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Top Chef Week Twelve: Welcome to Hawaii, come to a luau, and ‘aloha’ means hello and goodbye to two contestants.

January 25, 2007

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One episode down, one to go. Two contestants down, one to go. That’s right, kids. Top Chef is coming to its culinary conclusion at long last… and the cooking is good.

Our repeated complaints that too little of the actual food and cooking talents have been on display must have gotten through to the producers. That, or the fact that four contestants (and an hour and fifteen minute show!) means that you are forced to show more food whether you want to or not.

But before all that cooking took place, we viewers had to have at least a dose of the requisite reality show flashbacks and “profiles” — and, of course, some product placement ads. The show caught up with the contestants at the conclusion of the two month filming hiatus. So which of the four contestants had been practicing most in anticipation of this grand finale? The answer, it seems, was Marcel — who had formed some sort of “gastronic” mad scientist society with his friends. In his suitcase: Xantham gum and other chemicals to create 21st century culinary bliss. Sam also impressed by taking the two months to learn to bake at the foot of a former Tom Colicchio pastry chef. Elia had been working at her restaurant job and reading a few books, and Ilan, similarly, was back in the swing of Spanish cooking at the restaurant where he works, Cafe Mono in NYC, and reading a few books himself.

They all reunited, awkwardly, in first class on a plane bound for Hawaii and the grand finale. Had the two month hiatus doused the flames of Marcel hatred? Not to worry. Everyone still despised the kid. (Voiceover Ilan, smiling insincerely at Marcel and drinking champagne: “I find him as annoying as ever.” Or something like that.)

(Hold the drama for a quick tourist video for Hawaii. The four contestants take a helicopter ride over the big island’s blue waters and lush greenery. Really, Top Chef, you couldn’t find 15 minutes to cut to make the episode a mere hour?)

Upon touchdown, the four contestants greeted our three judges and Hawaiian guest judge Chef Wong. There they, and we viewers, were treated to an educational lunch (which we got to watch them eat) of traditional Hawaiian luau fare. But this was no mere product placement, folks — at the end of the meal Padma dropped the words “Elimination round,” and you could tell our intrepid cooks felt like ralphing up that Hawaiian poi. The next day, that casual lunch took on more significance when the chefs heard the challenge: They’d have to re-create two dishes of a traditional Hawaiian luau, but while putting their own twist on things. (In other words, “Hope you were listening to the lecture yesterday, kids.”) They had three hours to prepare to serve 30 guests at Chef Wong’s birthday celebration.

Cue dramatic Top Chef music (and the shots of the outdoor KENMORE PRO kitchen).

Aside from minor drama with Marcel (natch) making a stupid joke when Ilan’s pot caught fire (still don’t know what happened there) and moving Elia’s steamer off a burner, the prep work was interesting and uneventful. The menu? Sam made marscapone mousse with hawaiian salted coconut milk and citrus twirl; and opakapaka poke, acid cooked in uzu with seabeans. (Translation: Coconut dessert and ceviche.) Elia made snapper steamed in tea leaves with peas, peppers and carrots; and ahi poke (raw tuna) with olives, capers and lemon confit. Marcel made hamachi poke with pineapple poi (using xantham gum instead of traditional taro root); and salmon lomi lomi with tomato foam, scallion oil, chili oil and lotus root chip. And Ilan made morcilla (a homemade Spanish sausage) and squid lau lau in taro root leaf; and a saffron haupia fritter (coconut milk donut). It all sounds fancy, no? Well, if it’s it’s indecipherable here, it was pretty impressive on TV. Basically, Sam — a seeming generalist — went with more traditional flavors and techniques. Elia fell back on her Mediterranean know-how. Ilan, of course, put a Spanish twist on things. And Marcel deconstructed stuff and unleashed molecular gastronomy on traditional Hawaiian fare.

The results? The judges were duly impressed, and perhaps for the first time did not have to pretend to agonize over who would go home: It was actually a hard decision. Nonetheless, two would “pack their knives and go.”….

