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A Night at the Improv on "Top Chef"

It's always funny to me on reality series how the contestants seem perennially surprised by the lengths the producers will go to to pull one over on them. Latest case in point? Last night's episode of Top Chef ("Improv"), which had the cheftestants get all dolled up to go to a Second City improv show... only to learn that they they were there for an ulterior purpose.

Their reactions reminded me of last season's surprise victims in Miami, when they got dressed up for a night on the town, only to learn that they'd be cooking food for late-night partiers out of catering trucks. Hee. Here, they at least managed to get some laughs in before the real test began and, oh, what a test it was: forced to pair up on dishes inspired by colors, feelings, and ingredients thrown out by the crowd at random, they'd have to construct dishes that incorporated all of these elements into one tasty offering.

Before that, however, the contestants had to try to live down the Top Chef curse: dessert. In a Quickfire Challenge overseen by chef Johnny Iuzzini of Jean-George, the chefs had a half-hour to devise a dessert dish that would knock the socks off of Johnny and Padma; the winner would get their recipe featured in the upcoming "Top Chef Cookbook." I wasn't all that surprised to see that most chefs went straight for the chocolate and, while none of the contestants are trained pastry chefs, I had hoped to see a little more originality out of them. Some, however, exceeded my expectations, offering dishes that were composed, elegant, and utterly unique. Dale's Halo-Halo with shaved ice, avocado, mango, kiwi, and nuts looked absolutely gorgeous and tasty, proving that one need not measure baking powder--nor indeed bake anything--in order to craft a dessert dish. The same holds true for Richard's awe-inspiring dish of banana "scallops" with banana guacamole and chocolate ice cream. It was a forward-thinking dish that was assertive and creative. I knew he'd be taking home immunity.

As for the others, there was a general lack of flair in the execution and a sullenness (perhaps due from the lack of enthusiasm to the task) to some of the dishes. Yeah, Spike may have attempted a souffle with his pineapple-rum raisin souffle with toasted coconut, but he still ended up in the bottom three for a wholly unsatisfying dish. (Ha!) Andrew's banana and chocolate ravioli with pudding just didn't really hit the mark, in terms of taste or presentation. Antonia's bruleed lemon curd with lemon cake and berries did not go down a hit. While Lisa's yoghurt with fruit puree, fried wontons and strawberies earned her a spot in the top three dishes, I thought it looked a foul mess of a dish and was completely unappetizing to me. And Mark should have made just one larger pavlova and topped it fruit and cream rather than making an odd assortment of mini-pavlovas for no real purpose.

Onto the Elimination Challenge, then. I thought that some of the chefs really got behind the whole essence of this challenge, with its improv setting and its quirkiness, sparking to the notion that they could be really creative and off-the-wall... while dodging potential bullets from the producers who forced them to pack up and move to another location and make everything without the aid of electronic cooking equipment. I knew that Spike would do the soup he wanted to do a few weeks back, if only as a bitchslap to Antonia. Here, he and Andrew were saddled with yellow love vanilla and transformed those disparate words into an elegant and slightly spicy-sweet acorn and butternut squash soup with vanilla creme fraiche, quite possibly the best thing either one of them has cooked so far in the competition.

Up next was Jennifer and Stephanie who had orange turned-on asparagus and took that term in the wrong direction: a menage a trois of orange with caramelized goat cheese, asparagus, salad, and olive tapenade, served on a soggy, phallic-shaped crouton. The crouton managed to be both soggy and too course at the same time and the entire dish was overwhelmed by the goat cheese, rather than focusing on the asparagus. There was way too much going on here for one dish and instead of seeming turned-on, it seemed outright schitzophrenic. Sigh. I had higher hopes for these two in this challenge.

Of course, I was utterly thrilled with Richard and Dale's dish; these two manage to surprise and delight me each week with their innovation and creativity. At this point, I'd love to see them in the final three with Stephanie and maybe Antonia (if she gets some perspective); they constantly embody the virtues of a top chef to me with each week: dynamic spirit, vision, and spark. Here, they thought entirely outside the box with their green perplexed tofu dish: a tofu steak marinated in beef fat with green curry. The dish was elegantly composed and, yes, perplexing... in a good way. Marinating the bland tofu in rendered beef fat (and injecting that coal-grilled flavor) was a thing of genius, reinterpreting the words "tofu steak" in an unexpected way. The curry was a thing of beauty as well: spicy, sweet, sour, and bursting with flavor. These two worked astonishingly well together again, considering they are both headstrong individuals with strong feelings about cuisine. Bravo, guys.

