Friday, December 19, 2008

"You don't win with a deviled egg!"

Friday, December 19, 2008

Welcome to the “Christmas in July” edition of Top Chef! It has been glaringly obvious throughout the season that the chefs have been cooking during a long, hot New York summer. It’s not just the perennial sunburned faces that gives it away, but the light clothing and the gloriously sunny days that we’re always witnessing from the balcony of the fancy apartment. Also things like Stefan and Fabio, who are apparently now BFF’s, carving a huge watermelon in the apartment kitchen. I’m hoping that the party for the elimination challenge was a special “Christmas in July” party ALREADY, and not specifically thrown that way for Top Chef’s benefit.

This week, we were treated to a jazzy little intro, with Ariane cheerfully making her bed, confidence totally in place, and Eugene carefully studying his notes, absolutely sure he’d be gone if he landed on the bottom again. I knew the producers were up to their old editing tricks, and either Ariane or Eugene would be facing the proverbial music-I hoped Eugene would be able to stay.

We learned, through a typical reality show product placement (the T-Mobile Sidekick this time), that Hosea’s father is sick. He called his sister to check up on the family. He seems genuine, saying that even though it’s hard to be away, that his father knew this was a big opportunity for him. I don’t think he’s selfish. Not sweet Hosea.

The chefs trooped into a Top Chef kitchen bedecked with wreaths, garlands, ribbons, and all sorts of Christmas greenery. A table was laid with all kinds of Christmas food. Padma was there waiting, ever-present mischievous smile on her face, because she knows it’s JULY, not December, ready to spring a HUGE guest judge and rather enjoyable quickfire on the contestants. She informs them about their task first: create a delicious holiday meal using only one pot. I’m thinking, “This is a great challenge! One for the normal, everyday, non-professional folk who watch this show from the comfort of their own couch!” Radhika is thinking “Crap! I use AT LEAST 10 cooking “vessels” to cook curries, chutneys, dal, and various regional Indian cuisines usually!” That’s not exactly what she said, but the 10 vessels part is verbatim. She’s definitely stressed. The rest of the chefs look nonplussed. Until, that is, the guest judge makes her appearance. It’s Martha Stewart, formerly convicted of a white collar crime, traipsing into the Top Chef kitchen all smiley with her brand new book in hand! An American icon, she is, despite a rather tarnished crown. The chefs all look at her with rapt eyes and focused attention. It’s as if Steve Jobs walked into a room full of computer nerds. Or if Mike Krzyzewski stopped by a weekly meeting of high school basketball coaches. Actually, what is probably the most accurate comparable reaction would be what might happen if Robert Pattinson visited a PTA meeting full of Twilight moms. I’ve never seen such reverence from Top Chef contestants, and there have been some very well-respected guest judges. They were borderline ridiculous, nodding emphatically at Martha’s every word. Lest you think I’m being too hard on them, I should say that I can understand the kneejerk celebrity reaction to simply gawk and act nonsensical. It’s what I did, after all, when I ran into the Duke basketball players on campus. And really, they were MINOR compared to some of the stars I’ve sighted.

The chefs got right to work on their one pot wonders, although I had serious doubts at MANY of the final products actually being considered one pot dishes. Ariane made a cauliflower puree, with filet mignon! Sorry, that is NOT a one pot dish! Jamie, on the other hand, immediately started to work on a delicious-sounding potato-kale stew. I forgive her for topping it with a seared scallop, because I know she can make a great stew, and she’s right in her self-assessment. She is innovative and modern, compared to Ariane’s consistent and more familiar dishes. Obviously, Ariane is much better than she led us to believe in the beginning, but that could also be because the rest of the chefs are either making entirely too risky dishes that have failed OR simply haven’t made anything fabulous and unique.

I’m worried about Hosea and his paella, and Dr. Chase’s potato risotto sounds strange. Fabio shared a colorful story about his childhood-apparently he was very bad, and "In order to make me don't destroy the house, she (his grandma) would make me stir the polenta for hour."- and had Stefan taste his polenta. They are the “dynamic duo”, now. Personally, they had both better step up, because they have NOT impressed me over the past few episodes.

Martha liked many of the dishes, including Stefan’s celtic goulash. What made it Celtic, I wonder? Hosea’s paella turned out to be great, and Ariane hit a homerun with her creamy, non-buttery puree. No dish was terrible except for Dr. Chase.’s risotto. Eugene’s broth was an issue. Fabio’s polenta was grayish, and Martha couldn’t see the mushrooms. “Martha,my grandma would be so ashamed of you you would not believe it!” It was close, but Martha was most amazed by Ariane’s trickery at eliminating the butter from the puree, and granted her immunity. So Ariane won. Again. I do feel sorry for Jamie, because I think she is much more talented than the majority of the other chefs, and it would be nice if she could finally be officially recognized for that skill. She just needs to learn how to not incorporate butter in cauliflower purees. Then she’ll be A-ok.

