Thursday, May 29, 2008

Top Chef: Season 4, Episode 12

One Steak Short of the Finale

Previously: Lisa is mad at Dale over rice, Dale is screaming to get the food out, and Dale doesn’t like Lisa’s attitude at the judge’s table. But the judges turn on Dale and he’s sent packing.

The cheftestants are getting closer to winning all these prizes and in two episodes we find out who wins the title of … TOP CHEF.

Wow, the sunrise is extra golden this morning in Chicagoland. Maybe it’s because the Windy City knows the cheftestants will be packing it up soon and leaving, so they want the day to start off perfectly. Ah, Chicago, you big Midwest Metropolitan Town. You done well, even though you weren’t able to get Oprah as a guest judge.

Everyone’s already up and putting on their white chef’s jacket. No more early morning wake up calls. No more shirtless guys shaving. Let’s just get to the food!

Quickfire challenge. The cheftestants don’t arrive at the Top Chef Kitchen but instead are taken to a place called Allen Brothers. We hear from Richard that it’s a “nationally recognized meat purveyor.” They’re greeted by a woman who issues them the USDA-required attire—lab coats, unusually glowing turquoise gloves and the masculinity-killing hairnet. You can’t even tell which one is Richard because you can’t see his faux hawk covered up. Why does Spike look like he’s wearing his hairnet over his mouth?

The woman shows them a rack of meat that has this long-ass description. Something about American long bone rib eye dry aged Flintstones steak. Whatever, it’s just a big piece of meat. The cheftestants have 20 minutes to cut them into individual chops and then “French” them, which basically means to scrape down the meat off one end of the bone to create a lollipop effect.

They all look like they’re struggling with even holding up the rack of meat, except Spike who seems to get all Benihana on that meat, which I learn is a Tomahawk steak. I don’t really eat a lot of meat so this is the first time I’ve ever heard of a Tomahawk steak. I would have called it the Flintstones’ brontasaurus cut. Remember those? What’s funny is the butchers in the back are just going on with their own business; they could care less about these five chefs struggling with their knives and meat.

When time’s called, they pack up their meat and head back to the Top Chef Kitchen. There to greet them is Padma and guest judge, James Beard-winner Chef Rick Tramonto, co-owner of Tru Restaurant in Chicago. Their challenge isn’t about creativity or taste, but more about temperature and knife skills. Chef Tramonto orders up a Tomahawk steak from each of them at medium rare, in 30 minutes. Go!

Everyone has different techniques in cooking meat, but most of them are doing that technique I see a lot where they have the meat in a sauté pan filled with butter or sauce and they just keep flipping the sauce over and over on the meat with a spoon, like a constant basting. Lisa says cooking a steak medium rare is second nature to her and she can tell when it’s done by touch, but then she says the pressure is on so she’s starting to second guess herself. Wow, she cracks pretty easy under the pressure, doesn’t she?

Stephanie doesn’t fire up her meat too early and likes to let it rest for at least five minutes. At one point when she’s basting her steak, she splatters some hot butter on Lisa. I think they all have it in for Lisa, who later in this episode gets an unfavorable spot in front of a wood-burning oven. But I’m getting ahead of myself. All the meat looks really juicy and I could go for a nice Tomahawk right about now.

Padma lets Chef Rick cut into each meat and he doesn’t even take a bite! He’s just cutting it to see the redness inside and then just saying OK or not. Sometimes he’ll ask how they cooked it, but other than that this is the most boring judging of a quickfire challenge so far this season.

Chef Rick says the least successful was Stephanie, because the butchering of her meat wasn’t clean and it was undercooked. Richard’s meat also suffered from inconsistent butchering and undercook-ness.

For the rest, Chef Rick liked Lisa’s steak that was cooked well and he called Spike’s butchering skills “amazing.” He also liked the crust on Antonia’s steak (is anyone else’s mouth watering yet?) and the inside was cooked perfectly, but in the end Spike’s mad butchering skills gives him the win. But no immunity. He just gets some “important decision” in the elimination challenge.

