Mixing Old Fashioneds
Top Chef 4/23 Recap: Improv Cooking
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Today I had a hell of a day at the office. Everyone was lying to me and I knew it, called them on it, and it didn’t make any difference. Luckily, I have hours of reality television under my belt and could handle it, as we all know lying is the bread and butter of all reality plotlines. That, and, well, they keep the kitchen stocked with beer, which helps too. But the day was going to get better, I knew, because I had a hair appointment this evening. While I was there, my stylist was telling me about training his new interns, and that led to discussions about the mannequin heads they use. That, of course, got me thinking about Shear Genius. Low and behold, on Top Chef tonight, there was an ad for the new Shear Genius season. I guess that’s really a long-winded way for me to say, forget religions, forget philosophies, forget physics; it is clear that the universe is held together and ruled by reality television. Oh, yeah, and beer is important too, so crack open a cold one and relive what went down on Top Chef this week.
Self-professed metrosexual Ryan got shown the door last week, and Spike finds the house a whole lot uglier without Ryan’s pretty boy self. He doesn’t seem really sad about it at all. Actually, no one seems sad because the only other comments we get before the Quick Fire are Antonia noting that there is no room for error and Jen saying she wants to win for Zoi. With blatantly obvious statements like this, these clips can only mean one thing: foreshadowing!
The chefs get to the Top Chef Kitchen and the first thing they see is a huge table full of desserts. A collective “oh crap” look settles across the cooks’ faces while I drool. We all know pastry is not their cup of tea because, apparently, either culinary school curriculum is not as well rounded as other professional schools or their mothers never baked anything for them as kids causing them deep psychological problems with pastries. Padma introduces the guest judge, a rather smug guy called Johnny Iuzzini. He apparently is some kind of pastry genius who spouts the trite advice that making good pastries takes advanced preparation or the result will be disastrous. Padma then brings out the big carrot for taking up this challenge: whomever wins the QF will not only get immunity but will be the only TC4 contestant to get a recipe in the new Top Chef cook book. Woo-hoo! And with that, the one hour, thirty minute clock starts to tick down.
It’s all about fast baking, slicing fruit, and running about like panicking rats on the Titanic. Dale confesses that he has one dessert he is prepared to make, a dish from his childhood. As much as Antonia practiced the ingredient tasting QF, she completely neglected learning any kind of dessert, so she’s up the proverbial creek. Similarly, Lisa informs us with a string of bleeped words, that she doesn’t like baking because you can’t fix it as you go along, like if you leave out the baking soda, you can’t add it later. Yeah, well, tell that to Nimma who couldn’t get a handle cooking with the oldest seasoning of all, salt. Spike tells us that he has a dessert memorized but he’s not going to make it. Instead, he’s trying to make a soufflé. Once again, he needs to go back to Episode 1 and remember how Erik and Zoi struggled with the soufflé execution.
The hour and a half runs down and Padman and Johnny sample the desserts which are:
Spike’s pineapple rum raisin soufflé with toasted coconut. Johnny is glad he took a risk with the soufflé.
Richard’s banana scallops with banana guacamole and chocolate ice cream. Padma found the dish strange and delicious.
Jen’s chocolate cake with chocolate dipped banana bites.
Andrew’s banana and chocolate ravioli with pudding. (Anyone else sick of the banana and chocolate combo yet?)
Nikki’s buttermilk cake with berry sauce. Padma thought it looked very pretty.
Stephanie’s chocolate cake with salted basil ganache.
Dale’s “halo-halo” with shaved ice, avocado, mango, kiwi & nuts.
Lisa’s yogurt with fruit puree, fried wontons and strawberries.
Mark’s Assortment of Pavlovas made with wattleseed, topped with various fruits.
Antonia’s bruleed lemon curd with lemon cake.
Johnny comments that some cooks embraced the challenge and some didn’t get over their fear of dessert. His bottom three were Antonia because the dish didn’t come together, Spike because while it was a good effort the taste wasn’t so good, and Mark because although the Pavlova was perfect, it wasn’t a composed dessert. Johnny liked Dale’s use of unusual use of flavors that worked well together, Lisa’s summery dish with a great balance of flavors, and Richard’s original use of bananas as “scallops” and “guacamole.” Richard gets the win, the immunity, and a spot in the book.
Padma doesn’t yet tell the cooks what the Elimination Challenge will be this round. Instead, she lies to them and says they are going to have a fun night and take in a Second City show. Back at the house, there’s much personal grooming happening, coordination of what button down shirts the guys will wear so as not to repeat a look, and a bit of cattiness from Mark, who comments that Richard’s pale pink shirt matches his skin.
The improv show rolls along and, as with all improv shows, the cast calls out for suggestions from the crowd. They first take a list of five colors, then a list of emotions. Finally, the jig is up and Nikki’s figured it out, because the final list is one of ingredients. The emotion-color-ingredient lists make up the five courses that pairs of chefs will create to serve to the improv group the next day.
