The runway is rolled up and fashion is over for now, so it’s time to pack on the (hopefully) virtual pounds and see what’s cooking on Top Chef. Done with New York, LA, and Miami, the fourth season is exploiting the culinary delights found in Chicago. I envision boat trips on the lake, ball park outings, and, with any luck, a sausage king or two. Let’s light the burners on this one and get started with the recap.
Welcome to the Windy City.
As the contestants arrive in Chicago, we are introduced to a few of them before the first knife is unsheathed. Ryan is from San Francisco and has been cooking in family restaurants since he was eleven years old, so he feels he’ll be a natural at the competition. Nimma is from Atlanta and, despite her parents wishes for her to live at home until she’s married, she lives in her own house and works as a line cook. She tries to abide by her Muslim upbringing but wants to balance it with her American roots. Zoi is also from San Francisco and believes food is about creating a community. Mark is from New Zealand and has come to the US to find the American Dream.
As the cooks arrive in Chicago, the congregate at Uno, an apparently famous deep dish pizza restaurant. Richard is glad to be in Chicago because it has great cuisine, from the avant gard to great street food. Richard is a molecular gastronomist, and visions of Marcel pass before my eyes. Jennifer is another one from San Francisco, as is Erik, who says he’s very vocal about his opinions. (Seriously, did ALL of San Francisco audition for this show?) Andrew is from New York and says there is nothing better than people tasting his passion. Ewwww. Stephanie is a local girl and likes to keep the mood of her kitchen light and fun; she also worries about getting nervous. I wonder if she’s ever seen this show before…“light” and “fun” are not usually used to describe the Top Chef Kitchen.
Richard’s first impression of everyone is that they are all pretty cool, but does notice that Jennifer has the same fauxhawk hair cut as he does. Speaking of Jennifer, it turns out that she and Zoi are a couple who have been together three and a half years. No one really voices an objection and Zoi doesn’t think it will be an advantage at all, but create more stress. After that little bombshell, Tom and Padma arrive and get right to the first Quick Fire. The cooks grab their chef coats and head to the kitchen.
Loads of dough.
Practically fresh off the planes, the sixteen contestants enter the Top Chef Kitchen for the first time and meet their first Quick Fire Challenge: make a signature deep-dish, Chicago-style pizza in 90 minutes. The cooks were allowed to bring up to $200 in “must have ingredients” with them, which are stored in the lockers in the kitchen. They can use those and anything else in the kitchen to make the pizzas. The cooks will then deliver the pizzas to the guest judge for tasting. At first this seems impossible, but then I realize the dough has already been prepared. The chefs dash around the kitchen, grabbing what they can. Stephanie is so nervous cooking with other people around, she cuts herself while chopping onions; you wonder why she’s even on this show.
Dale says he likes to bring an Asian point of view to his dishes so he makes his pizza with sausage, pickled kohlrabi, scallions and sriracha sauce in the tomato sauce. Valerie is from Chicago but has never made a deep dish pizza before. Manuel is from New York and opts for a classic Italian pizza with sopresetta. Nikki is also from New York and doesn’t do deep dish; she goes for a white pizza but has issues with how much dough to use. Mark brought Marmite from Australia and uses it in his pizza. Antonia is Itailan so she goes with a more classic dish with burrata cheese, prosciutto, arugula and heirloom tomatoes. Richard, being from the south, decides to bring a southern element into his pizza and uses peaches and makes a sweet tea sauce. I kid you not. Peachy pizza with sweet tea sounds like something Paula Deen would come up with after an acid trip.
Spike tells us he’s there to take it all, and as his first act of taking it all, he makes a Mediterranean pizza with onions, feta, olives, green peppers and sausage. Lisa doesn’t have a specialty but wants to touch people with her food so they have an orgasmic experience. That may be illegal in most states; she’s from New York too, so maybe I should call Eliot Spitzer for a legal opinion. And poor ole Andrew—he is looking for a bleepin’ pan and can’t find one because his bleepin’ competitor Richard used two. He ends up using a cast iron skillet and worries he’s going to look like a bleepin’ hack. I think Andrew was confused; perhaps he thought this show was “Cooking with the Osbournes”.
