Thursday, May 01, 2008

Top Chef: Season 4, Episode 8

Welcome to the Top Chef Sweat Shop

Previously: It’s Comedy Night and laughing all the way to the top three is Spike who gets to finally make his squash soup. But the joke’s on Jennifer, who is sent home back into the loving arms of her Zoi.

Anyone else getting tired hearing about the French Alps and Gladware? I thought so. But it all pays for the title of … TOP CHEF.

We start off with the Chicago skyline but Lisa doesn’t seem to be paying much attention to the view because she looks lost smoking a cigarette for breakfast. Ah, the breakfast of champions. We’re treated to watching the cheftestants waking up and getting ready, including a shirtless Australian Mark and his tattoos and that awful headband. It has returned. Or maybe it’s like the sun where you stare at it so long that you don’t notice it any more, or you go blind. Antonia talks about being all fired up after being in the bottom three last week. I hope that means she’ll be less whiney.

Quickfire Challenge. The cheftestants arrive at the Top Chef kitchen and find Art Smith, who’s known mostly as the guy who feeds Oprah. I only know him as that odd judge on Iron Chef America who always loves the Southern fried foods but supposedly is into healthy eating. What’s up with that? BTW, he just opened a new restaurant in Chicago (Table Fifty-Two) and won a James Beard award for his volunteer work, so does he really have time anymore to cook for Oprah? I guess you never say no to Oprah when she needs a hamburger.

Product placement alert: On the table are bags and bags of Uncle Ben’s rice. This rice is the bane of my existence. For awhile, I could never hear my nephews and nieces call me Uncle Ben without me thinking about this stupid rice. And of course the countless ribbing from friends using this product as a way for their children to remember to call me Uncle Ben. I hate this rice and would never use it, and I feel sorry for the cheftestants who now have to come up with an entrée using the microwavable rice in 15 minutes. (That’s 15 minutes for the whole dish. The rice is just 90 seconds.)

The cheftestants start shoving whole bags of rice into the microwave, and everyone’s running around more than usual since they only have 15 minutes. People say “behind” so many times you’d think they’re asking everyone to take a look at their behinds.

Because they have to think of something really quick, most people are heading into the vaults of their minds and are pulling out dishes that are tried and true. Dale is going Asian and making fried rice while Antonia is making a rice salad that she says is pretty popular at family events. Stephanie, who most people think is a leading contender to win it all, still struggles with confidence issues and she’s fighting hard to win at least one immunity challenge. So she comes up with … seafood rice-filled pancakes? Really?

Art and Padma taste the dishes, and several cheftestants basically just used the rice as a bed for their protein to sit on (Richard) although Andrew tried to be creative by encrusting his fish with rice that Art thought was clever but probably needed a few more hours to perfect the technique.

Antonia’s salad actually doesn’t look that bad because she served it with grilled skirt steak. Padma almost chokes on Mark’s miso-glazed turkey breast, which she thought was dried chicken, because it needed sauce or maybe a soft drink.

Art’s bottom picks are Mark, Stephanie (he liked the idea of the pancakes but thought it was heavy and the scallops unnecessary), and Lisa, who made a sloppy dish of food that she says was Southwestern cooking. Lisa looks like she needs a cigarette break because she doesn’t look happy.

The favorites were Richard’s complete meal of tuna steaks and tomatoes over rice, Dale’s pineapple fried rice with scallops, and Antonia’s rice salad, which Art says has a nice cold and hot feel to it (just like her personality). I don’t know if it’s Art’s Southern accent or what but it sounds like he keeps calling her Antoni-O. Anywho, Antoni-A is the winner and gets immunity.

Elimination Challenge. Padma promotes Art’s group called Common Threads, which encourages people to come together through food because families don’t eat together anymore. You know if they could text message dinner to each other, they would. I, for one, am single so I’m always eating with myself. Although sometimes I get so tired of myself that I pretend not to ask myself how my day was. I hate myself when I do that.

