Archive for the ‘Top Chef’ Category


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

January 25, 2007


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?


Top Chef Week Eleven: Chocolate, Romance and… You have to be kidding me.

January 18, 2007


Last week’s scintillating, scandalous-looking teaser had us kind of keen to tune in to Top Chef this week. (Well done, you wily producers. Like we don’t watch every week anyway.) Would all the hype and speculation pay off with drama actually worth watching? You tell us, loyal fans.

The show started off routinely enough. Between a blizzard of product placements in the KENMORE! kitchen featuring CALPHALON! products, the now five remaining contestants were asked to concoct dishes using “one of two flavors” of NESTLE CHOCOLATIER! brand chocolate. Presiding over the chocolate feast were, of course, Padma the hostess (does her voice get more nasally and irritating each week?) and a silver-haired, gentlemanly-looking French chef who had the contestants swooning in their admiration: Chef Eric Ripert of the famed Le Bernadin restaurant in New York. (Is it painfully ironic that one of the more dignified and renowned guest judges wound up on this particularly ridiculous episode?)

The QuickFire seemed more important when the judgments were intoned in a thick, le-sexy French accent: Elia just missed winning by making two dishes — a chocolate chicken (“It looks like a mistake, like chocolate sauce dripped onto chicken in the refrigerator.” Oh, snap. And in heavily accented English, no less.) and an apparently delicious chocolate dessert. Ilan also missed the boat by making a revolting sounding combination of chocolate ganache and chicken liver (“It is not something that should be served, say, in a restaurant.” Or ever.) Winning praise were Cliff for his traditional chocolate mole sauce over chicken, Marcel for his innovative potato cannolis stuffed with coffee and chocolate, and Sam for some kind of “well-balanced” seafood with spicy chocolate sauce.

Dramatic pause. Sam won.

And with victory, Sam earned the privilege of picking which course and proteins he’d serve for the Elimination Challenge. Aside from a thinly veiled advertisement to VISIT ROMANTIC SANTA BARBARA!, that challenge was to cook a romantic five course meal for 30 people. No other restrictions were given, besides having to work together in a small restaurant kitchen. Yawn.

Sam determined to cook a first course using lobster and scallops (which disappointed Marcel, who wanted to use lobster or scallops) and beets (which disappointed Marcel, who was also using beets) with plum sauce (Marcel had no comment on the plum sauce). Second course was Ilan, who went to his wheelhouse of Spanish cuisine to cook a delicious clam concoction with noodles. Third course was Marcel, who made salmon with cutesy little hearts down the seam and served with beets (naturally). Fourth course was Cliff, who made, in the words of Chef Ripert, mundane “hotel food” of beef with purreed lentils and “useless” greens. And finally, Elia served “The Kiss,” a chocolate and mint concoction that was, apparently, quite good, but caused her to have a minor meltdown when her chocolate hearts wouldn’t come out from their molds. Tearfully declaring, “I quit,” she looked mournfully at the near-perfect plates exiting the kitchen. The all-male remaining contestants quickly rallied around their distraught heroine; Sam encouraged her, Ilan comforted her and perhaps Marcel squeezed her arm (that part we may have made up). Frankly, this kind of camaraderie has been sorely lacking on the show. Sometimes it helps to be female and good looking, no?

But wait, there was more “camaraderie” yet to come… hours after the meal. This is where the drama occurs, folks.

Asking for a camera (the producers must be thanking their lucky stars) and imbibing mass quantities of alcohol, Sam, Ilan, Cliff and Elia decide to act out the old TV-land trope that good television equals drunken reality show stars filming their escalating antics. First, they decided to shave their heads. Well, Ilan shaved his head when Elia said she would shave her head. Then Elia did shave her head. (For added drama, the producers had her wearing a remarkable “Elia” wig during her post-shave interview recap, which she pulled off with a flourish to reveal… a nicely shaped shaved head. Frankly, she looks pretty good bald.) Sam and Cliff, apparently, declined to undergo the clippers. But with all this head-shaving going on, thoughts naturally turned to the most impressive head of tresses on the show: Marcel. The poor kid was innocently sleeping, excluded from all this drunken grooming, when he was rudely awakened by Cliff, who intended to execute a hair-brained (pun alert!) scheme to shave Marcel’s head. Now, Cliff is probably, oh, three times the size of Marcel — perhaps 12 inches taller and 100 pounds heavier. So, after being jolted awake, a struggling and confused Marcel was easily pinned down as Cliff fruitlessly called for the clippers and the other drunken contestants looked on — half amused, but apparently not as serious as Cliff about actually shaving Marcel’s head. At last, Marcel struggled free — impressive locks still intact — and ran to the bathroom to sleep on the floor.

