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Casino Royale: Breakfast in Bed on "Top Chef"

I have to give the producers of Bravo's addictive culinary competition series Top Chef some major credit: they know how to apply just the right pressure on the contestants to have some of them take risks and succeed while others crack under the strain.

This week's episode of Top Chef: Las Vegas ("Strip Around the World") was no exception and, at this point in the competition, I would expect nothing less from the reality series' challenge organizers than some seriously arduous challenges that put these chefs through their paces. After all, the point of a reality competition isn't to create an easy environment for success but to force contestants to succeed beautifully in spite of the many obstacles being thrown at them.

This week found the chefs preparing breakfast in bed for Padma and the always lovely Nigella Lawson... and they would have to do so under a tight deadline and in a remarkably cramped kitchen that only allowed two of them to cook at a time. Later, they had to use specific casinos as inspirations for a dish served to 175 people at a party. These were some pretty damn tough challenges, I have to say, and some of them came through with flying colors while others... Well, let's just say that they didn't quite hit the jackpot.

So how did the chefs perform this week? Let's discuss.

No discussion of this week's episode can start without me saying how incredibly, profusely, and ecstatically happy I am that Robin was sent packing this week. Every now and then there is a contestant who is so woefully underqualified to compete with the rest of the pack but who, through sheer luck or just not being quite as bad as someone else that week, manages to stick around way past their sell-by date. This season that was Robin.

I have nothing against Robin personally though her on-screen persona left a lot to be desired; she came across as an abrasively verbose person who couldn't articulate her concepts or follow through on their execution and she managed to rub just about every single person the wrong way during her stay in the competition.

I've been outspoken about my distaste for certain contestants but never has a Top Chef participant proven him- or herself so unworthy of being there as Robin. She should have been eliminated any number of times but managed to make it to the Final Six. Yes, the Final Six. I honestly think that if she had managed to squeeze past elimination again this week (which would have resulted in either Jennifer or Eli going home), I would have followed through on an earlier threat and thrown my television out of the window.

But I am getting ahead of myself with respect to this episode, which had the chefs creating a take on breakfast in bed for Padma and Nigella Lawson, who arrived in Vegas jetlagged after a flight from London. In matching robes and nestled under the blankets in two double beds at the Venetian, Padma and Nigella were looking for something inventive, restorative, and delicious. Did the chefs deliver?

Let's take a look at what they made:
  • Bryan: four-minute egg with vanilla beurre fondue, crab, asparagus, and soft corn polenta
  • Eli: fried egg reuben benedict with thousand island hollandaise sauce
  • Jennifer: "S.O.S." creamed chipped beef with toast and potatoes
  • Kevin: steak and soft-scrambled eggs with creme fraiche, aged cheddar, and green onions
  • Michael: huevos Cubana with banana puree, rice, bacon, and arugula salad
  • Robin: blintz with goat cheese, caramelized pineapple and blueberries

I think Bryan would have probably won this challenge... if he hadn't sabotaged himself with that vanilla beurre fondue; I have to admit that I would have been put off that as well, given that it was juxtaposed with the savory crab. I thought that Eli and Kevin both pulled off superlative dishes here with both of them offering a new take on American classics. Ultimately, Nigella awarded Eli the win for his inventive take on a reuben, translated for breakfast.

A brief aside: I'm extremely worried about Jennifer. Her performance this week once again followed her late trend and she once again managed to sink to the bottom of the pack after performing so strongly in the first half of the competition. I don't know if it's nerves, exhaustion, or stress but I haven't been impressed by any of her dishes these last few weeks and I find that utterly heartbreaking. I keep hoping that she'll turn it around the following week but she's consistently now performed rather poorly the last three or so installments. If she has any reserves of energy, inspiration, and strength, I'm hoping she can tap into them ASAP.

Sigh.

For their elimination challenge, the chefs were assigned a specific casino on the Vegas Strip and told to explore their location for an inspiration for a dish they would have to prepare for 175 hungry diners at a rooftop party at the World Market Center. Interestingly, this was the first time I believe that we didn't see the chefs head to Whole Foods to pick out produce and protein for their dishes, instead cutting straight to them at the Top Chef kitchen beginning their prepwork. Odd, that.

Some of the chefs took to the task and created dazzling sophisticated and intriguing dishes while others weren't quite able to get a handle on what was being asked of them. And there was a lot going on after all: preparing 175 dishes and serving them is no small feat into itself, much less when said dish has to be inspired by a casino's motifs, mood, and theme.