Padma tells the group that they have to come up with a simple and nutritious dinner for a family of four on a budget of $10. Is this a family in Uganda? Most cheftestants look shocked, and a bit angry (that’s you Andrew), but Antonia, the single mom, says she does this all the time. So she’s going to “make it work.” Just to add salt to the wound, Padma casually lets them know that they’ll shop for their ingredients at Whole Foods. What? There’s no Costco in Chicago?

Commercials. Ooops, I went to make myself a snack so didn’t pay attention to this early round of commercials. I made myself a snack of sliced avocado ($1.25 at the Temescal farmers’ market) with fresh orange sections ($1 at Safeway) drizzled with Bergamot-infused extra virgin olive oil from O&Co., a sprinkle of sea salt and some croutons. I’d say that cost me a total of $2.50 to $3 for this snack.

The cheftestants arrive at Whole Foods aka Whole Paycheck and they all, naturally, head to the poultry section for some chicken because 1) kids usually will eat chicken, especially chicken tenders, 2) it’s more healthy for you than beef although it’s still an animal product, and 3) they think chicken is cheap, although I think that’s debatable these days. Dale, seeing everyone going for chicken, decides instead to use turkey sausages. (I actually think turkey is healthier than chicken because it’s leaner.)

Andrew interviews about some weird approach of his, something about simple-old-new, or what’s simple is new, or make old simply new? I don’t know, the guy confuses me, even though I still think he’s fun to watch. (Oh, and did you all catch him at the end of the show!? Spicy huh? Don’t all of you skip to the end of this post to find out. You have to read through all this crap first. I know; I’m a tease.)

Now, the budget was $10 for a family of four. But practically I think their budget must be higher because they have to make enough food to feed four people and the four judges. So maybe they have $20? Either way, we’re not privy to the spending because if we were, I think the secret will be out that they really couldn’t have purchased all that food for $10, or even $20. And if they all had to chip in for gas on the way to the market, they’re all screwed.

We see the cheftestants at the checkout like contestants at a game show trying to hit that magic number (which again, we don’t see). I just have to say that cashier at Whole Foods was super friendly and patient. I know my checkout person would never let me stand there ripping off pieces of my bok choy to get it under budget.

Back home, Australian Mark is blowing that long instrument thing they do down under. You know, the one with all the nose snot in it. Antonia in the meantime calls her daughter. Oh. No. Get ready for the waterworks. Her daughter sounds really cute and they tell knock-knock jokes. (BTW Antonia, I didn’t get that joke either.) The editors are really playing up the single mom thing for Antonia this week.

The cheftestants arrive in the kitchen of the Washburne Culinary Institute. As they set up, Padma and Art arrives to welcome them and to lend them some help. In comes a bunch of kids (too small to be teenagers and too big to be called munchkins) in little chef hats. Everybody now: Awwwww. Antonia is already in the back of the group crying her eyes out because she’s thinking of her daughter. She says she better get a boy assigned to her because if she gets a girl, she’ll be thinking of her daughter all the time and will never stop crying. She is a mess. Thankfully, Antonia does get a boy assigned to her so now she can butch it up.

Padma says the kids will be the cheftestants’ sous chefs because the idea is to make meals that are easy for families to cook together. Everyone gets their little slave labor/sous chef and starts cooking. (You know, if Ryan was still around he’d have such fond memories of his childhood cooking in his family’s restaurant. Remember? When he claimed he could cook at age 12 better than the other chefs?)

The cheftestants start cooking with their kids and thankfully … thankfully … they’re all on their best behavior. (The cheftestants, not the kids.) There is no swearing or fights or chairs being thrown around. They’re actually really good with their kids, except Spike who gets the only kid who cuts himself with a vegetable peeler. Spike tells him it’s good luck to cut yourself. I just read that again and it sounded like some really bad teenage afternoon special.

(Can you imagine Spike as a dad? Don’t bother because I’ll draw you a scene:

Spike’s son: “Dad, the dog bit me.”
Spike: “Don’t worry son, it’s good luck.”

Spike’s son: “Dad, I just broke my arm.”
Spike: “Don’t worry son, it’s good luck.”

