As another super-sized morning breaks in New York City, the sun shines over a green, tree-lined 42nd St. while people walk about in tank tops, summer dresses and shorts. Meanwhile, in the Top Chef suites in Brooklyn, Ariane is making her bed in a tank top, savoring her second elimination win in a row, which she attributes to keeping her dishes simple. Really simple. Like, lunch-lady simple. Elsewhere in the house, Eugene is going over some notes in a tank top and shorts, lamenting the fact that he’s narrowly escaped more than one elimination. He didn’t go to culinary school, instead he worked his way up from dishwasher in the kitchen to get where he is today. This is the show’s way of letting us know that Eugene will not be the winner this season, as self-taught chefs have never done better than 5th place on this show. Poor Eugene is going to figure prominently in this episode, one way or another.
Sitting in the kitchen in short-sleeve shirts, “The Euros” (Fabio and Stefan) continue to be cuddly and cute while nursing their wounds from a poor judging in the last challenge. They both joke about having shoes up their rear ends, while Stefan carves a sad self-portrait into a watermelon. Fabio continues to deliberately mangle his English to sugar-coat his contempt for anything or anyone American, HA how cute! He and Stefan resolve to beat everyone else so that they can go head-to-head in a Top Chef Euro-Final. Which means they will run around each other for 3 hours and the final score will be mind-numbingly low. Buona fortuna, guys!
Hosea, dressed in a t-shirt extolling the virtues of bacon, spends the morning calling his family on the T-Mobile Sidekick LX by Sharp (that’s the T-Mobile Sidekick LX by Sharp, available in fine stores and online, for those who missed the 4 close-ups on the logo) to check up on his sick father, who sadly was diagnosed with cancer just before Hosea left to do the show. He sends his love and pledges to be home soon, and then sets off with the other chefs for today’s Quickfire Challenge.
Suddenly, we hear sleigh bells, and the camera pans across the Top Chef kitchen to reveal wreaths, garland, and a big Christmas tree as the chefs enter to greet Padma, who (with a straight face and no discernable trace of irony) launches into a speech about how people are frantically preparing holiday meals at “this time of year.”
(It should be noted that as of this point in the episode, everyone acts and speaks as if it truly is mid-December and not late July/early August. It’s a true feat of forced earnestness and mass-denial that would make Orwell blush, bless them. Let’s play along, shall we?)
Padma informs the chefs that they must each create a traditional holiday meal that can be made using only one pot. She then introduces the very special guest judge for this challenge, “American icon”
Lynette “Squeaky” FrommeMartha Stewart! Ariane is ecstatic, as she and Ms. Stewart both hail from New Jersey. Leah loves Martha because she’s “pretty badass” and never thought she would ever get the chance to be her bitchmeet her.
Martha quotes Albert Einstein in advising the chefs on their challenge, but in that warm, homey way. They have 45 minutes and one pot. And off they go!
During the usual chaos, multiple winner Ariane and BFF and multiple almost-winner Jaime bond and help each other out by tasting each other’s food. I admire Jaime’s ability to not slip the poison in Ariane’s food this early in the season, and instead biding her time. Keep-It-Simple Ariane decides to do a filet mignon with a cauliflower puree, which she loves to serve her kids, letting them think that it’s mashed potatoes so they’ll eat their veggies. (What a great strategy for impressing the one person on Earth who could make Oprah blink! “Here comes the choo-choo!”)
Martha’s “Bad Mommy” vibe seems to penetrate Fabio’s psyche, as he takes us through a regression to his childhood, when his grandma would punish him by making him stir polenta for hours on end. In an effort to even the score, he’s making polenta for Martha. I like Fabio. He’s kinky.
Eugene also pays tribute to his grandmother by remaking her beloved pork stew. However, he doesn’t have all day to let it simmer like grandma did, so he decides to add corn starch to help the broth thicken. But hey, it’s okay, Martha Stewart would never notice a short-cut like that, right? Time runs out, and Padma and Martha make the rounds.
