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Animal Kingdom: Zoo Food on "Top Chef"

Rachel Dratch lookalike, 32-year-old Chicago native Valerie, was foiled on last night's episode of Top Chef ("Zoo Food"), thanks to her flavorless blinis during an Elimination Challenge that saw the chefs split up into five teams, each charged with catering a cocktail party for 200 guests at the Chicago Zoo... and serving food that their particular team "mascot" would have eaten.

But before that the cheftestants were sent to the Green City Market, where they had a half an hour to shop for five ingredients with which to make a dish. (The typical ingredients such as salt, pepper, sugar, and oil wouldn't count towards this total but anything used from the Top Chef pantry would.) It was definitely interesting to see the chefs race around the market trying to grab whatever struck their fancy (except for Spike who seemed more interested in mellowing out to the musical stylings of that guitarist).

I was absolutely convinced that Mark would lose this challenge, if only because--in his haste--he left behind his mizuna, a key element to his dish. But Mark completely validated himself in his Quickfire Challenge, managing to not blow his dish at all, but come out on top with a beautifully realized dish composed from sirloin steak, turnips, peaches, mushrooms and butter. In the end, he really didn't need that mizuna (substituting the butter instead) and the sharpness of the turnip puree counterbalanced the sweetness of that peach sauce beautifully. Well done, Kiwi!

I was really pulling for Richard to get to show off his molecular gastronomy skills in this Quickfire, but alas, his eucalyptus-scented chicken soup with apples, apple cider, and butter failed to make the grade and wasn't properly infused with that floral-herbal eucalyptus smoke in the way that Richard had hoped. Meanwhile, Andrew didn't seem to be paying attention when Padma was explaining the task and ended up getting his dish disqualified when he added balsamic vinegar onto his five items. (Note to Andrew: she said OIL, not vinegar.) Which is a shame as his dish seemed creative and simple: lamb chops with peaches, onion, mint, potatoes, and that risky, risky balsamic. Valerie turned in a tasty combination of ribeye steak, peaches, sweet potato, tomato, and arugula. But it was Mark's swift thinking that earned him immunity in the Elimination Challenge to come.

I knew Valerie was marked for elimination as soon as I saw that she ended up on the same team as former co-workers Stephanie and Antonia. The two of them immediately excluded her from the discussions about the menu (did you notice Stephanie's body language, turned away from Valerie, as she spoke to Antonia?) and had a feeling that if their team ended up in the bottom two, she would be the one to go home. Still, it was a monumental error in judgment to pre-make those blinis off-site and then transport them to the zoo. Blinis should *always* be made to order and her flavor profiles--black olive blini, rutabega, and mascarapone cream--didn't seem to gel at all. Plus the rutabega was slightly undercooked, adding far too much crunch to this dish. Her teammates didn't fare too well, either. Stephanie's roasted pear and crab salad with celery root was watery and dull; she should have never dressed the salad ahead of time and her chips were disastrously soggy. She redeemed herself slightly with her second dish: banana bread with salted caramel sauce and meringue. But would it be enough?

I was actually surprised that the judges didn't call out the chefs for some egregious errors in sticking with their animals' food, particularly the above Team Gorilla, who was called out for two rather unremarkable dishes. However, the judges never seemed to take into account the fact that they strayed wildly from their animals' diet, which was meant to be an important component in devising the evening. Gorilla, which had a strict vegetarian diet to work with, incorporated lamb into their menu (in Antonia's lamb and edamame lettuce cups) but neither Tom nor the other judges, including guest judge Wylie Dufresne (the molecular gastronomy god second only to El Bulli's Ferran Adria), called them out on this.

Team Lion served a bison tartare with tarradon coulis, beet salad with goat cheese foam, yuzu, and Ras al Hanout, chicken sate, and prime rib with horseradish foam. Other than the beet salad (which drew raves from Dufresne), the team seemed to disappear into the background and didn't get called to the judges table for being in the top or bottom. I was hoping that Richard's gastonomic wizardry would again get some praise from the guest judge but no dice. Erik has still managed to not impress me with his dishes and, if he hopes to stay in this competition, he really needs to step up his game.