Spike’s son: “Dad, I got my girlfriend pregnant.”
Spike: “Don’t worry son, it’s good luck.”

Ahhh, Spike. The children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.)

As they’re cooking, we also learn a lot about the cheftestants’ childhood. For example, Nikki was raised by a single parent. Dale wanted to be a basketball player but became a chef when he stopped growing. Andrew was poor and weighed more than 200 pounds in high school so he started cooking for himself to make healthy dishes. Wow, didn’t see that one coming.

Chef Tom Colicchio arrives in the kitchen and he goes around talking to the kids about what they’re making and what they like about cooking. This is one of those episodes where Chef Tom is also a spy in the kitchen. He’ll be staying in the kitchen throughout the judging to see how the kids handle cooking under the cheftestants. He flinches when one kid uses the bottom of a skillet to hammer a chicken breast to flatten it.

Commercials. That Corelle commercial with the fashion show is so unrealistic. First, the models need to be skinnier and second, who eats off plastic plates anyway?

Gail arrives to join Padma and Art at a table. First up is Richard and his roasted chicken with apple-beet salad. The kid has to describe the dish and then go eat what they cook at another table with three other friends. Art says he would have taken the skin off the chicken, while the kids are pleasantly surprised about the beets. (I love beets but never ate them as a kid either.)

We get a parade of other roast chicken dishes, but get a nice break when Spikes comes out with his Pasta Puttanesca. I’m so glad he didn’t tell the story behind the dish to his kid because can you imagine the little guy telling the judges that they made Pasta Puttanesca, which gets its name from prostitutes? Oh the drama. But the kids love it because to them, he made spaghetti. He also made carrot soup and semi-baked apples so Spike really stretched his $10 (if that was really his budget in the first place).

Nikki serves yet another roasted chicken, this time doing the Ina Garten/Jamie Oliver trick of roasting the chicken with the vegetables already in the pan. Nikki claims her mother invented that trick. Art loves the one-pot cooking and the story Nikki told about her single mom (he is such a sucker for the sob story) and Gail thinks it’s a complete dish.

Mark made curry with cinnamon rice and cucumber salad. Padma is amazed he made curry because it’s a risk with kid’s palates. She thinks it was a bit too sweet with the potatoes, and Gail felt it didn’t have enough protein. (Gail, have you never had a vegetarian dish?)

Antonia comes out with her chicken-vegetable stir-fry that also has some noodles mixed in. The judges love it and Padma feels it trumps Spike’s spaghetti dish in flavor.

Andrew made chicken paillard with fennel and apples and the judges don’t really say much about it other than Art thinks kids will like the dish. How many chicken have the judges ate already? I eat a lot of chicken, but even I get tired of it. Sometimes I eat so much chicken (because I can’t think of another protein since I don’t really like red meat) that I think I sweat a chicken smell. Was that TMI? OK, so what chicken dish is next?

Stephanie makes a couscous dish with eggplant, zucchini, chicken and peanut butter sauce. You know, I appreciate how she’s trying to be innovative, but sometimes things don’t go together, like Richard’s chocolate and avocado dish a couple of weeks ago. For this week, it’s Stephanie’s peanut butter sauce with tomatoes.

Art doesn’t like the taste and Padma thinks the couscous wasn’t cooked very well. Gail thinks Stephanie hardly cooks at home and only knows how to make restaurant dishes.

Chef Tom joins the judges’ table and talks about how the kids (and cheftestants) had a lot of fun in the kitchen. Looks like Nikki and Antonia’s dishes are the most popular with Lisa and Stephanie heading to the chopping block. We also find out by listening to Lisa leaving the kitchen that the room where they sit and wait is called the “stew” room. How apropos.

Oh, and Richard wants to make little baby Blaises. What’s with all the off-the-wall comments in this episode?

Commercials. Why are those cavemen still around, and who decided to make them dance? Damn you Geico!

In the “stew” room, the cheftestants talk about how they had so much fun with the kids. That’s so sweet. Then Padma breaks the fun and asks for Andrew, Nikki and Antonia, making everyone else look mad and/or jealous.