…. Wait. Hold it, hold it. First, Elia and Ilan would try to get one more shot in at Marcel with some lame and purposeless fingerpointing and muttering about him “cheating.” Examples? Well.. (Foot shuffle, foot shuffle.) He moved a steamer off a burner (which may or may not have been lit). Anything else? Well… (Awkward silence and muttering.) OK. Then we’re going to announce the losers, OK, if you’re finished. (Tom Colicchio rolls his eyes and tells Elia he doesn’t care about what goes on in the kitchen.) Only Sam looks like a class act here, as usual.

All this served only to delay the inevitable: Sam and Elia are sent packing. Apparently the judges thought Marcel was a lock for his beautiful dishes and Elia, who strayed too far from Hawaiian tastes, was finished for sure. They were only seesawing between sending Sam or Ilan home… in the end, the Samauri chef (who had — Samsom-like — chopped his bun), was sent home. Sniff. At least he may find the $10,000 prize for being the fan favorite some consolation.

Finally, we’re left with bizarre footage of our two finalists, Marcel and Ilan, “smack talking” to each other in hushed, girl-like tones while avoiding eye contact. Can’t wait for next week, can you?

What did you think of the three-hour luau elimination challenge?

Husband: At first, I was rather horrified by the whole idea. I was hoping to see all the contestants cooking without constraints. I wanted to see what it meant to eat what Elia made versus what Ilan made. However, after seeing how they uniquely stamped each dish with their own flavors, I think I was wrong. I think the biggest problem would have been design and execution in three hours for thirty diners. It required brutal efficiency by them, and I was really wowed by the variation in dishes and their performances. So in the end, I was wrong, the challenge seemed like a good one.

Wife: It was a good challenge because it drew out the chef’s cooking personalities and talents. The Hawaiian fare — while completely foreign to me — offered them a base where they could show off their particular areas of strength and expertise. The three hour time limit was also pretty impressive: Two dishes for 30 people in three hours seemed like a difficult challenge that they all mastered. And the primer on the Hawaiian food earlier in the show actually helped viewers understand what the contestants were making — sort of. At least they tried to explain what words like poke and poi and lomi lomi meant, even if addled viewers like me forgot anyway.

Are you surprised who went home?

H: Absolutely. While I have chosen a half dozen people over the weeks to win, I really thought Sam was going to be there winning the whole thing. I think if he went off for ‘not cooking’ as Tom Colicchio criticized, I’m not sure that is a great reason. Now because I didn’t taste any food, I couldn’t tell you if I agree or not. But if that was the deciding factor, then it means the world’s greatest sushi chef could never win this title. In the end, I think Sam impressed me with other qualities. The facts, that he’s now learning pastry, that even when he had personal beefs he helped out Marcel, and that he seems to get the idea of leading means focusing on the task at hand, have made me think he’s the only one of the group I’d actually trust to run my kitchen if I owned a restaurant. Unfortunately for Sam, all that matters is the food and he didn’t seem to carry the day.

As for Elia, I think her actions in regards to Marcel, her panic when her dessert wasn’t perfect last week, and her dishes over the last couple week prepared me for the result. It seemed on a number of occasions she stumbled into something and was just a bit off. I think more than anything it has to do with age and experience then pure talent. I would hardly be shocked to see her extremely successful down the road.

W: I’m mourning the loss of Sam. It seemed clear from the judge’s comments that Elia’s offerings were the weakest, although I had grown to like her spunk and confidence more. But Sam’s dishes seemed to be well executed and tasty; to be honest, I was hoping they’d axe Ilan instead. Why, you might ask? Of the personalities, Sam was the one I felt I could root for. He resisted (at least with more success than others) the childish lure of using Marcel as punching bag, and he seemed to be a nice guy and talented chef. Last season, I thought they made a bigger deal about who was a leader in the kitchen and who other contestants would want to work for. Had those been criteria this year, I think Sam would have been the champion. Judging from the final two contestants, Marcel and Ilan, both more odious and immature with each episode, leadership skills and likeability are no longer requirements to be Top Chef. And that’s a shame. Now, sigh, I have no idea who to root for.

Our final prognistication: Who is the next Top Chef?

