Thursday, March 27, 2008

Top Chef: Season 4, Episode 3

It’s a Battle of the Red and Blue States

Previously on Top Chef: Zoi and Jennifer are a couple, and Richard wants to make a statement with smoke. (Dude, what’s with the summaries from two episodes ago? That’s like “previously on previously.” WTF??) The cheftestants get wild at the zoo and Andrew wins while Valerie and her blinis go home.

Padma’s Prize Recap: I wonder how many Glad products you can buy with $100,000? My food will never breathe again.

The L-train rumbles across the city, waking up the neighbors. We cut to a scene that literally gets my mouth to drop. Really, I’m on the floor now looking for my bottom lip. My two favorites, Andrew and a shirtless Spike, are goofing around doing some Austrian-accented wrestling scene. Oh. My. GAWD. If this were the Real World-Road Rules Challenge, I’d peg them as the couple to beat. Anywho, elsewhere in the house Richard is being serious and Stephanie is missing Valerie even though she’s partly to blame because she made Valerie make those stupid blinis in the first place.

Quickfire Challenge: What color is Rick Bayless’ shirt? Is that eggplant? I need my sunglasses. With Chicago’s own master of Mexican fine-dining in the room, you know they’re going to have to do something fancy. So it’s no surprise when Padma tells the cheftestants that they have to dress up a well-known staple of Mexican cuisine—the taco.

This leads to almost a revolt among some of the cheftestants, who rightly so believe that the taco is the true symbol of Mexican street food and doesn’t belong on the menu of any fine-dining establishment. Erik’s bleeping his way through the challenge and says he’s going to keep it real with a street taco, so is Spike.

But the others try to rise to the challenge (do they have much choice?), either adding unusual ingredients like duck and cactus or like Richard is totally discarding the traditional taco shell and using jicama instead. (Yuck, I hate jicama.) BTW, doesn’t it look like Richard’s faux hawk is getting bigger each episode?

You know Manuel’s feeling the pressure, and not just because we’ve hardly seen much from him in the last two episodes. But since he works at a Mexican restaurant, he feels like he has to step up. When Bayless and Padma come around for the tasting, Manuel’s doing this rundown with a whole slew of Mexican ingredients that I’ve never heard of. (I could only get chorizo and picante verde, but that’s it.)

Lisa is the first to make Bayless nearly gag by using skirt steak in her taco. The man can barely bite into the tough meat and I bet he wishes he had a knife and fork so he can poke Lisa with them.

Erik, who’s keeping it real, offers up a really sloppy looking plate of tacos. Erik says he wanted to keep the traditional flavors, and Bayless is like, yeah, and so?

In the end, Bayless doesn’t like Erik’s train-wreck of a taco (and Erik could care less), Lisa’s tough skirt steak taco, and Ryan’s oddly paper-wrapped taco (“the paper just bugs me,” says Bayless).

BTW, I’m going to point out here that Bayless’ Frontera Fresco casual dining spot in the basement food court of Macy’s Union Square in San Francisco doesn’t even have tacos on the menu. I guess the only time Bayless thinks tacos are worth eating is when you have white tablecloths around?

Chef Bayless says he liked Spike’s soul-satisfying taco but the winner (and thus the guy with immunity) is Richard and his jicama-wrapped pseudo tacos. Bayless loved the refined presentation so much that he’s going to steal the idea and put it on the menu of his Topolobampo restaurant in Chicago. (Don’t you love it when guest judges use Top Chef as a test kitchen?)

Padma tells the cheftestants to divide themselves into two teams, one Red and one Blue. What? Too cheap to bring out the knives this week? The division isn’t very organized and you can tell who’s joining whom more for fun than strategy. It pretty much breaks down to the fun and carefree gang and the nerds, with Richard as the undeclared leader of the geeks.

They go into their respective colored vans and start driving around Chicago. This sounds just as boring as it was to watch—for nearly 5 minutes! This is such a waste of time watching the cheftestants try to guess their elimination challenge, I can’t believe I’m saying this: Bring on the commercials!

Commercials. Foster Farms chicken wannabes. How long have you been trying? Give it up already.

The cheftestants get dumped onto a quiet street in some generic tree-line Chicago neighborhood. Padma tells them that this neighborhood has an annual block party and tomorrow the cheftestants are going to have to cook for them. The twist? They won’t be shopping for food, but instead will have to get their ingredients by knocking on the doors of the people in the neighborhood. (Oh, and BTW, this is the challenge, which is the most stupid product placement possible because I never heard of, the challenge didn’t require the use of, and they’re probably only getting the benefit of being on Top Chef from the fact that I mentioned them three times in this recap! I’m not even bothering linking to the site because it’s too damn slow.)