The clock ticks down and the pizzas come out of the oven. The pizzas are hit and miss. Many don’t come out of the pan correctly, have enough filling, or generally are a mess. Dale, similarly bleeptastic, says that it is clear that these people don’t know what they are doing. The pizzas nevertheless go in the boxes, with the hope of piecing them back together when plating. Then it’s off to the tasting to meet the mysterious guest judge.
Pizza party with Padma.
Off in the Top Chef vehicles the cooks go and arrive at a classic brownstone. Who opens the door but Rocco di Spirito. I wonder if he ever found a cohost for his little frozen pasta ad. The cooks feign interest in Rocco…okay, maybe they actually are happy to see him, but I have no love for the guy.
How Padma and Rocco can eat even small amounts of deep dish pizzas is beyond me. This year for my birthday my wonderful mother made me a deep dish eggplant parmesan pizza. It was delicious, but even though it was only a 9 inch pizza, it took four of us two separate meals to eat the whole thing. I hope they have some Pepto on hand, especially since Richard’s peach concoction is up first. Stephanie comes out with her pizza that has melon tomato sauce, prosciutto, olives and arugula; Rocco says it smells funky. Zoi delivers her pizza with broccoli, pesto, and lamb sausage; Rocco comments there is a lot of stuff going on with the pizza. Dale comes out next with his Asian-influenced pizza. Ryan delivers pizza with escarole, ricotta salata and butternut squash; Padma comments that it is very nice.
Nikki comes out next with basically a big bread and a thin layer of toppings; her pizza is a “white pie” with comte, ricotta, pecorino cheese and mushrooms. Andrew is next and brings out his pizza with smoked marinara, prosciutto, onions and cheese. Jennifer’s pizza is a bit odd with grapes, bacon, fontina and rosmary; Rocco likes the way she did the crust. Erik then brings out his pizza with mushrooms, onions, peppers and sausage—fairly traditional, but at least it has loads of topping. Spike delivers his onion, feta, fennel, olive and sausage pizza, which draws no comment beyond the obligatory “thank you.” Nimma is out next with a “hunter-style” pizza consisting of mushrooms, onions, and stracchino cheese. There are loads of mushrooms but Padma and Rocco are missing salt in the dish. Finally, Mark comes out with a chicken zucchini pizza with a Marmite molasses base.
The pizza being over, the cooks gather around and Rocco calls out Lisa, Nimma, Valerie, Manuel, Andrew, Stephanie, Nikki, and Zoi as the worst. Stephanie’s prosciutto was too cooked and tasted gamey and Nikki’s pizza was too dry. The remaining eight were the best; Richard was congratulated for surprising Rocco, in a good way, with the peaches and syrup. He also congratulated Mark for using Marmite and not causing Rocco to wretch. Padma then says that the results of the QF will figure into the Elimination Challenge, which they’ll learn about in the morning.
The cooks then learn that the house isn’t really Rocco’s but where they will be staying during the competition. Andrew is happy (that’s the cleaned up version) and Antonia is just glad to get some rest and settle in. The house is huge and has a roof deck where the majority of the group gather and drink champagne and beers. Andrew thinks that this group is mostly pretty cool but they will find out soon how bad-ass he is. (Famous last words, aren’t they?) Nimma is disappointed that she lost on something as easy as a pizza challenge; she doesn’t want to socialize or have fun but only work, so she goes to bed. Dale also doesn’t want to make friends; he wants to keep believing that he’s better than everyone else, lest he lose.
Eight classic dishes, sixteen panicking cooks.
