecue sauce, corn tomato salad, lemongrass chèvre ricotta. Always a bad sign, Colicchio is bewildered by this dish. So too is Chang, who would never combine these components. Bourdain thinks Fabio is "lost in the woods" on this one.
Tiffany: Crudo of summer flounder, pickled radish, peach purée. It's missing something: likely the flair that would make it a fit on a Chang menu. Chang says this is something you could find at Daniel or something. Probably not meant as a dig at Chef Boulud, but it came off as one anyway.
Isabella: Cured sockeye salmon (warm), charcoal eggplant, marinated tomatoes, pickled peach. It's not over-the-top wacky, and Tom loves the eggplant.
Angelo: Turmeric-marinated fish (unspecified), dill, cilantro, salmon roe, chorizo, white chocolate. Angelo wants to make a splash with the white chocolate inclusion, and he succeeds. Krader finds the flavor combination exciting, and Chang hails it as innovative.


Townhouse

Big Dale: Roasted veal loin, peanuts, popcorn, french toast, corn, thyme caramel. In the kitchen, Dale was constantly asking Casey for her opinion. My opinion upon seeing the dish? The judges are either going to LOVE it or HATE it. And indeed, while the diners comment on the creativity of the concept, they all agree that it was way too sweet.
Antonia: Pea purée, carrot purée, seared scallop, pickled carrot, mint oil. While she wasn't shy with the salt shaker, Antonia's playful take on peas and carrots pleases Burke.
Casey: Coconut halibut "scallop," tapioca "caviar," ginger carrot emulsion. Lots of " " in there, but Burke loves it.
Jamie: Smoked tomato and bacon soup, heirloom tomato salad, smoked burrata, charred onion vinaigrette. The smoke is insignificant. There's no "wow" from Burke on this one. Did Jamie really think that soup and salad would amaze anyone? I fail to understand the people who are Jamie fans. Never saw anything from her that really seemed impressive.


wd~50

Little Dale: Sunny side up egg dumpling, braised pork belly, milk-style ramen with bacon, beef, and pork. Dale knows that Wylie loves eggs (he's been paying attention), and his dumpling looks like just the right balance between sumptuous and overwrought for a mad scientist like Wylie. Dale also notes that you're not going to win over the chef by doing a poor approximation of his techniques, so he's not trying to go all MG for no good reason. Bourdain and Colicchio both love it, hailing the complexity of the flavors.
Tiffani: Broken summer heirloom melon, powdered ham and taleggio. Compare Dale's restraint with Tiffani's runaway train of molecular gastronomy. Her pre-frozen melons come out watery and intrusively bad. A murky composition.
Carla: Poached shrimp, grits, okra chips. While Carla's attitude was also good going into this challenge, I don't really see how this fits with a wd~50 aesthetic. The diners note that it's a bit safe, but technically impressive and a smart tack to take considering her traditional background.
Marcel: Vadouvan lamb, tzatziki, pickled red onion, anti-flatbread (inspired by Dufresne's aerated foie gras). Marcel was the star of the mid-break vignette, narrated partially by Little Dale. Dale describes the alleged beef between a wd~50 sous chef/line cook and Marcel, related to alleged plagiarism of a dish. Marcel comments to the confessional camera about the so-perfect-you-couldn't-write-it drama of him cooking in wd~50's kitchen. The camera catches Marcel looking at the camera during a non-competitive moment--and the showrunners brilliantly chose to close the segment with it. Kind of makes it seem like Marcel wants drama, but I have to admit I've been appreciating his presence this season. Not so much the diners with this dish. Bourdain notes that it's a bit restrained for Marcel, and Dufresne wonders if Marcel's MG technique skill was applied in a way that improved the dish. Ironic, considering Marcel was questioning Tiffani's application of MG technique on her dish.

Carla is charmingly self-deprecating about her use of an immersion circulator as Padma arrives at the Stew Room and calls out Little Dale, Angelo, Antonia, and Tre. They are, as you can surmise from the above commentary, the top chefs from each restaurant. The winner's going to get six nights in New Zealand along with airfare.

Antonia gets props for her peas-n-carrots riff. Angelo's white chocolate was "kind of genius." Tre's swordfish was a perfectly-done star turn. But Little Dale, who looks like he's about to fire up the bus for a tour at the zoo with that shorts and hat combo, takes the win for balancing respectable technical flourish with unimpeachable quality. Little guy's going to the land of hobbits! And the Angelo winning streak is over at 2.

Stephen, Tiffani, Fabio and Big Dale get called out. "Fight hard, but not too hard," says Carla. "Don't pull a Jen," advises Antonia, coining a new phrase in the Top Chef lexicon.

Fabio is dinged for overpainting on his canvas. Too much fat, the cassoulet was over-reduced; he appears to take it well this time. Stephen claims Italian expertise (Fabio raises an eyebrow high enough the camera almost has to track up to follow it), but his dish had an unpleasant perfumey taste that bothered Bourdain more than the well-cooked salmon pleased him. Tiffani acknowledges that she over-reached. Big Dale tells the judges that his inspiration wasn't so much Chef Burke's menu, but a breakfast dish off of his own menu. The judges note that this indeed felt like a breakfast dish + veal. Bleh.

Tiffani crossed the line between homage and parody--ouch! Stephen was too excited by his surroundings, but did parts well; that's bad enough for a dismissal. Fabio's dish lacked both Asianness and confidence, but he stays. Big Dale, despite cooking and seasoning his veal well, turned his dish into a circus act and gets the boot. I picked the complete opposite of this result before the end of Judges Table, and I'm still a little bewildered by Stephen and Big Dale going home. To his credit, Stephen subtly acknowledges that he's not really a kitchen chef anymore, and it was fun to go back. A classy exit. But Big Dale--we'll miss you, ya big goofball.

NEXT: The US Open, another finger slice, and Angelo appears to be dusting off the Svengali persona.

Top Chef All-Stars - Bang a gong, get it on

First, a hearty welcome to those of you joining for the first time via 77 Square's "Recent Obsessions" column today. (Lindsay, I'm betting I have you to thank.) There may be some inside jokes and "you had to be there" moments in my recaps, but I try to make them at least a little approachable for new readers.

~~~

Well, we knew it would happen at some point in Top Chef All-Stars. A returning chef would insist upon his or her righteousness and, fueled mostly by the bravado of seasons past and the restaurant popularity that followed, go down in a blaze of glory. But be honest: we all kind of expected it to be Fabio, right? Especially after essentially challenging Anthony Bourdain to fisticuffs last week?

An epic, slightly bizarre hissyfit (which we'll get to at the end) was entirely appropriate in an episode so focused on the fickleness of children. After a cold open that put us right in the Stew Room following Elia's dismissal--wherein the chefs just then realized that anyone could go home at any time (Did any of them talk to Tre about that? He knew.)--we're introduced to this Joe Jonas fellow. Some of you may have heard of him. Not Little Dale, who remarked, "I thought he might be a pastry chef…?"

No, young Joe Jonas is here as a surprise guest for a sleepover at the American Museum of Natural History. The Quickfire Challenge, which Joe will weigh in on, asks the chefs to create the midnight snack for the little rugrats. It's got to be brown paper bag-ready, and can't require utensils. There will be immunity for the winner, plus an advantage in the Elimination Challenge.

Richard's smart, and notes that it would be wise to make the dish appealing to Joe, too, since he's judging. Big Dale just goes all-sugar for his snack; "basically, I'm making crack for small children." In the kitchen, Little Dale isn't ingratiating himself to this crop of chefs, having taken the entire container of sugar and left it sitting at his station. Isabella's sweating his dish as the clock ticks down, but of course he turns down an offer of assistance from Antonia; you all remember how lovely he was with female competition in his season, yes?

This being a supersized episode, we got a close-up on every single QF dish. Some, like Spike's potato and carrot chips with mascarpone-marshmallow dip and Tiffany's coconut rice pudding with grapefruit sauce, seemed like odd combinations. A few chefs chose to include bacon, mostly to their detriment; Tre's cracker with cranberry and cherry jam and apple-smoked bacon was pretty uninspired, while Jennifer's bacon ginger taffy looked like congealed bacon fat. And I can't tell if Angelo was joking when he initially called his fried dough, white pepper, old bay, and cheddar crumb dish "Cheese Crisps 2010: The New Evolution." Something tells me that was a shot at Kevin's Singapore Sling 2010 from last season's finale. If so, nicely played. If not? Sigh.

At the bottom: Tiffany's messy rice pudding, Isabella's chocolate coconut corn bars with coconut horchata chaser (a nice idea, but when you can't drive home the chocolateyness, you're hurting), and Stephen's snickerdoodle sandwich with white chocolate, coconut ganache, apricot and mint (the latter ingredient too weak in an already-off combination).

The tops: Spike, and Tiffani's rice crispy treat snowball with malted milk and graham crackers. And surprise surprise, the kids will pick the winner in a taste test. The rest of the chefs are selected playground style to be the prep teams for each of the top two (Fabio picked last), and set to work politicking with the kids to curry favor. The clear star? This kid, who I'm quite certain enjoyed Tiffani's sugarbomb, and would have exploded had Big Dale's "caveman boulders" of pretzels, Whoppers, and cinnamon graham crackers been a top-two dish.

KID SMASH!! GRAAHHH!!!

No shock, Tiffani gets the win. By a landslide.

As the chefs are left to clean up after the whirlwind of prepubescence, Tom strolls in and informs the chefs that the Elimination Challenge starts now. You're joining the sleepover. Create a breakfast for the kids and their parents; service will start at 7:30 in the morning. Museum kitchen supplies only, and the teams will be differentiated by the two skeletons in this room: brontosaurus and tyrannosaurus rex. One team can use only animal products, the other only plant. Tiffani gets to pick, as the QF winner, and she goes with T-rex. Only when they get to the kitchen does she realize she hadn't really been paying attention to Tom's instructions; she thought she got to use everything. This means their herbs and baking concepts are all out the window.

Some of the chefs set to take a power nap on their cots in the Hall of North American Mammals (Stephen bemoaning the step down from his posh Manhattan loft, Tre noting that he won't be able to sleep in the nude like he usually does), while others (the boys) go on a flashlight tour of the museum. At 3:45, everyone's up and moving, and mostly happy when they arrive at the very well-appointed museum kitchen. The teams have both grouped off internally, with clusters of two chefs working on dishes together.

Stephen and Fabio set to work on gnocchi without eggs or cream (a tough sell for breakfast and a tough task for only two hours). Little Dale and Isabella's polenta cakes aren't setting, so they're going with straight-up polenta. Tiffany and Antonia struggle with a balky oven, which is hampering their ability to cook frittatas evenly. And then Jamie slices her thumb while working on a slab of bacon. The on-site medic says she needs stitches, so off she goes. This doesn't sit well with Fabio (who broke his thumb during a challenge in his season, and stayed), and other chefs are equally dubious. Casey's dubious, too--but of that bacon Jamie was working on. Jennifer's final product doesn't seem to impress.

Service is outdoors, so the chefs load up and move out. Casey doesn't leave herself time to taste Tre's sauce, which he acknowledges is a little spicy; this is usually trouble. One thing I was most intrigued to see was Angelo pulling his usual "just let me do this for you" routine on their fruit parfait, having Carla quarter some plums that Marcel wanted halved. This shtick won't work with a master manipulator like Marcel, so I'll be interested to see how this develops; does Angelo have the chops to push Marcel around? And speaking of chops, Jamie's back--with two stitches. This doesn't help her reputation with her teammates.

No Bourdain this week (which is too bad, since he has a little daughter and would probably have some good perspective on this challenge); instead, we bear witness to the return of Katie Lee. It's the reunion no one was waiting for! Yay!

Team Brontosaurus

Little Dale and Isabella: Corn grits, stewed peppers, salsa verde. Gail finds it creative, while the young museum staffers don't enjoy the texture.

Marcel, Richard, and Angelo: Banana parfait with seasonal fruit and tandoori maple. The kids all like the banana, and Gail thinks it's presented beautifully.

Carla and Spike: "V9," or gazpacho with fruits and vegetables. It's a bit spicy for the kids, and the yellow peppers stand out in a bad way.

Fabio and Stephen: Potato gnocchi with leeks, spinach, and mushrooms. Katie likes the flavor profile, and perhaps most importantly, Tom is impressed that the gnocchi are actually soft. (The mid-commercial break vignette sequence shows Fabio pimping his gnocchi hard to all the adults, and most of the kids. Spike says he's "kind of like a car salesman." Richard, with a grin: "Vote for Fabio.")


Team T-Rex

Antonia and Tiffany: Frittata trio (bacon/cheddar, ham/cheese, chêvre). As suspected, the doneness is uneven. Katie's is nearly uncooked at the center.

Tre and Casey: Coho salmon with shrimp-smoked bacon sauce. A good team, but a poor effort. Tre's sauce is terminally salty, and though the fish is cooked well, there are still some bones.

Jennifer and Jamie: Braised bacon topped with hard-boiled eggs. The bacon is chewy, and the eggs are flavorless. Jamie notes before service that, as a result of her absence, this wasn't what "her dish" looked like.

Big Dale and Tiffani: Steak and parmesan eggs with smoked paprika crème fraiche hollandaise. The steak is good, the sauce is great.

Padma visits the Stew Room and calls out Team Brontosaurus. After they leave, T-Rex badmouths their choices. Jennifer says she stopped cooking for the diners in these challenges a long time ago, and that it's just for her and for the judges in her mind. Big Dale points out that's a little selfish, but Jen doesn't really seem to care.

At Judges Table, the Chefs Brontosaurus learn they're the winning team. While Stephen and Fabio's gnocchi dish earns praise (good rebound for both of them), it's the elegant and tasty parfait constructed by Marcel, Richard, and Angelo that takes the win. Another win for Angelo, but Marcel tells the confessional camera that he probably would have gotten the win had it been one chef selected. The feud deepens…

Team T-Rex goes out to take their punishment, and Tiffani keeps on going with the "I thought T-rexes were omnivores" routine. Tom knows he was clear with the instructions, so it's a done deal. Steak and eggs: they were good, but hardly a challenge. Tre doesn't have a great defense of his sauce, especially when he says that he knew it was probably over-reducing yet didn't take steps to fix it. Jennifer's making a lot of faces at the criticisms leveled, and Padma notes that she looks pissed off. She is. She doesn't think she or the team belong in this situation. She makes some snide noises at Gail. Tom asks why the team chose to plate everything on one big plate. Jennifer says (and we saw this in the promo following last week's episode) that the judges are smart; why didn't they just ask for fresh plates? Tom's in no mood to be sidetracked, and says that someone on the team should have been smart enough to see the error.

