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"Lazy, Broke, Spicy": Cooking Family Style on "Top Chef"

It's funny how two weeks between episodes of Bravo's Top Chef can seem like an eternity.

So I was extremely chuffed that the culinary competition series returned last night with a brand-new episode ("Dinner Party") that put the chefs out of their comfort zone completely with not one but two challenges designed to see how well they adapted to circumstances outside their control.

A slot-machine-determined Quickfire gave the chefs three ideas to fuse together into one dish (in under thirty minutes, no less) while the Elimination Challenge found them struggle to prepare a family-style meal in their own kitchen.

In their house, that is, and not the Top Chef Kitchen. After all, these are chefs who are very used to working with an array of gadgets, gizmos, and appliances, not to mention counter space. Shoving them all into a home kitchen and telling them to pair up and create dishes for five well-respected chefs on Macy's Culinary Council seemed like a recipe for disaster.

So how did they do? Let's discuss.

Tyler Florence dropped by as this week's guest judge and his first order of business was to judge the high-stakes Quickfire Challenge, which this week had the chefs using a slot machine to determine three disparate words--a mood, a flavor, and a cuisine--to transform into a cohesive dish, much like the site Cookstr, a sponsor of the challenge, allows its users to search for recipes. Not an easy feat as some of the words were just plain odd ("stressed" for example) but I have to say that I was impressed overall but the results.

Here's what they made:
  • Ash (tired, tart, Italian): "pantry" puattanesca pasta
  • Ashley (blue, cheesy, Middle Eastern): sumac-crusted halibut with feta pudding
  • Bryan (adventurous, crispy, Asian): seared scallops with bok choy and tempura beads
  • Eli (stressed, umami, Latin): mushroom ceviche with avocado
  • Jennifer (adventurous, nutty, American): Maine scallops with pistachios and salmon roe
  • Kevin (stressed, hot n' spicy, Asian): char-grilled pork with daikon and Vietnamese herb salad
  • Laurine (tart, romantic, Latin): crusted goat cheese with orange vinaigrette and hibiscus flowers
  • Mike I. (stressed, umami, Asian): raw mushrooms sliced with yuzu emulsion
  • Michael V. (adventurous, tangy, Asian): yuzu curd, whipped greek yogurt, raspberries and seaweed cracker
  • Robin (stressed, umami, Middle Eastern): root vegetable hash with cumin and curry oil

As a group, I have to say that I was pleased with their performance here. Given Jennifer's illness, I was sad to see her land in the bottom three for the first time in the competition, but it was clear that she was working with some limitations in terms of clarity and execution due to her cold. Robin? Still don't understand how she's been able to stick around in the competition this long. The fact that she didn't understand that curry was Indian and not Middle Eastern was bad enough but then to argue with Indian-born Padma about it? Just plain foolhardy. Really shocking that she's still with us.

On the flip side, I thought that Kevin and Michael Voltaggio both did really well with the brief and turned out beautifully executed dishes that had very clear and concise visions; both looked as though they had taken hours to prepare rather than the brief half-hour they actually had. Well done to both. But ultimately, there can be only one Quickfire winner and the accolades went to Kevin for his beautiful Asian dish. Faced with the choice between immunity and $15,000, he wisely took the money and ran. There would have to be a major upset to see Kevin go home in the Elimination Challenge, after all...

Onto the Elimination Challenge, which had the chefs drawing knives to see who they would be paired up with for the challenge, which had them preparing a family-style dish from a mystery bag of ingredients selected by Macy's Culinary Council members Tyler Florence, Nancy Silverton, Govind Armstrong, Takashi Yagihashi, and Tom Douglas.

Bryan and Laurine prepared a halibut with a polenta cake, avocado mousse, and a sherry-chorizo vinaigrette with an herb salad. The plate offered not only pitch-perfect execution, but a divine balance of flavors and textures as well as inspiration in the form of that vinaigrette, the brainchild of Bryan. I was surprised to see how well these two worked together but it seems clear that Laurine took a backseat to Bryan on the task. After all, the dish just screams Bryan Voltaggio. (What didn't scream Bryan Voltaggio: his later blatant rudeness to Kevin, who was asking about his brother's dish. Wowzers, did that come out of nowhere.)

