Saturday, January 31, 2009

Personal Fowl: The Top Chef recap

So here’s something new I learned on this week’s episode of Top Chef: You can say “shatted” on national TV (as in when Leah said, “I got doubly shatted on at judging panel.”) Do you think the producers of Top Chef don’t realize that “shat” is the past tense of “shit”? By this logic, the cheftestants can all go around saying, “We’ve all been fucked.”
But I digress.

Canoodle-gate seems to be over, thank God, and everyone is getting back to normal for today’s Super Bowl themed Quickfire challenge.

The judge is famed New York restaurateur Scott Conant—and let’s just get this out of the way now: The man is a major tool. Anyone who can make Toby Young seem like a softie is no good in my book. (More on my emotional breakthrough with Toby later.)

Of course, when you think Super Bowl food, you think oats, so it was a natural that Quaker would sponsor this challenge.

Everyone had to pair oats with a different food group—vegetables, fruit, meat, etc.
Aloft on her little bliss bubble, Carla didn’t seem to notice that everyone else had oats, too, so she was dizzily excited to be pairing tofu with oats, seeing as how she’s an “oat girl.”

Jeff, in a completely out of character move, got overly ambitious and tried putting oats on three different kinds of chicken, plus two rock cornish hens, a wild turkey, and possibly a whole pig. At one point, I think I saw him trying to coat Leah in oats. (As Carla put it, “Jeff can’t quiet the creative monkey.”)

Fabio created oat turds made out of eggplant.

Stefan, who has been on a very irritating roll, made some sort of mousse and petit four and won. When Scott Conant told him he won, he actually said “Oopsie!” like it had all been some sort of charming accident.

In keeping with the Super Bowl theme, for the Elimination Challenge, we have the first ever Top Chef Bowl, which, as far as I can tell, is mostly just an excuse to have Padma sporting a sexy referee shirt.

The competition? Top Chef “All Stars.” I put “All Stars” in quotes, because never has the term been used more loosely. When a girl who got eliminated in Season One on the second show is among the All Stars, you know it ain’t exactly Kobe and Lebron.

But Andrew and Spike are back! And Spike and Fabio immediately commence roughhousing, threatening the sanctity of not one, but two bromances. (Stefan and Andrew look on helplessly).

So the Season 5 contestants and the All Stars go head to head, creating regional cuisine from 7 NFL cities. (What? No Ravens? No crabcake? I object!).

Here’s how it went down:

Leah went up against Season 4’s Nikki, who seems to have straightened out her errant hair issues, for the New York Giants. Leah got 7 points (touchdown), because the judges favored her New York Strip Steak to Nikki’s chicken livers. But Nikki got 3 points (field goal) because the audience somehow managed to prefer her chicken livers. (Didn’t see that coming.)

Hosea went up against Season 1’s Miguel for the Seattle Seahawks. Hosea got 7 points because the judges liked his crispy salmon rolls over Miguel’s cedar planked salmon and then he got 3 more points when the audience dug his rolls, too.

In some sort of harmonic convergence of hyperness, Carla went up against her fan-favorite, Andrew, for New Orleans Saints. Carla’s gumbo earned her 7 points from the judges. But Andrew’s crawfish crudo got the field goal.

So far, Season 5 is kicking butt.

Then the greatest thing to ever happen in the history of Top Chef took place.
In the Dallas Cowboys bracket, Stefan’s pork and steak salad lost to Andrea’s chili. Yeah, that’s right, Andrea, the Season One also ran. Who made lowly chili. And no, he didn’t lose 7 to 3. He got shutout! Goose-egged! Blanked! Blitzed! Urkeled! Plus, he had specifically opted to go against Andrea because he was so sure he could crush her. Ahhhh, let the awesomeness of that wash over you.

While I was happy with Stefan’s big flame out, I definitely was rooting for Season 5. So I was happy when Jamie got things back on track when her crab cioppino smoked Camille’s crab and sweet potato mash in the San Francisco 49er challenge. 10 more points for Season 5.

