It is Wednesday already, and it feels like I just saw Top Chef yesterday. Oh, wait, I did. Bravo is in serious repeat mode these days and it’s beginning to annoy me. Luckily this episode is fresh and action-packed, especially the last five minutes. Good thing I took a power nap because I’m coming down with some bug and those last five minutes are not something to be missed.
Blind Taste Test.
Before heading to the kitchen for this round’s Quick Fire, the chefs work out, get dressed, and reflect on the past challenge. Antonia and Zoi were the second-worst team last time and they are both still smarting from the judges’ comments. Antonia did not enjoy being ranked low and Zoi has taken inspiration to get her butt in gear from her poor showing. Her girlfriend, Jen, is simply astounded that Zoi did not do well, but she admits she’s speaking from more of a fan perspective than a chef’s perspective.
As the chefs arrive in the kitchen for the QF, Padma and Ming Tsai are already there waiting for them. At the sight of Ming, Lisa nearly bursts from excitement; she thinks he’s the tops because he cooks all the East meets West foods, which is what she cooks too (as do anyone else who picks up his frozen entrees at Target). Ming is there to help out in a palate challenge. The cooks will be blindfolded and taste two versions of the same ingredient—one high-end and one low-end. The cooks will have to correctly guess which is the good quality product. Upon learning of the challenge, Antonia is even more excited than Lisa at seeing Ming. She’s been studying up on her Top Chef seasons past and is ready and psyched for a blindfold challenge. Ten bucks says she stayed up late at night practicing for months before coming on the show.
So the competition gets underway. Ryan is up first and starts out with cheap maple syrup versus real maple syrup and pricey bacon versus thin mass-marketed stuff. “Yum, bacon with syrup,” is all I can really think at that point. As the chefs come through, we see that they sample other ingredients including crab, butter, chocolate, soy sauce, sake, caviar, and pork. There are fifteen ingredients in total that they have to try. Luckily it also seems that each cook had a bottle of water to clear their palates because after tasting bacon, soy sauce, and sake, I think I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between Cheetos and corn flakes. After all was said and done, Stephanie fared the worst—as she suspected—and got only 6 out of the 15 pairs correctly identified. A bit ironic then, isn’t it, that she’s won the most Elimination Challenges to date? The runners up with 11 out of 15 were Ryan and Jen; frankly Ryan’s score surprises me since he generally seems out of his depth on this show. The winner, with a score of 12 out of 15, was Antonia. All that practicing paid off, and she got immunity.
Elements of Style.
The Elimination Challenge is yet another team challenge. The Meals On Wheels folks have a fundraiser every year catered by real top chefs; apparently it is a big to-do and is held at the old Marshall Field’s building in Chicago. The cooks will draw knives and be separated into four teams; each team will be assigned an element—earth, water, air, or fire—and will be making 80 plates of a dish inspired by the element as the first course for the dinner (the real chefs handle the other courses). They will then have 15 minutes to plan, 45 minutes to shop with a budget of $500, and then two hours to cook the meal the next day before serving.
The Water team is made up of Andrew, Richard, and Mark. Isn’t it weird how Andrew and Richard had issues at the start of the show and now seem to be paired every single week? It’s almost like there’s a set up afoot. They decide to do a fish dish and cook the fish in water—poached in vacuum-sealed plastic bags, otherwise known as sous vide. I know sous vide is some fancy-pants way of cooking, but it always reminds me of the boil-in-bag Banquet roast beef dishes I used to eat for lunch in the summertime as a kid.
The Air team is Jen, Nikki, and Ryan. They admittedly go for the obvious interpretation and decided to do something with a bird, and at the grocery store, choose to go with a seared duck breast. The Earth team is made up of Spike, Zoi, and Antonia; Spike and Zoi want to do butternut squash soup since that is pretty “earthy” but Zoi thinks soup is too basic. She eventually argues Zoi down and Spike comes around to doing some kind of beef dish with fancy salad greens and loads of fancy mushrooms. Apparently her theory is that nothing is more earthy than mushrooms.
