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Tempers Boil Over on "Top Chef"

Did anyone else expect that, based on the Top Chef promos Bravo had been airing, that it would be poor Betty accused of cheating this week? I certainly didn't (nor did I expect everyone to nearly gang up on her) but we'll get to that in a few minutes.

Before we get to the cheating issue, there's the matter of the Quickfire Challenge. This week's installment of Top Chef had the contestants prepare an amuse bouche, but there was nothing amusing about most of their efforts. The guest judge this week, Suzanne Goin (of fabled Los Angeles restaurants AOC and Lucques) is no stranger to the amuse bouche. Its purpose is to literally amuse the mouth and it's meant to kickstart your appetite at the start of a meal with a small, usually bite-sized parcel of deliciousness; it's also a chef's calling card, an opportunity to create a lavish signature dish that leaves the diner craving more than the little bite you've provided. The biggest mistake that some of the chefs made was either to (A) design a dish that was way too large to be categorized as an amuse bouche, or (B) create something that was overtly sweet rather than savory. Both, I think, are really unforgivable in this competition. If they don't know what an amuse bouche is at this point in their careers, they've got some serious issues...

This being Top Chef, there's no way that the producers would just let the chefs have free reign to design the amuse bouche of their dreams. No way, no how. Instead, there's always that further turn of the screw in which semi-animatronic Padma announces the latest twist. The shocker this week is that the chefs would have to use foods purchased in the vending machines. Yes, the vending machines. Chefs were stunned, stumped, and shocked to say the least. Mia came up with a tasty dessert-like dish that looked beautiful and seemed to taste great, but missed the entire point of the challenge. It wasn't to create dessert, but rather an amuse bouche. Marcel fell into the same trap, turning out another sweet dish that failed to meet the brief. I was actually impressed with Frank's ham and cheese quiche with basil sauce and Ilan's beautiful dish, which was topped with a tiny fried triangle of salami. Out of all of them, I felt Ilan understood the challenge best and turned in a dish that not only met the brief but also LOOKED the part of an amuse bouche. The winner was Carlos for his vegetarian loaf, which really didn't appetize me at all. I am sure it tasted great (Suzanne seemed to think so) but it just looked so unappealing.

But nearly all of them were at least able to come up with something... except for Mike who was just dumbfounded (or insulted) by the whole thing. He ended up creating a disgusting "dish" of a single Cheeto penetrating a Snickers, perhaps in a take-off on the savory lollipop craze in restaurants? It looked (and tasted, I am sure) vile and it led Suzanne Goin to declare that Mike seemed as though he was not committed to this competition at all. I'd have to agree with her and I'm shocked to learn that Mike actually went to a respected culinary institution: he's sloppy, messy, and seems to lack any real passion for what he's doing. His dish should have gotten him automatically thrown out of the competition, in my opinion. (But, alas, it was only the Quickfire Challenge.)

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs were split into four teams and, naturally, somehow nemeses Betty and Marcel ended up on the Black Team. (I just knew that was going to happen!) But I was really happy to see that the two of them were able to put aside their differences and work together as a team, joined by Frank. Their challenge: to design a complete meal (entree, side dish, dessert)... for under 500 calories. My jaw dropped when I heard that last part. 500 calories is nothing and to have to come up with a complete meal for that amount of caloric intake seems nigh impossible. They'll be offering their meals to the campers of Camp Glucose, who will be able to choose from which menu they'd like. The winning team will be awarded by the number of kids who order the specific menu and their feedback. On Day One, they'd prepare a test run of their recipes under the watchful eyes of nutritionists who would stringently monitor every single calorie in their dishes. Once their nutritionist signed off, they would not be allowed to deviate from the recipes on Day Two.

Naturally, it was the Black Team (that would be Betty, Marcel, and Frank) who won the challenge with their sausage and cheese pizza, melon-and-berry skewers, berry lemonade, and crispy meringue cookies with peanut butter and chocolate. Um, hello, kids and pizza? This was how all of the teams should have been thinking! It's no wonder that they won. Betty's idea to do low-calorie pizza was genius, especially because their pizza looked and tasted like pizza at a fraction of the calories, thanks to Frank, who added sausage and cheese and managed to keep it way under their caloric restrictions. Betty's cookies looked amazing, but we'll get back to those in a second.

The Red Team (Marisa, Mike, and Mia) designed their menu pretty much around Marisa's low-cal chocolate fudge cake with chocolate sauce and strawberries, which looked really impressive, but the rest of their dish--barbeque chicken skewers, grilled vegetables, and cole slaw--fell flat, thanks to a lack of any real seasonings. Even the kids picked up on the lack of salt. Again, didn't anyone actually taste the dish ahead of time? Gordon Ramsay would have freaked out on them. And having a notoriously passionless Mike attempt to "sell" their menu was a huge mistake. This guy has zero charisma whatsoever.

The White Team (Josie, Ilan, Elia) made breaded chicken Parmesan (using oats instead of breadcrumbs), vegetable lasagna, and a berry cheesecake (which looked amazing). I'm not sure how many kids actually dig cheesecake, but it looked stunning and must have tasted gorgeously (Gail seemed to think so). The vegetable lasagna didn't really look like much of a lasagna; to me, the dish is incomplete without oozing cheese and beautifully billowing pasta sheets. The kids have been eating nothing but healthy this whole time and I think that they wanted something outrageous, or something that reminded them of home, or something that at least FELT a little fun or naughty.