Mark and Nikki sort of flew under the radar with their dish, derived from purple depressed bacon: a pork loin with sweet potatoes, glazed bacon, grape sauce, jus, and Brussels sprouts. It looked good and captured the essence of the dish but it didn't wow me in any way and I thought bacon was pretty easy to work with. Still, a good effort that at least took the challenge seriously.

Finally, there was Lisa and Antonia. I just knew that this team would present a problem and that Lisa would whine and complain no matter what the outcome would be; she's gotten increasingly negative and hostile throughout the competition and now just seeing her on-screen is enough to make me roll my eyes. They landed drunken polish sausage and immediately started giving attitude about working with polish sausage which Lisa later told the judges she "would never work with." Um, you're a chef. There shouldn't be a single ingredient that you refuse to cook and that comment just showed your absolute closed-mindedness. Instead, they set out to do a fish dish (whah?) of sea bass with purple potato puree, chorizo, and tequila sauce, substituting the chorizo for the polish sausage and discussing their dish before downing a shot of tequila, but not offering the guests any. I thought that this dish completely did not follow the challenge's parameters and should have been automatically disqualified for failing to include the main ingredient; Lisa and Antonia lamely argued that improvisation was part of the task and they improv'd their way to chorizo. Even so, the sea bass took the center stage here and the dish itself looked sloppy and inelegant.

Ultimately, the judges called out Lisa and Antonia and Jennifer and Stephanie for their dishes but I had no idea that they would send Jennifer home. Sure, I was happy that Stephanie was saved from elimination but I was really hoping that Lisa's attitude at judges' table would work against her and she'd get cut from the pack. Sigh.

Next on Top Chef ("Common Threads"), the contestants are tasked with making a healthy meal using a single main ingredient... in the microwave, Table 52's Art Smith drops by as a guest judge, and Mark tells Tom Colicchio that he thinks the Craft guru doesn't like him very much. Ouch.

What's On Tonight

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

9 pm: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS); The Office/30 Rock (NBC); Supernatural (CW); Grey's Anatomy (ABC)

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

What I'll Be Watching

8 pm: Ugly Betty.

Yay! Ugly Betty returns with brand new episodes, starting tonight with "Twenty-Four Candles," in which Betty's plans to spend her 24th birthday with Henry are upset by Charlie's surprise visit, but Gio may have a solution to her quandary; Wilhelmina hints to Daniel that her sister Renee has some dark secrets in her past.

9 pm: The Office.

Yes, it's been really sub-par this season, but I'll keep watching just in case it suddenly improves. On tonight's episode ("Night Out"), Michael and Dwight ambush Ryan in Manhattan for a night of clubbing; back in Scranton, the gang is unhappy to learn that they have to come into work on a Saturday for Ryan's website project; Jim's plan to save them backfires.

9:30 pm: 30 Rock.

On tonight's brand-new episode ("Succession"), Don Geiss finally decides to name Jack his successor as chairman of NBC parent company GE but a health complication puts Jack's promotion in jeopardy, while Tracy believes his son is embarrassed by his career. And is that Will Arnett's Devon Banks hiding in the corner over there?

10 pm: Lost.

OMG. It's finally here. Lost returns from hiatus tonight with a brand new episode ("The Shape of Things to Come") in which Locke's camp comes under enemy fire, Jack tries to identify a body that has washed ashore, and we might just find out whether Alex and Rousseau live or die after being shot at in the jungle. I can't wait!


It's amazing how well Dale and Richard work together. They are two of the toughest competitors and both are very strong-minded so it's surprising that they're not at each other's throats. Instead, they've put their time and energy into creating some truly memorable dishes and it kind of makes me wish that Top Chef had an award for best cooking team. They would win hands down!
Anonymous said…
I haven't read your recap yet, but I was dying to email you last night.

Let me get this straight - the challenge was to use the three words in the dish. Lisa and Antonia deliberately didn't use 2 of the words (and no - the shot afterwards doesn't count), and they're both still there?!?!?

I know it's a cooking competition and taste has to factor in, but they didn't do the assignment. Period!

That was ridiculous. It's not just because I liked Jen. She got screwed.
Anonymous said…
I was secretly hoping that Spike's soup would be a disaster as he is in real need of an ego check. At least he was beat out by Dale and Richard!
Anonymous said…
Yea i dont understand that either how they got to move on without completing the assignment but at least steph moved on to win it she deserved it.

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