Padma tells the cheftestants that they’re entrusting something really precious to the cheftestants. What could that be? Caviar? Truffles? Padma’s credibility as a chef? Turns out it’s the full reigns of Chef Tramonto’s new steakhouse, Tramonto’s Steak and Seafood. Granted, these are supposed to be the top five best chefs in the Top Chef Season 4, so I don’t think it’s such a big risk. But we get a few minutes of Chef Tramonto begging the cheftestants not to screw it up and ruin the fledgling reputation of his new place.

They each have to come up with an appetizer and an entrée that will be on that night’s menu. Then they’ll work dinner service, which happens to be fully booked. Sounds like Chef Tramonto got a sweet deal out of this challenge. Five chefs in the kitchen and publicity to pack your new restaurant for the night, not bad. Spike also gets the advantage of selecting his protein first for his dishes.

Back at the cheftestants’ apartment, it looks like they’re all having Tomahawk steaks for dinner. Spike talks about his master butchering skills and says he got it from his grandfather who was a butcher. Spike also thinks Stephanie will win Top Chef, and I agree. Even though she’s been shaky in the beginning, I think her restaurant experience is beginning to kick in. Of course, Spike wants Antonia to go home. I think he’s still bitter that she wouldn’t let her make butternut squash soup. (Spike, give it up already!)

In the kitchen, Richard does a product placement for Glad bags.

Commercials. Bridezillas are scary, and they can’t sing.

It’s night time and the cheftestants are escorted in their SUVs (really, do they need so many cars when there’s only five of them?) to Tramonto’s Steak and Seafood, which I have to say looks darn fancy. It’s those high-end steakhouses with handsome décor and ruby velour chairs. In the kitchen, everyone’s still admiring the big space with wood-burning oven when Antonia asks Spike when he’s going to pick his protein and he’s all like, what’s the rush bitch, and she’s like, the clock started ticking four minutes ago doofus. OK, those weren’t exact quotes, but it’s not like they’re friends.

Spike dashes into the walk-in coolers and goes for the Tomahawk (how original) and the bag of scallops because he already had in mind that he wanted to do something with scallops. I love scallops and they’re a classic pairing with meat, especially when nicely seared. Other cheftestants think the same way I do, but they all quickly point out that the bag of scallops are frozen and they’re suspicious about whether it’ll be of good quality. Everyone else takes turns going in to grab their ingredients, and given that Chef Tramonto probably has a well-stocked cooler, it wasn’t really a big of a challenge to find alternate ingredients.

Stephanie is talking to herself as she’s going over her ideas for the menu and shaving some mushrooms. She says she’s going to make sweetbreads, and if you’re from Hawaii like me I bet the first thing that came to your mind was King’s Bakery sweet bread, right? Oh, I miss that. It’s a Portuguese bread that’s sweet and almost cake like. I loved it growing up. But in most cooking circles, when they say sweetbreads, they’re talking about the leftover glands of an animal. Ugh, not the same thing. I’ve always avoided sweetbreads on menus because of that fact that they’re leftover meat parts, but after hearing Stephanie describe how they’re like chicken nuggets when fried properly, now it sounds interesting.

Lisa is trying to step up her game so she’s talking about making peanut butter mashed potatoes to go with her steak. BTW, they each stake a spot in the kitchen and Lisa happens to be in front of the wood-burning oven so she’s getting really hot and bothered. She’s extra feisty, especially with the exchange she just has with Antonia, who’s her usual smart-alec self.

Spike finally opens his scallops, and like everyone guessed, they’re pretty soaked in moisture because of all the defrosting and they’re starting to fall apart instead of staying firmly together. But instead of giving up on the scallops, he starts rolling out paper towels to try to absorb some of the water.

Chef Tom Colicchio comes in and checks in with everyone. He chats with Antonia about Spike’s scallops, talks to Stephanie about her winning Top Chef, takes some bacon from Richard and, predictably, makes a weird face over Lisa’s peanut butter mash.

He then talks to Spike and it’s all about the scallops. We get it. Frozen, bad. Spike, stupid. Advantage, gone.

Chef Tom tells the chefs that 60 guests will arrive in an hour, including three VIP guests. He also says that he’ll be acting as the “expeditor” for the kitchen. I never heard of this either, but an expeditor in the kitchen is the person who monitors the pacing of the dishes that are ordered and sent to each table. That sounds like a fun job, all you do is boss people around without sweating over the hot stove. BTW, I’ve been to a few restaurants that would have really benefited from having an “expeditor.”

