Thursday, April 03, 2008

Top Chef: Season 4, Episode 4

This Recap is Rated PG-13 for Adult Language

Previously on Top Chef: The cheftestants run around the block grabbing food from unsuspecting neighbors, and Rick Bayless was down on the food. A team won based on a drink. Really, a drink. And Erik is sent packing back to San Francisco.

That just means one less person competing for the title of … TOP CHEF. (Cue the music and dance montage.)

Sunrise over Chicago and the lake. Everyone’s missing big Erik. And Manuel also misses his son (or is it sons?). Zoi and Jennifer don’t have to miss their loved ones because they get to see each other every morning, and like Jennifer interviews, they get to touch each other. TMI, if you ask me. Still, out of respect to the others who are separated from their families, the two San Franciscans try to keep their distance. OK, who believes that? Spike says he’s ready to see one of the pair leave because he thinks them having each other to lean on puts the rest in a slight disadvantage. (So far, no evidence of this. Maybe Spike needs to hook up with someone there?)

The cheftestants arrive in the Top Chef kitchen for the Quickfire Challenge and they’re greeted by Padma and the venerable New York chef Daniel Boulud. Padma tells the cheftestants that if they don’t know who this guy is (fine-dining restaurateur, James Beard-winning chef, noted author, and host of his own cable TV show) that they should just leave now. Of course, a breath later, she introduces everyone to Daniel Boulud. (Um, if he needed no introductions then why Padma?)

Padma asks Chef Boulud what’s the most important foundation a chef needs and he replies, “technique.” So their challenge is to come up with a “beautiful vegetable plate” in 30 minutes demonstrating three techniques to impress Chef Boulud. (Also, Chef Boulud lets it out of the bag that two cheftestants once worked for him—gadget geek Richard and pretty boy Ryan—but Boulud reassures everyone that it won’t be an issue. I don’t know if that means he’ll be impartial or that both Richard and Ryan have such poor techniques that Boulud thinks the rest of the cheftestants shouldn’t be worried. Ryan interviews that he spent a very short time working in Boulud’s kitchen and found that “it was just not my style.”)

Scrambling ensues among the cheftestants and most of them are stressing about this challenge. It’s not just knife skills, but still it would be nice to see some fine cutting like Jamie Oliver. You ever watch that guy with a knife? Brilliant! Anywho, Dale seems to be doing OK cutting a cucumber skin and avocado while Spike isn’t worried because he says he was trained in France, and you know how those French people are such snobs about technique. Spike also brought along this really interesting kitchen gadget where you shove a scallion in one end and it comes out like floral curls on the other end. Cute.

Presentation seems to be really big in this challenge and they’re some really interesting plating going on. It really looks like a tasting menu (you know, pretty but itsy-bitsy food). Rather than go through each cheftestants’ presentation, I’m just going to hit the highlights: Dale does this sashimi dish with sushi-like sides using the cucumber for the maki wrapper, Lisa poached an egg and her blanched asparagus and grilled zucchini looked really sloppy and Chef Daniel commented that it was “back to basics,” and Manuel’s plate had lots of color but really just specks of ingredients cut here and there.

Chef Boulud seemed only impressed by a few dishes, commenting that he wished they took five minutes to compose a plan before jumping into the chopping and cutting. He apparently doesn’t realize the producers love the mad rush for the camera. Chef Boulud singles out Nikki (who used an endive as a boat for her food), Lisa’s sloppy plate and Manuel’s specks of food as the bottom, calling Manuel’s technique “level 1.” Ouch.

His favorites were Zoi’s poached egg dish, which he felt was very composed; Dale’s sashimi dish and Richard’s presentation. Dale is named the winner and has immunity.

Elimination challenge: Padma tells the cheftestants that their challenge is to create a dinner where each course is inspired by their favorite movie. The dinner will be thrown by Chicago Sun Times movie critic Richard Roeper (and host of “At The Movies”) for his friend, actress Aisha Tyler. (OK, what’s weird is that Padma never explains what the party is for. So basically, it’s Roeper’s way of helping Tyler get more face time on TV.)

