Friday, February 25, 2011

Want Some Fry With That? The Top Chef All-Stars recap

If you are a lobbyist for the National Butter and Oil Foundation (yeah, doesn’t really exist) you pretty much want Paula Deen to be your poster child.

She’s not fat, but pleasantly plump.
Her hair is shiny and lustrous and white, like all that butter fat just made it healthier.
She’s always smiling, like she knows the secret to good life (butter, obviously).

And when Antonia sees that Paula Deen is the judge for the Quickfire challenge she says, “It’s going to be a fry something, roll it in butter, and dip it in mayonnaise kind of challenge.”
Bingo! It’s a fried food challenge. (But wouldn’t it be funny if it was actually a spa cuisine challenge? )

“Southern cooking is how we show our love for each other,” says Paula. That, incidentally, is one of the slogans of the National Butter and Oil Foundation. Carla nods. She’s feeling her.

“If you can eat it you can fry it,” adds Paula. Another slogan.

Then Deen cautions the cheftestants against making something boring like fried calamari over salad. (Deen probably sees fried calamari as a waste of a perfectly good vat of oil.)

Richard decides to deep fry mayonnaise with fried bacon, pictured—which strikes me as pandering to Paula Deen in an almost insulting way. (She, of course, loves it.)

He also reveals the secret to his gravity defying hair: Duck fat and liquid nitrogen. I knew it!

Antonia makes fried shrimp and fried avocado. But she has a brain fart and only makes one portion. (Maybe she just couldn’t wrap her mind around the idea of Padma eating fried food.) Anyway, she’s screwed.

Tiffany makes fried chicken with fried pickles. (Fried pickles, btw = nature’s perfect food.)

Carla makes fried catfish with hush puppies. But she messes up the batter and it's gloopy and thick and she knows it’s not a winner.

Dale makes fried oysters wrapped in a delicate omelet. Way too frou-frou for Paula Deen.

And Mike makes a fried chicken oyster that he puts in a real oyster shell. So clever, so artful, so twee, so . . .Richard Blais?

Yeah, it turns out that Mike’s idea isn’t just Blaisian—it’s actually Blais.

You see, the night before—dude couldn’t even wait a few days to commit his grand theft recipe—they were looking through Richard’s Ye Olde Magik Book of Cooking Potions and they chatted about Richard’s brilliant idea to put a chicken oyster in an oyster shell.
And I’m just guessing that when Blais went to bed, Mike rushed out to Kinko’s to make copies.

So Blais is none too happy about this larceny, as you can imagine.
And he keeps glaring at Mike, who avoids eye contact with the same skill of a busy waiter at a diner who doesn’t want to bring you more coffee.

Finally, Mike looks up. Sees Richard glaring and. . .winks.

And then Richard takes a carving knife, runs straight at Mike, stabs him in the eye, and watches as the blood trickles out of his punctured eye socket, laughing.
Okay, he didn’t actually do that. But who could’ve blamed him if he did?

Anyway, bottom 2: Carla (cause her hush puppies tasted like “spit balls”) and Dale.

As for the top, Antonia so would’ve won if she’d only bothered to make two portions.
“I could come over there put you over my knee and whip your cute little ass,” says Deen. (Not one of the NBOT slogans, by the way.)

And of course, Mike and Richard are the other top two.
“I’m competing against myself,” says Richard, reminding me of the epic “I’m 6 foot 5 inches, 220 pounds, and there are two of me” Winkevoss line from The Social Network.

And. . .the winner is Mike!
Does he feel a twinge of remorse or regret?
“It pisses me off,” he says of Blais’s pouting. “If you’re going to win, be an effing winner. If you’re going to lose, go in the effing corner.”
Which actually makes no sense.

Time for the Elimination Challenge, as explained by guest judge John Besh: Make a dish with Gulf seafood for 300 guests at a benefit for the Greater New Orleans Foundation.

And since 300 is a lot of people to cook for, there will be “help.”
Into the kitchen march Fabio, Marcel, Tiffani, Tre, Spike, and Angelo, all wielding a different Gulf fish.

“I’m not really concerned with the protein,” says Blais. “I’m concerned with who might not be mentally fit at this point.”

As he says this, the camera cuts to Marcel, grinning like a Alex from A Clockwork Orange, and Angelo, who blinks heavily.