Good television? Or a re-enactment of seventh-grade sleepaway camp? (And isn’t it really astonishing that they chose to film it all? The producers must be living right.)

Anyway, since this synopsis has become exhausting, let’s sum up: Tom Colicchio, looking stern, arrived the next hangover-laden day to say that Cliff is off the show for “touching another contestant in an aggressive manner.” The other contestants say nothing. Cliff is duly remorseful, and Marcel gamely gives him a “man hug” as he departs.

Oh yes, and there was also a judges’ table. The four remaining contestants undergo a tongue lashing of sorts, mostly from Padma, after they march in Cliff-less and half bald. Our French guest judge wisely says nothing and somehow manages to remain dignified. Who, oh who, would go to Hawaii after all that? Well, all of them. Sam and Ilan were given their Hawaii tickets, and the only drama came from Padma’s rather painful line, “Elia and Ilan, pack your knives… and go to Hawaii!” Oh, boy!

Let’s just cut to the chase: What do you think of the prank and tonight’s episode?

Husband: Cringe worthy. The whole episode was an example of why not to drink. I mean talk about becoming the newest poster-child for teetotaling. At no point was that not just painful to watch. You can tell from the very beginning, it all looked like a good idea through beer goggles. Yet, I can’t imagine something more humiliating when you are standing in front of two of the most successful people in your industry (Tom Collicchio and Eric Ripert) and have to explain yourself. I can’t imagine Elia felt so grand about her smooth skull then.

Wife: Every time the show might focus on the food these “talented” chefs are preparing, Top Chef manages to swerve back into reality-TV land. Which I loathe. The prank was, of course, incredibly juvenile. I shudder to think of the consequences if they had actually shaved poor Marcel’s head. As it was, I thought the kid was pretty calm about the whole thing. The more astonishing part is that those clowns filmed the whole thing… Was it really them and not a Machiavellian producer? Well, then, if not cooking, they may have a future in creating C- level reality shows.

The judges agreed that the cooking on the show was actually the contestants’ best. Whose dish would you want to try or were you most impressed by?

H: Wait, there was food? Oh, yeah, there was some food… Hmm, I guess my feeling is that Ilan had the dish I could least imagine what it tasted like. However, it’s not like we know what it was or how it was prepared. Actually, we know that at the end he took up 10 burners and torqued Marcel off, so at least we know the important thing. NOTE: Please read that previous sentence with even more sarcasm then you thought previously possible.

W: I’d want to taste Ilan’s — which didn’t look that pretty to me, but went over huge with the judges — and Elia’s. Really, though, I’d try any of their cooking. It’s become so hard to judge whether they are actually talented cooks or can just arrange food nicely on a plate. Maybe this is because the show has taken the emphasis off of the food. Because the ingredients whiz by and the preparation is not shown in favor of footage of the contestants bumping elbows in the kitchen, I have no idea what anything might taste like — except when I see the judges react after forking it in. That kind of sucks. Hint, hint, Top Chef.

Favorites? Next off?

H: Sam is hands down my favorite to win. He appears to be the leader and creative. I think he’s a full step ahead. However, I’m excited to see what Marcel might bring to the table with a bit of a break. Part of me wishes they’d ditch the forced scenarios and have a straight cookoff so we can really see who is the best, and know who’s the best under the circumstances. As for next off, I’m going to choose Marcel. While I think Marcel could bring the big game, I’m well aware that he’s not hit a home run this far and it could tank him.

W: Sam will win. And I no longer are what order the other contestants are booted in.

Who is your favorite? Do you think Elia’s looks good bald or is that a quick to grow back scarlet letter? Did you finish watching the episode or were you tempted to change the channel like we were?

Disclaimer: All “quotes” from the show are approximate. We weren’t taking notes. 🙂


Top Chef Week Ten: KRAFT!, two less than successful restaurants, and a shoulder shrug of a send off.

January 11, 2007


Amid commercials for other Bravo shows and obvious product placement ads – KRAFT! TOYOTA! KENMORE! – there was also a Top Chef episode (brought to you by, KRAFT! TOYOTA! KENMORE!) Ahem.

Tonight’s Top Chef episode was a depressing wake-up call for all would-be restaurateurs out there – particularly those contemplating opening a restaurant on 48 hours notice with $500 for food, $500 for dishes and $700 for decorating and with roommates that you marginally, or openly, despise. We saw our intrepid contestants fall on their faces as diners spilled their dissatisfaction on those fun comment cards that only wiseacres and dissatisfied patrons usually fill out. (Note to future restaurateurs: Reconsider comment cards.)

