Okay, okay, not all pasta is ramen, but all ramen is pasta, and requires zero skill to prepare. Well, maybe no zero—you’ve got to learn that the water has to be hot enough, you can’t let the noodles soak too long, and the flavor packet is separate, to be added after the water has been boiled. Still, ramen requires a very basic skill set that pretty much ever college freshman has mastered. You would think that chefs, most with professional training, would have a similar grasp on cooking processes. And then you’d be wrong.
Name that taste.
After a stormy night in Miami and Lia’s departure, the sleepy group comments on the state of the competition so far. Brian thought Lia would be one of the last ones standing and CJ misses Lia, as she became his best friend in the house. Dale says that, at this point, pretty much everyone remaining is good enough to meet each challenge and do it well. Joey, taking a no-holds-barred approach, says it may be time to throw people over the bus and over the balcony to win. I’d stay in doors and away from mass transit around this guy!
Back in the Top Chef Kitchen, the chefs get ready for their Quick Fire challenge. Padma greets them and is accompanied by Rocco Dispirito, celebrity chef, botox fancier, and eye shadow wearer. The guy is so waxy he looks like he stepped out of a Reality Television display at Madame Tussaud’s. No one of the constants is all that impressed by their guest judge for this challenge and neither am I. Padma announces their Quick Fire challenge: a Culinary Bee! The chefs will line up, come to the table where Padma and Rocco are, and have five seconds to identify an ingredient by sight and/or taste. Howie thinks he’s going to be aces at this challenge, since he’s more of an academic—a thinker, in fact—than others. CJ thinks Hung will be good at the challenge since he’s been cooking since he was five, but his experience is mitigated by his asshat arrogant factor. I must now officially petition Bravo for more screen time for CJ.
The challenge gets underway, with Howie first identifying tomato paste. Even I could ID it from my couch, so this is no mean feat. Joey is out first, as he can’t identify yucca by sight (he blames Padma’s hotness for distracting him—and curiously not Rocco’s pastiness) and others go out in rapid succession. It’s down to Casey, Howie, Hung and Brian as the final four. Hung gets knocked out by identifying a seed spice as anise without tasting it; Padma says he can taste it, and Hung revises his answer to celery seed. She sucker punches him with a “Oh, but I must take your first answer” and he’s eliminated. Howie is then knocked out and it’s down to Casey and Brian. Brian then misses and can’t identify Japanese egg plant, but Casey is down one right answer. She has to get the next one right but she’s had some easy ones—like bowtie pasta. In the end, she wins by identifying roasted red bell pepper paste and has immunity for the next challenge.
Think frozen, like Rocco’s forehead.
With the immunity sorted out, Padma and Rocco announce the Elimination Challenge. Rocco starts out by saying that the frozen dinner meal market is an $8.6 billion industry and the challenge will involve frozen dinners. The chefs, working in pairs, will have to develop a frozen dinner that can go from freezer to table in ten minutes. Rocco is pimpin’ for Bertolli frozen dinners, and the chefs will have the product to examine before developing their dish.
The chefs draw knives to pair up in teams of two for the challenge. When the dust settles on that, the pairs are: Dale and Casey; CJ and Tre; Sara M. and Howie; Joey and Hung; and Sara N. and Brian. Padma further informs them that they will have two hours to cook and then freeze the food and one hour to prepare the next day. Not only will the winning team win the challenge, but both teammates will get two tickets to Italy on Bertolli’s dime. The prospect of an Italian trip nearly chokes up Joey—who constantly reminds us he’s Italian—because he wants to send his mom and his sister on the trip. That nearly makes up for the “Padma’s so smokin’ hot she distracted me from winning” comment. But not quite.
Hung seems to like the challenge at first; he examines the Bertolli dinner and figures out that each ingredient was frozen separately. Joey thinks it’ll be easy, since he’s Italian. Sara N. worries about being teamed with Brian, since his cooking style is much fussier than hers. Howie is not thrilled with working with Sara M. because she thinks his flavors are too simple. But, nevertheless, these teams are stuck with each other for the duration and set about planning their meals. The two that really click are Dale and Casey, who immediately decide to do a meatball dish with pesto since both freeze really well. But, the funniest bit was watching all of these Top Chef wannabes cook the frozen Bertolli bag dinner. Maybe it was just my snarky eye, but it almost looked like they marveled at the process.
