Top Chef 6 – 11/11 Recap: Strip for Your Supper
I’m not going to dwell on how much I hated last week’s ratings stunt, The Top Chef All-Star Reunion Dinner. Suffice it to say that everyone involved with it should feel embarrassed, and remorseful for the damage they have done to the reputation of the franchise. Also, Marcel should just crawl back into his kitchen, and stay there. Forever. No phone, no lights, no motor car.
But hey! How great is it to see a Glad Family of Products shot starting off a new episode, after being separated for two weeks from our (un)merry band of culinary brats? Robin opens and closes a kitchen drawer on some ForceFlex bags; elsewhere, Eli wonders what he will wear today under his chef’s jacket. Meanwhile, Bryan attempts to show some emotion as he calls his family and speaks with his 22-month-old son (who calls him “Bryan”, possibly a by-product of seeing him on TV). Bryan misses his family, but he’s on Top Chef so that he can provide security for them. This is also my reasoning for playing Mega Millions.
One-time hot-shot Jennifer tells us that she is amazed that Mike I. is gone, but also thinks that it’s time to stop worrying so much about other people, and to start worrying more about herself. Wait -- she hasn’t been worrying enough this season? At this point, she’s done everything but write an opera for herself. Can’t wait to see what she has in store for today…
Quickfire Challenge – Two Women in Bed
The chefs are driven to the beautiful Venetian Resort, which they don’t see as they have to walk through an underground tunnel to the drab, utilitarian kitchens. When they arrive, Padma is nowhere to be found. Suddenly, a nearby phone rings, and a Venetian employee puts the call on speaker for the chefs: it’s Padma, in a robe, reclining in bed with an also-robed Nigella Lawson. (No, not together, they each have their own beds!) Suddenly I can see where this is going: the chefs each have 30 minutes to cook Padma & Nigella a room-service breakfast, and serve it to them in their suite. This is a cross between the Quickfire from Season 3’s “Snacks on a Plane” (when C.J. almost pulled Padma into bed with him) and Season 1’s semi-final Room Service challenge (where Tiffany made the finals only because Dave imploded).
The kitchen is cramped and there aren’t as many tools, so the chefs are scrambling. Robin and Eli are first, and Robin is frantically making 12 components, about 4 of which make it on the plate. As Robin leaves to serve her dish, arch-nemesis Michael enters to start cooking, and finds the kitchen a disaster area. He spends several minutes bitching and cleaning instead of prepping.
Meanwhile, a half-mile up and away, Robin enters the lavish guest suite and serves her goat cheese blintz with bacon, caramelized pineapple and blueberries. She is nervous and star-struck in front of Nigella, who eats and nods and half-smiles in such a way that betrays either a Zen-like state of bliss, or a lot of Botox sessions.
Next, Eli brings them an interesting-looking “Fried egg Reuben Benedict” on rye bread with a Thousand Island/Hollandaise sauce, complete with corned beef and sauerkraut. Nigella (possibly remembering a past Hemingway-caliber binge with Anthony Bourdain) proclaims that this would be a great hangover cure.
Downstairs, Kevin has joined Michael in the confusion. Kevin has decided to make steak & eggs (didn’t you see the S3 episode, Kev? Padma said she didn’t eat steak & eggs – although Hung won with it that day, so what so I know). Michael, still fuming, is rushing to put together an aggressive, complicated dish, and declares himself “in the weeds.” Robin enters to clean up her stuff, and Michael barks at her to leave. No love lost there.
Michael makes the trip up to the VIPs and serves them “Huevos Cubana” with banana puree, rice, bacon and arugula salad. It sounds like breakfast, lunch and a cigar all rolled up into one. More hangover jokes are shared, and Michael is amazed that the women seem to be enjoying his stress-ridden results. Kevin then brings in his steak & eggs with crème fraiche, aged cheddar and green onion. Padma thinks it’s “nice and warm”. Maybe Hung converted her once and for all…
Hotel restaurateur Jennifer is up next, and she decides to make creamed chipped beef on toast, or as it is more commonly known, “s**t on a shingle”. This is either a brilliant strategic move, or a cry for help. Kitchenmate Bryan is going a simpler route, making the perfect four-minute egg over corn polenta. Jen’s dish provokes a surprised reaction from Nigella as it is placed in front of her – which kills my Botox theory. Bryan’s egg includes a vanilla beurre fondue, king crab, and asparagus spears along with the polenta. Nigella picks up the smell of vanilla as the trays enter the room, which sounds like a good thing, but after Bryan leaves, she says the vanilla basically killed what would have been a “star” dish.
