It's a somber morning in the Top Chef mansion. Jen struggles with the fact that she was on the losing team and has only been in the top four 3 out of the four challenges. She is clearly a perfectionist. Jesse, on the other hand, is mourning her consistently poor showing in the challenges. Gosh, I miss the days of Hosea and Leah flirting constantly, Ariane mourning her ineptitude, and Dr. Chase flexing his muscles.
Mark Peel, Padma, and a "mountain of potatoes" await the chefs in the Top Chef kitchen. Mark was a particularly fun chef to watch on Top Chef Masters this summer, so I'm pleased to see him. He shares his "humble" beginnings peeling vegetables for Wolfgang Puck with the cheftestants, and they learn that it's going to be a remarkably simple quickfire: in 40 minutes, make an "out of this world" dish featuring potatoes. Jesse loves potatoes, all kinds, Russian banana fingerlings, red sweet potatoes, French fingerlings...there are many more than I knew existed.
Jen immediately thinks of making mussels with a potato-based sauce. She has shown remarkable prowess thus far, and I'm now sure her final product will be delicious. Ron, the Haitian, decides to make a sweet potato-crusted yellowtail snapper, and in the first of many endearing comments throughout the episode, states that he is like Bob Marley with food. I love him more and more.
Ash decides to go for sweet potato ice cream. I don't know Ash, do you really have time to successfully make ice cream? I'm also worried about Mike Isabella's potato risotto-kind of dicey if you ask me. And I'm not so sure about Ashley's potato gnocchi-forty minutes is SHORT, Ashley, a brief window of time! Is it even possible..oh no! The drama! Preeti accidentally took the gnocchi-boiling water! Ashley is understandably furious, but holds it together and finishes the dish on time. It's lucky for you, Preeti, that you didn't take Jen's water. She will cut you!
Ash improvised on the fly when his ice cream didn't pan out, calling his final product a custard, which Mark and Padma loved. Michael V. confitted everything, basically. How many times can one say "confit" in one sentence? Several chefs made potatoes three ways. I, for one, don't think that is a particularly creative approach. Mattin pronounces cod as "code." His accent is beginning to verge on annoying. Ashley's potato gnocchi with sauteed hen of the woods mushrooms and homemade ricotta is a hit, despite the pot of water fiasco. By the way, I looked up "hen of the woods" mushrooms out of my intense curiosity, and learned that their official name is "grifola frondosa", though they also go by "maitake" when used in Asian-influenced cooking. Good old, reliable Wikipedia! Always comes through in a pinch!
In the end, Jesse's soup is too cayenne-heavy, Eli's sweet potatoes were too sweet (not to mention that his puree included one tiny pistachio shell out of millions that of COURSE Padma had to melodramatically remove from her delicate mouth), and Ron's side dish of leeks was better than the fish. To no one's surprise, Jen was the most successful at finding the "essence of the potato." Mike Isabella is beginning to resent her, while my hatred has begun to drift away. It's wrong, simply wrong, not to respect her talent.
As the chefs gaze eagerly at Padma, awaiting the announcement of the elimination challenge, a dapper military man with an authoritative, yet kindly air enters the room. A patriotic tune begins to play as he greets the chefs. Turns out he is Colonel Dave Belote, commander of the 99th Air Base Wing at Nellis Air Force Base. The chefs are to report to the base to prepare a meal for 300 airmen, who, contrary to popular belief, do "possess discerning tastes." They'll be working as a single team, but they won't know about their ingredients or cooking equipment until they arrive at the base. Predictably, the chefs are in a slight state of panic about those working conditions.
Back at the house, Ashley and Mike Isabella help to gather the chefs for a planning meeting. Mike Isabella (yes, I enjoy typing his whole name) puts it out there that it might be a good idea if there was one head chef who facilitates and helps run the kitchen while the rest divide up into 7 teams of 2. Because Jen is immune, he suggests that she would be the one for the job. Turns out, she's PERFECT for the job, but I'll get to that later.
The pairing up was interesting. Preeti and Laurine join up because of their California connection, Kevin and Eli have a "fat kid bond" (plus, they're both from Atlanta), Ashley and Ash join forces, and Jesse and Ron are stuck with each other. In a slightly adorable twist, Michael V. and Bryan both find themselves slightly disappointed not to be working with each other, due to Mike Isabella's instant attachment to Michael, with whom he has previously worked.
The chefs leave the desert mansion what is to them the crack of dawn, heading out to the air force base in a military transport vehicle. As they head into the kitchen, the vast majority are floored to discover that what they have to work with is essentially a traditional "mess" kitchen, stocked with canned goods and containing economy-sized vats over heating units instead of burners. Kevin is unfazed, and says that it's exactly what he expected.
