Wednesday, February 2, 2011

"How I do this? Crash potato with my head?"

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

We are granted a refreshing reprieve from the "Top Chef Kitchen of Doom" in the opening scenes, instead getting a glimpse of a bar cleared out for the benefit of our chefs after the perilous double elimination. I don't know why this is unusually special, because we all know they drink boatloads in the "stew room." Fabio wants to create a t-shirt emblazoned with "I survive elimination challenge." Tiffani fears she'll repeat her poor performance. Mike Isabella declares that he's glad Angry Dale won, because at least it prevented Angelo from taking another win. I underestimated his likeability in the Vegas season, I'll admit. I think he's goofy and fun, and the rest of the chefs really like him.

Quickfire challenge:
Tony Mantuano is the selected guest judge for the episode. I recognize him from Top Chef: Masters, or as I like to call it, Top Chef: Lite and Lame. His specialty is Italian, which one would have figured out when he begins to describe the ideal stuffing, replete with prosciutto and sage. Yes, that's right. It's another product placement challenge. Swanson is sponsoring, and the chefs must prepare their own delish version of stuffing. Angelo, who is clearly unfamiliar with traditional American comfort food, looks perplexed, and can barely concentrate as Padma then informs the chefs that they'll be preparing said stuffings without the benefit of kitchen tools. Ouch. As an incentive for their inconvenience, the winner will receive the double bonuses of immunity and a tidy sum of $20,000.

Carla chooses to be zen-like rather than mad dashing to the kitchen, which leaves her with the only thing left: quinoa. Fabio congratulates himself for his ingenuity in grating his "Parmesan-a" on the steel racks in the pantry. Tiffani butchers a quail with a peppercorn grinder. Tre has the ingenious idea of using the liquid nitrogen to help smash the necessary ingredients for his southwestern style stuffing.

Of course Jamie has to use a broth for her stuffing. Carla adorably calls her undercooked quinoa "undone-te." Spike is applauded for using lemongrass spears for service. In the end, Tre's spicy stuffing and Marcel's lovely stuffed bird are the favorites. Tiffani's overly sweet stuffing, Casey's appetizer-like offering, and Carla's quinoa don't pass stuffing muster. When Tre takes the win, Marcel can barely keep his composure.

Elimination challenge:
In an especially superior tone, Padma informs the chefs that their elimination challenge will take place at the home of U.S. Open, one of the "most prestigious" tennis competitions. They will be cooking healthy, high-energy food. Attention chefs! This is an important clue! She then reveals a tray packed full of tennis ball cans. They have conveniently removed the label and replaced it with a special Top Chef one. Thanks for not selling out, Wilson! The cans contain orange and yellow balls, thus providing a dividing method for two teams.

Team Yellow: Casey, Spike, Jamie, Tre, Tiffani, Tiffany, Angelo

Team Orange: Mike Isabella, Angry Dale, Antonia, Marcel, Carla, Fabio, Richard

Strategy comes into play immediately, as the chefs learn that they'll be competing based on tennis scores, serving one dish against another for points. This brings up the issue of whether or not to serve weakest dishes first, making sure to win the match points or to just come out of the gate strong. Before the teams break down their respective strategies, they brainstorm dishes. Angry "I've been to the U.S. Open" Dale wonders whether or not Carla's African peanut soup is a wise choice. Apparently they're quite upscale at the U.S. Open. I have been myself, and while the selection was vast, I still recall having something like nachos or sandwiches. Maybe I'm just a bit low class.

Team Yellow determines that they will be serving their weakest dish first, spearheaded by Spike. Team Orange's relaxed meeting occurs on the rooftop, where they basically applaud themselves for a diverse, global menu and spend no time talking strategy. During prep time, they continue to display a greater concern for the quality of their dishes. We learn that Fabio can make the gnocchi "with his own little hands" and that Antonia smoked pot instead of playing sports in high school. Team Yellow, on the other hand, are more worried about identifying the weak dishes. They are also beset by problems like slimy mackerel, undercooked chickpeas, and convincing the world that farro is a "delicious grain." Tom has to go all the way back to a dark corner of the kitchen, before the devious team of Angelo and Spike finally agree to reveal their strategy.

The only thing that really goes wrong with Team Orange is that Carla sustains a knife injury, which immediately leads the entire cast to recall Jamie's pathetic inability to cook with a tiny cut on her finger. For the record, Carla's injury looked much, much worse.

In the bright lights of the stadium, the drama is turned up a notch. Jamie's chickpeas are not cooked, automatically making her dish the weakest. The entire team had agreed on the strategy, but stubborn Jamie won't send her food out. Team Orange, on the other hand, has simply determined a set order, throwing strategy out the window. Casey takes the bullet, and heads out with her pork and fab grain farro, matched up with Fabio and his delish whole-wheat gnocchi. Casey's dish is too heavy, so Fabio takes the win, joyously leaping over the net mid-court. 15-0

A brief moment of tragedy is avoided at Team Orange when Angry Dale, who has turned into Emotional/About To Burst Into Tears Dale is allowed to go second instead of Marcel. Unfortunately, Tiffani F's light fish dish is declared the best. 15-15

Angelo brings a tiny spoon of fish out to compete with Marcel's tuna and cauliflower couscous. Unfortunately, the cream Marcy (nickname courtesy of Angelo) added to his dish distracts from the overall flavor. 15-30

Team Yellow sends out Antonia to face Tiffany D. Her sea scallops were beloved by almost all at the judge's table, giving her the smallest edge over Tiffany. 30-30

While Team Orange has been panicking about their lost strategy, Angelo and Tiffani felt free to manhandle Spike's dish, tossing in a yuzu gelee at the bottom of his soup bowl. When he heads out to face Richard's "thai-bouleh", his shrimp and soup simply can't hold up. Jamie hides behind a table, peeking her head out only occasionally to stir her chickpeas. 40-30

Carla prepares her healthy, bold soup, and the camera flashes over to Angelo yet again meddling in his teammate's dish. Tre carries out overcooked salmon, saved only by his seasoning. It's a tense moment, but Carla takes the victory for Team Orange. Jamie jumps out from behind the table and hugs everyone. She can barely control her glee at the knowledge that not putting forth a dish at all keeps her out of the bottom four. Her lack of remorse is infuriating.

Fabio, Carla, Richard, and Antonia are praised for their excellent offerings at the U.S. Open, and told about the grand prize, a trip to Italy. It's a bit distressing to see Richard there, as the lamb portion of his dish was weak. Any irritation there, however, is dispelled at learning Carla and her brave soup were deemed the best dish.

Casey, Tiffany D, Tre, and Spike are called forth to face judgment. Considering that both Tiffany and Tre did receive positive votes at the challenge, it's clear that either Casey or Spike will be going home. I have to admit to a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, as Spike's demise seemed sure. There was some chit chat about the possibility of Angelo sabotaging dishes, which Tiffany neatly avoided. Back in the stew room, Richard called Jamie out for not cooking.

As I feared, it was Spike's time to go. He's brash and wild, and certainly has not always displayed appropriate behavior, but I like the idea of having a scrappy chef like him in the competition. It already hasn't been quite as fun without him around.

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