All the chefs convene with the egg-filled judges in a conference room to get the results. For the least-favored dishes, Nigella leads off with Bryan, and includes Robin, who agrees that her dish was off. Nigella’s favorites were Kevin’s steak & eggs (take note, future TC contestants) and Eli’s witty, tangy Ruebenedict hybrid, which she declares the winner. His recipe will be included in the new Top Chef Quickfire Cookbook. Interestingly, the book was released on September 30th, so I suppose those who own the book could see this day coming for a while.
Elimination Challenge – The Art of the Strip Tease
For once, there’s an interesting elimination challenge afoot: each of the chefs will draw knives, each of the knives having the name of a Strip casino/resort on it, and they will draw their inspiration from the casino/resort that they walk through in order to design their dishes. Each of them draws a knife, and off they go on VERY short hybrid trips to the resort of their choice. But the chefs will not be cooking for a mere few judges; they will have to cook food for 175 guests of the “Las Vegas elite” (which usually means whoever did well at the tables that day) at the World Market Center, which is closer to “Old Vegas” (Fremont Street) than the Strip. (Having been to Vegas many times, I am familiar with the terrain.)
Michael has chosen the New York, New York Casino/Resort, and since he is humorless and literal-minded, he will probably miss out on what is special about this resort, and its many tributes to its source (my hometown). He sees a fire department boat in the fake lake, so he decides to cook fireman’s food in honor of NYC’s firemen.
Jennifer chooses Excalibur (the one with the castles), and she attends the Tournament of Kings (basically a jousting dinner theater) where medieval-era finger foods are served, which gives her the idea to make…God knows what.
Bryan arrives at Mandalay Bay, which is an intimidating multi-tower complex, but thankfully the producers steer him toward the Shark Reef, the huge aquarium exhibit where he can walk around and see many underwater things, including, y’know, sharks. As he walks through the attraction, he notices a screen with information about the sustainable aspects of the feeding of the creatures in the Shark Reef. He harkens back to some sustainable-fishing dishes he has in his arsenal, and is apparently ready to rock. (p.s. Mandalay Bay is a truly elegant place to stay, I can’t recommend it highly enough).
Robin arrives at the Bellagio, which is the New York Yankees of resorts in Las Vegas. If any other resort gets something exceedingly opulent, the Bellagio tops it two weeks later. (p.p.s. I am a Met fan, I happen to hate the Yankees). Chef-cum-artist Robin walks into the lobby of the Bellagio and instantly spots a colorful floral ceiling installation by artist Dale Chihuly, and is instantly inspired to cook something that will be as colorful as the floral display above her. She doesn’t know what the dish will contain yet, but she figures that gelatin will be involved in the mix somehow.
Kevin arrives at the tropical-flavored Mirage Resort, and like Bryan, he finds himself face-to-face with a dolphin show. He believes in organics and simpler foods, so he thinks he will be able to deliver a soulful yet impressive dish.
Eli is taken to one of the older, mustier resorts off the Strip, Circus Circus. He looks for inspiration, but mostly finds tacky decorations, pastel neon lights, and snack food stands in his path. Where will he take this into a mass-produced fine-dining experience?
The chefs return later that day to their quarters, and the others marvel at how Eli has the most trouble drawing inspiration from his resort source (personally, I understand; Circus Circus is a tacky casino with some hotel rooms stapled on top of it). Robin sees this as an opportunity to survive this round, as long as she can come up with a decent concept for her dish while Eli continues to stew…
They all get to sleep on their ideas, and are trucked off to Whole Foods the next morning to buy their ingredients, and once they arrive at the Top Chef Kitchen at the M Resort, they have 3 ½ hours to prepare their dishes, and get them ready to transport to the World Market Center. (Note: the M Resort is at the extreme south end of the Strip, wayyyyyyy south of any other resort, and even south of McCarren Airport – in fact, the last time I was in Vegas, the Strip didn’t even go that far south).
The chefs grab ingredients and pans and tools and whatnot, and begin to stress out about their dishes. Kevin is humbled, Michael is confident. Robin is unsure about her execution, but she insists upon doing things she isn’t comfortable with, mostly because of the talent that surrounds her.
Jennifer decides to harken back to her childhood, and use The Sword in the Stone as her inspiration. Somehow, this involves making three different sauces that include red wine, but it all makes sense in her head, so we will assume that she is not in the weeds this week. (If you can do it, so can I…)
As the time dwindles down, Robin feels she is already sabotaging herself, while Eli is trying to incorporate a lot of perverse junk food/candy flavors into an elegant dish. Meanwhile, Bryan is going the slow-and-steady route with his seafood dish. As Robin continues her stressful prep, the others notice that, hey, she’s still here in spite of herself, so maybe they actually have to acknowledge her existence this week…
The chefs finish cooking and packing, and they all head up to the World Market Center, which has a large rooftop restaurant which boasts incredible views of both Old and New Vegas. They all begin to set up their stations, and Michael lets us know that he is frying up his (somehow transformed for fine dining) chicken wings to order, and hopes to have 20-30 wings ready to sample by the time the customers arrive. Jennifer and Robin both stress about the timing of their dishes, and Robin ends up having reason to worry: her gelatins are not setting in time. All of the chefs seem to be scrambling as the patrons arrive; they file in three- and four-deep to each station, waiting for the chefs to start officially serving their food.
