Back in the early ‘90s, there was this phenomenon that swept through books, clothing, and video games: everyone wanted to know where Waldo was. The second episode of this season of Top Chef is a bit like that, but the question instead is, “Where’s Sara M.?” I spotted her twice, for, oh, say 10 seconds total. We saw an awful lot of Sara N., but I guess the magical elves of Bravo are not nearly as bright as the editors of the Bachelor, who can seam together an entire season of blonde-haired, blue-eyed Saras and we will still know who is who. So, to Sara M. from Jamaica, we missed you. To Bravo, people may complain about Fleiss’ editing, but the dude knows his way around a gaggle of Saras—give him a call and have a chat.
The chefs are a bit tired and reflective on the morning after their first elimination challenge. Brian knows he’s off to a rough start, being in the bottom three on the first competition. Sandee thinks she will do pretty well because she went from being a line cook to a chef within a few months. Micah, on the other hand, is plain grumpy; she’s not a morning person, didn’t want to get out of bed and she’s not thrilled with sharing living space with thirteen other people. Howie recognizes he’s got no more free passes left—how did he get one in the first place?!?!—since he was in the bottom group on the first challenge. He says he is going to really step up his game and show ‘em what he’s got. Read the foreshadowing any way you like; you may be right.
The chefs arrive at the kitchen to find a splendid array of Florida citrus fruits. Padma is there and introduces a fellow called Norman Van Aken, who is, apparently, the “godfather” of fine dining in Florida, per Howie. Good to know there’s fine dining in Florida; my most memorable food experience in the state was eating a pancake that was bigger than my head in a diner outside of Lake City in 1986, and I’ve been to Florida a lot, albeit mostly on the Redneck Riviera.
Padma gets right to the Quick Fire and informs the chefs that they will have thirty minutes to create a dish that features the Florida citrus products. Sara N. is confident she can make it in the top in this challenge, while Micah realizes she’s just drawing a blank Joey says he excels at fruits, which is an odd thing to excel at since you don’t really need to do much to them. Tre is also pretty sure of himself, seeing the only real competition as Hung. As time ticks down to five minutes, the chefs cook furiously and Sara N. realizes that the shrimp she wants to flash cook in the final moments are neither peeled nor deveined, which really crunches her time. Padma finally calls for utensils down, and the judging starts.
Norman and Padma sample all of the dishes, but Bravo only shows us twelve of the fourteen. What Sara M. and Camille make are mysteries to me. The rest of the crowd finds a way to use the acidic fruits thusly:
CJ: Pan seared sea perch, carrots, radicchio, oranges and hazelnuts. Norman likes this dish, especially the texture of the fish, but comments that CJ left in some orange seeds.
Casey: Play on smores with vanilla/tequila cream, blood oranges and key lime. Norman thought that this didn’t really use the citrus in the best way.
Sandee: Trio of citrus: key lime mojito, grapefruit brulee with shrimp, and citrus-glazed sea bass. Norman didn’t like the flower in the mojito and complained the mint was too licorice-y, which makes no sense to me.
Micah: Spicy avocado citrus soup with red grapefruit. Padma and Norman were surprised that it was soup—especially since it had the consistency, as Micah put it, of pudding.
Lia: Crab salad with sourdough croutons and grapefruit vinaigrette. Lia was a wee bit embarrassed when Padma chomped down on crab shell.
Dale: Citrus salad with watercress, endive, fennel, lemon poppy seed and goat cheese.
Sara N.: Blood orange and tangelo citrus salad with shrimp and honey tangerine vinaigrette. The poor girl is so nervous, she can barely describe her dish; she is just didn’t expect Norman to be “critical in his critiquing”.
Hung: Slow roasted sea bass, citrus crumble, and watercress and radish salad. He’s confident he will win because everyone else’s dishes look “slummy.”
Tre: Hot & cold salmon duo: raw king salmon with macadamia nut and coriander-seared salmon with fuji apple salad.
Howie: Vanilla butter poached lobster tail and citrus salad.