So Mike picks Tiffani and her brown shrimp.
Richard picks Fabio (was there ever any doubt?) and his bedroom eyes—I mean, uh, red snapper.
Carla picks Tre and his bulging….red grouper.
Tiffany picks the white shrimp.. . “oh, and Marcel!” she adds. (See what she did there? Marcel is both shrimpy and white. )
Antonia picks Spike and crabs. (No comment.)
Dale picks Angelo—who really does look a bit addled—and amberjack.

Off they go to Restaurant Depot to buy hot sauce in bulk.

In the kitchen, I’m happy to report that none of the chefs fell into the time-honored trap of caving to the wisdom of a former cheftestant who got the boot before you.

Instead, most of them seem to be using their fallen comrades as true sous chefs, with the exception of Tiffany, who lets Marcel make her sweet chile rub for the shrimp, a move she will later regret.

They go the banquet, in various states of readiness. Dale is particularly in the weeds. Angelo keeps trying to calm him down with that soothing, hypnotic Angelo voice of his (perhaps even more soothing than usual since he is clearly heavily sedated) but Dale knows he’s in trouble.
And he’s right. His potatoes are undercooked and his mustard croutons overpower his amberjack.

Paula Deen’s eyes light up when she sees Tiffany’s head-on shrimp, because “I know I’m going to be sucking that head!” (Ahem.) But Tiffany’s shrimp were guilty of sucking in the wrong way.

Same for Carla’s collard greens.
Paula Deen took one bite, made a face and said, “I’m kind of a bitch about my collard greens.” (God, she’s just catch phrase gold, isn’t she?)

Antonio sends Spike out on a recon mission, but all he does is flirt with some ladies and spill wine.

When service is finished, everyone hugs it out warmly—Fabio even pinches Richard’s cheek—except for Tiffany and Marcel, who give a diffident half hug.
“See you never,” is the implied farewell.

So the judges want to see our Top 3:
Antonia, Richard, and Mike.

They loved Antonia’s blue crab cake with corn and kick-ass crab sauce.
They thought Mike “hit the nail on the head” with his grit-crusted Gulf shrimp served over sour cream and chive potato.
They thought Richard pulled off his unlikely surf and turf—pulled pork and fried snapper.

And the winner is. . .Amazin’ Blaisin’! Suck it, Mike.

Now for the bad news: The judges want to see Dale, Tiffany, and Carla.
“I could go home on a Southern food challenge,” says Carla, incredulous.
“So could I,” says Tiffany, equally incredulous.
“I got this,” thinks Dale (and Max.)

They skulk into the judging room. All three are scolded for not honoring the Gulf fish.
Dale is accused of “flavor warfare.”
Carla’s hot mess of chow-chow, collard greens, and grouper with hot sauce baffled Paula Deen.
Tiffany’s shrimp were mealy and too sweet ($%#@Marcel!). It’s clearly her time to go.

And then a funny thing happens on the way to Tiffany’s last hurrah.
It goes to Dale instead.
Yes, Dale, who won, like, a bajillion challenges.
Dale, whose new film Cook Angry starring Nicolas Cage will be coming soon to a theater near you.
Dale, who I boldly picked to be in the Top 3, along with Antonia and Richard.

So much for my keen prognosticating skills.

Looking for another hot tip? Ride Winter’s Bone for a clean sweep on your Oscar pool. Truuuust me.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Target Practice: The Top Chef All-Stars recap

True story: A couple of weeks ago I was sitting around a table with some friends—adult friends, mind you—and we were having an argument. See if you can guess what the argument was about:
a. The populist uprising in Egypt.
b. The recent German takeover of the NY Stock Exchange.
c. Whether or not Grover is a Muppet.

If you guessed c, well. . .you know your segues!

I was on the pro Grover-as-Muppet side, in case you were wondering. My friends maintained that he wasn’t on The Muppet Show, ergo, not a Muppet. I even texted my friend Larry, the foremost Muppetologist on my contact list, and his response was a very cryptic: “That’s a complicated question.” It was like I had asked him to break down the Big Bang Theory. . .

Anyway. Squee! Elmo, Telly, and Cookie Monster. Muppets in the house. (Or at least Sesame Street characters. We never did resolve our issue). Tiffany, for her part, looks terrified.