Commercials. Wii is trying to get people to get fit with its new console where you pretend to be exercising or playing hula hoops. Umm, just go out and walk or swim. It’s cheaper.

In the kitchen, Lisa is telling people to get out of her way. Chef Tom gathers the cheftestants together and introduces the three VIP guests: Harold, Ilan, and Hung … the past three Top Chefs. They each give them advice: Harold says cook your own style, Hung says don’t worry about being the fan favorite (because he wasn’t), and Ilan says don’t shave anyone’s head tonight (the most uncomfortable segment to watch in Top Chef history, IMHO). BTW, Ilan, I’m sure you could have used some of your prize money to buy a nice coat instead of just wearing a T-shirt to a fancy steakhouse.

The three former Top Chefs join the main table with Padma, Gail and Chef Tramonto. All the other restaurant’s guests look over the menu from the five chefs and makes various selections, but the judges’ table orders a tasting menu of everything. So now the cheftestants have to cook for the rest of the restaurant but also prepare mini tasting dishes for the judges. For some reason this seems to throw them for a loop.

They start with the appetizers and here’s how it went down:

Lisa’s grilled and chilled prawns: Hung wants more sugar, and everyone loves the lemon, but Gail doesn’t like cold shrimp.

Richard’s hamachi with sweetbreads: Chef Rick loves the flavor and wants to steal it for his menu, and pretty much everyone is loving the dish.

Spike’s scallops with hearts of palm: Chef Rick hardly touches his plate, just playing with his food. Everyone doesn’t like the dehydrated scallops.

Stephanie’s sweetbreads with golden raisin and pine nuts: Harold’s only negative comment is that the pine nuts should have been toasted, but otherwise everyone loves this as well.

Antonia’s warm mushroom and artichoke salad with poached egg: Gail says it wasn’t the strongest dish but the egg was poached perfectly.

Now the entrees. (BTW, Tom looks really in his element as the expeditor. He looks like he’s having the most fun in this episode.)

Richard’s beef fillet: Everyone says wow at the presentation. Harold wonders if all the elements worked well together, and Padma’s all like, then put it together instead of this deconstructed shit. (Padma can get pretty passionate about her meat, as you can tell.)

Lisa’s New York strip steak with apple caramel sauce. Everyone’s nervous about the peanut butter, but Chef Rick digs the nuttiness. Ilan thinks the beef is under-seasoned.

Spike’s Tomahawk with sweet potato puree: Ilan thinks the meat is OK by itself and says at this stage of the game he wants his mind blown and sweet potato puree isn’t going to do it. Rick doesn’t say much again.

Stephanie’s beef tenderloin with wild mushrooms and apple sauce: Padma thinks it’s gorgeous. It seems to be a judge favorite.

Antonia’s bone-in rib eye with fennel and cippolini: Ilan loves the fattiness of the meat, but it’s very rich.

The night’s over and the cheftestants arrive in the stew room for one last time. They bust out the wine in plastic cups, and Padma arrives to ask all of them to join the judges.

Padma starts off by asking Richard how he thinks he did, and he’s about to get into it until his mind tells him to stop because this is how cheftestants typically hang themselves, so he turns the tables and ask how she thinks he did. Well played King Richard. Chef Tramonto says his hamachi-sweetbread appetizer was his favorite, and Gail says his main course was undercooked and inconsistent.

For Stephanie, Tom says she had a lot on the line but she never showed any pressure in the kitchen except right this moment in front of the judges. To which she replies: “because you guys are freaking me out.” Chef Tramonto says he liked how her sweetbreads were cooked (sweetbreads are like a sure-fire appetizer it seems).

Gail tells Lisa that she liked the lemon (I missed what exactly she did with the lemon, but the combination of lemon and shrimp isn’t so groundbreaking) but wished that the shrimp was warm. She says butter on cold shrimp made the overall dish seem congealed. For the main course, Chef Tramonto says he really wanted to hate it, but after he ate it he thought it was interesting. But just interesting. He thought if she had better technique, it would have been extraordinary. And this sums up our girl Lisa.

All they had to say for Antonia was that of all the dishes, hers looked the most like something on a steakhouse menu.