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, as usual. First, there was the QuickFire challenge, graced by a guest judge nearly as snarky as our own dear contestants. (Bonus: He, too, sported weird hair.) The chefs had 30 minutes to create a “snack” using KRAFT! products – mayonnaise, barbeque sauce and dressing. Obviously the producers had to cut out the intense eye-rolling that may have followed. (After all, these were the same contestants who found Friday’s cuisine completely foreign… now they’re eager to squirt barbeque sauce, mayonnaise and dressing on a “snack”?) Anyway, top offerings ranged from sauce-covered figs (Elia) to steak tartar (Cliff) to Po Boy with pickled peaches (Sam) to curried lamb kabob (Marcel). Michael’s overly cheesy crab-brie quesadilla and Ilan’s dry napoleon failed to impress.

Marcel and Sam won the contest and earned the honor of picking teams a la grade school kickball (an awkwardness that Marcel highlighted, obviously reliving painful memories). Marcel chose Elia and Cliff; Sam chose Michael and Ilan. Cliff, for his part, wasn’t happy – and recounted how many times he’d had an urge to slug Marcel. (Five.) Still, he went along, grimacing mightily.

(And to think, Cliff hadn’t even heard Marcel’s cringe-inducing rap at the opening of Top Chef. It took all our willpower not to exercise a clicker finger during that skin-crawling display. Had Cliff heard it, the total number of would-be blows to Marcel would definitely be six. At least.)

The teams endured the aforementioned task of coming up with a restaurant concept and opening with at least three dishes for patrons in a matter of hours. After toying with a Mediterranean restaurant, Marcel’s team switched gears when Elia suggested an up-scale diner. Sam’s all-male team went with an Italian restaurant cutesily named for a combination of all their honeys’ handles. Lala… something.

To sum up: The food at both places was marginal. The service – fronted by Ilan and Cliff, respectively – was poor. At the up-scale diner restaurant, the judges were made to wait 20 minutes for an undercooked amuse bouche chicken wing. At the Italian restaurant, they were denied wine (there wasn’t any), made to look at a spit-up olive pit on the table, and subjected to a dessert of watermelon with blue cheese sauce. Noses wrinkled, and judges decided that there was no winner tonight.

As all six contestants were made to face the chopping block, the pickings winnowed to Sam, Cliff and Michael. Ultimately, Michael – who had failed to spend an extra $100 at the supply store – was sent packing. And despite the dramatic music being piped in, it all seemed somehow anticlimactic. Were our brains dulled by the onslaught of product placements and ads for The Real Housewives of OC? Or is our interest in the show merely waning? We’d consider it more… but… yawn.

TOYOTA! KENMORE! KRAFT! Alright! We’re awake!

Are they setting up Marcel to be the show’s grand anti-hero?

Husband: I like this question if for no other reason than we can give him a nickname and tights. Really, it’s why I made the question up. I think it’s obvious that our junior Wolverine has become Foam Boy. I do think producers might be casting him as sympathetic so they don’t get hate mail at the end of the show. I think Marcel hurts these efforts when he tries to rap. People need to learn: Don’t rap or sing in front of a camera unless you are a professional. Even if Marcel isn’t the focus of producers’ schemes, it appears he might have the chops to continue being a compelling focus for the show.
Wife: I don’t know whether Marcel is an anti-hero… “Foam Boy” sounds more like a side kick to “Gelee Man.” But I know that I’m getting bored and tired of the drama surrounding him. Most of the conflicts come across as incredibly immature; mostly I wish could tell the contestants to grow up. (This is why I don’t normally watch reality shows.) I’ve moved from disliking Marcel, to feeling sorry for him, to not giving a whit about him, to really, really wishing I had never seen him rap.

Are we shocked about Michael?

H: Yes and no. I’m only surprised because last week the show went the same direction when Betty was kicked off. It had a great deal of drama, but none of it about the person who was kicked off the show. The reason I am not surprised is that it has become pretty clear that Michael, even if he’s not technically the least proficient, is not at a point in his life where he’s decided how he’ll be as a chef and leader. I don’t doubt that he’s a very good cook. I just think when you see the presentation and flavors from the others, it’s clear he is not there yet.
W: I’m not shocked that Michael was booted, but I’m sorry to see him go. His head down, hands in pockets, “Aw shucks” smile at the end is the reason why I ultimately grew to like him (after mocking him – a lot), and probably the reason he was also kicked off. He was a sheep among mini-Wolverines (and mini-Wolverine haters.)