So the cheftestants do a bad version of trick-or-treat as they go house-to-house looking for food. Of course, strategy comes into play for the Red Team when they send out pretty boy Ryan as the lead food beggar. Teammate Andrew says it was an obvious choice to send Ryan because he can pull off saying “Hi, I’m tall, dark and handsome and I need some grapes.” Ha! So true.

Some of these people have some really nice homes. The cheftestants are grabbing all sorts of stuff. One woman just came back from the farmers’ market, so that team scored with a lot of really fresh fruits and vegetables. OK, so I don’t know whether I should be jealous by the fact that these Chicago people have such fully stocked pantries, or whether they were told ahead of time to stock up because of the Top Chef visit? Either way, this challenge isn’t so much of a challenge because both teams leave away with bags full of stuff.

The Blue Team, led unofficially by Richard who can’t be eliminated, is talking about upscale, fancy-pants type of food like jambalaya. While the Blue Team wants to stick with American classic like sliders and hot dogs because they’re in the Midwest and there will be a lot of kids and you know what picky eaters they are.

It’s the next day already and the cheftestants are back in the Top Chef kitchen prepping their food for the block party. Here’s the planned menu by the two teams:

Blue: Paella, slaw, barbeque pulled pork, bean salad, inside-out cookie, “sexy” drink, fruit cobbler and mac n’ cheese.

Red: Sliders, corn dogs, pork skewers, sangria, Waldorf salad, pasta salad, taco salad and s’mores.

The Red Team is feeling pretty confident, but thanks to the editing of the show’s producers, we get a lot of foreshadowing of which will be the problem dishes. For example, Erik says he does corn dogs all the time at his restaurant in San Francisco but he’s worried they’ll get soggy during transport. (OK, so why risk it? Do something else people!!)

Zoi isn’t happy that she got put in charge of the pasta salad because she’s all like, meh, this is pasta salad, how fancy can you get? She says she doesn’t want to get eliminated and be known as the cheftestant who couldn’t make a good pasta salad. Yeah, I’m with you on that. That would suck big time.

Here comes Chef Collichio, and I have to say I don’t really get much from his kitchen visits. The only thing that I could gather from this segment is he’s suspicious that lavender would really make a drink sexy (hey, I love lavender!) and he thinks substituting mayonnaise in the Waldorf salad will take out the element that keeps it fresh-like.

Nikki is worried about her mac n’ cheese drying up during transport. So far it sounds like really poor planning by both teams who came up with dishes that don’t really travel well. It’s like they’re writing their own ticket to elimination. I’m so done with poor planners.

Commercials. You know that Stella Artois beer commercial where the bartender tries to pour the beer while on a train but can’t so he cuts his compartment off from the rest of the train, leaving him stationary on some mountain bridge? Well, it played at a movie theatre I was at recently and it got a lot of laughs. People ate it up! But I was like, now you’re stranded dude.

The cheftestants arrive back at the neighborhood where the block party looks like it already in full swing. Since there’s no grill or any outdoor cooking equipment, it looks like the cheftestants are mostly setting up and serving the food as is. As they set up, the neighbors cheer for their favorite colors. This is Chicago so I’m going to let you guess whether they’re for blue or red!

We’re still getting a lot of air time for Erik’s soggy corn dogs and Nikki’s dried out mac n’ cheese, so like I said, foreshadowing at work here. To counter the dryness, Nikki’s pouring a load of cream to try to basically give high cholesterol to everyone. BTW, was this filmed last summer? Why is it so warm out in Chicago that they can have a party outside? I can’t believe it’s almost a year since this has been filmed.

The judges arrive: Padma, Tom, guest Rick Bayless and Ted Allen. They start going around trying all the food, but they’re uncharacteristically quiet, not really offering up much criticism, good or bad. Ooops, Padma just dropped her s’mores on Ted Allen’s shoes!

The Red Team is having a lot of fun serving up their food, even the soggy corn dog. And ironically, it sounds from the neighbors’ reactions that they liked more of the food from the Red Team than the Blue. Afterwards, the Red Team members (notably Andrew and Spike, the goofballs) are having fun with the neighbors, joining in with the basketball games or dunking booth.

Over at the Blue Team, they look all stressed, worried and serious. They all head home. Gosh, it sucks to be caterers. You spend all that time serving food and you don’t get to eat any. That’s life, I guess.

