Thursday, March 31, 2011

Winning! The Top Chef All-Stars recap

Let’s start this recap with a Cosmo-style quiz.


1. Your wife just turned to you and said. “Honey, that’s the best sex I ever had!” Do you:

a. Slap her on the butt and respond, “Don’t worry, wifey. There’s more where that came from!”

b. Turn to her tremulously and say, “Really? Because I thought my timing was off. Or are you just saying that to make me feel better? Wait. . . were you definitely talking about me? . . . Are you having an affair?”

2. You just scored the winning touchdown, securing the state championship. Do you:

a. Do the “Dougie” in the end zone, leap into your teammates arms, and proclaim, “Beers and strippers on you, boys!”

b. Discourage your teammates from a premature celebration. You’re pretty sure you were out of bounds, there might have been an illegal substance in your pre-game cough drop, and did anyone else hear the coach call a timeout?

3. You’ve just won Top Chef. Do you. . .

a. Open up a new restaurant called, “Winning!”

b. Still worry that the whole thing is a mistake, or a giant cosmic joke, and actually think that Watch What Happens Live host Andy Cohen is going to forcibly take the trophy away from you on stage.*

*Only a slight exaggeration of what actually happened.

Ah, Blais. Even when he wins. . . he loses. But at least now he’s a loser who won, right?

Let’s rewind. . .

The final challenge this season is simple, effective, and awesome:
Create the restaurant of your dreams.

“I have goosebumps,” says Blais. Us too.

However, back at the house, Blais is already wearing his Ski Cap of Despair while discussing his chances.

“I’m the underdog,” he insists. 

Not true, says Mike. “You’re the favorite.” (I have to agree.)

“Everyone’s expecting me to choke,” Blais says. (Okay, also true.). “And that’ll probably happen.”

(I swear, at times, Blais really does seem like he’s part of some poorly acted and exaggerated PSA on the perils of low self esteem.)

Meanwhile, as this little tableaux is playing out, the entire Top Chef All-Stars cast has arrived in the Bahamas, including those few random contestants (Tiffani, Stephen, Elia, I’m talkin’ to you) you forgot were on the show to begin with.

They have 30 minutes to cook an amuse bouche. The “winners” have to slave over a hot stove and join in the stress as sous chefs, while the “losers” get to enjoy the Bahamas, chillax, and EAT all the yummy food. (Strangely, everyone still tries to make a good amuse bouche.)

Back in the room, Ski Cap of Despair and Mike are discussing who they definitely don’t want as sous chefs.

“The one person you definitely don’t want is Jamie,” says Mike. “Not just because she’s Jamie”—heh—“but because she’s slow.”

But here’s the rub: They’ll be tasting these amuse bouches (amuses bouche?) blind. So the question: Do you simply pick the best bites? Or do you try to match the bite with the chef, hoping you guessed right?

Blais goes with the best bite concept and ends up with a rock solid team of Spike, Angelo, and Antonia.

Mike, who is desperate to get Jen Carroll, tries to divine which amuse is hers and ends up with a slightly less rock solid team of Carla, Tiffani, and—burn!—Jamie.

“It’s like having Charlie’s Angels,” says Mike. (I swear, every time Mike Isabella opens his mouth, the women’s movement gets set back another 5 years.)

Mike’s restaurant is going to be called Chez Egomaniac (just kidding, it’s called Iz). And Richard’s restaurant is called Tongue & Cheek. (Note to Blais: I am available for name consulting when it comes time to open your real restaurant. Cause Tongue & Cheek ain’t gonna cut it. And, no before you ask, Ham on Wry is also not an option.)

In the kitchen, Tom checks in on them.

“I don’t know if anyone really picked you to get here,” he says to Mike.
Isn't it funny how much he obviously dislikes Mike?

Meanwhile, in Blais’s kitchen, Tom seems half ready to lend a helping hand.
“How are you dealing with the pressure?” he says warmly. Blais is like the sweaty, neurotic, pointy-haired son Tom never had.

“I don’t know if I can do it,” says Blais after Tom’s visit. “I might just be that person who can’t win.” (In the PSA, they’re now saying: Do you constantly tell yourself you’re not good enough?
“Always a bridesmaid, never a bride,” Blais adds. (Are you only truly happy when you fail?)

Commercial break, where Gail Simmons screws up the live shot:
“In 30 seconds, we find out who wins Top Chef!” she announces.
(Wow. What are they going to do with the other 29 minutes and 30 seconds of the show?)

Here’s how the judging works: There will be two seatings at each restaurant.

Lidia Bastianich, Hubert Keller, Alfred Portale, Bill Terlato, plus Padma are in one group of judges—and they start at Tongue & Cheek.

Art Smith, Curtis Stone, Tom, and Gail are the other. They’re at Restaurant Iz.

Then they switch.

The best part of Blais’s group is Spike, totally creeping in the background, serving as spy.
“Spike is very crafty,” says Blais. (In fact, Spike couldn’t be less crafty if he were wearing a sign around his neck that read: “Number One Spy.”)

Blais starts with an amuse bouche of raw oyster with crème fraiche pearls.
He has the judges slurping right out of his hands.

Next, a raw hamachi with veal sweetbreads and pickled celery.

