Tuesday, February 17, 2009

"Tomorrow, I will deal with nine finger."

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Yes, small band of readers, this is the most appallingly late entry to my Top Chef recaps. I truly am without a decent excuse, other than the fact that Leah saps all creative energy and inspiration from me, so I have not even felt particularly motivated to pen (type, rather) a breakdown of her demise.

I’m slightly ashamed to admit that episodes in which the vast majority of food prepared is quite good do not exactly make for great entertainment. As a lover of food AND cookbooks, it was nice to see such bastions of the culinary world as Jacques Pepin and Lidia Bastianich, but without a real disaster (or at least a potential disaster) on our hands, the episode was kind of a snooze-fest.

While Hosea, Fabio, and Stefan bathe in the light of a glorious New York summer morning, they discussed Jamie’s departure. Stefan is, of course, heartbroken. Inside, Leah makes her bed apathetically and shares with the world that she failed out of college only to determine culinary school was a better route. Really haven’t displayed much culinary prowess in the past few episodes here, Leah! What will you try next? Perhaps you can get a few modeling tips from Carla, former model turned caterer turned miracle of longevity on Top Chef?

I shouldn’t criticize Carla-as I mentioned in my last recap, I’m growing quite appreciative of her. She is refreshingly level-headed and upbeat, without being over the top. Well, I guess a little bit over the top. Hootie!

Oh no! It’s Wylie Dufresne in the Top Chef kitchen! Culinary innovator! Wonder of molecular gastronomy! What WILL the quickfire be? Vegetable foams? Green tomater-tots? Cocoa packets? Pizza pebbles? (Those last few were extracted from the wd-50 menu-Wylie has some crazy ideas!)

Actually, Wylie is obsessed with eggs, according to Padma, so the chef’s deceptively simple-sounding task for the quickfire is to create something with eggs that will “surprise and delight” him. Breakfast is his fave meal of the day. Thus, I’m extremely alarmed with my beloved Fabio immediately decides to fill an eggshell with lychee soup. He’s also the only chef who attempts to employ molecular gastronomy-a risky move to pull with a professional.

Hosea decides to put a Japanese twist on his eggs. Leah says something about molecular gastronomy, but it was hard to hear in such a bored tone. Stefan, ever sure of himself, is making what actually sounds quite interesting: an actual, perfectly cooked poached egg next to a dessert that will resemble a poached egg when sliced into. Carla is making green eggs and ham. Fabio is running “like flash” through the kitchen as he works on his many components. I am dubious.




As it turns out, Wylie likes simple dishes, and Carla’s creative, yet simple take on Dr. Seuss gave her the victory. He also enjoyed Stefan’s dish, but the rest of the chefs fell short of egg cookery expectations. Fabio is NOT happy about being on the bottom, especially since he used his own packet of alginate (whatever that is), and Hosea seethes with jealousy of Stefan, the only feeling he knows ever since he explored the waters with Leah. Leah has no response.



Padma then informs the chefs that for the elimination challenge, they would have to draw knives. Right out of the box, Fabio draws Lidia Bastianich, the “queen of Italian cooking in this country.” How ironic. Hosea draws Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation, Stefan picks Marcus Samuelsson, Scandinavian chef extraordinaire, Leah selects Wylie himself, and Carla ends up with Jacques Pepin. He needs even less of an explanation than my beloved Eric Ripert. Padma repeats, for what feels like the millionth time, that this is the last challenge in New York. Appropriately, the chefs will be cooking what each of the culinary celebrities would choose as their last meal:


Jacques Pepin:
roast squab with fresh peas
Susan Ungaro: shrimp scampi with tomatoes Provencale
Marcus Samuelsson: roasted salmon and spinach
Wylie Dufresne: eggs benedict
Lidia Bastianich: roast chicken with roasted potatoes and a leafy salad

Carla’s bonus advantage is the opportunity to switch with any of the other chefs. However, she is NOT “giving up Jacques!” She’s thrilled by the chance to cook for him, plus she feels that they are kindred spirits because of their shared affinity for peas.