Why were people drawn to the Italian restaurant over the diner?

H: I don’t know myself. I love me a good burger and find that there is a great deal out there in this realm of food. I might be biased because I cook a great deal in this area. But a true burger that modifies the standard and brings in new flavors and elements would have had me in a second. I also have this bias about Italian food. I love Italian food, especially pasta. Just look at the number of dishes we’ve posted with pasta here. But my personal take is that most Italian requires a limited set of skills to execute well. There are things at the fine dining end of the spectrum I’m not talking about. Italian is something I eat when I want to eat. If I want to go out and experience food, I typically don’t eat Italian.
W: As is every red-blooded American’s right, I like diner food, too. But I think the customers were all about boozing – let’s face it: they didn’t pay money to eat at those “restaurants” — and an Italian joint was bound to have wine, right? Wrong. That factor probably resulted in some pretty nasty comment cards. Plus, people want more bang for their free food – and no doubt Italian sounded fancier.

Who do you think is going to win? Who do you think is next off?

H: This is a lot harder then last week. Sam and Cliff let me down… consider Cliff’s sour demeanor and Sam’s watermelon fiasco. I’m not sure if Elia has the chops to carry it out, but she appears to be the person minimally affected this week. So I’m going to go with her. My next off is going to be Ilan. It’s crunch time and Ilan is young and is not showing the initiative that appears to be the sort of thing they are rewarding. I also think his jabs at Marcel are setting him up for a big embarrassing kick off. We shall see. Heck, I could make arguments for all of them at this point!
W: After being on the fence about Elia, she has definitely grown on me. And relative to the other contestants she seems insanely reasonable. My once favorites Ilan and Cliff are continuing to fall in my estimation: Cliff, because he seems more and more like a jerk; Ilan for his immature obsession with picking on Marcel. At this point, it’s hard to have a stand-out favorite… and I won’t shed a tear for most of the contestants should they face the chopping block.

So who do you think is the winner? The next off? And did this episode finally feature food or were we just imagining it?  


Top Chef Week Nine: Playing with food coloring, dining with sinners, and a semi-surprise elimination.

January 4, 2007

Maybe it’s the fact that Top Chef has been off the air for what seems like years, but… who were these people? When we last left this gang of vagabond chefs, Michael was a loveable but underachieving slacker; Marcel was unforgivably annoying – with weird hair; Betty was wearing out her welcome; we were unsure whether we liked Elia; and Cliff, Sam and Ilan were our favorites to win. Well, not anymore. The only constant, it seems, is that Marcel still has weird hair.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night: The rise of Michael. It began inauspiciously with an interview that showed the poor kid sporting what Sam called “a huge, herpes-like sore” on his lip, the result of an apparently ham-handed teeth pulling. But the painkiller appeared to actually sharpen his culinary skills… beginning with the QuickFire. Our second-favorite guest judge Ted Allen (in fact, if Padma wipes out in her six-inch heels, they might ask him to take over) presided over a 30-minute contest where the chefs had to design a meal around a color. The losers were Betty (green, which, um, should have been easy), Marcel (brown, stumbled on a dirty coffee lake), and Ilan (red, taken too literally with steak tartar). Hmmmm… this bottom three seems prescient. The top three? Sam (killer yellow foods), Cliff (purple pleasure, despite his colorblindness!) and – dum, da, da, dum – Michael (orange triumphs with awesome carrot chips). Sadly, for him and his aching jaw, he does not get immunity for winning.

With Michael surprising us, the producers plied us meek viewers with more emotional turbulence. Exhibit A: Marcel gets mad screen time, and surprisingly, we start to feel a little sorry for mini-Wolverine. Everybody keeps picking on the kid, and you can almost see his little doe eyes blinking back the tears. Does all this face time mean he’ll be kicked off (as is the case with every other “featured” chef before him)? We’re not exactly on pins and needles, but still. Exhibit B: Sam and Ilan take out their knives … and use them on Marcel. (Along with Betty and Cliff, who feel no love for him or his hair products.) For those looking to feast on reality-show drama, this is all delicious stuff. For us, it spurs some indigestion – we don’t watch for schoolyard scuffles and name calling at the kitchen supply store. Where was the food?