The great pasta war begins.
With only $100 and thirty minutes to shop, the chef pairs hit Fresh Market with gusto. Three of the five teams go for chicken, and Howie sees this as an opportunity to stand out so he chooses shrimp. Dale and Casey already decided to make meatballs, so they buy some ground pork and turkey. Tre spots some black truffles in tins; he and CJ agree that the black truffle mushroom would be a great addition to their Italian dish. Over on the pasta aisle, Sara M. tries to convince Howie to pick tri-colored fusilli, which they do, but privately Howie complains that tri-colored fuscilli is just cheesy and can be found on any schlockey salad bar. Later on, in the same aisle, Hung wants to use penne, but the proud Italian Joey insists on tri-colored fusilli because it will dress up the dish. Clearly, these teams are mismatched, and a Hung-Howie pairing would have been quite interesting.
Back in the kitchen, the chefs use their two hours to prep their fifteen bags. CJ and Tre are so in tune with each other that they don’t even have to speak for the first twenty-five minutes, because they know what they are doing. Casey and Dale work on their meatballs, discussing how big to make them so that they can reheat easily and well. Sara N. drives Brian a bit nuts with her slow prep work; she seems to take half the time to prep the red bell peppers for their dish. Sara M. and Howie aren’t having a grand time either, as Howie thinks Sara M. is questioning his every move and not working independently, and Sara M. finds Howie hard to read.
During the prep, Tom arrives to check on the chefs. First he stops by Sara M. and Howie’s station and sees Sara marinating and seasoning their shrimp. Sara says they are going to freeze the shrimp raw because it won’t take long to cook them. Tom looks skeptical but says nothing to them. Checking on Dale and Casey, he observes the meatballs and asks them about the tinned artichokes they are using. Dale says that they’d like to make their own marinated artichokes, but there was no time for that.
Visiting with Sara N. and Brian, Tom learns they are making “Trojan Chicken Rigatoni” because there is a surprise inside. I’m sure Tom was hoping that they were not using Trojans of a sort different from a horse from Troy. Tom next stops to see what Joey and Hung—or “Flash Gordon” as Joey dubs him—are up to. Hung makes a point to talk up how he learned that every single ingredient needs to be frozen separately. Finally, Tom observes Tre and CJ cooking each item separately and freezing it separately. They tell him that they are going to put the bags together by hand the next day. After leaving the kitchen, Tom wonders how Mediterranean meatballs are, thinks anyone with a “surprise” in their food has no clue of what they are doing, and worries a bit about Joey and Hung getting along, since they have such different cooking styles.
Time is up soon enough and the chefs rush to get everything in the freezer. All but CJ and Tre are making up each bag in complete form to freeze. Hung tries to get Joey to understand that the individual elements need to be frozen separately, but Joey pays him no mind and makes up little boxes to be frozen in one lump. He hasn’t even let the sauce cool down, so he throws the hot sauce on the pasta to put in the freezer. Tre comments in an interview that he was amazed that they were the only team to employ IQF—individual quick freezing—for their ingredients. He’s confident that their use of IQF will separate them from the rest of the teams.
All is not well back at the loft after the day of cooking. Thankfully, Joey does not throw anyone over the balcony, but Hung probably was contemplating it. He bitches to CJ and Tre that he could not convince Joey to freeze the ingredients separately and figures they are doomed. Howie also is bitching up a storm about Sara M.’s lack of contribution to their team and how he’d never hire her as a dishwasher in his kitchen. Meanwhile Sara M. goes for a soak in the hot tub topless…well, I can’t say for certain she was topless, but her swim suit was not visible above the water, so I have to wonder.
On the morning of the Elimination Challenge, the chefs arrive in their kitchen to pack their ice chests to go to the Fresh Market. The chefs had one hour to pack the chests, and all but CJ and Tre are done inside of fifteen minutes. CJ and Tre relish the realization that they were the only team to use IQF and feel assured of the win. As Tre says, the judges must have had IQF in mind when they allowed the teams an hour to pack up, as it certainly does not take an hour to load fifteen zipper bags into a cooler.
