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Cheftestants Join the Mile High Club on "Top Chef"

Was I the only one depressed by this week's episode of Top Chef ("Snacks on a Plane")? Talk about a downer...

The chefs' challenges last night were perhaps some of the more, well, challenging this season and the series' producers seem hell-bent on making these contestants jump through ever increasingly difficult hoops. The male chefs didn't particularly seem to mind being awakened by Padma but they did blanch a little when they learned that they'd have to prepare breakfast for her. In twenty minutes. Using a blender and a little butane stove.

Still, I have to say that I was impressed by some of the dishes, which seemed highly complex for the amount of time they had, along with the limitations. CJ's dish--a combination of a blueberry, date, and mascarpone shake and crepes with berries and almond cream--looked divine. Also appetizing: Sara's rustic egg-in-the-hole with prosciutto, eggs, and maple syrup; Hung's banana and Grand Marnier shake and classic steak and eggs, topped with mushrooms and onion; Dale's ham, onion, and apple frittata with a mustard hollandaise; and Brian's lobster and butter poached egg with a smoked salmon hash and Kalamata olives (the presentation looked stunning). Wasn't all that into Casey's French toast with salsa, spinach, and eggs. Just sort of meh.

But the Quickfire Challenge was only the beginning as the pyjama-clad chefs were told to pack their bags and hop on a plane for New York. The chefs, of course, freaked out but little did they know that they would soon be waylaid by Padma at Newark Airport. The mission for the next Elimination Challenge: design and cook a meal for Continental Airlines' business/first class passengers and serve it to a select group of travel experts (read: flight attendants). Only five chefs would make it through to the next round and one wouldn't even make it into Manhattan. Cruelty, thy name is Top Chef producer.

Poor, poor CJ. I just knew things would shake out that way as soon as he taped his talking head about how he had never been to New York before and that all he wanted was a slice of pizza. Hell, the closest he got to Manhattan was the view from a hotel room at the Newark airport. I will say that I did find his elimination to be utterly and completely depressing yet fitting that the guy handled it with such panache and class. Even Padma seemed rather, er, shaken by the decision and was forced to tell him to pack his knives with tears in her eyes. Gee, if only there was a way to grant him the viewer's favorite award... Oh wait, there is. Thanks, Bravo.

Personally, I was hoping that Brian--as much as I like the guy--was going to be the one to get the boot this week. His dish was just not appropriate for airline food. I thought that his New York strip steak was way too huge, even for business/first class, and the Peruvian purple potato and lobster hash was ghastly. For a guy who knows his seafood (he's cooked it nearly every challenge this season), this was an unforgivable error in judgment as the lobster was rubbery and inedible. Even guest judge Tony Bourdain had a hard time figuring out what was in the hash in the first place. (If you can stump the master chef, it's never a good sign.)

Also in the bottom three: Sara, whose dish--seared salmon dusted with coriander over a leek and tomato fondue, served with a bland and boring couscous and fig side that seemed mere afterthought--failed to impress the judges, and poor CJ. While I was hoping the vertically ample chef would squeeze by, I had a feeling that he would be the one to pack his knives after seeing that egregious side dish of overcooked broccolini which looked more like charcoal covered in breadcrumbs than an appetizing side. Additionally, his main course--pan-seared halibut with toasted farro and mint oil--didn't exactly go over too well with the judges. Still, at least CJ was able to count properly and serve all of the flight attendants, unlike Dale.

Dale, how do you forget the count on the entrees? Not sure how that happened, but still, Dale's dish, steak au poivre with demi-glace, leeks and asparagus, served alongside shrimp with zucchini and celery, hit the brief completely. Not only was it elegantly devised and plated, it looked delicious and was rich without being heavy and overwhelming (see Brian's steak). And Hung surprised me with his Chilean sea bass, served with tomato sauce, baby squash, and onions; the fish was perfectly moist and retained its flavor and texture during reheating. Impressive, considering I thought all the fish dishes would fail outright.

I will say that I was extremely impressed with Casey this week. For a contestant who has flown nearly under the radar most of the competition, leaving herself either in the middle of the pack or a few times at the very bottom, she has really stepped up in the past few episodes to prove why she's still in this competition. Her dish--grilled veal medallions with Brussels sprouts and crimini and apple brandy sauce served with a Gruyere-laced cauliflower gratin--was a self-assured, elegant triumph in its own right but even more so when you consider the fact that it was reheated in an airplane's galley kitchen and had the same limitations in terms of cooking time, height, and preparation as the other chefs. It was only natural that Casey win this Elimination Challenge. And, with her win, this competition just got a hell of a lot more interesting.

Next week on Top Chef ("Manhattan Project"), the five remaining chefs head to New York City, where they must dazzle some of the industry's most accomplished chefs, including guest judge André Soltner of Manhattan's famed Lutece. Bon appetit!


Cass said…
As the season goes on Tom Collichio is irritating me more and more. And last night it seemed like him and Anthony Bourdain were behaving like two junior high kids in the back of the bus, seeing who could come up with a bigger slam for CJ's broccolini. But CJ handled it well.

I just can't believe that this is the guy who helmed the amazing Grammercy Tavern!
The only thing annoying about Collichio was the hat he wore in last night's episode.

Really sad to see CJ go. I also think it should have been Brian who seems to have peaked. Very cool, though, that Casey won the elimination challenge. She has totally stepped up her game.

It was funny watching all of the chefs help each other out last night (well, except for Hung). What a huge contrast that is from all the squabbling and immature pranks of last season!
Anonymous said…
Really, really bummed to see CJ go. He was one of my two faves from the beginning (the other - Tre). Like you, I knew the cards were on the table as soon as he said that thing about pizza. I almost didn't want to watch the end. I like Brian, but I really was hoping he'd be the one who had to go.

Broccolini - worst thing in 3 seasons? I doubt that. It looked awful, but sometimes I think Tom likes being hyberbolic.

Bye, CJ, you classy guy. You will be missed. I really don't know who to root for now. Casey, maybe? Or Sara? Certainly not passionate about anyone.

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