Thus, the six remaining chefs offered up the following dishes:
  • Bryan (Mandalay Bay): escabeche of halibut with bouillabaisse consomme, parsley coulis, and garlic chips
  • Eli (Circus Circus): caramel apple peanut soup with popcorn raspberry froth
  • Jennifer (Excalibur): New York strip steak with red wine reduction, beets, truffles, and herbs
  • Kevin (Mirage): sugar-and-salt-cured wild Alaskan sockeye salmon with compressed napa cabbage and cucumber and tomato water
  • Michael (New York, New York): boneless chicken wing confit with curry and blue cheese disc
  • Robin (Bellagio): panna cotta

It was no surprise that Kevin and the Voltaggio brothers ended up placing in the top half. Each of their dishes was a masterpiece of concept and execution, thoughtful, playful, and sublime. I selected Kevin as one of my two players to watch in the very first round of this season and I'm glad I did; his dishes are refined without being ascetic, comforting without being messy. (Despite what disparaging comments the seemingly jealous Michael would make about them.) Likewise, Bryan seems to excel at the elimination challenges while never quite being able to pull off successful performances in the Quickfires; here his dish is controlled and elegant but also exuberant and self-assured. I'm not quite sure what the hell judge Toby Young was trying to say about Michael's food (was it just me or did he call his dishes "effeminate"?) but the judges did award Michael the top prize this round for his deconstructed take on Buffalo wings, done in true Michael Voltaggio style. Well done.

As for the three chefs landing in the bottom, that wasn't a surprise either. Eli's dish was a mess in terms of concept and execution and he didn't do himself any favors by adding caramelized white chocolate to the soup, which only served to make even MORE grainy than it already was. I don't disagree with Nigella who said that she was terrified to take a bite as it sounded absolutely revolting. Additionally, Eli seemed to not quite get a bead on any inspiration from Circus Circus in the first place; rather than throw together traditional circus fare, this was his opportunity to create something spectacular and raucous. But, alas... Jennifer didn't fare any better with the Excalibur; granted, medieval cuisine is a specialty than few can pull off these days but she did miss a trick by not using spices like mace to create an ornate and astounding carnivorous dish.

And then there was Robin... While the other chefs attempted to use innovative techniques and high-end ingredients, Robin created... a panna cotta. A rubbery one at that which used far too much gelatin and rendered itself about as sumptuous as a hockey puck. Even if she had been able to pull off the stained glass-effect sugar glass (and that was a rather huge IF), it wouldn't have elevated the dish at all.

Ultimately, it was well past due that Robin should be the one to pack her knives and go and I'm glad that the judges finally saw fit to cull her from the pack. Only five chefs remain going into the final elimination challenge. Which four will make it to the finals and who will be the next to get cut? Discuss.

Next week on Top Chef ("Culinary Olympics"), the five remaining chefs participate in an elite cooking competition established by notable French chef Paul Bocuse and are tasked with creating a ballotine in an extreme tight time frame; Thomas Keller of French Laundry and Bouchon stops by as this week's guest judge.

Comments

Rashell said…
So, so happy that Robin is finally out of the competition. I would have screamed if she lasted longer than any of the five very talented chefs remaining. I hope Jennifer can pull it together but, right now, it looks like Kevin is the one to beat.
Bella Spruce said…
I LOVE Nigella! It was great seeing her on the show and I hope she'll be back!
Anonymous said…
I really thought that Eli would be eliminated due to that grainy slop he served up, but like most everybody else, I wasn't sad to see Robin go either. If she had not been eliminated this time, I certainly would have expected to see her go next time. Absolutely.
rockauteur said…
Eli SHOULD have gone home for his dish but THANK GOD Robin did. It would have been so unfair of her to be in the top 5!

I think Kevin has a secret mean streak... but the editors just aren't showing it, which leads me to believe he makes it (as he should) to the very end. There have been a few times this season where he has been angry at other contestants, made snarky comments, egged behavior on, and been egotistical in the stew room... I still love him but I think there's a latent mean streak hidden beneath the editing, that might also explain Michael's constant berating of him in interviews.

And I think there was something fishy about the editing when Toby called Michael's food effeminate. and Michael agreed. I don't think chicken wings would ever be described that way, nor would Michael agree to that label.

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