Thursday, December 16, 2010

Don’t ’Choke! The Top Chef All-Stars recap

As the show starts, we see Jamie’s war wound from last week and it’s. . . embarrassingly small. Frankly, it couldn't look any more innocuous if it had a Hello Kitty band-aid on it.
But Jen is gone and Jamie’s still in it to win it end-up-in-8th-or-9th-place. So life goes on.

David Chang from Momofuko is the guest judge. I’ve had the man’s “Crack Pie.” He is an evil culinary genius who must be stopped.

This week’s Quickfire Challenge could be sub-headed: Dance With the One That Brung Ya. Whichever three people you happened to be standing next to when you shuffled into the kitchen are your teammates. This makes for some awkward arranged marriages.

The first team is Angelo, Fabio, Tiffany, and Mike.

Fabio immediately sniffs that Angelo wears his pants too tight—the Eurotrash version of “your mamma wears combat boots.”

The other teams are:
Casey, Jamie, Dale, and Antonia
Carla, Tiffani, AngryDale ™ and Marcel
Tre, Spike, Richard, and Stephen.
Spike tries to say something nice about Stephen but can only muster this: “He’ll be able to open a bottle of wine for us.”

The Quickfire Challenge is the ever-popular mise en place battle, featuring rack of lamb, artichokes, and garlic. Then the chefs will have 15 minutes to prepare a dish with those ingredients. The only catch? That’s 15 minutes after the first team finishes their prep. So if you only manage to chop your garlic, break up your lamb, and peel your ’chokes with 2 minutes to spare, you’re pretty much done for.

Turns out, Angelo, Fabio, Tiffany, and Mike are mise en place savants, and they finish first, way ahead of the others.

Richard’s team comes in second. He immediately puts on his bossy pants and starts ordering everyone around.

Casey, who has only slightly redeemed herself for her slow-mo onion chopping from her season, holds her own and her team comes in third.

Tiffani, on the other hand, seems to be peeling her giant bucket of garlic cloves one by one—I’m no David Chang, but something tells me this can’t be the most efficient way to do things.
Her team brings up the rear.

Time being “limited” (that’s a euphemism for “not enough time to even preheat the oven”), Team Tiffani and Team Casey both smartly decide to do lamb carpaccio.

Richard and Angelo’s team both have time to cook their meat. So they would seem to have the edge.

But no. . .
Angelo’s tandoori lamb lands in the Bottom Two. Whoops.
In the end, Team Tiffani’s carpaccio is praised but Team Richard’s crispy lamb chop rules ($5,000 smackeroos each!) and Dr. Blais, gastrobiologist to the stars, is feeling even more smug than usual.

Next, the Elimination Challenge, which I love:
The same teams—but now the strange bedfellows are competing against each other—will visit four different high profile NY restaurants.
Their challenge is to create a dish for the restaurant that would blend in seamlessly with the rest of the menu.

Team Angelo gets David Chang’s Ma Peche.
“It’s eclectic Asian food and straight up yummy,” says Angelo, stoked.

Team Casey gets David Burke’s Townhouse—Modern American Cuisine, With a Freaky-Deaky Twist (subhead mine).

Team Richard gets the upscale Italian food of Marea.

And Team Tiffani gets Wyley DuFresne’s WD-50.
This would seem to be right in Marcel’s wheelhouse, but he’s a little nervous because he was apparently accused of plagiarizing their sous chef a few years back and is a fugitive from justice. (It’s nice to know that Marcel is reviled among all chefs, not just Top Chef contestants.) Anyway, the irony of the fact that Marcel will now be encouraged to do a little creative plagiarism is not lost on him.

At Ma Peche, Angelo is positively having a foodgasm. I think it’s cute how appreciative he is of the food, but his running commentary on Chang’s awesomeness is getting on Tiffany’s nerves.

At Marea, Stephen is acting like he’s the foremost Marea-ologist on the planet, I think because he ate there once.

Turns out, Townhouse should actually be called Funhouse. David Burke dresses up his food the way Paris Hilton dresses up her Chihuahuas.
Dale calls it “food with jazz hands.”

At WD-50, AngryDale ™ cleverly takes note of the fact that Wyley DuFresne is, according to Anthony Bourdain, “a notorious egg slut.”

Back in the kitchen, Carla, who doesn’t like anything fancy or newfangled, is standing over a cauldron of liquid nitrogen, looking like some sort of culinary Wicca. She’s going to really need to evoke the Power of the Hootie if she’s going to pull this one off.

