Tuesday, February 10, 2009

"Congratulations, you are the Top Chef."

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Ah, the tenuous peace that was forged between Jamie and I was shattered in this episode. I will not miss you, Team Rainbow. I am too overwhelmed with disappointment at your untimely, but well-deserved end.

I am pleased to see that Stefan was humbled by his one and only trip to the bottom three. He does seem genuinely happy to still be competing. Fabio takes his turn with the handy T-Mobile Sidekick and calls his wife, ostensibly to check up on the state of his restaurant. On the one hand, I’m happy that we got to witness the call. We learned that every other time Fabio has returned home from a long extended stint on a reality television show, the restaurant has “burned down to ground” and she has opened a “hamburger shack in West Hollywood.” On the other, I’m wary of editing-will Fabio be the one to go tonight? Alas!

Carla is thrilled to be in the top six, and I think that she’s a savvy lady, after all. I spent too much time focusing on her craziness, perhaps I should have considered her resilience. She very calm under pressure, for the most part, and her confidence has gradually increased with each episode. She also happens to make great desserts (except for the non-frozen ice cream disaster), which is certainly a rarity on the show.

Padma is waiting for the nervously eager six remaining chefs in the Top Chef kitchen with none other than Eric Ripert, a French god of the culinary world. Now, I WOULD be embarrassed if any of them did not know him on sight.

“Hello, chef,” says Eric Ripert, to all the chefs. This endears me to him immediately. I like his accent, and he’s not a snob. Thus far, anyway. We discover that the quickfire is going to be a three-round fish-filleting challenge! It really does get tough when it comes down to the last few episodes. We should prepare ourselves for future culinary endeavors like this one. All of the chefs seem intimidated by the challenge. Even Hosea, seafood chef extraordinaire, is quaking in his boots. I feel their pain. Just the idea of a whole fish that has not been filleted FOR me is a little much. Then again, I’m not a professional chef, of course. I mean, all of these chefs should be able to fillet a fish. Oh no! The first fish is a sardine! How WILL they manage to carefully butcher that little bitty thing, that “wee little fish”? Fortunately, Eric Ripert has provided a lovely example of what each fish should look like at the end of a terrifyingly short five minutes, cleaned and butterflied. Just to give you an idea of how far I’ve come from a culinary perspective-the first time I saw a butterflied shrimp, at the tender young age of 18, I thought something had gone terribly wrong and I had been served some sort of mutant version of shrimp. In my defense, I did grow up in a tiny town on the Texas/Mexico border. Fresh seafood did not abound. The only shrimp I ever ate came from a freezer bag.

The sardine challenge looked absolutely dreadful. The fish were a bloody mess, knives were slipping around everywhere, and the only chef who appeared unruffled was Stefan, who spent several of his five minutes rapidly sharpening his knives. Carla immediately admitted how terrible her sardines looked (and they did look bad-practically decapitated!), and Eric Ripert graciously made light of it, declining to criticize when her loss was so obvious. Fabio’s sardines looked absolutely lovely-perhaps because of their frequent appearance in Italian seafood dishes? Along with Fabio, Hosea, and Leah, he advanced to the second round. Eric Ripert was exceedingly kind to the losers, and seemed charmed by Carla. I think I adore him. Yup, just added his blog to my blogroll.

For round two, the chefs were given a HUGE arctic char to fillet. While Hosea appeared to get his groove back, Leah absolutely fell apart. Despite having been singled out as doing the best job in Round 1, she inexplicably lost all motivation for doing well in Round 2, and essentially quit. Very poor behavior, not to mention a terrible showing for a world-famous chef. Worse, she didn’t seem to care one bit. I’m thinking that the fiasco with Hosea has crippled her ability for the duration of the competition. Unfortunately, Fabio cut off too great a portion of fish head, so Stefan and Hosea were propelled to the final showdown.

Round 3 looked to be the most tricky, as Eric Ripert revealed a still squirming fresh water eel. Hosea, who mere seconds ago had been smash talking with Stefan, became immediately serious, and wide-eyed with fear. Stefan seemed delighted. OF course, this is because he has TONS of experience with freshwater eel-it’s eaten all the time in Germany (though he’s Finnish), and he always has to clean and fillet it. I mean, skinning an eel is like riding a bike. You never forget how to do it. How anyone could not be impressed with Stefan’s panache as he quickly nailed the eel to the cutting board and then pulled the skin off with his own two hands is beyond me. It was super-impressive. Not one to be prideful, Hosea quickly followed suit, and pulled out his own cutting board. In the end, Stefan triumphed, and rightfully so. He even cleaned his station! Good effort, Hosea. Sorry, buddy.

After declaring Stefan the winner, Eric Ripert invited the chefs to his restaurant, Le Bernardin, for a special lunch. I don’t know why they all seemed so thrilled-obviously their challenge would occur at or shortly after the special lunch. Never trust that Padma! She is a wily one!

The chefs all get dressed up in their most fancy duds and make their way to Le Bernardin. They’ll be enjoying a menu of six different dishes, carefully selected by Eric Ripert. Le Bernardin is known for simple dishes that are artfully prepared, and very delicious of course. Tom will be joining the chefs for lunch. A handsome waiter introduces each dish as they come out.