The cheftestants draw knives to figure out which course they’re going to make and who they’ll be paired with. Dale, who has immunity, can join any pair he likes and he quickly gravitates to Richard, who is now pretty much the front-runner because all the cheftestants want to work with him (and they seem so out of his league). BTW, not only is Richard’s faux hawk growing, but I think Jennifer is giving him a run for his money with her ’do.

Commercials. Round Table is trying to fancy up their pizzas. That reminds me of a memo I’ve always been meaning to write. “Dear Round Table Pizza. Your food turned me off on pizza as a child in Hawaii. Thanks for scarring my childhood.”

The pairs get together to talk about their favorite movies. Richard and Andrew are doing the first course (with Dale) and Richard quickly suggests Willy Wonka. (BTW, it’s “Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory.”) Spike and Manuel are competing with each other’s cooking style. Spike’s a little bit Vietnamese and Manuel’s a little bit Mexican. So Manuel suggests “Like Water For Chocolate,” which Spike has never heard of, so he suggests “Good Morning Vietnam” (one of Robin Williams’ best attempts at drama) because he wants to cook a Vietnamese dish. Manuel goes along saying he wants to try something new (instead of being himself?).

Jennifer and Nikki are doing the third course and they both gravitate to something Italian, going for a tortellini dish with Nikki making her home-made pasta, of course. Jennifer suggests “Il Postino.” (Love that movie!)

Antonia and Zoi is going with the Spanish movie “Talk to Her” (one of the few Pedro Almodovar movies I didn’t like) because they feel they’re both like the two strong female leads in the film. When we zoom to Ryan and Mark, Ryan is throwing out “Dumb and Dumber.” What does that say?

Mark is a bit eclectic with his movie viewing and is throwing out names like “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “Bad Boy Bubby.” (It’s also apparently that he hasn’t seen a movie from the 90s on.) To Ryan, according to him, all he’s hearing is “wha, wha, wha.” Finally, Ryan gets all excited and starts doing charades about some Christmas movie where the boy gets shot in the eye and the family gets Chinese food for their Christmas dinner, settling for duck. Ryan, I am so not going to the movies with you.

Turns out he’s talking about “A Christmas Story.” Now, I haven’t seen the movie even though people are calling it a “holiday classic.” (Yeah, like how “Home Alone” is a Thanksgiving classic now.) So I can’t say whether I’m linking to the right film because I’m sure there have been several Christmas story movies. End result, they’re cooking duck.

The last course is Lisa and Stephanie and they’re already stressing because they don’t want to make dessert. And if you’ve watched Top Chef in seasons’ past, you know dessert is typically the downfall of cheftestants. So the pair makes the smart move of not doing dessert and doing a final meat dish instead. For their movie, they go with “Top Secret!” because of the flying cows, which Lisa says always makes her think of beef. ‘kay.

They go shopping at Whole Foods with $150 to spend on each course. Everyone’s excited about their dishes. Andrew is a little too excited because he interviews that he wants the judges to taste their food and basically “have a culinary crap in their pants.” Really?

Spike is buying Chilean sea bass for his Vietnamese summer rolls, which is really weird because I’ve usually had shrimp, so not sure how authentic his summer rolls will be.

Ryan and Mark can’t find any duck, so they’re going with quail. And they just found some cranberries, which again makes me ask, when was this episode filmed? It sounds like this was filmed back in October right before the holiday season because last week it was like Indian summer at that Chicago neighborhood block party. Bravo sure takes a long time editing these shows.

It’s the day of the elimination challenge and crazy Andrew thinks it’ll be really fun to present their Willy Wonka dish by being an oompa loompa. To demonstrate, he puts shoes on his knees and pretends to be a little chef. Dale and Richard are trying their best to disassociate themselves from Andrew. You know, if Andrew and Spike were paired together they’d totally be doing it right now.

The cheftestants arrive at some restaurant where they start cooking in the kitchen. Richard is really taking the lead with his group, basically bossing Dale and Andrew around. For their starter, they’re smoking salmon and serving it with faux caviar. Richard busts out his smoker gizmo and starts shooting smoke onto a plate and covering it with plastic wrap so the diner will have to puncture the wrapper to release the smoke. All the cheftestants are gathering around to watch like it’s some kind of trade show demonstration.

