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Elements of Disaster on "Top Chef"

Wow. Last night's episode of Top Chef ("The Elements") featured more contention, name-calling, and general strife (not to mention chair-throwing) than entire previous seasons of the series... and I'm not even talking about judges' table. No, the anger exploded after elimination in the contestants' holding room.

Tensions have been simmering beneath the surface for a while now on several fronts and last night's challenge--in which the cheftestants had to split into teams of three and--in 15 minutes--devise a first course for 80 guests at a celebrity chef dinner to benefit Meals on Wheels. Was it an ambitious task that pushed the chefs to their breaking point? You bet. But even I wasn't prepared for what came afterwards.

This week's Quickfire was the annual blind taste test, with the chefs challenged to make good use of their supposedly fine palates; this time around, instead of naming ingredients, they would have to blindly choose between a high-end ingredient and a low-end version of the same, from sake, mirin, and soy to butter, bacon, and crab. A difficult challenge, yes, but I usually relish the Quickfires to see the chefs cook under intense pressure and limited timeframes rather than see them just taste some ingredients. But a tradition is a tradition, even on Top Chef, and Antonia came out the winner, logging the most correct answers out of the group. At the bottom of the pack: Stephanie, who seemed mortified to be called out by guest judge Ming Tsai in front of her cohorts.

After getting this out of the way, the chefs were then split up into four teams representing the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) and told to devise a dish that conceptualized their individual element in 15 minutes. Let me be upfront: I knew that this task was destined to fail for most of the teams, given the brevity of the time allowance. Fifteen minutes to devise a single dish may seem like plenty of time, but the fact that this dish had to be a first course, tie in the theme, and be served to 80 guests was adding some distinct pressure. Most of the groups ended up deciding their dishes on the fly, in the grocery as the shopped, a gambit which can sometimes pay off (getting inspiration from the ingredients on offer) or not (second-guessing yourself to the point of distraction). So what did they end up cooking?

Air: Ryan, Jennifer, and Nikki offered up a duck breast with citrus salad and a pomegranate prosecco aperitif. I get why this is air--the duck flies and the prosecco has bubbles--but this was a tenuous connection at best. I wasn't really inspired by this dish and agree with Tom that the inane trend of pairing dishes (other than desserts) with little mini-drinks is irritating and has to stop. Here, it doesn't work at all and doesn't add anything to the dish, except to annoy the guest that their plate is cluttered. Was the duck cooked well? Sure. But there wasn't anything dazzling going on here.

Earth: After debating about whether to make a butternut squash soup (more on that in a bit), Antoni, Spike, and Zoi turn out a beef carpaccio with mushroom salad and sunchoke aioli. It was definitely the least inspired dish on offer last night and it just seemed boring, even on the page. Add to this fact that the mushrooms were completely underseasoned (again!) and yet the taste of rosemary (from said mushrooms) also managed to overpower the dish altogether. This was wholly ambitious and, while the chefs may have used their budget on high-end ingredients, the end result was completely staid and boring. The flavors didn't dazzle, the concept didn't wow anyone, and it just tasted like nothing other than rosemary. A huge mistake and I knew that either Zoi--who had squeaked by elimination several times now--or Spike would be going home.

Fire: Dale, Stephanie, and Lisa lacked any real inspiration or concept for their dish nearly all the way through the entire planning process; not helping matters was Lisa's innate negativity or her insistence on doing something Asian in order to impress Ming Tsai. I do agree that the deviled eggs idea wouldn't have worked in the execution; it would have been fine for a passed hors d'oeuvre or even an amuse bouche but not as a plated first course at a seated dinner. Somehow, they ended up with the most inspired dish of the evening: a spicy grilled shrimp with miso-glazed bacon and pickled chili salad that perfectly captured their element on a plate (fire) without going over the top. The judges raved about the dish, which perfectly balanced heat, acidity, and flavor into a focused dish.

