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The Lychee Thief: Otto Cuts Himself from the Competition on "Top Chef"

I finally got around to watching this week's episode of Bravo's addictive (and calorie-free!) Top Chef last night (I was out at a screening of Borat on Wednesday night) and it was quite the episode, in terms of controversy. Between backstabbing, thieving, and bawdy drunkenness (courtesy of Ilan's homemade sangria), this week's episode ("Eastern Promise") had it all... without even so much as a whiff of Tiffani! So what actually went down? Sit back and prepare to tuck in.

New host Padma Lakshmi is still driving me crazy, but in a different way than Katie Lee Joel did. While Katie Lee's delivery was flat and robotic and seemed completely vacant of non-artificial intelligent, Padma speaks in this long, drawn-out drawl and seems completely awkward in front of the camera, not bringing anything to the chef's table (in fact, she seemed to shut down conversation several times) and drawing out the proceedings interminably. Half the time, I want to fast forward through her introductions as I get six kinds of irritated sitting there while her sentences are stretched out like gooey, sticky strands of melted mozzarella. (If you couldn't already tell, yes, I like food analogies.)

The Quickfire Challenge this week was an exceptionally complicated one that really separated the strong chefs from the weak ones. The competitors were woken up at the tender hour of 4:30 by head judge Tom Colicchio. Poor Tom had to be the one to do it; I guess that there was no way Padma was getting up that early to rouse these slumberers. They were given a few minutes to shower and down some coffee before heading out to a fish market, where they learned their challenge would be to prepare a sushi dish using the fresh fish at the market and any of the ingredients in the pantry. Mia, who claimed to be getting sick, was outright greenishly ill at the mere mention of the word "sushi" and she struggled to make it through the market.

Judging the sushi competition was Hiroshi Shima of Katana and he seemed impressed with some of what he tasted... particularly Cliff's winning mango, ginger, and jalapeno-spiked raw oysters, which were beautifully elegant and extraordinarily different. Kudos too to Otto for a great rolling technique. Mia, unfortunately, turned in an amateurish roll that didn't even resemble anything approaching sushi and Shima was very displeased with her work. I would have liked to have see what everyone turned in for the challenge, but strangely, the dishes of nearly half of the competitors were cut out of the aired episode. Strange.

For the elimination challenge, the chefs were assigned to two teams tackling Vietnamese and Korean cuisines for a charity food event with 1000 attendees. The Vietnamese team--consisting of Betty, Josie, Carlos, Mike, Emily, Mia, and Sam--were incredibly focused and organized right off the bat and worked effectively as a team, utilizing Betty's skills as a caterer and Josie's experiences working for a Vietnamese chef (who apparently never taught her the correct pronunciation of pho) to produce a menu of three items, as opposed to the two that was required. Meanwhile, the Korean team--that would be Marisa, Ilan, Frank, Marcel, Cliff, Elia, and Otto--couldn't have been more disorganized. Instead of sitting down and pounding out a menu (just two items, people!), they decided to make some homemade sangria and get hammered (what is this, Real World?). I was really surprised by their decision to go so far off task and pretend that they weren't in a competition but just goofing off at home with their buds. Totally not the right time for this, people. The entire team was a complete mess with no leadership and no signs of cohesion whatsoever. I felt really bad for Elia, who kept trying to rein in her team, but to no avail.

At the market, Team Vietnam breezed through the aisles, thanks to an in-depth and highly specific shopping list while Team Korea fumbled like rank amateurs at their specialty market as though they hadn't thought anything through at all. And then it happened: Otto put a case of lychees underneath their cart and the team, which was already over-budget, neglected to pay for them, a fact that Otto only revealed once they had packed up their van. The move bothered me for several reasons. First, I saw from my vantage point at home that the lychees were still under the cart and wondered whether they had paid for them but no one seemed to notice the lychees were even there. Second, Otto only mentioned the inadvertent (or was it?) theft of the lychees until the van was packed, not when he saw them being loaded into said van. Third, Otto mentioned this fact to Marisa and neither of them thought to return the item to the market, despite the fact that they were at that point still standing outside it. Fourth, the team had already been over-budget and had had to put an item back, so the lychees would clearly have catapulted them over their limit. It broke every rule of Top Chef and gave Team Korea an unfair advantage over the other team.

Returning to the kitchen, Marisa confronted Vegas culinary school teacher Otto, who tried to cover his butt by saying that it was an "honest" mistake. When Marisa flat out told him that they could not use the lychees, Otto grudgingly put them aside. Later, Marisa told Tom Colicchio about the incident and sharply questioned the chefs, before determining that Otto would have to return the lychees to the store. Stealing the lychees, whether intentionally or inadvertently, was single-handedly one of the worst decisions I've ever seen on the series and Otto had multiple opportunities to fix the situation but didn't until he was forced to. That said, I simply cannot stand Marisa or her holier-than-thou attitude. But more on that in a sec.

For the challenge, Team Vietnam's menu consisted of a cold pickled watermelon ring summer roll, pork pho with carrot vermicelli and herbed peanut candy, and Betty's aloe cucumber refresher. Vietnam had problems slicing their summer rolls but Josie took charge to present a beautiful and colorful cold dish that had lots of flavor and bite and was a new twist on a classic Vietnamese dish; their pork pho (guest judge Ming Tsai took umbrage at Josie's mangling of the word) was good but the pork was a little tough. The star, however, was Betty and her amazing aloe cucumber refresher, which she made from start to finish. Can I just say how much I love Betty? Her presentation was flawless: pouring the refresher from a beautiful silver tea pot, she greeted guests with a beaming smile and excellent customer service skills, luring in diners and making everyone feel welcome. (Rightly so, she was the winner of the challenge and was awarded a limited edition Kyocera knife--one of 100 in the world--by Ming Tsai.)