This is pretty much where it all falls apart.

Antonia doesn't mince words about Jamie's lack of toughness, saying that basically the entire team agrees that she abandoned her duties for no good reason. Jen goes on to say that she disagrees completely with all the complaints about their dishes, and hers in particular. She is manic, vociferous. This isn't an angry defense of a misjudged dish; this is a dissociative meltdown. Other Judges Table fracases have been fun to watch, but this was just kind of uncomfortable.

The team is sent back while the judges deliberate; Tom's got too level a head to get upset about this. He says the loser's going to go home for bad food, not for mouthing off. When the chefs come back out, Tiffani and Dale are excused as safe. Though Antonia and Tiffany are better chefs than their frittata output, and Casey and Tre should have taken more steps to ensure the quality of their product, it is the steak and eggs dish that gets the stinkiest of eyes. Since everyone on the team said they didn't miss Jamie at all (really--they all said that), it's Jennifer who takes the fall and is shown the door.

She laughs the irrational laugh of someone who has separated completely from responsibility and, I'd say, reality. The other chefs seem totally blown away; Tom tweeted before the show aired that the ending of this episode would be "shocking." The only shock I felt was that Jen had gone off the rails so far, so fast. She says her goodbyes to a stunned Stew Room, then blows up in a burst of profanity outside the room, just off-camera. To the confessional, with a frightening seriousness, she says, "The judges got it wrong."

No, they really didn't. I hope Eric Ripert gave you a good talking-to when you got back to work, Jen. Your reputation took a well-earned shot this week.


NEXT: A double elimination, Tiffani freezes her melons, and Marcel versus Wiley Dufresne.

Top Chef All-Stars - Meet the new boss

Marcella: You know, when you start getting invited to your ten year high school reunion, time is catching up.
Martin Blank: Are you talking about a sense of my own mortality, or a fear of death?
Marcella: Well, I never really thought about it quite like that.
Martin: Did you go to yours?
Marcella: Yes, I did. It was just as if everyone had swelled.

Grosse Pointe Blank, 1997


That was the scene my wife referenced not long into the premiere of Top Chef All-Stars, as we were reintroduced to fan favorites and villains from seasons past--and many of them brought more than just emotional baggage back to the TC Kitchen. (I'm looking at you, Isabella!)
 
Along with all these competitors we've met before, we get an official prize sponsor we haven't: Buitoni. Nice to see a food company sponsoring the show's $200,000 megaprize rather than hand soap or snack bags. Not that anyone's rushing to conspicuously throw some Buitoni penne rigate in their skillets ("Oh, look at this Buitoni pasta, I think I'll try some!"); multiple chefs made fresh pasta in this week's episode, and largely to great acclaim.
 
It would appear, from the reactions during everyone's arrival at the apartment, that no one knows who else is coming. I like that. I like even more that no one apparently knew who would be judging this season. Bricks were indeed shat as Padma announced the looming presence of little dark stormcloud Anthony Bourdain. What I find interesting are the faces of the chefs as they re-entered the TC Kitchen; you can tell who's genuinely too crazy to be intimidated (Dale Talde, Fabio), and who's all bluster (still looking at you, Isabella).
 
And names: we've got to set the road rules for our two doppelgängers, the Dales and Tiffani/ys. Dale Talde, the angry one, will be Little Dale, because have you seen Dale Levitsky? My man has been sampling the wares--and I say this with love, because I'm probably only a few pounds behind him. So he'll be Big Dale. And as for the Tiffs, I think you're just going to have to get used to knowing which one has an I (that would be "me me best season original gangster me" Tiffani Faison) and which one's got a Y (Tiffany Derry of Season 7, who has two Y's in her name). There's your mnemonic. And also an indication of which one I like more.
 
Grudges return, as Elia is still bearing ill will (if passive-aggressively) toward Marcel. Also not looking forward to the potential presence of Marcel is Fabio, still stinging from his Very Special Reunion Special rebuffing from Astroboy. Of course, who happens to be on the welcoming committee when the elevator doors open for Fabio? Yep. Pretty awesome, and I'm guessing unscripted.
 
We also got a grim reminder of Top Chefs Past in the disembodied voice of Katie Lee (née Joel), aka the Pre-Padma, from the clips of Tiffani and Harold at the Season 1 finale. Gee, her voice wasn't annoying at all. (Admission: I still haven't watched the first season, mostly because Netflix still has it on my Saved list. But was she always that droningly nasal? ...Checks Wikipedia…yep.)
 
So, black chef coats donned (gotta cop to it, the black gave me the chills a little; I'm a total dork), the chefs get their first Quickfire of their Second Chance Season. Work as a team with your seasonmates, and make a dish that represents your season's city. Winning team gets immunity. It's a good challenge, and you've got to wonder if the other chefs were upset or relieved that they didn't have as many cooks in the kitchen as Season 3's team. Chicago being represented by Little Dale, Antonia, Spike, and Richard--let's say there's not a lot of air left in that room.
 
It's easy to forget that each season of Top Chef has been in a different city. Season 1 (San Francisco) does a cioppino gazpacho with sourdough croutons. Season 2 (Los Angeles) goes for shrimp tacos with an apple "tortilla." Season 3 (Miami) goes Cuban, with pork tenderloin, avocado-lime purée, tostones, and habanero sauce. Season 4 (Chicago) deconstructs a Chicago dog with fresh sausage and savory mustard ice cream; oh, that Richard Blais! Season 5 (New York) splits up for a trio of apple-based dishes (soup, pasta with sausage, and ribeye). Season 6 (Las Vegas) hopes to call to mind mobster food (?) a bacon-lobster carbonara with fresh bucatini; I guess "mobster" rhymes with "lobster," so there's that. Season 7 (Washington, D.C.) goes once more to the crab cakes well, but with essence of crab cakes turned into a brodo for seared rockfish. (Angelo's contender for line of the night, perhaps defending the obviousness of crab cakes: "It's not like I can do an ice carving of George Washington.")
 
Lots of scrambling at the end, including Stephen inadvertently bumping the tray of rockfish out of Angelo's hands, forcing him to cut new filets with minutes to go. In the end, Seasons 2 (bland shrimp, too-thin apple), 1 (way too much raw garlic), 5 (no cohesion), and 7 (a bit too salty) are at the bottom. Besties are Seasons 3 (great flavors, strong representation of the city), 4 (inventive, Tom digs the ice cream), and 6 (great pasta). The winner, which proves to be exceptionally important, is Season 4: Chicago. Isabella's response (other than "fucking motherfucker," under his breath)? "Sausage with mustard? Big whoop." Mmm, that's good sportsmanship.
 
Same as the old boss
 
I had the Elimination Challenge spoiled for me by U-Verse's episode description when I set up the DVR, but it's so deliciously evil that it didn't even matter. Silver serving trays are delivered, and the lids are pulled to reveal the ingredients and description of each of the dishes that got these chefs eliminated the first time. DAMN. Talk about "check your ego at the door." Or, better, "get yourself unfucked," as Bourdain puts it later. The winning effort will retool the sucky original dish without straying too far from the original concept. Three hours tonight, two more tomorrow at the Russian Tea Room.
 
Here's why this challenge is so awesome. First, there are some spectacular flameouts among the chefs represented this season. Jamie's Ripert-fail with the black bass and braised celery, Carla's steak sous vide a la Casey, Spike's frozen scallop debacle in Rick Tramanto's kitchen, and most wonderfully, Little Dale's miso butterscotch scallops--the single worst thing Anthony Bourdain has ever eaten, even though he mistakenly attributed it to Big Dale during his book tour appearance in Madison. Plus, Stephen will have to remake three dishes, none of which were his own, because his failing back in Season 1 was that he ignored his kitchen duties in deference to his oenophilia at the front-of-house for Restaurant Wars. Brutal!
 
Perhaps the best part? The producers gave Spike frozen scallops again. But in case you hadn't put it together, that's two incredibly awful dishes, both featuring scallops, on the team that happened to win immunity during the Quickfire. So Butterscotch Scallops and Frozen Scallops are guaranteed to not be losers this time around. That is amazingly fortunate for Little Dale and Spike, though it turns out they probably didn't need fortune--for different reasons.
 
Elia goes in headstrong, largely ignoring the lessons her original steamed fish disaster should have taught her. Instead, she plows ahead, stopping only to add bacon to the dish--a transparent sop to trendy ingredients. Angelo impresses Richard by his fresh ramen noodle-fu. Little Dale appears to be going a bit loopy in the kitchen, but he's got immunity, as do the lockers in the TC Kitchen. Carla continues to be gracious to Casey's poorly-considered sous vide suggestion during the Season 5 finale, but makes it clear that she's doing her own thing this time around. Classy broad, that Carla.
 
During the mid-break vignette, Elia addresses her part in the infamous Season 2 head-shaving incident. She acknowledges how young and stupid she was then, and that she hopes to bring a new level of maturity to the competition. We'll see how long that lasts.
 
Tom the Knife saunters into the kitchen looking dapper, and informs the chefs that they'll be splitting their work in half. Half will cook, the other half will dine with the judges, and then vice versa. We as viewers gotta know what's coming, even if the chefs don't: closed-circuit televisions in the kitchen come in after the food has gone out. Oh, and the winner gets $10,000.
 
I know Stephen's at a disadvantage cooking dishes that weren't his to begin with, but it really does seem like he's out of practice in the kitchen. Of all the chefs, he seems most ill at ease working with pots and pans rather than schmoozing guests and pouring wine. But perhaps that's fine, since this has always been his failing. As the timer sounds, Richard is still foaming some dishes; other chefs comment out loud on it, but he just wraps up and doesn't appear to notice or care.
 
Out at the table, hey, you guys all know Anthony Bourdain? Yeah? Okay, let's eat.
 
Richard gets props all around for his crusted pork belly. Angelo's ramen and pork belly pleases Tony, but he liked it the first time around as I recall. Little Dale's scallops inspire the "unfucked" line from Bourdain, who infinitely prefers these scallops to the original horror. Tiffany's halibut is a little overcooked for Carla, while Antonia wanted more sugar. Tre's almond toast overpowers the salmon. Tiffani's got an unpleasant flavor to her dish. Stephen's three dishes are all over the place, and Tony takes it to him pretty hard. Fabio's pasta en papillote is bizarre, confusing Antonia and infuriating Bourdain. "It looks like an inside-out animal." (Fabio, meanwhile, sounds like he wants to settle it at 3:30 by the bike racks.) Elia's fish is a bit raw, and Big Dale remarks that she seems to have given up on it. There was also a big scale in Marcel's portion. Ouch.
 
As the second group starts cooking, I wonder something. Jamie's making an Eric Ripert dish, and in the kitchen with her is Jen, who works at an Eric Ripert restaurant. Do you think she should have maybe gone to Jen for a taste-test instead of Casey? Or is there something in the rules that would prohibit that? Anyway, Jamie still hates the dish. Casey is confident she'll show that she can cook pork belly properly. As the chefs in the kitchen learn they were being watched (in horror, natch), we cut to Tom swirling his wine in the background of a shot and sloshing a bunch out. He makes a priceless face, proving that the man is indeed human. Loved it.
 
Antonia's sausage makes Richard and Tre happy, but Tiffany thinks it's incomplete. Spike successfully masks the crappy scallops in his ceviche, prompting a eureka moment from Bourdain as he remembers the original incident. Cut in the action as he asks, "Is this the craftiest motherfucker who's ever been on the show?" In a word, Tony: yes. Jamie manages to pull off Ripert's black bass dish much better this time, prompting kudos from Richard. As opposed to the stanky original, Isabella--you know I mean Mike, right? I still can't call him that--almost makes his leeks melt-in-your-mouth, and at least nails the presentation. Big Dale's lobster makes Little Dale sad, especially the dumpling; Stephen agrees. Carla's non-sous vided steak is pretty good, but Angelo gets a bad cut of meat that is really unpleasant. Casey nails her dish; Gail Simmons says she redeemed herself. Marcel overdoes the vanilla again, and Fabio says it takes balls to put this dish out. Whether that's a compliment or not isn't a question for Marcel, who fist-pumps in response. Lastly, Jen's duck is a technically flawed non-entity and really disappoints Tiffani.
 
As rumbles of Richard's timer violation rumble through the Stew Room (mostly emanating from Tiffani), Padma arrives to call out Spike, Jamie, Angelo…and Richard. At Judges' Table, Tom gets right to it. Richard, you're here because you made a great dish, but you went over your time limit, so you're ineligible to win. That's fair, but I was worried for a second that they were going to boot him. It would have been massively overreactionary, but I was worried. Also, I felt like Richard was bullshitting about not being aware of time expiring.
 
Anyway, Jamie will still absolutely never prepare this dish again if she has a choice. Angelo's watermelon tea, a fascination from the first run of the dish, was perfected in this version. Spike saved a shitty scallop. Hardly seems like a choice, given the various shades of praise here, but in case you hadn't figured it out: Angelo takes the prize. Here we go again!
 
Called out to take their lashings are Fabio, Stephen, and Elia. Stephen basically cops to ignoring the kitchen side of Restaurant Wars back in Season 1, but feels much more strongly about his output tonight than he has any right to. Monochromatic colors and flavors, wildly bad proportions--just, no. Elia chirps that she added fennel to her fish this time around (leaves out the bacon, wisely--either Tom or Tony would have killed her for it), but Gail won't let her skate on the doneness. It was rare. Like, really rare. Elia says she didn't check internal doneness on all of them, but Tom says no, it was rare on the outside. "You were your own worst enemy," says Tony. We are witnessing a Catholic school-style scolding here, folks. Fabio hears his criticisms--overdone, overgloppy, and what's the deal with that paper?--and chooses to focus on perceived ridicule from Bourdain during service. Basically, he says that he'd be giving Tony a real bustafazoo under different circumstances. Before the chefs are sent off to await the verdict, Elia pleads, "Don't eliminate me, I have a lot more to do. I mean it." Okay, someone better put a tail on this girl or she'll be cooking Colicchio's pet rabbit for next week's Quickfire.