And finally, Spike the Faker. Gail says the meat was cooked well. Then it’s all about the scallops. Tom says to get this far and use frozen scallops shows a lack of judgment. Chef Tramonto says when you work at a restaurant and you get poor quality product, then you change your plans. Then Spike does the foot-in-the-mouth routine by talking back to the “guest” judge and says, well Mr. Tramonto, if the scallops were of such poor quality, what were they doing in your restaurant’s cooler? Nooooo he did-nt. Chef Tramonto says he’ll take that shot if Spike the Faker lives up to his using a poor product.

Spike realizes what just happens and tries his best to back peddle but they’re all walking out and all he can do is some massive kissing up by going up to Chef Tramonto and shaking his hand saying “it was an honor.” In the stew room, Spike worries that Chef Tramonto takes a Tomahawk and chops Spike out of the game.

The judges deliberate some more and you can tell from the descriptions of the food that Stephanie is the surefire frontrunner going into the finals. Everyone’s just loving what she cooked up. They all say something nice about Richard and Antonia, too, but really it’s a Stephanie-fest.

So that just leaves Spike and Lisa on the chopping block. Tom says both of them have issues. Chef Tramonto says he likes Spike’s spunk (I guess the last-minute kiss up did work) but he wanted more. Gail says both their dishes were equally bad. I say send both of them home.

Commercials. I’m digging that new Coldplay song, exclusively on iTunes.

Judgment. All five cheftestants return and they hold hands like they’re going to be crowned Miss America. Chef Tramonto says the person who stuck out is (no surprise) Stephanie, and he gives her his latest cookbook as she eagerly lets him know that she already has his first few. Tom also reminds her that this means she’ll be in the finale, and that should be enough but Padma also gives Stephanie an entire suite of cooking appliances from GE just like they have in the Top Chef Kitchen. Or did she say she’s getting the exact same ones from the Top Chef Kitchen? Either way, I hope Stephanie has a big kitchen because those are some big-ass appliances.

Tom tells Richard that his appetizer was the favorite appetizer and he’s going to Puerto Rico for the finale. Antonia’s entrée was the favorite entrée and she’s Puerto Rico-bound as well. So far this is going exactly per the script. The three cheftestants are excused and they whoop it up in the stew room with Richard falling all over Stephanie at one point. Hope his wife isn’t watching.

That leaves Angry Lisa and Spike the Faker. At this point I could care less who advances. Wow, Lisa is really working her angry face. Tom goes down memory lane of how many times each of them has been in the bottom. Tom basically tells Lisa she has to show her passion more and Spike has to make better judgment. Then Padma sends Spike packing, and he’s not surprised. Disappointed, yeah. Surprised, I don’t think so. Unless he’s faking it.

This means Lisa makes the final four and gets a Puerto Rico trip out of it. Now I’m a little worried that she might do well because this might be the kick in the pants she needed to step it up.

Spike, meanwhile, is packing up his knives in some weird wooden box with his name burned onto the side. He’s not using the normal black cloth case that other chefs use. So Spike takes his box of knives and goes home, not playing this silly game any more.

The final four say a few more words about the finale. Lisa says it’s a clean slate for her and she’ll shock the judges, Antonia pats herself on the back, and Richard says he now knows how the game is played. Really? It took you this long?

Next week: They’re on a sandy beach of Puerto Rico, San Juan is exploding in color and dance, and it looks like Lisa has a new haircut.

Top Chef airs 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.


Anonymous said...

whew, Chef Ben I don't know how you can keep up with all of the drama! I'm finally caught up and glad they seemed to have gotten all of the edgy testosterone out of the crew, but the hormonal overload could easily blow up on the other side of the spectrum... ya know, Ilan seems to have a tendency to go excessively in the opposite direction of casual/formalness as everyone else.

Nanc Twop said...

I agree, I enjoyed most of Antonia's snarky comments too. Especially that 'flame' one when Lisa said she might die: 'Then you won't be going to Puerto Rico'... zing!

If only Antonia had known what was coming in the finale - she'd have kept those flames on high!

'it looks like Lisa has a new haircut.'

Yes, but unfortunately, the same old attitude...

Can't wait for your recap on the first half-finale!

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