Oh, yes. It was in the Elimination Challenge, which asked each contestant to draw a knife and choose one of the seven deadly sins to prepare. Their concepts would make up a seven-course meal served to a handful of famous people we (sort of) recognized. Here are the results in a quick rundown: Sam, wrathful in a spicy ceviche with biting popcorn; Betty, slothful with a trio of slow-roasted soups; Michael, working envy with salmon and trout; Cliff, greedy in a seafood bouillabaisse; Elia, prideful of roasted chicken; Marcel, lusting after some cherry gelee and foam; and Ilan, gluttonous over chocolate cake, funnel cake and macadamia brittle. To make a long story short (too late) Michael’s was the dish that the judges wanted to devour, though Sam’s and Elia’s weren’t half bad either.

The apex of the evening’s drama came when Marcel, Ilan and Betty were on the chopping block. Although Betty and Ilan’s dishes seemed to fair the worst with the judges (chunky, weird soups and soupy weird dessert), those two quickly focused on Marcel and his annoying personality as deserving to go. The judges picked up on this bullying tactic, noting, as wise Ted Allen put it, this has nothing to do with the food. Conclusion: Betty “packs her knives” and leaves (with a few more parting shots at Marcel), leaving Marcel to cope with the awkwardness of no one liking him. Sniff.

Are we surprised about Betty?
Husband: No. While I think Betty is a good cook, a very good cook, the show is now thinning out. With her gone, it appears the only comfort food type is Michael. What remains is the elite effete and urban type cooks. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s what I think most people think of as Top Chef.

Wife: I’m not surprised, either. Betty had been sinking to the bottom over the past few episodes, and her nerves seemed increasingly frayed. I’m drawn to her comfort-cooking style, but it hadn’t shone of late.

What was the dish you most wanted to try tonight?
: I wanted Sam’s popcorn and ceviche. He said something about the popcorn being traditional, but it caused my brain to fry. I think of ceviche as Old World Italian and popcorn as New World Popped Maize. Now, I must admit that I’ve never ordered ceviche in a restaurant, so I may be wrong, but these are not what I think of as a traditional match. Plus, Sam had wrath as his sin and I love me some spicy food!

W: I wanted to try the dish everyone raved about: Michael’s. Tom Colicchio’s surprised comment, “Our little Michael made this?” sealed the deal, and expressed exactly how I’ve come to feel about that furry goofball. It was disappointing that the judges didn’t articulate better what made the dish so tasty.

What is up with Michael?
H: Seriously, wow. I mean ‘WOW.’ Michael has his tooth pulled, is on drugs (no comment about whether this is a usual state for him), and wins both the QuickFire and Elimination. And while I might think it was sympathy, both his orange colored dish and his envy dish come off as the real deal. I was uber impressed and really felt it was about time! Go Michael! Congrats and I’m somewhat sorry I’ve made fun of you over the last few weeks (Only sort of sorry because you make it so easy to get a laugh.)

: Michael does like to keep the expectations low, which I can sympathize with. If you don’t expect much, you can’t be disappointed, no? But clearly the kid has some talent. Let’s see if the boost of confidence that comes with winning can buoy him to greater heights, or if the added pressure (and fading Vicodin) will be just too much for him.

Winners and Next Off?

H: Despite the explosion in the kitchen supply store, Sam is the man. I think the samurai is showing both leadership and creativity. I think Cliff not being in the top group a couple weeks in a row knocked him down, and Ilan’s actions this week hurt him ,too. As for the next off, I’m thinking its very tough. Marcel’s presentation is keeping him alive, so I’m thinking we might see Michael go. I know he was awesome this week, but the doctor may have him off the hard stuff by next episode. Also, I think the judges don’t like his style of cooking in general. Let’s hope I am wrong!

: I like Sam to win, too, although I think he should keep his temper in check. Reality shows aren’t kind to temper tantrums. I think Marcel’s days are numbered, if only because he’ll start to welcome elimination if the unending ribbing of him continues. That, and the fact that the judges seem to be catching wise to his never-ending “foam” and “gelee” tricks. If he doesn’t have something more up his sleeve next week, it may be curtains for him.

Who is your next off and winner? What happened with Ilan’s quiet cool demeanor? And why is Elia the only one who wants to talk to Marcel?


Top Chef Week Eight: Bailey’s with bites, swanky small food and Mia breaks down and goes home.

December 14, 2006

What makes Top Chef producers salivate? No, it’s not the tempting dishes that the intrepid contestants create. (And it’s only partially Padma’s, ahem, choice attire.) In fact, what makes producers salivate is the frayed nerves that six weeks of grumpy chefs living together in tight quarters can produce. It’s Marcel’s bed head and scores of irritated eye rolls. It’s Mia’s complete and tearful breakdown. Slurp. (That’s the producers drinking up some tasty drama. Ahhhh.)