Back at the Judges’ Table, the Red Team is still feeling pretty confident as they make a lot of noise going into that weird holding cell/storage locker room. But Padma comes out and asks for the Blue Team. The Red Team members know how this is going to go down, but they’re still in a bit of denial, thinking maybe the producers are adding a twist and calling the guys who sucked first. Sigh, sorry guys. The producers are not that creative.

Chef Tom says it was a fairly close challenge, and not in the good way where the two teams both excelled that it was hard to pick a winner. It was more like they both sucked so bad that the Blue Team just barely squeaked out the win.

Thanks to the foreshadowing editing, we know already that Nikki’s mac n’ cheese tasted awful. In fact, Bayless says it was like mac and brick. Tom was especially critical of Richard’s paella, saying it wasn’t authentic paella because it didn’t have the crispy rice bottom (ooh, I love that part) calling the dish a fancy-fied rice pilaf.

The judges did like Antonia’s bean salad (which we hardly heard about thanks to the foreshadowing editing of the bad) and Stephanie’s dessert and drink concoction. And get this! The judges say the Blue Team won primarily on the sexy drink from Stephanie. WTF? The best dish was some drink filled with simple syrup, lavender and carbonated water? This challenge did suck wind.

It’s the Red Team’s turn and some of them really seem indignant that they weren’t the winning team. Spike thought they kicked ass, and Padma’s like, no you did-n’t. Bayless thought Erik’s corn dog was a universal disappointment and that there was too much chicken in the Waldorf salad.

Just as the Red Team is indignant at the thought of losing, the judges seem especially critical and indignant that these cheftestants thought they could have won. Chef Tom at one point, after being told that all the members worked well together and tasted each other’s food to be sure, tells the Red Team that “well then you all must have pretty bad tastes.” Me-OW!

Andrew says he can’t believe he might be eliminated and adding more fuel to the judges’ contempt, he tells them that “as far as going home, you’re going to have to drag me out with security guards because this is my house.” Um, Andrew, kind of too early in the season to be throwing down with the judges, you think?

The judges chit chat amongst themselves, and Padma thinks it’s funny that the cheftestants didn’t realize that they did so bad. They harp on Ryan’s watery Waldorf salad and Erik’s soggy corn dog. Back in the storage room, Zoi’s effin-mad that she didn’t speak up against the pasta salad, which she says was an afterthought. You can tell by all her swearing that she’s partially mad at herself for not speaking her mind to the group. Her other teammates try to assure her she’s not going to be eliminated, but she’s not buying any of it.

Commercials. People are having a tailgate party on some highway, using Kingsford hickory charcoal. Talk about rush-hour traffic. Nexxus says my hair is talking to me. Really? I’d like to tell it to shut up so I can get some sleep. Oh, sorry hair. I didn’t mean it. PUH-lease don’t leave me!

Judgment time. Chef Tom says the challenge was simple but they screwed it up anyway. Padma sends Erik and his knives home to San Francisco, the first of four Bay Area cheftestants to get the boot.

Erik takes it like a rock star and says he’ll miss the camaraderie, which I don’t doubt given all the bear hugs that are being passed around. Zoi is crying up a storm, and partly it’s because she’s sad to see a fellow San Franciscan leave but partly because she realizes it was her ass on the line and the producers made Erik the sacrificial lamb.

Next week: Guest judge is Daniel Boulud. Looks like they’re cooking some fancy dinner with that actress that played Charlie in season 9 of “Friends” and Chicago movie critic Richard Roeper, who I think is funny because he calls the judges out for being too critical. I agree, this year they seem extra cranky pants, especially that Tom guy. And Andrew and Spike continue their fun and mischief, which starts to make some of the other guys in the house UN-comforta-ble.

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.


David K. and Ann C.-K. said...

I find it odd that an established chef like Erik Hopfinger decided to do this show...I don't think the chefs liked anything that he cooked, so the only thing it did for him is tarnish his reputation. Overall, I don't like this group of chefs as much as the past few seasons.

Anonymous said...

hmmm, chef ben this is sooo hard for me not to look! I still haven't seen last week's episode...

sabrinasmom said...

Even though Eric is one of our hometown guys, I am glad he's gone. Even my 9 year old commented "why do all his plates have poop streaks on them"? I had to go back and verify - the souffle, the taco. She was right. I don't like this group either. Also, seems this time the cheftestants have their own "arsenal" at their disposal. IIRC the finalists were the only ones who were able to bring spices, ingredients, etc. for the last challenge. The smokers, the MG gadgets, the marmite! detract from the cooking!