But Jeff pulled a very Jeff-like move when he and Season 2’s Josie went head to head with dueling ceviche for the Miami Dolphins challenge. “I would’ve been embarrassed to serve that hot nacho ceviche,” he said snidely. Hey Breck girl, that hot nacho ceviche just beat yer ass, 10 to 0.

So it all comes down to Spike and Fabio, who have managed to stop playing completely non-sexual games of tackle football long enough to cook their Green Bay Packers venison. Spike’s five-spice venison wins the heart of the judges, but Fabio’s venison with mustard sauce wins over the audience. 7 to 3 Spike.

The final tally?
Season 5 wins by the skin of its salmon: 37 to 33.

And surprise, surprise, Jeff, Fabio, and Stefan are the Bottom 3.

But first, the winner. It comes down to Carla, Jamie, Leah, and Hosea. For some reason, they have all decided to rock headbands, except for Hosea, who seems to recognize that a bald man can not wear a headband unless he is Charles Barkley.

Leah has some sort of “Summer of Love” meets the Karate Kid bandanna on. And Carla is wearing her usual headband and Jamie is sporting a surprising gold headband apparently swiped from the cast of Xanadu on Ice.

And here was the moment that made me sorta kinda warm up to Toby Young: He told Carla that he felt the love in her cooking. You have to figure that this bit of new age affirmation was tough to dole out for such a cynical wag as Young. So props to him. Oh, and Carla won, too!

Now it’s down to Fabio, Jeff, and Stefan. I knew that Stefan wasn’t going anywhere, and justifiably so. Stefan needs the finale and the finale needs Stefan and we all know it.

So it’s Fabio vs. Jeff. Things got really testy between Fabio and Scott Conant, who seems to be the only living creature immune to Fabio’s charms. Could Fabio really be going home? Frankly, I think Jeff is a better chef than Fabio if only he could quiet those creative monkeys. But it's not meant to be: Jeff is told to pack his knives and leave. (Later, in exit interviews Jeff groused that he was constantly photographed without his shirt and used as a sex symbol. Uh, have you ever watched Bravo before, Jeff?)

Oh, and don’t forget to vote for Ariane as your Diet Dr. Pepper fan favorite! (Yes, the fan favorite vote is sponsored. Was there ever any doubt?)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Max's Top Chef recap

Is in the oven. Please check back later today or tomorrow.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Mmmmmm. . .arm hair. The Top Chef recap

Give credit to Jamie. She was the only cheftestant smart enough to realize that this episode’s Quickfire Challenge—make a signature dish that best represents your Restaurant War theme—was a trap. A trap, I say!

“I’m not sure I want to win this Quickfire,” she said, promptly putting the finishing touches on her raw scallop in a reduction of scallop sauce. (Okay, it was some sort of half-hearted Chilean sea bass.)

Stefan also seemed to intuitively know, as he made a trio of asparagus dishes. (Nothing says “I don’t want to win this challenge” quite like an asparagus medley.)

As for Fabio’s “cheesesteak,” guest judge Steven Starr was not impressed.
“It’s not a cheesesteak,” Fabio countered huffily. “It’s a fillet mignon sandwich

Starr did take a liking to Radhika’s Indian/Middle Eastern concoction and Leah’s dish, which was inspired by her Philippine mother. (Who knew?)

So there you have it folks. Our two fearless leaders for Restaurant Wars: Leah and Radhika. God help the diners.

Radhika’s team, Restaurant Sahana, is Carla, Jeff, and Jamie.

The team for Leah’s restaurant, Sunset Lounge (sounds like a bar at a Ramada Inn, right?) is Hosea, Fabio, and Stefan.

Stefan, needless to say, was picked last.

“I could give a shit,” he said grumpily. (Having just watched Tim Roth in Lie to Me, I can now use my newfound lie detecting skills to deduce that Stefan does, in fact, give a shit.)

Later, as the teams planned their menus, Stefan did his usual, “I’m going to do what I want and not listen to anyone” routine while biting his arm hair. Which is gross.

Leah was so upset about this that she made sexy time with Hosea, not quite off-camera, but seriously to the lower left corner of the camera.