Kevin and Jennifer were the team to beat in this challenge and they didn't disappoint at all, turning out a gorgeously crafted dish of Kobe beef with tomato-cardamom broth, baby bok choy, and Asian pears, a sophisticated and elegant plate that sang thanks to that incredibly rich and sophisticated broth, which was made by Jennifer. Yes, I had a feeling that one of them would be walking out the winner of this challenge and I'm extremely happy that it was Jen, who reversed her fortune from the Quickfire Challenge to walk away the winner.

Mike I. and Robin should have been at each other's throats throughout the challenge as you couldn't have picked a worse pairing than the two of them. But Mike sort of just tuned out Robin's constant verbal diarrhea and took charge of the dish, despite his lack of experience with Asian food. Their dish, a marinated mushroom and pickled pear roll with seared tuna and scallop and a truffle ponzu, didn't blow me away (scallops and tuna, really?) but it certainly wasn't the worst thing on offer. No surprise that they ended up smack in the middle of the pack.

Eli and Ashley prepared grilled spot prawns with red beet sauce, creme fraiche gnocchi, and a brown butter-kale garnish. It was, to put it bluntly, a disaster from start to finish. The spot prawns were undercooked, the gnocchi completely oversalted and tough, and the whole dish an odd mix of ingredients and textures. Even if the food had been perfectly cooked, I am not sure that I like the idea of pairing prawns with gnocchi in the first place. Odd. Ashley was definitely to blame for the cooking of the prawns and even though she made the gnocchi, it was Eli who cooked them and way oversalted them (not to mention made them lose their lovely fluffy consistency). Hmmm...

And then there was Michael Voltaggio and Ash, who suffered a major setback when they lost electricity for their grill. Yes, these things do happen and Michael should have possibly been paying more attention to the fish (or Ash should have been rather than spending ten minutes setting the table outside) but I thought that the concept of the dish worked better than the judges did. They prepared a pancetta-wrapped halibut with an egg yolk ravioli, asparagus couli, and a fennel and asparagus salad. Due to the electrical issues, the halibut got rubbery and overcooked while the pancetta failed to crisp. I do think the egg yolk ravioli was a clever idea and could have worked but the failure to properly execute the fish landed this duo in the bottom.

Still, I would have been gobsmacked to see Michael Voltaggio get sent home for an electrical problem. No way would the judges have sent home one of the strongest competitors before cutting, say, Robin or Ash from the group first. I had a feeling he was safe but it was also, I imagine, a major wake-up call for Michael. This game is cutthroat and you are only as good as your last dish, so every dish ought to be better than perfect. Sadly, elimination fell on Ashley, who had shown some major improvement in the last few episodes. I'm sad to see her go, especially as I feel she is a stronger chef than Eli or some of the other remaining competitors.

What did you think of this week's episode? Should Ashley have been the one to pack her knives and go? What was up with Bryan verbally slamming Kevin? Was Ash attempting to compliment Bryan or gently throw him under the bus? Discuss.

Next week on Top Chef ("Pigs and Pinot"), the remaining chefs must create their version of Charlie Palmer's annual Pigs & Pinot event at his restaurant Aureole, hoping to perfectly pair their pork dishes with wine.


Bella Spruce said…
Things are definitely heating up in the Top Chef kitchen. I was sad to see Ashley go but relieved that Michael squeaked by. I was also very happy to see Jen get back in the game after her lackluster dish at the quickfire challenge.

Brian's rudeness to Kevin shocked me a little. I could understand that he didn't want to talk about the dish but he could have handled things a little better. I think everyone's just really stressed and exhausted at this point.
V. Salt said…
Brian's response to Kevin read as sibling loyalty to me. He can talk about his brother, but no one else can.
Eric said…
@Tam I get that he was protecting his brother but really? He needed to freak out that way at Kevin? Unnecessary.

I knew Jen would win.
ewench said…
One thing that you didn’t mention and that astonished me was the long akward speech Ash gave at judges table about how he was an inferior to Michael, I mean what an idiot?? He basically said he would not make it to the end of the competition. I would have cut him just for his stupid comments.

I liked Ashley and was sorry to see her go even if her dish was pretty awful – she did not help herself by always sort of checking out when she got questioned though.

Yes Robin is somewhere near the bottom of the pile talent-wise and annoyingly chatty but I hated to hear all the comments MikeI made about her, he is so egotistical and snarky and is not anything great, he has performed really unevenly. I will be happy to see him get cut.

This group seems to be taking a higher road then other seasons and trying not to point fingers at their fellow competitors when things go bad but they also seem much more stressed out.

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