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"It Will Take More Than Paprika to Make Me Cry": Competition Cut to Two on "Top Chef"

What. The. Hell.

Seriously. I can't get last night's episode of Top Chef out of my head and that's not a good thing, since I was particularly angry at the results of the first round of the season finale. Not since the wrongful booting of Allison over on Project Runway have I been this irritated by a decision handed down from the judges.

And yet there's not much that can be done at this point in time. Suffice it to say, that I never thought that things would play out the way they did last night. So, read no further if you haven't yet watched last night's installment, because I'm about to reveal which two chefs made it through the penultimate elimination.

One caveat: I really hate when reality show judges seem to place all of the weight onto a single challenge rather than taking into consideration one's abilities and triumphs over the course of a competition. After all, everyone has an off night, even a Top Chef. But to award Marcel a spot in the final two based on some molecular gastronomic wizardry and some pineapple "poi" after his sometimes disastrous performances in previous weeks? Over Sam, who seems to embody the spirit and skill of a top chef? Something's just not right here.

Maybe because I am just such a jaded person am I more than the least bit suspicious by the fact that mortal enemies Marcel and Ilan somehow made it into the final two together. Gee, do you think that the show's producers could have dreamed up a better scenario than a showdown between the very same two contestants that completely and utterly loathed one another from first sight and started an instant vendetta? Curious, no?

I applaud Sam for the fact that during the hiatus between filming episodes of Top Chef and the finale (filmed in the exact spot on the Big Island of Hawaii where I was just a few weeks ago), he decided to push himself and took a job with an ex-Craft chef turned pastry chef. Desserts have never been Sam's forte and I think it was great that he challenged himself to go out there and learn. (If that isn't the essence of being a Top Chef, I don't know what is.) Ilan went back to his job as a line cook at Spanish restaurant Casa Mono (though potential spoilers abound here; avoid if you don't want to know a particularly juicy twist); Marcel returned to Las Vegas to create some new food science experiments; a shorn Elia to her job at THE Hotel, Mandalay Bay.

But they were summoned to the Big Island for their final showdown, one that would cut the competition down to two and ensure one player a fifty percent chance at winning that spread in Food & Wine magazine and seed money to start their own restaurant.

There would be no Quickfire Challenge, only a demanding Elimination Challenge in which they would have to make two dishes that put a spin on traditional Hawaiian fare for guest judge Alan Wong. And unlike other challenges, they would be allowed to bring supplies, including ingredients, with them to the Big Island. (Seriously, it is impossible to get groceries, or specific items, on the island. Even the Losties seem to have a better selection from their Dharma brand pantry than some areas.)

So what did our Final Four create this week? Sam was up first with his dish of opakapaka (Hawaiian red snapper) poke with pickled sea beans and sesame, ginger, garlic, and yuzu, followed by a dessert course of a mascarpone mousse with Hawaiian salted coconut milk and citrus tuile. People seemed to really like his dishes and asked for seconds, but the judges found fault with the fact that nothing he served was actually cooked. Ouch. But still, poke by nature is RAW and he did put a modern, sophisticated spin on traditional Hawaiian fare, which to be, well, fair, does use a lot of raw ingredients by nature. Harumph.

Next up: Elia who served opakapaka steamed in ti leaves, with Hawaiian salts, carrots, red peppers, and sweet peas and an ahi poke with olives, capers, and lemon confit. While both dishes looked absolutely stunning, the judges felt that Elia went a little overboard bringing in the Mediterranean influences which overwhelmed the poke dish; those olives completely overpowered the subtle taste of the raw ahi while her opakapaka was good but nothing spectacular. Alan Wong indicated that he would have rather seen Elia use different vegetables than just carrots, peppers, and peas.

Ah, Marcel, with his Mr. Wizard approach to cuisine. He was the third to go, with hamachi poke with pineapple "poi" on a crispy taro chip, followed by salmon lomi lomi with tomato foam (surprise!), scallion oil, chili water, and lotus root chip, served after a 16-minute discussion of what he was serving... It did look beautiful, but I feel like he relied more on his chemical compounds (granted, perfectly legal by the rules) and wowing the judges on his techniques rather than the ingredients themselves. Still, judges seemed split on the notion of the pineapple "poi," laced with xantham gum to give it that traditional taro poi texture.

Ilan was up last with a morcilla (blood sausage), onion, and grilled squid lau lau with taro leaves wrapped in ti leaves, followed by a dessert course of saffron haupia frita (fried milk) that blended Spanish influence in the form of saffron with Hawaiian coconut milk. Judges seemed to like the dishes, though I do agree with Ilan that he could have taken more time with the plating to give the dishes a slightly more elegant edge.

All of the contestants delivered beautiful, fantastic food. Did Sam "play it safe"? I don't think so. He didn't necessarily take huge risks, but he matched the brief by giving a twist to traditional Hawaiian dishes. As for Tom's verdict that he didn't cook anything, I really don't know what to say. Should Sam have not opted for a dessert or made one that involved cooking? I don't know.