The next morning both Leah and Hosea were distraught over their canoodling.
“I absolutely regret it,” declared Hosea. Adding an over the top, “Dammit!” for good measure.

Leah was grumpier than usual. “I have a boyfriend. . . at least I did,” she sighed.
Wow. I really feel sorry for those two. (Ha! Just kidding.)

Anyway, I learned a few things about Radhika today:
1. Her voice sounds like Padma’s. (I realize that it’s a little late in the season to be making such an observation, but this let’s face it, she’s usually borderline mute.)
2. Her leadership skills suck donkey balls.

I mean, why on earth did she volunteer to be in the front of the house? Because her personality is so effervescent and winning?

And why didn’t she get her ass in the kitchen? Isn’t that where the executive chef should be? Instead, she made Jamie her chef de cuisine—i.e, put her in charge—and skulked around the restaurant looking confused.

Carla, usually the Betty Crocker of Top Chef, was having a heck of a time with her spiced chocolate cake and yogurt. (Carla may have loved her desserts but they, apparently, did not love her back.)

Anyway, the Sahana dinner went surprisingly well, all things considered. The judges more or less liked Jeff's scallop appetizer and Ariane's—I mean Jamie's (sorry, old habit)—braised lamb shank. But after Carla’s filled-with-love-but-tastes-like-crap desserts, Radhika was nowhere in sight to say goodnight (she was hiding in—er, overseeing—the kitchen) so the judges just got up and left.

Toby Young, who never met a metaphor he couldn’t torture, equated the experience of eating at Sahana to the life of Elvis Presley. (Starting strong, gradually going down hill and ending up dead on a toilet, or somethin’ like that.)

Anyway, Team Sunset Lounge put Fabio in the front of the house, a brilliant move. Let’s face it, the guy could charm dirt.

As for the food, it was a mixed bag.

Leah was so upset about her accidental face sucking with Hosea, she made undercooked fish.

But Stefan saved the day with his lemongrass panna cotta. I hate when that happens.

In the end, Team Sunset Lounge won, by a hair. And Stefan took home the grand prize, an arm comb. No, just kidding. . .a whole lot of restaurant-quality kitchen appliances.

Carla and Radhika were the Bottom 2. I really thought Carla was going home, not only because her desserts stank (for the second week in a row, no less), but because, as she explained her philosophy of cooking with love, Tom looked like he had just thrown up a little in his mouth.

But no, it was Radhika’s time to go. She made the mistake of winning the Quickfire, being named leader, and then having no idea what the heck she was doing. (Insert your own George Bush joke here.)

Foiled by the oldest reality show trap in the book.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Lamb to the Slaughter: The Top Chef recap

They say that one day television will be completely interactive—that everything you see on the screen will be instantly available for one-click download and purchase. We’re not quite there yet, but Bravo is sure doing it’s part. No sooner did I take note of the fact that Hosea was wearing an I Heart Padma shirt, then a little note scrawled across the bottom of the screen: To purchase your I Heart Padma shirt, log onto. . .blah, blah, blah. Oh Bravo, you’re so predictable.

Anyway, the “Previously on. . .” focused on the budding romance between Hosea and Leah (quite possibly the least sexy, least intriguing reality TV romance since Vincent was “turned on” by his dresses in Season 3 of Project Runway) and I thought, “Oh well. One of those two is going home.” Yawn. Little did I realize that this preview was merely spelling doom for my favorite cheftestant!

Onto the Quickfire they go, where Season 3 winner Hung is there, looking as smug and self-satisfied as usual. (It could’ve been worse, it could’ve been Ilan.) Hung is all about seafood, so the cheftestants assume that the giant misshapen mountain of boxy looking stuff covered by a sheet behind Padma would be an enormous pile of . . . fish? Uh, okay.

Instead, it was the contents of my cupboard—I mean, a whole lot of Spam and macaroni and cheese and canned stuff. The challenge? Make a tasty dish (in 15 minutes) using all processed food. Welcome to my world, chefs!