Spike reports back.
“They licked their plates on that hamachi dish, Richie!” he says.
“So they. . .they. . .they were happy?” chokes out Blais, ready to pass out.

Next, pork belly, black cod, and bone marrow.

With this dish, Blais is freaking out because the judges didn’t clean their plates.

“Hey Richie, they loved the dish,” says Master Sleuth Spike. “They loved the dish. Just concentrate on the food.”

(It occurs to me that Spike, with his hepcat laconic ways could be a nice counter balance to Blais’s high strung manicness. Maybe they should open a restaurant together.)

Next course: Braised short rib with red cabbage.
In this case, the judges were underwhelmed by the creativity, but loved the flavors.

Finally, for dessert: Corn bread with whipped mango cream and foie gras ice cream.

The foie gras ice cream, which looks crumbly and gross, is a bit of a bust.

“It’s a bit of a controversial dish,” reports Spike diplomatically.

Luckily, Blais has time to fix the ice cream for the second serving.

Over at Iz, the first course comes out: 
Spiced beet salad with mozzarella and chocolate vinaigrette.
“Mike’s off to a good start,” says Tom, not looking thrilled about it.

Next course: halibut with kumquat marmalade.
“I don’t think I’ve ever tasted a better piece of fish on this show,” says Tom, getting sad.

Next: Braised pork shoulder with pepperoni sauce.
For this dish, Gail has a food crush, not completely unlike her X-rated love affair with Mike’s savory pineapple.

“The pepperoni sauce. Wow!” she gushes. (I hasten to remind her that Subway has a meatball and pepperoni sub, so this whole pepperoni-as-bonus-meat thing is not that radical a concept.)

“This is as good as anyone’s food in the finale,” says Tom, bordering on despondent. “In fact, it’s better than most.”

Mike’s final course is rosemary custard with pine nuts.
Tom is very pleased to report that the consistency is off.

And. . .switch!

The second round of judging goes largely the same for both chefs.
Everyone loves pretty much everything. Blais has managed to fix his foie gras ice cream; but Mike’s custard also gets high marks.

“Its really exciting,” says Art Smith. “You have two really talented chefs.”

And, 25 minutes after Gail told us it was coming, it’s judgment time.

In the holding room, both men are staying true to form.

Mike looks at Blais, who is now wearing a (virtual) Ski Cap of Despair.
“You’re going crazy again?” he says.
Blais looks up, petrified: “What? You did everything you wanted to do?” he sputters.
Mike says, yes, he feels pretty good about the way things went. “I wouldn’t want to judge this challenge,” he says.
“Maybe,” mutters Blais, sinking lower and lower into his virtual cap. “Sounds like you killed it.”

Tom and Padma come to get them.

“It’s the best food we’ve had in any finale,” says Tom. Not even this piece of good news can buoy Blais, who is hanging on by a mere thread.

The judges go dish by dish and give hearty praise all around. . . but is it just me or is Mike is getting slightly better marks than Blais? Is this a misdirection? Or could Mike actually win this thing?

Mike almost breaks down, talking about how much winning would mean to him, and Blais does break down—causing Tom to look a little verklempt.

“This is going to be hard,” says Chef Hubert.
“I know,” says Padma, patting him on the arm consolingly.

“I’m on the fence,” admits Tom, after Mike and Blais leave the room. “I don’t know who won.”

“I want to eat at Mike’s restaurant during the week—and Richard’s on the weekend,” says Gail. (She also thinks that Mike's restaurant is "business in the front" while Blais's restaurant is a "party in the back.")

The general consensus seems to be that the first two courses went to Blais and the second two courses went to Mike.

There is off camera deliberation.

“I think we have our Top Chef!” says Tom, looking shifty. 

They call them back in, along with all the other contestants, who comically cover their mouths with their hands, bite their nails, and look almost as stressed as our two finalists.

“Richard. . .you’re Top Chef!” says Padma.

Blais, of course, cries. Hugs everyone. Then he calls his wife, who seems to have caught his “Good things happen to other people” disease.

“I won Top Chef!” he says into the phone.
“What?” she says, a strange reaction indeed, considering the fact that he just competed in the Top Chef finale.
“I won Top Chef!” Blais repeats, trying to convince himself.

“I feel like I beat him. I just didn’t get the prize,” grumbles Mike, true to form.

That being said—and I don’t want to fan the flames of controversy here (oh, who am I trying to kid? of course I do)—didn’t it kinda, sorta, maybe seem like Mike really had a better showing than Blais? 

I’m not saying that the competition was rigged, I’m just saying that maybe Blais had to royally screw up and that Mike had to clearly vanquish him in order for Mike to pull off the upset. (I guess I am sort of saying it was rigged.)

Either way, I’m thrilled Blais won. The guy's a culinary artist. Plus, his self-esteem got a boost that I believe lasted several whole seconds.

He’s no longer a choker. He’s just a Guy Who Overcame Crippling Insecurity to Cook Really, Really, Really Well.

Hey, maybe that can be the name of his next restaurant.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Pressure Cooker: The Top Chef All-Stars recap

As the show begins, Blais is trying to apply some new math to make Mike’s recent dominance seem less intimidating.

“I’m not worried about Mike’s back to back wins,” he says. “He’s won two challenges in both his seasons. I’ve won eight.”