The next morning, back in the Top Chef Kitchen, the cooking contestants are greeted by Padma and a large blackboard. She first asks the eight winners of the pizza challenge to draw knives; they do and they draw numbers from one to eight. She then flips over the board, which lists eight classic dishes: crab cakes, steak au poivre, lasagna, eggs benedict, chicken piccata, duck a l’orange, shrimp scampi, and soufflé. The winning cooks will then have to pick a cook from the losing side, the losing cook will pick a dish from the list, and the pair will both make the dish and face the judges in a head-to-head challenge. Erik has drawn “eight” so he knows he’s going to be making the damn soufflé and he couldn’t be more displeased. The choosing commences and the teams are paired up thusly: Richard and Andrew will make crab cakes, Mark and Stephanie will make duck a l’orange, Jennifer and Nikki will prepare lasagna, Dale and Manuel will make the steak, Spike and Lisa will do the eggs benedict, Ran and Valerie will make chicken piccata, and Erik and Zoi are stuck with the soufflé.
With the pairs chosen, the cooks are off to Whole Foods to buy ingredients. Mark thinks the challenge is going to be easy because what can be more easy than duck and orange? Dale isn’t thrilled with steak au poivre and never makes it because it is to heavy and rich, so he wants to make it avant garde because he knows what the bleep he’s doing. Dale is quickly taking the “I’m too arrogant for my toque” award, and with this group, it’s stiff competition. Lisa is fairly confident on her eggs benedict because she poaches eggs all the time. Ryan has a hard time remembering what is in chicken piccata and can’t even keep track of his note pad. Nikki wants to redeem herself from the pizza challenge and Zoi decides to make a sweet soufflé, banking on the judges being ready for something not savory by the time she presents. Richard, a/k/a the male fauxhawk, decides to go with a classic crab cake; meanwhile his opponent Andrew can’t get over Richard’s use of crab legs so he picks up lump crab meat. Andrew is still pissed that Richard stole his pizza pan and uses quite the potty mouth to describe the situation.
Back in the kitchen, it is full steam ahead. Jennifer, the female fauxhawk, is amazed at the tension. Antonia is pretty confident of her ability to put together a scampi and focuses on the sauce. Nimma worries about the time and focuses on a cauliflower flan, even though her dish is shrimp scampi. Ryan has too many things going on and worries about the time.
Wild cooking continues, including Nikki making fresh pasta for her lasagna in honor of her grandmother. Stephanie decides to use the whole duck and gets intimidated by Mark’s use of about three bazillion components. Andrew can’t find any mayo in the kitchen and his “shark-faced” competitor actually bought a jar. Andrew starts making some may (on Richard’s recipe) but Richard eventually gives him the jar, but Andrew rejects it. Erik and Zoi, despite being in direct competition, work well side-by-side, as they both fret that their soufflés will fall flat.
Nimma’s flan did not set so she makes it scrambled because it still tastes good. Richard brings out some gizmo to smoke some herbal mix—wait, that sounded wrong, let’s try it again. He’s got plastic over the plate and a little pipe…well, that’s not much better. Let’s just be direct: he wasn’t making a bong, but somehow putting smoke into the plastic-covered dish that held his crab cakes. Hey, at least it wasn’t a foam, right? Stephanie is so nervous that her hands shake as she spoons sauce over her duck dish; she seriously needs to calm down and focus on her own work. But no more time to worry, as time runs out and the judges arrive.
Head to head judging—a TC first!
When Padma said this challenge was going to be judged head-to-head, she wasn’t kidding. Each of the eight pairs bring out their plates, the judges sample, and declare one of the pair the winner and one on the chopping block for elimination. On the panel tonight are Tom, Padma, Rocco, and the always entertaining (though maybe not in person) Anthony Bourdain. First up are our duck a l’orange pair, Mark and Stephanie. Mark has made a progression plate—bits of orange, duck, and other ingredients are on little piles across the rectangular plate. He wants everyone to take a bit of each thing on the plate and eat it all together. Of course, this begs the question why he just didn’t put it together on the plate. Stephanie has done just that—she’s made a duck breast placed on top of some lightly cooked bok choy, an egg roll made of braised duck leg, and topped it off with the braising liquid and orange sauce. The egg roll looks yummy and Bourdain loved it. Hands-down, Stephanie wins the challenge.