“In my house, Elmo is like Elvis,” Richard says. Cute. Later, he gets Elmo to say hi to his daughter: “Hello Riley. Elmo loves you.”
Awww, both Richard and I get a little verklempt.

Actually, the whole segment is adorbs. It’s nice to see the contestants giggling over the Muppets’ antics, even if, at one point, it seems like Dale is actually going to thrown down with the Cookie Monster. (You know your anger management issues aren’t fully resolved when you get enraged at a heckling Muppet.)

Also, Mike and Angelo are claiming that they’d never made cookies before. I’m so sure.

So the bottom 2 are Angelo, whose Belgian hazelnut cookie was too hard and not very sweet, and Richard, who made some sort of pretentious (what, Richard. . .pretentious?) liquid nitrogen zucchini cookie.

Richard is chagrined. “You don’t want to be called out by the Cookie Monster,” he says.

And the Top 2 are Antonia, despite the fact that her chocolate cookies looked like “cow chips,” according to Elmo, and Dale, who made pretzel and potato chip shortbread cookie with salted caramel chocolate ganache. (Yes please.)

And the winner. . .Dale! I really thought the Muppets were going to go with Antonia’s more classic cookie. Who knew that Muppets had refined palates?

Elimination Challenge time. And here’s the question: If you are Target, and you want to tell the world that along with selling clothing, electronic goods, toys, appliances, TVs, DVDs, accessories, candy, computers, gardening supplies, pet products, toiletries, bedding, stationery, magazines, books, towels, skateboards, and, well EVERYTHING ELSE THAT CAN CONCEIVABLY HAVE A BAR CODE AFFIXED TO IT, you now also have added fresh produce to your prodigious mix, what do you do?
You put yourself front and center on Top Chef and offer up the biggest Elimination Challenge booty in the history of the show: 25,000 big ones.

Target’s new motto: Like Wal-Mart, only on Bravo, bitches!

No rest for the weary: The gang have to head straight for Target and buy all their gear and cook a 3 a.m. repast for 100 Target staff members.

This seems easy enough, but is, in fact, an insane test of physical stamina and will. Because this Target is huge—like 4 football fields put together huge. And the food is on one side and the supplies are on the other and the Cheftestants are all running through the closed store, double-fisting their carts, panting, sweating, and in a complete panic.
“I’m not in the best of shape,” admits Mike. Thanks for the news flash, pal.

For some reason, all this running around makes 3 of them—Mike, Angelo, and Carla specifically—decide to make soup. I know when I’m sweaty and exhausted, I want a thick steaming bowl of soup.

“It’s ridiculous. $25,000 on the line, I’m not going to make soup,” says Antonia. Truth.

Actually, Carla only decides to make soup once she remembers that she has to cook. She spends so much time trying to beautify her work station—and, let’s face it, her world— she forgets about the food part.
To be fair, I’m actual familiar with this phenomenon, known as TTA (Temporary Target Amnesia). You go to Target to buy some suntan lotion, you leave with Season 5 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a pair of sweatpants, a cute decorative bowl, a pink dog bed. . .and, yup, no suntan lotion. Carla, I feel ya, girl.

The 100 Target employees arrive and, bless their little hearts, they are forced to wear their bright red Target uniforms.

Then the judges arrive. It’s Tom, Padma, and Anthony Bourdain, plus TV chef Ming Tsai and Thomas O’Brien, head designer for Target, who, as my friend Coach Kate points out, looks like a gay (read: hotter) Rivers Cuomo from Weezer.

“This is a first for Top Chef,” says Padma. “A 3 a.m. service.”

Adds Anthony Bourdain: “And I’m going straight from here to a . . .”
Play along, kids! What did Anthony Bourdain say next?
a. brothel
b. Kid Rock after-party
c. parent teacher conference.

If you guessed c., you’ve been following the life journey of Anthony Bourdain more closely than I have.

So. . .to sum up the reactions.

They love Dale’s iron-grilled cheese and spicy tomato soup. Bourdain deems it perfect stoner food (now that’s the Anthony I know and love!) and wonders if Dale has had a urine test recently.
Also, someone had to say it and it was Ming Tsai: “Maybe Dale’s trying to become the Iron Chef.” Heh.

