‘Top Chef’: You Know That Leeks Aren’t Protein, Right?


Things got off to a brisk start this week, with Mike sharpening his knives at the Top Chef ranch and Jen castigating herself for her previous televised culinary blunders. In the Quickfire kitchen, Padma and One of the Top Italian Chefs in the Country Paul Bartolotta told the chefs to draw knives emblazoned with the names of classic TV shows. The challenge, to make TV dinners based on those shows, was devised by TV Guide, which is a little like allowing a class of pre-schoolers to devise the color scheme of one’s home.

Aside from Jen’s weirdly fascinating admission that she related most to the Flintstones‘s Pebbles because the idea of having her hair pulled by a caveman boyfriend was kind of, you know, a turn on, the challenge inspired some largely unforgettable dishes. Despite the erotic possibilities presented by prehistoric cartoon characters, Jen ended up at the bottom of the heap thanks to some blah chicken roulade. Robin, who wasn’t allowed to watch TV growing up, not even Sesame Street, was right there next to her thanks to a burger with an egg (for Big Bird, of course!) and crispy kale.

Kevin, yet again, emerged victorious with his Sopranos-inspired meatballs with polenta. He was rewarded with the knowledge that his dish would be featured in Swanson’s line of frozen TV dinners, which is kind of like winning an art competition and being told your work will be displayed above the reception desk of a Ramada Inn.

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs were told they’d be taking over Tom’s Crafsteak kitchen for a night. Happiness at the prospect of playing with meat ensued. But lo, in the joy of the moment, the contestants forgot that they were on Top Chef, where that which is promised is that which is taken away, or at least amended by vengeful writers.

And this episode’s vengeful amendment was Natalie Portman, who is important, Eli informed us, because she did Star Wars, “which is the most important thing you can do.” Natalie’s also a vegetarian (whom Jonathan Safran Foer has since turned vegan), news that made the chefs look like their Christmas toys had just been stolen by Osama bin Laden. So it was off to the produce walk-in, where eggplants were fought over and leeks were deemed convincing substitutes for scallops.

Kevin, who disclosed that he and his wife went vegetarian every year for Lent, seemed unphased by the assignment, while Robin squawked about how much she loved cooking for vegetarians. Mike I. said he grew up with a vegan mom, a claim that appeared dubious at best in light of his plan to pass up badly mangled leeks as bivalves. Jen, who stated flatly that she never has been, and never will be a vegetarian, was a mess. When she served her miniscule plates of charred eggplant with braised fennel to the judges, she all but doused them with butter. Things got even more saucy when Bryan’s Artichoke Barigoule was served, with Padma’s observation that it was like “a little prick on the tip of my tongue” rapidly devolving into table-wide oral sex jokes that all but obliterated any memory of Toby Young’s armpit observations, not to mention any memory of an appetite.

The judges were most impressed with Kevin’s robust duo of mushrooms with smoked kale and turnip puree, Michael V.’s weirdo but inspired banana polenta with asparagus, and Eli’s eggplant confit with lentils and garlic puree. Kevin won a bunch of GE appliances to go with his Calphalon cookware. Michael, for his part, won the lingering disgust of viewers everywhere as he pouted that Kevin’s dish was something he could have made “in 20 minutes,” in his second year of apprenticeship. Because apparently it takes a lot more training to mash up some bananas with polenta and not call it babyfood.

Things were hardly more gracious in the loser’s circle, where Robin, Jen, and Mike I. competed to exceed the judges’s lowest expectations. Thanks to his vegan leek scallops, Mike was told to go pack his knives. Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t room in his knife bag for his ego, and he left us with the completely predictable observation that Robin should have been the one to go home. “But whatever, you know, whatever,” he blustered. We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.