Greetings, gourmets and gourmands alike! Top Chef has returned with another new, exciting, and tasty episode. Okay, it’s obvious I’m trying to enthuse my way out of a bad mood, but this episode was far better than the last disaster that involved the deadly meat loaf and the “oven incident,” even if it did bring us copious amounts of Howie sweat. (The dude needs to have his pituitary checked or something!) So, everyone pass the gin drinks around, and let’s get this recap started.
Bravo has a very distinct formula for editing this show; every week, in the “morning after” shots, we get snippets from folks who will figure in fairly prominently throughout the episode. It’s probably a good thing, because I still get some of these folks confused, most notably Casey and Camille. On this episode, Casey gets the first post-Micah comment, noting that it now really feels like a competition with Micah gone. Maybe she didn’t realize that several others had been booted previously. Lia is feeling very competitive. And, as always, we hear from Howie that he’s glad to have a couple of wins down, but, on the other hand he relishes playing the underdog. So, the betting begins: who of these is the winner, the loser, or the instigator?
The cheftestants then arrive at the Top Chef Kitchen and are greeted by a vast table display of cocktails in martini glasses and bottle after bottle of Bombay Sapphire. Too bad this isn’t a VH1 show, because things would start to get really interesting. Padma is there, as always, and she’s with a neat little man in a snazzy suit. He’s called Jamie Walker and he is the global master mixologist for Bombay Sapphire; for some reason, he very much reminds me of Tim Curry in Clue and looks like he could buttle with the best of them. He’s made twelve cocktails and stresses the infused botanicals in the gin offer a plethora of flavors with which to pair food. Too bad the free drinks don’t make it out of my television.
Padma announces the Quick Fire challenge: each chef will choose knives to be assigned one of the tasty gin drinks then will have 30 minutes and the full disposal of the Top Chef Pantry to make an appetizer to go along with the drink. This draws varying reaction from the chefs. Dale is pleased because he recently worked as a mixologist, pairing drinks with food. Casey isn’t too thrilled because she only has paired wines with food. Hung goes further and thinks it’s an abomination to pair hard liquor with foods, as only wine will do.
After the knives are drawn, the chefs scurry to work in the usual quick cooking montage.
Dale’s cocktail is very alcohol-heavy, so he wants to cut through the alcohol with foie gras. Camille, as mellow as anyone could be not in a coma, says her drink is very sweet so she has a big challenge and is “hustling” as fast as one in a zombie state can. Casey does not know what her drink is, so she decides to go with French toast. Hung is still pissed about the drink and he picks a creamy dish because it will go well with the sweet drink.
Tasting and judging ensues. Joey pulled a pineapple and vanilla martini so he made a caramelized diver sea scallop and jasmine rice risotto. Jamie says it works but is not a marriage made in heaven. Howie had a watermelon and chili martini and made balsamic glazed diver scallops with arugula, blueberry and grape salad. Jamie finds the pairing well done. Hung’s drink was a raspberry and mint martini so he matched it with sour cream, Meyer lemon balsamic sauce, salmon and salmon skin. Jamie thinks the drink is a little sweet for the dish.
Stating the obvious, Jamie tells CJ that he is very tall, so Jamie wins the Captain Obvious award for the night. (There’s always one of them!) CJ had the lemon bomb drink and made caramelized watermelon with avocado and squid. Jamie thinks the drink works with the bolder flavors of the dish. Dale had the Sapphire sherry drink and made seared foie gras with candied parsnips, orange and rice wine vinegar gastrique. Jamie says that it works well, and that the drink was a tough one to match with food.
Tre had the strawberry basil martini and made sumac and black pepper seared halibut with smoked sea salt and watermelon. Jamie likes the pairing very much. Casey had the strawberry and balsamic vinegar martini, and decided to go the sweet route and made French toast baguette with pecan crusted foie gras and raspberry sauce. Jamie finds the richness of the foie gras worked well.
Jamie then announces that he didn’t like Joey’s or Hung’s dishes. Joey flavors were a bit too heavy and robust. Hung’s wasn’t a favorite because it was muddled; Hung comments back to him that it’s curious how sweetness didn’t go with creaminess. Hung believes Jamie was confused. Jamie did like Casey’s use of Bombay’s subtle botanicals. He also liked Tre’s, at first thinking the dish would be too light but it wasn’t, and the melon and strawberry worked well together. His third favorite was Dale, who made a great dish to go with a difficult drink. Ultimately, Jamie likes Casey’s dish the best and she gets immunity. She’s thrilled her risk of French toast worked out.
The dreaded team challenge.