He’s lying of course. Even his hair looks nervous.

(But while we’re on the subject, what IS up with Mike’s recent dominance? If there were such a thing as culinary steroids, I’d be saying Mike was on the juice. He’s like a mid-major making it to the Final Four. Totally didn’t see this coming. )

For the Quickfire (guest judge: Wolfgang Puck!), they are conjuring up the Ghosts of Quickfires past—assigning each other particularly hard challenges from previous seasons.
And because Mike won the last Elimination Challenge, he gets to assign first:

He gives his cousin Antonia the canned food challenge. (Guess he’s out of the will.)
She gives Blais the hotdog challenge.
And Blais, feeling inordinately proud of himself, gives Mike the “one pot wonder” challenge. (Mike likes to use lots of pots, he explains.)

Antonia, however, is irked: “Giving him one pot gives him access to everything. Blais is not the sharpest one in the drawer.”
Cut to Blais at the exact moment it dawns on him that his strategy has just backfired.

So Blais is making hot dogs with ketchup, because we “all associate hot dogs with ketchup.” No, Richard, we don’t. And for that matter, no America. There is one condiment that belongs on a hot dog and that is mustard. Preferably spicy mustard.

Antonia is trying to season the shit out of her canned food, poor dear.

And Mike is attempting to braise pork in a pressure cooker.

It’s sort of a moderate level of crazy, until Padma comes waltzing back in, trailed by the adorableness that is Carla.
Twist time!

Now they’re lumping in yet another past challenge.

Richard gets the one-hand-tied-behind-your-back challenge. (Good for a few giggles, because Richard trying to spear a lime with one hand is almost as funny as Richard trying to catch a conch.)

Mike has to finish his dish without any knives or utensils, fairly easy for a caveman such as himself.

And Antonia will become a “conjoined twin” with Carla, for the double apron challenge. BFFs!

Puck comes back to taste the offerings.
He thinks Antonia got lots of flavor in her curried soup with canned shrimp. (Ew.)

He likes the balance of Mike’s braised pork and beans.

“I could feed this to my kids at home,” he says to Blais, of his currywurst.
And you can actually see the wheels turning in Blais’ head: He loves his kids. Right? Everyone loves their own kids. But kids have bland palates. Is he saying my food is bland? Is he saying my food is juvenile? Do his children even have teeth?

Finally Blais can contain himself no more: “That’s good, right?” he asks.
“They love sausage and ketchup,” Puck responds.

And the winner is. . .Mike!

“You’ve got a pretty good roll going,” says Padma, mistress of understatement.
Richard “Pokerface” Blais puts his head in his hands in despair.

Next, they head to the Cloisters where they are greeted by Michele Bernstein, Puck, and Iron Chef Morimoto.

“He’s frickin’ scary,” says Antonia of Morimoto.

It’s the Last Supper challenge. One of my favorites!
I’ll never forget Carla and her perfect English peas for Jacques Pepin from season 5.

Also, Padma notes, almost in passing, there will be another twist. (Now quick! Forget she ever mentioned it!)

As the Quickfire winner, Mike once again has everyone’s fate in his hands.
He assigns Antonia Morimoto. Of course.
He assigns himself Michele Bernstein, allegedly because she put him in the bottom for his season and he wants redemption, but more likely because she is one hot MILF.
Blais gets Puck.

They all huddle with their master chefs.
Wolfgang Puck is living the cliché: He wants strudel, goulash, and spaetzle. And he wants the soundtrack to The Sound of Music to be playing while he eats.

Michele Bernstein is sitting on a wishing well with Mike, showing some serious leg.
She wants fried chicken, biscuits, and gravy, because what Latin Jew didn’t subsist on such things?
She explains herself: “When my father took me out to eat fried chicken for the first time when I was 5, I’ll never forget the love.”

Finally, there seems to be some confusion between Antonia and Morimoto. He’s talking about rice. (I think.) In English. (I think.)
“From this size, this size, cooking together,” he tells Antonia, who is nodding sagely. (By the way, that is an accurate translation. There were subtitles!)
Right,” she says, perhaps to encourage herself.
“Conditions not right,” says Morimoto.
Oh. . .wrong?
“You’re going to have to spend time. . .”
“Going through each grain?” volunteers Antonia.
“Yes, each grain.”
She should win the challenge just for navigating that sentence.
So Chef Morimoto wants sashimi, miso soup, and pickles, just like his mama used to make for him when he came home from baseball practice.
Antonia lets out a little whelp of despair.
Wow. Sucks to be her right now.

“In my season, I was the first one in the finale eliminated,” she says. “It felt like when your first boyfriend breaks up with you.” And with that (strictly hypothetical, I’m sure) metaphor, Antonia bursts into tears.

The hotel room now resembles One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Antonia is prone to random jags of laughter.
Richard is the poster child for nerve-related acid reflux.
And Mike is pacing uncontrollably.
They really are like some sort of social experiment gone awry.

Next day, back in the kitchen, Tom Colicchio finally makes an appearance.

He checks with Mike, looks skeptical of his sous vide fried chicken preparation. (He also asks for a urine sample, not sure why.)

He feels Antonia’s pain—sashimi bento boxes don’t exactly show off a chef’s technique in the optimum fashion.

