I’m going to let you all in on a little slice of my life: most every Wednesday during the summer months, I come home from work, take off the professional garb, throw on some crummy clothes and my yard shoes and cut the grass. Then I do take-out, because it is too damn hot to cook; generally I get a pre-fab salad and, by 9 p.m. when Top Chef comes on, I usually start to get a wee bit hungry. Back when Project Runway was on in the summer, it didn’t bother me, because I never wanted to eat anything they made. Well, tonight was one of those nights…it may as well have been a runway full of girls sporting zipper dresses and neck tattoos, because the food was, by and large, simply ‘not all that and a bag of chips’. In fact, a bag of chips would have beat most dishes. The only up side to the whole affair was that Ted Allen was back.
As usual, we rejoin our cast of chefs in their apartment overlooking Miami Beach on the morning after the prior challenge. There is a little goodbye note from Sandee, who departed last time because she didn’t follow the directions of the challenge. Howie and Joey have buried the hatchet, at least for now. Howie adamantly—and repeatedly, throughout the episode—tells us that he’s not here to make friends. I wish to shoot the editor for including this trite bit yet again.
Micah, meanwhile, is the one shown this week doing push-ups. What is the fascination with the push-ups, anyway? Maybe it’s a new theme. In any event, Micah has been on a roller-coaster ride, being the winner then in the bottom three and back up again. She’s not too worried because she brought her business from Italy, with only a suitcase, her daughter and $400, and she’s doing just fine now. Later on, Sara N. again points out that Micah has cycled through the top and the bottom a couple of times, and concludes that Micah is inconsistent. Sara N. gets the Captain Obvious award for this night.
The chefs arrive at the Top Chef kitchen and are greeted by Padma and a short fellow with a poorly fitting shirt. The guy in need of a tailor is Alfred Portale, a James Beard Award-winning chef and owner of Gotham Bar & Grill in the West Village. Joey informs us that Alfred is known for his plating techniques, where the dishes come out like works of art. Next to Padma and Alfred is a big cart with a sheet draped over it. She pulls back the sheet to reveal a giant aquarium full of various types of live shellfish. For tonight’s Quick Fire, each chef will have 30 seconds to scoop out a pile ‘o shellfish and then 30 minutes to cook up some dish with the shellfish.
Hung gets to go first; he stands on a little box and violently scoops out some shellfish and dumps it in his bowl. In doing so, one crawfish goes flying to the floor, but like some petulant 3 year old, he can’t be bothered to pick up the mess. Lia calls him on it, but he says he doesn’t have to clean up and she can’t make him. Then he sucks his thumb for a bit while the others scoop out the shellfish. Tre is the only one noted to have a problem, in that the net went all weird and he only got a half-scoop of fish.
Once everyone had a chance to grab some fish, the cooking begins. Of course, as these are in-shell, live shellfish, the chefs have to open the mussels, pry the living bodies out of the conch shells, snap the heads off of the wriggling crawfish, and generally kill these cute little shellfish with their bare hands. I think I’m going to become a vegetarian. The conchs are putting up a valiant fight, but if someone came after me with a corkscrew like device, I’d put up a fight too. Micah is adamant she knows what to do with the conchs because she lived in the Bahamas. Where hasn’t this chick lived?
Brian is taking a simple approach of cooking his shellfish with some white wine, butter and whatnot, but Hung thinks that technique is obvious and lazy, and any monkey could do it. And, unsurprisingly, Howie is again caught in a time crunch, but manages to finish his dish.
The thirty minutes are up and Pamda and Alfred make their rounds. Not everyone is worthy of a full on-screen description, so a couple of these are mine—you’ll know it when you read it.
CJ: Pan roasted fruits de mer, shaved cauliflower with saffron paprika vinaigrette and olives. Alfred likes the flavors of CJ’s dish.
Casey: Linguini with scallops, mussels and cockles and cilantro bread with truffle butter. Alfred comments Casey was smart not to use the conchs.
Tre: Shellfish poached in fish stock, butter and chive oil with summer corn and grilled leek compote. Alfred is nonplussed.
Sara N.: Mush on a half-shell, which, according to Alfred, is “nice.”
Micah: Conch salad ceviche style with sour orange finished with a drink called “Sky Juice”. Alfred concludes Sky Juice is an acquired taste.
Brian: “Three Rivers”: Wine, butter, garlic and chives with clams, scallops, mussels and crawfish; oyster mignonette; conch toast. Alfred proclaims the three “very good.”
Lia: Raw bay scallops, dry fig and lemon zest cockle and tomato water and capellini with crawfish.
