Oh, Nigella Lawson! Where have you been all our viewing lives? Why couldn’t it be you to hold the permanent position of Droll British Judge on Top Chef, instead of froggy Toby Young?
Lawson was the freshest thing about last night’s episode, which began by giving off the sad, stale air of contestants who’ve been locked in a desert McMansion for far too many weeks. Bryan missed his son. Jen missed Mike I., suggesting she was also missing her better judgment.
Speaking of judgment, there was Padma, wrapped in a robe, artfully bedheaded, and reading off a cue card that she wanted breakfast in bed. And so did her friend Nigella, who, answering Jacques Pepin‘s wildest dreams, was also swaddled in a robe, also lounging in bed next to her. Nigella, Eli informed us, is totally “legit” because “Gordon Ramsay named a turkey after her.” Who knows what other wondrous things Eli can teach us?
The chefs scrambled to provide room service. Robin, as usual, worried that she was in over her head, because nothing says staggering impossibility like the blueberry blintzes she slopped on a plate. Returning to the kitchen afterward, she predictably clashed with Michael, who was running around in Angry Man OCD mode, making huevos Cubana.
Jen, meanwhile, cobbled together that “classic American tradition,” chipped corn beef, which she presented to Nigella using its more colloquial designation, shit on a shingle. Nigella regarded the dish as if it really was the product of incontinence and roofing material, and appeared to be swallowing back vomit. Similarly stomach-churning was Bryan’s pairing of vanilla with crab, asparagus, and eggs, which made Nigella feel as if she was “breathing in dessert.”
More successful were Kevin’s steak and eggs, Michael’s huevos Cubana, and Eli’s Reuben benedict, which Nigella dubbed a “great hangover breakfast.” And because it “slapped the jet lag out of me,” she pronounced Eli the winner.
For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs drew knives to see which of the Strip’s freak shows attractions would inspire the dishes they would make for 175 of the “Las Vegas elite.” Michael went to “New York,” stood on a Brooklyn Bridge replica that straddled a kiddie pool, and decided that nothing says New York like chicken wings, which he’d make because that’s what the fire fighters would want. Jen went to the Tournament of Kings, ate with her hands, watched some kind of Ren Fest floor show, and realized that she had no vision, which, to be fair, is probably how most people feel after seeing the Tournament of Kings.
Robin, meanwhile, had an orgasm over a Dale Chihuly sculpture at the Bellagio, and began thinking of gelatin. Kevin petted some dolphins, suggesting his dish would incorporate canned tuna. But no: He was, he informed the camera solemnly, thinking about sustainability and simplicity, because he’s no redneck. Bryan also found inspiration in the sea creatures and gift shop at Mandalay Bay, and Eli went to the circus and discovered that Vegas “is like standing in an art gallery staring at a sad velvet painting,” a surprisingly astute observation that often also applies to the experience of watching this show.
Dolphins, New York firefighters, and gelatin dancing through their cranial cavities, the chefs departed for the kitchen, and appeared the following evening with some predictable hits and misses. Robin couldn’t get her Chihuly-inspired stained glass sugar to set, so was left with only a gummy panna cotta. That’s exactly what the screen read: “Panna Cotta.” Which was even sadder than a velvet painting. Nigella disapproved mightily, noting that panna cotta “should have the quiver of a 17th-century courtesan’s inner thigh.” Again, where has this woman been, and why did she not arrive sooner?
Eli made soup out of caramel apples and peanuts, and crowned the mess with some kind of raspberry foam. When she was presented with it, Nigella got that shit on a shingle look again. “Like most people who come to Vegas,” Toby intoned, “Eli gambled and lost.” Zing!
Jen decided to tell the judges that her NY strip steak with red wine reduction was inspired by the sword in the stone, which gave them an easy script for cataloging the dish’s faults. “I need Excalibur to cut it,” Nigella said. “This is the stone. I feel ready to be in wench mode.” Oh ho ho ho.
Less wenchy were Kevin’s cured wild sockeye salmon with compressed cabbage and cucumber and Bryan’s escabeche of halibut with bouillabaisse, pine nuts, parsley coulis, and garlic chips. And Michael’s authentic New York chicken wings also won approval. At the judges’ table, around which Kevin and the Brothers Voltaggio gathered in a winner’s circle, Toby praised Michael’s “delicate and effeminate” cooking, and the judges awarded him a manly jug of Terlato wine and a trip to the Napa winery.
Robin, Jen, and Eli, on the other hand, were awarded the judges’ wrath, or at least baffled disapproval. Tom berated Jen for her startling and inexcusable lack of knowledge of medieval cooking, and Toby could barely hold back his glee at his own cleverness when he told her that the dish was “more Spamalot than Camalot.” Eli’s dish, Padma said with righteous fury, was something “I personally would never want to eat…again.”
But Robin? Oh, Robin. We knew this day was coming, and not because, as she said, “I don’t know how to play safe.” Because apple crisps and blueberry blintzes are safe as houses. Rapturous visions of stained glass umbrellas, however, are more of a problem. And so off Robin went, eight episodes later than expected, back to her comfort food and Pilates, far from the madding crowd.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 12, 2009