Brian: Alaskan halibut with blood orange and pomegranate molasses.
Joey: Fennel salad with blood oranges and a watermelon and Grand Marnier shooter. Norman really like the shooter and suggests Joey become a bartender as well as (or in lieu of) a chef.
Norman announces that the bottom three were Sara N., Sandee, and Micah. As for the best, he really liked CJ’s perch, Hung’s bass, and Tre’s salmon. Of the top three, Hung is named the winner and will have immunity. Hung says he’s thrilled but he didn’t expect anything less than winning the challenge.
After the Quick Fire is over, Padma announces the parameters of the elimination challenge. A guy who goes by the name of Lee Schrager is apparently some big-wig foodie in Florida and he’s holding a high-end barbeque. The chefs will have to put together a dish to serve at the barbeque for Lee’s sixty guests that is both upscale and barbeque. They’ll have $200 to spend at the market, two hours of prep time, and two hours to cook at the barbeque the next day. Tre and Sandee both make comments about how, being from Texas and Georgia respectively, losing the barbeque challenge would be embarrassing.
Padma and Norman leave and the chefs pile into the cars to go to the Fresh Market. Most everyone heads to the meat counter first, and it is chaos. The line is long and not everyone grasps the “take a number” system. A good percentage of the contestants go for the red meat, but others go for the seafood, saying that it is the less obvious choice. Sara N. has a hard time figuring out how much meat she will need, and Hung actually helps her on that. While everyone is fighting over their protein, Micah wanders blithely in the vegetable section, alternatively wanting to stay out of the fray and not knowing what she wants to do. Eventually, she spots that lamb is on sale and goes for it.
Back in the kitchen, the chefs work furiously to prepare their ingredients for cooking the next day. We see that Hung is still running around like a nut job, breaking things, and generally being hazardous. Brian is making a seafood sausage; he knows it is a bit weird, but he’s got eclectic taste and he’s going for the gamble. Tre is making a peach sauce for his barbequed salmon; this is his third salmon dish of the day, so I’m thinking the guy is a fan of the salmon. Sandee is doing something with lobster and pancetta, and says she’s going very upscale.
Micah is, however, a mess. As she chops her ingredients, she begins to cry; she explains that she is emotional because she misses her daughter. Others suspect that it is because she screwed up so big on the Quick Fire. Hung criticizes her in his interview time, saying that she shouldn’t use her daughter as an excuse to cry when she was really just mad because she lost the immunity challenge.
Howie worries that his Jamaican jerk chicken isn’t elegant enough for the fancy-pants barbeque. This would have been a good time to talk to Sara M, our Jamaican chef, but her footage is missing. Sara N. is around, and she’s just learned that Scotch bonnet chiles—the very peppers she is chopping with her bare hands—are some of the hottest peppers on the planet. She was going to pickle her cucumber salad with them, and now worries that it’ll be too hot to eat.
Soon enough, the two hours of prep time are over, and the contestants must pack up their food and gear and go home for the night.
Grillin’ but no chillin’.
On the morning of the challenge, Tre and Hung are out on the balcony doing pushups. Tre’s form is more impressive. Joey wanders about, worrying about the number of people they have to feed. Sandee practices some kung fu moves on the balcony and says she wants to win the whole competition for herself. After his workout, Hung and roomie Brian decide to dress up a bit for the challenge, since it’s going to be some fancy barbeque. They get some cat calls, but Sara N. is too nervous to do any of that.
The chefs arrive at the site of the fete, which turns out to be big patio like place with a pool overlooking the beach. There are fourteen charcoal grills setup, and, since Kingsford is sponsoring the challenge, there is a ton of charcoal, wood chips, and lighter fluid for everyone. The problem is that not everyone has ever lit off a fire and there are not fire starting chimneys for them to use. I worry that some of the food is going to taste like lighter fluid or someone is going to catch on fire. Among those having trouble is poor little Sara N., who has had so much difficulty over the last couple of days. We also catch a glimpse of Sara M., who has issues with working the lighter.