The judges approach Jennifer, who doesn’t have any plates ready at her table when they arrive. She eventually serves them a NY Strip steak with red wine reduction, beets, truffles, and herbs. The guests are expected to chew bigger cuts of meat off of toothpicks, and the judges are not enjoying their Flintstonian experience. Nigella decides that the steak is representing the Stone is the analogy.
Kevin wows the judges with a cut of wild Alaskan sockeye salmon in a zesty citrus juice, with Napa cabbage and cucumber. The judges are impressed to say the least. Later they approach Michael, who serves them a boneless chicken wing ‘confit’ with curry and blue cheese ‘disc’ of dressing. Basically, he made Super Bowl food and gave it fancy names. Will the judges be fooled by the Emperor’s New Clothes? So far, they are falling for it, except for Toby Young, who doesn’t have the Super Bowl experience to compare: he is not as impressed as the others.
Robin serves up something. What it is, we’re not sure. It’s full of regrets and apologies as she serves it to the judges, and she basically trumpets its failure to them before they can take a first bite (in short, the colorful references to the art installation are missing from her plate). Why even bother, lady? I mean, honestly…her panna cotta was too firm, and the concepts she described were absent in her dish.
Bryan is ready for the recently-underwhelmed judges as they approach his table, and presents to them a bag of big, impressive-sounding words: an escabéche of halibut with bouillabaisse consommé, parsley coulis, and garlic chips. We’ll just assume this is something good. Certainly the judges do.
Eli decided to throw everything at the wall, keeping whatever didn’t slide down: he serves a caramel apple peanut soup with popcorn and a raspberry froth. Nigella is too scared to take the first bite, and with reason: the other judges can hardly put it down, although they seem to admire his courage in presenting a new mix of flavors.
Judges Table – Deja Vu
Back at the M Resort, the chefs stew while the judges dish on the dishes. Kevin is curious about how everyone thinks they fared, and no one is forthcoming. Eventually, Padma enters and asks to see Bryan, Michael, and Kevin. I feel a very familiar song coming on, as does Robin, who mutters rather than asks to be shown the door right then and there.
The hot-shots enter the arena, and are predictable complimented on their dishes. Kevin’s was slurpable, Bryan’s was quiet and dignified, and Michael’s was, well, chicken wings and blue cheese dressing. But somehow, the judges manage to praise it in a way that sets it up to be the winning dish, and damned if it isn’t the winning dish. The price that he has to pay for winning: having to hear that his cooking has an “effeminate” touch to it, and a big bottle of wine. Ha-ha, you humorless butch thing. I hope it brings you no advantage next week…
This leaves the bottom three to be drawn and quartered (pffft, you do the math). Eli, Robin and Jennifer stand before the table to be queried and savaged. Faced with the simplest of opening questions, Jennifer admits that her dish was boring, that she had no real inspiration to draw from, and she has basically packed her bags, thanks for the swell time. But wait, she did this last time as well, and I doubt the judges will fall for it any more this time…her meat was too tough to eat without a knife. Concept failed.
Robin is quizzed next. We learn in all this that Robin is actually happier as an artist than a chef, and all of the over-reaching she does as a chef is an obvious by-product of these diverging interests. Her custard was rubber, and the visual aspects of her Chihuly inspiration never made it to plate.
Eli, Eli, Eli…too many ideas, and too few of them worked together. His fatal flaw: chocolate doesn’t melt in the time he allotted it to melt. Padma excuses them while the judges deliberate and deliberate and deliberate…
Nigella couldn’t stand Jennifer’s sauce, and Tom informs her that Jen has been on a downward spiral for some time now, and seems overdue to hit bottom. Back in the stew room, Jen seems to agree. Toby deconstructs Robin’s unconstructed dish, but Tom simplifies things: panna cotta is easy to make, and she screwed it up. Nigella remarks that she would have rather eaten the sawdust off the circus floor than his soup. In the stew room, Kevin theorizes that Eli’s flavor mix was too complicated to put together in the time allotted. Finally, the judges call them back into the kitchen.
After the usual dressing down, they all look to Padma, who asks Robin to pack her knives and go. Eli almost collapses from relief; Jennifer is numb. On spite of their outward hatred for Robin, all the chefs give her goodbye hugs. I find it somewhat hypocritical of them, but I guess it’s better to be nice to someone when they are down…
Next week, there’s a really difficult challenge, and the chefs don’t have enough time to impress a big celebrity judge. Must be Wednesday…