Padma introduces the Elimination Challenge and announces that the chefs will divide themselves into four teams of three members. Each team makes one course of a four course tasting menu, and the course will have a trio of tastes all made with the same central ingredient. They have $150 to shop with, per team, and two hours to cook at a new restaurant called Barton G.’s. They will be serving a group of fancy-pants food snobs called Chaîne des Rôtisseurs. You can learn all about them here.
Brian takes charge and decides to draw names to pick teams and courses. At first everyone goes along with this, but eventually some folks realize that they are not happy with their teams and courses. Dale is most vocal about how no one knows how to design a tasting menu, and is the first one to volunteer to get off his team with Casey and Howie. Now Casey is stuck with Joey and Howie, which doesn’t bode well for any of the three. Dale wants to do dessert, and rustles up a dessert team, but they are fairly lost without recipes.
The teams finally shake out as follows: Hung, Lia and Brian will make the first course; they aim to make scallops. Howie, Joey, and Casey will have the second course and aim to make duck. CJ, Tre and Sara N. have the third course, and are all happy as clams working together. On the fourth and final team, Sara M., Dale, and Camille have all gotten on the dessert train. Hung thinks they’re crazy for making a dessert when they don’t have to, especially since none of them have pastry experience.
Back at the loft, the teams plan their menus. Everyone is working well, except Casey is busy stuffing her face with a sandwich in the kitchen while Joey and Howie talk about the menu on the patio. Eventually she goes out to discuss things with them, but the discussion doesn’t go well with her. When Joey and Howie start to bond, you know there’s trouble in paradise.
The chefs head off to the Fresh Market, and both Lia and Camille are not thrilled with the budgets. Hung, Lia and Brian find the scallops are frozen and change to shrimp. Similarly, Howie, Joey, and Casey’s duck is too expensive so they go with tuna but still have to skimp on other ingredients. The dessert folks go with pineapple as their theme for their dishes and don’t have the budget issues.
The chefs then storm the Barton G.’s kitchen. Lia and Hung scramble to prepare their ingredients, but Brian is more relaxed because his shrimp is going to be raw. Joey and Howie have issues with divvying up the tuna, and Casey is short-changed on the soy sauce. She is not at all happy with her team.
CJ, Tre, and Sara N. are doing beef tenderloin, and are going from light to robust flavors. Sara N. comments everyone is on edge, which is obvious but does not surpass the obviousness of Jamie’s “tall” comment. Camille believes that dessert is included in every four course meal, but Sara M. confesses that everyone is winging it. Dale, while he likes Camille on a personal level, he does not like her dish.
Tom pops by for a visit and chats with Lia, Brian and Hung first. They tell him that they have really been working as a team to put their dishes together and organize the trio. Even if it weren’t true, it looks like the three of them knew what to say to Tom so they wouldn’t get called out on the standard “you’re not working as a team” criticism. Next he visits with CJ, Tre, and Sara N., and asks them why they have the winning dish. CJ explains that the dishes all move together well and incorporate beef and truffle oil.
Tom then speaks to Dale, Sara M., and Camille; they inform them that their ingredient is pineapple and they are making desserts. He mockingly asks them if they have pastry experience, and they all say they have a little. Dale reiterates that a four course meal should have a dessert, and Tom moves on.
Finally, he visits with Joey, Howie and Casey and learns that they are doing tuna. Howie describes the dishes as Casey doing an eastern dish, Joey doing a western dish, and he’s in the middle. Tom spots the soy sauce and asks if Joey is putting soy in his, to which he replies affirmatively. Tom may have said something else, because Joey then goes off that Tom was attacking him personally and determines that he’s going home.
More scurrying about ensues. Sara M.’s dessert is not setting up because she’d never used powdered gelatin before, so they decide to freeze the dessert. Sara M. should have watched last season to learn to read the box on the gelatin issue. Really, the instructions are quite clear if I can do it. Time ticks down, and the first team is getting ready to go out. Lia is nervous about the plating because it is so very important.
Fancier sashes than a Miss America pageant.
Dinner time has arrived, and the extreme gourmet club is there. The members wear deep-V sateen sashes with all sorts of medals or charms on them. They look like over-decorated high school valedictorians to me. Ted Allen is on the panel tonight and he tries joking with a couple of them about the sashes, but the group doesn’t seem all that fun. Barton G. Weiss, the owner of Barton G.’s, is also judging tonight.