But then after just setting up one dish, the gizmo doesn’t work. Andrew starts panicking and starts looking for alternatives. I think I see him with a burning wood chunk under the plastic wrap. How old school.

Commercials. Bud Light always cracks me up. Did you see the guy with the fire breath and how he’s allergic to cats and starts sneezing fire all over his date? LOL. I don’t know why but sometimes frat humor makes me laugh.

Back at the non-smoking zone, Richard chucks his idea for the plastic-wrapped smoke presentation, saying the food will taste good just the same. Oh well, no magic tricks up his sleeve tonight. Dale gets a smoking wood and runs it under the piece of salmon. Then it’s time to serve.

Richard Roeper is there and so is Aisha. And so are some other people along with the judges Tom Collichio, Ted Allen, Padma and Chef Boulud. Altogether it’s a table of 12.

Richard, Dale and Andrew present their smoked salmon and Richard talks about the Willy Wonka inspiration, which explains the white chocolate and wasabi sauce. They also serve a pear and celery soda. Nice. Chef Tom says it’s surprisingly good and Chef Boulud is impressed by the combination of flavors that no sane chef would think of combining.

Next come the Vietnamese summer rolls from Spike, who tells the crew that Vietnamese cuisine is on the rise. (I agree but what he presented totally doesn’t look like anything I got in Vietnam.) He and Manuel created summer rolls with black vermicelli, green apple, sea bass and pickled Swiss chard. Chef Boulud says he wouldn’t have used fish, and Ted suggests why not lobster with their budget? Aisha felt the wrapping was tough and Tom doesn’t know what to do with the little Swiss chard on the side.

This lovely, romantic music plays and it’s Lisa’s and Nikki’s “Il Postino”-inspired dish. Love it. The judges don’t seem to love the dish as much as the movie. Tom’s like meh, it was OK. Chef Daniel didn’t like the shape of the tortellini. Richard Roeper loved it, and I think it’s funny how he slapped down the critical foodies. Even Ted Allen got a bit defensive, saying something about how they had to be more critical to find out what’s good. Too funny. Thumbs up, Richard!

Ryan and Mark serve their Christmas dish—roasted quail with carrot puree and cranberry chutney, along with a spring roll to play off the Chinese restaurant scene in the movie. Ted goes crazy for this dish, calling it beautiful and sophisticated. Richard loves the connection to the movie and Aisha is loving the carrot puree. Mmm, now I want to try it.

Antonia and Zoi present their really thinly sliced lamb chops. (Antonia during her shopping said the lamb turned out to be muy muy expensive, so they could only get so much.) They talk about their movie and how it’s about passionate women with lots of color and spice. Everyone looks at their plates and think the film was in black and white because they think the lamb dish with cauliflower is boring and plain.

Lisa and Stephanie present their New York strip steak with a won ton. They have all sorts of fancy sauces too, including a reduction made from the braising liquid and a Vietnamese-style caramel sauce that Lisa adds as a final touch at the table. Chef Daniel says it’s definitely Asian (can’t tell if he liked it) but Tom really likes it. Ted asks if eating the dish reminded anyone of Val Kilmer in a cow suit? Ted, you’re so literal.

The guests leave (who were those women?) and the four main judges discuss the dishes. So we actually get to hear a lot more critiquing before Judges’ Table compared to last week. Everyone loved the first course from Richard, Dale and Andrew but didn’t like the fishy taste in Spike’s summer rolls. They also saw through his plan of selecting the dish and then finding a movie to go with it. (Foiled again!) The other comments for the other dishes pretty much mirrored their earlier comments, but Tom was really effusive about the last dish from Jennifer and Stephanie. He called it “flawless.” Wow, that’s the first I heard him use that word this season. He usually saves those adjectives for the finale.

The cheftestants arrive for judgment and boy do they look like a tired lot. I bet there are a few cranky pants in the group because I saw some major bitch fighting in the previews before going to commercials. Padma calls for the first course chefs and the pair from Top Secret! (Jennifer and Stephanie) Padma tells them they’re the favorites, and it’s hugs and kisses all around.