First up is Eugene’s spicy Korean pork stew. Martha instantly comments on the oddly thickened broth, and politely thanks him (ouch). Next up is Stefan’s Veal Celtic Goulash with Potatoes and Chanterelle Mushrooms. The very mention of the word “Chanterelle” turns Martha into a giddy schoolgirl, which bodes well for Stefan. Next, Hosea shows off his Seafood, Chicken and Chorizo Paella, which has both Martha and Padma licking their fingers. Melissa then presents her Maryland apple-inspired Pork Tenderloin with Braised Cabbage, followed by Jeff’s Potato Risotto with Pork and Brussels Sprouts, with a vinegar topping that sends the girls running to Jaime and her Potato and Kale Stew with Scallops and Fried Sage. Padma questions whether scallops are a winter ingredient, but Martha and her new BFF Jaime quickly shoot her down, sharing campfire stories about the Great January Scallop Hunts up in the Northeast.
Not to be outdone, Ariane plays her Jersey card to become Martha’s new new BFF. Apparently “here comes the choo-choo” works wonders on Martha, who is amazed by the flavors, and the fact that no butter was needed to make the puree so creamy. Jaime who?
Next up is my secret crush Carla, and her Tennessee Brined Turkey Breast with Apple & Cherry Stuffing, which they pronounce “tasty” before finally arriving at Fabio and his “kinky” polenta. Alas, poor Fabio is punished once more as his dish, Eugene’s starchy stew, and Jeff’s ultra-starchy risotto are called out as the worst of the bunch. Gene lets us know he’s angry that he was chastised for using corn starch, since lots of housewives and grandmothers use it in their stews. Apparently he thinks he is on a show called Top Housewife or Grandmother. Fabio spews equal venom, all but promising an Italian curse on Martha’s head via his grandma.
Martha prefers Hosea’s paella, Jaime’s scallop (as her heart leaps) and Ariane’s beef (as Jaime’s heart sinks once more). Will Jaime finally step out from Ariane’s shadow and beat her in a challenge? Alas no, as Martha hands an autographed cookbook to The Choo-Choo Lady. To be fair to her, I love how Ariane’s face registers just as much shock as everyone else’s each time she wins. Martha says her goodbyes to everyone, as she is too busy and important to stick around for the rest of the show. But don’t worry, an embarrassing number of guest stars and cameos are still to come!
Padma is now ready to give the chefs their Elimination Challenge: They are to cater a 250-guest holiday benefit for amFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, at the historic Prince George Ballroom in Manhattan. And to help her explain what it is they are going to cook, she introduces the Harlem Gospel Choir, who walk into the kitchen singing a song that is eventually identifiable as “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The chefs are thrilled, until they realize that each of them is to pick a “day” from that song, and make a dish inspired by that day’s gift. (Radhika picks “a partridge in a pear tree,” Eugene picks “five golden rings,” etc.) They have three hours to prep that night, and another hour before the benefit begins to cook and plate their dishes for the guests, which will include two guest judges: actress and amFAR member Natasha Richardson, and a returning Top Chef regular, chefbabe Michelle Bernstein. The chefs are whisked off to Whole Foods Market in the Bowery (hey, I’ve shopped there!) to grab what they can, even though they have not been given the usual time beforehand to plan what they will make.
A quick-thinking Jeff, who drew “ten lords a-leaping,” decides to do frog’s legs, until he finds out that the store has no frog’s legs (yes, it’s going to be that kind of challenge). Jaime decides to stick with scallops to help envision “seven swans a-swimming.” Meanwhile, Choo-Choo Ariane translates “six geese a-laying” into that gourmet staple of 3-star restaurants…deviled eggs. You can just hear Tom Colicchio’s hand smacking his forehead from across town. The chefs finish their purchases and, once again clad in tank tops and shorts, wish all the checkout people a “Merry Christmas!” as they leave. The other sound you just heard was my hand smacking my forehead.
Back in the Top Chef kitchen, the chefs frantically prep their dishes, as Hosea fills the kitchen with smoke while grilling his marinated pork. Then, in a brilliantly choreographed ballet of product placement, the chefs cram all of their ingredients into Glad bowls and bags, and stuff everything into the already-packed Sears refrigerators for the night.
The next morning, Fabio is writing up an entire story he can tell his patrons about how his crab cakes relate to “nine ladies dancing,” while Hosea and Stefan look on with amusement. The chefs get dressed and head back over to the kitchen, where they discover that 2 of the refrigerator doors are open, and several people’s ingredients are now bad: Hosea’s pork, Radhika’s ducks, and Melissa’s cheese. Melissa replaces her cheese quickly, but Hosea and Radhika are officially in the weeds.