Padma, of course, tells the three that they’re on the top. (I just know one of these weeks she’s going to bring in the bottom three first. She just has to because this format is getting so predictable.) Tom says Nikki was smart making everything in one roasting pan. Gail says it was bold to put in Brussels sprouts. Padma says Andrew made fruit accessible in a savory dish, and Gail says kids love the salad and expanded their culinary knowledge.

They say pretty much the same thing for Antonia, who Art names as this week’s winner. (Of course, it sounded more like he said “Antony” is the winner.) I actually thought Spike should have been among the top three because the kids really seemed to be excited about the pasta dish. Anywho, doesn’t matter because Antonia doesn’t get any prize this week from guest judge Art Smith. (What? Not even a guest spot on Oprah?)

Antonia sends in Angry Lisa, Low Self-esteem Stephanie and Australian Mark. Of course, Tom harps on Stephanie’s odd peanut butter and tomato sauce and Art thought the couscous was just “not right.” Stephanie admits that it might have been overcooked.

When Padma asks why Mark thinks he’s in the bottom, he jokes that it’s because Tom doesn’t give him any love. Tom’s all like, “are you jokin’ mate?” Mark says he can’t figure out how to make Tom happy (and I agree because he generally looks stern) and Tom says cook some good food and he’ll be happy. Then Mark gets into it with Gail about protein in a vegetarian dish.

Lisa says she enjoyed her dish and says she even tasted it to make sure it was seasoned. (You know it’s the kiss of death when the judges ask if you tasted your dish before serving it.) Tom says the edamame were undercooked and bland. Lisa says she was just trying to keep to the rules of making a healthy dish.

The judges deliberate and you can tell Art doesn’t like Lisa’s attitude. He thinks chefs should accept constructive criticism. In the “stew” room, Lisa says she knows she’s going home. Tom is surprised by Stephanie because he thought she has been doing well so far. But he can’t get over the judgment of combining peanut butter and tomatoes. Padma says she detested it.

Commercials. Isn’t it funny how they make Kelly Ripa look like the modern housewife cooking for her kids and cleaning the house with those Electrolux appliances? Right.

Judgment time. Tom says there was a common thread in all three dishes, and that’s that they all missed the mark. (That should have been a hint from the get-go.) Stephanie created peanut butter-tomato junk, Mark didn’t spend his money wisely, and Lisa lacked flavor. Tom says he knows it was a fun day with the kids but it has to come to a bitter end (Tom’s a bit chatty in this episode, just hand it off to Padma already.) Padma sends Mark and his weird headband home.

Chatty Tom tells Mark to go screw himself and get off the show. Just kidding. He really tells him that he doesn’t hate him and he hopes to share a beer or pint with him soon. Mark tells the rest of the cheftestants to “rock on rockers” because all people in New Zealand have listened one too many times to Def Leppard.

Next on Top Chef: They’re doing this weird time warp kind of effect where the cheftestants look all tired and moving in slow motion. Cool, are they all on acid? Oh, no. It’s the wedding episode where they have to cater a wedding! Dale looks super fucked.

You think the previews would be the end, but all of a sudden the Top Chef editors throw in a clip of Andrew interviewing, and I quote “I have a culinary boner right now.” What the …? Was he talking about being in the Top 3. Did he just see Rocco Dispirito walk by? What gives? I guess we’ll never know but this weird quote from Andrew is why I think he’s the most fun to watch!

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.


lilly said...

I love reading these every week, but outdid yourself this week! I had to put my hand over my mouth to keep from spitting out the grape I was eating, I was laughing THAT hard! Kudos, kind sir!

p.s. and yeah, what was up w/that last bit from Andrew??? weeeeeeeeird

p.p.s. Corelle isn't plastic, it's made from Pyrex type stuff - it's glass ;) and those commercials crack me up!! :)

Single Guy Ben said...

Thanks Lilly, I'm glad you enjoyed this week's recap. And thanks for the heads up about Corelle. I may have to look into it again. ;-)