Angelo’s baked potato soup is too heavy, too salty, and just plain gross.

Carla’s curried apple soup is watery and one-dimensional. They say it needs protein, which Carla actually knew. (She wanted to add salmon but feared she didn’t have time to do the 250-yard dash.) Damn, girl. Now I’m worried.

Despite its unsavory appearance (“looks like parrot shit” to be specific), the judges dig Richard’s corn pancake with pork tenderloin.

Antonia’s “ballsy move”—making runny Parmesan eggs to order—paid off. The judges likey.

Mike comes out and proudly presents his spicy coconut soup with “fresh coconut milk.”
Seems innocuous enough. But nothing gets past our Padma.
“You found fresh coconuts here?” she demands.
“No, uh, it’s coconut milk.” Opened recently. So that’s kind of fresh, right?
“Then it’s not fresh coconut milk,” snipes Padma.
“You’re right,” admits Mike.
When you’re busted, you’re busted.
This unfortunate exchange aside, the judges like the spice but feel the soup is perhaps a bit dull.

Tiffany’s jambalaya is just aight and is clearly made with store-bought Creole mix. Whoops.

When all is said and done, “I’m souped out,” says Bourdain.
“I’m souped up!” says Tom. He’s just the cutest.

The contestants look dazed. Antonia has reverted to a childlike state and is blankly petting a stuffed Target dog.

Even Carla is subdued. I repeat: Even Carla is subdued.

Judgment time:
“We’d like to see Dale, Richard, and Antonia,” says Padma.
Meet our Top 3, people. And I don’t just mean of this challenge. That’s my prediction for the final 3 of this whole season (that I have boldly decided to make when there are only 6 contestants left).
I’m just fearless like that.

And Dale wins! Antonia and Richard exchange slightly miffed looks that clearly say: WTF? He ironed a grilled cheese sandwich and beat us?

“Boom! That’s rent for a year,” says Dale. Wow. 30 grand for 24-hours of work. Remind me again why I didn’t go to culinary school?

Bad news time: The Bottom 3 are Angelo, Tiffany, and Carla.

It’s all very emotional and tense—no catchy songs about beef tongue this week for Angelo—and Tiffany does her “I’m just a smalltown girl with a big dream” bit and cries. And then Carla cries. And Angelo manfully holds his shit together, but just barely.
“How can you get past salt?” he muses, as he awaits his fate.

Everyone is sad. But it’s Angelo’s time to go. (Surprised. I actually thought it was going to be Tiffany.)

They skulk back into the green room.
“It’s been an honor, guys,” says Angelo.
“Really?” says Mike. He thinks Angelo is kidding. Because that would be such a good joke.
Angelo assures him it's real.
“What? You?”
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why people think Mike is a douche.

Goodbye Angelo. You were an odd, inscrutable, and slightly shady little man, but I loved you all the same.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sunny Side Up: The Top Chef All-Stars recap

I once had the worst blind date of my life at a major fondue chain. (I won’t reveal the name, but it rhymes with The Pelting Spot.)
First of all, the fondue was terrible—like, melted Velveeta terrible. Second of all—and here’s some free wisdom for you kids out there—you should never schedule a blind date at a place where you have to cook your own food. It just makes everything take twice as long. (Also, as a general rule, I hate places that make you cook your meal—if I wanted to slave over a hot fire, I’d go camping. I’m talking to you, Korean BBQ.)

To make matters worse, at The Pelting Spot, you have an option to order a four-course meal, it’s called the Big Night Out. Call us overly optimistic, but me and Blind Date Guy chose the Big Night Out.

Anyway, halfway through the first course, we realized that we had nothing in common. And we still had 3 more torturous courses to go. I think at some point, we just gave up and ate in a grim, resigned silence. It took me 8 years before I could even look at a fondue pot again.

(And, if you’re worried that Blind Date Guy is reading this and is personally offended, look, he was there too. He knows how bad it was. If anything, we now share a Stockholm-syndrome like bond.)

All of this is my way of setting up the Quickfire Challenge: To make fondue.

Padma tells the Cheftestants to look around to see who their guest judges are and their eyes wander dumbly up and down the room. They look like cats following a laser pointer.