Now, all of the chefs were clueless about what the elimination challenge would be, so to help with the confusion, Padma brought in the…what? Is that the Harlem Gospel Choir in the Top Chef kitchen? What are THEY doing here? Oh, it’s so obvious. The chefs will be catering for a holiday party for AMFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS research, full of fundraisers, famous actresses, various advocates, and extremely picky chefs. Thank goodness for the Harlem Gospel Choir. Gosh, those chefs would NEVER have figured out their challenge without them. And they certainly wouldn’t have been inspired to make a dish based on the 12 days of Christmas had it not been for that joyful singing.

Yes, the chefs drew knives to determine which day of Christmas they would have to use to create a dish for the event. It’s an extremely daunting challenge. Everyone is pretty freaked out. I would be too. How the heck do you make 9 ladies dancing into a dish for freaking 300 people? Ariane is THRILLED to sing out six geese a laying. Maybe that is because she has IMMUNITY!

The chefs were obviously in the Christmas spirit when attacking the produce aisles of Whole Foods. They were exceedingly polite to the staff, so much so that it made me wonder if there had been some problem with their behavior before which needed to be addressed. I patted myself on the back for calling that Dr. Chase would try to use frog legs for "10 lords a leaping." Fabio lamented that once again, he pick the crappy theme. He decides to use crab legs for his dancing ladies.

The prep time is predictably crazy, especially when factoring in the late hour (the chefs were still in the kitchen at 2 am!) and the prodigious amount of smoke arising from Hosea's pork. Catering challenges are usually very stressful on the show, and understandably so. I can't imagine how hard it would be to make sure you've done absolutely everything in advance that you can, but still making sure that you didn't cook something too early, so it won't taste good the next day. I'm not sure what to think about Dr. Chase-he's determined that Tom and Padma see him thinking out of the box and racing around the kitchen. That is not always a good thing, Dr. Eugene seems very sure about his dish, because he has made it successfully before. Tahitian-style ceviche sounds good to me! Ariane's deviled eggs, Fabio's crab cakes, and Hosea's grilled pork tenderloin with mashed potatoes do indeed seem rather simple, as Dr. Chase notes. We'll see what Tom thinks.

Tragedy strikes in the morning, as the chefs discover that one of the refrigerators wasn't closed properly. Hosea and Radhika were the most affected, as their duck and pork is now completely unsafe for serving. They were distraught, of course. However, they have their competitors in their corners, and all of the chefs banded together, scouring the Top Chef stock to find additional protein and doing everything they could to help fix the dishes. It was really very sweet, and even though I occasionally doubt the talent of this crop of chefs, I have to admit that no other season has showcased such generous and considerate qualities in them. I was touched. Christmas spirit was present.

The event was relatively calm, even though I'm sure the chefs were in a constant state of panic, getting 300 plates ready. Natasha Richardson was the host; she is absolutely lovely. Jamie, surprisingly, absolutely bombed. Her scallop was "raw" AND "dry"-how is that possible? It must have been bad. Fabio's crab cake was greasy. Melissa's gorgonzola drowned out the flavor of her meat. Hosea was the most popular, with the judges AND the ladies. However, no one was truly wowed, and across the board, the dishes were mediocre.

It became immediately evident at judge's table that this challenge was a colossal disappointment to Tom. He looked apathetic and slightly sour while speaking with Hosea, Jeff, Radhika, and Stefan, who all made successful dishes, at least according to the crowd's opinion. While Padma was fairly cheerful with the winning group, she had a steely glare fixed on her face the moment the losing chefs walked in. Eugene, Melissa, and Jamie stumbled through less-than-satisfactory explanations about their less-than-stellar dishes, and then the judges struggled to come to a good decision.

Finally, Tom decided that he needed to let all of the chefs know how he felt about the challenge, including the winners. He had some very justifiable zingers: "You don't win with a deviled egg! Do the food that got you here!" We were treated to some heretofore uncharacteristic attitude from Leah, and Tom promptly put her in her place. Essentially, he let the chefs know that they needed to relax, be comfortable, and cook what they know. Very generously, he decided that no one would go home-all of our chefs will be fighting it out for at least one more week! Thank goodness-it would've been sad to see either Eugene or Jamie go. I'm not Jamie's number one fan, but she IS a good chef. Prove it to us, Jamie!

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