Is that Harold I see on the commercial break? My fave from Season 1? At his restaurant on the very street upon which I used to reside? Yes, it is Harold Dieterle, Season 1 winner, at his restaurant Perilla, located at 9 Jones Street (I lived at 10 Jones Street! Why, oh why, did I have to move away before Harold wisely used his prize to open a good restaurant in that perfect little spot?!) giving the chefs good food and advice. The only contribution Leah can make to the conversation is how the competition is so much harder than she thought it would be. And I used to like this woman?

Shopping is uneventful, though I continue to inwardly stress about how one manages to find all the right ingredients in such a short time, with camera crews following you every second and a strange bald Finnish man yelling about European butter in the background.

The chefs head to Capitale to begin their two-hour preparation. Carla is sticking with simple, once more, while Leah thinks she should veer just a bit from the traditional. If only she had any idea at all of what Wylie’s own eggs benedict looks like:



Hosea decides to double the butter in his scampi, which alarms me right away. Shrimp scampi has two main components: butter and GARLIC. You need lots of that, Hosea! Do not cut down on the garlic! Do not play with the food! Do not put your “own spin” on the dish!

I am wondering about Fabio’s approach when suddenly, there is a loud crash, the sound of glass breaking, and muttered Italian curses. Alas! Fabio has literally broken his finger! It crack! How will he manage to prepare a perfectly roasted chicken for Lidia, his own personal culinary goddess? Yes, that is the Fabio I know and love. Completely unfazed by the accident. Refuses to go to the hospital. Struggles to peel his potatoes. Bless his heart.




The panel of celebrities and judges is bathed in a glowing white aura, as though they’re already in heaven. Leah, unfortunately, has to go first. Her eggs look great to me, but they are not wholly successful, although there was no egregious error made. It was more a matter of personal preference (Wylie thought the white was runny, Toby likes it that way, blah blah blah). Stefan then trooped out a roasted salmon that was so obviously overcooked I was slightly embarrassed for him. The entire panel felt the same way, particularly Lidia Bastianich. Hosea’s dish was a decent balance between creativity and tradition-I KNEW he should have kept the garlicky presence! Fabio’s roasted chicken is divine, though his salad resembles airport food-what a terrible criticism! It looked like he hid his injured hand, which I admired-no pity votes for him! Lidia loved it-does anything else matter? Carla feared her squab would be overcooked, but the panel loved it, and her peas were universally praised. By the way, Jacques Pepin was nothing short of lovely. I’m writing this recap and searching for used copies of his books on Amazon at the same time.

Not surprisingly, Stefan, Leah, and Hosea received the lowest marks of the evening. It wasn’t an easy decision, but ultimately, Leah was sent packing, losing her opportunity to cook in the quarterfinals in New Orleans. I was in something of a quandary because of this decision. On the one hand, Leah has been an absolute disappointment in the past few episodes. She has lost all motivation and interest in the competition, and it’s rather soul-killing just to see her talking head interviews. Sending her home is certainly justifiable. What does bother me, however, is that I felt that in this particular instance, the judges allowed prior performance to affect their decision. Stefan is undoubtedly the best remaining chef, both technically and creatively, but a key aspect of the Top Chef competition is that the chefs are judged on the one performance. In this performance, Stefan made an extremely elementary mistake, one that simply should not be made by a Top Chef. Even a fairly inexperienced home chef would have seen that the salmon was completely overcooked. Personally, I’d rather watch Stefan, with all his arrogance and swagger, than have to spend one more minute watching mopey Leah. It’s just frustrating that this happens to be the one instance the judges dodged the rule. Imagine if Antonia (Season 4) and Tre (Season 3) had been given one more chance! Both of those eliminations were shocking, and we had to deal with undeserving candidates instead of being able to watch truly talented chefs.



I am still excited about the finale, and I’m glad for Carla’s presence. Here’s hoping for an Italian victory in the end! Fabio won the elimination challenge, by the way...

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