Then, something happens that we don’t always see in a Top Chef cast: everyone else pitches in to help Hosea and Radhika save their dishes! Where’s the sneering, the secret rooting for failure? This is new territory for me…Fabio, Jaime, Hosea, Carla and Stefan start hacking up meat and chopping ingredients to give the felled chefs a hand. Suddenly, Hosea is sitting on a new pork dish, and Radhika has a creative duck leg dish instead of duck breast dish. Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!
And so, over the river and through the Midtown Tunnel, to Prince George’s Ballroom they go. Once there, everyone sets up quickly and starts firing their dishes.
As they cook, the guests start arriving, including Natasha Richardson, in a red dress that looks like it’s hanging onto her voluptuous body for dear life. Natasha officially wins the award for Hottest Redgrave of All Time. She greets the guests and thanks them for supporting amFAR. She then tells them to visit each chef’s station to sample all the food, and then stick a red ribbon pin on the station that presented their favorite dish. But she does it in a way that makes each and every person in the room think that she wants them to take her, now.
(Is it hot in here or is it just me? I haven’t felt this way since the prom…or at least, since Padma snuck into CJ’s room that morning to wake him up for that breakfast challenge. Rawrrrr.)
Padma, Natasha, Tom and Michelle Bernstein first visit Stefan and sample his take on a traditional Chicken Pot Pie, which they seem to love. Next they try Radhika’s improvised Braised Duck Leg on Brioche with Pear Chutney & Toasted Pistachios. Michelle compliments the spices, and Unnamed Party Girl Who Should Be On The Hills #1 says the duck was her favorite so far. Radhika lets us know she’s happy with the result, and really wants to win one.
Next comes Carla, who tells us over the fence that ooh chile, Kenneth Cole came by and could she have some shoes please! She presents her take on “two turtle doves”, a salty car crash of mushroom (hub)caps and chicken chunks. (Girl I love ya, but ick.) After this, the judges stand before Eugene and his Grandma’s Tahitian Style Poisson Cru (fish bits in coconut milk) with Pineapple Ring and Gold Yukon Potato Chip. He wishes his guests “Happy holidays!” (snicker) and they thank him, before quietly spitting out his food. Uh-oh, as they say…
Fabio is next, with this 10-minute lecture on crab legs, dancing, women’s reproductive cycles and “HOW YOU DOIN’?” Finally the judges get to bite into his Sweet Corn & Roasted Pepper Crab Cake, and quickly wish they had just let him keep talking. The camera closes in on a glass of wine being poured, as if to say “Eww, please get this taste out of my mouth!” Apparently Fabio will have to charm his way out of “the house that the dog lives in” at Judge’s Table later on.
Hoping to improve their holiday spirits, the judges try Jaime’s Crudo of Sea Scallop in Vichyssoise (“seven swans a-swimming”). The looks on the judges’ faces as they slide that raw-lukewarm scallop down their gullets is priceless. Jaime’s food may be cold, but she is toast. And just to add insult to injury, Broadway Hottie Cheyenne Jackson appears out of nowhere to tell us that Jaime’s dish is “slimy.” (Thanks for the quick eye candy, Magical Elves!)
Next, Melissa tells anyone who will listen that she made a Gorgonzola & NY Strip Steak on Sourdough Crostini with Cranberry Vinaigrette. The judges taste it and basically rename it “Gorgonzola Grilled Cheese.” And suddenly there is another candidate for the chopping block! Leah fares slightly better with her “three French hens”-inspired Braised Guinea Hen with Butternut Squash Puree Over Puff Pastry, but the judges are sad that the pastry dominates the overall bite.
And now, we come to Mama Choo-Choo’s Jersey Deviled Eggs! The judges want to rag on Ariane’s thinking that a picnic snack could win Top Chef, but they’re too busy enjoying the eggs. Curse her and her consistent talent!
Hosea, whose table is starting to resemble a rock star’s kissing booth, presents his re-tuned Smoked Pork Loin with Chipotle Mashed Potatoes & Apple Brandy Jus. The judges like it, the guests like it, and the girlies seem to love him! They are pinning red ribbons all over his table AND his chef’s coat. Leah, who laid claim to Hosea weeks ago even though they are both in relationships, starts grilling him for info, wanting to know which girls in the room are cattin’ him, so she can flip some boiling oil in their faces. Hosea tries to play innocent-but-not-really, as the other chefs laugh.