Yes, folks, it was an action-packed episode, complete with tears and enough swear words to keep the censors on their buzzers. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, there was the QuickFire. And the secret ingredient was… booze! Yes, it was a regular commercial for Bailey’s of all varieties (and silly us, we thought there was only one Baileys). There was a bit of cognitive dissonance as the scantily clad host and guest judge repeatedly referenced the “winter holiday” season while wearing clothing fit for a Mediterranean cruise. But the contestants seemed unfazed and set to work creating one cocktail using the mass quantities of Baileys (and other sponsored products) and one tapas to go with it.

In the end, the usual suspects bubbled to the top: Cliff and Sam made great dishes… and surprise(!) Michael, with his vast knowledge of all things alcoholic also made a great cocktail and tasty ice cream sandwich. (Not shocking. He knows booze, and he knows ice cream.) But Cliff took the prize and immunity.

It wasn’t until the teams divided into two for the Elimination Challenge that the drama really got rolling. Team Black (Sam, Ilan, Betty and Marcel) and Team Orange (Cliff, Elia, Michael and Mia) were charged with feeding 200 hungry revelers using $1,500 each at some swanky LA magazine party. The criteria for judging: taste, originality, leadership and wow factor. Team Black, led by Sam, quickly put together a menu of more than a dozen high-fallutin’ hors d’oerves – and, in a heart warming moment, Betty and Marcel seemed to bury the hatchet (or at least throw some dirt over it) and get along quite well. Impressive.

Team Orange was another story. Cue the dramatic music. Elia and Cliff seemed to have a meeting of the minds and came up with only a handful of dishes (Two? Three? Four?) that they would attempt, though Elia was elected team leader. Mia – who in ham-handed foreshadowing was featured throughout the show – attempted without success to suggest more and less-seafood heavy dishes. Evidently she was ignored, and vigorous complaining and dissecting of decision-making ensued.

The handwriting may have been on the wall when Cliff and Mia argued over cellphone walkie talkie in the grocery store about a menu change, and when the Orange team’s cart contained about 1/3 the food of the Black team’s. Or maybe it was when the Black team’s table looked fantastic… and the Orange team’s looked completely devoid of food. In any case, the judges had to kill some time pretending to decide that the Black team had won. Sam took home the win despite Marcel’s best efforts to suddenly diminish his leadership. The rest of the team confirmed Marcel is a bonehead, and Sam walked away with a crateful of knives and probably some desire to show Marcel how sharp they are.

As for the Orange team? Well we’ll save some of the drama for our Q&A. Suffice it to say that Elia was the team leader and in danger. Cliff was harboring a grudge against whiny Mia but had immunity. Mia was ready with an axe to grind and healthy lungs. And Michael just kept his hands in his pockets and his mouth shut. Smart cookie – clearly we don’t give him enough credit. In the end, with Elia’s head on the chopping block, Mia’s breakdown hit its apex. In a move that looked like “to hell with this show,” she sacrificed herself and agreed to go in (presumably) Elia’s place. And the producers lick their lips. Delicious drama.

Who came off worse at the judge’s table, Mia or Cliff?
Husband: I think Mia. The producers were setting her up from the start. I called it when we were just starting to watch the Elimination Challenge. Yet her explosion at Cliff struck me as over the line; Mia has thrown “under the bus” at least three others – but when the tables were turned, she couldn’t handle it. I don’t think she was absolutely wrong in her feelings, but the sob stories killed me. Though kudos to her for letting Elia off the hook.

: Neither came off smelling like roses. Cliff dropped several notches in my book, and I admit that I was sympathetic to Mia. Through fiendish editing, all of her points about being ignored and slighted resonated with me – though who knows whether the team would have worked better under her ideas, or whether it really all went down that way. In any case, Cliff came across as a bit of jerk… and considering the fact that the main problem was the team’s lack of food, he and Elia – who were in the kitchen and the team’s brain trust – struck me as to blame. But maybe that’s just what those wily producers want me to think. I didn’t think she was such a hero for sparing Elia, though. She looked like she just wanted to get the heck out of there at the end. Massive breakdown.

Winners and next off?
: I like Cliff now. I think it’s from growing up watching sports; you have to have a little bit of nasty to win. I think Cliff has got it. Next off? I’m thinking Betty. She’s been in the bottom group a good deal and I think she benefited from being on a good team. I only hope the producers are OK with making the show more testosterone-ridden.