Richard and Andrew come in next with their crab cakes. Andrew did a traditional crab cake with lump meat topped with a thick layer of panko, a cilantro-basil “pudding” and some kind of orange sauce. The “pudding” was more of a green streak across the plate. Richard’s cake was presented in a bowl with plastic wrap across it because he did the freaky smoke thing. When the plastic was removed, the smoke blew away to reveal a blue crab cake with Brussels sprouts and an apple coleslaw. The judges thought Richard’s was the best but they were both fairly strong. The only issue Tom had with Andrew’s was the amount of panko.
The lasagna pair was third; Jennifer made a northern Italian version with autumn vegetables, a meat sauce and mint verde. Nikki, in a quest to redeem herself from the pizza challenge, loudly points out that she made the pasta for her classic lasagna. The judges like Nikki’s the best and pick her as the winner; the only problem with Jennifer’s was the rutabaga was cut too thickly so it didn’t cook as much as it should have.
I don’t know about you, but if I were the judges, I’d be sick right about now. Nevertheless, they move on to the shrimp scampi pair. Antonia did a parpardelle pasta with shrimp and threw in some lobster, squash and cherry tomatoes for good measure. Nimma just cooked some shrimp with parsley butter after marinating them in garlic, thyme and rosemary. Padma says the dish is too salty and Rocco would send it back, so Antonia wins.
Eggs benedict follows the shrimp, with Spike and Lisa bringing out their dishes. Spike tops the poached egg with bacon and mushrooms and places it on a crouton. Lisa used toasted challah as the base and placed the poached egg on top with lobster, spinach, bacon, and hollandaise sauce. Despite the presence of challah, this was no where near Kosher, but the judges loved it and named her the winner, even though both dishes would be equally good hangover remedies, according to Bourdain.
After the breakfast items, Dale and Manuel arrive with their steak au poivre. Dale used a New York strip steak, sliced it down, and served it with various sauces, including a candied peppercorn sauce, a parsley puree, and a creamed bok choy. Manuel took a Mexican twist and made a sirloin with a mushroom ceviche and a scallion/cilantro sauce. I want Manuel to lose the challenge just for pulling ceviche out of the bag so early; he does but only because his steak is a bit greasier and he went overboard with the sauces.
Ryan and Valerie arrive with their interpretations of chicken piccata. Ryan breaded chicken, fried it up, made some lemon-potato gnocchi and had a herb salad on the side. He thinks mashed potatoes and rice go with piccata, hence the gnocchi. Valerie used orange instead of lemon and did a chicken breast with an orange glaze with a little salad of potatoes and haricot vert salad…which is just a fancy way of saying she stacked some little potatoes on top of some green beans. Seriously, half this game is coming up with fancy ways to state the common. The judges like neither of them and no one can figure out why these dishes are remotely piccata-ish. Tom thinks Valerie’s tastes the best, and no one really disagrees, so she wins. Ryan is upset and worried about going home to be the laughingstock because he didn’t know how to make something as simple as piccata. Of course they’d laugh—they made this dish in my college cafeteria, so if the hair-netted set can pull it off, so should a Top Chef.
Finally we get to the soufflés from Erik and Zoi. Erik was feeling the pressure and ended up doing a pepperjack cheese soufflé with an avocado cream sauce, a black bean puree, a salsa, and topped off the soufflé with some crispy tortilla strips and salsa. Zoi went for the sweet to give the judges a good ending dish; she did a rice pudding soufflé with candied figs and fennel and made little cups of espresso with Pernod in it. They both confess that it’s been a really long time since they made soufflés. Erik’s dish is seen as messy and Zoi’s just tasted better and had the coffee, so she won. Erik obviously doesn’t want to go home, and can’t believe he may based on a freakin’ soufflé.
With the dishes all tasted, the cooks wait in the stock room to face the judges. Nimma yearns for a chance to fix her dishes and Mark has had the realization that he may be booted. The eight losers nervously fidget and the winners do no better. These folks need to break out the wine now.