Sourdough encrusted red snapper with tomato-basil consommé.-Sounds yummy. I love sourdough.

Baked mahi-mahi with miso and matsutake mushroom sauce-Fabio is happy, because he “loves mushroom.”

Baked lobster with asparagus and hollandaise sauce. Needs no further explanation.

WARNING SIGN! RED ALERT! ALARM BELLS! Jamie pipes up (talking head, not in front of everyone at lunch) and professes that she is “bored” by this kind of food, and she is not “inspired” by it. Even if I couldn’t recognize that carefully edited piece as a hint to her demise, I would have instantly lost all regard for her. That sort of behavior is absolutely RIDICULOUS. Becoming a successful chef requires hard work, determination, creativity, and a whole host of other qualities, and any chef worth their salt should be full of respect for those who have achieved success, whether they happen to like their food or not. Even if I didn’t have a new celebrity chef crush on Eric Ripert, I would have been appalled by Jamie’s disdain. It’s like someone saying that Michael Jordan is only a mediocre basketball player. I’m all for pure honesty, but her attitude and tone hinted at a thinly veiled disregard for Chef Ripert’s success. It was just bad form, not to mention petulant, considering the clip was probably filmed after her elimination.

The remaining dishes:

Oil-poached escolar with potato crisps in a red wine béarnaise sauce-I think I might have to try olive-oil poaching. It has proved to be a very successful preparation on Top Chef.

Za-atar spiced monkfish with black garlic-what is black garlic?

Sautéed black bass and braised celery with Serrano ham peppercorn sauce. Hmm, very interesting. How does one make a sauce from Serrano ham? I should mention that this was Jamie’s least favorite dish, because she hates celery.

Ah, that Tom. So charming, so untrustworthy. He calls for “one more course” on the menu, and the kindly maitre ‘d brings out a knife block. OF COURSE. The chefs will have to recreate those heavenly plates for their elimination challenge. Because Stefan won the quickfire, he gets to select his dish, and he predictably, and wisely, chooses the lobster. Good lobster, like good steak, is hard to ruin. Hosea is bitter about this decision. Too bad, Hosea! Maybe you should live in Germany for a while and really figure out how to skin an eel!

As luck would have it, Jamie drew the cursed celery/black bass dish. I have to admit, braised celery doesn’t sound great to me either. However, it’s best not to build prejudices against certain dishes and foods in one’s mind when competing on Top Chef-it affects your game!

The chefs make their way to Le Bernardin’s kitchen, where they all have their own individual silver tray covered with fresh ingredients for their recreations. They get to work under the watchful eye of Eric Ripert, who has kindly decided to taste the chef’s dishes and offer his expert advice. I cannot say enough about how much I enjoyed his presence in the episode. He seemed like a genuinely nice guy, and he was not at all condescending. The total opposite of someone like Gordon Ramsey, I suppose. Even if the dishes of the chefs tasted awful, he offered patient, constructive criticism. Unfortunately, Jamie missed her chance to have his valuable assessment.

The judges seemed to enjoy the Le Bernardin experience. Each of the chef’s dishes was accompanied by the true Le Bernardin dish, so a real comparison could be made. Fabio’s red snapper was a “good forgery”, according to Tom, with flavors that came quite close to Eric’s dish but with an overly toasted sourdough crust. I heaved a sigh of relief. Leah’s mahi-mahi fell far short of its original-she has really lost her mojo!

Stefan produced a lobster dish virtually equal to Le Bernardin’s, though his hollandaise was thicker. Even Toby Young couldn’t complain about it. Carla’s escolar was one of the more difficult dishes, but she managed to create a faithful representation. Hosea’s monkfish had too much spice, and was not allowed to rest as long as it should.

Jamie was the last to fire her dish, and unfortunately for her, left the last, most significant impression on the judges. She allowed the braising liquid to over-reduce, leaving a residue of salt on the terribly tan-colored celery. Something went “horribly wrong”, according to Toby Young. You are indeed correct, Toby.

The poorly cooked fish and celery sent Hosea, Leah, and Jamie to judge’s table. Before we witnessed the sentencing, we were able to hear the judges’ opinions about the winning dishes, and, not surprisingly, see Stefan achieve another victory. I was not at all surprised with the final results, despite Leah’s poor performance throughout the episode. Jamie made an egregious error with her dish, that simply could not be ignored. Tom Colicchio himself acknowledged on his blog that there was not any deliberation-Jamie was the only chef that the judges even considered sending home.

I'll admit that Jamie was one of the most talented chefs, and certainly stronger than Leah and Carla, but she absolutely deserved to be eliminated. You have to be flexible when competing on Top Chef, and you simply cannot be close-minded when encountering a cuisine or challenge you find "uninspiring."

Who will make the final four? I cannot even hazard a guess! Carla has been getting better and better, while Leah seems to have sunk into a pit of self-pity and anxiety. Hosea has not really done anything spectacular, but neither has Fabio. I feel Stefan is the only sure thing at this point.

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