I know I’ll be showing my age here, but in my junior year in high school, my friends and I were obsessed with the movie “Heathers.” We went so far as to throw a “Heathers” party, where we served corn nuts (BQ, not plain), spaghetti with lots of oregano, Perrier, and blue Koolaid (well, we weren’t going to drink Drano). We then left the empty Perrier bottles in our guy friend’s locker. Good times, people, good times. Granted that’s a fairly literal interpretation of movie-inspired food (give me a break—I was 16), but it’s not that far off what the cooking contestants have to do tonight, as we soon find out.
The competition is starting to take its toll on the remaining cooks. Manuel is sad to see Erik go but he also is missing his sons and his home life. Jen and Zoi realize that it’s hard for the others to be missing their families while they have the benefit of seeing each other every day. Spike sees their connection as a slight advantage, since Zoi and Jen know each other’s cooking styles and strengths. But before anyone can grouse too much, it’s off to the Top Chef Kitchen.
This Quick Fire starts out with Padma and Daniel Boulud, the famous French chef. He tells the cooks that without possessing good technique, they cannot be good chefs. This leads to the QF: Padma points out a stock pile of fresh vegetables and says that they will each have to make a vegetable plate demonstrating three different techniques that will impress Daniel. Then Daniel notes that both Richard and Ryan have worked in his kitchen but they will not be getting any special treatment. Ryan says in a voice over that he only worked for Boulud for a very brief time, as it really wasn’t his scene.
The thirty minute clock starts running and Nikki is concerned because she doesn’t have a whole lot of fancy techniques and wasn’t classically trained. Manuel is pretty confident in his knife skills and Richard is sure that he’s going to do well with his non-standard techniques. Lisa was going to concentrically cut a cucumber into a long, thin sheet but notices Dale is doing the same thing really well, so she changes course. Spike is pretty confident in his classical training and even has a little gizmo that cuts the green end of a scallion into tiny strips which will curl up when placed in cold water.
As always, the QF time goes by quickly and we see a few of the dishes:
Zoi made shaved asparagus, poached egg, batons of green beans, chiffonade of radicchio and frisee.
Dale made daikon marinated in tobanjan and tournee of avocado and cucumber.
Lisa also did a poached egg but with asparagus, batonettes of bell pepper and grilled zucchini.
Richard prepared blanched mushrooms, pickled beets, and sliced radishes with lime juice and scallions.
Spike made a carpaccio of cucumbers, tagliatello of asparagus, a cucumber cup and tournee of mushroom.
Manuel made blanched asparagus, brunois of yellow pepper, supremes of lemon, and endive fennel frond.
Nikki, the last contestant shown, made blanched green beans, asparagus quenelle, shaved fennel and radish salad and grilled zucchini.
After sampling the dishes, Daniel said he wished everyone had taken five minutes to plan and compose their plates. His bottom three were: Nikki, because the dish was plain and not well thought-out; Lisa, for similarly putting no thought into the dish; and Manuel, for having “level one” technique. So much for Manuel’s confidence in his knife skills. On the positive side, Daniel liked: Zoi, because her poached egg was perfect and the plate was well composed; Dale, for his superb knife skills; and Richard, for an amazing presentation. Dale wins the challenge and has immunity. He was glad to get a QF win; I would have been glad to have a half-dozen of those cucumber-avocado thingies.
There Will Be Cooking
Padma wastes no time getting down to the Elimination Challenge. The chefs are going to pair off by choosing knives; each pair of chefs will be assigned one of six courses of a dinner to be served to the judges, Richard Roeper, and Aisha Tyler, along with some other film people. The chef couplets have to pick a movie and make their course something inspired by that film. As there are 13 remaining contestants, Dale—because he has immunity—gets to pick what team he wants to work with. After all the knife choosing goes down, the pairs are:
First Course: Richard and Andrew (they can’t get away from each other, can they?)
Second Course: Spike and Manuel
Third Course: Jen and Nikki
Fourth Course: Mark and Ryan
Fifth Course: Antonia and Zoi
Sixth Course: Lisa and Stephanie
Dale decides to go with the first course guys, so we’ll have three “aggressive and forward-thinking” guys on one team. An alternative way to view it is all the attitude problems are going to be in one corner, which may lead to some good drama if we’re lucky. Andrew says Dale is going to be a third wheel, but I think Andrew is really worried he’ll be pushed off to the side.
The pairs split off to discuss what movie they will pick and what they will make. Richard comes up with the idea to use “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” as their inspiration because it will allow them to go wild with their imagination and be creative. Dale and Andrew have no problem with this and get to planning a menu. Spike and Manuel debate what kind of food they want to make. Manuel throws out Mexican, as that’s his forte, but Spike has been working in Vietnamese cuisine for a while and wants to go with that. Manuel consents so they then pick “Good Morning, Vietnam,” otherwise known as Robin William’s only good movie.