The chefs go to work, finishing prepping, grilling, and getting ready for the onslaught of guests. Tom comes by for a visit; he talks to Hung first who says he is not taking his immunity lightly. Tre tells Tom he can do barbeque in his sleep since he’s from Texas. Tom asks Brian what he is cooking, and Brian plays it coy and says it’s a surprise. Tom sees Joey is making chicken legs and wonders if that is high-end enough. Joey admits that it probably isn’t all that fancy, but says barbeques should be about fun. Tom talks to Micah as well, who does not display an overwhelming sense of confidence at all.
Tom sums up what he sees for us; he says gourmet barbeque is all about the execution. He worries that Sandee’s wrapping dates in pancetta and simmering lobster with vanilla butter is nowhere near barbeque. He also worries that Howie started cooking too early, which will result in dry meat. Tom forecasts that whomever wins will have been well-organized.
The two hours of cook time draw to a close and Padma arrives with Gail, Tom, and Norman. Awww, no Ted Allen again! Damnit! Shortly after the judges show up, the guests begin to arrive and Lee Schrager gets some screen time. I’m not impressed with his hosting abilities because he asks a group of people, “Hey, everybody know everybody?” and kind of leaves it at that. His guests are not shy and go to each contestant’s station to sample their dishes. This is what they get to taste (they don’t show Sara M.’s or Dale’s dishes):
Camille: Grilled swordfish with chorizo and artichoke potato salad. She worries she’s at a disadvantage, because she has to continue cooking and serve at the same time.
Micah: Lamb, with grilled halloumi and pomegranate sauce. She’s overwhelmed at cooking for sixty people, which is a bit odd since she’s a caterer.
Lia: Lettuce wrap with grilled shrimp and couscous salad.
Casey: Strip steak, polenta, bacon wrapped shrimp with tomato salad.
CJ: New York steak with salt baked pineapple lentil puree and dirty rice.
Sara N.: Vietnamese barbecue with pinenuts, radish and cucumber salad. Padma proclaims it to be yummy.
Brian: Scallop, shrimp, and sea bass sausage with ginger slaw and chili glaze. He really works his station, having intentionally set it up so he can engage the guests while continuing to prepare the food.
Tre: Peach barbeque glazed salmon with crab avocado salad. One guest spits it out and can’t eat it.
Sandee: Vanilla butter poached lobster, pancetta wrapped date and black truffle slaw. Amazingly, Howie doesn’t point out that he made the same vanilla butter poached lobster in the Quick Fire.
Howie: Jamaican jerk pork, mango slaw with citrus vinaigrette. He knows he sliced the meat too early and it is dry. He hopes it isn’t a disaster, but Joey says it tasted like sawdust.
Joey: Korean barbeque chicken with charred corn, tofu and bean sprout salad.
Hung: Flank steak with grilled corn salad and bagel chips. He also made a watermelon and berry drink, which perturbs Joey to no end; Joey thinks Hung stole his drink from the Quick Fire, but Hung says it’s not like Joey had the patent on it. Joey goes on about buying some kind of knee pants for Hung in New York, but his blathering is fairly nonsensical. Casey says Joey always has to blame someone for his screw-ups.
After the tasting, Padma admonishes all of the cheftestants to clean up their work stations and leave the area as nice as they found it. In the clean-up scene, we again catch a glimpse of Sara M., so we know she was there.
Picking a winner.
At the Judges’ Table, Tom comments that it is difficult picking a winner and a loser because all of the dishes were good, and no one stood out as a terrible mess. Padma agrees, saying they were all pretty good. She liked Hung’s but wonders if it was too simple. The judges weren’t huge fans of Tre’s dish; Padma found it too salty and found it lacking an acidic edge. Gail states the obvious that Sandee’s dish wasn’t barbeque. Norman really liked Brian’s seafood sausage. Padma was fond of Sara N.’s “perfect two bites.” Norman also liked Micah’s dish. After that little discussion, she solemnly retrieves Sara N., Micah, and Brian from the waiting chefs.