 
Thankfully, we don't have to worry about that, because despite Fabio's muddled gumbo-pasta-miasma, and Stephen's total failure to grasp the original concept for retooling (perhaps his saving grace, actually), Elia's locked-in, literal-minded non-improvement gets her the boot. She gets some nice support from the chefs, a fellowship totally unique to this setting of successful peers, and leaves the TC Kitchen as easily the best-dressed loser we've seen in a while. Love those shoes, sister, if it's any consolation.
 
THIS SEASON: Jimmy Fallon, Paula Deen, something that I think is a Jonas, and the chefs finally get to cook against Tom? Sweet! (Hopefully, it'll turn out better than commentator Yukio "Doc" Hattori's epically bad output in Battle Truffle of the original Iron Chef.)

Commence au Top Cheffery!

Yep, I took a break for one iteration of the Top Chef media empire--and from all indications, it was the right one to skip. But no matter the rigors of bloggeration and recapping and appointment television, there's almost no way I could be expected to resist Top Chef All-Stars. You had me at, well, "All-Stars."

The season premiere is tonight at 10/9 Central, and I'll be posting a recap some time thereafter. If there's one thing Season 7 taught me, it's to not promise a timeline I can't deliver. But I'm going to try to get back to posting before noon on Thursday.

I expect these recaps to be slightly different, since regular viewers will know all these chefs really well. Dale "The Locker Puncher" Talde, the Kind-of-a-Twat Marcel Vigneron, Antonia "The Black Hammer" Lofaso, Zweet Fabio Viviani, and Tre "Creme Anglaise" Wilcox, among others. Not as much exposition, and a little more food commentary.

Plus, who isn't excited about the installation of Anthony Bourdain as a regular judge--hopefully more regular than Eric Ripert last season. Tony's respect for Tom Colicchio and Top Chef is well-known; he gave a lot of props when he spoke in Madison earlier this month.

Should be a good time, guys. See you tomorrow!

Top Chef DC - The finale.

I'm not gonna lie--it's kind of a relief that this season of Top Chef is finally over. It's been something of a task for me to keep up with the recapping, and I do apologize for the effect it's had on the entertainment value of the ol' blog here. But the season went out on a fairly interesting note, even if the winner was no one we cared about or thought had half a chance.

The episode opens more or less right where the previous episode left off. Kelly's out, the other three are displaying that sense of relief mixed with dread that only the mediocre know best. Padma comes back in and calls the three finalists out; they're getting their assignment tonight so they can work on it as much as possible. It's mostly carte blanche. The only limitations are the highlights of each course: vegetable, fish, meat, dessert. The proteins will be selected by Eric and Tom, and can I point out how much I hate the false distinction between "fish" and "meat"? Hate it.

Of course, there's the usual "surprise" help, too. In walk Ilan, Hung, and Mike. There are some built-in advantages in this challenge that promise to bear fruit--Kevin worked with/for Mike some years ago, and Kevin's parents were both pastry chefs. Ed gets the first draw, and doesn't get Mike as he hoped--he gets Ilan. Kevin draws Mike, and Angelo is left with Hung (or as he put it, "I'm in the finals, we're in Asia, and I get Hung"). So Angelo and Kevin appear to be in good shape as far as their sous chefs are concerned, while Ed is saddled with the most reviled Top Chef winner in show history (and that's including Hosea, I think).

The chefs return to the residence and kibbutz, with our competing chefs trying to keep their fanboy "squee!"s under their breath. Maybe not Angelo, who's not doing any squeeing during this party; he's not feeling well, and goes to bed early, leaving Hung--well, hanging. The next morning, while Kevin and Ed break the fast, Angelo is curled up in bed, panting and groaning. He's in pain, and a doctor is en route. We saw this in the previews, and it's definitely legit. Angelo is given a 20% chance of being minimally okay to go and cook the next day. Commence drugs and fluids.

As the chefs arrive at the kitchen, there's still no Angelo. Tom informs Hung that he'll be shopping and prepping without Angelo, but that there will be phone communication to make sure that Hung's doing more or less what Angelo wants. If Angelo can't make it for the day of service, then they'll deal with it then. The proteins have been acquired, and they are: rouget (red snapper, which Ed notes have very finicky little bones), cuttlefish, cockles, slipper lobster, pork belly, and whole duck. The instructions for the challenge were a little confusing; the rouget and duck will be the focal points of their respective courses, but the rest of the proteins have to be used somewhere.

At the market, the friction Ilan tends to foster comes to the surface as he pushes against Ed's corn soup idea (Corn, in Singapore? At these prices?). Ed's less than thrilled about Ilan as a wildcard--let the power struggle begin! Meanwhile, is there any doubt that Angelo would be completely without hope with any previous champion other than Hung? I was not a Hung fan during his season, but I have come to enjoy his presence and really, truly respect his skill and wherewithal. Angelo would be shit outta luck without him; with him, it'll still be a tough row to hoe, but you find yourself thinking he can pull it off. His "whoa" idea during the shopping scene is a duck and foie gras marshmallow. Color me intrigued.

Three hours of prep begin, and Hung should really have a Bluetooth headset. He needs all of his hands to yoink all of the foie gras out of the cooler--though, with only one lobe in there, can you really blame him? This is not as big a deal as the Hosea/Stefan foie-off a couple years ago. While we see the chefs running down their menus, Angelo's getting more treatment in the hotel. Here comes the shot in the butt, a longshot 3% chance of success. Though the doc says it's unlikely that he'll be ready to go the next day, morning comes and Angelo is given the green light. I'd be dubious of this, except he does indeed survive the entire finish and service.

The big day arrives, and the chefs have another three hours. Angelo's there, drinkin' water, looking maybe a little wan, and positing that Ed didn't actually want him to be able to compete. "I want to sacrifice every part of me to be Top Chef," he says, and I don't feel like this is hyperbole. Ed's all fired up to be able to beat Angelo, as well as show up Ilan. "Ilan had his season, now it's my turn," Ed says, but I don't think the all-star helpers normally stick around for the last day of the competition, do they? Does that speak to low expectations?

As the professionals, diners, and judges cackle over Eric and Tom's selection of proteins, and Ed and Angelo focus excessively on beating each other, service begins at the very Singaporean-sounding "Jim Thompson: A Thai Restaurant" restaurant. Among the faces at the table are Dana Cowin, Paul Bartolotta, David Chang, Susan Feniger, Andre Chiang, plus Eric, Tom, Padma, and Gail.

FIRST COURSE
Ed: Chilled summer corn veloute, crispy fried black cockles. Kevin: Eggplant, zucchini, and roasted pepper terrine, pickled tomatoes, shaved jalapeños. Angelo: Grilled king royale mushrooms, fresh noodles, char siu bao pork belly, watermelon tea.

Angelo's daring flavors draw praise, and the diners can see that he's familiar with this area's cuisine. But according to Tom, this is "a dish that needs work." Susan would like more oomph from Kevin's spicy elements, while David thinks it takes balls to serve a vegetarian terrine in this setting--and I don't disagree. Either balls, or shit for brains. Eric liked Ed's dish the most of the three, calling it well-executed. Tom notes that all three chefs seemed to be displaying restraint with their first courses--not necessarily a bad thing.

SECOND COURSE
Ed: Bacon-wrapped slipper lobster and char-grilled cuttlefish, both over a stuffed rouget that was apparently not worth mentioning in the early menu rundown. Kevin: Pan-seared rouget with cuttlefish "noodles," braised pork belly. Angelo: Asian-style bouillabaisse over sauteed rouget and poached cuttlefish, scapes.

Dana thinks Kevin's dish is "interesting." (Sounds like high praise!) The pairing of squid ink and pork belly is surprising, but apparently enjoyable. Seetoh sees a lot of complication in Ed's rouget, though the effort that went into it is visible. "Need a user manual," he says. But Angelo's dish, Seetoh praises unequivocally ("BOOM").

THIRD COURSE
Ed: Duo of duck (roasted breast and spinach-stuffed neck). Kevin: Marinated roasted duck, caramelized bok choy, duck dumplings. Angelo: Sauteed duck and foie gras, cinnamon marshmallow, tart cherry shooter.

Kevin's dumplings are nice. The bok choy technique interests Eric and Seetoh, who finds it clever. Susan loves Angelo's ginger salad, and the inclusion of cinnamon. The shooter, however, mystifies Paul and he doesn't appear to be alone. Padma likes the contrast between Ed's duck neck and greens.

FOURTH COURSE
Ed: Sticky toffee date cake, fleur de sel chantilly cream. Kevin: "Singapore Sling 2010," coconut panna cotta. Angelo: "Thai Jewel" shaved ice, coconut vanilla cream, kaffir lime, saffron, water chestnuts.

There's more than meets the eye to Kevin's dessert, a twist on the flavors of a Singapore Sling cocktail presented flashily inside a dragonfruit. Seetoh announces that Kevin "just created a national dessert." In the face of that, Angelo's dessert, though comforting to Gail, verges a bit too much on the savory and doesn't hold a candle to Kevin's. And Ed. Oh, Ed. He turned this course over to Ilan almost exclusively, and confirming his worries, it came out looking like a brick. David calls it--rightly--a big "fuck you" to the conventions of this show, praising it as almost absurdly and hideously inventive. Lotta salt in the chantilly.

Back in the kitchen, everyone samples. Ed thinks Kevin's food is awesome (no word on what he thinks of Angelo's food, but I'm guessing it's something along the lines of "grumble grumble I fucked his girlfriend grumble"). Kevin thinks the competition is stiff, and Mike V. speaks for the past champs, saying it's "the second best we've seen on Top Chef."

Angelo is still vertical for Judges' Table, despite feeling the dehydration. The three chefs report to the judges, and Angelo starts. Gail found his rouget smart, and Eric thought the vegetable course was an intriguing twist. (Pork belly + watermelon = sign me up, anyway.) All the judges, however, were unhappy with the tart cherry shooter, which was described as a palate cleanser. Gail expresses the confusion, and Angelo gives a very convoluted description of the order of operations for eating that course. Um, no. This will not win Tom over to you, that's for damn sure.

Ed's gamble on the duck neck paid dividends, as Tom thought it showed skill. Everyone appears to have read a lot into the meaning and importance of his dessert, imbuing it with way the hell more than it ever deserved or intended. Ed didn't even make the damn thing! The only one not swept away by over-interpretationitis is Tom, who completely disassembles it. "What am I supposed to do here?", Ed whines, at least subtly acknowledging that the previous praise was unwarranted given his minimal role in the dessert. He wanted to make lemon curd but didn't really know how. Seriously, Ed? You suck.

Kevin has, if memory serves, soft-pedaled the spiciness of previous dishes, and did so again with his vegetable terrine. He made the mistake of completely seeding the jalapeños, which robs them of their punch. Gail saw Kevin's duck course as a play on duck a l'orange, and one that made an un-favorite dish a pleasant experience for her. But where Gail really goes over the edge is with regard to Kevin's dessert. She's had a Sling at the place in Singapore that invented it, and she'd take his every time.

The chefs retire to the Asian Stew, and the judges try to convince us how FUN this season was, and wasn't this a FUN meal? WOO...? (No. This was a down year in DC, the reality showkiller.) They break down each of the chefs' courses. For veg, Angelo's pork belly dominated, Kevin's needed some pizzazz, and Ed's flavors brought the northeast US to Asia in a nice way. For fish, Tom (thank you, Tom!) points out Ed's de-emphasized rouget, while Kevin's was harmonious and really good, and Angelo's had a great broth. For meat, Eric found Angelo's duck bizarre while Tom thought the meringue was misguided. Though Ed did a lot of work, his was overcooked and imperfect. Kevin took the most care of all, cooking his duck perfectly.

For dessert, Gail and Padma both loved Angelo's. Eric was shocked by Ed's dessert, and everyone was fairly shocked by his insecurity about taking a chance on lemon curd. Kevin's dessert was built layer by layer, displaying amazing composition. The phone poll surprised me this time around, with 49% voting for Ed--easily the least of the three meals, if you ask me. When the judges sum it up (basically, Ed came on strong, Angelo rallied from illness, Kevin honored every ingredient he was supposed to), and announce Kevin's name first, they've left almost no doubt as to what they'll say next: Kevin is Top Chef. His response: "I am?"

Yep. You didn't really blow anyone away all season, but you stuck around and managed some reasonably appealing dishes from time to time. But you were also a douche about "foreign" food, and that just can't stick around if you're gonna strike out on your own and try to succeed. We didn't get any indication this year of the order of finish, but I'd be pretty surprised if Angelo wasn't second place. Mike V. comes out with a tray of champagne, and Kevin basks in his win, which he hails as the first TC win for an African-American chef. Our response: "You are?"

So, that's that. Another season in the books. Top Chef: Just Desserts has already started, and you'll notice that I haven't posted anything on that yet, either. Given the shoddy work I've done this season in terms of getting recaps out, I'm gonna take a break and see if I can't rejigger my schedule to make recapping more workable. Right now, I just can't commit to the recap schedule in the way I want to. So, perhaps some thoughts now and then. But considering I haven't even watched the premiere yet, don't expect it this week.

It's a downer of an ending to this recap, I know, but thanks as always for reading. See ya around.

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.

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.

Top Chef - You can't spell "remedial math" without ED

The word around the campfire is that Kevin is shopping for real estate and his job at the horribly-named Rat's Restaurant is vacant. Does this mean chicken-on-a-stick is enough to distinguish a chef in this lackluster crowd? I hope not. With the lookatmeee antics of Ed (wearing Tiffany's dress) and Angelo (talking to self, describing Judges' Table as "heart-piercing"), it seems like culinary chops are in woefully short supply as we slouch toward the finale.