Since Fabio tanked, Hosea’s current competition for Chef Most Likely To Attract Cats In Heat is Jeff and his Seared Halloumi & Kasseri Cheeses in a Beet, Pear & Mint Salad. Michelle registers her approval of the dish, while back at his station, Unnamed Party Girl #2 basically tries to pick Jeff up on camera.
We are then treated to a cavalcade of Unnamed Party Girls (interrupted by Actual Famous Person and Model Maggie Rizer), who each let us know their favorite. And then, the judges convene at their table to review the day. Overall, the food sucked, but that doesn’t stop Natasha from gushing about the beauty of this joyous season of giving, and how the chefs gave of themselves and TAKE ME NOW, YOU DEAR CAMERAMAN! Michelle looks at her like she’s from Planet Bizarro, in Today’s TC Recap Face of the Week:
Hoping to prevent an inevitable catfight, a quick-thinking Padma adjourns the judges to the Top Chef kitchen so they can deliberate. The chefs have the obligatory glass of champagne before being herded into their FUVs and carted back to Brooklyn. Back in the Steam Room, they toast each other some more and wish each other a Merry Christmas (what the heck, if they play along they get to keep their per diem, right?). Padma enters and asks to see Hosea, Jeff, Stefan and Radhika. They get up and walk with Padma to greet their fate as the other chefs sit and contemplate their mortality. At Judge’s Table, they remark on how Radhika came back from adversity to create a great duck dish. We also learn that Stefan made chicken pot pie because it was what he had to eat for his first Christmas in America, aww! Jeff gets kudos for his salad, although they remark (and he agrees) that the two different chesses were a bit much. Hosea also gets complimented on his ability to overcome “tragedy” to present a winning pork dish. But is it the winning dish? Padma gives the floor to Natasha and Her Halter Top to announce today’s winner (and the recipient of the most red ribbons at the event): Hosea!
Michelle presents Hosea with the prize, her latest Latin cookbook, but adds that in the spirit of giving, she’s going to give all four finalists the book as well. (What’s the matter, isn’t it selling?) The winning chefs return to the Steam Room to summon Melissa, Jaime, and Eugene to meet in Top Chef Thunderdome. A stammerer and two hotheads? This will be good…Ariane cheers them on and tells them to fight, fight, fight out there! (No wonder she gets such a great edit, she’s doing the producers’ work for them!)
Jaime and Eugene both defend their dishes, even though the judges are nicely trying to tell them they were awful. Melissa looks like she’s ready to cut herself as they tell her that her only problem was too much cheese. She remarks that she got a lot of compliments from people coming back for seconds and thirds. The judges remind her that she got one of the lowest number of ribbons at the end of the night. Eugene then tries the “I don’t even know why I’m here” denial route, but gets shut down by Michelle with one punch.
The judges deliberate, and deliberate, (well, Natasha deliberates and gushes) but they seem preoccupied over the fact that the rest of the non-winning food wasn’t much better than the three losing dishes, which speaks to a bigger problem that Tom is having with this season’s chefs in general. Daddy Bear takes matters into his hands, and strolls back to the Steam Room in order to speak to everyone. Dun-dun-DUN, commercial.
When we return, Tom sits with the chefs and tells them all (in a sagely, mentorish kind of way) to get their heads out of their asses, and to start cooking the kind of innovative food that got them on the show in the first place. Deviled eggs, it turns out, really won’t win Top Chef. But, with one more wink to the “holiday season”, Tom lets them know that no one is going home tonight. “A holiday gift from us to you” is how Tom puts it, before getting into his car and cranking up the air conditioning for the ride home. The chefs make various resolutions to come out with their A-game in the next challenge.
Next time on Top Chef, Tom gives them the very opportunity to do what he asked them to do: cook whatever they want! We also find out that new judge, the surly and caustic journalist Toby Young, makes his debut. From the few seconds of footage we see, he instantly establishes himself as the Anti-Gail. It’s enough to make Carla’s eyes pop out of her…never mind…
PhoneGrrrl will be back next time to guide you through the next exciting new episode, but I may be back again someday, so you better be good for goodness sake! Oh, and wear a tank top.