Finally, the first course comes out. Brian has made raw pink shrimp in ceviche marinade with radish and caviar. Lia has made olive oil poached shrimp with avocado, cucumber, lime and grilled pepper salad. And Hung prepared sautéed shrimp with corn pudding, bacon and corn salad and shrimp foam. Good lord, a foam! Marcel must be laughing. By and large, the crowd really likes the dishes. Tom thinks Brian’s was a bit salty, Hung’s was fine, but Lia’s rocked the most.
Our difficult trio is up next: Joey and Howie are busy plating their dishes, and Casey is no where to be found. The clock ticked down and Dale retrieved Casey out of the walk-in to help serve, and she’s obviously in a mood. Howie worries his dish isn’t as good as he intended, but they bring out the food anyway. The dishes offered were Casey’s tuna tartare bird’s nest with cucumber and jalapeno; Howie’s coriander crusted tuna with blood orange marmalade, cilantro salad and shitake mushrooms; and Joey’s confit of tuna with fire roasted cherry tomato, crispy shallots and bacon. The diners are perplexed at the marmalade, finding it odd and overpowering—remember, these are people wearing tacky sashes with gold crap affixed to it, so they know from odd and overpowering. Padma asks Tom what he thought of Casey’s tartare, and he says it is a good-on-paper dish, but it didn’t work out. From the look on the diners’ faces, it’s pretty damn gross. Tom reminds the judges and the diners that Casey has immunity for having won the Quick Fire and can’t be eliminated for her craptastic food.
The third course folks, Tre, CJ, and Sara N. ready their dishes next. Tre says he had a great time working with his team, and they all work quickly and delicately on their plating. Tre is confident they won’t lose with their tenderloin dishes. They present the plates and CJ instructs the diners to proceed from right to left with the food. His dish, on the right, is a beef carpaccio with sherry vinaigrette, cigar tuile made from pastry, and parsley oil. Sara N. prepared a butter braised beef tenderloin, baby asparagus and carrots with a white truffle sauce. Finally, Tre made a more robust dish, black pepper and rosemary seared beef tenderloin on a mushroom risotto cake with a sherry reduction. Padma loves the presentation, Ted loves the tuile, but some diner thinks Sara N.’s dish is comparable to Denny’s. What I want to know is why some sash-wearing diner would even step into Denny’s. Pus, never knock the Denny’s people; if it weren’t for that place, there would have been nowhere to get coffee at 3 a.m. after a night of partying when I was in college. (Yes, youngsters, there was a time when Starbucks wasn’t everywhere!)
If ever there were a team who needed a shot of caffeine it was our fourth course folks, particularly Camille. With ten minutes on the clock until presenting, Dale is busy constructing on each plate whatever pineapple mess he’s made. Camille shows utmost confidence in her dish by saying that, under the circumstances, what she produced was “fair.” Time runs out and the plates are presented. Sara M. introduces her semifreddo with pistachio and ginger on a blueberry sauce. (The word “semifreddo” makes me laugh; it should mean half-way to a Godfather character.) Dale’s free form tart is a macadamia nut pastry with marinated raspberry, vanilla coconut cream, and roasted pineapple. The sauces on which the tart sits look like melted toppings from a sundae. Ending the pineapple madness is Camille, who made pineapple upside down cake with ginger sabayon (which is just a creamy custard—I looked it up). At this point, I have concluded that so long as you’re hip to the chef vocab, you can make anything sound super-cool. Perhaps for dinner tomorrow I will have a reduction of vine-ripe tomatoes, fennel seasoned sausage, diced sopresetta, and mozzarella en croute. Or, as you may normally call them, Combination Pizza Rolls.
The diners clarify that the team did not have to do a dessert course, and Ted gives the kudos for taking the challenge. Padma tastes the semifreddo, and Barton comments it tastes just like regular cream, only kind of frozen. Tom finds the whole plate disgusting, and one of the diners proclaims it “no good.” Meanwhile, Dale is proud of his team for taking a risk; Howie worries that his team did poorly and he and Joey have a bigger risk since Casey has immunity.
The judges convene to determine who won and who lost. Tom thinks they worked well together as teams, but they universally can’t understand why the fourth course went for desserts and, in particular, pineapple desserts. They turn the discussion to the shrimp course as the strongest course. Barton liked the taste of Hung’s dish but didn’t like how it looked. He’s not a fan of the foam, although Ted said the foam had a good shrimpy taste. Tom thought Lia’s dish was perfectly cooked and Ted liked the shrimp poached in olive oil, commenting that it was unusual. Ted and Barton also really liked Brian’s dish, but Barton thought there could have been more contrast.