He has a little therapy session with Blais.
“How would wining make you feel?” he asks.
“I’d cry either way,” says Blais, searching for a couch to lie down on. “Here’s hoping it’s because I’ve won.”
Tom smiles fondly. He’s totally on Team Blais.

Antonia meanwhile, has finally decided to sample her sushi-grade hamachi. . . and it’s rancid! Girl can’t catch a break.

In a hilarious metaphor for his own personality, Richard can’t get his pressure cooker open.

And Mike is making empanadas instead of biscuits. Ballsy.

Dinner time. Along with the Master Chefs, food photographer Melanie Dunea is also at the table.

Antonia, who had to substitute tuna for the hamachi, serves her bento box first.
Reviews mostly good. Morimoto thinks the miso is too salty.
Everyone likes her pickled Asian pear and mushroom.
The rice, cooked on a grain-by-grain basis, is a big hit.
Tom thinks the flavors aren’t subtle enough.

Next, Mike brings out his take on chicken and biscuits.
Wolfgang Puck calls it an “elegant version of fried chicken.”
Tom still thinks sous vide is a dumb way to make fried chicken.
Michele Bernstein actually dug the empanada with egg in the middle.
Morimoto says the white meat is too dry.

Finally, Richard with his beef goulash, frozen sour cream, spaetzle, and strudel with tarragon cream.

“I love what he’s done here,” says Michele Bernstein. “You see touches of what Richard’s done but he’s kept the integrity of the dish beautifully.”

Wolfgang Puck is in heaven.
“Adieu, adieu, to you and you and you,” he hums happily under his breath.

Back in the kitchen, the lesser known dwarves—Edgy, Cranky, and Acid-Refluxy—are waiting for the verdict.

They get called back to the table.

“The judges table is starting right now,” says Padma. (Wait. What about that twist you promised, Padma? First Bikini-Gate and now this?)

Richard, thankfully, is put out of his misery first: “Richard, if this season is about redemption for you, you are one step closer. You will be cooking in the finale.”

Now it’s down to the cousins. But wait. Remember that twist. It’s for reals, yo.

The two remaining chefs have to make one bite. And make it perfect.
Wow. I’m trying to imagine what I would do if someone told me to write the perfect, single sentence. . .
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . .” (Wait. Taken already. . .)
“All happy families are alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (No.)
“Go ahead, make my day.” (Wow. This is harder than it looks.)

Back in the kitchen they go, exhausted, spent, with nothing less than 200 grand and their futures on the line. No big whoop.

Mike makes beef tenderloin tartar and tempura lobster tail.
Antonia makes seared grouper in a coconut curry and lobster broth.

Conclusion: If you’re going to make the perfect bite, include lobster.

The chefs taste, deliberate, argue, and vote.
Antonia’s dish had maybe too much flavor.
Mike’s dish may’ve been too subtle.
Both are great.
So it’s a tie.

Padma, Melanie Dunea, and Morimoto like Antonia
Tom, Gail, and Michele like Mike.

Wolfgang Puck is the tie breaker.

“Antonia, please pack your knives and go.”


Oh well. I loved me some Antonia, but in the end, newly confident, not chemically altered Mike might just be the one to take down Blais.
Plus, now it will be so much easier to root for Blais in an unconflicted way.

Here’s my perfect sentence: Blais, you better get your shit together and win.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Shirts Optional: The Top Chef All Stars recap

It’s morning in the boy’s hotel room, which I imagine smells of oregano, Axe Body Wash, and flop sweat.

Richard, who apparently sleeps in the latest from the K-Fed sleepwear collection, wakes up Mike, who, in a cruel twist of fate, sleeps topless. (I wish I could say that this will be the last time the words “Mike” and “topless” are used in the same sentence in this blog, but I just can’t lie like that.)

Mike is feeling pretty good about himself, after last week’s triumph.
“I feel like I’m finally getting back on track,” he announces.
(Was he ever actually on track?)

As the gang makes their way to the Quickfire Challenge, Bravo shows us some beautiful Bahamian scenery—beaches and exotic birds and the like—but it tells you a lot about me that I all I have in my notes is: “Ooooh, doggie!”

Padma, still fully clothed, is standing in the kitchen with chef Lorena Garcia. “You’ll get to see her on NBC’s new competition show, America’s Next Great Restaurant!” Padma gushes. (Yes, as a matter of fact, NBC does own Bravo.)

The challenge is to pair up and create 100 completely identical dishes for a luncheon. I fully support this. (I hate when someone at my table orders the same dish as me but mine has one anemic crab claw stuck on top and theirs looks like the heavenly bounty of the sea. Food jealousy is no laughing matter, people.)

Despite Antonia and Mike’s newfound blood relation, the boys team up (bros before cousins, I guess) and Antonia lies and says she wanted Tiffany all along.

Blais and Mike are making macaroni with pork ragu.
Antonia and Tiffany are making seared beef tenderloin salad with lentils.

Then everyone starts taking shots at each other. (I love chef trash talk. It’s so cute.)

Blais derisively calls what the girls are doing “slice and serve.” “Seared tuna, put a salad on it. Seared beef: mango salad.” (Not. . .mango salad!?! Words hurt you know, Blais.)

“Our plating was much more difficult than scooping Bolognese onto a plate,” counters Antonia. (Easy plating? You . . . bitch!)

