Truth be told, I have been hungry all day. The turkey sandwich for lunch was okay and the pork roast for dinner was great, but I have been craving Peeps for hours. And there is nary a Peep in my house tonight because I foolishly thought I could skip them this Easter. Hey, wouldn’t it be great if Top Chef had a Peep-based challenge? Alas, a Peeps challenge was not to be tonight and I’m still craving my sugar high.
Speaking of sugar highs, I don’t know what Spike and Andrew eat in the morning, but they were certainly frisky bearded fellows the morning after the previous challenge. They were wrestling around in their bedroom, talking in some beard-based lingo that escaped my comprehension. More understandable were Stephanie and Zoi who both expressed dismay at losing another female contestant. They both want to see a woman take the title this season. With a word from Richard about getting serious about the challenge and a comment from Andrew about being in the contest to have fun, it was time to head to the kitchen to get someone immunity.
Tacos, tacos, tacos.
As the chefs pensively wait around to find out what their Quick Fire Challenge will be, Padma enters with famous chef and restaurateur, Rick Bayless. He’s known for fine dining Mexican cuisine and has a couple of restaurants in Chicago. He starts talking about tacos, and I start to drool. I love tacos and they are about the only way I find ground beef tolerable, probably because if you’ve got the right toppings, you can’t taste it. Fish tacos are an improvement over ground meat, but the best taco ever is a guacamole taco--meatless and full of yum.
Okay, I got distracted there for a minute with the drooling. The QF challenge tonight is for the cooks to come up with a fine dining taco. The notion of a fine dining taco offends Erik, who considers it one of the quintessential street foods. They’ll have thirty minutes to come up with some fine fare tacos using whatever’s in the kitchen. Manuel likes this challenge, what with his Mexican heritage and all, and uses some cactus petals to make the shell. Spike doesn’t care for the “fine dining” aspect either and decides to make a street food taco, immunity be damned. Andrew, Spike’s brother in facial hair, does embrace the upscale aspect and goes with duck and plantains. And Inspector Gadget, a/k/a Richard, decides to do something weird, Ryan goes for a squash taco, and Mark gets his geography confused and makes a gyro.
Time is called and Rick and Padma make their tasting rounds. They first sample Manuel’s traditional taco of grilled chorizo with picante verde, cilantro and goat cheese. He really puts a Spanish pronunciation on every word possible; now I know he is a Spanish speaker but the whole presentation reminds me of an old SNL sketch. Next up are Lisa’s skirt steak tacos with corn tortillas, caramelized onions, pineapples and cabbage slaw. Rick can’t bite through the skirt steak and Lisa knows she’s out of the running. Andrew’s duck breast tacos with plantain jam and cotija cheese are next; Rick’s favorite tacos are duck tacos, or so he says, perhaps facetiously. Padma and Rick then sample Erik’s chipotle braised chicken tacos with avocado, pomegranate salsa and guacamole. Spike made ground pork tacos with a tomatillo sauce. Ryan’s grilled squash tacos with stewed chickpeas were up next, and kind of messy. Finally, Richard used jicama to make a tortilla wrap and filled it with avocado, papaya and cilantro stems. He’s made three tacos so he can eat one too.
Padma then gets Rick to deliver the verdict. In the bottom were Rick, Erik, Lisa, and Ryan. Rick’s taco had good flavors but it wasn’t fine-dining enough. Erik’s plate was a mess, which was true because Taco Bell does a better presentation. Lisa’s rare skirt steak was a huge mistake and Ryan wrapped his taco in a paper, which is just not something done in fine dining. On the flip side, Rick like Andrew’s tacos for their flavor and presentation. Richard’s were good because they were simple but packaged like a fine dining meal while keeping the street food taste. He also liked Spike’s taco’s soul-satisfying flavor. When his name wasn’t called out in the top three, Manuel looked visibly crushed. Rick then chooses Richard as the winner. Not only does he get immunity from elimination but he also gets his winning dish stolen to be used in one of Bayless’ restaurants. Nothing says winning like having a recipe cribbed by a guy who could afford to pay you for your trouble.
No time to rest for the weary, and Padma launches into the Elimination Challenge discussion. First, she makes the teams divide themselves into two teams—the Red Team and the Blue Team. Then she tells them they are going on a field trip and they’ll find out more when they get there. The Blue team is made up of Antonia, Stephanie, Nikki, Mark, Richard, Manuel, and Lisa. The Red team is the remainder: Zoi, Dale, Spike, Ryan, Jennifer, Andrew and Erik.
The chefs pile into their cars and head out. They don’t know where they’re going and keep trying to guess what is in store based on the neighborhoods they drive through. Eventually, they arrive at a typical suburban neighborhood with houses and no shops in sight. Padma is there to tell them that the neighborhood is going to have a block party in a few days and their challenge is to make the food for the party. The catch is that they have to go door-to-door and gather ingredients from the neighbors, who have already purchased supplies for the party. The next day, for the party, the cooks will have three hours to prepare their food in the Top Chef Kitchen before transporting it back to the neighborhood for the party. There will be 40 adults and 70 kids in attendance so it will be a big family affair.
