Top Chef: "There's a Fine Line Between Homage and Parody"
How do you follow Jen's shocking, out-in-a-blaze-of-lunatic-glory elimination? By getting rid of two more chefs in one episode. Last night's Top Chef got down to its dirty business quickly, as everybody stampeded into the kitchen to see Padma standing there with David Chang, introduced by Padma as "one of New York's brightest culinary stars," and by Marcel as "basically the man."
Chang was there to preside over the Quickfire Challenge, which broke the contestants into teams of four to compete in that old chestnut, the mise-en-place speed challenge. This time, there was a twist: After prepping their way through towering heaps of garlic, artichokes, and racks of lamb, the first team to finish would get to hit a big red button that would signal the start of the 15 minutes everyone had to make a dish out of their prepped ingredients.
Although the green team -- Angelo, Tiffany, Mike, and Fabio -- finished first, their lamb with garlic tandoori yogurt was one of Chang's least favorite dishes, along with the lamb carpaccio with capers, garlic, and Reggiano made by the red team's Dale L., Antonia, Casey, and Jamie -- or, in Padma's shorthand, "the ladies ... and Dale!"
Chang had warmer, cuddlier feelings toward the lamb carpaccio with artichoke chips and salad made by the white team (Carla, Tiffani, Marcel, and Dale T.), but reserved his true affections for the crispy lamb chop with artichokes three ways made by the blues (Richard, Stephen, Tre, and Spike). Each team member won $5,000 for their troubles, but no one got immunity.
The elimination challenge also had a Changian element, since each team would dine at "New York's finest restaurants" and then be dispatched to the kitchens to create food that the establishments wouldn't be utterly embarrassed to put on their menus. Each team drew knives to determine where they'd be eating. Angelo picked Má Pêche and swooned mightily over its "eclectic Asian," "straight-up yummy" food, while everyone else exhibited varying amounts of excitement and/or trepidation at the idea of having to replicate food from Marea, David Burke Townhouse, and wd~50. As well they should have, because Padma announced, with barely concealed satisfaction, that two contestants would be packing their knives by the end of the evening. And so everyone ate. Stephen's tablemates at Marea worked hard not to stab him with a fork as he waxed obnoxious over Michael White's command of Italian flavors and textures. At Townhouse, David Burke said maybe two words and then huffed out of the dining room, leaving Casey, Dale L., Antonia, and Jamie to figure out how to eat the goldfish they found floating in their cocktails. At M&aecute; Pêche, Angelo wouldn't shut up about the Asian flavor party raging in his mouth, while at wd~50, Marcel praised Wylie Dufresne's scrambled egg block as "like, so awesome," and Carla fretted over how the hell she could make anything that suggested it had been made with the assistance of liquid nitrogen.
After dinner, Stephen informed us that fashion "has become a MAJOR obsession of mine, but it could be cocaine or heroin, so it could always be worse." And that's so true, because with Stephen it could always be worse.
And then it was off to cook at the respective restaurant kitchens. At Marea, Stephen fretted over how to "reset" a Vita-Prep while his teammates regarded him with unfettered scorn, and Tre confided that he's known as "the black Italian" for his way with Mediterranean ingredients. But there was no time for pleasantries, because the judges arrived, hungry for food, and perhaps destruction.
Joining Tom, Padma, and Anthony were Food & Wine's Kate Krader and White himself. Everyone praised Tre's grilled swordfish with braised artichokes and mushroom panna cotta, and also approved of Richard's crudo of Spanish mackerel with braised veal shank and fennel mostarda. Spike's seared branzino took some criticism for its "loose" caponata, and Stephen's coho salmon with black mission figs, broccoli rapini, and fennel pollen earned Bourdain's disgusted observation that "this tastes like a head shop."
Then everyone went to Má Pêche, where, with Chang along for the ride, they praised Angelo's turmeric-marinated fish with dill, cilantro, salmon roe, chorizo, and white chocolate, and had some kind words for Mike's warm sockeye salmon with eggplant, marinated tomatoes, and pickled peach. Tiffany's crudo of summer flounder with peach puree and pickled radish seemed a little too easy, and Fabio's roasted lamb with hoisin plum barbecue sauce, corn, tomato salad, and lemongrass chèvre ricotta was apparently as misguided as it sounded.
Over at Townhouse with the now slightly more communicative David Burke, Antonia's pea and carrot puree with seared scallops was pronounced a favorite, as was Casey's ingenious coconut halibut "scallop" (or "scallibut") with tapioca "caviar." Less successful was Jamie's smoked tomato and bacon soup with heirloom tomato salad, which needed more of a "wow factor." And about Dale L.'s roasted veal loin with peanuts, popcorn, and French toast, the less said, the better.
Finally, the marathon ended at wd~50, where the judges sat down with the lovely seeming Wylie Dufresne and braced themselves for whatever faux-molecular travesties awaited them. But aside from Tiffani's unfortunate decision to freeze-dry the melons she served with her powdered ham and Taleggio (mm, powdered ham ...), which led Bourdain to opine that she "lost control on the launch pad," everything was pretty respectable. Carla's poached shrimp with grits and okra chips was a success, as was Marcel's vadouvan lamb with tzatziki, pickled red onion, and "anti-flatbread," whatever the hell that is. But the most resounding praise went to Dale T.'s sunny-side-up egg dumpling with braised pork belly and milk ramen with bacon, beef, and pork.
At the judges' table, the pronouncement was swift and final. On the happy end of the spectrum, Dale T., Angelo, Antonia, and Tre got respect and cred for their efforts, with Dale T. winning the challenge thanks to his awareness that, as Bourdain said, "Wylie Dufresne is a notorious egg slut." In addition to winning, Dale also got a trip to New Zealand, which is way better than a set of pans or having your dish immortalized by a frozen-food company.
And then it was time to dispatch two of Dale T.'s fellow contestants: Fabio, Stephen, Tiffani, and Dale L. were called to the table to account for their sins. And while we thought for sure that Bourdain would take the opportunity to get rid of Fabio -- whose dish, he noted, crossed that "fine line between homage and parody" -- the judges instead dispatched Stephen and Dale L. to pack their knives and go off to the purgatory where losing contestants are apparently sequestered. Stephen revealed he was feeling "a lot of emotions," while Dale promised he'd return for Top Chef 16, the seniors edition.
And then we were given glimpses of next week's episode, which will involve the U.S. Open, yet more accusations of Angelo sabotage, Spike wanting to murder Jamie, and something about a "flaccid", er, dish.
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