(If nothing else, the canned food challenge taught me one thing: Add an artful little drizzle of sauce on the plate and anything can look gourmet.)

All the chefs went grabbing for the various canned food items, elbows akimbo, which Jeff likened to a “mosh pit” (he strikes me as more of a The Peach Pit kinda guy, but what do I know?)

There was some brouhaha because Fabio had two cans of artichoke and didn’t share with Hosea and then Hosea had Spam and he did share it with the villainous Stefan (sucker!) and in the end, Stefan won the challenge and Hosea was left slapping his forehead saying, “Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!”

Now onto the Elimination challenge—to prepare a simple, seasonal lunch with one of the following three proteins: Pig, chicken, or lamb.
I kept waiting for the catch on this challenge, but there really wasn’t one, except the food was literally farm-to-table, as they were cooking at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Westchester, NY.

Team Pig was Jeff, Fabio, and Radhika.
Team Chicken was Jamie, Stefan, and Carla.
Team Lamb was Hosea, Leah, and Arianne.

Most of the tension, needless to say, was emanating from Team Chicken, where Stefan, as always, put on his Bossy Pants and acted like he was in charge. And Jamie was all, “Not so fast, you Fiendish Fin!” And Carla was all, “Where’s the love, people?” And then Stefan very patronizingly told the camera that Jamie was cute when she got angry. Can somebody deck this guy? Please?

Once at the farm, Stefan was alone with Carla, Jamie, the female farmer, and the hens, so he naturally proclaimed: “I’m the only cock in the stable.”
Then in a moment sure to launch a thousand GIFs, he gleefully repeated: “Cock!”

So here’s how it broke down: Team Pork and Team Lamb didn’t respect their protein. Instead, Team Pork cut all the fat off their pork and Team Lamb pounded their lamb into submission and didn’t know how to tie it properly.

“I wanted to have sex with this pork,” sighed new judge Toby. “I didn’t even get to first base.” (And yes, even this ill-fated romance is more interesting than the one between Hosea and Leah.)

Stefan, Carla, and Jamie apparently respected their farm fresh ingredients so they won.. “See?” Stefan said to Jamie. And suddenly it was one big lovefest. Even Carla let out a “Woo hoo!” Sadly, her husband was not around to reply: “Hootie?”
No single winner this week. They all win. (Boring.)

Team Lamb and Team Pork were in the bottom. Radhika almost got the boot because she pretty much just stood around and grilled some corn. Padma said that she felt sorry for Arianne because her team forced her to butcher a lamb when she clearly didn’t know how to do it. Toby said that he felt sorry for Arianne because she can’t cook. (Ouch. )
Padma got about as pissed as Padma is going to get, and defended Arianne, noting that she had made some great dishes in the past.

Would my girl be saved? Would Leah go home, breaking up the so-boring-it’s-practically-Amish love affair between Leah and Hosea? Nope, in a cruelly ironic twist, the OPG goes home on a protein challenge. Sweet over-achiever Arianne is packing up her knives and heading home.

Girl, you made Jersey proud.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

British Invasion: The Top Chef recap

What is it about us Yanks that we feel compelled to be scolded by a rude British person? From Simon Cowell to Gordon Ramsey to that diminuitive nun/dominatrix chick who used to host The Weakest Link, we as a nation are fond of pulling down our pants and collectively shouting to England: Please sir, we want some more.

May I remind all of you that the Boston Tea Party was 230 years ago, people? Get over it!

That, of course, leads us to our new Top Chef judge, Toby Young. Now, I already knew about Toby from his tell-all book, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, which chronicles his failed attempt to work as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and does to Grayden Carter what The Devil Wears Prada did to Anna Wintour. (They even made a movie about it, starring Simon Pegg of Shaun of the Dead fame.) He’s a fly in the ointment kinda guy, a leave no bridge unburned malcontent—smart, crabby, self-aggrandizing. In a word, British.

And now he is ours.

Maybe I’m just resistant to change. Or maybe I just like the cuddly alpha male approach of Tom Colicchio and I’m just not sure how I feel about this bullying U.K. snark machine. But allow me to quote Carla when I say: GAIL!!!!!! (On the other hand, I can’t wait to see Young mix it up with Anthony Bourdain—speaking of which, where has he been this season?).