The chefs then proceed to run around the neighborhood and clean out every resident in the area. Clearly these folks knew they were going to be on camera because no one came to the door half-dressed, the houses were neat, and the kitchens fully stocked. The chefs gathered up everything from Velveeta to pasta to fresh fruits and veggies to oodles of hot dogs to wine. The chefs were greeted well by the locals, especially when the Red team wised up and sent pretty boy Ryan in as their ice-breaker and left the beard brothers in the street.
Back in the kitchen, the Blue team, with Richard as the mouthpiece, has decided to go up-scale with their menu and plans to offer: paella (Richard), slaw (Lisa), BBQ pulled pork (Manuel), bean salad (Antonia), inside out cookies (Mark), a “sexy” drink, fruit cobbler (Stephanie), and mac’n’cheese (Nikki). Richard considers the opinion of the judges over the opinion of the residents, and wants to please the panel more. Nikki says her signature dish is a mac’n’cheese, so she’s taking the Velveeta to make that. Yeah, mac’n’cheese is really up-scale, especially when made with processed cheese. It’s official—my appetite is killed.
The Red team decides to play to the crowd and goes with more traditional cook-out food. Their menu is: sliders (Jennifer), corn dogs (Erik), pork skewers (Dale), sangria (Andrew), Waldorf salad (Ryan), pasta salad (Zoi), taco salad (Spike) and s’mores. There is no team leader on the Red team. Erik is making the corn dogs based on a recipe he uses in his restaurant. Zoi is pissed seven ways from Sunday that she’s stuck with the pasta salad because it is not a “winning dish” and worries she should have said no to the pasta salad. I wonder if she thinks the sliders and corn dogs are the real “winning dishes.” Dale, as always, is concerned about being eliminated because it’s not as fine dining as he’d want it to be nor pushing any envelope in any way.
The cooks get to work, using every minute of their three-hour preparation time. Erik is busy frying the little corn dogs, mad chopping takes place, Stephanie fries some wonton wrappers for garnish to her dessert, and Nikki struggles with the Velveeta. Somewhere toward the end of the cooking time, Tom walks in and chats with the teams. We learn Richard is glad he’s got immunity but he’s still working hard. The “Sexy Drink” is sexy because it involves lavender, which makes Tom grin like an idiot, and Erik expresses that he’s putting his heart into his food. All that frying can’t be good for his heart. Cue the Lipitor, stat. Tom leaves and there are thirty minutes left to pack everything up in the Glad Family of Products and head out. Nikki worries that her mac’n’cheese will become brick’n’mortar before the party starts and Erik worries his wieners will go soft. Heh, heh.
Party time! Excellent!
The scene unfolds in the party ‘hood as any typical block party might unfold. Well, I don’t know if that’s true, as I’ve never been to a block party. I haven’t even seen the Dave Chappelle’s movie. At this party, there are loads of kids, a pińata, a dunking booth, and a bouncy castle thingy. In other words, it’s like every crap birthday party of my youth: devoid of martinis, replete with loud children, and in the sun. Also curiously, several residents have set up their own grills and look to be fixing their own vittles. Maybe they’ve seen this show before and worry about bacon avocado ice cream being on the menu.
The chefs have a mere twenty minutes to set up their spreads and not all is looking good. Erik’s soggy corn dogs cause him dismay but he decides to serve them anyway. Nikki’s mac’n’cheese has coagulated into a hard mess that she decides to try to fix by pouring milk and butter and stirring a lot. She’s be better off raiding a couple more houses and finding some Kraft Dinner. Soon enough, the residents are chomping at the bit to sample the food and the judges arrive. Of course there’s Tom, Padma and Rick Bayless and they are joined by the wonderful Ted Allen. I heart Ted.
The Blue team is up first; they decide to serve everyone as they go through the line, cafeteria-style. The dishes they serve up are:
Paella with clams, oysters, sausage and shrimp;
Barbecue pulled pork and chicken sandwich and ribs with Mexican chocolate barbecue sauce;
Mixed fruit crumble with cinnamon sugar wontons;
Macaroni and cheese topped with bacon and breadcrumbs;
Cookie in a cookie made with disemboweled Oreos; and
“Sexy Drink” with citrus, pineapple, mint, lavender and soda water.
The Red team is more casual with their setup. Their menu is made up of:
Taco salad with chorizo, avocado, shrimp, jalapeńo, cabbage and lime dressing;
Mini sliders made of ground beef and turkey with bacon and provolone cheese sauce;
Grilled pork skewers with pineapple and smoked red curry barbecue sauce;
S’mores on a stick—the marshmallows are torched with a mini blow torch then rolled in a combo of crumbled up graham crackers and chocolate—which Padma dropped on Ted’s shoe;
Chicken Waldorf salad;
Corn dogs with pomegranate ketchup and spicy mustard; and
A dip bar with chips, salads—bean and pasta—and other stuff.
