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The Chefs Tackle Offal and (Awful) Tasting Menus on "Top Chef"

And then there were ten. Surprised? I can't say I was. After all of the chefs managed to squeak by last week when the judges couldn't figure out who to send home (all thanks to Sam, really), I was pretty sure that two of them would be packing their knives last night, especially after Padma announced that they'd be working on teams of two for the elimination challenge.

After last week's Camp Glucose fiasco (I'm still having flashbacks to verboten squeeze bottles of olive oil and illicit meringue cookies), this week's episode of Top Chef was even more tense, thanks to the presence of one Tom Colicchio looming over everything. With his eagle eyes roaming the test kitchen (and the kitchen of Social Hollywood), Tom was on a rather short fuse this week... and rightfully so. Given the allegations of cheating or misunderstanding the confines of the challenge, the mood of honest competition has been completely spoiled. And I'm still stunned by the fact that Mia was threw Betty under the bus (despite others' claims that she too had altered her recipe) but then was so eager to work with her tonight. Is she completely duplicitous or just clever like a fox? I'm not too sure.

The Quickfire Challenge this week was just that: a real challenge. Overseen by guest judge Michelle Bernstein of Miami's Azul restaurant (and consulting executive chef of Social Hollywood), the challenge was to create a dish in two hours featuring at least one of the ingredients that the Top Chef producers had generously termed "leftovers." For the rest of us, those items might better be described as offal: pigs blood, lamb hearts, veal tongues, beef cheeks, oxtail, sweetbreads and all of the other extraneous stuff that comes out of the animals before the average consumer, well, consumes them. (It's worth noting, however, that offal usually does turn up, not just in peasants' homes, but in the kitchens of fine dining institutions around the world. Coincidence?)

These are not forgiving ingredients, nor are they easy to work with, given the time constraints. Mistakes are quickly made: Elia doesn't soak her veal kidneys, leaving them tasting of, well kidneys; both Betty and Frank mix two types of offal (meat and fish) resulting in confused dishes; Josie didn't properly cook her oxtail. However, I was actually impressed that Marisa didn't somehow create a dessert of offal (pigs trotter ice cream, perhaps?) and turned out what was hands-down her best dish of the competition so far: a Greek Bolognese with hand-made pasta. Standouts included Ilan, Cliff (his oxtail looked amazing and seemed to taste even more beautiful), and winner Sam, whose sweetbreads and chinese five spice beignets actually looked stunning. I'm not a fan of sweetbreads and even I would have ordered that in a heartbeat.

The Elimination Challenge this week should have been an absolute joy to watch, as chefs were given the opportunity, in pairs, to create a course for a six-course tasting menu lunch at Social Hollywood for actress Jennifer Coolidge (she of the uproarious Christopher Guest films like Best in Show and A Mighty Wind and, yes, American Pie) using the ingredients found in the Social kitchens. Let me preface this by saying that they didn't exactly have to work with the leftovers of a soup kitchen or anything; they had complete carte blanche to use any of the beautifully fresh produce, tender cuts of meat, and leftover dishes from last night's dinner service to create a course that would wow Jennifer and the judges. And I have to say that nearly all of them dropped the ball in a major way. These are supposed to be top chefs, after all, and I really didn't see much in the way of creativity or ingenuity out of most of them.

The order of their courses was chosen at random and the contestants didn't bother to heed Betty's call to duty to discuss who was making what and what courses they were preparing. Guess what? Betty was right to do so because the entire tasting menu was completely unorganized and did not cohere into a singular experience. Why were two teams both preparing a drink as part of their course? Why was there no meat course? It was a mess and contestants didn't really use the range of gorgeous ingredients at hand (Tom pointed to the beautiful baby purple artichokes as an example); this should have been a chef's dream challenge.

First up: Marcel and Frank (possibly the worst matched duo in the game) presented a duo of salmon and beets in two preparations. I was confused by the inclusion of beets (the beet greens on the other hand, lent the dish a real flash) and judges were baffled by the lack of texture in the dish: soft beets, salmon mousse, and avocado all melded together. But the flavor seemed superb, nonetheless. Next up: Sam and Cliff created another duo, this time a beautifully structured plate that presented scallops and polenta on one hand and foie gras with fig gastrique, perched atop of a mushroom crostini; gorgeous, well-balanced food that actually worked as a duo. (Bravo, guys!) Third course: Ilan and Michael's Baked Seafood Paella with fried soft-shell crab; I was really nervous about this dish as it seemed so bizarre: using leftover risotto to emulate the crispiness of a paella (with a little too much saffron) and then topped with a fried softshell crab. But it worked: it was delicious and the texture of the crispiness of the outside of the rice with the juiciness inside (which mirrored that of the crab) won over the judges in no time. (Good on Michael for stepping up for once and being on the winning team.)

And after that, that's where things took a turn for the worse.