Joey: A bowl full of seafood, perhaps paella, that is “very good”, per Alfred.
Sara M.: Cornmeal crusted conch with citrus butter, mango and cilantro mignonette. Alfred says it is good but a bit salty.
Camille: Crawfish and mussels in hibiscus sauce; mussels crusted with tarragon. She seasoned her shell fish with teas, and Alfred does not look pleased.
Hung: “East/West” curry with heads and bellies of scallops and mussels, with a crunchy crouton (as though soggy croutons are an option). Alfred thought the crouton was too big, but Hung said he just didn’t get the whole point of the crouton.
Dale: Spicy Italian sausage and scallops with tomato sauce, topped with a sunny egg. Alfred said the dish had good flavor, but how Dale got sausage from the aquarium is unexplained.
Howie: Ceviche of conch, scallops, crawfish and mussels with crispy plantains and greens. Alfred said it was tasty and obvious.
After sampling the dishes, Alfred said the bottom three were: Micah, for not putting enough conch in the conch salad and lacking seasoning; Camille for using overwhelming tea flavors on her shell fish; and Tre, for using too much corn and not enough seafood. Alas, the bad net came back to haunt him. Next, the top three were revealed: Howie, who made an intelligent choice in going for a traditional dish and presenting it well; Brian, who was smart in keeping the flavors simple; and CJ who integrated his flavors well and surprised Alfred, who was originally put off by the presentation. Brian is then chosen as the winner, based largely on his progression from raw to cooked in the three samples he had. Alfred found the dish well-thought-out and well-presented. Howie isn’t upset he didn’t win; he is thrilled to be in the top three and get his mojo flowing in the right direction. Brian is glad to have immunity but says he won’t rest on his laurels.
Familiar Food, Familiar Challenge.
Padma wastes no time setting up the Elimination Challenge; right after Brian won his immunity, out come a couple of carts of plates of “typical” American food: meat loaf, Sloppy Joe, cabbage rolls, gooey lasagna, franks ‘n beans, and the like. While it is true that I’m a terrible food snob as well as very picky, and wouldn’t eat but maybe two of the dishes presented, the plates presented on these carts look like they came from a home ec class comprised of people who lost their tastebuds in tragic accidents. Each chef will have to pick one dish and re-vision it, with the goal of making it lower in cholesterol while still pleasing enough in taste to win the praise of two generations of Elks Lodge members. They will have 30 minutes to shop with $75, then an hour to prep on this day and an hour to cook at the Lodge the next day.
The choosing of the dishes goes in reverse order from the shell fish grab, and some have more trouble than others figuring out what they want to make. Micah says she’s from South Africa, so none of the dishes are traditional to her. Okay—she’s been in the Bahamas, lived in Italy, and now was raised in South Africa. I’m afraid that next she’ll tell us she did a stint on the Moon and one time catered a dinner in the Sahara. Sara M. similarly has difficulty when she picks chicken a la king, because she has no idea what is in it. I’ve never had it, so I looked it up in my food dictionary; apparently it consists of chicken, diced vegetables and a cream sauce.
Off they go to the grocery store for their rapid shopping. Dale is happy with the challenge because he loves to reinvent the classics. While shopping, some people look at cheese, which is decidedly not low in cholesterol. Others scramble for low cholesterol and fat ingredients, studying labels and scanning for appropriate products. Brian goes for lobster, despite it being high in cholesterol. Dale, in a gutsy move, buys instant mashed potatoes and rotisserie chicken from the deli. CJ comments that Dale is too good of a cook to use those products. Lia finds some chicken sausage for her franks ‘n beans dish; I can’t help but think of There’s Something About Mary every time the term “franks ‘n beans” is said, and that makes it no more appetizing.
Finally the shopping is over and the chefs are into their one hour of prep time at the Top Chef kitchen. Micah feels that the one hour to prep and one hour to cook is not enough time. Lia’s chicken sausage has beer in it so she poaches her links in Guinness, and I shed a tear for the waste of the fine, fine stout.
Soon enough the hour of prep time is over and everyone heads back to the apartment. Brian decides it is time to get in the hot tub, and many join him, all drinking wine and beer. Although rife with the potential to go down the Real World path, things stay very tame. Only poor Howie is self-exiled on the roof, again lamenting he is not there to win friends. Even so, Howie, why not use the hot tub or have a splash of vino?