“It’s you, morons!” says Padma. (Well, the morons was implied.)

Padma tells them to be creative, and not make something lame like chocolate fondue with bananas. So what does Professor Blais, gastrobiologist to the stars, decide to make? Chocolate fondue with bananas. It’s no wonder you can’t spell “balls” without Blais. (Okay, that almost worked. . .)

After everyone cooks and eats, they get their ballots.
“I thought these were going to be secret ballots,” grouses Antonia.
Not quite. In fact, the ballots have their names written across the top, in giant block letters. You could see these things from Cleveland.

“I’m going to be honest. I’m going to be like NY Times reviewers up in this bitch,” says Dale. (Now that Marcel is gone, he has decided that he will represent the gangsta side of Top Chef.)

So the bottom 3 are:
Mike, who made a lamb dipped in stanky feta sauce.
Fabio, who did some sort of cold blini in crème fraiche.
Tiffany, who did giant donuts in chocolate sauce. (And the problem here is. . .?)

Apparently, Dale went all New York Times up in Mike’s dish, putting it last, which causes a brief ruckus.

Moving on. . .

Top 3 are:
Antonia, who did a deconstructed salmon on rye.
Dale, who did a Vietnamese Pho fondue.
Angelo, who, despite his concerns (he was this close to chucking the whole thing) nailed his take on an endive salad with goat cheese dip and a beet juice chaser.

And the winner is, well, let’s let the OG tell you himself:
“I don’t want to rub it anyone’s face that I won. They know what’s up.” Yeah, boyyyy!

For the Elimination Challenge, the gang is ushered into a car and taken to Rockefeller Center.
The next thing you know—and I think we’ve all had nightmares like this—they’re in front of a live audience on the Jimmy Fallon show. Naked! (Oh wait, that last part actually was from my dream.)
I guess their only consolation is this: It’s not like they’re suddenly on TV. They were already on TV.

It’s Jimmy’s birthday (he’s turning 11, I believe) and the chefs will have to make one of his favorite dishes, by way of the cellphone shootout.
The deal is, they hold up their cellphones to a screen of flashing images and whatever image they happen to capture with their camera, they’re cooking it.

Carla is hoping, wishing, and dreaming to get Chicken Pot Pie and when she does, she spazzes out in that adorable, finger-in-an-electric-socket, Carla way.
And it occurs to me that together, Jimmy Fallon and Carla have enough giddy, positive energy to power a medium-sized village.

The other pairings are as follows:
Antonia gets beef tongue.
Fabio gets hamburger. (“I’ve never done a booger,” he notes.)
Mike gets sausage and peppers and onions
Angelo gets pulled pork
Richard gets ramen noodles
Dale gets Philly cheesesteak
Tiffany gets chicken and dumplings

With the exception of curve ball beef tongue, it’s safe to say that today’s lunch is sponsored by NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws).

Oh, and one more thing: Jimmy hates mushrooms, mayonnaise, and eggplant.
(Turns out, Jimmy had a traumatic encounter with mayonnaise as a child that is way worse than my The Pelting Spot story.)

Back at the house, a particularly shameless Buitoni ad breaks out.
It actually reminded me a bit of this:

(I promise I'm not going to post a video in every blog post from now on, just because I figured out how to embed in HTML. But that was funny, yes?)

Later, there is a strange, brief reverie on Angelo and his tight pants, perfect 5 o clock shadow, and avocado in his pants.

“I still think I’m a better chef, even if he is a stunning man,” says Dale. So that happened.

Everyone gathers at Colicchio & Sons for Jimmy’s birthday meal.
Jimmy comes in and he’s all excited—he truly is like a kid hopped on goofballs at all times. I’m actually surprised there wasn’t a pirate or a clown making balloon animals at the event.
Mom and dad are there and so is his wife (still hard to wrap my mind around the concept of: Jimmy Fallon, husband)—as well as various TV sidekicks and cohorts. (Alas, no one from the Roots.)

In the kitchen, Carla is freaking out because, although she makes a mean chicken pot pie, she’s never had to cook it in less than 2 hours.
Could this be her undoing?

Also, Antonia has no idea how to cook tongue, but Dr. Blais teaches her how to pressure cook it.
Yay him.