: Sam is the man. Now he has the knives – and the knowledge. Ha! I also like Ilan… and he’s so tan! Clearly the “holiday” weather agrees with him. Next off? Marcel maybe. The animosity toward him is growing… and he has yet to become loveable like our old pal Michael.

Your winner? Your next off? Your thoughts on Mia’s meltdown and departure? And your favorite hors d’oerve for parties this time of year?


Top Chef Week Seven: The raw, the open pit, and Frank washes out.

December 7, 2006

Behold, the power of estrogen. Yes, women flexed their substantial cooking biceps on tonight’s Top Chef – and the man who uses the most hair product didn’t do too shabby, either.

The show began, as usual, with the QuickFire challenge, where we were quickly made to remember that this show was taped long ago on the West Coast. Our intrepid contestants had to concoct a meal using only ingredients bought for $20 from the well-stocked Redondo Beach Farmers’ Market. The twist? They weren’t allowed to cook said ingredients. Yawn.

The contestants rose to the occasion and arranged their fresh ingredients (and not a small amount of seafood) admirably. And in a trend that continued during the episode, the top three weren’t the usual suspects: Elia (concise and simple tuna), Frank (excellent presentation) and Marcel (cool concept, dude). Marcel won for really using his ring mold – I mean, brain – in creating a “watermelon steak” and some other very nicely plated veggie/fruit stuff. In victory, he uttered a word we’d never heard before, not dissimilar to a pig call. (Swaniet? Help us. Does anyone speak Marcel?)

The Elimination challenge tasked the contestants with coming up with a delicious breakfast item to feed unnamed athletes at an unnamed location using unnamed cooking implements. Head scratching among the chefs ensued. Trolling the aisles of Wild Oats (thank you, obvious product placement), they gambled on whether there’d actually be a place to cook all those eggs they bought. They drove up on the beach in Malibu in their shiny Toyotas (another winning placement as it emerged from behind the rocks with Elia waving out of the sunroof) to face cooking over fire pits and serving hordes of surfers.

Some had chosen dishes that could be adapted to this sandy medium… some had not. To make a long story short (too late), the people who did not were surprising: Cliff and Sam struggled, and the three cooking beauties Elia, Betty and Mia turned out the top dishes. Surfers loved Mia’s crab cakes Benedict, the judges dug Betty’s eggs in a ham roll, and everyone enjoyed Elia’s savory-sweet waffle/egg creation. There was even a heart warming moment were everybody gave Michael some eggs – except Frank, who was very disturbingly gleeful at Michael’s distress. (Even we thought it was mean, and we pick on Michael all the time.) Elia rode the wave – to use the show’s forced surfing metaphors – and Cliff, Sam and Frank wiped out. Guess who got booted? Not hard, right? Goodbye, Frank. It’s been real.

Did Michael just become more loveable?

Husband: Yes, Betty Crocker and Charles Manson’s boy had my favorite line of the night. As Frank was “vigorously” grating some sort of vegetable, Michael’s watermelon napoleon kept toppling over – leading him to observe in frustration that Frank was “humping some gorilla on the prep table.”
: Chef Boyardee has become more loveable (although where was my favorite chef’s hat tonight?). When he was rooting around his cooler looking for eggs that he had, no doubt, left on the counter at the dorm, you couldn’t help but feel sorry for the big lug. And clearly, other people felt the same way… Yes, he’s grown on me.

Favorite consequence of having surfers as judge?

H: Obviously, it was the “surfer lingo” rodeo between Marcel and Michael. Both seemed to fairly fluent in stoner, so I doubt surfer was too hard for them to pick up. Also, the beach setting set the scene for Tom Colicchio appearing to flirt with surfer girls in bikinis.
W: In addition to the totally bodacious vocabulary we picked up, I enjoyed the opportunity of seeing Marcel’s lower-back tattoo (that was a tattoo, wasn’t it?), and his strange attempt to “toss” Elia into the water – which looked more like misdemeanor assault.

What’s with the girl power?
H: I guess I’m a cynic or a misogynist. They seemed to go on about Ilan’s food and not even mention Mia’s, yet there was no Ilan in the end. Part of me thinks it’s a ploy.
W: Clearly my husband is a she-hater. (I kid.) It was refreshing to see the women in the winner’s circle, even if one of them may have taken Ilan’s spot. It was also nice to see Sam and Cliff humbled a bit, if only for this week, since they had been cruising for most of the show. Will it last? Have I sold Elia short in the past? Who knows…

Winners and losers?