Then Mike attempts some trash talk, but it gets lost in translation:
“If I had to do Antonia and Tiffany’s dish, I probably could’ve sent Richard to the store to celebrate the win because I could’ve done it by myself,” says Mike.
(Wait? Didn’t he just say the girls had the winning dish?

Lorena and Padma like both dishes a lot, but in the end, Mike’s prediction comes true. The girls win.

“Are you serious? The beef salad won?” groans Mike, ever the gracious loser.

“It was a bit of an in-your-face moment,” says Tiffany. Sweet.

Time for the Elimination Challenge: To make a dish for the Nassau Yacht Club anniversary party on a deserted island using the much-maligned mollusk, the conch.

A boat is waiting to pick them up and, ladies and gentlemen, the bikini has landed! I repeat, the bikini has landed! And it was worth the wait.

“Puttin’ us all to shame, Padma,” says Tiffany.
(“I am totally joining a gym tomorrow,” says maxthegirl, munching on a Munchos, because tomorrow is, like, hours away.)

Padma smiles and struts away like she’s on a Bahamian runway. Werk it, girl.

On the boat (and Mike is right, the captain does look like Sammy Haggar), the chefs speculate about what awaits them.

Blais expects a “Lord of the Flies” type scenario.

Mike is trying to “stay cool calm and collective [sic].”
“We’re not going to be cleaning our own conchs and breaking them apart. Everything’s going to be there, everything’s going to be fine.”
(Said the cast and crew of Two and a Half men.)

As they approach the island, they all decide to hop out of the boat and swim to shore, allegedly to get started as quickly as possible, but more likely because a producer thought it would look funny. (It does.)
“I feel like I’m storming the beaches at Normandy,” says Richard. (Oh Blais: Why so funny?)

Their work stations are all set up with their proteins and other classic ingredients including. . .snorkel equipment. You guessed it: no damn conch.

Time for the fun island game: Bobbing for conch.

And this requires all of them, including Mike, to wear bathing suits.

“I don’t want to see Mike Isabella topless,” says Blais. “And neither do you.” It’s like he can read my thoughts.

Off they all go, and Antonia, who was on the swim team in high school, is actually a pretty good diver, and Tiffany and Mike are doing okay, but Richard is having a heck of a time snagging one of those little suckers. He keeps grabbing for it and missing. Grab. Miss. Grab. Miss. I could watch this all day.

Finally, they all get a sufficient amount of conch and they’re back on shore, starting to cook.

Now the big issue is cracking open a conch, no easy task. Lots of hilarious banging and cursing ensues.

The other big concern? Not getting sand in the food. There are two places you definitely don’t want sand. In your food and in your crotch.
They try to be meticulous about it.

The yacht party comes and the guests, all dressed in pristine white, are like some bad cliché of what members of a yacht club would look like. One of the guests is a dead ringer for Roman Polanski so . . .hide the children.

Richard mulls over his prospects: “I think there’s an added pressure on me, because I lost my season so I know the gravity of this,” he says. He seems to have completely missed the concept behind this whole “All-Stars” thing.

He notices that everyone has done an island theme for their conch dish.
“I must’ve missed the memo,” he shrugs.
Well, it wasn’t so much a memo as this GIANT DESERTED ISLAND you boated to.
But to each his own.
Instead, he’s opted for a Long Island take on conch: Sweet potato “linguini” with conch sauce and lobster, pictured.

Everyone likes the dish, and Tom is even faked out by the pseudo linguini (psych!), but some of the lobster is undercooked.

Next up Antonia, who does a very “Antonia” dish—seared red snapper with conch tartar.
Apparently, the tartar is spicy, which the natives love. Wimpy Gail gulps water.
And Tom thinks the Antonia’s dish under-utilizes the conch.

Meanwhile, a storm is dramatically brewing overhead. And I’m pretty sure it’s real, not CGI.

It blows over, but not before wreaking havoc on Tiffany’s conch chowder, which comes out cold.

“Is it supposed to be cold?” is debated at the table.
Consensus: No.
Also, while the dish is well-received, Tom thinks the chowder is too sweet.

Finally, Mike comes out with his banana leaf wrapped grouper with conch vinaigrette and savory pineapple.

Again, largely well received. Tom thinks the dish has unnecessary butter, but Gail is in LURVE with the savory pineapple. She wants to mate with it.

Zany antics during the commercial break, as the cheftestants debate which Gilligan’s Island character they are.
Obvs, Mike is the Skipper and Blais is the Professor. Carla? Gilligan. (Check.) Not so sure about this Tiffany-as-Ginger theory. Clearly, Padma is Ginger. Both Antonia and Tiffany are duking it out for Mary-Anne.

Then I see something that perhaps burns my eyes more than the sight of Mike in a bathing suit: A commercial for Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen on the SyFy network.

(Who decided this? And why didn’t they consult with me first? There’s only one show Marcel should ever be on and that’s Tool Academy. )

As the chefs wait in the stew room, we have our weekly edition of “I Hate My Dish, I Suck, and Then I Die.”
Everyone is whining about how their dish failed until Tiffany chimes in with: “I was actually happy with my dish. I did exactly what I wanted to do and I liked it.”