So, up first:
Antonia’s tongue with dill slaw, which everyone loves: “She licked the challenge,” says Jimmy’s emcee, Steve Higgins. (I see what you did there.)

Next, Fabio’s booger with cheese sauce. It is deemed more meatloaf than hamburger and not juicy enough and just kind of meh.

Next, Richard’s ramen noodles. “First time making it without the flavor packet,” he says. Chefs: They’re just like us!

Although Richard intentionally played it straight, to prove that “I don’t need a helmet, 40 pounds of dry ice and a flame thrower to make my food exciting,” Jimmy wasn’t impressed.
“I was expecting lasers and smoke machines,” sighs Jimmy. (Just a thought: When you’re making a meal for the most boyishly wide-eyed man-child in the world, maybe you should throw in a few pyrotechnics.)

Tiffany’s chicken and dumplings are unrecognizable as chicken and dumplings and thus, considered a failure.

Carla, who did manage to finish her chicken pot pies on time, absolutely nails it.
“What do you think?” asks Padma.
“I’m too busy eating to give an opinion,” replies Tom.

Dale was so freaked out about his food being called bland last week that he goes overboard with his Philly cheesesteak on salty pretzel roll with salt sauce and a salt chaser, pictured.
Jimmy says it was attacked by the “salt monster.”

Angelo’s pulled pork is deemed a “home run.”
Tom calls his crazy rub, made with all-spice, dill, coffee, and chipotle, “amazing.”
(Later, Jimmy says that it was like Angelo took a dare—make something super-delicious with these 4 random ingredients!—and he won.)

Everyone enjoys and instantly forgets Mike’s sausage with thinly sliced peppers and onions.

At this point, I’m actually beginning to feel ill, thinking about all the food they just ate. . .and then the contestants come rolling out with a birthday cake.

“Ice cream cake! I love ice cream cake!” says Jimmy. I take it back—he’s 4.

He also makes an announcement: The winner will get a cooking segment on Late Nite.
“We’ll have fun, Late Nite style,” he promises. I don't doubt it.

Back at judging, Padma calls in the Top 3:
Carla, Angelo, and Antonia.

Carla and Jimmy have a cute moment where they share their love for crust on the bottom of chicken pot pie (“that’s what’s I’m sayin’!” “that’s what I’m sayin’!”) and they’re true kindred spirits. I might watch a show they did together, except it would possibly make me feel like an angry ball of depressive, bitter rage. (And I’m actually pretty cheerful.)

Anyway, Angelo and Antonia also did great—and then all three did an excellent rendition of the soon to be smash hit, “The Beef Tongue Song”—but is there really any question who’s going to win?
It’s Carla, all the way. Set your DVRs!

Now, the bad news:
The judges want to see Tiffany, Fabio, and Dale.

Jimmy can’t handle the negative vibe of giving this trio the bad news and literally drops his head on the table in dismay.

For one of you “the party is over,” says Tom.

And it’s. . .Fabio. Done in by a pedestrian booger.
Padma looks distraught. She thought she might actually hit that.

“I love Jimmy Fallon,” says Fabio. “But the fact that he came on my show and sent me home. . . That’s no good, Jimmy.”

He wanders back to the waiting room, where he gives European man kisses to Blais and Mike.

“You really are the only shadow standing in your own sunshine,” Fabio says, already considering his next career as a chef/motivational speaker.

Oh well, I hate to see the guy go, but at least I know there’s one less sad turtle in Los Angeles today.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Take the gun, leave the risotto: The Top Chef All Stars recap

With Marcel gone, the show is frantically scrambling to find a new villain. They try Mike on for size.

“He’s abrasive and annoying,” says Antonia gamely.

Nice try, but the Mike-as-baddie thing just isn’t going to stick—in fact, it barely makes it to the first commercial break. Yes, he is abrasive and annoying, but in sort of a lovable palooka way.

So Isaac Mizrahi is our Quickfire Judge. This I’m sure has nothing to do with the fact that he has a ratings-challenged show on Bravo or that Padma has a jewelry line to hawk. You’re all so cynical!

“Fashion and cooking have a lot in common,” he points out. Oh yes, Isaac. All those stick-figure fashionistas—they love a good Bolognese.