But I’m ahead of myself.

The show starts with Padma’s patented, “Hello, Newman”-style greeting of the contestants and a challenge that sends a chill down my spine: Make a dessert without sugar. (A dessert is a horrible thing to waste.)

Lots of honey and yogurt gets used. Which is sort of like heavy cream and sugar. But not.

Ariane, Jersey chick that she is, decides to sweeten her dessert with. . .Diet Dr. Pepper! (You gotta love her.)

Stefan seems threatened by the French pastry chef judge and keeps putting his foot in his mouth. At one point, he claims that chocolate mousse originated in Finland.

Radhika wins for the second time in a row (“I’m on Cloud 99!” she reports).

I actually love this week’s Elimination challenge: Make whatever you want and it’ll be a blind tasting. “That doesn’t mean the judges will be blindfolded,” Fabio helpfully points out.

Nope, not only will the judges—including new bloke Toby—not know who cooked what, but they’ll be joined by half the contestants, who will serve as expert tasters. And all of this will be monitored by a hidden camera that the contestants can watch from the kitchen. Positively diabolical!

Of course, in some cases, it’s pretty obvious who made what.

I mean, who else but Gene would attempt daikon in a tomato basil sauce (ewwww.)

And who else but Stefan would make some sort of Finnish cabbage dumpling dish?

And who else but Ariane “mom jeans” would make skate with kid-friendly cauliflower puree?

And, hmmmm. . .wonder who made those scallops?

Toby Young is all in his glory. “I have found the weapons of mass destruction,” he says, tasting Radika’s soup. (Raise your hand if you think he prepared that line in advance. )

“This tastes like cat food,” he says of Melissa’s ahi taco.

He describes Carla’s dish thusly: “The side dishes are like when classically trained British actors upstage the American stars.” (Ohnohedidn’t!)

Later, describing Jeff’s Shrek-hued sorbet, he says, “It was like Tom Cruise’s cameo in Tropic Thunder.” (Yeesh, does this guy want to be a food critic or a film critic?)

But I will give him this. When Toby was eating Melissa’s tacos, Colicchio asked him: “What does this dish say about the chef?”

“That they lack confidence,” Toby replied, with alarming accuracy.

The man is like the Fish Taco Whisperer.

In the end, the Top 3 were Jamie (again with the scallops), my girl Ariane, and Stefan.
Oh, how I wanted Jamie to come in second again, because, as I mentioned earlier, her being the Top Chef bridesmaid never gets old.

But Jamie won. Redeeming both herself and the scallop community at large.

The Botton 3 were: Gene, Melissa, and Carla.

Since we had no eliminations during the Very Special Christmas in August Episode, that meant two contestant were going home tonite, or, as Padma put it: “We’re not deciding who goes this time, we’re deciding who stays.” (Somehow I think the transitive theory of cheftestant eliminations would dispute that logic, but I see her point.)

Although Colicchio showed his sensitive side when he said of Gene’s dish: “It hurt me that a fish gave up its life for that dish,” Toby, bless his heart, was all about Gene and his “creativity.” That’s because he hasn’t been around long enough to see that Gene’s “creativity” is actually just masking the fact that he HAS NO IDEA WHAT HE’S DOING. (Gene sort of reminds me of that 5-year-old kid who briefly became a cause célèbre as an abstract artist. She was just smearing paint on a canvas, but people thought she was saying deep and profound things from the toddler perspective.)

As for Melissa, she was toast and she knew it. (The old, “I deserve to be here because I really, really, really want it” can only take you so far.)

For a second, I thought they were going to send Carla home, which would have been a world of wrong. She cooks with love, people! But proving that Colicchio is still the alpha judge in these parts, Carla was safe.

So, by the transitive theory of cheftestant eliminations: Gene, the sweetest man ever to sport a full-body tattoo, and insecure Melissa are gonzo. Melissa, we hardly knew ye. No, really.