Most of the judges seem really surprised that the ingredients in Richard, Dale and Andrew’s dish came together. Tom called it a “strange idea” but it worked. For the girls, looks like the judges really liked the sauces and the meat was cooked spot on. Chef Boulud names the first course as the winning dish and singles out, no surprise, Richard as the winner, cementing his position as the David Archuleta of Top Chef.

The rest of the cheftestants are brewing in the back, especially Spike who thought his dish should have won. Also kind of mad-looking is Zoi. They both make their grand statements that white chocolate and wasabi don’t go together and probably tasted like shit, so if that dish wins, Zoi doesn’t know what she’s doing on Top Chef. Well, karma’s a bitch because Richard comes out and announces he won and then says the judges want to see, of course, Spike and Zoi along with their cooking partners, Manuel and Antonia.

Tom talks about the non-vibrancy in Zoi and Antonia’s lamb dish and says he feels cheated out with such a tiny slice. Zoi says she wanted the cauliflower to have more color. She really looks like she’s about to cry being in the bottom. Antonia goes into a bit more about their movie selection and how it inspired the dish, and Padma’s a bit like “too little too late.”

For Spike and Manuel, the judges come down hard on the choice of fish and tries to get more at who drove the selection of the movie. Tom says it didn’t look like the boys spent all their money because the dish didn’t reflect it. He says he could get similar summer rolls at a Vietnamese restaurant for $8. (WORD!!) Manuel says he wanted to cook Vietnamese even though that’s not his style because he wants to learn, and as a chef he’s always learning. Padma asks who should go home and Spike won’t give her the satisfaction, saying “I don’t play that way.”

The cheftestants are dismissed and Zoi is mad, saying she can’t compete with Richard’s magic tricks. Jennifer is mad that Zoi’s in the bottom (right, very impartial observation on her part). The judges’ discuss some more but they really don’t spend too much time because we already know how they’re leaning.

Commercials. Oooh, Target. I need a lamp. Hello, hello. Goodbuy. Love them!

Judgment. Tom says the challenge was straightforward. He tells the girls that they told a great story but it never translated to their dish. Luckily it tasted good so they’re safe. Which means it’s either Spike or Manuel and from a purely TV entertainment point of view, you know Spike has more personality than Manuel. Tom says Spike took the lead on the dish but Manuel didn’t exhibit any Top Chef qualities by just going along with it. Ah, the old dreaded “you should have spoken up for yourself” nail in the coffin. Padma tells Manuel to pack up his knives and go, and he seems pretty happy about it thanking everyone and giving a mini speech to his fellow cheftestants about how this has been a life-changing experience for him. Aww, I feel bad now that I called him Mr. No Personality. Anywho, now Manuel can go back to his son or sons.

Next week: Ming Tsai is the guest judge and he’s eating something at a dinner that apparently is really bad. I think he says the scales were left on it. People are getting tired of King Richard, Dale fights with someone, Jennifer fights with Spike, and some poor chair gets the brunt of it.

Top Chef aires Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. (9 p.m. Central) on Bravo TV. Check out videos and multiple blogs at the Top Chef Web site. Photos courtesy of Bravo TV.


Passionate Eater said...

I used to like Aisha (on E! Talk Soup), until after she appeared on Friends as Ross's love interest. I now get a irritated by her. In response to her comments about the food, I just want to tell her, "Um, Aisha? The wrapper is better when less water is used, so while it is 'tough' according to you, it is better than a being a water-saturated, floppy, loose, and over-delicate piece of film. Stick to the D-television acting jobs, and don't talk about food please!"

wella said...

I caught a rerun of this episode and I thought Zoi's complaint towards the end was very interesting. She said that if the judges preferred the combination of salmon, chocolate, and wasabi -- flavors which she didn't think could go together -- then she couldn't compete. Or WOULDN'T compete was more like it.

When Top Chef first premiered, I didn't think it could be good because appreciating food needs four senses: seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching (in your mouth). Television can only deliver Seeing.

Nevertheless, Top Chef is a hit reality show. But this episode is one instance where I wish I could've tasted that first course myself.