But hey! It's Rick Moonen, one of my favorite Top Chef Masters competitors, here to judge the Quickfire Challenge. This challenge is heretofore named "THE PUNS, THEY HURT"; create a dish based on a food idiom. The winner will be turned into a Schwan's frozen meal. (Appropriately, if you're up on your German, one of the idioms is "hide the salami." What was going on in the planning meeting for this one?) Note, though, that Padma never instructs the chefs to craft their dish with frozen meal-itude in mind--at least, not on-camera.

At this point in the competition, it's time for the producers to show more of the sniping against the weakest chef in the bunch. This time, the consensus appears to be that Amanda is the hanger-on. Only Angelo calls her "a dark horse"; it's like he needs to feel like the competition is higher in order to excel. That failure of self-motivation might bite him in the ass if he makes it to the end. It's fitting that he chooses "bigger fish to fry," as he's always looking for the next nemesis to frame his efforts. Kevin ("bring home the bacon"), Amanda ("the big cheese"), Kelly ("sour grapes," natch), Ed ("hot potato"), and Tiffany ("spill the beans") round it out.

When you've got Ed whipping up herb and roasted garlic gnocchi in an hour, you know that Tiffany's canned beans aren't going to pass muster. Kevin plates a bacon threeway--sorry, bacon three ways--and tops it all with a poached egg. This earns some confessional scorn from Angelo for not being freezer-friendly, but remember: Padma never made that part of the instructions. Angelo's over-explanation of his "ancient Chinese technique" on his tilapia might be great for becoming the next member of the Wu-Tang Clan, but doesn't earn him any points with seafood guru Moonen.

The bottom two end up being Kelly, whose Brussels sprout leaves and Concord grapes don't really work well together, and Amanda's "sledgehammer to the gut" macaroni and cheese. Again, Matamanda looks dumbstruck. Funny thing about that. As for the top two, Moonen likes Ed's light and well-conceived gnocchi and Kevin's bacon that achieves "a new level of lightness." And when Padma turns to Rick and asks, "Which would make the best frozen meal?," you know that Kevin never had a chance. Seems kinda shitty, but Ed takes the win for an impressive effort.

Speaking of shitty, please excuse me for a moment as I engage in a little search engine optimization:

NATIONALS PITCHER STRASBURG TO UNDERGO TOMMY JOHN SURGERY

Okay. That'll boost the Google hit count. And it's not completely off-topic. The Elimination Challenge this week is to prepare high-end concession stand food for a pre-game crowd at the Washington Nationals ballpark. The chefs will all work as one team in this one (and we know how smoothly that went last time), and must prepare at least six dishes. Kelly takes over the organization duties without anyone's input or approval, and then proceeds to ask Amanda to not make what she was planning on making because Kelly wants to use crab instead. And Amanda wilts and accedes--big mistake.

Adrift without her original concept, Amanda decides to make tuna tartare. Say what? Angelo buys yet another pre-made item--hot dog buns for his steamed bun-esque concept--but at first glance it seems like a natural fit. Ed's doing shrimp and corn fritters, and details to the camera the amount of work he's taken on. He's figuring three poppers per diner, and there will be 150 diners, so that's 550 poppers to make in three hours. You know, with three hours to prep, you'd think Ed would have had time to find a calculator or something.

Back at the house, it dawns on everyone that they might have to take orders as well as cook, and there's no more Alex to throw out there. Angelo, who later thinks that detail-oriented Kelly left that task unspoken in order to force someone else's hand, decides he'll do it. And then proves that Kelly would have been smart to leave it to someone else; he starts tossing pads around to every other chef before Kevin takes Kenny's place and starts barking at Angelo to stop passing the buck. In this argument, I'm rooting for salmonella to take them both out.

Nationals players Adam Dunn, Matt Capps, and John Lannan (the largest men Amanda's ever seen, apparently) will be dining alongside the judges, and also making Kelly swoon a little. I think she probably meant Dunn and Capps more than Lannan, but hey, I'm not a woman.

Lookit mah sexy.

Tom's presence has always unnerved Amanda (also not a good sign for her chances), so she does manage to bust out a funny line to the confessional: "Tom, get the hell out of here! You and your tree trunks--leave!" They do, in short order (ha!), and service begins with Kelly worrying about the thickness and saltiness of her bacon. Thick and salty--kinda sounds like Kevin this week.

Kelly: Open-faced crab cake BLT, herb aioli, sweet potato fries. The flavor of the crab stands out nicely, but Padma and Tom do indeed find it to be a bit too salty. Good for spurring on beer sales, though.

Tiffany: Italian meatball sub, fennel, basil pesto, fresh mozzarella. Along with Kelly's BLT, these two are flying off the menu at a vastly disproportional rate. The judges, Rick in particular, like it a lot; Eric struggles to handle it.

Amanda: Yellowfin tuna tartare, fennel, Meyer lemon, fava bean purée. This stuff looks hideous, and looked hideous well before service. It's oxidized and gray, and Rick notes how ballsy it is to serve tartare at a ballpark. Eric's horror is understated, but he lets it be known that he's not comfortable with how shitty this dish is.

Angelo: Sweet glazed pork on "lobster roll" with sweet sesame pickles and Asian pear relish. Take note of how many times that description uses the word "sweet," and tuck it away for later. There's too much bread, and it's sucking out what little finish there is on the moderate heat.

Kevin: Chicken kabob, romesco sauce, shoestring fries, smoked paprika aioli. This one isn't getting many orders, if you can believe that people are bored by the idea of chicken on a stick. Eric doesn't like the fries atop the skewer, as they're sogging out. The skewer itself is too awkward.

Ed: Shrimp and corn fritters, jalapeño aioli. Rick loves these, a lot I'd say, and Tom points out how sweet the corn is. No word on where the extra 100 went. Maybe he skipped 'em, since he offered to work on Angelo's plating while Angelo took orders.

The players all sampled everything at their own table, preferring Tiffany's meatball sub. My wife, horribly, wants one of them to get diarrhea so she can sing the "sliding into first" song. See, we're made for each other--both rooting for gastrointestinal maladies! And since there's no better time to point it out, can I also highlight the mid-break vignette? Wherein we learn that Angelo and his "girlfriend" have "only seen each other a couple times"? Uh huh.

Anyway, Padma calls all six chefs out for Judges' Table. Good. They all need the feedback at this point in the competition, and it'll be fun to put 'em all in front of Tom and Eric's criticisms, yes? Angelo, Kevin, and Tiffany all sort of play verbal bumper cars with the narration of the decision-making process, and Tom looks like he'd prefer to have gone to the bathroom during this inning. Ed's dish was "terrific," says Rick; "very tidy," says Tom. Not so for Tiffany's sloppy meatball sub, but Tom's okay with it and Tiffany (love her) apologizes for nothing, saying that a good burger better leave something running down somewhere. They were the top two dishes, and the winner goes to Ed. He pulls his own double-play (PUNS) after Tiffany did so twice in recent weeks--he also gets a trip to Australia and the Hilton Sydney. Well then.

As for the other four… Amanda's choice to pre-tartare her tartare was a poor one, and the riskiness of serving raw fish at a ballpark should have been paired with the risk of preparing it closer to service for freshness' sake. (I also have a strong dislike of "tartare" as a verb; don't know why.) Eric acknowledges that he was offended by it. Kevin started out with a good idea, but tried too hard to get everything into each bite. Plus, the double-hitter (PUNS) of sauces was too much. Kelly respected her crab, but the BLT-ness was a false promise. And wouldn't you know, Angelo's hot dog buns were unwieldy and too absorbent. And remember that thing about sweetness? Yeah--too much.

Tom tells the chefs that they all made some errors, which is true and I refuse to accept it as a pun. This week, Amanda's luck has run out; "the only sous chef [to] make it this far" is going no further. Ply your charms elsewhere, Mata Hari!

Next: NASA and walking pop culture parody Buzz Aldrin, and it's the last challenge before the finals--in Singapore?

Top Chef - Missed it by that much

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Chef - Salty.

Yup. It's Restaurant Wars week. Perhaps the single greatest indicator of fundamental weakness in the entire repertoire of Top Chef challenges. Something told me before this episode that we'd be seeing a lot of fundamental weaknesses on display with this crop of chefs.

But before Restaurant Wars can start, the chefs have to be divided into two teams. A knifeblock draw gives Kevin and Ed the right to pick teams, and Kevin's first choice is, of course, his buddy Kenny. Ed, unsurprisingly, chooses his paramour Tiffany; this irks Angelo, which means I heartily approve. Kevin rounds it out with Kelly and Amanda, while Ed picks up Angelo in (yes) the fourth slot, and then is stuck with Alex in the last pick. D'oh!

It's the blindfolded relay race, and right off the bat, Team Blue (Kevin's team) is a smooth-running machine. Everyone's picking up on the leads Kenny left for them; Amanda blanches the pasta he set out, Kevin works on the mustard cream sauce, and Kelly sears the prawns at the last moment. Team Red, on the other hand, is a total mess. Tiffany starts, leaving the head on her snapper so the next person can easily ID it. But then Alex comes in and salts it way before he needs to, and Tiffany's pissed that he'd leave them open to screw-ups. Ed doesn't do much with the fish, instead tinkering with the broth. Angelo comes in as the anchor, and of course seasons the fish before cooking it. He realizes it was seasoned already, but too late; his addition of dill and cilantro seem unlikely to dull the saltiness as he hopes they will.

Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives (and, as Kenny astutely points out, second in line to the presidency), will be doing the tasting for this fairly simple Quickfire meal. She praises the flavors of both sides (as a politician would be expected to do), but notes the saltiness of Team Red's fish. Team Blue gets the win--no immunity, obviously, but they get to split $10,000. Team Red is salty.

Redwood at Bethesda Row in Virginia will play host to this season's Restaurant Wars challenge. Amanda looks like she's gonna barf, despite starting the episode feeling upbeat and even confident. The cause of the barfies? Guest judge Frank Bruni, former food critic of the New York Times. I'd love to have my name cause that much eyeball-bugging and nervous inhalations. Bill and John Terlato come in with a giant bottle of wine; they'll be dining as well, and will contribute both the wines the prize for the winning chef.

So in those TOYOTA VENZAS, Ed and Angelo decide that Alex will be front-of-house because they do NOT want him in the kitchen. I say, putting dude on an island is the worst possible idea because there's no one out there to keep him from fucking up, or just pulling the pan out of his hand to cook something the right way. Angelo naturally takes executive chef responsibilities, and puts my theory into practice by taking away a piece of lamb that Alex is, well, butchering. Team Blue puts Kelly at FOH, with Kenny acting as executive chef.

Activity in the kitchen is a tale of two teams, as Team Blue (restaurant name: "twenty one 21," the number of the Top Chef house) is calm-ish and mostly collected. Kenny's watching in joy-tinged surprise as Angelo gets more and more stressed out. Over on Team Red (who actually had the bright idea of naming their restaurant "EVOO," without irony), Alex is rubbing Angelo the wrong way. He's also rubbing Tiffany's bass the wrong way; she has to descale and debone it after Alex had allegedly prepped it. Alex sees that people don't trust him, but he's confident that it's without reason.

No, Alex, there's reason. See, for example, the smarmy, pretentious, insulting way you're treating the service staff. He shows them how to clean a table and chairs, he speaks condescending Spanish to them apropos of nothing (which I can only interpret as a simmering racism, but that might just be my existing bias against Alex), he even complains about the wine key one of them uses. Team Blue, on the other hand, does a tasting for the server crew so they know the most they can about the dishes. Night and day, kids. Night and day.

Service starts, and as Alex schmoozes with a table whose three orders were screwed up by the wait staff, the judges arrive and are seated by another server. (Sounds like mutiny to me! Good on ya, servers.) Frank Bruni is a black hole for Alex's obnoxious self-assurance; he stumbles over the "welcome to the restaurant" spiel.

Team Red: EVOO (ugh)

1st course: Soup of tomato confit, squash, olive crouton (Angelo). Crudo of black bass and yellowtail snapper, Meyer lemon-caper relish (Tiffany). Angelo's dish definitely takes this course, prompting Bruni to wish for more of Angelo's cuisine. Tiffany's crudo is "amazing salty."

2nd course (served so late that Tom's on his phone calling the kitchen): Striped bass, stewed spinach, fennel salad, chorizo, littleneck clams (Tiffany). Slow-baked turbot, eggplant caviar, black olive jus (Ed). Finally, Ed's jus gets to share space with Tiffany's clams. What? Anyway, while Tiff's bass is a bit overcooked, it's a good recovery from her bad first course crudo. Ed's turbot, however, tastes as Mediterranean as (ugh) EVOO's menu is supposed to be, well-sauced and well-seasoned.

3rd course: Braised--no, broiled pork chop--I mean, pan-seared lamb chop, English pea purée, smoked bacon, parmesan foam (Alex, and that's exactly how he introduced it...moron). Seared ribeye, crushed walnut potatoes, balsamic fig reduction (Ed and Angelo). Alex's lamb is cooked beautifully (more on that later), but there's no texture to the dish. Ed and Angelo's walnut potatoes are the surprising winner of this dish, according to Tom, but there's no Mediterraneanness other than the figs.

The service was hit-and-miss (I'd say that's charitable), Frank's water glass has been empty most of the meal, Alex's food was generally poor and Frank notes that he was (surprise surprise) left on a vulnerable island by the rest of his team.

While Amanda struggles with a wood fire and grassfed beef (two things with which she is apparently-- and shamefully--inexperienced), Kelly's working out the rookie nerves at front-of-house. She is, however, there to greet the judges. She describes the menu as "progressive American cuisine"--certainly a mouthful, but the only way they could think of to describe seasonal foods and preparations.

Team Blue: twenty one 21

1st course: Chilled sweet corn soup with Maryland blue crab salad (Kelly). Salad of beet confit, warm chorizo-citrus vinaigrette, pickled kumquats, almonds (Kenny). Kelly's soup is thin and flavorless. While the crabs are seasonal, the corn is not; "three months later, great dish," cuts Tom. Kenny's salad has too much going on, Tom cites Coco Chanel's rule of taking one thing off (with an assist from fashion-literate Bruni). Gail would prefer at least two things taken off--me too! HEYOH.