Angelo says that fashion is his other passion (besides the continent of Asia, Russian mail order brides, Rid-Ex anti-itch cream, and tight pants). But that’s just his way. If today’s guest judge were the late Isaac Asimov, Angelo would say that science fiction was his other passion.

So the Quickfire is to make an aesthetically pleasing dish that doesn’t have to be delicious.

“I wanted to be a food stylist, back in the day,” says Angelo. (See what I mean?)

Nobody really masters this challenge, as far as I can tell. In fact, it kind of brings out the crazy in most of them.

Angelo makes what Fabio aptly calls “vomit in a bag.” It truly looks like it belongs in some sort of haz-mat bin. Angelo also can’t spell crocodile—he spells it crocadile—but hey, this is not Top Speller. (By the way, Bravo execs: I would actually watch a show called Top Speller.)

Fabio himself is inspired by beautiful women in the rain trying to stay dry. (Role playing must get pretty kinky in the Viviani bedroom: Girls, bring your umbrellas.)
He makes these strange lumps of tuna with “acid rain” lemon juice.

Antonia is inspired by The Giving Tree. (P.S. Never trust anyone who tells you that The Giving Tree is their favorite book. It means they don’t read.)
She makes a plate of lentils, nuts, and seeds that a hamster might actually send back to the kitchen.

Carla almost rises to the occasion with her beautiful little cucumber cup and cucumber lattice-work. But, the cup seems to be filled with Pepto Bismol, and then the smear of pink and green on the plate also adds to the dietary distress feel.
Note to chefs: Smears on plates are not appetizing.

Both Tre and Dale decide to go for the minimalist look, dotting their plates with a random assortment of ingredients.

“It looks like you finished cooking and this is what was left behind,” Mizrahi says to Dale. Maybe he doesn’t know who he’s insulting—Isaac, run for your life!!
“I’m a chef. I don’t care about a fashion designer’s opinion,” sniffs Dale, immediately going backstage to make an emergency phone call to his anger management sponsor.

Mike actually makes a lovely plate with egg yolk, roasted eggplant, and carrot puree. He’s my winner, but what do I know?

Tiffany makes almond gazpacho with “dirt” made from rye bread. Mmmmm, dirt.

Blais does something so bizarre, I don’t know what to make of it: black chocolate ice cream with menthol crystals and herbal salad.
It is strangely. . .cool looking (see above), kind of like a plate of broccoli that has been buried in Antarctica for a century. But appetizing?
“I actually want to eat that,” says Isaac. Huh.

And. . .Blais wins! Blais wins! Damn. He is unstoppable.

Elimination Challenge time.

If you ever assumed that Top Chef was simply too progressive a show to trot out the old Italians = mafia stereotype, guess again! This was one stereotype the show couldn’t refuse. (See what I did there?)

The gang from famed Italian restaurant Rao’s come in and everyone’s cowering and making mob jokes.

“They look like the Godfathers, I love it,” says Fabio.
Later he adds:
“Get your guns out, it’s an Italian challenge.”

Naturally, Lorraine Bracco, of Goodfellas and The Sopranos fame, will be our guest judge. Apparently, Joe Pesci was unavailable.

The challenge is to make an Italian feast, in three courses.
Antipasti goes to the signorinas: Carla, Antonia, and Tiffany.
Pasta course goes to Mike, Tre, and Dale
Secundi course goes to Blais, Angelo, and Fabio.

And suddenly, everyone’s Italian, albeit some more credibly than others:
We have the 3 actual Italians: Fabio, Mike, and Antonia. (Although, of the 3, Fabio is the most Italian of them all. Just ask him.)
Then we have the self-dubbed Black Italian: Tre.
Tiffany points out that she used to work at an Italian restaurant, and therefore is Italian by proxy, or something.
Carla considers Italian food to be comfort food and says “that’s what I do.”
Dale makes Italian food for his girlfriend.
Angelo once knew an Italian guy.
And so on. . .

They go to Rao’s and there’s all-Frank-Sinatra-all-the-time on the juke box (what? you were expecting Ric Ocasek?) and the walls apparently “smell of marinara.” Damn, that’s Italian.

Sitting around the table, along with the judges, are the owners and managers of Rao’s, as well as the longtime bartender named. . .Nicky Vest?

