Top Chef: ‘It’s a Perfect Storm of F***ing Awfulness’


Ah, restaurant wars. As inevitable as income taxes and that incredulous look Tom gets on his face whenever Marcel opens his mouth. And last night’s didn’t disappoint, bringing with it a spectacle of meaty, man-sized proportions and more bitch-fighting than an entire season of The Real Housewives of Atlanta.

But first, a somewhat unnecessary Quickfire Challenge, held on this occasion at Le Bernardin. But instead of Eric Ripert we got Anthony Bourdain, looking disconcertingly impeccable as he used the challenge to plug Medium Raw. His book, he reminded us, contained a chapter about Justo Thomas, the superhuman fish butcher at Le Bernardin who is able to slice and dice basically half the Atlantic Ocean’s inhabitants before lunchtime. After watching Thomas dispatch a cod and a flounder in eight minutes, the chefs, of course, had to do the same, but with an extra two minutes.

Dale, Richard, Mike, and Marcel came out on top. While Fabio, Carla, Tiffany, and Antonia got to cool their heels in the dining room, they completed the second part of the challenge, making dishes out of the fish heads, racks, wings, fins, and collars. Richard used the occasion to tell viewers that his first job was as the fish cook at McDonald’s, flexing his avant-garde muscles by forgetting to put the bun on the fish, while Marcel and Mike argued over a chinois.

Bourdain and Thomas were most impressed by overachiever Dale’s two dishes, fluke back fins sashimi and bacon dashi with salt-roasted cod, and rewarded him with immunity.

And then it was back to the Top Chef kitchen, where Padma and loony Ludo Lefebvre announced it was time for restaurant wars, with the caveat that, this time, the diners would pick the winner. Dale, a team captain thanks to his Quickfire win, wisely chose Marcel as the other team captain. “I want him to be as far away from me as possible,” Dale explained, as Marcel grinned cluelessly and gushed over how “honored” he was.

Dale chose Richard, Tre, Fabio, and Carla for his team, while Marcel picked Angelo, Antonia, Tiffany, and Mike. Everyone grinned through clenched teeth, making it clear that if this were an actual war, Marcel would be shot by his own troops.

Team Dale decided to call their restaurant “Bodega” and set about creating riffs on convenience foods like potato chips and canned tuna. Team Marcel argued, first over their lame “Mediterranean-inspired” concept and then over their captain’s even lamer choice of name, “Medi.” Eventually, the name was changed to the even more perplexing “Etch,” as in “sketch,” or more accurately, “sketchy,” but Marcel’s remarkable inability to earn his team’s respect remained the same.

The next day, the teams gathered at the Foundry to prep. Fabio assumed FOH duties for Bodega, and duly showcased his true talents as both a manager and a world-class schmoozer. Over at Etch, Tiffany unwillingly assumed the same duties after arguing with Marcel over how to cook an egg. After she left the kitchen, Marcel further alienated his teammates by making foam. Finally, the diners arrived. Weirdly, there were like 10 of them, and they all looked like they’d been chosen from Daily Candy’s subscriber base. Dana Cowin and Amanda Hesser also showed up, and reacted to everything they were served at Etch as if someone kept farting at the table. Tiffany didn’t help matters due to her inability to manage the waitstaff and her thunderous, constant laughter, which echoed across the premises with the subtlety of a sonic boom.

The judges first ate at Bodega, where they marveled over Dale’s bag of chips served with fried herbs and sea salt and Richard’s raw tuna belly and fried chicken skin with chilies and lime, served in a tuna tin. Dale’s first course of bacon, egg, and cheese on homemade focaccia also was a hit, as were Richard’s second course of chicken-fried cod with Brussels “kraut” and Tre’s pork shoulder and cheddar grits with Corona and lime sauce. Carla’s blueberry pie and Fabio’s amaretto cake with candied lemon peel and cappuccino mousse also got high marks, with Bourdain enthusing that he “fucking love[d] Fabio’s dessert.”

Meanwhile, things were not going well at Etch, which had all of the joie de vivre of a prison cafeteria. Diners kept returning undercooked dishes to the kitchen, where Marcel and Mike squabbled like junior high school girls and Angelo looked deeply embarrassed.

The judges, for their part, didn’t like anything they were served. Tiffany’s frisée and asparagus salad with egg and chorizo was bland and lacking in chorizo, while Angelo’s fluke crudo with grapes and pink peppercorns was underwhelming. Marcel’s roasted monkfish with kalamata olives was like “baby food,” Bourdain complained. Mike’s braised pork belly and octopus fared a little better, but Antonia’s ricotta gnudi with oxtail ragout was deemed a bit of a wash.

But the judges’ most special scorn was reserved for Marcel’s duo of peaches with coconut foam and powder. “It’s steaming,” Padma said as the waiters brought it out, and oh, how it was. “It’s like a perfect storm of fucking awfulness,” Bourdain said, and though he was talking about the dessert, he may as well have been describing the entire Etch experience. Thus, events at the judges table followed a predictable path. Padma, who in her black dress could have been the Angel of Death, summoned Etch to account for their sins. Their restaurant, she said, had been voted best by 17 out of 76 diners. And so the team began fighting with one another while the judges looked on with unconcealed disgust. The best lines, of course, came from Bourdain, who in addressing Marcel’s dessert asked, “Why foam? Why now? … It was a thumb in the eye at the end of the meal.” “It was a shitshow,” Angelo admitted, proving himself surprisingly articulate.

Team Bodega was then summoned to receive a torrent of praise. “You guys killed it,” Tom said, before pronouncing Richard the winner of the challenge — and $10,000.

After discussing the myriad ways in which Team Etch failed (“Prison breaks are organized with more efficiency and teamwork,” Bourdain observed), the judges called everyone back and told Marcel to go home. Marcel, of course, remained unrepentant: “The only mistake I made was picking the wrong team,” he said, insisting he was the “most misunderstood” of all of the show’s contestants. And perhaps he was, but, still, we were overjoyed to see him go home.

Next week, a bunch of possibly Italian men in suits show up, and someone burns something.

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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 20, 2011

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