Much happened on last night’s episode of Top Chef, but we’re still struggling to get past this shot of Angelo, taken while Padma explained the Quickfire Challenge. For some reason, the camera lingered on him for a really long time as he stroked his upper lip while making the face that people make when they want you to think they’re thinking some deep thought when really they’re just trying to remember if they applied deodorant that morning. It was a transfixing sight, one that told us both so much about Angelo and the show editors’ opinion of him.
The Quickfire Challenge, which Padma announced with Spiaggia’s Tony Mantuano, was to make stuffing, even though it has already been a month since Thanksgiving. But the challenge was sponsored by Swanson, and shilling for processed foods is always in season. To add to the fun, the chefs couldn’t use any knives or kitchen tools. The winner would get immunity and $20,000 furnished by, yes, Swanson.
While Tiffani all but screamed that “stuffing is mother-specific!” and Tre confided that he could really use the cash because raising daughters is “expensive,” Fabio nearly popped a blood vessel: Asking him to cook without tools, you see, “is like to ask a surgeon to do open-heart surgery with only his finger!” But he bravely persevered, even taking the time to congratulate his “genius” in using a kitchen rack as a cheese grater. Aim high, children!
After tasting everything, Tony declared that his least favorites were Carla’s “un-dente” black quinoa, Tiffani’s overly sweet soy maple mush, and Casey’s definitively non-stuffing-like mushrooms with crispy chicken liver and miso cake. At the other end of the spectrum were Marcel’s whole squab with raisin brioche, cherries, currants, and ras el hanout gravy, and Tre’s “Southwestern-inspired” bread pudding with bacon, cheddar, and bell peppers. Tre won, and let loose that borderline certified-lunatic laugh that we’ve come to fear.
The Elimination Challenge involved something about cooking healthy food for rhetorical tennis players in the non-rhetorical U.S. Open. The chefs would split into teams and make dishes that would compete against each other using the point system used by tennis players, something that immediately got the chefs rambling away about their own athletic prowess. But the very best line of the night, and possibly Top Chef‘s entire history to date, came from Antonia, who shrugged and said: “I never played sports in high school. I smoked a lot of pot and didn’t do anything else.” For that, we would like to declare this season finished, with Antonia as its de facto champion.
The chefs drew orange and yellow tennis balls to determine their teams. Spike, Tre, Tiffani, Angelo, Jamie, and Casey got yellow, while Antonia, Dale, Fabio, Richard, Mike, and Carla got orange. Everyone went back to the penthouse to strategize, with Team Yellow trying for some High-Level-Evil-Genius Subterfuge by putting their weakest dish first. For their part, Team Orange wisely opted just to make everything taste good.
In the U.S. Open kitchen the next day, Carla nearly cut off her finger but bravely persevered as a medic wrapped gauze around the digit and the camera cut to Jamie, previously seen rushing to the hospital to get two stitches for her finger. Tom demanded that Spike and Angelo tell him about their team’s “strategy,” and seemed impressively unimpressed when they grudgingly told him. And then everyone went into the stadium, which made Marcel feel like “a gladiator” and Angelo feel like he was “in a fighter jet,” because nothing says “tightly enclosed cockpit” like a giant, open-air tennis court.
The Yellow Team’s strategy immediately backfired when they couldn’t make Jamie put her dish first due to her protests that her chickpeas needed more time to cook. Instead, Casey’s grilled pork tenderloin with farro salad went up against the whole-wheat gnocchi with pork-loin ragout that Fabio made for Team Orange, and lost.
Yellow did better with Round 2, with Tiffani’s sashimi of black bass with avocado beating out Dale’s edamame dumplings with spicy carrot froth. Yellow also won Round 3, as Angelo’s smoked tuna with yuzu gelée triumphed over Marcel’s cauliflower couscous with pomegranate seeds and golden raisins. “He always plates on spoons,” Marcel observed of his competitor. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
Team Orange came back with Round 4, thanks to Antonia’s scallop with Indian lentil puree, which mopped the floor with Tiffany’s spiced tuna with lentil salad. The team also took Round 5, with Richard’s “Thai-bouleh” with lamb and yogurt beating Spike’s tomato tamarind soup with olive oil and poached shrimp — and, thanks to sneaky, sneaky Angelo, some yuzu gelée. And finally — finally! — heroic Carla’s African ground-nut soup with baked sweet potatoes vanquished Tre’s coho salmon with parsnip puree, and the win went to Team Orange. Jamie’s undercooked chickpeas, meanwhile, went un-judged, her reward for spending the entire challenge hiding behind her table, refusing to be cooperative, and generally heightening our suspicion that she basically sucks.
At the judges’ table, Fabio, Carla, Richard, and Antonio were showered with praise for their efforts and lack of stupid strategy, and Carla was declared the winner, and duly rewarded with a five-day trip to Italy and a big jug of wine.
The judges weren’t as happy with Casey, Tre, Spike, and Tiffani: Casey was criticized for her “heavy” food; Tre for his oily, overcooked salmon — which had been cooked by Angelo; Tiffani for uninspired flavors; and Spike for bland shrimp and that damn yuzu gelée.
Tom took the opportunity to ask Tiffani, who had suffered through Angelo last season, if she thought her teammate was sabotaging his competitors, but, instead of playing ball, she insisted that everyone was ultimately responsible for their own dish. And so Spike took the fall for the yuzu gelée as the judges sent him packing. He seemed more annoyed than bereft. “I got screwed,” he said, shrugging, and then presumably went off to attend to his growing burger empire.
Next week: Chinatown and “Caucasian dim sum”!
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 23, 2010