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Knife Block: Not Quite a Party on "Top Chef"

I'll be honest: I really wasn't all that crazy about this week's episode of culinary competition series Top Chef.

Perhaps it was the general lack of charisma or energy evidenced by guest judge Rick Bayless, the blase task at hand, or the fact that there seemed to be such an awful lot of product promotion going on during a Elimination Challenge that forced the cheftestants to raid the homes of everyday folk to find ingredients for a block party. It just seemed to be a sub-par episode overall to me.

The Quickfire Challenge entailed taking the humble taco and transforming it into a fine dining dish. For the most part, the contestants really missed the boat on this one, sticking to their notions of the taco as a street food and not infusing it at all with the sort of flavor profiles, complexity, and elegant plating that one would come to expect from a dish in a four-star restaurant. (Hell, Spike refused altogether to think of the taco in a fine dining context yet was confused when he was singled out for making a soul-fulfilling taco but not winning the challenge.) Richard definitely understood the brief and delivered a dish that worked on a variety of levels: a vegetarian taco that transformed the traditional corn tortilla into thin slices of jicama, wrapped around avocado, papaya, and cilantro. Gorgeous, simple, and elevated. It's no surprise that he won this challenge hands-down on sheer vision and execution; he even had the forethought to make himself a taco to enjoy with Padma and Rick Bayless. I also thought that Andrew (once again exhibiting some severe shakes/tremors/crazy herky-jerky movements) also constructed an ambitious and complex dish of tacos with duck, chili powder, plantain jam, and Cojita cheese that was elegantly plated and inventive.

And I knew that Erik would find himself on the chopping block this week after his Quickfire dish was once again messily plated. This executive chef might have oodles of passion but week after week, I find myself wholly unimpressed by what he's bringing to this competition; his dishes often look disgusting and unappetizing and a big component of this competition is definitely inventive, original, and alluring plating and execution. Erik offered tacos with chipotle-braised chicken, avocado, and pomegranate salsa but it looked messy and completely unsuitable for a fine dining establishment.

I was disappointed by the chefs' performance at the Quickfire and then my heart sunk once I heard Padma explain what their Elimination Challenge would be. I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt until I kept seeing Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing, KC Masterpiece barbecue sauce, and the other "surprise" ingredients lurking in these families' way over-stocked pantries and refrigerators. It just smacked of producer intervention and a way to attempt to seamlessly work in some product integration to the season. Sigh.

As for their efforts, both the judges and I were disappointed in the teams. There were a few standout dishes: Antonia's mixed bean salad with roasted bell peppers, string beans, prosciutto, salami and feta served alongside bruschetta with roasted tomato, basil, and ricotta; Dale's beautiful grilled pork skewers with a smoked red curry-BBQ sauce (easily the most elegant dish there); and Stephanie's mixed fruit with oatmeal-pine nut crumble and cinnamon-sugar fried wontons. But for the most part the dishes were either not memorable or downright disastrous: Nikki's dry macaroni and cheese, Zoi's flavorless supermarket pasta salad, Erik's sad, soggy corn dogs, Ryan's Waldorf Salad.

The Red Team--surprised as all hell that they didn't win this challenge blindfolded--made a cardinal error during this challenge. While it's one thing to cook for your clients (a lesson the brothers could have learned this week on Last Restaurant Standing), you can't cook down to them. And that's just what the Red Team did, making assumptions about the culinary intelligence of their block party guests and throwing typical street food at them that they probably would have been more than capable of making themselves: sliders, pasta salad, corn dogs, Waldorf Salad. Where was the imagination, the daring, the vision? Should they, as Dale suggested, push their clients rather than pull back? Who ever won Top Chef because of a slider or a pasta salad?

The Blue Team took some risks. Some paid off (like Stephanie's delicious dessert) while others didn't really (Richard's paella), but they at least tried to create food that would appeal to both the block party guests as well as the judges. And at the end of the day, you've got to be able to please both groups because this is, after all, a competition and you are being judged by Tom, Padma, and Ted. Don't accuse them of having overly refined palettes or not appreciating what you cooked for these "normal" people. Tom was right when he said that good food shouldn't know boundaries; whatever it was that you set out to cook should have been as top-notch as it was appropriate for a block party and the Red Team failed to understand this. (And what was with Andrew's shaky meltdown at judges' table there when he started to scream that security would have to drag him out of there and that this was his house? Bizarre.)

Ultimately, Erik bore the brunt of the judges' dissatisfaction; he should have known not to attempt to serve corn dogs, knowing that they would sit in a hot box for two hours and wind up soggy rather than crispy. It was a monumental miscalculation and he was told to pack his knives and go. I think it was the right decision and it was time for him to leave the competition.

Next week on Top Chef ("Film Food"), guest judge Daniel Boulud drops by to test the chefs on their knife skills and the contestants have to cater a film-themed dinner party for film critic Richard Roeper.


Anonymous said…
re: Andrew - seriously. His meltdown at judging was bizarre, but even more bizarre was, basically, the lack of reaction from the judges, especially Tom (at least, the way it was edited). I think they should have sent him home just for that.

Unfortunately, I knew who went home as I accidentally spoiled it for myself (long story, something about reading my watch wrong), not that it was exactly a surprise. Still, bummer knowing the whole time which team would emerge victorious.

I liked the challenge and the ep more than you, but I see where you are coming from. I don't care about PP as much as the lack of original dishes. You can make sliders, but do a twist on them. As you said - any of the people in the neighborhood could have made sliders.

I was surprised that the judges didn't call out/praise Dale for his dish.

Finally, bad Jace! I avoided the LRS entry from the other day, only to get a spoiler of it here. Bad Jace!
Unknown said…
Andrew is of the genus known as "wigger" - a white guy who thinks he's black -- that's where his "this is my house" comment came from. that said, he's also nuts. he might come up with great dishes but the last place I'd wanna be is in a room with him where he has access to lots of knives. he's severely unstable.
This was a bizarre episode. And not in a good way. The product placement was so contrived. And the judges' lack of response to not only Andrew but many of the contestants mouthing off or whining was just sad. And Stephanie's win seemed like an after thought. All very strange.
Brian said…
I was surprised the judges didn't call out the Red team for whining so much during judging. I was happy that Erik went home - he hasn't created anything impressive the entire time. I was worried Zoi was going to go, because at the moment she's one of my favorite personalities on the show. But considering that she managed to screw up a pasta salad, I won't be surprised if she's sent packing relatively soon.

All in all, I'm not particularly enthused with a lot of the contestants. It's still early in the season and there is still a large number of contestants, so there really hasn't been that much time for a lot of personalities to grow on me. But still, I feel like there are some chefs who are obviously worse than the rest of the pack, and the show isn't as interesting when you can accurately predict who is going to be in the bottom every episode. Ryan and Nikki will probably be the next two to go, which is fine with me. Andrew and Spike will probably stick around for a bit, which is unfortunate in my opinion, because I find the two of them to be immature and annoying.

In terms of predictions for later in the season, I see Stephanie, Dale, and Antonia all going far. Richard is coming off as very inconsistent, but he is obviously talented and is much more willing to take risks than most of the other contestants.
Anonymous said…
Andrew is definitely a wigger from the school of Vanilla Ice rather than Emimem. As for him being nuts, it's all show for the camera. You just amped up the "persona" and you get the most camera time.

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