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"Break An Egg": No More Salad Days for Carlos on "Top Chef"

Whew. You'd think after gorging myself after not one, but two, full Thanksgiving dinners, I wouldn't have room for the latest installment of Top Chef, but alas, there's no rest for the not-so- food-weary.

I'm honestly surprised that Bravo would air an all-new episode of Top Chef (albeit a Thanksgiving-themed one) the night before Thanksgiving holidays, especially as this coming week's episode appears to be a repeat. But the minds of Bravo's programming execs are and always will remain a mystery to me, so let's leave it at that.

This week's episode was a rare bird, in the fact that the Quickfire Challenge was just so... bizarre and unlikely, made even more so by the fact that the judge was none other than Head Judge Tom Colicchio and the fact that five contestants (Sam, Cliff, Ilan, Mia, and Frank) won the challenge. The chefs' assignment: create a dish in under fifteen minutes made primarily from canned goods and ingredients from the Top Chef pantry. Pantry Cooking is really a good as a test of home chefs' skills as it is an art form: being able to put together a delicious meal from diverse ingredients is both as easy and tough as it sounds. (Check out Donna Hay's gorgeous book, Off the Shelf, for some pointers.)

In a flash, the chefs were zipping along at breakneck speeds, creating an odd assortment of dishes. Some were actually pretty impressive, such as Cliff's potato salad, with anchovies and mandarin oranges, Sam's garbanzo and beet salad with crispy anchovies and lemon dijon vinaigrette, and Ilan's spinach and cannellini bean salad with roasted potatoes and Vienna sausage. I thought that they at least stepped outside of the canned goods restriction to still make their individual marks on each of these dishes. That is, unlike Mia's 15 Minute Salad with garbanzo beans, green bean, artichoke hearts, and mint, which--even if it tasted good--seemed a really lazy way to go, even if it totally met the brief and fulfilled the "pantry cooking" challenge, as it were. I happen to love salad, especially if it's well-thought out and beautifully balanced, but this just felt, sort of... meh. I actually thought that Mike's bacon-wrapped corn and mashed potatoes with chili and chives looked absolutely gorgeous and just sounded like such divine comfort food. (Kudos to him for attempting mashed potatoes under such time constraints, as well.) I would have rather that dish been named one of the winners, rather than the puce concoction cooked up by Frank: a fruit and coconut salad with blueberry yogurt cream, which just looked and sounded vile to me.

In the end, the five losers were told by Tom that their elimination challenge would be to cook a full Thanksgiving dinner for the winners, but as always on Top Chef, there would be a twist: chefs would have to devise a menu that used the traditional flavors of the holiday but was "cutting edge" as well. It's this last fact that seemed to escape Marcel, Betty, Elia, Mike, and Carlos as they prepared a totally chaotic five-course menu that was all over the place in terms of flavors, execution, and a general lack of anything resembling an edge. No, this was one Thanksgiving feast that was as dull and unsharpened as a used butter knife.

Before getting to that, there were two moments that I couldn't wait for, based on the promos that Bravo aired for this episode, one of which turned out to be a tempest in a teacup and the other winded up being far more charged than I had imagined. First up: Elia's nervous breakdown. The promos made it seem far more exciting than what actually happened; I was waiting for a full-blown psychotic break with reality and what we got instead was a low-key, stress-induced love fest that started with Elia smearing chocolate all over her face and then Betty and Carlos joining in to partake of some childish food fighting. Sigh. Not exactly the intense freak-out it seemed like. Naughty Bravo!

Meanwhile, I was cringing when Frank confronted Marcel about his toothbrush. Was it just me or was it overkill when Frank said that he would beat up Marcel so bad his own mother wouldn't recognize him? I mean, I am not a fan of Marcel at all, but this seemed completely overboard and OTT, especially as I never saw Frank's toothbrush on the floor. If anything, it seemed in his toiletry bag, which Marcel placed on the ground, rather than on the floor itself. My thoughts: (1) why was Frank's toothbrush anywhere near the kitchen to begin with and why did he leave it there and (2) if he knew that they would be using the kitchen for the Elimination Challenge (which Tom and Padma clearly indicated) why didn't Frank clear up his personal belongings and, I don't know, put them in his bedroom or the bathroom? Color me confused.

Anyway, back to the Thanksgiving, er, feast that the chefs prepared (back in the summer heat, no less). Things started off all right with an amuse bouche created by Mike (which at least seemed tasty and somewhat redeemed him for the nasty Cheeto-meets-Snickers affair he forced Suzanne Goin to injest). I was a little concerned that Mike would want to do something "extra" but the judges, which included Anthony Bourdain himself (yes, the ever-sarcastic and caustic Tony!), seemed to enjoy it. Next up: Elia's creamy portobello and button mushroom soup with walnuts looked and tasted beautifully, even if there was nothing "cutting edge" about the recipe, per se. But it was modern, nicely presented, and tasty and the nuttiness added by the toasted walnuts seemed to go a long way; it was only natural and fitting that Elia should win the challenge. (Even after basically insulting and then badgering Tom earlier.)

Carlos' salad was a fiasco: limp, wilted lettuce underneath some roasted squash and queso fresco. Excuse me, but I've said it time and time again (and Carlos should have learned his lesson from the booted Josie and Marisa from last week), don't ever choose to make a salad on Top Chef. Ever. Unless you believe you have been inspired by divine intervention to create God's gift to salad, it's just not going to impress the judges enough to keep you around and certainly not enough to have you actually WIN the challenge. Carlos basically sat on his butt for six hours and thought that he could squeak by with a completely lame salad course that was not only not cutting edge, but had nothing new or original about it at all. Throwing in some roasted squash (wow) does not a cutting edge Thanksgiving dish make. (I make a roasted butternut squash, arugula, and goat cheese salad, from a Jamie Oliver recipe, all the time and while it's tasty, it's not cutting edge.)