After the hour of prep, the chefs arrive at the Fresh Market and are given a burner and two deep frying pans in which to prepare one packet of their meal for tasting. The set-up rolls out fairly uneventfully and the judges arrive; in addition to Rocco, Padma, and Tom, we were stuck with Gail once again. Not only do the chefs have to please the quartet of culinary critics, but they also have to “sell” the remaining prepared meals. In actuality, the meals are given away to the Fresh Market customers. Even though the Fresh Market crowd was fine, I would have loved to see these guys prepare the food for tasting on a Saturday morning at a Sam’s Club or Costco. Now that would have been entertaining!
Rocco visits Dale and Casey and samples their turkey and pork meatballs with orecchiette pasta and pesto. He repeatedly asks them if they tasted their dish, which they say they did, and were highly confident of the meal. Gail samples Sara N. and Brian’s chicken rigatoni with kalamata olives, peppers, sundried tomatoes, and rosemary. They point out that they kept the flavor packet separate in the frozen meal bag.
Padma ventures to taste Howie and Sara M.’s Mediterranean shrimp pasta with fennel and sundried tomato vinaigrette, and offers only a “thank you” afterward. Tom tastes Hung and Joey’s tri-colored fusilli with garlic sundried tomato sauce and chicken. Tom asks how far they cooked the pasta, intimating that the pasta was over-done, and Joey explains how they packed the meal altogether. Hung again says he wanted to freeze the ingredients individually and Joey worries Hung is going to lay the blame on him.
Finally, Rocco samples Tre and CJ’s black truffle and parmesan linguini, kale, tomato confit and grilled chicken. Rocco marveles at the use of truffles within the budget constraints and questiones them on the IQF. CJ says they copied what Bertolli did because it worked so well.
With the tasting over, the chefs set about moving their goods. Casey and Dale sell out first, and though they had a slow start, Tre and CJ move their dish as well. Sara N. and Brian also did not have trouble giving away their dish. Howie and Sara M. only can give away three boxes and soon realize they should have frozen the sauce separately from the pasta. Joey and Hung, on the other hand, couldn’t give away their dish, which is a sad comment particularly in light of the fact the food was free. Joey, ever delusional, says in a confessional that people don’t want complicated flavors like truffles; while that may be somewhat true, no one wants a mushy pile of overcooked pasta either.
Pack your bags and go!
At the Judges’ Table, the annoyingly made-up Rocco, Padma, Tom, and Gail discuss each dish they tasted at the Fresh Market. Padma says it was great for the chefs to see the Bertolli products and see how the frozen bags were to be put together. Tom brings up Hung’s insistence that he knew that IQF should be used, but wonders why he didn’t actually do it. It quickly becomes apparent that the judges were no fans of Joey and Hung’s dish and Sara M. and Howie’s dish. Gail likes Casey and Dale’s meatball dish, although Tom did not care for the canned artichokes and the meatball Rocco sampled was still frozen in the core. Rocco thinks CJ and Tre’s dish was extremely successful, but Tom takes issue with the use of black truffles. Rocco defendes the truffles, noting that he has truffle hunted in Italy himself. As for Brian and Sara N.’s dish, Tom merely comments that it held up under freezing and was good.
With that, the judges make their decision and Padma retrieves Casey, Dale, Tre and CJ from the waiting area. They are the top four in the challenge, and two of them—and their lucky guests—will be going to Italy on Bertolli’s dime. Tom lobs the first question at Tre and CJ and askes if the challenge was hard. CJ says the challenge wasn’t difficult and the key was to use clean flavors and individually freeze everything. Tre says they took the biggest clue from the two hours of cooking time and the one whole hour of preparing the bags time to indicate that the judges were looking for IQF preparation. Tom then went on about the truffle situation, and both CJ and Tre school him but-good on how Italy has truffles.
Tom wisely drops the truffle argument (finally!) and shifts focus to Dale and Casey. They say they planned their dish to have all of the aspects of the flavor come together. They chose the pasta and the pesto based on the ease of freezing both of the items and how well they stand up to being frozen. Rocco complains again about the frozen meatball and Tom whins more about the tinned artichokes, but then Rocco compliments them on one of the best pestos he’d ever had.