On the other side, Team Korea prepared a braised Korean pork with homemade kimchi and rice, and a jasmine tea custard with pink tapioca and lychee gelee with orange and candied taro chips. Their pork--prepared, I believe by Ilan--was beautifully succulent and juicily flavorful, but they failed on all other fronts. The rice was woefully overcooked, resulting in a ghastly, sticky mess that should never, ever have been served. And the dessert--prepared by pastry chef Marisa, had so much gelatin that it became as hard and rigid as a hockey puck and completely inedible. Ming Tsai was horrified by the dessert, as were Tom and Gail. No excuse for that, at all. And the dessert itself, while incorporating some indigenous flavors and ingredients, did not feel at all Korean to me. I do have to give them credit for attempting to make kimchi--fermented cabbage that takes weeks to make normally--in one day; the fact that they managed to pull that off definitely impressed me but there were so many things wrong with this team that it was quickly overshadowed.

Um, Padma's black and blue 1980s prom dress? Please, someone, explain.

Naturally, Team Vietnam won the challenge and I loved that their celebratory whooping and hollering were heard by Team Korea in the next room, as they quickly came to the realization that maybe they didn't win this challenge, after all. What was with Ilan's freak-out at the judge's table? He became crazily aggressive in defense of their pork and said that, as he had tasted both team's dishes and was convinced that their pork was superior. And then he clammed up the entire rest of the time. Odd. Was he still hungover from the copious amounts of sangria he consumed?

Of course, the lychee theft came into question and it was clear that either Otto or Marisa was going home. While Otto's thieving ways didn't directly cause the team to lose, it was Marisa's awful dessert that did and I feel that she REALLY should have been the one to pack her knives this week. I cannot stand her smug, self-righteous mugging in the face of the lychee incident and seeing her pull those awful faces instantly made me turn on her. While I agree that Otto committed a major infraction, he did own up to it and accepted responsibility (which is what the judges wanted), while Marisa was the single major reason why they lost, as even the judges admitted. So no need to be so uppity, M. I'd pipe down if I were you. But Otto not only accepted culpability for the lychees, he eliminated himself from the competition altogether, giving Marisa an undeserved reprieve.

Next week on Top Chef: tensions boil over as Betty faces off with the loathed Marcel and Michael wants a slap-down with Tom. Plus, I scream, you scream, the contestants work with ice cream.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: Ghost Whisperer (CBS); 1 vs. 100 (NBC); WWE Friday Night SmackDown (CW; 8-10 pm); It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (ABC);
Vanished (FOX; 8-10 pm); Desire (MyNet)

9 pm: Close to Home (CBS); Las Vegas
(NBC); Men in Trees (ABC); Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy (FOX); Fashion House (MyNet)

10 pm: NUMB3RS
(CBS); Law & Order (NBC); 20/20 (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

8 pm: Doctor Who on Sci Fi.

It's the second season of Doctor Who, with the latest incarnation of the Doctor played by the talented David Tennant. On tonight's episode ("Rise of the Cybermen"), Rose discovers that her father is alive on a parallel version of Earth. Hmmm, call me crazy but something tells me that this will end badly.

8 pm: Saxondale on BBC America.

It's the third episode of Steve Coogan's newest comedy, Saxondale, reviewed here. It's quirky, it's bizarre, and it's got Steve Coogan as a former rock roadie turned animal pest control operative. So do us all a favor and tune in.

9 pm: Battlestar Galactica on Sci Fi.

On tonight's episode ("Collaborators"), a secret cabal convenes aboard Galactica to judge and execute humans who collaborated with the Cylons during the occupation of New Caprica. Which would be bad enough, but it's worse as Roslin and Adama seem to be in the dark about the entire affair. I smell Tigh's hand in this...


Anonymous said…
I feel like Otto was simply the one who pointed out that the lychees were unpaid for, and when he mentioned it to Marisa (and it seemed like other people were around then too, actually), she became equally culpable. Like you said, if she had concerns, she could've taken them back while they were still in the parking lot, instead of screwing Otto and her team later. She definitely should've gone home.
Anonymous said…
I totally agree with Liz. Once Otto announced that he didn't think they paid for the lychees, ALL of the team had a chance to say something. So for Marisa to completely turn on Otto was ridiculous. She was in total survival mode and had to throw someone under the bus. And the entire team, with the exception of Frank, just let her. Ugh.
Anonymous said…
I am in agreement w/liz and Whitney. Marisa, if she was SO morally outraged, should have immediately walked back into the store w/the lychees. It's not like the info came to her when she was 50 miles away from the store. Ugh, I can't stand her. It's too bad, because the judges said they would probably boot Marisa, if Otto came in and owned up to it, and then he did, but then he ended with "I am leaving."

Paaaaaddddmmmmaaaaaa puts me to sleep. Seriously, she is totally in slow motion. And this week I noticed that she is WAY too thin.

I thought it was weird that we didn't see all the quick fire people either. I guess the lychee incident took up too much time. And by the way, it was like nails on a chalkboard every time Otto mispronounce lychee.

I think it's hilarious that Ming Tsai criticised Josie's pronunciation of pho, when I always had problems watching Ming's show cause he always seemed to....asssimilated for my taste. He is pleasant enough, but he always seemed soft and dumbed-down to me.

I love Betty.
I love Betty too. I just wish she could share some of her energy and exuberance with Padma the drone.

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