The crowd seemed to enjoy most of the food, with Dale’s skewer, Jennifer’s sliders and Stephanie’s dessert getting much praise. The corn dogs and mac’n’cheese were—predictably—not crowd favorites. Meanwhile, the Blue team pack up and the guys on the Red team sip beers and play with the kids. The Blue team worries that the Red team has something to be confident about. The Red team thinks they have completely won since everyone had a great time and they really worked the crowd and were the life of the party.
To fry or not to fry, that is the question.
With the neighborhood event done, the cooks return to the kitchen and wait nervously in the storage room. They are all sucking down beers like mad and Richard has his pants inexplicably rolled up, as if going to a clam dig. Both teams are sure they’ve won, but the Red team even more so, as they are confident they cooked to the crowd. Then Padma arrives and, with a devilish smirk, calls the Blue team before the judges. The Red team isn’t happy.
Tom gets down to business with the Blue team straightaway. He says the contest was close and there were some dishes that they really did not like. He wonders if this is the same group of people who produced such good food in the first challenge and says they expected more out of them. When the team is asked if there was a team leader, Nikki volunteers that they really didn’t have a leader but worked together. She fesses up for her mac’n’cheese disaster, which Rick calls a brick. Tom then calls Richard out for his paella, saying it was more a rice pilaf than a paella, since there was no crispy bottom or top. Tom seriously doubts Richard knows what a paella is given how much of a mess the dish was. Stephanie is then asked what she contributed to the menu. She says she conceptualized the dessert and helped with the drink. At this point, Padma says that they loved the drink and the Blue team is the winning team. Tom shares the judges’ opinion that the bean salad was good and the dessert was great and the thing that put the Blue team on the winning side. The fried wonton with sugar and cinnamon really was a nice touch in the judges’ estimation. Frankly, I’m amazed the crispiness held up, but apparently it did. Because the dessert carried the day, Stephanie is named the winner of the challenge. Before they depart, Tom cautions them not to get too excited at the win, as their showing was rather disappointing overall.
The Blue team returns to the storage room where the Red team learns they are on the losing side. Andrew chugs down his beer in a fierce and angry way before leaving with the other Blues to face the judges. With the Blue team away from the bevies, the Red team cracks open many a cold one and gets to drinking.
Padma launches the first salvo and asks if they know why they are the weaker team. Ryan has no idea and Spike thought they kicked the other team’s asses. Erik volunteers that his corn dog was not that great because of the transportation; Rick says the corn dog was a universal disappointment because it was so soggy. Zoi attempts to defend the food by saying they were cooking for kids in middle America and wanted to make foods that would appeal to them. Tom counters that cooking for kids doesn’t mean you have to dumb down the food. In my albeit limited knowledge of kid food, it seems that every kid I know is raised on steady diet of frozen chicken tenders and juice boxes, so sliders, corn dogs, and Waldorf salad are a bit of a step up. Maybe just not poorly executed Waldorf salad—or so says Rick, who found Ryan’s attempt at the salad to be soggy. The chicken added too much moisture to the mix and the vegetables lost their crunch.
Spike chimes in, saying that the panel has precise palates while the crowd was just average people. Ted thinks that doesn’t matter—they should have elevated the cuisine no matter whom they were cooking for. Spike has had about enough of the criticism. He says this was a block party and everyone tasted everyone else’s dishes and no one thought anything tasted bad. Tom lets loose with some serious snark, saying that if everyone tasted Zoi’s pasta salad and liked it, then they all have serious problems with their palates because it was bland, oily and had no flavor. Zoi is really upset and goes into the whole “but I didn’t wanna make pasta salad” whine again. Andrew then flies off the handle and says he will have to be dragged out of the building by security guards if they want him to leave. I’m sure that can be done, if push comes to shove and it would make awesome television!
The judges have heard enough and send the Red team out for a while. Padma notes that they were surprised to be in the bottom. No guano, Batman! The judges found the worst dishes to be Ryan’s Waldorf salad because of the watery chicken, Erik’s corn dogs because he should have known better than try to transport fried foods, and Zoi’s pasta salad that was inferior to the kind you can buy pre-made in the grocery store. Back in the waiting area, Zoi is pissed at herself for not saying anything to drop the pasta salad.
The Blue team returns to face their fates; Tom says that the challenge was simple but it produced three awful dishes: the watery, unseasoned Waldorf salad, the unseasoned, stupidly easy-to-make-right pasta salad, and the droopy corn dogs. Erik is then told to pack his knives and go, in no small part because he knew how to do the corn dog, does corn dog-like lobster at his restaurant, and should have known that they’d steam and get mushy in transport. Erik says his goodbyes but doesn’t get teary; he says he’ll miss the camaraderie but looks forward to a long career back in San Francisco.