2nd course: Oakwood-grilled strip steak, Swiss chard, roasted sunchokes, maitake mushrooms (Amanda). Pan-roasted halibut, slow-cooked white beans, fennel marmalade, tomato fennel emulsion (Kevin). Amanda's steak is (shock!) overcooked and dry. It's also sliced too thinly, which makes it easy to see how unfulfilling the dish will be just by looking at it. The sauce, at least, is good. On the other side, Kevin's fish looks gorgeous on TV, so I can understand how wowed all the judges are as it arrives. There's a lot of flavor, and the sauce is terrific.

3rd course: Crispy aged goat cheese, arugula, strawberry-rhubarb relish (Kenny). Dark chocolate ganache tart, blackberry-chocolate chunk ice cream (Kelly). After getting over just how much cheese is on the ponderous cheese course plate, Frank Bruni minces no words: "this is terrible." It's soapy, salty, and just plain bad. Kelly's ganache (Richard's banana scallops, anyone?) is silky and chocolatey, if massive. The ice cream is flavorless and adds nothing.

Summing up the meal, Frank thankfully comments on just how terrible the name "EVOO" is, and also comments on the mistake of pegging yourself to a theme and then not living up to it at all. And worst of all, the goat cheese plate. Things aren't looking good for Kenny, bewildered to start the episode and about to get hammered harder.

Padma calls out Team EVOO first. Going by the established pattern, this is a pretty unlikely turn of events; suspicions are confirmed when Padma tells the red aprons that they were the winning restaurant tonight. Alex is called out as too nervous at FOH, which he attributes wholly to their table. Angelo's soup was pretty and flavorful. The crispy skin on Tiffany's bass was lovely, if insufficient to save the dish. Ed's turbot was plain and simple a great piece of fish.

Who came up with the lamb?, the judges ask. Angelo gives credit to Alex for conceptualizing the dish, but explains that he and Ed cooked it. Remember, the judges liked the preparation, but disliked the idea of the dish insofar as it lacked a textural element. The win is no surprise; Ed takes it, as well as a vacation to the Terlato vineyards in Napa. Suck it, Alex. Take your second try at pea purée and suck it (even if Tom Colicchio has since posted to Twitter that three contestants have confirmed that he did make his purée the first time around).

When Team twenty one 21 arrives at Judges' Table, Kenny explains that he's shocked; Team EVOO's mess of a kitchen shouldn't have been rewarded. Gail correctly notes that diners don't see the kitchen when they're at a restaurant, and usually don't care. Kelly's charisma was clumsy but appreciated at FOH, though her preference for thin soup displeased the judges. Kenny needed desperately to reel in his beet salad, which Bruni describes as "done through the guise of Hamburger Helper." Everyone smiled when Kevin's dish arrived, and it earned the good vibes. Amanda is told, once again, that good jus can't save bad beef. She actually looks shocked, but it just might be more of the soul-sucking power of a Bruni critique set to "Scathe."

The cheese course part of "dessert" was a nice idea, but the goat cheese is described by Bruni like so: "Ew." Kenny responds by harping completely on the other team's faults. Kenny, this is really distasteful. Focus on your own flaws for, like, a second. But no, this team is convinced that Alex had nothing to do with his dish, or with his team's success. Tom confirms: do you all think that Alex needs to go home? Yes, they respond, almost in unison. It's an interesting defense, but classless.

You wouldn't expect the stew room to be placid at this point, would you? Good, because it wasn't. As the doomy music comes in, Kevin takes it to Alex, saying that his team threw him under the bus by eliminating him from any responsibility in the kitchen (true), and that his ass should be going home (true). Kevin sits, Kenny stands. Each person was required to conceive a dish, he posits; everyone should have had a hand in the preparation of their dish (true). Did Alex? Angelo steps in, telling Alex that he has no reason to defend himself. This, too, is true. He's already escaped this challenge, and getting along with the other contestants isn't a required skill. But being a dick to everyone and taking the path of laziest responsibility isn't going to get you the win in a few weeks.

Team Blue goes back out. Kelly takes the knock for her soup again; Amanda only did one dish and she did it poorly; Kevin didn't have a lot to do, but did it extremely well; and Kenny served up two poor dishes, but carried off the job of executive chef reasonably successfully. Doesn't this sound like Amanda's totally done-for? It sure does to me. That's why it's so surprising that Kenny gets the axe. His goat cheese, to be fair, sounded like it might have been really bad, but no one appeared to have spit it out. Other dishes have inspired that reaction. Kenny, as talented as he appeared to be early in the season, seems to have fallen prey to a sense of invulnerability. See ya later, "Preppin' Weapon."

Next week: the CIA. I'd tell you more, but y'know...

Top Chef - Wait, chimichurri isn't Brazilian?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ugh. Figures.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: Perhaps the most disastrous Restaurant Wars ever?

Top Chef - This recap is missing its pea-ness

[Dig this recap from @alexinmadison and @swoonqueen of Twitter fame. Thanks, ladies! --Ed.]

In keeping with the Irony or Mayo Top Chef recap tradition, @swoonqueen and I took our sweet time compiling and editing our thoughts on this week’s episode. I know that Kyle is especially proud of this. Also, we were trying to take advantage of technology by using GoogleWave--so we were sitting next to each other on the sofa, not speaking, and working on our respective laptops. We’re so “plugged in.”

So, without further delay, here is our stream-of-consciousness review of last night’s Top Chef:

@swoonqueen: Yeah…I’m not currently using Twitter because ppl live tweet about TC. Manners, ppl!

@alexinmadison: Totally annoying, btw. I hate when ppl live tweet a show. Have they no tivo?? Rly?

@alexinmadison: Let’s get this party started!

@swoonqueen: su weet

[“previously on”…]

@swoonqueen: I don’t like seeing those who have gone before. *sadface*

[“getting ready” montage…]

@alexinmadison: Angelo’s is polishing his shoes… better than the constant ego polishing he usually does.

[introduction of Quickfire…including some discussion of ethics in DC, the “toothpick” rule for lobbyist luncheons, and the introduction of the guest judge who looks like Ryan Seacrest but is really Congressman Aaron Schock. Oh…and it’s a “high-stakes” challenge with the winner getting $20K.]

@swoonqueen: They keep focusing on Angelo during the ethics conversation.

@alexinmadison: Well, he is Svengali after all.

@alexinmadison: So…wait…it’s a “toothpick challenge?” WTH? They’re supposed to create a dish “packs the punch” of an entrée and put it on a stick? And someone is going home with $20K for that effort.

@swoonqueen: Lobbyists buy themselves tons of laws without toothpicks. ($20K for toothpick food is not ethical.)

@swoonqueen: Amanda “doesn’t really have an idea.” Andrea goes for chicken and waffles. And Angelo harks back to 1975 with shrimp and cashew in a cucumber cup.

@alexinmadison: *face-palm*

@swoonqueen: Parasol! Umami! (Ed)

@alexinmadison: Tuna TWO WAYS (Ed)

@swoonqueen: To sum up: Padma is wearing clamdiggers; Alex’s food had too many flavors; Ed’s food looked better than it tasted. Kelly’s lacked flavor; Angelo’s throw-back hors d’ouevre was like “fireworks in [his] mouth” (thank you, Congressman, for THAT image.)

@alexinmadison: And Angelo wins with his crappy cucumber cup! Ugh.

[“back at the house” montage where they try desperately to fabricate a romance between Ed and Tiffany. Andrea's the key rumor-monger in this scenario. Go figure.]

[introduction of Elimination Challenge in which we learn that Angelo’s been living under a rock…]

@swoonqueen: The Power Lunch - an old-skool political tradition.

@alexinmadison: And a “knife-pull” for very old-skool proteins!

[Amanda & Kelly get porterhouse steak; Alex & Steven get salmon; Andrea & Tiffany get swordfish; Angelo & Ed get lobster; Kenny & Kevin get lamb]

@swoonqueen: Everyone is sounding confident. Could be a bad sign.

@alexinmadison: Amanda’s an idiot – she’s a) never cooked a porterhouse and b) she’s going to debone it. *face-palm*

@swoonqueen: Um…Angelo’s doesn’t know what a power lunch is?? Rly?

@alexinmadison: *face-palm*

@swoonqueen: Okay….what have we got here? Andrea’s jumping right in with what promises to be a bad idea – vanilla bean mustard beurre blanc. Alex has so many ideas for his salmon that he simply can’t decide what to do.

@alexinmadison: How hard is it to figure out a lunch dish with salmon?

@alexinmadison: Kelly’s going for an old-skool preparation to go with her porterhouse – salted and grilled. And she’s sporting a real attitude about Amanda. She basically called Amanda stupid for forgetting her salt & pepper. Kelly refuses to share. Bwahahaha! And Amanda’s making porterhouse TWO WAYS. Oh…excuse me…it’s a DUO.

@swoonqueen: Holy crap! Is that Cillian Murphy? ;)

[@alexinmadison: It’s really Bruce Bozzi of the Palm Restaurant]

@swoonqueen: “My whole game plan is based around pea puree.” – Alex

@alexinmadison: Wait…I’m confused… I thought he didn’t have a plan.

@swoonqueen/@alexinmadison: TOM’S IN THE KITCHEN!

@alexinmadison: I love Tom. He’s such a smartass.

@swoonqueen: Angelo gets bloody – surprisingly, it’s self-inflicted.

@alexinmadison: “Where’s my pea puree? Where’s my pea puree?” Freakin’ broken record, Ed. Just make something else!

[the constant focus on the pea puree indicates that there’s going to be some drama around this issue.]

@swoonqueen: The guest judges are:

Senator Mark Warner (D-VA); 
Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough of “Morning Joe” 
John Podesta, President of Center for American Progress; 
Bruce Bozzi (aka: Cillian Murphy), Executive VP of the Palm;
 
Kelly O'Donnell, NBC Capitol Hill Correspondent; 
Luke Russert, NBC Correspondent; 
Savannah Guthrie, NBC White House Correspondent; and 
Art Smith, chef/owner Art & Soul and Top Chef Masters competitor.

@alexinmadison: Time to sum up:

Amanda’s deconstructed porterhouse wins praise for seasoning and doneness. Kelly’s porterhouse is over-salted.

Tiffany’s swordfish is slightly overcooked but her olive-raisin tampenade is a hit. Andrea's vanilla mustard sauce bums out everyone but Padma who likes the overdose of vanilla. [@alexinmadison: *gag*]

The judges damn-near wet themselves over the pea puree underneath Alex’s salmon. We are offered editing that implies that Alex is getting credit for Ed’s awesome sauce. GASP! *Queue the dramatic music* Stephen’s salmon is “a mess.”

Angelo puts some disgusting-looking lobster “foam” on top of his dish. That pretty much kills it for the guest judges – at which point we learn that Morning Joe isn’t a “foam guy.” (TMI?) Plus the lobster is chewy. Ed’s lobster is good, as is the eggplant thingy that he made to replace his STOLEN pea puree.

[Scarborough remembers the good old days of his time in the House of Representatives, when everyone was eating huge steaks, smoking cigars, and interns were showing up dead in everyone's offices...ah, good times. --Ed.]

Kevin and Kenny cart out their lamb dishes. Both are forgettable.

@swoonqueen: So…there’s lots of kitchen gossiping about Alex stealing Ed’s pea puree. Tiffany shows grace and class by refusing to pass on the rumor when asked.

@alexinmadison: Pea-Gate. It’s like the Lewinski scandal all over again. Who has pea puree stains on their apron?

@swoonqueen: Padma calls Alex, Tiffany, and Ed to the judges’ chambers.

@alexinmadison: Bottom three!

[beat]

@swoonqueen/@alexinmadison: HUH?

@swoonqueen: Um…yeah…they’re the top three. Okay. Tiffany’s crying a little because she was SO convinced that her overcooked fish was going to get her eliminated. Very endearing.

@alexinmadison: Holy crap the judges are *insert inappropriate euphemism here* all over Alex (Ed’s?) pea puree. Ed looks like he’s going to slice someone’s throat right there on national TV.

@swoonqueen: The House Ethics Committee is going to be all over this.

@alexinmadison: And ALEX WINS! Cut to Kenny in the Stew Room, who looks like he’s about to go medieval on someone’s ass.

@swoonqueen: And the bottom three are… Kelly, Andrea, and Kevin.

@alexinmadison: In summary: Kevin’s lamb sucked and his concasse (what the hell is that?) was too hot. Andrea’s couscous was “too gloopy” (Art) and she used too much vanilla. When Andrea says she “makes this dish every day”, Gail retorts, “If we wanted to taste the food that you cook every day, we'd go to your restaurant.” ZA-ZING! Kelly used too much salt.

[An explanation of concasse. --Ed.]

@swoonqueen: Pause for dramatic effect…”Andrea, please pack your knives and go.”

@alexinmadison: Woohoo!! She was driving me nuts!

Next week on Top Chef: Cooking Inter-nas-io-NAL and Alex is everyone’s target.

Bravo did a survey in which 90% of the respondents believe that Alex stole Ed’s pea puree. Go here to read Tom Colichio’s blog post on the subject: The Peas that Split.

Until next time…
Your pals in food,
@alexinmadison and @swoonqueen

Top Chef - Svengali strikes again

Yeah, so, remember what I said about Angelo being a creepy dude? How he was basically gathering the immortal souls of his fellow contestants to fuel his infernal machinations? How he'd already absorbed Tracey's essence, and now he was after Tamesha?

That's Svengali 2, Goodness of Humanity 0.

There was, of course, an hour of cookery and whatnot that occurred between curtain-up and lights-out. Y'know, if you're interested in that sort of thing. (But let's not forget that Andrea refers to Angelo as "the one who tries to possess peoples' minds" during the mid-break vignette; the villagers are starting to turn on the mad scientist.)