Jen and Nikki want to capitalize on Nikki’s Italian heritage and Jen’s Italian cooking experience, so they pick “Il Postino” as their movie inspiration. They want to create a rustic dish that is simple and delicious. Meanwhile, Antonia and Zoi think they have similar cooking styles and both do Spanish cuisine, so they pick the movie “Talk To Her” which is apparently about two creative women. They think that since they are also two creative women, they can tell a good story. If it were me, I’d go with Almodovar’s other work, “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” and whip up something with barbiturates.
Mark and Ryan are having a hell of a time coming up with a movie. Ryan hasn’t been to many movies recently and throws out titles like “Dumb and Dumber” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” while Mark throws out movies that didn’t actually make it into American theaters. Finally, Ryan has the idea of doing something Christmas-themed so they try to come up with the name of a movie that is a Christmas story. They settle on “A Christmas Story”—big leap—and Ryan recounts the conclusion of the film where the family eats duck at a Chinese restaurant because their turkey was ruined by the dog. They figure they can use Asian elements in whatever they come up with to make.
Finally, Lisa and Stephanie work on coming up with a dish and a menu. They are the last dish and do not want to do a dessert after just having done one last week. Lisa wants to do beef and beef comes from cows and the thought of cows gets her to “Top Secret”. For that alone, Lisa is now my favorite contestant. (Just a look at my location will tell you that!) Stephanie seems a bit unsure of the movie connection but they start talking about the dish and she’s in to it, although she’s a bit flabbergasted that super-serious Lisa loves a funny movie with a couple of people in a cow outfit. Pish-posh! Serious people can love a good laugh; how silly can you get?
Off the chefs go to Whole Foods to spend their $150 in 30 minutes. They have to make twelve plates of their course, so it’s the usual mad dash around the grocery store. Dale goes for some salmon, while Andrew notes that their food is going to be so creative it’s going to make the judges crap their pants. Hmm, that sounds more like salmonella than salmon. Mark and Ryan want to make a duck or maybe even lamb, but the store is out of both ingredients, so they settle for some quail and scored big on getting the first batch of cranberries out for the season. Manuel and Ryan buy some sea bass for their summer rolls; Ryan would have preferred tilapia, but Manuel thinks the sea bass will hold up best in the roll. Meanwhile, everyone else grabs their stuff and heads home for the night. The next morning they’ll have two hours to prepare their dishes before the first course has to go out.
My Dinner With Aisha
The EC day dawns and before the chefs head off to Gallery 37 to prepare the meal, Andrew tries to convince Dale and Richard that they need to serve their dish as Oompa Loompas. Dale thinks the suggestion is kitschy and Richard doesn’t take to it either. Andrew whines a bit, but the subject is dropped as it’s time to go get cookin’.
Jen and Nikki get started on their homemade pasta right away. Richard has taken charge of his team and realizes that he’ll either get the glory if they succeed or the blame if their dish fails. They are making a smoked salmon with some sort of faux caviar. Spike and Manuel begin making their summer rolls while Mark and Ryan make spring rolls. There are an awful lot of rolls going on; are they just all trying to copy Stephanie’s winning dish from the first challenge? Speaking of whom, Stephanie says that Lisa is very organized and driven and they are making several sauces to accompany their butter-seared steak, one of which is a caramel sauce. Antonia and Zoi busily work on their Spanish dish; they want to make the colors vibrant, but to do so would require more saffron than would taste good.
As time winds down, Richard has broken out his smoker contraption to smoke the salmon on the plate. Unfortunately, the smoker goes out before all the dishes can be prepped, so they find a piece of wood, set it on fire, and hold the salmon pieces over it to infuse a smoky flavor. And with that, the courses are served to Ted Allen, Padma, Tom, Daniel, Richard Roeper, Aisha Tyler, and a handful of nameless folks. Can I just say I heart Aisha Tyler? But then, it’s hard for me not to love anyone associated with “Talk Soup,” even Hal Sparks.
The first course is Richard, Andrew, and Dale’s smoked salmon with faux caviar and a white chocolate wasabi sauce. They also serve a pear and celery soda, a la the fizzy lifting drink from “Willy Wonka.” The diners find the course really tasty and very creative and the drink a good tie-in to the movie. At first, everyone is a bit scared of the wasabi-white chocolate combination, but to their delight and amazement, the flavors actually work well together.
The second course is Spike and Manuel’s “Good Morning, Vietnam”-inspired summer roll with black vermicelli, green apple, and Chilean sea bass with a side of pickled Swiss chard. The diners have no idea what the chard is for and Aisha has issues with the toughness of the roll’s wrapper. Tom thinks the choice of sea bass is just wrong.
The third course is Jen and Nikki’s rustic Italian dish of tortellini with cavolonero, ricotta, pecorino, squash and peppercorn. The diners like the dish but aren’t transported to Italy as one would expect by Zoi and Nikki’s presentation and discussion of “Il Postino”. The judges are particularly critical, but Richard, Aisha, and the other folks like it.
The fourth course is Ryan and Mark’s “A Christmas Story”-inspired quail breast with carrot puree, cranberry chutney, and quail spring rolls. The diners enjoy the dish, especially the carrot puree, which Aisha wants more of.