Over on the last team, Fire things are pretty much ablaze. Stephanie, Dale, and Lisa form this team and it is readily obvious that Dale and Lisa are going to clash. Lisa knows Dale is the self-anointed ass of the group and Dale thinks Lisa is far to negative. Pot, please meet Kettle. Picking out a menu is no small feat; Dale wants to do some kind of grilled beef-wrapped deviled egg, which just sounds disgusting. Lisa thinks that deviled eggs aren’t exactly all that technical or first course appropriate, and she wants to do something Asian/Western, since Ming is the judge. Dale is against doing anything Asian; he probably worries that he’ll be pegged as stuck in a rut, which is a reasonable concern. By the time they go shopping, they still haven’t sorted out their menu. They get to the meat counter and see that the Air team is buying tenderloin which sends their tiny bit of a plan back to square one. After some fussing, Stephanie throws out the idea of doing a spicy grilled shrimp which can incorporate Asian elements. Dale has decided he can do a chili salad and live with the dish; Lisa will contribute a bacon component and runs off to get some bacon.
Pleasing the Palates of Philanthropists.
Elimination Challenge Day arrives and the cooks get busy in the Marshall Field’s kitchen. It is a giant space and the Water team carves out its own cooking station away from the other three teams. Antonia touts her Earth team’s ingredients, noting that they all come from the earth. I suppose all the other teams are using ingredients imported from galaxies far, far away, or maybe just from Mercury. Richard gets busy on making his vacuum packed bags of fish—they chose salmon—and Andrew is reprising his faux caviar from last week.
The Fire team has finally settled into cooking mode with Dale slicing up chilis, Stephanie de-veining shrimp and preparing them for grilling, and Lisa implementing her unique bacon technique. She lays out the strips on baking sheets, slightly overlapping long-wise, all going in the same direction. She places paper and other stuff on top to weigh them down and keep them flat as they cook. The idea is for it to come out as one big, flat bacon sheet that she will cut into uniform strips. She’s also got a sticky miso sauce that will get the bacon to attach to the shrimp. As an aside, I first learned about miso from Ming Tsai back in the 90s while watching him on The Food Network. I need to send him a thank-you note.
Over on the Air team, the duck is being cooked, fat side down, an herb salad is being constructed, and they plan on a pomegranate shot. Somehow Ryan uses up all the pomegranate juice prematurely and they have to scramble to make things work. Over on the Fire team, Lisa’s bacon isn’t cooking up right because it is so thick so she has to pile on more pots and whatnot to keep it flat. She causes a ruckus as she slams things around and cusses. Dale again privately comments on how negative Lisa is.
Tom comes in to check their progress; he stops first at the Earth team and learns Zoi is cooking the mushrooms while Spike is doing an aioli and Antonia is prepping veggies. He then visits with the Water team and Richard tries to be funny about poaching the fish and Tom just kind of stares at him. Tom does not appreciate Richard’s attempts at humor. After he visits the teams, Tom sums up his observations by saying that the Air team doesn’t really have a clear idea of their dish, the Fire team may have gone too spicy for a first course, and the Water team is too cocky with all their laughter.
Time soon runs down; Richard puts off plating the salmon for a long while, which makes Mark very nervous. He and Andrew notice that lots of the salmon portions have scales still on the fish, and Richard is in disbelief. He says he’ll check each one as it’s plated to be sure the scales are off. Personally, I think he forgot to take the scales off and he’s just now realized it.
Tonight’s judges are Padma, Tom, Ming and Gail. They are seated at one large table at the Meals on Wheels event. The Water team’s dish is the first out of the kitchen. It is poached salmon with faux caviar, parsnip puree and watercress salad. Andrew is really worried about the scales, as is Richard; it turns out they should be because Ming got a mouthful of them. Tom isn’t wild about sous vide prepared salmon and thinks the fish is mushy.
The Fire team’s dish is next; they’ve prepared grilled shrimp with pickled chili salad, deviled aioli and miso smoked bacon. Padma and Ming looove it, especially the spice. Tom’s weak palate thinks the spice is too much but Gail and the other diners love it as well so he’s outvoted. Gail steals Ted Allen’s line from last season, noting that you really can’t go wrong with adding bacon to a dish.
Third up is the Air team’s duck breast with citrus salad and pomegranate prosecco aperitif. Tom hates the trend of the little drink, while Ming thinks it is okay with dessert. Overall, they are only somewhat disappointed in the duck; had Jen scored it before searing the fat side, it would have been better.
Last to come out is the Earth team’s beef carpaccio with mushroom salad and sunchoke aioli. This dish is universally disliked for having absolutely no flavor. The diners don’t like it either and give it poor marks on their score cards. Before heading to Judges’ Table, the panel makes some quick comments. Gail, Padma, and Ming thought the Fire dish was the best, and Tom came around and said he really liked the bacon. The Water team’s fish had a terrible texture and the scales were a huge issue. Tom didn’t get the Air team’s concept, but Gail liked their citrus salad. None of the judges liked the Earth team’s bland dish.
Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, the teams are doing clean up. Richard is sure he’s going to get chewed out for the scales. The Fire team is pretty content with what they’ve done and the Earth team thinks they rocked the competition. Soon enough they’ll find out their real fates.
Big prizes and sore losers.
It’s time again to face the judges and the cooks are waiting in the storage room drinking beer and wine. Padma retrieves the Fire team and, as soon as they are before the Table, she tells them that they’ve won. Lots of hugging and high-fiving ensue, but there’s a winner that needs to be chosen. Stephanie explains that the dish came together when they were shopping. The judges learn that Stephanie was responsible for the shrimp, Dale for the salad, and Lisa for the bacon. Padma then says that whomever wins this challenge will also get a trip for two to Italy; it is up to Ming to decide who will win. He says that all of the elements were great but it was Lisa’s innovative bacon technique that put the dish over the top, so she gets the win. She couldn’t be more happy, winning a challenge cooking East-meets-West cuisine for THE guy who is her idol. Dale, on the other hand, is fit to be tied. He thinks it’s insane that she won for cooking bacon. Yeah, that making a salad dressing and slicing chilis was soooo difficult. Personally, I thought Stephanie should have won for mediating the Lisa-Dale divide and not stabbing either or both of them with her de-veining knife.
Padma asks the winning Fire team to send back the Earth and Water teams, and in they go to defend their dishes. The Water team is questioned first. Richard owns up to cooking the salmon; Gail asks him if he cleaned it first and he says he ran it under water. Tom says there were lots of scales on the portions and asks Richard if he was happy with the texture. Richard was, but Tom counters that it was mush. Gail then asks Andrew if he made the faux caviar before, and everyone else kind of giggles since they all know he made it in the last challenge. Gail says it needed more flavor. Mark then says he made the parsnip puree. Tom asks him what the point of it was, and after a few beats, Mark says it was a nice accompaniment to the fish. Tom thinks that the puree was pointless.
The Earth team is then told their dish lacked flavor. Zoi says the idea was not to overpower the carpaccio but then goes on about how she loves well-seasoned dishes and she is certain the mushrooms she made were very seasoned. Gail says yes, they had a lot of rosemary and that was a really bad choice. Spike then gets defensive and starts yammering about how he wanted to make a soup but was shot down by Antonia because it would have been too simple. Ming points out that the test of a true chef is being able to make a good soup and says soup would have been a good choice.
The cooks go back to the waiting area while the judges mull over their decision. Spike is convinced he should just be an ass and not a nice guy and Zoi says that, if he has an opinion, it’s his responsibility to voice it. Richard, meanwhile, is convinced he’s going home because of the scales.
Over at the Judges’ Table, Gail thinks it is hard to forgive the scales and Padma is surprised that Richard believed the texture of the salmon was good. We then learn that the carpaccio received the lowest score by the diners. Because Antonia has immunity, it comes down to Spike or Zoi; Tom would just as soon boot both of them off because they let Antonia override the soup decision. Ming couldn’t make heads or tales out of Zoi’s rant about seasoning and Tom says the whole dish hinged on the mushrooms, which were a disaster.
The bottom six return to the Judges’ Table. Tom says that the Water team’s dish was good on paper but not in execution and the Earth team’s dish had no earthiness to it and was the worst in both the judges’ and the diners’ opinions. Padma then tells Zoi to pack her knives and go.
They all return to the storage area where more liquor has been consumed than at a frat house during finals week. Everyone is teary, even Richard, and Zoi and Jen have an emotional good-bye. Zoi handles her loss pretty well, saying she’s disappointed but she’s not in the business to compete but to cook. After she leaves, all hell breaks loose. Spike goes off on Antonia for not staying in the background and she counters that she would have done the soup if Spike and Zoi really wanted to. Spike says she never said that, despite earlier footage of Antonia pretty much saying just that. Antonia shouts that he should stand behind his dish, then Jen gets in the mix because she’s so upset Zoi lost. Dale then inserts himself in the argument and Lisa tells him to shut up because he’s not helping. Then Dale shouts at Lisa about all her negativity. In the end, Jen kicks down a chair and the episode ends. It was a meltdown of classic proportions. At last, drama! Tune in next week when Spike and Mark (I think) share a bubble bath.