Water: I was really worried about Team Water (Richard, Mark, and Andrew) as their dish seemed very straightforward and yet they were way too overconfident in this challenge. While I agree that fish was the perfect vehicle with which to express their element, I do wish that instead of sous-vide, they had gone with a raw route: a crudo, sashimi, or poke that could have shown off their flavors and the elegance of the fish. Instead, they offered a salmon poached in the sous-vide technique with faux caviar (again!), watercress and radish salad, and a vanilla-parsnip puree. I am not sure why the vanilla-parsnip puree was there as I didn't think the flavors would pair nicely with a delicately poached salmon; adding to the confusion was the fact that the sous-vide had largely robbed the salmon of its texture... and Richard had neglected to remove all of the scales from the fish. That last bit is unforgivable. It really is Cooking 101 and, while I would expect that from the freaks on Hell's Kitchen, I don't expect to see a talented chef like Richard make a monumental error like that. Badly done.

Ultimately, Team Fire won for their dish and Lisa was named the winner of this challenge, a fact which really got under Dale's skin as he claimed that all she did was make bacon (even though it had a taste and technique that surprised and delighted Ming Tsai). Teams Water and Earth were summoned to the judges' table, where they were berated for their concepts and execution and Zoi once again went off on tangents, vaguely defending her underseasoned and underwhelming dish (yet again) while also contradicting herself. She prides herself on flavorful and seasoned dishes? Then why, once again, was your dish bland and flavorless?

The judges' decision to boot Zoi had some unintended consequences in the holding room. Jennifer was, expectedly, very upset about the judges' decision to eliminate her girlfriend Zoi and I get that she's Ms. Supportive but she seems to be missing something called perspective. Zoi might be a great chef in the real world but within the confines of the show, she has screwed up now a number of times and come under fire for underseasoned dishes; eventually one of you had to go home and you were pretty darn lucky to experience this competition together for as long as you did.

Spike lashed out at Antonia for forcing the direction of their team, even though she had immunity and should have taken a backseat, according to Spike. I do want to clarify one point. Spike claims that Antonia was opposed to doing a butternut squash soup (though Ming Tsai says soup, as in France, is the perfect challenge for a chef because it has to be perfect); while Antonia is against the idea she does say that, if he and Zoi want to do soup, she will make the most delicious soup imaginable. And, yes, it is on film. I am not sure why he wanted to bury Antonia for their loss as I do think it was a problem of execution (Zoi) and concept that landed them there. Spike should just shove on yet another ridiculous hat, shut his mouth, and feel lucky that he's made it this far because he annoys the hell out of me.

Finally, Dale tried to defend Antonia by saying that Spike's behavior was weak, causing negative Lisa (who also drives me up the wall) to tell him to be quiet. Dale, having had enough of Lisa's whiny, complaining ways during the team challenge, freaks out at her after taking all of her grumbling for far too long. (While he didn't need to get involved in Antonia and Spike's argument, I have to agree with him: she needed to shut up because all she does is cause problems and vex her fellow competitors.)

And then Jennifer kicked a chair across the room.


Next week on Top Chef ("Tailgating"), the chefs are tasked with creating a dish that not only works with but enhances the flavor of a specific drink; a tailgating task has guests dumping their food in the trash rather than eating it; Ryan claims to not to be a sports fan; Nikki comes undone during the challenge; Spike and Mark take a bubble bath. Yeah, I'm really not sure about that last thing either...


Anonymous said…
I know I should know people and their names by this point in the season, but about halfway through the ep, I got confused about which team Antonia was on, and then I realized that it was because the person I kept thinking was Antonia was Nikki. And THEN I thought, "Who the hell is Nikki??" Seriously. I had no recognition of her whatsoever. Has she ever done anything? Won anything? Who is she?
Anonymous said…
I think the only reason Nikki is still there is because she has flown under the radar. She and her cooking are completely forgettable so it's no surprise you don't know who she is!
What happened?

Last week everyone was getting along (for the most part) and making inspired and delicious dishes and this week it all went to hell.

I think the dishes would have been more creative if the chefs had more than 15 minutes to plan. I know it's a competition and they want to test everyone's ability to think fast but isn't that what the weekly Quickfire Challenge is all about?

And Spike just gets more annoying every week. I wish that Gordon Ramsay could be a guest judge because I know he would tell him to shove that stupid hat somewhere dark.

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