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How the Cookie Crumbles: Knee-Socks and Tablecloths on Top Chef

Um, yeah.

While in the past I've supported some wacky challenges on Bravo's addictive culinary competition Top Chef because they tested the contestants in terms of adaptability, I have to say that I was scratching my head last night while watching the latest episode ("Lock Down"), which had the chefs scrambling in a Target store to find equipment and tables (!) in order to assemble a station before cooking a meal for 100 people. In the middle of the night.

I get that this is Top Chef: All-Stars. And I also understand that these chefs are going to be put through their paces by the producers. But there was something extremely off-putting about this latest challenge, which seemed to put an equal--if not more--weight on running around Target with multiple shopping carts and grabbing items left and right (which seemed, to me anyway, to be a half-hour ad for Target in many ways) than in actual cooking.

It's hard to, you know, cook for 100 people when you don't even have a table set up.

I will say that I really enjoyed the Quickfire Challenge, which had the chefs creating cookies for Sesame Street's Cookie Monster, Telly, and Elmo. It contained just the right balance between hilarious mayhem and serious culinary skills and it was lovely to see the chefs reduced to little kids in the presence of Elmo and Cookie Monster. (Except Angelo, who seemed a little perturbed by the entire ordeal.)

But we saw some real creativity from the chefs here as they thought up some inventive and imaginative cookies containing an array of ingredients. Not all of them were the prettiest per se (cough, Antonia) but I will say that some of them sounded absolutely fantastic. (And, yes, I'm referring again to Antonia.)

So what did the chefs make? Let's take a look:
  • Angelo: Chocolate chip and Belgian hazelnut cookie with a chocolate-banana milkshake
  • Antonia: Double chocolate cookies with white chocolate chips, fresh caramel glaze, and sprinkles
  • Carla: Chocolate chip cookie with cinnamon
  • Dale: Pretzel and potato chip shortbread cookie with salted caramel chocolate ganache
  • Mike: Almond and dried cherry cookie with rose petal sugar
  • Richard: Ice cream cookie with chocolate chips, zucchini, and mint
  • Tiffany: Shortbread cookie with lemon zest, rosemary, and thyme, served with coconut milk

I knew instantly that Antonia and Dale would be in the top, despite the fact that some have already commented that Dale's dish is very similar to Momofuku's compost, but I thought that he nailed the interplay between salty and sweet to create something different than anyone else in the challenge. Antonia's dish, while not the prettiest, definitely hit the mark.

But the others? There were some bad dishes in the mix, including one from Richard that confused me altogether. Why did he make an "ice cream" cookie rather than an actual cookie? He could have infused those flavors into something like a meringue cookie, or topped a flat biscuit with a liquid-nitrogen frozen ice-cream. Or, hell, made an ice cream cookie sandwich.

And I was surprised that Angelo missed the mark so entirely. He appeared, on the whole, to be off his game this week in a shocking way. Perhaps it was down to those ridiculous knee-socks he had on; could they have been cutting off blood flow to his brain? Not sure, but Angelo--whose "advice" had previously sent many a contestant packing--seemed to have the tables turned on him in a big way this week when it came to asking Mike Isabella for help with seasoning.

So let me get this straight: the typically know-it-all Angelo didn't trust his own palate, "fatigued" though it might have been this late at night? But I'm getting ahead of myself. Here's what they made for their Elimination Challenge dishes:
  • Angelo: Baked potato soup with bacon, onions, sour cream, potato skins, scallions, and grated cheddar cheese
  • Antonia: Parmesan cream eggs with almonds, tomato, apple, and a garlic crostini
  • Carla: Curry apple soup with tomato-ginger jam, and cucumber apple slaw
  • Dale: Ribeye grilled cheese with spicy tomato soup
  • Mike: Spicy coconut soup with mushrooms, scallions, and lime
  • Richard: Pork tenderloin with green chilies, apples, braised pork ribs, and corn pancakes
  • Tiffany: Jamabalaya with chicken, sausage, and shrimp with a summer salad

Nearly all of the chefs tended towards soups this week, which was a bit foolhardy given the time constraints they had to work within. Soup typically takes quite a long time to make properly, because you really need to concentrate the flavor and let it settle in for the long haul. Making a quality soup in under an hour is a Herculean feat, really, especially when you aren't working in an actual kitchen.

But that didn't stop quite a few contestants from going the soup route. Dale, at least, paired his with an electric iron-press grilled cheese... and then wisely took the sandwich up a few pegs by including ribeye within. The juxtaposition of the ribeye grilled cheese and the spiciness of his tomato soup won over the judges; it was a smart rendition of a childhood classic and a clever use of the equipment at hand.

That said, I was more impressed by both Richard and Antonia's dishes. Antonia managed to correctly cook 100 eggs. That's an incredible feat, given the time and workspace they had at their disposal, and her dish was well-conceived and executed. And it wasn't soup, but an individually plated dish that had multiple elements on the plate.

Richard's dish blew me away. What he was able to achieve in that time was remarkable, especially (A) as it didn't prepare a soup, and (B) he actually had not one, but two proteins on the plate, between the tenderloin and the ribs, and that corn pancake. It wasn't the prettiest dish he's ever done by far but it looked tasty and it contained a hell of a lot of effort and precision given the late hour and the fact that he prepared it inside a Target store. If he had perhaps thought more about presentation, he could have perhaps taken home the $25,000 prize. Alas, that went to Dale.

On the other end of the spectrum, it was bloody obvious to everyone that Angelo, Tiffany, and poor Carla would end up in the bottom this week. Carla ran around Target without much aim or purpose, more concerned about finding tablecloths and linens for her workstation and in cooking... and it showed in the food. Her curry apple soup was thin and one-dimensional; it lacked body, substance, and protein. Even the addition of chicken could have bolstered that dish but her lack of direction and momentum really hurt her here. I thought for sure this was Carla's Last Stand...

But then there were Tiffany and Angelo, each of whom really struggled this week. Tiffany's heavy hand with those dried Creole seasonings did her in and the dish really wasn't a Jambalaya by any stretch. Angelo's baked potato soup seemed overwhelming, just on screen. There was a rich heaviness to it that made me slightly queasy, and I didn't even have to eat a bowlful. Accentuating the difficulty with finishing this overrich dish was the fact that it was completely over-seasoned.

That was due in part to Angelo turning for help to sudden BFF Mike, who told Angelo that the dish "lacked something" and "needed salt." While it was Mike who put the idea into Angelo's head, the blame really does fall on Angelo for then over-salting the dish. He could have added some more bacon in or some additional salt, but Angelo chose to add BOTH, rendering the dish way too salty and almost inedible, really.

It was a poor showing from one of the strongest chefs in the competition, who nearly won his season (or would have, perhaps, if illness hadn't nearly sidelined him), but he seemed really out of his element in this week's challenge and lacked the killer instincts that had gotten him this far. A shame, really, though I am happy that Carla will stick around for another week. She needs to really step it up, however, if she wants to make it to the end, after this week's poor performance.

What did you think of this week's episode? Did the judges make the right decision in awarding Dale the win? And would you have sent home Angelo if you had to make the call? Head to the comments section to discuss.

Next week on Top Chef ("For the Gulf"), it's a deep fry contest for Paula Deen, the queen of deep fat; later, the chefs prepare seafood dishes for a charity event.

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