Dale keeps asking Casey to taste elements from his dish. But she notices that those elements keep on coming. . and coming. . .and coming.
“I’m concerned for him,” she says. (And somewhere, Gretchen from Project Runway, is all, “Up high!”)

Speaking of Project Runway (which I just did, for those who skip parentheticals): Stephen would probably happier on that show than Top Chef at this point.
“Fashion has become a major obsession of mine,” he says. Then he giggles: “It could be worse. It could be cocaine.”
A natural leap.

They judges, including guest judge Kate Krader from Wood and Wine magazine, start at Marea.
Tre, who wisely decided to keep it simple, has done a lovely grilled swordfish with braised artichokes and mushroom panna cotta. The judges love it.
Spike has done a crispy seared branzino with caponata. The judges love his fish, but feel his caponata is not caponata-ish enough.
Stephen has done coho salmon with a whole boatload of herbs. Anthony Bourdain says it tastes like a “head shop.” Heh.
Richard has done a crudo of Spanish mackerel and braised veal shank. The judges bow down.

I love the fact that the judges are going from restaurant to restaurant by cab. But what I love even more is the fact that they wisely let Padma do the hailing.
Tom Colicchio could stand on that street corner waving his arms for a week.
Padma lazily raises one finger and 4 cabs come screeching to a halt.

Next up, Ma Peche, where Fabio is convinced he’s toast.
“Ask an Asian grandma to make fresh pasta and osso bucco and see if she please me!” he complains. (In that equation, I believe Fabio is an Italian grandma. Just trying to follow his logic.)

Indeed, he is right. The judges don’t care for his busy roasted lamb with its giant dollop of lemongrass chevre ricotta. (There’s such a thing as chevre ricotta? Note to self: Find recipe to make most awesome manicotti ever.)

They love Angelo’s tumeric marinated fish with white chocolate shavings and are just fine with Mike’s sockeye salmon and Tiffany’s crudo of summer flounder, although they feel it’s not particularly innovative.

At Townhouse, the judges think Dale’s roasted veal loin with popcorn, peanuts and French Toast is—well, let’s just call it what it is—flat out insane.
Antonia, who apparently watched last season, figured out that if a pea puree is good, a pea and carrot puree is even better. She’s right. Her seared scallop with pea and carrot puree is praised heartily. The judges think Casey’s halibut “scallop” is clever but that Jamie’s smoked tomato soup with heirloom tomato salad didn’t benefit from the smoking.

Finally, onto WD-50:
They are totally feeling AngryDale’s ™ egg dumpling and braised pork belly, with its broth that tastes like “buttered toast” (guess you had to be there).
They think Carla did pretty well with her avant-garde shrimp and grits, considering how far out of her element she was.
They think Marcel is surprisingly tame with his Vadouvan Lamb, considering how far in his element he was.
They are deeply puzzled by Tiffani’s melons with powdered ham and cheese. Anthony Bourdain likes all of it except for the melon part, which is sort of like saying you liked the production of Hamlet except for the guy who played the Danish prince.

So the top 4 are AngryDale ™, Angelo, Antonia, and Tre.

And. . .AngryDale ™ wins! Maybe for a day at least he will be MildlyIrritatedDale ™.

MildlyIrritatedDale ™ breaks the bad news: Stephen, Tiffani, Fabio, and Dale are in the bottom. Oh, and did I mention that two Cheftestants are going home? So there’s that.
“Stand up guys! Fight hard,” MildlyIrritatedDale ™ says.
“Fight hard guys, but not too hard. Be nice,” says Carla, which is such a Carla thing to say.
“Don’t pull a ‘Jen’,” says Antonia. And a new catchphrase is born.

Stephen is flabbergasted to be in the bottom 4 because he has great knowledge of Italian food and wine. (And is wearing such a lovely suit!)
“I have great knowledge of Led Zeppelin,” says Tom. “That doesn’t make me Jimmy Page.” Oh snap.

Fabio continues to look pissed that an Italian grandma such as himself was supposed to make eclectic Asian food.

The judges tell Tiffani that her melon dish crossed the line from homage into parody.

Dale’s random French Toast was just too damn sweet. (And, on an unrelated note, Angelo’s pants are still too damn tight and the rent is still too damn high.)

So . . Stephen and Dale are hitting the road.
“I simply wasn’t up to par with the rest of the chefs,” says Stephen, adding: “Does anyone have Heidi Klum’s phone number?”

Dale—adorable, loveable, huggable Dale—is embarrassed. “Maybe I’ll come back,” he quips. “Season 16: Seniors.”

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