H: I’m finally going with the glasses (Ilan). I said during the QuickFire that there is something about him that just seems to nail it every time. I’m edging toward the wife’s favorite now. The next off? Michael. I know I said I wouldn’t pick him again to avoid the split in the space-time continuum, but I’m running out of folks to kick off and the judges may not want to kick any of the ladies off if they can avoid it. I’m risking a black hole and saying Michael.
W: How about Sam? Sure, he stumbled this week, but maybe it will motivate him to tighten that samurai bun and sharpen his sword. I think Mia may be next off. Despite the fact that her food looks like something I’d eat, her presentations never seem artsy enough for the judges.

Winners? Next off? Would you eat scallop carpaccio? What would you have cooked for a fire-pit breakfast on the beach? And how about Padma’s outfits?


Top Chef at the midpoint: An MHC clip-show

November 29, 2006

topchef_desktop_thumb1.jpgIt’s that time of year. Shows go on hiatus and we’re stuck with re-runs and dull holiday specials. Of course, we could turn off the mind-numbing boob tube and do something crazy like, say, read. Dramatic pause. Ha, ha, ha, ha!

But seriously, folks. There was no new Top Chef tonight, so we’ve devised a way to fill the TV void… by talking about TV. We thought we’d devise our own short clip show of sorts and reflect on the season that has been Top Chef.

The highlight so far is…
Husband: Anthony Bourdain‘s stint as guest judge. His appearance in the second half of last week’s show really demonstrated the program’s potential (and how it’s falling short). Bourdain’s appearance was both comical but duly critical — it actually was about the food, instead of just snarky drama. My favorite Bourdain quote was his description of Michael: “Betty Crocker and Charles Manson had a love child and it’s cooking for me.”
Wife: Love the drah-ma. From stolen lychees to the addition of furtive tablespoons of sugar to toothbrushes dropped on nasty dorm floors, the attempts to make compelling TV out of mundane interactions between (often intoxicated) chefs are admirable. What’s next? Someone changed my oven temperature and used all of the butter? Can’t wait!

Last year, Top Chef gave us “It is what it is.” Is there a catch phrase this year? Anything?
H: I don’t know if there’s a Top Chef catch phrase, but the thing we’re sure never to forget is Marcel‘s hair. Part Wolverine, part Farah Fawcett. What is in that?
W: I’m still fond of “It is what it is” and I don’t know why these chefs don’t use it more. I use it all the damn time… It should be a bumper sticker. There’s no way this group could top it… and the best lines of the show so far have come from Anthony Bourdain, and that kid at Camp Glucose who declared that she “wanted to marry the hot diabetic.”

Best Elimination or QuickFire challenge?
H: The vending machine QuickFire challenge. First, because you got to see the contestants make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. (Some of the crap in those machines was frightening.) Second, because we got to see Michael’s true inner spirit — which said, ” I don’t really care about this contest” — via his pornographic Cheeto emerging from a lump of Snickers offering.
W: Well, since my hubby has named the obvious best challenge, I’ll go with the ice cream contest as runner up. We got to see Marcel’s cutting edge molecular-gastronmic instincts lead him awry as he prepared bacon and avocado ice cream for 7-year-olds in board shorts, and Emily‘s inner devil rear its ugly head as innocent and average looking beach-goers were subjected to a bitter and hostile tongue lashing for not enjoying her ice cream. And she got kicked off. Ain’t karma grand?

How the show could be improved?
H: I think there’s a dearth of big personality providing guidance to the contestants. While Tom is great, I think having him and another chef of his caliber (perhaps Anthony Bourdain or Danielle Bouloud, both of whom already have TV shows) would really spur the contestants and make them step it up, as Tom has been trying (with limited success) to do.
W: I’d like to see more of the, ahem, food that these contestants prepare. Especially in the early episodes, we viewers glimpsed the dishes for only a second and had no notion of the ingredients, or even how they tasted. I like this show because it’s (supposedly) a meritocracy. It would help to judge the chefs’ skills if we could actually envision eating their food. Or, the producers could bag that and just inject more drama about stolen produce.

Since we always pick a winner and loser, let’s turn it around: Who of those chefs who’ve been eliminated would you invite back?
H: Emily. Actually, I don’t want Emily to come back, I just want her to be a color commentator for the show so we can hear her nasty remarks about what’s happening.
W: None of ’em. And let’s get crackin’ on eliminating more. Seriously, don’t we know who the final three or four are going to be? Let’s cut to the chase, producers.

Your favorite moments? The funniest or saddest bits? Heroes and villains? And predictions for who will come out on top?