Last the Orange Team (Sam, Cliff, and Carlos) made a disastrous menu comprised of spiced turkey meatballs that were nothing more than leaden orbs of doom, roasted corn on the cob, and a fruit smoothie that many of the kids complained was far too sour (thanks to the tonnage of grapes in there). I was really surprised by how poorly this team did. Carlos had immunity, thanks to the Quickfire Challenge, but Sam and Cliff are two of the strongest competitors in the game. Sam is a diabetic and sympathetic to what the kids are going through, but as a chef, he should have been better equipped to combine flavor and caloric value together in a more palatable form. Ground turkey is notoriously hard to work with, as it has very little fat. Small fat content means it's low-calorie but it also has very little emulsion to work with, resulting in meatballs that were stone hard. Ouch.

The judges called back the Red and Oranges teams to the judging table, after awarding the win to the Black Team and to Frank, who won a signed copy of Suzanne Goin's Sunday Dinners cookbook and the opportunity to collaborate on a menu. They were extremely displeased with both groups and it seemed like someone was going to be packing their knives... That is, until Sam raised the issue of cheating, saying that some people had changed their recipes from Day One to Two and had violated the honor code, explicitly stating that there had been squeeze bottles of olive oil on the line and he had seen chefs liberally adding it to their dishes. (In addition to adding flavor, olive oil adds a HUGE calorie increase to any dish.) But Sam refused to name names, saying that he was "not that guy." Dude, that is so passive aggressive. Why bother bringing this issue up at all if you're going to try to play the "nice guy" card by not singling anyone out?

Mia didn't have that problem at all and directly pointed the finger of accusation against Betty, who had altered her meringue cookie recipe between days. (The recipe did not work on Day One--thanks to too many egg whites in the Cuisinart mixer and use of Splenda instead of sugar--and Betty decreased the egg white count and added some sugar.) What's funny to me is that Mia was SO virulent about accusing Betty, even though Tom Colicchio claims that chefs said that they had seen Mia add sugar to her tasteless cole slaw. Not that Mia stepped up and admitted this at all, nor did anyone who actually used the verboten olive oil.

Tom dismissed the teams and then addressed the entire group. Betty admitted that she had altered the recipes between days, because she misunderstood the rules and thought that as long as they still came in below that 500-calorie mark, their dishes could still be tweaked. However, there was no way to check the revised calories as their nutritionists were not present on Day Two. (Though they should have been and I was surprised when watching that they weren't back that next day.) Cooking, unlike baking, is not an exact science and recipes have to be altered for seasoning based on tasting the food, rather than relying on a strict guidelines. (Yes, I realize that their is a science to food, but it's not as exact a science as baking.) Betty tearfully admitted her wrongdoing and accepted responsibility for her actions. It wasn't a malicious action, she didn't intentionally cheat to get ahead or slip in the sugar when no one was looking. No, it was caught on camera, she said she did it, and it was a misunderstanding with the rules.

Faced with a real quandary, the judges opted to not send anyone home. It was too confusing, with allegations of cheating apparently rampant, and there was no clear loser here. Two teams turned in basically flavorless food that was underseasoned, but if they did actually follow the rules, could any of them really be told to pack their knives?

Do you think that Betty deliberately cheated? Should someone have gone home?

Next week on Top Chef: chefs have to create a dish using a mystery ingredient, someone serves something that looks like Pepto-Bismol, and the teams encounter difficulties working against the clock.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: Ghost Whisperer (CBS); 1 vs. 100 (NBC); WWE Friday Night SmackDown (CW; 8-10 pm); Grey's Anatomy (ABC);
Vanished (FOX); 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 ("The Idiot's Lantern"), the Doctor and Rose investigate rumors of monsters on the streets of London during the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

8 pm: Saxondale on BBC America.

It's the fifth 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 ("A Measure of Salvation"), Baltar is tortured by D'Anna in order to learn the cause of the mysterious virus sweeping through the ranks of the Cylons.


Anonymous said…
Carlos' amuse looked like a fruit cake to me. Just not appetizing.

re: Mike, This was a brilliant line from TWOP's recap: Couldn't she see the simple beauty and Dali-esque artistry of the lone Cheeto stuck in a mashed-up cube of Snickers?

I have to actually disagree - I thought Mike was the perfect person to present. He's totally like a big kid and of that team probably the most energetic.

Another great line from TWOP: And guess what? Betty and Marcel are on the same team! Wonder how many takes it took to get that result.

"Leaden orbs of doom" heh.

I absolutely do NOT believe Betty deliberately cheated. I could see how in her head staying under 500 calories was what was most important. Plus, I love her.

I thought Josie was WAY dramatic. Whatevs, Jo.
Jace Lacob said…

Totally agree. Josie was SOOOO over the top and dramatic. Just calm down there for a second. You wouldn't have won anyway, even if Betty didn't put the extra sugar in the meringue cookies, so puhlease. It's not as if Betty's cookies would have made or broken the Black Team's win, anyway. It was just the icing, that's all.

I think Betty did not deliberately cheat at all.

Mike is a big kid, but that did NOT come through at all in his presentation, which was--like Mike--completely lackluster.
I was bummed that it was Betty who got caught "cheating" but I agree that it was not on purpose. Sam said that other people were cheating too but Betty was the only one who got blamed which wasn't really fair. If she hadn't been on the winning team no one would have cared.

It also really annoyed me when Sam said "I'm not that guy" in reference to naming the offenders. But he brought the whole thing up. So obviously he IS that guy.

Both Josie and Mia totally overreacted. And Tom just seemed disappointed in them all. And can you blame him?

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