Angelo kicks off the hour by talking about his constantly shifting strategy--the one that always results in Southeast Asian flavors. Then we meet Andrea's arch-nemesis: guest judge Michelle Bernstein, also of Miami and also kinky-haired and blonde. Bernstein will preside over a freaky protein Quickfire Challenge. Emu eggs, rattlesnake, duck testicles that aren't specifically called testicles, and foie gras. Foodies will shout that foie isn't really that freaky, and they're right. But when there's one obvious glamour item in a knife-draw challenge, you can bet that something else is lurking in the weeds.

This time, as the chefs settled into their preparations, Padma announces that everyone needs to shift one station to the left--but leave the protein. This takes Alex from his precious foie, and plops him right in front of Kevin's ostrich. Angelo drops his duck nuts and picks up crocodile instead. Tamesha goes from llama to duck tongue, and her idea of a tongue soup sounds dangerous with only 20-some minutes to go.

But lo, Tamesha pulls one out, pressure-cooking her tongue to the great enjoyment of the judges. She is joined at the top by Kelly's creamy, delicious emu egg omelet with goat cheese and fennel salad, and Amanda, who took Tamesha's llama and roasted it with leeks, a date-bacon compote, and sauce soubise. But the win, and immunity, goes to Kelly. Considering how awful Jill's ostrich egg quiche was back in Season 5, Kelly's fortunate she found a good preparation. Less lucky are Stephen's "insipid" seared frog leg, Alex's dry ostrich, and Andrea's undercooked boar.

The Elimination Challenge takes undercooked to new heights, tasking the chefs with serving a cold dish. Yes, it can be cooked, but it must be served chilled. The chefs will be split into two groups; Group A will cook and serve to Group B (and the judges), and then Group B will cook and serve to Group A. Each group will have a chef selected for the win, and one selected to be sent home. For brainstorming, why don't y'alls head out for an apropos-of-little cruise on the USS Sequoia?

On the boat, Angelo is mixing with the whole crew of chefs, giving advice to anyone who makes the mistake of letting him speak (you must run him through with an enchanted blade before he speaks!). Fishing for a new victim, Angelo? Take heart (literally)--Stephen appears ripe for the picking. So is sockeye salmon, the latest member of the animal kingdom to be found sexually attractive by Angelo. The rest get their shopping done without necrobestiality, and their two hours of prep begins.

Andrea's still fuming about Michelle Bernstein getting to criticize her cooking on national TV; the secret ingredient ain't post-feminist sour grapes, lady. Amanda's doing a galantine--chicken rolled and stuffed with chicken--that was called a "ballantine" throughout the Bocuse D'Or episode from last season. (TV.com explains that this was an erroneous portmanteau of "galantine" and "ballotine," the roasted and warm version of the cold, poached galantine.) Angelo swears he's not playing games, but is leering over Tamesha all over the kitchen. Alex is most definitely playing games; Amanda asks him to try her galantine, and he intentionally withholds the presence of cartilage in his bite.

The first group starts cooking, and when plates hit the table, the real judges stay mostly silent while the competitors speak their piece. Amanda's chicken galantine with plum chutney is too salty (Tamesha), congeal-y (Angelo), or overly cartilaginous (Andrea, with the only real criticism of the dish, in my opinion). Kenny doubles up his lamb--grilled over greens and sliced as carpaccio--alongside a pretty cool mustard seed tuile, but runs into the buzzsaw of crafty opponents. Too chewy for Tiffany, too slimy for Angelo. Alex's sous-vide lamb with beet purée, tzatziki, and (a really interesting, actually) pumpkinseed dust offers tzatziki that's too heavy (Tamesha) and beets that needed something (Andrea).

Kevin's pairing of tuna and veal with romaine, pine nuts, and "Mediterranean condiments" seems like it's going to break the streak; Stephen begins to call it "beautiful," but then says that it needs acidity. Andrea agrees, wishing for citrus or something. At this point, Tom Colicchio can take no more; he scrinches up his face and asks if no one noticed t, he Meyer lemons on their plates. Only after this passive slapdown does Tiffany chime in, calling the dish "nice," and saying the acidity is fine. In the post-Tom era of this round, Ed's sockeye salmon on pumpernickel with cucumber vichyssoise gets far too much credit. Angelo wants things to be more separate and distinct, and Tamesha finds the lemon chunks too big, but what they all should be saying is that it's a really derivative and obvious dish that doesn't have the pizazz to be presented in an Elimination Challenge.

Not too surprisingly, everyone picks Kevin's dish as the best (even Tiffany, who explicitly said that she would like to vote for Ed), and Kenny's as the worst. This might have been the fair choice, but it's also a little transparent. Only Andrea goes with her conscience and votes for Amanda to go.

When the cooking group sits down to judge, and Tom gives them the "you should have heard what they said about you," it's clear that they're going to be a lot less nitpicky than the first group was. Gotta be the bigger people and all.

Tiffany's peppercorn-crusted ahi tuna with gazpacho sauce gets raves all around, and rightly so; flipping the script on gazpacho is just the kind of move her paramour Ed couldn't make with his soup and salad course. Angelo slow-poaches sockeye salmon (just like Ed, who we learn also slept with Angelo's girlfriend once...or vice versa; draw your own conclusions), but loses Kenny and Amanda with his last-minute addition of more condiments, drowning out the flavor of the salmon. Andrea goes for a tartare trio--steak, tuna with chili oil, and mushroom-fennel with roasted beets--and succeeds with the general concept, though her beef was underseasoned by Kenny's measure.

Stephen needs more than a little flavor with his chilled beef; Ed can't taste it at all over the crispy rice and jalapeño oil, and Kenny's socks remain firmly on his feet. The worst, however, appears to be Tamesha, who served almost-but-not-quite-raw scallops with long pepper and pickled rhubarb. It's way too spicy for Amanda, and Kevin finds the scallop to be the least pleasant part of the dish.

At the end of the course, Kevin alone picks Angelo to win (new toadie, perhaps?); the rest pick Tiffany. Tamesha gets universal scorn and a trip straight to the bottom two.

Amanda, hearing about the cartilage, thinks she's doomed for sure. Kenny's bewildered to learn that he's been relegated to the cut list. Padma calls out the top two first.

Thankfully, the judges announce their basic agreement in the selection of Tiffany and Kevin as the best two dishes. Gail praises Kevin's textural contrast, while Tiffany's perfect sear and refreshing flavors get kudos from Tom and Michelle. With a big fist pump, Kevin gets the win he's sorely needed. He also gets a six-night trip to Hawaii, which everyone needs, at least a little.

Tamesha and Kenny head out for judgment. Tamesha is surprised, of course. She thought the long pepper would be balanced with the sweetness of rhubarb and the scallop. That scallop was pretty gross, however; essentially raw but just cooked enough to highlight that it wasn't raw. As for Kenny, he hoped to bridge the two parts of his dish with shared seasonings. He failed in that regard. He suspects that he's being targeted for the threat he represents, but Michelle puts him in his place, telling him that she really didn't enjoy the dish at all. In other words, you to can suck from time to time. All that said, as soon as Tom says that Tamesha's dish was "shockingly bad," we know who's going home.

Tamesha gets the bad news that her association with Angelo the Svengali would portend; she thinks it's "some bullshit," but really, no. Once the spell fades, though, she breaks down under the weight of her mistake; "Angelo is a mentor to me, but I should have taken more control." Whoops.

Next week: Um, Tiffany's engaged? And Alex steals Ed's pea purée and actually serves it to some acclaim? This could be an interesting week for our man Ed.

Top Chef - Keep Angelo off your barnyard

Between Season 5's Stefan trying to lure Jamie out of lesbiandom and Season 4's Andrew and his culinary boner, who would have thought that Top Chef could ever aspire to new heights of sexual energy? This season aims to shatter the mold: Amanda "Mata Hari" Baumgarten led the way, but now we're seeing the emergence of two new oversexed players. Kenny, whose robe is straight out of Kramer's pimp outfit from Seinfeld, and Angelo. Angelo has made sexytime comments before, but his "I basically made love to that duck" line--and the awkward and unnecessary admission that he's had crabs--put him into the creepy stratosphere.

To say nothing of his Chef Whisperer routine. If Amanda is Mata Hari, Angelo is most certainly Svengali, the evil hypnotist of George du Maurier's Trilby. (Coincidentally, Svengali is also referenced in a Seinfeld episode.) He whispered confidences into Tracey's ear a few weeks ago, and then POOF, she was gone. He's doing the same now to Tamesha, who seems much more under his spell than Tracey was--even with her unconsummatable crush. Other chefs are starting to notice, so it remains to be seen if the wizardry can hold, or if speaking to his hypnotism cuts the connection. Bottom line: I do not trust Angelo. Even if he isn't up to something in a competitive sense, I think he's one creepy dude.



Anyway, the episode opens with some of Angelo's creepiness, including a remark about extracting things from Tamesha's spirit. I kid you not; the guy is Voldemort. On the flip side, Ed and Tiffany are developing into a cute, legitimate crushy situation that is only complicated by the continued team structure that keeps them from working with each other directly. But they're all high school-snuggly on the couch, and on Tiff's bed, and I think we're in for a night vision situation if things keep on going this way. But it's all right, because they're both equal players in the relationship, and like I said, it's kind of cute.

Hey, this is a food show, isn't it. How about this week's Quickfire Challenge: the blue crab. Patrick O'Connell, founder of the Inn at Little Washington (a restaurant I'm told is possibly the best in DC), serves as the guest judge, and the chefs generally fumble their way through prepping the crabs and arrive at respectable-ish dishes. Angelo goes Asian, but notes that Ed is going even Asian-er. Andrea's used to the bigger stone crabs of Miami, while Tamesha used to be allergic to crabs and has no clue. (Guess who helps her out?) Kenny goes for a three-pronged tasting plate, and Tim is happy as a clam to work with blue crabs; he's a Maryland guy, remember, so this is old hat.

So old hat that his beer steamed crab doesn't merit any attention at the end of the round. Andrea weighed her crabs down with potato; Amanda's "fascinating" salad with a Sauternes, ginger, and juniper gelee was unbalanced; Kevin's chowder with potato and celery was confused. On the other hand, Kenny and Angelo both highlighted the crab well, meriting praise from O'Connell. But it's slack-jawed Ed, love-struck Ed, who out-Angeloed Angelo and takes the Quickfire win and immunity for the week. Tim bitterly comments that Ed did some Asian shit with his crab, and derisively considers that maybe he should have "put some sooey sauce in there." Is that how Marylanders say "soy"?

The Elimination Challenge takes the chefs to the farm--Ayrshire Farms, specifically--for another "cook what we produce" dinner. This time, however, the chefs will be working as one entity to create no fewer than 6 dishes, served family-style. This leads to the predictable head-bumping between Kenny and Angelo, as the whole mess of chefs try to figure out a plan of attack. See, they don't get to know specific ingredients or working conditions until they arrive at the farm on the next day. The one thing everyone can agree on is that Stephen's idea of a collective signature dessert by way of large fruit plate is a bad one.

Arriving at the farm, the chefs find that propane grills and hot plates are their cooking surfaces, and they're going to have to play nice and get creative to each have the food they want to use (though the sponsor-branded mobile pantry is a boon to most menus). They'd all decided to stay in the teams they cooked in last week, and dedicate themselves to a distinct facet of their respective dishes. Kelly wheedles Tim until he gives up his beets (which leads to the non-starter incidental shoulder bump we saw in the teaser last week). Kevin is forced to improvise when his cauliflower couscous takes a digger; it had been perched precariously on the edge of the table. He goes with broccoli and starts over, which doesn't seem like much of a risk but this is the last minute we're talking about.

Andrea's worried about her pork loin cooking through with meager grill surface to spare; she splits them to speed the process. Angelo's culinary boner grows over Tamesha's cherries (this stuff writes itself, unfortunately). And Team Stephen/Amanda is going for the risky underwhelm-our-way-to-victory approach, with a salad and vegetable soup, respectively. "Progresso, eat your heart out," Amanda brags. Really?

Amanda: Country vegetable minestrone with smoked tomato broth. Rustic! And chef O'Connell means that in the un-complimentary way. Veggies of disparate size and doneness lead to an unpleasant dining experience. But hey, at least they're "country" vegetables, right?

Stephen: Farm salad of balsamic onion, egg, apple, cabernet vinaigrette, and garlic dressing. Another grasp at legitimacy with the name? Never heard of a "farm salad" before. Won't hear of this one anymore, either: it's wet, heavy with goopy dressing, and in a bowl. This might be its worst sin by O'Connell's measure, though Tom loathes the bruised lettuce leaves.

Kenny: Hot and sour curried eggplant with peppers and carrot tops, with Kevin's lemon zest-scented broccoli couscous. It's more of a unified dish, and everyone likes it. Padma thinks it's lovely, and Tom is pleased with the (high) level of heat.

Tim: Roasted turnips and asparagus with honey. Tim had wanted to do a turnip mousseline initially, but wasn't confident in the time and conditions. So he left them at a fairly small dice, and served them as-is. The dish doesn't register with anyone, leaving zero impressions.

Tiffany: Collard greens with Swiss chard, turnip, and chanterelles in duck broth. Undercooked greens, and not much more to say there.

Andrea: Garlic and five-spice-rubbed pork loin with shallot-apple balsamic jus, over Kelly's five-spice-roasted apples and roasted beets. This is how you do a roasted root vegetable, Tim. Padma likes the combination of the two dishes very much, and Eric has lovely things to say about the level of doneness on the pork, and the overall flavor.

Angelo: Grilled duck breast with ginger and oregano honey, with Tamesha's cherry compote with red wine balsamic vinaigrette and grilled asparagus salad. The duck is great, the spices are a wonderful combination. But unfortunately, Jonathan Waxman isn't judging this meal; the asparagus adds nothing.

Alex: Provençal beef tenderloin stuffed with Ed's ratatouille of eggplant, summer squash, and tomato. Nicely cooked beef, but stuffing the loin with ratatouille galls Eric Ripert's Gallic heritage.

And lastly, Kelly whips up an extra-credit strawberry-rhubarb crisp with basil-scented whipped cream. She had time to kill while her beets roasted, and that time produces a crowd-pleasing dessert--indeed, a rarity on Top Chef.