The three enter and stand before the judges as though they are about to be executed. Padma tells them that they are the top three, and Sara N. remembers to breath again before passing out. They ask each about their respective dishes; Sara says she wanted something simple, yet elegant. Gail comments that her dish was very easy to eat in that setting, which is a huge plus. They ask Brian where he got the idea for the sausage, and he says he likes things in tubes that are vaguely phallic. Okay, he didn’t, but he did bring up the snake and the eel again, saying he likes to take risks because of his eccentric taste. Micah responds to the same question by saying that lamb is something that is typically barbequed where she comes from, but doesn’t mention the fact that it was on sale.
Norman then picks the winner. He says that being both upscale and a good choice for the barbeque puts Brian over the top, and he wins. Brian is happy, but realizes that this is just one step on a long road. The judges dismiss the top three, with instructions on who to send back for the chopping block.
Back in the holding area, Sara N. calls out Howie, Joey, Sandee and Tre to go to the Judges’ Table. When they arrive, they assume stoic poses and wait for the questioning to begin. The judges ask each of them why they think they are in the bottom four. Tre admits he probably made the food too salty; Tom says that some was too salty but his portion had no seasoning at all and wonders if Tre didn’t phone in his performance. Joey recognizes that the chicken legs weren’t upscale, and Gail says they were too hot to hold to eat. Sandee has no idea why she is in the bottom three, and they point out that the sweet of the date crushed the flavor of dish and that poached lobster reheated on a grill is not barbeque. Howie supposes that his dish was too simple and that the pre-slicing of the pork was a bad idea. Gail asks him what he’ll do next time that will make it worth their while to keep him around. He makes some noises about showing his full potential, but doesn’t really say anything concrete.
Joey interjects that he tasted Tre’s and Sandee’s but if he had to pick someone to go home, it’d be Howie. Joey brings up Howie’s inability to finish the prior challenge and he heard that Howie’s pork was too dry. Joey, in fact, previously said it tasted like saw dust, but since he didn’t actually nosh on it, Joey’s credibility is shot. Howie counters that Joey blamed everything and everyone for his mistakes, and says that if he goes, Joey won’t be far behind him.
The judges dismiss the four while the deliberate. Back in the holding room/storage area where the chefs await their fate on lawn chairs, Joey becomes combative with Howie, shouting at him and getting in his face. The thing is, if Joey weren’t a bit taller and had a bit more hair, they’d be the same damn guy. Joey’s more the aggressor, and finally backs down but not before spewing venom about how Howie could never hack it in New York like he does. Someone get the guy chill pill, already.
Meanwhile, at the Judges’ Table, Tom says that since nothing was god-awful, they have to look at who actually met the challenge of being upscale and barbeque. Sandee just poached her fish. Joey had barbeque going on, and it tasted really good, but it was not upscale. Tre’s was barbeque and upscale, but not really barbeque enough. Tom finds Howie difficult to keep around, with all of his screw-ups. Finally it comes down to a question of what is a bigger sin: not barbeque or not upscale.
The bottom four return to the Judges’ Table; Tom says that none of them made terrible dishes so they had to look at the challenge’s requirements. Summing up, Tom says Tre’s dish was upscale but the barbeque aspect wasn’t great. Joey’s barbeque was good, but it was not upscale at all—in fact, he admitted it was something his family made all the time. (Isn’t that what Micah intimated as well?) Sandee’s dish was very upscale but not in the least barbeque. Finally, Howie’s wasn’t upscale either. Padma then tells Sandee to pack her knives and go.
Sandee is in shock, as are the other contestants back in the waiting area. Hung comments he was surprised Sandee was eliminated, and says that no one thought she’d be the one to go. He really liked her because she is a cool person. Sandee, in her exit interview, says she didn’t think she’d win the whole competition, but she is really shocked to have gone out on this challenge. Oh well, one faux hawk down, one to go. Maybe it was her stupid hair that really did her in.
Is your mint always too licorice-y? If so, PM me & we’ll discuss.