Betty and Mia presented a savory duck napoleon, which failed for several reasons. Leaving aside the obvious fact that traditionally a napoleon is a dessert comprised of puff pastry and sweetened cream, any napoleon--whether sweet or savory--is a stacked affair, with puff pastry standing between layers of filling. Their duck breast was sat on top of two slabs of pastry that was undercooked and looked more like croutons. Plus the duck was extremely overcooked. (Even Michael noticed that Mia was cooking the duck way too early and way too thoroughly.) Not their best effort. But still, they at least cooked something.

Unlike Josie and Marisa, that is. While they should have served a meat course of some kind, they opted instead to present their Awakening Trio, a palate-cleansing course comprised of... various things. Like a fennel salad, uncooked. A goat-cheese and pineapple combo, uncooked. And a prickly pear-coconut drink, presented in a spoon no less! (And yes, uncooked as well.) That concoction looked like Pepto Bismol and had no place being on that plate in the first place, much less sent out to the table. You're there to cook using a dream kitchen's worth of ingredients and you decide not to cook at all? Idiocy. I was glad that Tom called them out on this; did they really think they even had a shot of winning with a dish like this? They took a far too easy route and tried to sneak by but it backfired right in their faces.

Elia and Carlos had just as bad a time with their trio of desserts: a pomegranate-basil drink (again with the drinks?), an apple or pineapple sorbet with pistachios, and a napoleon of grapes with a fig drizzle. Or something. My mind wandered at that point, thanks to nearly every single team having a duo of this or a trio of that on their plates. Why not just make ONE thing? The simplest solution is sometimes the best. (Thank you, Occam's Razor.) The judges found the drink to be vile and sour, as though it had sat out for 24-48 hours. Nasty.

But, ultimately it was Josie and Marisa who were both told to pack their knives. And rightfully so. Josie rubbed me the wrong way last week and, while she definitely had skill and talent, she did not show either of those things this week, following a foolhardy plan from the beginning and not even cooking a single thing on the plate. (Imagine what Gordon Ramsay's reaction would have been to that... or, hell, think back to how he freaked out at Virginia on Hell's Kitchen for, well, doing just that.) It was time for Marisa to go, anyway; she had managed to sneak by with desserts nearly every week and there was no way she could come close to capturing the title of Top Chef with that sort of masterplan.

Next week on Top Chef: Anthony Bourdain shows up as the guest judge (I cannot effing wait); the chefs prepare a "cutting edge" Thanksgiving dinner; and Elia seems to descend into some kind of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness-like madness. Wow.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: Survivor: Cook Islands (CBS); My Name is Earl (NBC; 8-8:36 pm); The Office (NBC; 8:36-9:20); Smallville (CW); Ugly Betty (ABC); 'Til Death/'Til Death (FOX); Desire (MyNet)

9 pm: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS); 30 Rock (NBC; 9:20-10:01 pm); Supernatural (CW); Grey's Anatomy (ABC); The O.C. (FOX); Fashion House (MyNet)

10 pm: Shark (CBS); ER (NBC); Barbara Walters Special: 30 Mistakes in 30 Years (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

8 pm: My Name is Earl.

On tonight's super-sized episode ("Robbed a Stoner Blind"), Earl is tempted to save the world from global warming (not that certain people believe it exists) when he and Randy discover someone on Earl's list (guest star Christian Slater) living an eco-friendly life on a commune. It just better not be the commune that Locke lived on a few weeks ago on Lost.

8:36 pm: The Office.

On tonight's super-sized episode ("The Merger"), the Scranton and Stamford branches of Dunder-Mifflin are merged together, causing a few reunions (ahem, Jim and Pam) and some new faces around the old office (Karen and Andy). Please let it be 8:36 already because I cannot wait.

9:20 pm: 30 Rock.

On tonight's super-sized (and relocated) episode ("The C Word"), Jack's plans to take Tracy to a swanky corporate event completely backfire (could have told him that one) while Liz comes to the conclusion that she needs to take a more laissez-faire attitide towards her employees. Oh, Liz, you card.


Anonymous said…
I was very happy that they were both sent packing. And Josie's comment at the end that she'd never even been in the bottom of an elimination challenge? That may be, Jos, but just the day before you were in the bottom of a quickfire, so it's not like you've been a shining star! Good riddance, esp to Marisa.

One thing that rubbed me the wrong way - I really though both Ilan and Michael should have been the winners and gone to Miami. This was a team challenge, and not a 3 or more team, like others. This was a true example of working together, and though the paella was Ilan's idea, they were both responsible for the win.

I still can't believe Jos and Marisa thought it was ok to just not cook anything. Morons.

Anthony Bourdain!!!
I am so happy to see Marisa gone. Not only was she lackluster in the kitchen but she always had the worst expression on her she just swallowed that sour prickly pear concoction.

I am so excited for Anthony Bourdain's guest judge appearance next week!

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