At Judges' Table, Kevin, Kenny, Andrea, and Kelly are called out first. No mystery here, they're the top four. A lot of big sighs and exhalations indicate that this has not been a fun challenge, exactly. Kevin's couscous turned out perfect for its troubled beginnings. Kenny gets props from Padma, who Tom notes is known for being tough on curries. Andrea, for being nervous about her cooking temperature, and for adding sugar to the sauce, is put off her concerns by universal compliments. Kelly's fruit and veg roast was rustic (in the good way, Amanda), and her dessert was a nice surprise at the end of the meal. But at the end of Judges' Table, it is Kenny's curried eggplant that takes the win. No mention of what he might have won, but whatever. A win's a win.

The suckas at the bottom are Tim, Amanda and Stephen. That's gotta suck for Tim, not having his cooking partner there to take shots with him. But it wasn't a team challenge, really. Their mistakes were made glaring by the overall high quality of the meal. Tim hears what he should have heard from his inner voices: you shouldn't have backtracked on your original plan at that point in your preparation, and the addition of asparagus solely on color contrast was a poor choice. Stephen's salad was overthought, overdressed, and poorly served. Amanda takes the worst of it, getting a lesson on amateurish technique and what a minestrone should be from Eric, and a downright knuckle-bashing from Schoolmaster Tom on proper chopping technique and cooking times for vegetables. "When we cook, why do we cut things uniformly?" I mean, damn. Talk about cutting!

Stephen and Amanda look like they might just barf, but they're saved by Tim's complete miscalculation and poor execution of his dish. The guy, as I've said already, looks to be a bad character personally, so I'm glad he's gone. "It's not one of those goodbyes that's forever," he says. No, Tim, it really kinda is. Out!

Next week: outright gamesmanship and the chefs judge themselves.

Top Chef - If at first you don't succeed...

There was, quite frankly, a shitload of cookery tonight. So much, in fact, that the traditional opening pun of this season of Top Chef was set aside in favor of a silent cliche, to save time: cherry blossoms. Okay, so we never have to spend any time on those again this season.

This week's Quickfire was a somewhat bizarre challenge paying homage to Padma and Tom, two new parents on the Top Chef crew. To win $10,000, the chefs will have to create a dish that is satisfying for the adult, and both puree-able and culinarily appropriate for the baby. Thankfully, they didn't also have to pour it over bread and bake it into a prison-safe casserole.

Oh yeah, and there would be two Quickfire winners, one chosen by each of the parents. I wanted to make a comment with the last recap about Amanda (the former drug abuser) getting into a fight with Alex (the one chef who might actually sell her drugs), but decided to be nice instead. Lo and behold, Alex commented this time around about how he'd spend his $10k on "a hooker and an eight ball, please." Readers, you tell me: is he legitimately gross, or a saucier gangster just posturing for the cameras?

So, we learned a few things about the chefs this week. Kenny also lost a wife to an early demise. Angelo is probably as obnoxiously pedantic with his son as he is on the show. Stephen doesn't understand that finely brunoised apples won't be a choking hazard to a baby after they're pureed. And Lynne is remarkably boring, even when she's indignant about being ignored. Okay, maybe that wasn't much of a revelation.

It's hard to analyze dishes that are meant to be pureed, but props to the judges for eating both the grown-up and baby versions. Angelo, annoying as he is, made a very pretty layered puree of his poached tuna with fenugreek broth. Lynne's flavors were nice and translated well to puree. But Tom chose Tamesha's textured vegetable chowder and salmon puree and innovative licorice oil, while Padma picked Kenny's grilled chicken and mango salad-slash-very dangerous choking hazard. ::eyeroll for stephen::

There are often little threads that connect the Quickfire and Elimination Challenges--there were no such connections this week, at least that I could discern. The chefs were asked to plan breakfast, lunch, and dinner meals for the Hilton family of restaurants, suitable for room delivery. Fresh, healthy, creative, and easily executable by the kitchen staff. The chefs were told to pair off, and to prepare to cook tourney-style. Breakfast and lunch would see two teams each be declared safe, while dinner would pit the last three in a battle royale for survival. Both chefs on the losing team would be eliminated.

Teams: Tim/Tiffany, Stephen/Amanda, Arnold/Lynne, Alex/Ed, Kevin/Kenny, Kelly/Andrea, Angelo/Tamesha. Past contestants Spike Mendelsohn, Mike Isabella, and Bryan Voltaggio were the guest diners, along with Beth Scott of Hilton and DC chef Nora Pouillon of Nora.

With 30 minutes for breakfast, I counted four hollandaises in this fresh-n-healthy challenge. Ed and Alex crashed and burned, with Ed dropping the ball on their hollandaise as well as the central prosciutto/potato cake on one of the plates. Amanda and Stephen were safe with a confit of pancetta and poached egg dish, as were Tim and Tiffany for their fairly predictable but nonetheless tasty crab cake Benedict with asparagus and an unnecessary potato hash.

The clock moved to 45 minutes for lunch prep, and the remaining chefs amplified their anxieties. Kelly got all desperate and morose, while Kenny and Angelo both fueled themselves on being pissed at not winning the first round. (Angelo also spends some time praising the hot, "inner lion"-ness of Tamesha, as well as making direct and unveiled innuendo about wanting to sleep with her. I'm really not sure what his game is, but I fear it's no less misogynistic than Isabella at his worst.) Alex and Ed rebounded from their disastrous breakfast with a strong ricotta gnudi and diver scallop dish. Angelo and Tamesha produced a two-dimensional beef carpaccio, but the complimentary flavors of jicama, Asian pear, cilantro and kimchi seemed strong. Andrea and Kelly, on the other hand, served uncooked canned beans in their panzanella and overcooked their red snapper; Padma would have sent it back, while Eric would never have sent it out to begin with. Ouch.

Dinner service was granted a full hour, and the attitude problems between Lynne and Arnold are getting pronounced. Lynne pushed for a late start to the squid ink pasta, while Arnold wanted to make sure there was enough time to get it cooked properly. The other two teams prepared beef short ribs, which portended that one would make it and one would be up for elimination. Indeed, Kevin and Kenny were relegated to the bottom two with Arnold and Lynne and their mussels, while not only did Kelly and Andrea survive the round, but were given the overall win. They get to pick from a 6-night trip to either Barcelona or Venice as a reward. Well then.

I have a problem with this, in that there seemed to be two options for the judges. Either the judges planned on giving the win to the best dish of the dinner round--which is odd, since that team would have by definition produced poor to mediocre breakfast and lunch dishes--or they were prepared to call out a "safe" team to reward a good breakfast or lunch dish--which would have made Judges' Table kind of complicated. I just don't think the challenge was framed right for the selection of an overall winner (if at first you don't succeed, try try again until we are forced to give you the win); it was great for finding a loser, though.

Well, mostly great. The complaints leveled against each team were pretty nitpicky. Kevin and Kenny's short ribs lacked sufficient glaze (as always, Tom cuts through the BS to point out where the team went wrong in executing the dish), and the inclusion of horseradish was too soft-pedaled. Lynne and Arnold had a nice concept and the sauce was great, but the pasta was sorely undercooked; this was, of course, 100% Lynne's fault and in the face of Arnold's repeated suggestions. Lynne just sold him down the river, which would seem odd if she hadn't turned into a crabby old lady halfway through the Elimination Challenge and clearly just wanted to get away from all the young brats in the kitchen.

So, guess who lost. Lynne, we hardly knew ye--and were fine with that--but Arnold will be missed. The cheery little guy wanted everyone to know how much time he spent on his image, but in the end wanted to prove that he was more than just a Louis Vitton bag. Sadly, that's exactly what he was: a tasteful affectation completely unappreciated by classless old broads.

Next week: Heads bump in the kitchen, and shoulders bump at service--with potentially disatrous results? Only the editors know for now!

Top Chef - Mount Vernon, meet Mata Hari

By now, you've all hopefully had the chance to watch last week's episode of Top Chef, entitled "Capitol Grill" and thereby fulfilling this season's pun quota for the week.

If you haven't, I recommend heading over to The Washingtonian for my buddy Carol Blymire's tasteful and incise (and prompt) recaps, or to The AV Club, where the estimable Scott Tobias breaks it all down in businesslike fashion.

Today, I have a few basic thoughts. First: there are personalities a-plenty this season. Very few total snoozers, and in their unremarkable shoes stand a lot of apparently distasteful jerks. I refer, of course to the producer-branded co-villains Kelly and Angelo, and the iffy character that is Tim Dean, but also to Ed (who doesn't appear to really like anyone and finds this whole exercise taxing) and the emerging Mata Hari of Season 7, Amanda. Seriously, how she's convinced so many chefs and judges that she's as impressive and formidable as they think she is…well, look up Mata Hari. Then check out Amanda's bio picture on Bravo.com.

This episode was also the on-screen official roll-out of the new Top Chef spinoff, Top Chef: Just Desserts. Regular judge Gail Simmons will be joined by Johnny Iuzzini, pastry chef at Jean-Georges, who looks like the new kid from the last reel of The Shawshank Redemption.

One is Tommy, the other Johnny...but which one is which??

The Quickfire Challenge was a pie-from-scratch challenge, and most did a serviceable job (exceptions: Tracey's roadkill pizza of a blueberry-almond pie and Ed's nonsequitur inclusion of celery spuma with a banana cream pie…topped with peanuts?). Kelly's chocolate ganache tart pushed the limits of what I think was the spirit of the challenge, but got props for a smooth filling. But the win went to Kenny, who himself veered close to cake territory with his bananas Foster five-spice pie.

The Elimination Challenge asked the chefs to cook a picnic for a passel of Washington interns at George Washington's Mount Vernon home. Ribs and beef and pork butt (a cut that Alex might think is actual butt, though I'm not sure) made their expected appearances. But let's get to the real meat of the order: Amanda is a former cocaine and pill abuser? Well then. More power to her for getting off 'em, I guess. She and Alex got into a fairly stupid argument, one that Amanda didn't sell very well to Big Tom. Stephen tried to impress Tom by talking up his "Chilean sea bass, from Whole Foods," like he's the only one who shopped there and the rest were at the Social Safeway hot-bar. (You won't find many shout-outs to DC in these recaps, but that's one.)

Some classic lines in this one. Tracey and Kenny on grill mechanics: "How do you turn this grill down?" "There ain’t no turnin' it down." Gail to Ed in the Quickfire: "And how does this compare to your grandmother's celery spuma?" (By the way, how awful is that word in an otherwise English sentence? Ugh.) And my wife, on hearing Arnold describe how he's never been "the bitch," meaning an intern: "I think that's a lie."

Jonathan Waxman took the role of guest judge, which is fine, though he ended up giving Matamanda Hari far too much props for her grilled asparagus (yes, just grilled asparagus) while knocking the hell out of Kevin's simple and safe Puerto Rican plate.

Angelo's lettuce wrap and smoked egg salad sounded great, as did Andrea's root beer skirt steak, though the former was much, much more successful than the latter. The final four on top were Angelo, Ed (who pronounces "tartin" as "tar-TEEN," which is annoying), Amanda and Arnold. Arnold, who had to copy Kenny's grill technique to know how to start the damn thing, took the win for his lemongrass-skewered lamb meatballs with tabouli and gazpacho. He's a happy little man. Pore Power!

The bottoms were Tim, Stephen, Tracey and Kevin. Everything that Stephen hoped wouldn't go wrong with his bacon-wrapped bass (and that he thought he'd prevented), did in fact go wrong. Tim's vegetables were off (as was, unfortunately, the aim of the goose that almost shit on them), and it was underseasoned and underconfident. Kevin's flank steak was home cook quality, though not offensively bad. No, the "offensively bad" comment went to Tracey's Italian sausage slider, which was too big, too rare, and too disgusting to be called Italian--if Tom's opinion as an Italian means anything.

His outrage was, as it often is, defanged by having to deliver another awful, hammy, punny segue to the final decision. Tracey got the boot, but having declared herself clairvoyant during the little mid-break vignette, she had to have seen it coming.

Next week: a double elimination challenge, the return of Eric Ripert, but also the return of Isabella and Spite. Blech.

Top Chef - What about purple? Purple is a fruit.

Let's see if any hack columnists from the Sun-Times take shots at White House chef Sam Kass for appearing on TV and talking about the First Lady's food initiatives. Oh, that's right, she only goes after the really big fish--and gets it wrong, then apologizes diffidently.

Hey, anyway, it's another week of Top Chef. Are you having as hard a time as I am telling Ed and Stephen apart? Is there more confusion this season because there are five chefs with A names, four with T names, and three with K names? It's messing me up, I can tell you that.

The Quickfire pairs our chefs up for the Bipartisandwich Challenge. Design a sandwich with your partner...with only one hand per chef. It's a sack race, essentially. Immunity is at stake as the chefs pair off via knife draw. Arnold and Kelly appear to be the cutest team, sashaying around the kitchen with a chummy aplomb. Angelo and Kenny don't really take note of their toadies teammates (Ed: "HeyheyheyKenny! I'm left-handed! Isn't that great?" Tracey: "I totally have a crush on Angelo even though I'm gay."), instead focusing on each other with laserbeam intensity. They both end up producing an Asian-inflected dish.

And in fact it is those two teams at the top of the challenge. A commercial break stretches out the suspense before Angelo wins his third of three challenges, gaining immunity for him and Wormtail. (Yeah, I went all Harry Potter on that diss.) At the bottom: Stephen and Jacqueline's onion, avocado and chicken on toasted white (really, guys?) and Lynne and Tiffany's unwieldy flatbread saltimbocca sandwich.

The First Lady's initiative to end childhood obesity takes center stage for the Elimination Challenge. The chefs must prepare a lunch for kids on a public school budget: $2.68 per kid, or $130 for each team of four to serve 50 kids. And unlike actual school lunches, these will have to be healthy.

Angelo and Tracey get to pick first of the other teams for their associates, and in a crafty move Angelo chooses Kenny and Ed. They are embracing the healthy versions of junky things, like burgers and PB with celery. Andrea, Kevin, Tim, and Alex group up to tackle mac and cheese, and Kevin volunteers for dessert. Arnold, Kelly, Lynne, and Tiffany are immediately under the thumb of Kelly's sassy hairdo, and her bizarre desire to serve feta and pickled onions on their team's tacos. But that's nowhere near the crazy of Stephen, Jacqueline, Tamesha, and Amanda's team, who has to deal with Amanda's intent to braise chicken thighs in sherry...for middle schoolers. Plus, Amanda is developing a serious Leah (Season 5) vibe.