It is the day of the Elimination Challenge, and the chefs arrive at the Elks Lodge and proceed to the kitchen. The kitchen seems very cramped and not all that well-equipped. After twenty minutes, Tom comes in to survey the chefs’ progress. Joey is making a vegetable lasagna, and Tom lets him get to work. Camille is making tuna and grilled beef tacos, causing Tom to comment she is being very literal. CJ is using Greek yogurt for his tuna casserole and making a flaxseed tuile to add crunch. Dale tells Tom he is using an old family recipe for his Lithuanian dumplings like perogies, and confesses he used instant mashed potatoes in the dough. Overall, Tom is quite surprised everyone is so literal in their interpretations of the “classic” American fare, and is not impressed so far. He thinks there is much more that the chefs could do to make the dishes more innovative.
Time ticks down quickly, and with mere minutes left, Sara M. has yet to cook her chicken. She’s got it cut up and put on skewers and is planning on quick-roasting it in the oven. She put the tray of chicken into the oven that she thought was on and hot, but it turns out that the oven was on cool-down. She neglected to check the setting, but wonders why the oven is off in the first place. It turns out that Hung had previously used the oven and turned it off when he was done. Hung is not winning friends on this day.
CJ has trouble plating his tuna casserole; he’s trying to do a stack in an O ring, but the sauce doesn’t hold the pasta and tuna together. He can’t add any fat to make the sauce stick, and it comes out looking like a pile of a grassy mess. Since he’s first up, CJ is forced to bring out a dish with which he is not the least bit happy.
Service must commence to the judges and the Lodge members; this is what they get to sample:
CJ: His tuna casserole was made with whole wheat pasta and yogurt, topped with flaxseed tuile. Ted says it looks like a grassy green mush; Tom is a bit more charitable, saying he sees what the idea was, but the idea went south.
Sara M.: Her take on chicken a la king is a chicken skewer with a puree of mushroom sauce, couscous instead of rice, and watercress salad. The judges find it not to remotely resemble chicken a la king.
Lia: Her re-image of franks ‘n beans is grilled chicken sausage with Dijon lentils, carrots and onions. She admits she didn’t make the sausage, and the judges find the lentils woefully undercooked. Some of the Lodge members really don’t like this dish. So far, the judges are disappointed in the plates being presented.
Dale: His take on chicken and dumplings is chicken-filled potato dumplings with broccoli, horseradish and celery root. The judges really enjoy this dish, and Padma even comments that it could be a winner.
Hung: He had to do fried chicken with macaroni and cheese, so he made skinless chicken marinated in yogurt and spices, with pasta and vegetables. He also made a crispy bit of chicken skin because, according to his understanding of American fried chicken, people eat the chicken skins. Who these people are escapes both Tom and me. The Lodge members seem to enjoy it, though find it not like “grandma’s fried chicken.”
Sara N.: Her take on fish and chips was a panko-topped snapper with pinenuts, currents, lentils and roasted beats. Some folks in the audience really liked it; again, my love of panko prevails in all things, and this one sounds the best to me so far.
Micah: Her take on meat loaf and mashed potatoes is an Italian-style meat loaf stack with garlic smashed potatoes topped with a roasted red pepper sauce. It is her understanding that Americans eat their meat loaf with catsup, hence the sauce. The judges are suspect of her condescension, but even more suspect is the taste of the meat loaf. No one—judges and Lodgers alike—think it is any good. The meat loaf is dry and one diner comments that it is even crunchy in places.
Brian: His stuffed cabbage were lobster and shrimp rolled in cabbage with a lobster broth. He admonished people not to be afraid of a little cholesterol in their food, taking everything in moderation.
Camille: Her take on tacos was a beef and chili salsa taco and a tuna and tomatillo apple taco.
Casey: She made rib-eye sloppy joes with butter pickle and apricot compote.
Joey: His low-cholesterol lasagna was made with turkey sausage, eggplant and mushrooms.
Tre: He turned in roasted chicken cordon bleu with a bluefoot chanterelles, asparagus and parsnip sauce. Padma comments that it wasn’t the worst thing they’d eaten at the tasting.
Howie: He had the dish “pork chops and applesauce”, which, heretofore, I thought only existed in the Land of Brady, probably because, yet again, pork chops are not something I eat. Apparently this is a real dish, and Howie interpreted it by making a fennel crusted pork chop with apple fennel salad and a sultan raisin emulsion. Everyone was impressed with the tenderness of the pork and how it was presented.