Back at the house, the cooks pair off on their own then draw numbers out of a hat to pick the course. Spike and Andrew combine (Beard Brothers Activate!) to make a yellow, love, vanilla dish. Stephanie and Jen pair up to make an orange, turned on, asparagus course. Mark and Nikki team up to make a purple, depressed, bacon dish. Dale and Richard work together to make a green, perplexed, tofu plate. Finally, Lisa and Antonia will make a magenta, drunk, Polish sausage.
The next day, the cooks first head to Whole Foods with their $150 to spend in thirty minutes. Mark and Nikki are working on a pancetta and pork tenderloin idea, while Jen and Stephanie are going to use asparagus, goat cheese and orange juice. Dale thinks curry is a perplexing thing, with the hotness and sweetness, so he is going to work on a green curry. Richard gets the idea to marinate the tofu in beef fat to give it a beefy taste, plus beef fat trimmings are free from the butcher. Lisa and Antonia aren’t hot on the idea of Polish sausage and steaming it in beer just seems too obvious to be a winning dish. Instead, they buy some Chilean sea bass and some chorizo. Spike and Andrew really don’t have a clue what they are going to make for the first course, so they embrace the whole improvisation aspect and make up what they are going to do as they shop. As it turns out, they’re going to make that soup Spike wanted to make a couple episodes back.
Back in the kitchen, the chefs spy a long table set for service so they by and large conclude the service will take place in the kitchen. Ah, they need to remember the lyingest liars of all reality television—the producers. Andrew and Spike get to working on their vanilla squash soup. Dale works on his green curry sauce, adding more ingredients to the store-bought curry base. Richard grills the beef fat to use to imbue the tofu with beef taste.
During all this prep, Dale heads to the equipment room to get a pot and finds out that all of the electrical equipment has been taken away. Everyone kind of laughs about it, but Andrew and Spike are the most effected. They have to pass their squash soup base through many layers of straining and use hand-cranked grinders to get a smooth consistency. But, as they say, people have been making kick-ass soups for years, well before electricity, so it can be done.
Mark and Nikki work on roasting a pork loin or several for their dish while Jen and Stephanie try to sexy up their dish. They are calling their orange-cheese-asparagus combo a ménage a trios and try various ways to plate the asparagus in a phallic manner. Stephanie is more concerned about the large “crouton” the asparagus is resting on; it really is a large piece of toast and Jen has toasted it much too early. Antonia and Lisa also work on plating their sea bass on top of the chorizo, but Antonia worries it just looks like a lump of fish on a plate.
There’s still an hour left, so the chefs have plenty of time to figure out plating, or so they think. Then in comes Tom who tells them they need to pack up their food to serve to the Second City cast back at the contestants’ house. When they get there, they’ll have the last hour to finish up their dishes and serve. Richard isn’t worried about it as much as he’s a bit annoyed. In real life, he says, he doesn’t have to cart around his meals in little coolers.
No actor ever turns down a free meal.
The house’s kitchen is pretty small, has only six burners, and not a tremendous amount of counter space. Somehow, they all work in the kitchen without killing each other. Spike takes the lead on the soup and keeps tasting it and blending it to get it just right. He and Andrew are first up serving Tom, Padma, Ted Allen, that snarky Johnny guy from earlier, and the Second City cast. Out comes Spike and Andrew who serve squash soup with vanilla crème fraiche for their yellow, love, vanilla dish. Spike introduces the dish by saying his mom is a chef and she always stressed the importance of making a good soup. Ted notes that the soup has some spice and heat and Tom notes that there is a smoky flavor too. Johnny enjoys the texture, which is important, and his only complaint is that the serving is too large. The cast members and Padma, however, can’t get enough. Padma is ready to lick the bowl
Stephanie and Jen work on getting their orange, turned-on, asparagus dishes ready. Stephanie is still really worried about the crouton, but they serve it anyway. Presenting the dish to the diners, Stephanie and Jen try to sex it up and make a point of saying the asparagus is supposed to represent an erect penis. While that may be appetizing if they were serving The Girls Next Door and the presentation gets some laughs from the crowd, it’s just kind of embarrassingly awkward. The plate that they serve is described as a menage a trios of orange with goat cheese, asparagus, salad and olive tapenade. The guests like the presentation but find the cheese is oily and Johnny says the bread is too difficult to cut. Tom thinks there’s too much going on and the bread and almonds were not needed. Ted thinks that the plate is much more busy than a ménage a trios and is In fact an orgy of food—messy and too many things going on.
Dale and Richard serve the third course of a tofu steak marinated in beef fat with green curry as their green, perplexed, tofu dish. When they present the dish, Richard gives Dale credit for the curry and Dale gives Richard credit for the beef idea. Richard explains that the tofu is perplexed because it doesn’t know if it is soy or beef. The designers tuck in and everyone loves it. Ted thinks the curry is terrific with a good heat and good interpretation of being perplexed. Tom says that were he to have had this challenge, he would have freaked out, but Dale and Richard embraced the tofu and made it center stage. Also, one of the Second City cast members appreciates that Dale and Richard gave each other credit, as that is a huge thing in the improv world.
