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My Dinner at Rao's: Food, Italian Style on Top Chef

I have to say that the producers of Bravo's Top Chef were wise to schedule an all-stars edition of the show right now because, week after week, it's been so consistently pleasing and engaging that it's all but removed the bad taste in my mouth from the lackluster last season.

These are strong chefs, visionaries and technicians, and the remaining players have passion, skill, and precision for the most part. Which doesn't mean that they don't crack under the pressure, or that there aren't missteps, because there certainly are. Top Chef was designed to test the precision, execution, vision, consistency, and ultimately the adaptability of a chef and these previous contestants all know that it's easy to slip when the pressure is on.

On this week's episode of Top Chef ("An Offer They Can't Refuse"), the nine remaining chefs had two challenges ahead of them: one in which they had to create culinary art, focusing on the presentation and aesthetics of a dish rather than how it actually tastes, and later to create Italian dishes in the kitchens of a more than 100-year-old New York Italian institution: Rao's.

These two challenges couldn't have been more diametrically opposed: one was about the look rather than the taste; the other was about simple ingredients and not gilding the lily. Would these chefs be able to pull it off while under fire from some extremely knowledgeable Italian diners? Let's find out.

While some of the chefs were initially turned off by the presentation-based Quickfire Challenge, I stuffed my own first thoughts to the back of my head when I began to think about it as a food styling challenge. Yes, the taste is the most crucial thing about a dish and I would have flipped out had this been an Elimination Challenge, but for a Quickfire, I thought it was a good crucible to put these chefs through and throw them off-balance a bit.

Bringing in designer Isaac Mizrahi was, of course, an act of cross-promotion on the part of Bravo but Mizrahi also understands aesthetics and design, so in that respect, he was a fitting guest judge for this particular challenge.

So what did the chefs make? Let's see:
  • Angelo: Pineapple skin, curry salted egg, and dill
  • Antonia: Yuca potato, lentils, nuts, and seeds
  • Carla: Borscht and sandwich with a lattice of cucumber
  • Dale: Beet puree, cantaloupe, maple syrup meringue, avocado, and mango
  • Fabio: Tuna with a sidewalk of caramel, mushroom umbrellas, and lemon juice
  • Mike: Carrot puree, roasted eggplant, and egg yolk
  • Richard: Black chocolate ice cream, menthol crystals, herbal salad, mint ice cream dots
  • Tiffany: Almost gazpacho, grapes, dirt made of rye bread
  • Tre: Smoke salmon, beets, curry noodles, food coloring

It was no surprise to me that Richard Blais won this particular challenge; not only did his dish sound incredible (and entirely edible and delicious) but it looked absolutely fantastic. The interplay between the shades, the minimalist representations and the otherworldly quality to the entire presentation instantly scored him as the one to beat here and Blais was subsequently awarded with immunity from the Elimination Challenge ahead.

As for the others, I thought that Carla did a fantastic job, though she wasn't singled out for praise. As one of the fully edible presentations, I thought that she deserved some recognition for her gorgeous work, while I found Fabio's plate--and his explanation--head-scratching, to say the least. Just odd, with his mushroom umbrellas and story about beautiful women trying to keep it together. If you have to explain that much, there's something missing in the presentation, Fabio! As for Angelo, if you're going to write something on the table ("crocadile" [sic]), at least make sure you spell it correctly. Or just don't do it at all.

Moving onto the Elimination Challenge, the chefs drew knives to see which course they would be cooking at Rao's (antipasti, primi, secondo) for a group of Italians, including the Rao's owners and actress Lorraine Bracco. For some of the chefs, things didn't go according to plan, while others executed some truly stellar dishes that were universally praised.

The trick with Italian cuisine is to let the ingredients shine and to not do anything that's too fussy, overdone, or which overshadows the other elements on the plate. It was advice, given several times throughout the episode, that some chefs adhered to and seemed to understand, while others missed the message altogether.

So what did they prepare? Let's take a look:

Antipasti
  • Antonia: Mussels with fennel, white wine, garlic, and parsley ciabatta
  • Carla: Minestrone soup with basil oil, tomatoes, and homemade focaccia
  • Tiffany: Polenta terrine with Italian sausage, roasted peppers, and kale

Primi
  • Dale: Fresh paparadelle, Brussels sprouts, chanterelle mushrooms, pecorino romano
  • Mike: Spicy calamari, fresh rigatoni, and tomato sauce
  • Tre: Grilled vegetable risotto, marinated tomatoes, and fresh basil

Secondi
  • Angelo: Sauteed pork chop, cherry peppers, green olives, tomatoes, and pancetta
  • Fabio: Pollo alla cacciatora, polenta al pecorino
  • Richard: Fresh pancetta cutlet, broccolini, pickled cherry tomatoes

It was, for the most part, a mixed bag. It was bloody obvious from the start just who had made some crucial errors. Tre's risotto was way too thick and lacked the intrinic creaminess of true risotto, plus the addition of those huge vegetables on top overshadowed the arborio rice, the true star of risotto. It was clunky and ill-proportioned and I had a feeling either he or Mike would be sent packing this week. Likewise, Dale's pasta dish was composed of separate elements, plated together, but that doesn't make a pasta dish, per se, if they don't coalesce on the plate; he should have cooked everything in the pan together and had something resembling a sauce (cream, cheese, something). Likewise, self-proclaimed "New Jersey Italian" Mike Isabella had a major misstep with his homemade rigatoni, which had too much egg (hence the shocking yellow color) and was way beyond al dente. For an Italian not to cook pasta properly, I knew he'd be on the chopping block this week.

On the other end of the spectrum, the women of the antipasti course all did exceptionally well. They each seemed to understand the importance of simple presentation, quality ingredients, and massive flavor, and each delivered a stunning dish, though I was confused by the "Wisconsin" comment one of the Rao's guys made about Carla's soup. (It was just, um, odd.) And Fabio nicely nailed his dish, which was presented in true Italian style as a secondo with a contorno of luscious polenta on the side. Well done.

Personally, I was shocked to see just how, well, shocked the chefs were that Antonia took home the top prize for her steamed mussels. The point was to do simple food, well-executed with bold favor, and her dish didn't have a ton of ingredients (mussels, white wine, fennel, and garlic) but that was the point! Simplicity, people, done well and with a minimum of fuss. To me, it was certain that the four did a full head and shoulders above the majority of the chefs and I think Antonia earned her win here.

Do you agree with the judges' decision? Should Antonia have won and should Tre have packed his knives? Head to the comments section to discuss and debate.

Next week on Top Chef ("Feeding Fallon"), the chefs prepare fondue and later cater late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon's birthday party.

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