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Keep It Simple, Stupid: Tailgating on "Top Chef"

Am I the only one that wants to punch Spike in his inane Mad Hatter face?

Last night's episode of Top Chef ("Tailgating") was filled with Spike's ridiculous antics, from his middle-school playground feud with Jennifer (leading to his snide cheer of "yay, lesbians!") to the, er, "friendly" bubble bath he took with Kiwi Mark. Throughout it all, even when he was shirtless, Spike kept on a series on ridiculously jaunty hats that only served to underplay his precarious position in the competition.

While there's always been drama on Top Chef (just look at Season One's argument between Tiffani and Dave or the rift between Marcel and Betty) and, well, odd incidents (the Marcel head-shaving incident from Season Two), this season seems to be devolving into an odd mix of serious chefs (Richard, Antonia, Stephanie) and drama queens. I am tired to tears with Lisa and Dale (though the boy can cook), Spike and Jennifer, and what appears to be a never-ending parade of conflict, name-calling, and sour expressions. Call me crazy, but I just want to focus on the food.

Quickfire Challenge: This week, the chefs were tasked with creating a dish that paired well with a specific beer. It was a tough challenge, especially given the half-hour timeframe; most of us are far more versatile at pairing food with wines rather than other alcohols, so this proved to be tricky for several cheftestants. Standouts included Jennifer's amazing dish of shrimp and scallop savory beignets with fennel, avocado, and pepper purees, Richard's seared tuna sandwich with mustard seed quick-pickled vegetables, and Stephanie's steamed mussels with cilantro vinaigrette and grilled bread. Each of those three perfectly fulfilled the brief, creating simple yet tasty dishes that paired well with their respective beers and yet remained solidly true to their own identities as chefs, utilizing ingredients or techniques that we associate with them (in a good way) throughout this competition.

I was intrigued by Dale's dish: roasted pork tenderloin with miso-caramel sauce and a pretzel crust which sounded interesting on paper but ended up lacking in execution when the pretzel crust ended up little more than, well, pretzel dust on top of the pork. Spike's dish was an odd pairing of charcuterie plate and a tapas of clams that suffered some major disconnect on the plate. It just seemed more like a random grouping of ingredients than a fully realized offering. Odd.

Elimination Challenge: I was concerned about this week's elimination challenge--which had the chefs preparing tailgating food at a Chicago Bears game--as it reminded me a little too much of the debacle that was the block party a few weeks back. Still, many of the chefs really got into the spirit of the challenge, which was to turn out simple but satisfying food for the masses, while others.... just missed the boat completely.

I have to say that I am a huge Stephanie fan; her food is always well thought-out, creative, and focused and here she presented a grilled pork tenderloin with pear, potato, and bacon salad with a rosemary vinaigrette. Like Gail, I was concerned about that vinaigrette overpowering the entire dish but Stephanie pulled it off beautifully. Antonia's jerk chicken sandwich with pickled onions and grilled pineapple and banana matched its spiciness with the innate juicy sweetness of those grilled fruits.

Dale's tandori pork ribs and potato salad with golden raisins, dried mango, and turmeric completely reinvented that old tailgate standby (ribs), transforming it into something original, exotic, and delicious by infusing it with unexpected flavors and spices. (Well done!) Richard's "pate melt" (a blend of pork, veal, and pork fat) with spicy mayonnaise and pickled cucumber hit the mark completely, with its upscale reinvention of the humble hamburger: it was simple but elegant and took into account the setting and customer.

I was seriously disappointed with Ryan. I know that the self-proclaimed "metrosexual" has been in way over his head in this competition but this week, he turned out a series of bizarre, inexplicable dishes that had me scratching my head. There was a drier than the desert Panzanella salad with marinated chicken, a poached pear with creme fraiche and huckleberry sauce, and a brandy-spiked cocoa. What do these dishes have to do with one another? What is their relationship? And how are any of them fitting to the task at hand? While other contestants reinterpreted old standbys, Ryan went a completely different tack and forced his own culinary concerns onto a public that was looking for food that they expect to see while tailgating. He just did not get this challenge in the least and didn't seem to even try to understand why he failed, instead offering a long-winded rebuttal to the judges' critique that failed to take into account that none of the dishes even tasted well.

It was only fitting that he was the one to pack his knives and go though I did think that the judges might send Nikki home instead; she has failed to impress me in a single challenge yet and her food does not seem to be in the same category or class as the top of the pack. That sound? It's the bell tolling for her unless she can get her act together.

And then there was Mark. I've liked Mark throughout this competition but last night completely changed my perception of him entirely (and not because of the impromptu bubble bath). His dish--chicken skewers with a slaw and a chowder--were bland, boring, and flavorless. The chowder was gritty and unrefined (not to mention unstrained), his station was filthy and he did have more food on him than on the grill. Add to that his shocking lack of hygiene and I thought Tom and the judges would be hell-bent on making an example of him and cutting him loose.

Wow.

Next week on Top Chef ("Improv"), the chefs are tasked with creating a dessert to satisfy chef Johnny Iuzzini's sweet tooth and they get a lesson in improv from legendary Chicago comedy troupe Second City. Plus, what in the hell is going on with the dinner guests? Find out next week.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: Survivor: Micronesia--Fans vs. Favorites (CBS); My Name is Earl/30 Rock (NBC); Smallville (CW); Lost (ABC; 8-10 pm); Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? (FOX)

9 pm: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS); The Office/Scrubs (NBC); Supernatural (CW); Don't Forget the Lyrics (FOX)

10 pm: Without a Trace (CBS); ER (NBC); Eli Stone (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

8-10 pm: Lost.

Missed the last two episodes of Televisionary obsession Lost? Or just want another excuse to catch "Ji Yeon" and "Meet Kevin Johnson" before the series returns from hiatus next week with new installments? You're in luck: ABC is repeating the last two episodes back-to-back tonight, so you win either way.

8:30 pm: 30 Rock.

Yay! On tonight's brand-new episode ("Subway Hero"), after Liz's ex-boyfriend Dennis (Dean Winters) saves a man who has fallen onto the subway tracks, he becomes a local celebrity and sets out to win back Liz Lemon.

9 pm: The Office.

On tonight's episode ("Chair Model"), Michael becomes obsessed with a woman modeling a chair in an office supply catalog and Kevin and Andy set out to reclaim stolen parking spaces from their office neighbors.

Comments

Unknown said…
"Am I the only one that wants to punch Spike in his inane Mad Hatter face?"

Not at all Jace, not at all! I am completely done with that asshat (pun intended).

And after three and a half seasons, when are the contestants going to figure out that you have to cook for more than the judges and sometimes that means stepping down from their gourmet pedestals? Every challenge is different, so you have to adapt. I hate when the contestants (like Ryan last night) talk about how they refuse to compromise their cooking. It's not compromising, it's showing your versatility and creativity. Enough already!
I think Stephanie has the potential to be the first woman to take home the Top Chef crown. She is consistently at the top of the pack but has also shown a great deal of versatility. Plus, she doesn't get involved in all the squabbling or wear stupid hats. I hope she goes far!
Anonymous said…
yes, I want to punch Spike in his face. I really, really don't like him.

I love Stephanie. She's stood out to me since week 1, and I have kept an eye on her since. She's a good chef, and always seems calm, cool and collected (but not detached).

I wasn't as concerned about the challenge as you were (At least, as far as comparing it to the block party challenge). It more reminded me of last season's bbq challenge that tripped up Sandy (remember? She didn't actually bbq anything?).

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