Team Bear served an array of dishes that quickly landed them in the bottom two teams. While I liked the simplicity and taste of the Chimay and honeycomb on raisin-pecan bread, those stuffed mushrooms were a disaster on so many levels: presentation, taste, basic conception and execution. The fact that they still served them to the judges--or Lisa did, anyway--was shameful. If it wasn't working, stand behind your food and refuse to put it out there. Or at the very least, if you attempt to fix it by adding copious amounts of pecorino: taste the damn thing before you serve it and make sure it's not cold. Sigh. Their other dishes included seared salmon and venison loin with squash. I knew they would be on the chopping block in the end. They HAD to be for serving that disgusting mushroom to even a single party guest and Nikki should have probably gotten the axe for that sin.

Team Vulture had a plethora of interesting dishes, including a marinated anchovy with saffron aioli on a Quinoa croquette (a dish that would have actually made me eat anchovy, to be honest), a Moroccan-spiced lamb meatball with ricotta, pomegranate syrup, and pistachio, and a braised chicken on tostada chip. The chicken seemed the least interesting there, especially when placed next to those other, breaktakingly original dishes. Once again, the Kiwi came through and turned out a fantastic dish that seems to have eliminated any of the judges' notions of his unworthiness from last week's performance.

Finally, Team Penguin turned out a thai shrimp and crab salad with watercress, roasted zucchini with Spanish white anchovies, charred squid seviche with soy-balsamic tapioca, and a yuzu and mint "glacier" that seemed to surprise Dufresne, even if Tom Collichio couldn't have cared less. They did a fantastic job at sticking to the themes presented by their mascot, incorporated the penguin's trademark colors into every dish and even prepared a little wow factor with the edible glacier that acted as a palette-refresher between bites. Well done, guys.

Ultimately, it was Andrew who won the Elimination Challenge for his subtle, refined, and textured dish of the charred squid ceviche. I do have to agree. I thought that Team Penguin did a fantastic job with the challenge, worked well together, and turned out delicious, inventive fare. That said, I am not sure if Andrew is just nervous, hyperactive, or on something. Calm down, dude, and take a deep breath. You just won the second Elimination.

Next time on Top Chef ("Block Party"), Rick Bayless drops by as a guest judge while the chefs are tasked with putting on a neighborhood fiesta and tensions between the contestants--especially one couple--reaches a breaking point.


Anonymous said…
I was very surprised Gorilla wasn't called out for not solely having vegetatrian food. Even one of the party guests commented on it.

I was sad that it was Valerie who went. I figured she would, but I liked her. I would have much rather have seen mushroom girl get the boot. That seemed like the bigger offense.

Also, I can't tell Spike and Andrew apart, and it's driving me nuts. Last week, I thought it was one guy.
I can't tell Spike and Andrew apart either! I'm glad I'm not the only one.

I was sad that Team Gorilla did so poorly, especially with three talented female chefs. That said, those blinis looked pretty disgusting, as did Stephanie's salad. But I think she redeemed herself with the banana bread dessert. I desperately wanted to have a taste!
Giulie Speziani said…
I would've sent home the mushroom girl, too. No one from that team tasted it. That I think is Cooking 101. If they look unappetizing and tasted off, nix the item.
JJB said…
I think the judges didn't eliminate Nikki for the mushrooms because Dale was actually the one that made them worse by adding Pecorino, but he shouldn't have been sent home for that because he was only trying to salvage a dish already in trouble. Valerie was in it alone on her blinis. She could have been eliminated, in my opinion, solely for mispronouncing as "bellinis" all night.
David said…
What is Rocco doing on the show; it is called Top Chef Chicago, Not New York. What does a New Yawka know about Chicago deep dish Pizza? Episode 2 has guest judge Wylie Dufresne, another New Yawka. What are the producers thinking? You are in Chicago, We are Food Town. The show is not called top musical, or it would be on Broadway. It is called Top Chef Chicago. Episode 3 promises to have Rick Bayless, maybe they will get it together. If I see one more silly New Yawka, I am going to hurl. Where is Shawn McClain, Grant Achatz, Susie Crafton, Homer Cantu Rick Tramonto, Gale Gand, Carrie Nahabedian and of course don’t forget Arun Sampanthavivat and Charlie Trotter.

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