Padma then retrieves the shrimp course folks and brings them to the Judges’ Table. She congratulates them on having the winning course. Brian explains that they originally were going for scallops but saw the shrimp at the market and made the change there; Tom says they made a wise decision. Lia then says her dish was flavored with the same tastes as ceviche but she poached the shrimp instead. Turning to Hung, Ted says it was lush and fresh; Hung explains how it was made, using corn in two different ways. Tom says it was hard to pick a winner, and the decision was not unanimous because all the dishes were strong. Barton then announces that Lia won and Barton invites her to be the chef for a charity event in the Hamptons. Lia is thrilled Tom liked her dish the most, and finds that to be better than the Hamptons cooking trip.
Worst of the worst.
Back in the holding area, Lia is introduced as the winner and then delivers the bad news: the tuna course and the dessert course folks need to report to the Judges’ Table. There, Padma starts with the dessert course folks. Tom says they were all bad. Dale says that they were all convinced a four course tasting menu needed a dessert course, and admits he was the one who suggested the pineapple. Tom comments that doing so was risky, but Dale counters that, if—the big “if”, as Tom says--they could pull it off, they’d show they were more versatile than the other chefs. Barton found the dessert course to be a mess—bad textures and taste. Sara M. thought she could pull off the dessert but then got in a bind with the powdered gelatin. She defends her actions by saying that a chef takes chances, but Padma counters by pointing out taking a risk with people who will make or break you is kind of stupid. Tom then turns to Camille, who hasn’t said anything and looks like she’s about to cry. She thinks that, as chefs, they should all be familiar with certain types of food. Ted points out the cake was way too heavy and dry, being made from cornmeal, and it is counter to everyone’s notion of a light, caramelized cake being used for pineapple upside down cake. Tom can’t get why she’d do something she’s not that familiar with.
Turning to the tuna course, Tom asks why there wasn’t cohesion with the team. Howie starts out by saying they switched from duck to tuna at the market because duck would be too heavy. He admits his dish was flat, but argues all the components were there. Joey says he’s happy with his dish, considering the change of ingredients issue. Tom “cuts to the chase” and says they are there because Casey’s dish was so bad. He asks her if the immunity caused her to not do her best. She says that her dish was under-seasoned, but that’s because they ran out of soy sauce and she didn’t think of salt until too late. (Seriously, what kind of chef forgets about salt?!?!) Padma asks the guys if they sampled Casey’s dish, and neither did until after the plates went out. Padma asks them why they wouldn’t taste it since she had immunity. Tom echoes the sentiment, commenting that there is a 50/50 chance that one of the two of them is gong home, so it was beyond dumb not to taste what she was putting on the plate. Casey says that it isn’t fair that one of the two guys would have to go home because of her dish and almost, but not quite, gives up her immunity.
The chefs go back to wait out the decision, and Casey is just overcome with emotion that one of the two guys may be sent home because of what she made. Back at the Judges’ Table, Barton says Howie’s marmalade was too overpowering for the tuna. Tom thought Joey’s flavors were good, but not good enough to save the plate. Tom also kind of wants to send Dale home for coming up with the dessert idea. As for Camille, Barton comments she couldn’t articulate anything about her dish, Ted wonders why cornmeal would be used in a pineapple upside down cake. Tom says it’s the worst dessert he’s had in five years. Barton sums it up by saying she doesn’t have any basic baking skills. They also didn’t like the frozen cream, as it didn’t have any taste and was melty by the time it was served. Tom is particularly put out that Sara M. didn’t read the box on how to use the gelatin, and is bothered by the lack of cooking smarts.
The chefs are brought back before the Judges’ Table; Tom describes the challenge as one about creating harmonies, and they were all playing with the wrong instruments. He calls out Joey and Howie for failing to taste Casey’s dish when they knew she had immunity. Howie’s wasn’t as bad as Casey’s but not that much better. They didn’t mind Joey’s dish, but he let his team down. Addressing the dessert team, Tom says their problem was picking something they didn’t know how to do very well. He says Dale was the instigator of the dessert debacle and failed to show leadership. Camille, Tom says, is not strong in desserts, and the cake was dull, heavy, and not good at all. As for Sara M.’s freezing technique, no one was fooled with the cover-up of the failed dessert.
Padma then tells Camille to pack her knives and go. In her exit interview, she slowly says that she’s okay with leaving and is anxious to get back to New York. In saying goodbye to everyone, she shows the most emotion and hugs everyone. They all seem to genuinely like her, and aren’t afraid of her eating their brains, so maybe she isn’t really a zombie. Dale feels incredibly guilty and thinks it’s his fault Camille is gone. She leaves, content in the experience she gained.
Next week, Hung runs around like a maniac with a knife. Good times!