We see major budget compromises at the food wholesaler (Jacqueline gives up most of her ingredients for the dessert grenade she chose to jump onto). Ed has apparently decided that what middle schoolers really want is to be treated like infants; he's whipping up a stunning sweet potato puree that looks as much like baby poop as it does baby food. Kelly demonstrates some serious local newsgirl Spanish pronunciation, as well as a strong need to be recognized and applauded. Arnold has clearly tired of The Cutest Team; he takes Kelly to task for her rampaging ego when the chefs return home that night.

So the chefs arrive at Alice Deal Middle School, with an hour to prep before the Cheeto-popping little brats come barging in. Angelo breaks his mousse gun, Jacqueline has no ingredients and instead breaks out the industrial-sized bag of sugar, Angelo works around his broken nozzle and downplays the significance: "I turned a rock into a wheel." As the judges arrive, we see that Sam has replaced Eric Ripert this week--sad, but not unexpected.

Team Andrea, Kevin, Tim, Alex: First, the biggest shock. Kevin's melon/orange kebab with yogurt cream nails it with both the kids ("It was yogurt, wasn't it?") and the judges. Alex's apple cider BBQ chicken is tasty and not-too-sweet. Andrea's mostly-yogurt cole slaw is great. Only Tim's mac and cheese with whole wheat crust gets dinged by the judges.

[Author's note: I've been told by a well-placed source that TImothy Dean is a less-than-savory character. Bad news, in fact. The Baltimore Sun reported in January about a $1.3 million judgment of defaulted debt against Dean, but by June (and his debut on Top Chef) the story had been retooled into a tale of obstacles overcome. Indeed, the story appears to have been scrubbed from the Sun's website. There is a cached copy here. And remember his comment about his wife dying? True. But it doesn't address the violent streak in the previous link, and in claims I've heard that he has accusations of domestic abuse in his past. Temper any enthusiasm you might have for him with this info, and keep your eyes on him as the competition gets more stressful.]

Team Angelo, Tracey, Kenny, Ed: Ed's puree is very peppery and of course ugly as sin. Kenny's bread pudding is fine, cooked properly, if maybe less than amazing. The chicken burger is pretty good, but it's a chicken burger. Angelo's celery with peanut butter mousse and tuile is nominally a vegetable and very sweet. Indeed, the entire meal has almost no vegetable content. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Spike v.2.0.

Team Arnold, Kelly, Lynne, Tiffany: It's a very colorful plate. Lynne's black bean cake has a tangle of crispy sweet potato strings perched jauntily atop. Arnold's salad is bright and fresh. And yes, Kelly, your carnitas are quite good and the kids seem to like them a lot. Tiffany's sweet potato and sherbet dessert devoid of any dessert-ish ingredient is surprisingly satisfying as a dessert.

Team Amanda, Tamesha, Stephen, Jacqueline: At last, the booze round. These kids have been waiting ALL DAY for this. The chicken thigh in sherry jus looks disgusting and is yet treated remarkably charitably by the judges at the table considering IT'S GOT BOOZE IN IT. Sam Kass tries to maintain a calm demeanor as Amanda describes the dish.

(She didn't just say "sherry jus." There's no way. Sam, you're staring. Smile! SMILE!)

Stephen misspeaks and tells the judges that his sweet onion rice has 165 grams of fat; of course, he meant calories. It's still mushy. Jacqueline's banana pudding is grainy and tastes like there's about two pounds of sugar in it. (About that...) Tamesha's bean and tomato salad is the sole bright spot in a dismal meal.

The judges call out Angelo's team and Amanda's team. The remainders all assume that they're the top two because that's how it always goes (it is?); they're wrong. These two are the bottom two performers, and they're in for a rough Judges' Table.

Stephen wanted to put a lot of veggies in his rice, but they were too expensive. Jacqueline wanted to put chocolate in her banana pudding, but it was too expensive; she ended up putting about two pounds of sugar into the recipe. But Amanda, you had enough money in the budget for sherry? A completely inappropriate ingredient given the challenge? Unsurprisingly, there's no rebuttal.

Ed gets a scolding from Mama Gail for making his puree so spicy. As Sam tells the whole team that sugary, starchy meals with no real vegetables are what's wrong with school lunches, Kenny chimes in to defend their reasoning. Oh, thank god, you think, right? He announces that he wanted to do green leafies and other veggies, but in the interest of budget, he made sure there was tomato on the chicken burger. Before any of us could say it, Sam reminds Kenny that tomatoes are fruits.

You could have fit a tomato into Kenny's gaping face when met with that Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?-level bon mot. Now that's disappointing. Stephen shakes his head from the team next door, but everyone's even more shocked when Angelo is asked whether he kind of scuttled his effort knowing that he had immunity. His answer? "I can't answer that right now." Listen, bro, I know this is Washington, D.C., but just because the original Constitution is in town doesn't mean you can plead the 5th on this one.

So where was the team leadership, guys? The judges wonder why no one stood up and said, "We need vegetables!" And then head-shaking Stephen jumps in to add his criticisms to the conversation, and the whole thing goes off. Kenny, you dropped the ball. Oh yeah, well at least my dessert didn't have two pounds of sugar! Do you know how much sugar is in processed peanut butter? It's terrible for you. Well, let it not be said that there's only one team who served sherry to middle schoolers here.

At this point, I figured the judges would either let the venting burn off, or step in and prohibit further back-and-forth (you guys like the alcohol references there?). But no. Gail jumps into the fray, asking what was the deal with that sherry anyway? Amanda says that she loves the taste of sherry with chicken thighs. Gail says there are a lot of things she likes that aren't appropriate here, and then busts out the line of the night, saying "I love vodka--not cookin' with it!"

In the stew room, Angelo is actually whistling while people talk about his immunity and whether he ambushed his teammates. Dude. Are you joking?

Lynne, Tiffany, Kelly and Arnold are called out to the table as the winning team, and for the best mix of color, taste, and nutrition, Kelly gets the recognition she's been struggling to ensure all night. GOOD JOB KELLY HEAD PAT.

Kenny, Ed, Amanda and Jacqueline all get called out for the ax to fall, and because the judges clearly saw nefarious gamesmanship on Angelo's team, Jacqueline's two pounds of sugar are the most unforgivable sin of the challenge. She gone, and that's fine. She didn't seem to bring much to the competition. We're still in harsh truth territory this season; I can say that.

Next week: picnic foods and more piling on Amanda. Fun!

Top Chef - Padma stole my pun

Yes, that's right, it's Top Chef Season 7, and within the opening minutes, host Padma Lakshmi got the "hail to the chef" groaner out of the way once and for all. That's great, you say, but who are the chefs?

There's Tamesha, Ed and Kenny, and Kevin who has been friends with Kenny for years. There's Tiffany, a Texan, and Arnold, the only Tennessean to buy orchids at Whole Foods. Amanda and Stephen and Andrea and Jacqueline, who is from Brooklyn. Kelly from Colorado; Lynne, who is 51 and works for the other CIA; Tracey from Atlanta.

Alex has the same "Upper Vest Side" accent as Janosz from Ghostbusters 2, but is actually Russian. Tim is the hometown chef whose wife died recently. John appears to be a bit kooky. And then there's Angelo, another New Yorker, who redefines douchey cocktail party namedropping. Tim totally calls him on it, but only in confessional. I'm telling you, it's got to stop.

The Quickfire Challenge is a familiar mise-en-place race in four stages: peel 10 potatoes, brunoise 10 cups of onions (that's chopping them into tiny cubes--"an ayf by an ayf by an ayf," Kevin helpfully reminds us), break down 4 chickens and then cook a dish with those ingredients and a handful of pantry items. Winner gets $20,000; it's that High Stakes Quickfire again.

Kenny starts out smoking the competition, and Angelo immediately sets in to beat him. Fat chance. Kenny takes each and every one of the three opening rounds, convincingly. I wonder the same thing every time I watch these races: why does everyone else stop when a chef shouts, "CHECK!"? Keep on chopping, you dopes!

Anyway, the final four is Kenny, Kevin, Angelo, and Tim. Kenny's Moroccan chicken duo and Angelo's roasted chicken with onion jam vie for the top spot, and in a truly annoying development, Angelo takes the win over technically-dominant Kenny. Angelo tells us he wants to be the first chef to win every single challenge. Thanks, Angelo, that really clears up your motivation.

For the Elimination Challenge, our intrepid chefs are asked to create a dish that represents their electorate, if you will--their home towns. The 17 chefs will be split into four groups, with each group sending two chefs to Judges Table, one to win and one to go home. The Quickfire's final four get to pick teams.

Angelo: Tiffany, Kelly, John
Kenny: Tracey, Lynne, Stephen, plus last-picked Ed (who Angelo got to assign to any team he wanted to)
Timothy: Alex, Tamesha, Andrea

Angelo and his popped collar leads the rest of the chefs to Whole Foods to shop. John buys something pre-made from the freezer--always a good sign. Tim's going for local rockfish, while Alex wants to deconstruct his mother's borscht recipe. My wife loves Jacqueline's apple cups. That she's planning on filling them with chicken liver mousseline is perhaps a bit of a wet blanket.

The kitchen leads to some further revelations. Angelo, believe it or not, is from Connecticut. "I feel like an orchestra with flavors," he effuses about his own talents. John's choosing to make a dessert with his pre-made goods--always a good sign. Kenny's dish, a cinnamon and coffee-rubbed trout with goat cheese polenta, takes the prize for most appetizing. Jacqueline's terrine, which she chooses to not strain, is by far the least appealing.

At the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, the chefs prepare to serve the guests of the Cherry Blossom Festival's opening ceremonies. Ladies and gentlemen, please meet our new Toby Young: Eric Ripert! What a blessed eviction of an incumbent.

Amanda deserves kudos for having the onions to use a term like "neo-classical California cuisine" in the opening challenge of Top Chef. These are the faces real chefs make when you use a term like that:

"Neo-what now?"


She makes a jagged red snapper carpaccio with clementines and caraway. Arnold bakes a kaffir lime and basil cake, and gets no commentary for his effort. Kevin's sous vide lamb with Meyer lemon marmalade sounds tasty and is tasty. Everyone, especially Ripert, notices how grainy Jacqueline's liver and port wine mousse is.

Stephen's potato-crusted deep-fried ribeye is too thin and too tough as a result. Heavy Boston baked beans and over-breaded cod cakes doom Ed's dish. Tracey blands up some shrimp with her cheddar grits. Kenny's dish pleases all, especially Ripert who likes the quinoa particularly. Lynne whips up some waffles and corn-Camembert ice cream and, apparently, no one notices.

Alex pays tribute to his mom with a well-cooked beef short rib and beets. Tamesha wields the power supreme and crafts jerk chicken globes; that's the last we hear of them. No one in Miami would recognize Andrea's pork with chorizo gnocchi, but it tastes all right. Tim offers rockfish with pickled leeks and sesame seeds; there's too much skin and not enough cooperation with his sauces.

Tiffany's Cajun shrimp and crawfish salad with tomatillos happened. Kelly seasoned her New York strip steak well, and served it with fiddlehead ferns. Angelo conducts his orchestra into Arctic char with pickled shallots, tapioca, and smoked bacon foam, as well as a bit more dill than Gail wanted. John takes his store-bought pastry crusts and tries to whip up a believable maple napoleon; no one buys it.

The Stew Room is dead silent. (At least, it is when we first see it; during the mid-break vignette, a bunch of stickinbutts bemoan the partying being done by other chefs, but manage to avoid saying that they aren't there to make friends.) Padma arrives and calls out Kevin, Alex, Kenny and Angelo--very clearly the winning group.

Kenny's dish was perhaps poorly edited but tasted great. Kevin's dish featured all the composition that Kenny's lacked, and was just as tasty. Alex did his momma proud. And dammit, Angelo's assurance that he knows what you should notice in your mouth, plus how and when, appears to have come true in Gail's mouth, at least; Eric liked the bacon foam, too. He announces that the winner of the first Elimination Challenge is Angelo, who is now 2 for 2. Ugh.

Angelo is asked to call out Stephen, Jacqueline, John, and Tim. Tim's all pissed. The judges ding Stephen on his tough ribeye, Jacqueline on announcing at dinner that she didn't add any fat to what is always a fatty dish, but worse that she still doesn't know the recipe by heart after having made it 100 times. John's pastry was soggy and just a bad idea from the start. Tim should have eliminated the rockfish skin, which got unpleasant in the mouth.

The first elimination of this season is, rightfully, John. He failed on the premise and the execution of the challenge--never a good sign. Plus, he's just kind of a weird dude.

Looks like we'll get more Bourdain (guess that rumored feud wasn't so serious after all), Mike Isabella from Season 6, plus trips to NASA and the original CIA. And a three-legged challenge? It's got my vote. A political pun! In your face, Padma!

Welcome back, readers.

Top Chef 7 kicks off tonight

To address a current problem: yes, I really fell off the Top Chef Masters wagon this last season. Honestly, I still haven't watched any of the last four episodes. I still don't know who won--and don't spoil it for me, they're all DVRed.

Tonight, the flagship sets sail once more, this time from Washington, D.C. I will watch, and I will probably live-tweet. But I have to warn you that the same issues that made recapping Top Chef Masters difficult will still be in effect for Top Chef DC. Plus, my buddy Carol Blymire will be recapping for The Washingtonian and she's got a few things going for her that I don't:

1) She's a Washingtonian herself, and more plugged into the local references that will populate the season.

2) She's much more literate on the national food scene than I am.

3) She's got the time, and the freedom to juggle writing assignments that I don't have.

4) She's quite a looker, if I might say so.

So I'm gonna try to stay on top of this season's recapping here at Irony or Mayo, but it's very possible that I will let you down again. Sorry--it's only fair to warn you. If I falter, please give Carol a read. Heck, even if I'm recapping, read her stuff too. She's great!