In a “tell us why you should win tickets to Italy” move, Tom asks the four why they should be the ones going to Italy. Tre wants to further his education and gain experience for opening an Italian restaurant, CJ wants to grow as a chef, and Dale wants to experience the Italian cuisine first-hand. Casey, on the other hand, appeared to be stuck in a Bachelor drinking game, only able to utter the word “amazing” twenty-eight times.
Casting the honor to the guest judge once again, Rocco then announces that Tre and CJ have won the challenge, and they are both overjoyed. CJ especially is thrilled to finally win a challenge. Unfortunately, they must bring the bad news to their fellow chefs, and, once in the waiting area, they send Joey, Hung, Sara M. and Howie to the chopping block.
What we have here is a failure to communicate.
Once the bottom two teams were before the Judges’ Table, Padma asks Joey, Hung, Sara M. and Howie what went wrong with their dishes. Hung admits that the main problem was that their pasta was mushy, because nothing was individually frozen. He claims he wanted to individually quick freeze each ingredient, but Joey overrode his decision. Joey vehemently denies Hung’s claim. Hung goes on to say that he wasn’t blaming Joey—though none of the judges were fooled by this claim—but questions how many times he had to insist on IQF for it to be enough. Joey counters that Hung should have banged pots and pans to get his attention if Hung felt so strongly about the IQF. The judges move on to the choice of pasta, and Joey tries to blame Hung for the choice of the tri-colored fusilli. Hung, of course, denies that he suggested fusilli and points out he wanted penne…which we all know he did, because that exchange at the Fresh Market was captured on videotape.
The judges move on to Howie and Sara M.’s disastrous dish. Howie first says he wanted to use the fusilli to pick up the sauce and blamed the problem with the dish on the burner and two pan situation. Sara admitts that they only IQF’d the dish half-way. Rocco probes this further with Howie, who claims that it was not obvious what the Bertolli people had done. Rocco disagrees and says it was painfully obvious—what, with the frozen bits of sauce and everything else frozen separately—what Bertolli had done. From that point, the conversation devolves into Howie’s argumentative statements concerning Sara’s lack of contribution and how she would be the last person on the planet he would want to work with. Sara M. weakly says she contributed some of the seasonings to the dish and claims that arguing with Howie was a non-starter.
The contestants are then dismissed for some judge-on-judge discussion. Tom sums up the problem as a communication break-down on both teams. Rocco thinks both dishes were depressingly bad and points out that Hung and Joey’s dish was mushy and unforgettable. Tom does not mind their sauce, but Gail is stuck on the issue of Hung claiming to know what he wanted to do with the preparation, yet failed to do it. The judges feel no love for Howie and Sara’s dish either; they find it dry and oddly flavored. Tom is not convinced by Sara that she contributed much at all, either in the kitchen or at the Fresh Market. Gail comments on Howie’s combative statements before the Judges’ Table, noting that he has become more nervous and pent-up with each passing challenge and that has affected his cooking.
Cry, cry again.
The bottom four chefs are called again before the judges. Tom addresses them, saying that the challenge was pretty basic and that neither of the two teams had dishes that were up to par. Hung, he says, claimed to know what he had to do to prepare the frozen meals, but he failed to convince his partner and thereby failed to be the leader that a Top Chef really is. Joey, Tom says, probably got too far ahead of himself and did not work well with his teammate. Tom finds fault with Howie’s lack of focus on creating a dish that tasted good and is not convinced Sara M. gave the challenge her all. Concluding, Tom says picking a loser was difficult, since both dishes were bad. Padma then tells Joey to pack his knives and go. By way of consolation, Tom makes a point of saying that Joey is a great guy who just had an off day.
Joey thanks the judges for the opportunity but barely made it back to the waiting area before crying. In his exit interview, Joey regrets his stubbornness the most, but promises this would not be the last anyone heard from him…and then cried some more. I actually began to feel sorry for the big lug, and hoped his friends back in New York didn’t give him too hard a time about being a big ole wus on the tee-vee.