Pretentious and confused baby food nachos.
It is finally time for our very first Judges’ Table of the season! Woo-hoo! Since Bourdain is there, I can’t help but hope he and DiSpirito get to throwing blows. Maybe Padma and Tom will be forced to break up a fight! (Gail and Ted are missing from this panel, but are sure to pop up later in the season.) Padma has gathered Antonia, Nikki, Richard, and Stephanie from the waiting area; they already know they are safe but they still look as nervous as a virgin on prom night. Rocco compliments Antonia’s shrimp scampi, saying she showed great skill and restraint. Tony loved everything about Stephanie’s duck a l’orange. Padma couldn’t get enough of Nikki’s lasagna, saying it was light, tasty, and beautifully done. Tom chimed in, saying Richard’s crab cakes were forward-thinking with the smoke application, and even when the smoke cleared, the dish was good. Rocco then announces that, after much debate, the judges decided on Stephanie as the winner. She reinvented the duck a l’orange, used the whole duck, and had wonderful flavors and textures. Stephanie is understandably elated, given her bad case of nerves earlier. After the high of being the top four, these cooks head back to the waiting area as messengers of doom.
Oh, gong of despair, how I have missed you! It clangs loudly as Erik, Nimma, Mark, and Ryan file in to face the chopping block. Erik is up first with his disastrous soufflé; he claims he went with a cheese soufflé because he wasn’t comfortable with doing a sweet one. Rocco starts in on him about using mashed potatoes as a base, because, after all, soufflés are supposed to be light and fluffy. Bourdain finds it clear Erik was out of his element with the soufflé and can’t figure out why all the tortilla chips and whatnot were piled on the soufflé. Erik admits it was a mess and deflated, calling his dish nothing more than glorified nachos.
Nimma’s salty shrimp are critiqued next; Tom is wise to her “scrambling” of the cauliflower flan and she is asked if she even tasted her dish. Nimma goes on and on about how good the cauliflower tasted, but that’s really beside the point isn’t it? She was supposed to make shrimp scampi and it was too salty, which she knew, and the dish was deemed inedible by the panel. Mark’s deconstructed duck a l’orange didn’t go over much better with the judges. Mark tried to explain again about his deconstructed dish but Bourdain called it “silly and pretentious.” Tom found the problem was the over-cooked duck, and everyone took Mark to task for removing too much of the fat from the duck. Everyone, of course, loooves duck fat. Well, everyone on the panel. Finally, Ryan’s “chicken piccata” suffered terrible reviews. No one could understand what he was going on about—reducing the amount of starch on the plate, using bread crumbs, generally missing the mark—and Tom concluded he must have been confused with a Milanese, which does involve bread crumbs. I’m just flabbergasted that anyone who has made it on this show doesn’t know what a piccata is.
The judges send the cooks off for a final deliberation. They are just as perplexed at Ryan’s fundamental understanding of a picatta as I am, and found his explanation as dense as his gnocchi. Nimma’s salt shrimp and baby food flan scramble grossed everyone out. Erik’s soufflé was just a lousy mess and Mark’s duck was just bad all around.
The judges come to a conclusion and we cut to commercial. Tonight they had a text message poll that asked whether Zoi and Jennifer had an unfair advantage because they are a couple. I usually never mention these silly polls, but tonight I must. The results came in at 22% yes and 78% no; nevertheless, Bravo circled the “yes” answer as the winner. Isn’t that a bit weird? I wonder if the west coast feed fixed the problem.
Anyway, the judges have made their choice and the cooks are back in the room. Tom thinks that the first challenge jitters are no excuse for their poor performances. Tom says the judges weren’t sure if Ryan even had a clue about piccata, some elements of Mark’s dish didn’t work, Nimma’s dish was a failure on both the flan and the salt level in the shrimp, and Erik should have known how to make a soufflé. Padma then tells Nimma to pack her knives and go. I guess her plan of not coming to the contest to make friends and have fun worked out just fine.