H: I’m rooting for the villain. Call me a contrarians or just a man on a mission to see evil win one, but I’m thinking Marcel might spank Ilan. I suggested a few weeks back that the producers recasting of Marcel as sympathetic (and rightly so after the uncomfortable Cliff moment) might be a preparation to see him as ‘Top Chef.’ Also, it appeared that when Marcel was given a chance to do what he enjoys, molecular gastronomy, with his own tools that it pays off. Finally, Chris, from Insane Thoughts and Insane Ramblings dropped me this little link, which I very much appreciated. Apparently, Marcel had a rough week when attacked with a beer bottle in a club (It’s one line in the last paragraph). So, I’m having a tough time not rooting for him. With that said, I wouldn’t be shocked if rich and flavorful Spanish dishes by Ilan win the day, but part of me has never been a huge fan of the cuisine so I’m left a bit cold by it. So I’m predicting an unpopular champion, Marcel.

W: I feel I have no dog in this fight. I don’t like either of them that much, despite my initial prediction (see the first post about Top Chef!) that Ilan would win. But his immature rivalry with Marcel has soured me on him. I have a feeling from the track record of judge’s remarks that it will be a close battle, despite producers’ desire to stoke still more hatred of Marcel. If Marcel can impress the cavalcade of celebrity judges in next week’s preview, it won’t matter that he’s a squirrely, awkward kid that nobody liked. He just may win.

The only questions that matters: Who do you think will win Top Chef?

4 comments

  1. Pure crap that Sam got the boot! As much as I love Colicchio, I’m ticked about his comment that “I don’t care what happens in the kitchen!”. Uh, shouldn’t you? Doesn’t TOP CHEF imply all things good — including leadership? Either that little snit gets off on being an instigator or else he has no self-awareness. Either way, I hope Ilan mops the floor with him. Kindergarten will surely be in session and I can’t wait!


  2. I was really surprised by the results, which I guess is good (?). At least, this year is unpredictable. And while I was glad that the judges did reward risk takers, I think they should have also — for this one challenge, at least — taken into consideration the person’s performance as a whole, throughout the season. If that were the case, Sam would have beaten either Ilan or Marcel. I mean, I wouldn’t choose a restaurant based on which one served the best Hawaiian fusion food, so why should they pick a Top Chef on the same basis? The problem now is that there is no one left to root for. Whoever wins will be a disappointment, and I certainly won’t want to read their blog next year as I’ve been reading Harold’s. Bleah.


  3. Sadly, I have no vested interest in who will win now. Very dissappointed that Sam got the boot — he truly had the whole package working: grace, thoughfulness and “ehem” GREAT FOOD!.

    Both Ilan and Marcel are derivative. Marcel with the molecular gastronomy and Ilan with the saffron. It’s really a tie for me. I’d like to see Marcel actually give me something to sink my teeth into, not just palette infusing wisps of foam. And, I’d love to see Ilan cook somthing without relying on his Spanish spice store.

    Padma’s cry that it didn’t matter that Sam didn’t cook — while on target, seemed to reveal a bit more of her bias (and desire) toward Sam. (Actually if you look at the episode again, she can’t seem to keep her eyes of him.) Gail’s got the stuff and must want to shave off Padma’s hair every time she opens her mouth.

    Elia was the most deserving of the loss. Whine, whine, whine.

    I predict the winner will be Marcel…or Ilan.


  4. What a disappointing episode! I believe the final selection was based on hoping for some extended Ilan and Marcel drama in the finale, rather than who was consistently the best chef. I agree that I cannot get behind either remaining contestant. I am mourning this loss of Sam.

    Last season the judges made many references to a Top Chef being some who can control and elevate a staff—I don’t get that attitude from Ilan and Marcel. Ilan is so busy provoking other people to hate on Marcel and Marcel acts like a needy child. Elia was too sensitive to roll with the punches of managing a team, but I think Sam would have been ready for such a challenge.

    I really enjoyed watching Padma get on Gail’s nerves this week. I loved the “Doesn’t this remind you of the funnel cake?” comment Padma made that was met with a “Because of the powdered sugar? Ya…” (not verbatim) answer from Gail. Um, Padma, it’s fried dough. It may remind you of other friend dough. That’s how reminders work. I am more interested to see if Padma will be back next season than who will win the next episode.



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