For the main course, Marcel made a turkey roulade with stuffing and a cranberry gelee that looked absolutely jaw-droppingly astonishing. While the turkey ended up being way too dry (he should have left the fat on in order to keep it moist), the presentation was utterly and beyond a doubt cutting-edge. It utilized the traditional flavors of the Thanksgiving table in an unexpected and ultra-modern way. While Elia's dish may have tasted better, Marcel should have won the challenge for following the brief to the letter. Ah, well. I can't believe I'd ever admit that Marcel should win a challenge. (Did anyone catch a glimpse of his business cards from earlier in the episode which proclaimed him to be the new Top Chef? Aha.)

I will never understand why Mike decided to make a trio of side dishes as an actual course, presenting the judges with twice-baked potatoes with shrimp, parsnip mashed potatoes, and Parmesan-crusted corn. Um, what? First of all, I don't understand how three side dishes, not even served WITH the main course, comprise an actual course. Second, why serve TWO potato entries? Baked AND mashed potatoes? Blech. Everything looked white, bland, and bizarre. The twice-baked potato was thought, by many, to be the best single bite of the entire meal.

Betty's dessert, a duo of creme brulees with chai and ginger and pumpkin flavorings, failed to make the grade. Tom felt that the consistency was all wrong, more pumpkin pie flavoring than brulee and I'd have to agree. The consistency looked way too thick instead of being a rich, flavor-spiked custard on top of which a layer of sugar had been torched. (Adding any other ingredients to the sugar topping is always a mistake as, surprise!, they burn.) But instead of taking the blame for the dish, Betty turned and blamed Marcel and Carlos who had helped her brulee the custards. Whah? The dish was flawed from the start (there was nothing original or cutting edge about it) and there was nothing that Marcel or Carlos did to negatively impact the dish. Oh, Betty, you're losing me!

Finally, Mike brought out a cheese plate, which was complete overkill after such a heavy, rich meal with so many courses (and side dishes). Too much, too late. While Gail was a fan of the cheese plate, it was confusing to me why it was prepared the way it was (WAY too much cheese, first of all) and why it was being served at this point in the meal. Odd.

Ultimately, it was Carlos who was sent to pack his knives and go and I couldn't have agreed more with the decision. He's proven to be a weak link, week after week, and I've yet to be impressed by any of his dishes. I was hoping that Frank would have ended up in the bottom five and been sent packing, but I'll settle for Carlos now. Not sure why Betty tried to throw him under the bus for her failure, but the fact remains that they had unlimited resources at their disposal and a need to impress Tony and the judges, and he jumped at the opportunity to do a salad, even though no one was forcing him into that role. He admitted that his strategy was to sneak by in the middle of the pack rather than actually, you know, WOW the judges or anything and it showed. His salad was as lazy and uninspired as he seemed to be. And after hearing Carlos tell the remaining contestants to "break an egg," I couldn't be happier with the decision to boot him.

Next time on Top Chef: at what looks like Marina del Rey, chefs are told that they have to create a mouth-watering entree, but there's (as always) a catch. Hmmm, waterside setting, an unnamed entree, could it be something seafood-related?


Anonymous said…
My fondness of Betty has cooled like a deep fryer after one too many batches of onion rings. First, the rule bending with her Crispy Cookies. I'm not calling her a cheat, but I do wonder why she didn't consult with the nutritionist about altering her recipe upon seeing its initial failure. Now, she comes across as a histrionic Cheshire Cat whose shrill antagonism of Marcel is becoming unbearable. Marcel helps to complete her course and she tells the judges to eliminate him? That's cold even for an L.A. actress.

Now, suddenly and frighteningly, I like Marcel. He has shown that he isn't quite the villain that he appeared to be at the start of the season. His position of cast whipping boy makes him a whole lot more endearing, especially when their complaints are baseless. Yes, he's a pompous (pompadoured) ass, but he's far from season one's Steven. Oh, and his augmented business card was sad since…

Final two: Sam and Ilan (my guess)
Anonymous said…
I agree -

Mike should have won the quickfire over Frank or Mia.

Frank's outburst at Marcel was completely uncalled for. That toothbrush wasn't even near the floor.

One thing about Betty's brulee (and, like Tom I, I am cooling on her)...

While it may not have been "cutting edge" and most of the dishes weren't, so it's not like she was alone, I felt she blew it when asked about what made it cutting edge. To me, she had a perfect answer, "The challenge was to create a traditional thanksgiving dinner, but make it cutting edge. When you think traditional Thanksgiving dessert, you think Pumpkin Pie. I wanted to do a twist on that, so I made brulee" At least it would have shown that she cared about what was said and didn't just dismiss it with "I like making comfort food," which was akin to saying, "I didn't care what the challenge was."
While I can't say that I am starting to "like" Marcel, I do think that he should have won that challenge. I'm sure Elia's soup was the most delicious but it certainly wasn't cutting edge. Marcel's was the only dish that attempted to fill the brief.

I also think that Betty and Frank need to stop taking their frustration out on Marcel. Yes, he can be a conceited punk. But Betty and Frank are older and (supposedly) wiser and they should leave petty emotional baggage aside and concentrate on their cooking.

Finally, loved seeing Anthony Bourdain on the show. I wish he was a judge every week!
destiny anne said…
Betty is crazy. Frank is crazy. That is all.

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