After all the dishes had been presented, Padma thanked the Elks folks and encouraged them to fill out their comment cards. Before departing for the Judges’ Table, Padma went back to the kitchen and ominously addressed the chefs, saying that there were a few surprises and definitely some disappointments
At the Judges’ Table, Padma reminded everyone that the challenge was to modernize familiar dishes and to create them with lower cholesterol. Ted comments that this challenge seems like something that everyone would really take to, but the dishes were disappointing. Tom found CJ’s casserole just as bad as most tuna casseroles, and Ted couldn’t get past the greenness of the mess. The judges really liked Howie’s dish and, with equal vigor, hated Micah’s meat loaf. Brian was thought to be crazy for going with lobster, since it’s known to be high in cholesterol. The judges enjoyed Dale’s dish and no one commented on the mashed potato mix or the pre-fab chicken.
Padma then calls Dale and Howie out of the waiting room and to the Judges’ Table. They look so upset, you’d think someone shot their dog. As soon as they are firmly stationed in front of the Table ‘o Judgin’, Padma tells them that they are the top two and to relax. Howie is thrilled to be in the top two, and says that being there probably feels even better since he was in the bottom group on the prior challenges. When asked about his dish, Howie explains that he thinks applesauce is for babies and that the slaw lifted the palate without getting too far from the original. Dale says that he used the instant mashed potatoes for the dough because of the time crunch, and Tom says the judges didn’t even notice.
Howie is then chosen as the winner. Not only does he get the victory, but Alfred gives him a stack of three of his cookbooks and invites him to come to New York and cook at Gotham with his crew for a week. Howie is thrilled at the opportunity and is glad to have his momentum flowing again.
Dale and Howie rejoin the group of waiting chefs; Howie takes his winner’s bow and Dale sends Micah, CJ, Lia, Sara M. and Brian to the Judges’ Table. Brian is confused, as he has immunity, and worries what the judges will do. Once gathered before the panel, Tom addresses Brian first. He assures him that he can’t be eliminated because of the immunity but calls him out for using the lobster, which was clearly not a good choice given the parameters of the challenge. Tom also says that, while Brian may work in a seafood restaurant, he has got to branch out and make something with meat at some point. With that, Brian is dismissed to go back and wait with the other safe chefs.
Padma informs Micah that she had the lowest score by the Lodgers among all of the contestants. Micah acts like she was confused at the concept of meat loaf, and never saw it before the challenge. With her world travels, I find this a bit disingenuous. Tom asks her if she’d eat what she made, but she punts in her response. Alfred commented that the dish had an odd finish, and by odd, I think he meant disgusting.
Padma then asks Sara M. if she’d ever eaten chicken a la king; Sara had not. Ted asked her what the dish she prepared had as a connection to the chicken a la king she was presented with at the introduction of the challenge. Sara contends that the ingredients were similar, but Alfred says there was no resemblance whatsoever and can’t figure out what she was thinking.
CJ defends his dish by saying that he wanted to create something innovative and ingenious. Alfred clearly wasn’t a fan because he found it so green that it was scary. Tom could get past the greenness, but found the flavors to be muddied. The only thing they really liked with the flaxseed tuile.
Lia explains that she was attempting to make something that anyone could make—she anticipated her lower cholesterol dish to be adopted as a healthy alternative. Tom commented that she had an hour to prep and an hour to cook, and all she came up with was pre-made sausage and undercooked lentils. Lia said she never understood how complicated franks ‘n beans were, and that gets a good laugh out of the Judges’ Table.
The bottom four are dismissed so the judges may further deliberate. Tom opines that, while Lia’s franks ‘n beans weren’t terrible, he didn’t know where the time went. CJ’s flax seed tuile was innovative and he did take a risk, but the result was a green globby mess. As for Micah, Tom recalls Alfred’s initial reaction: “Yuck!” Alfred thought Sara M.’s was worse because it didn’t even try to be what the original dish was and tasted funky. Ted finds it a tough call between Sara M. and Micah.
The four in jeopardy return to the Judges’ Table. Tom comments that the challenge was straightforward: reinterpret familiar dishes. The panel found Micah’s flavors off, lacking in imagination, and was the Lodgers’ least favorite. Sara’s dish did not come together and did not resemble chicken a la king. CJ’s dish, Tom says, was unfocused and had muddy flavors. Tom took issue with Lia’s lack of work and wants to see more of an effort out of her in the future. Padma then tells Micah to pack her knives and go.
Micah leaves, and becomes teary-eyed in her final interview. She says she’s glad to go at this point because so many people remaining in the competition are cut-throat, and things will only get worse as time progresses. She wishes she’d kept her focus better, but she’s glad to go home to her daughter.
In the next episode, the remaining chefs break out into teams, and things look to get interesting.