There is a long, stunned, uncomprehending silence. They stare at her like she has three heads.

The judges want to see everybody.

Congrats all around. Delicious food and not one errant grain of sand (in their crotches). Huzzah!

Now the tough part:

Antonia’s dish good, but too predictable. (She gives a little speech about how she was GOING for predictable.)

Richard’s dish gets lots of praise—and Richard even manages to give a few constipated smiles—until Lorena Garcia tells him that her lobster was undercooked. He immediately looks suicidal.

Tiffany’s soup was done-in by a strong Caribbean wind.
And Tom keeps insisting it was too sweet. (My sister thinks he was harping on the sweetness because it was Tiffany’s time to go, and I tend to agree.)

Gail is still obsessing over Mike’s pineapple. “Exactly how did you make it?” she says, taking notes. (Opening Next Month: Gail’s Savory Pineapple Grill.)

And … Mike wins.
Richard, who should never, ever, under any circumstances play poker, visibly flinches.

Mike wanders back to the stew room, victorious yet alone.
“Hard to celebrate when I’m here by myself,” he notes. Then he raises a champagne glass and gives a sad little “cheers” to himself.

And it’s time for Tiffany to please pack her knives and go.
She takes it well.
“I thought the dish was a good dish but I was outcooked and that’s the bottom line,” she says.
It’s called self-esteem, folks. Look it up.

Then she adds, “Sometimes you don’t get where you want to go, but you get much further than you were before.”

Off to go make that my Facebook status. See ya next week, peeps.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Bikini Gate: The Top Chef All-Stars recap

Are self-loathing and insecurity actually contagious? Because it sure seemed like everyone came down with a bad case of Richard Blais this episode. (And Blais himself had a particularly acute outbreak.) But more on that later.

First, the annual funny hair portion of the show.

Blais, always one to do his part, has grown a Finals Beard. It’s sort of pokey and indeterminate, much like Richard himself.

Everyone else looks pretty much the same. Mike comes in claiming that during the hiatus, he started training. Huh.
“I worked around all the top kitchens in D.C.,” he explains.
Oh, that kind of training.

Blais explains that he will be missing the birth of his daughter—little Liquid Nitrogena Blais—for this trip. As if the guy needed more pressure.

Also, let me point out that Padma did not wear a bikini this episode. I repeat, Padma did not wear a bikini!
Way to disappoint the tens of heterosexual men who watch this show. (Oh, you thought we meant this week? Our bad.)
(What the show should have advertised? Eric Ripert sporting a nice Bahamian tan. J’approve.)

I absolutely love the Quickfire Challenge: Go head-to-head with the person who won your season.
Also, Hosea is there, for reasons unknown. (Oh wait, I forgot. . .Hosea actually won his season.)

There’s no doubt that Mike has the biggest challenge, because he’s going against Goofus, the greatest chef in the history of Top Chef—just ask him.
Goofus is sporting some sort of dorktastic Stephen Baldwin-meets-Justin-Bieber hairdo, but that doesn’t make him any less intimidating. Dude has skillz.

Poor Stephanie, always a favorite of mine, has to go up against not one, but two all-stars: Richard and Antonia.

Apparently, her veal dish blows (but it still manages to edge Antonia’s, which blows harder) and Blais takes it easily.

So Goofus and Mike both have to make a duck dish. And Mike wins. Wow, all that “training” paid off. (And somewhere deep in the heart of Frederick, MD, Bryan Voltaggio is raising a glass in gratitude to Mike.)

Carla goes up against Hosea, both making lamb. But one of Carla’s burners doesn’t fire properly and her rice is undercooked and she loses. Now Hosea’s actually going to think he deserved to win his season. (P.S. I hate when technical difficulties get in the way of a chef’s performance. Couldn’t they have given Carla some damn equipment that worked?)

Tiffany and Kevin both make a pork dish. In a shocking move, Tiffany makes a pork stew. Kevin, for his part, makes barbecued pork with cilantro. And, lo and behold, Tiffany wins! (Hey, I guess there’s something to be said for knowing what you’re good at and sticking with it.)

Time for the Elimination Challenge: Prepare a meal for Bahamian royalty.
So now that I know this whole “Bahamian royalty” thing is a lie—it’s actually the King of Junkanoo, the island’s version of Mardi Gras—I see how bad the acting is here.
Eric Ripert is all, “I, fer one, would be very honairred to cook fer royalty.”
And Padma and Tom must say “royalty” about a zillion times, emphasizing the word with suspiciously over-the-top gusto.
Not gonna lie. I totally fell for it.

So everyone is prepping for very refined food. As Mike aptly puts it, “Honestly, you don’t want to put up a plate of bullshit”—except for Tiffany and Carla, who don’t really do refined.

After two hours of prep, “a big truck” comes to pick up the gang and take them to the royal kitchen.
I love that they call it a “big truck” when it’s clearly a Cadillac Escalade. If this was one of the show’s sponsors, they’d be all like, “And then they came to pick us up in this majestic Toyota Highlander with leather seats, a built-in GPS, all-weather tires, and electronic stability control.”

So the “big truck” drives them into town and suddenly they’re in the middle of this street festival and they start to get suspicious. This doesn’t look like the kind of place a royal family might roll up to play croquet.