Jen gives all the chefs a "go" after they've decided upon a decent dish, and the chefs get cracking. It was nice to see the generally positive attitude as they began to work. Michael V. is gradually becoming more and more appealing, saying that if the airmen can use a kitchen like that every day, they can certainly prepare a good meal at least once.
Preeti and Laurine work on a pasta salad, which I feel is an uninspired, far too safe choice. Michael V. and Mike Isabella work on a most delicious sounding braised pork belly. Mattin and Bryan decide upon a traditional steak dish with a cauliflower gratin. Kevin and Eli go south, opting for braised pork and potato salad.
Ron asks Jesse how she feels about chowder, and before an array of warning bells go off in my head (Chowder? On a hot day in Nevada? Bad idea, Ron! Very bad!) he lets us know that he has won the Montauk Chowder Festival not once, but FOUR TIMES. This was stated in the most humble, straightforward tone imaginable. Plus, "you know those troops-they love chowder." And I love Ron.
Hector and Robin work on a three-bean chicken chili, which he is not worried about at all because the well-documented fact that if one eats something hot on a hot day, the ensuing sweat will end up cooling one down.
As Preeti and Laurine scrape their undoubtedly NOT al dente pasta out of a gigantic vat, we learn that space for cooking is becoming a problem. Jesse and Ron are freaking out about their chowder, because they need that soup kettle. Unfortunately, "Frenchie" (as Ron has aptly named Mattin) needs the kettle for his bechamel. It's very stressful.
Never fear, chefs! You have chosen the unflappable Jen as your leader! It doesn't take an expert to see that Jen is absolutely suited for the job, and is probably a most remarkable asset in Eric Ripert's kitchen. I take back everything negative I've said about her-there is almost nothing that I respect and admire more than someone who proves to be a good leader, who knows what they're talking about, delegates effectively, and doesn't take any crap. Those qualities are not easy to find! She'd probably be a great teacher. Without all the bourbon-swilling, of course.
As the chefs finalize all the dishes, I have to give them (and any military cook!) credit-it must have been tough. Every dish looked unmanageably large and precarious. They even had to stir with what looked like giant metal bars!
The chefs headed over (by convoy, of course) to a spotless hangar, with pristine blue and white-tableclothed tables, for the elimination challenge. They get a little swept up in the moment as they head in, but pull themselves together quickly and begin to organize the serving tables. The pasta salad looks lame and pathetic next to the other dishes, particularly Michael V.'s pork belly.
It was too much to see Padma's long legs and animal-print clad self emerge from the vehicle, too much. A bit cinematic. But that is Bravo for you! A huge line begins to form, and the chefs start to sell and serve. There was a palpable feeling of honor amongst the chefs-you could tell they felt proud (if a bit stressed) to be serving the service men and women.
The standout dishes were Michael V.'s (and Mike Isabella's) braised pork belly and Kevin and Eli's southern pork and potato salad combo. Both salads were, predictably, abysmal failures. The crowd loved the chili and the chowder, so I felt confident that my two faves, Jesse and Ron, were safe from judgment.
At the meal's conclusion, the Colonel thanked the chefs, sharing a few stories about the service men and women, some who were on the verge of returning to duty. It was heartwarming, and felt truly meaningful. Emotions were high. I even teared up!
Back at judge's table, Kevin, Eli, Michael V., and Mike Isabella were called forth as the victors. Though the potato salad and pork shoulder were very successful, Michael Voltaggio's addictively delicious pork belly (comprised out of what would have been a simple slab of bacon!) triumphed. Tom was quite impressed by Michael's ingenuity-he is really beginning to stand out! Much to Mike Isabella's chagrin, he found himself on the bottom (along with Preeti and Laurine) for his poor attempt at a Greek salad.
While Preeti and Laurine floundered about for a decent explanation for a poor dish, Mike Isabella seethed at the fact that he was at both the winner's and loser's table. While he made the poor choice (like Ashley in the previous episode) of making another unnecessary dish, he was at least able to admit he had made a mistake, and was "angry at himself." Preeti and Laurine felt a vegetarian dish was necessary, and weren't even able to determine who had the idea for pasta salad. Preeti, yet again, spouted off about how she felt their dish was so flavorful and delicious, and better than several of the other dishes. Preeti, this is really bad behavior for Top Chef-if the judges don't like your dish, the last thing you should be doing is talking about how great you think it is. THEY ARE ALWAYS RIGHT. She was sent to pack her knives, and Laurine was spared. Preeti's three appearances on the show don't leave me feeling that she deserved another chance-come back in a few years, girl!
The previews for next week look intense! A chef eliminated during the quickfire? Cooking for the best French chefs in the world in only the fourth episode of the season? Balls!