The fifth course is Antonia and Zoi’s roasted rack of lamb with saffron, cauliflower puree, romesco and gramalata. They say their dish is inspired by “Talk To Her” because while the movie was about two passionate Spanish women, they are two passionate chefs and they created a dish with vibrant reds and yellows. The problem is, as the judges say, the colors are not that vibrant. Tom is particularly put out that the two lamb chops on the plate are cut too thin. Overall, the diners think the dish is tasty but not all that magical.
Finally, the sixth course is Lisa and Stephanie’s New York strip steak, braised short ribs and apple potstickers with a caramel sauce poured on at the table. Lisa explains that the steak is inspired by “Top Secret” and the creative use of cows as a comedic and plot device. The diners really enjoy the dish, noting it was well-seasoned, tasty, and very original. At first there was some worry that the several sauces would be conflicting, but they worked well together.
After the diners leave, the four judges—Padma, Tom, Ted, and Daniel—sit around the table and discuss the chefs’ efforts. They think the “Willy Wonka” dish was the most professionally executed, while the “Good Morning, Vietnam” summer rolls were fishy and had a weird garnish. Tom thought the “Il Postino” pasta was a bit floury. The judges thought the “A Christmas Story” dish made sense, the “Talk To Her” dish lacked the fiery, vibrant colors they were promised, and everything about the “Top Secret” dish was flawless.
The chefs sit around the stock room nervously awaiting their fate. Padma enters and calls in the “Willy Wonka” and the “Top Secret” teams. They enter the judging room and Padma breaks it to them that they are the two top teams. Tom says the teams made excellent food that connected to their chose movies. All five cooks high-five and hug each other and are visibly relived that they aren’t up for the chopping block.
The “Willy Wonka” team faces questions first; Daniel asks who was responsible for taking the wasabi-white chocolate risk. Richard says that was his creation, and the judges respond that they actually liked it despite it sounding pretty freaky. We then learn that Andrew came up with the faux caviar using tapioca. Turning to the “Top Secret” pair, Stephanie explains that the whole concept started with the use of beef and Lisa’s caramel sauce. The judges found the sauces to be harmonious and the steak cooked to perfection. Daniel then picks the “Willy Wonka” team as the winning team because they were technically perfect and Richard as the over-all winner because he took the lead on the winning team. Richard then explains that being a good chef is about having good taste and good technique. D’oh! Really?
Back in the cooler, the waiting cooks can’t believe that the wasabi-white chocolate concoction could be good, with many of them expressing it sounds down-right disgusting. The top two teams return and send the “Talk To Her” and “Good Morning, Vietnam” teams back in to the Judges’ Table.
When asked why the teams are there, Antonia is frankly surprised because the lamb was cooked perfectly. Tom says it wasn’t so much a matter of the taste of the food—other than the lamb being cut to thin—but it was that they sold the dish as having vibrant colors and it was pretty washed out. Antonia and Zoi then stress that the movie was really about two creative women—like them—and that was the reason for the two chops. Zoi gets really emotional when defending her dish, almost on the point of tears yet again. Tom concludes that the problem was in the way they presented their plate, not so much what was on it.
That is not the case for the “Good Morning, Vietnam” pair. When asked why there was Swiss chard on the plate, Manuel says that they wanted something pickled on the plate to balance the flavors. Tom said it had no relation to the roll and wondered if they spent their whole budget on the ingredients. Tom and Ted go on and on about how the summer roll was something that one could get at any decent Vietnamese restaurant for about $8. The judges found the dish to be too typical and had no innovation. Manuel is asked why he just followed Spike’s lead and he says he wanted to learn something from Spike, since he has expertise in Vietnamese cuisine. Padma then asks Spike who should go, but he won’t answer.
The chefs exit while the panel debates some more. In the waiting area, Zoi still can’t believe that the white chocolate-wasabi sauce was a hit and Manuel is certain he’s going home. Back at Judges’ Table, they conclude that Zoi and Antonia’s problem was in presentation whereas the summer roll wasn’t that good, with Spike supposedly doing what he has expertise in and Manuel blindly following his lead.
Back before the judges, Tom says the challenge was straight-forward and not that difficult. Antonia and Zoi’s story didn’t show up on their plate, although the dish was otherwise tasty, so they are safe. Tom then says the summer roll was the diners’ least favorite dish; Spike took the lead but Manuel was happy to go along, and winning is about having the drive to take the lead. Padma then tells Manuel to pack his knives and go.
Manuel graciously thanks the panel for the opportunity, thanks his fellow contestants, and says he has learned a lot during his time on the show and made great life-long friends. Manuel exits as a complete class act; he’ll undoubtedly do well in the future.
Alas, there was no Dale-Andrew-Richard drama this week, but come back next week when something hits the fan and causes Jen to start kicking over chairs.
Anyone else wish a team had picked “Better Off Dead” to exploit both the Frhaaanch fries, dressing, and bread quote and the fact Daniel Boulud was the guest judge? Just me? Okay.