Okay, so maybe his name isn’t Nicky Vest, maybe it’s Nicky Vas or Nicky West. .. but with a vest that blindingly blingtastic, that’s all I could think of.
Basically, his vest looked like it was made from the Lite-Brite game from my childhood. He must’ve purchased it from the Johnny Weir leisure collection.
I ♥ Nicky Vest.

First course goes very well:
Everyone loves Carla’s minestrone soup, although one of the Rao’s owners says you could get minestrone like that in Wisconsin.
Lorraine Bracco disagrees and will now probably have him whacked.

Tiffany’s warm polenta terrine with Italian sausage is another hit. Nicky Vest says Tiffany’s hands are blessed, or should be blessed, or something. I couldn’t hear anything above the din of his vest.
Tom cracks that Italians don’t call it Italian sausage, they just call it sausage.
(Which reminds me of when I first moved to Baltimore and they served this mysterious thing called Jewish apple cake. Yeah, we have a name for that in the Weiss family: apple cake.)
(P.S. Mom, if you’re reading this. .. apple cake is yummy and would bring a smile to every Weiss family member’s face and who doesn’t want happy family members? Just sayin’.)

They also love Antonia’s mussels in white wine and fennel broth. It took Tom to a happy, nostalgic place.

Next up—the epic fail of the pasta course:

Mike’s homemade rigatoni crossed that line from al dente to “un-done-te” (thanks, Carla.)

Tre’s risotto is too firm, and focuses on the garnish more than the rice.

Dale’s brussels sprouts, pancetta, and pasta (which sorry, looked delicious to me) was apparently bland.
“This is what they eat in the witness protection program,” says Anthony Bourdain. (Every once in a while Anthony Bourdain says something that seems funny but actually isn’t. This is one of those times.)
“He’s not getting laid tonight,” says Bracco, since Dale apparently cooks this dish for his girlfriend.
(Dr. Melfi, how could you?)
Tom Colicchio promptly blushes.

Final course:
Fabio’s chicken cacciatore with polenta was delicious. Anthony Bourdain says “It wiped away the stain of the previous course.” Oh snap.

Angelo’s sautéed pork with pancetta was good, but not very authentic tasting—too saucy.

Richard’s pancetta with broccolini and hot pepper was another hit, the flavors really shined through.

Meanwhile, Mike is back in the kitchen trying to convince himself that his undercooked rigatoni wasn’t going to be his undoing.
“It was al dente, but was it too al dente?” he muses. Spoiler alert: Yes it was.

The verdict is in. The judges want to see the antipasta course, plus Fabio.
Mike looks stunned. He reminds everyone that Padma is a woman of mysterious wiles and unpredictable ways.
Surely, the antipasto course—the broads, forchrissake—can’t be the winners.

Wrong again.
“Congratulations,” says Padma. “You had our four favorite dishes.”

The bromance between Anthony Bourdain and Fabio continues: “I was in a dark place after the previous course and your polenta pulled me back to the light,” Bourdain says.
Oh, these two. They’re approaching “get a room” status. They’ve come such a long way since they almost came to blows in episode one.

But in the end, Antonia with her mussels-that-made-Tom-happy ™ wins.
Fabio is irked. Claims that Antonia’s mussels were actually French. Remember, Antonia may be Italian but she’s not Italian enough for Fabio.

Antonia comes bursting into the waiting room.
“I won!” she says.
There is a stunned silence. Mike stares. It’s all very awkward.
Finally, there is slow, half-hearted applause.
It reminded me of this scene in Not Another Teen Movie.

Padma and her minions want to see Dale, Tre, and Mike.
All of a sudden, Mike goes from seething with rage that he wasn’t in the top 3 to being extremely contrite and very aware that he blew it. (Nice turnaround, buddy.)

Here’s how it played out:

Basically, Dale had the suckiest dish, but there’s no way they were getting rid of Dale. He’s Final 3 material.

Mike’s dish would’ve been pretty good if he’d just used dry pasta and he threw himself on the mercy on the panel.

There’s a huge discussion about the right way to cook risotto. Tre claims he was trained to make his risotto stiff.
Tom says risotto needs to spread out on the plate.

So Tre is outta there.

“If I serve risotto in the future, it’s going to spread,” he says sweetly, and rushes home to remove The Godfather from his Netflix queue.