Back in the kitchen, Antonia and Lisa are strapped for time getting the magenta, drunk, Polish sausage course out because Antonia wants the fish to be perfect. Spike says that it looks like a turd on a plate and is going to be cold when the plates go out. Spike sure has had a lot of screen time this week, hasn’t he? Antonia and Lisa serve their wild Chilean sea bass with purple potato puree, chorizo and tequila sauce to the guests, and at the close of the presentation, do a tequila shot. Unfortunately, they don’t offer the guests any tequila, which pisses off the diners. The diners also want to know where the Polish sausage is, since there is only chorizo on the plate. Ted says that the dish does taste good, but it’s weird to have sea bass when the primary ingredient is supposed to be Polish sausage. Tom doesn’t think the dish is “drunk” enough and Johnny concludes that the color-emotion-ingredient suggestion was a burden to the pair and not an inspiration.
Finally, Mark and Nikki ready their purple, depressed, bacon dish. Mark is proud of it, saying the dish looks sexy and rhetorically asks who doesn’t like pork. Possibly tipping the balance even more in their favor, Mark and Nikki serve wine with their course of pork loin with sweet potatoes, grape sauce, port jus and Brussels sprouts. Introducing the dish, Mark says the bacon is depressed because it has to share the plate with Brussels sprouts. Tom thinks it is a good, nice plate of food while Ted loves the glaze on bacon. The diners agree that the dish is great and would serve as comfort food if one were depressed.
Back in the kitchen, the chefs pack up their equipment and clean their dishes. They can’t figure out who would be in the bottom as all of the dishes tasted good. Jen comments as she packs her knives up that the mere act of packing said knives is a bad omen. Dun, dun, dun! It doesn’t really matter to Andrew, because he is sure he isn’t going home.
A sausage isn’t always a sausage and other tales from the Judges’ Table.
Padma calls Dale, Spike, Andrew, and Richard to the Judges’ Table first and they are told they are the top two pairs. Spike says that they embraced the improvisation of the challenge and made up what they were going to cook as they shopped. Spike again talks about his mother’s teaching that a good soup is the mark of a good chef. Ted comments that Spike’s ode to his mother shows the love aspect of the dish. Richard and Dale explain that they built the dish together with Dale making the curry and Richard making the tofu. The judges let them know that the improv cast appreciated their sharing the credit and how they gave each other credit where due. Richard and Dale are then named the winning pair and, for their trouble, will each get $2,500 worth of Calphalon cookware.
The top four contenders return to the waiting area and Antonia, Lisa, Stephanie, and Jen are sent before the firing squad. Nikki again is comfortably in the middle, something I just can’t fathom week after week. Antonia and Lisa get the questions first; of course they are asked why they went for chorizo and not Polish sausage. Lisa tries to explain that she has never had good Polish sausage and would never serve the kind of Polish sausage she’s had in her life. Tom doesn’t quite believe that they both, simultaneously picked chorizo and sees not using a Polish sausage as a huge failing. Lisa counters that she hates that their dish is in the bottom on a technicality, not because of the quality of the food. Tom says that all of the dishes were good, so technicalities are all they have to go on. Johnny asks why they just didn’t braise some sausages in beer.
Turning to the other team, the judges elicit the explanation from Stephanie that they picked the goat cheese because it has an orange hue and tasted good with the other ingredients. Tom says the cheese was too prominent, where the asparagus was supposed to be the central ingredient. Johnny calls them out for the bad bread and wonders why they even used it. Jen goes into a tortured and, again, awkwardly embarrassing explanation of the plating technique, which causes Tom to bury his head as he blushes. When Padma asks who was responsible for what, Jen takes ownership of the bread and the cheese and says Stephanie did the prep and the knife work on the vegetables.
The bottom four go back to wait for a verdict. Lisa can’t believe that her fate hangs on what some drunken fool shouted out at a comedy show. The pair conclude that it may have been better to just steam sausage in beer, but if they’d done that, they’d probably be called out for not being fancy enough. Back in the judges’ room, the panel puzzles over whose dish was worse. Lisa and Antonia downplayed the sausage and ignored the challenge but their dish tasted better. Meanwhile, Jen and Stephanie also ignored the asparagus by putting the cheese as the prominent ingredient. Ultimately, the judges say, it comes down to taste.
The decision is made and the ladies are called back before the judges. Tom says both pairs went off the track; Antonia and Lisa went too far away from Polish sausage while Jen and Stephanie made goat cheese the focal point, not the asparagus. The judges have concluded that Jen and Stephanie’s dish is the worst, and Padma tells Jen to pack her knives and go.
Jen thanks the panel for the opportunity and continues to stand by her dish. She thought it was great and embraced the improv aspect, so she is just frustrated. She hugs everyone good-bye in the waiting area. Dale and Richard are both shocked she’s gotten the boot. Dale thought she was one of the best there and Richard will miss his hair twin. Oh well, at least there won’t be a shortage of hair gel besetting the remaining contestants.
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