Yup, you’ll be cooking in a fish fry joint for the King of Junkanoo. Joke’s on you!
Maybe Antonia, you ought to rethink that roasted rack of lamb with hazelnut butter.

The chefs mosey into the kitchen and everyone is second guessing their food, except for—you guessed it—Tiffany and Carla, who were going with comfort food to begin with.

Meanwhile, just as last week she summoned Padma by merely evoking her name, this week Antonia is able to make fire.
“This fryer is smoking,” she says. “I think it might light on. . . FIRE!!!!

Yikes. Fire + grease = bad thing.

Richard Blais bravely takes charge, covering the fryer. But I worry about him getting to close to the fire, cause you know all that styling gel in his hair could blow at any moment.

The chefs get out of harm’s way, but the same can’t be said for their food. Tom breaks the bad news: Your food is coated in fire-fighting chemicals and you have to start over. Sucks to be you.

Both Richard and Antonia change their game plan. Carla decides to cook her pork on the fryer, something she’s NEVER DONE BEFORE. (When will that girl learn?)

Serving time.
It is, as my pal Evan pointed out, the most random serving in the history of Top Chef. All the judges are crammed into a booth—dignified Eric Ripert is positively wedged against a wall—and then there are all these random people (their reason for being there never explained) tasting and commenting on the food. Basically, they just pulled people off the street.

Carla comes out first with her pork loin with sweet potato chips.
Everyone agrees the chips are agreeably crunchy but the dish is too sweet and Gail’s pork is raw.

Next, Antonia’s fried shrimp with pork grits.
The fish is overcooked and the “beige mystery meat” in the grits are a miscue.
Plus, Tom objects to the sliver of carrot on top: “Howard Johnson called. They want their garnish back!” (Has Tom been reading us bloggers? Because that was some Grade A snark.)

Mike’s sous vide chicken lobster hash is a hit. (Altogher now: He’s on fiiire.) The judges particularly love his sauce, although his white meat is a bit dry.

Richard’s roasted lamb with pickled turnip “cannelloni” gets mixed reviews.
Eric wasn’t a fan of the cannelloni; Tom thought it was clever. But everyone agreed the dish had an appealing delicacy.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Blais is already muttering to himself: “My food is disgusting. I’m so upset.” (We call this the “reverse pep talk.”)

Tiffany’s roasted pork with dirty rice and tomato relish is good, but everyone agreed it was a bit overly simplistic, and could’ve used more of the relish.

“It’s better in the Bahamas,” says the King, which he is probably sooo sick of saying. I’m so glad I don’t have to walk around town saying, “Baltimore: Get in on it!” (Yes. Actual Baltimore slogan.)

So basically, after the soaring highs of last week, the meal was a dud.
“Maybe the fire spooked them,” offered Padma.

Back in the waiting room, the SXSL (Self by Self-Loathing) Festival has really kicked into high gear.

Mike: I second guessed every dish I put out this season.
Richard: I just hate everything I do. And that’s a problem. That’s a bigger issue than right now. (Bloggers note: Ya think?)
Antonia: I feel sick to my stomach.

Wow. Who wouldn’t want to party with this cheery bunch?

Padma comes in. The judges want to see all of them.

“Tonight we had a wonderful celebration,” Padma says. Too bad your food ruined it.

Still, Mike did the best of a bad bunch. He wins.
Blais is put out his misery early this time. He’s in.

It comes down to Carla, Tiffany, and Antonia

“Carla, please pack your knives and go.”

Carla, needless to say, is gracious in defeat. “The judges made the right decision,” she said. Now there’s a first.

“Make momma proud,” she tells the four who are left.

Next week: Padma, in a bikini, with Bahamian royalty in a Toyota Highlander. They swear.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Kissing Cousins: The Top Chef All-Stars recap

Last night’s Top Chef worked like a soap opera in reverse.
On a soap opera, Antonia and Mike would be madly in love, then torn asunder by the revelation that they were related.

On Top Chef, they find out they’re cousins (what are the odds?) and suddenly it’s one big ginormous lovefest between the two.

I mean, it got weirdly . . .flirty, right? (Perfectly acceptable, mind you, since they are probably 6th cousins, 12 times removed, or something like that.) But suddenly Mike is hugging Antonia and leaning over her shoulder when she reads and beaming at her.
(Of course, in fairness, Mike probably liked Antonia already. Booger flicking is his version of seduction.)

And is it wrong of me to actually “ship” these two crazy kids? (“Ship” for those who don’t know, is fangirl shorthand for supporting a particular pairing on a TV show.)

I could so see them having their own reality sitcom: He’s a vulgar manchild with a heart of gold. She’s the patient, sassy woman who is exasperated by his antics, yet loves him all the same. Like The King of Queens but set in a restaurant. NBC, you’re welcome.

Anyhoo, the show starts with Antonia pretty much conjuring Padma at will.
She’s all, “I wonder if Padma will walk through the door before I finish this senten….”
And boom goes the dynamite, there she is.
The gang screams and cheers at this, and Padma probably is thinking to herself, “These peasants love me.”

Padma sends them on a ferry, where they have to make a snack using the ingredients in the snackbar before they arrive at Ellis Island.

I love a vending machine-style challenge, because it always reminds me of the time that Mike from Season Two put a toothpick in a cheese doodle and called it a day.

Tiffany has a similar solution to this problem: She sees the fixins for nachos and decides to make. . .nachos. Brilliant! (If she saw milk and corn flakes, the judges would be eating a bowl of corn flakes for the challenge.)

Boy wizard Richard Blais—the MacGyver of Top Chef—has brought along a ready-to-eat packet and is able to boil his hot dog in a little space capsule.

Carla finds fresh fruit—no scurvy for these pirates!—and makes candied fruit with oranges and carrot juice.

Antonia takes a cue from Dale and grills herself some damn cheese.

Mike tries to make potato soup thickened by bread and admits that he wouldn’t feed it to his cat.

Guest judge is Dan Barber, from Blue Hill restaurant. He chokes down the disgusting offerings and declares Carla to be the winner. The less said about this the better.

The Ellis Island Elimination Challenge is, of course about heritage. Top Chef has hired a famous genealogist to research the family history of each cheftestant and they will then make a dish that “best reflects the journey of your family.”

And they will have a little help with this journey: Their family!

So in walks the “Hoo?” to Carla’s “Hootie”—a.k.a., her husband.
Plus, Blais’s 5-months pregnant (and pretty!) wife.
And Mike, Antonia, and Tiffany’s adorable moms.

Hugs, tears, and jubilation all around. (And that was just in my living room.)

This is when Mike and Antonia discover that they are cousins—and Mike decides that Antonia has many Mike-like qualities that he is strangely attracted to.

Richard is having a bit of Italian envy: Who can blame him? His family is mostly from Ireland and England, two places not exactly noted for their fine cuisine. (“Have some potatoes with your potatoes,” is the unofficial motto of those countries.)

Mike, on the other hand, is anxious about serving Italian food, because it reminds of him of cooking with his late grandma, and makes him sad. Awwww.
(This more sensitive side of Mike would be featured in a very special episode of The King of Queens Café.)

Tiffany wants to make okra, then remembers that Tom C. hates okra and finds it slimy (world-class chefs: They’re just like us!) but decides to make it anyway. She WILL make Tom an okra convert. (My new nickname for Tiffany: Okra Winfrey.)

Antonia is making risotto. I love how bold this woman is.

Carla is doing fried grits and braised pork shoulder and cheddar biscuits. . .the diet plate, I like to call it.

(By the way, if you’re wondering why I haven’t commented on the picture of pint-sized Mike dressed in pink spandex, doing some of sort of dancercize, it’s because I’m trying—unsuccessfully—to unsee it.)

Meal time. The judges are Tom, Padma, Gail, and Dan Barber. And, of course, the families are there, too. Usually this is awkward, but in this case it’s not at all, for two basic reasons:
1. All the family members are totally swooning over all the food—not just their kin’s.
2. The food rules in epic fashion.

Seriously, everything is freakin’ delicious.

Mike’s gnocchi are like little pillows of love.

Antonia’s risotto is exactly how Tom, the most finicky risotto eater on the planet, likes it. (He’s like Morris the Cat when it comes to risotto.)

Tiffany’s okra is so good, she makes Tom a true believer. “I have finally had okra that I like,” he admits.

Richard’s short ribs with picked glassworts is “all right,” declares Tom. Richard’s wife shoots him a nervous look. “Not alright,” he clarifies. “All right.”

And, finally, Carla has made the best sauce that Tom ever had and Gail pretty much wants to marry her fried grits. (Which she cooked using. . .liquid nitrogen!?! #signoftheapocalypse.)

It’s the happiest, warmest, bestest meal ever! Except for one minor detail. . . someone has to go home.

“Can’t there be five who are going to the finals?” proposes Mike’s mother. Oh silly Mike’s mother. Grow up! The world doesn’t work that way. (Spoiler alert: Just kidding.)

The cheftestants come out, there are hugs. Richard is conspiratorially whispering in his wife’s ear: “Did they like it? Am I safe? Did they say anything about me? Do they like my hair?” Keeping a check on that boy’s anxieties must be a full-time job, poor woman.

Decision time. The judges want to see all 5 Cheftestants.

In a badly dubbed voiceover, Padma tells them that the winner will receive a Toyota Highlander. Also, the final challenge will take place in the Bahamas.

And the winner is. . .Antonia!
She had the rice stuff! (sorry.)

And SensitiveMike ™ is also. . . safe!

Now it’s down to Tiffany, Carla, and Richard.

Padma looks at Richard and says solemnly. . . “Richard, please pack your knives . . .” He looks like he’s about to pass out. “Because you’re also going to the Bahamas!”

In a squeaky, oxygen deprived voice he says, “Why would you do. . .? Then, as air fills his lungs, he moves on: “Thank you so much.”
(Seriously, I hope they had a medic on call. Cause that was touch and go for a second.)

And now it’s down to Tiffany and Carla: Okra Winfrey and Hootie.

This is going to suck, no matter how they slice it.
“Carla, Tiffany, you’re both going to the Bahamas!”
Unless they slice it like that!

“We just couldn’t say goodbye to either of you,” explains Tom.
Not gonna lie. I cried.

It seems only fitting that on this very personal and emotional challenge, all 5 went through.

Next week, Padma in a bikini! Just to be on the safe side, they better keep that medic on call.