I do think that Elia was the weakest contestant this round and she didn't fuse her influences with the Hawaiian ingredients enough... and then had the temerity to be so arrogantly defiant about it in front of the judges. It also didn't help things that she turned on Marcel at the last possible moment, accusing him of cheating "several" times throughout the competition and of not playing nice in the kitchen. (He moved her steamer and... she couldn't come up with any other examples just then.) Tom waved off this out-of-left-field accusations by saying that he didn't care what they got up to in the kitchen; it is a cooking competition. (Which I'm appalled by; shouldn't HOW they cook be just as important as what they cook?)

I knew that Marcel had managed to squeak by into the Final Two with his pineapple "poi," but I wasn't happy about it, but the decision to not take such enormous risks came back to bite Sam. I was really, really stunned by the fact that they told Sam to pack his knives and have been rooting for him since Day One. I am just really sad that they discounted everything he's done this competition and the dignity he carried himself with (save one or two lapses).

But, seriously, Marcel? In the final two? Did the judges seriously overlook yet another foam? Yet another modern plating that looks identical to all his platings? Over Sam, who won a huge majority of the quickfire challenges and was by far the most talented chef there?

Color me confused and more than a little angry at the judges.

Next week on Part Two of the season finale of Top Chef: it's V for vendetta as adversaries Ilan and Marcel face off in the final culinary challenge, with one of them walking away the victory. Who will be crowned Top Chef and who will go home with some newly minted anger management issues? Find out next week.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: CSI: Miami (CBS); My Name is Earl/The Office (NBC); Smallville (CW); Ugly Betty (ABC); 'Til Death/The War at Home (FOX); Wicked Wicked Games (MyNet)

9 pm: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS); Scrubs/30 Rock (NBC); Supernatural (CW); Grey's Anatomy (ABC); The O.C. (FOX); Watch Over Me (MyNet)

10 pm: Shark (CBS); The Office/The Office (NBC); Men in Trees (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

8 pm: Ugly Betty.

It's Televisionary's favorite new show. On tonight's repeat episode ("The Lyin', The Watch and the Wardrobe"), it's the now-classic Halloween episode featuring Marc dressing up as Betty (complete with Guadalajara poncho), Betty and Henry nearly enjoying a romantic sushi lunch, and Betty investigating which woman's apartment Daniel left his watch at... and leading straight to Amanda getting her heart broken.

8 pm: My Name is Earl.

On tonight's repeat episode ("Larceny of a Kitty Cat"), Earl is forced to return a prize-winning kitty to its rightful owner after sabotaging a cat show for Joy.

8:30 pm: The Office.

Over on The Office, it's the first of three Office episodes tonight! Up first is "The Coup," in which Michael gets busted by Jan and Corporate after staging a "Movie Monday," leading a very Lady Macbeth-channeling Angela to urge Dwight to usurp Michael's position in the company. (It's my least favorite Office episode, but it's still better than anything else on.)

9 pm: Scrubs.

Finally! Scrubs is back on NBC's schedule, where it belongs. On tonight's repeat episode ("My Bright Idea"), Turk learns of Carla's pregnancy before she does, leading JD to convince Turk to tell everyone else first and organize a "group surprise." This will end badly.

9:30 pm: 30 Rock.

I can't get this show off of my mind grapes. On tonight's repeat episode ("Jack-Tor"), Liz integrates Jack into a sketch, while Frank and Toofer trick Jenna into thinking that her job is on the line while Liz is suspicious about Tracy's claims of illiteracy.

1o pm: The Office.

It's the second of three Office episodes tonight! On this repeat episode ("Grief Counseling"), following the death of his former regional manager, Michael forces the staff of Dunder-Mifflin to attend grief counseling, Michael Scott-style.

10:30 pm: The Office.

It's the third of three Office episodes tonight! On this repeat episode ("Initiation"), Dwight takes Ryan on his very first sales call but they get sidetracked by Dwight's rather, um, innovative approach to initiating Ryan into the brotherhood of salesmen. This episode, written by B.J. Novak, has got to be my second least favorite Office episode, but I'd still rather watch this than, say, According to Jim.


Anonymous said…
I haven't read the post yet, but first my note:

Worst. Possible. Outcome.
Anonymous said…
I really think the only reason they didn't choose Sam is because he is so similar to Harold. That sucks, because Sam was consistently the best and most creative chef in the competition. I would have really liked to see what he would have done in the finale.
Anonymous said…
Watch Ugly Betty episodes online
Anonymous said…
You said, "I really hate when reality show judges seem to place all of the weight onto a single challenge rather than taking into consideration one's abilities and triumphs over the course of a competition."

I couldn't agree more. It seems to be a pattern with the creators of the two shows (PR and TC), because that's exactly why I cried foul when Allison was eliminated. It's ridiculous that someone who makes it all the way to Hawaii would be dismissed after weeks of great work.

I don't buy the "he's too much like Harold" excuse I have seen several times today. I actually find them to be very different types.

I am also apalled at Tom's dismissal of Elia's concerns. Granted, she didn't exactly sell her case, and Ilan totally left her on her own, but for Tom to say that no matter what she had to say he didn't care about what goes on personally in the kitchen is wrong and shortsighted.
Anonymous said…
Sam and Ilian were pretty equally matched. Had Sam actually cooked something, he would have probably won. But he chose not to. I was worried when he said he was doing a ceviche. Enough with the ceviche, people!
And I think it is similar to Alison's elimination from Runway, as she chose to construct a "dress" from wadding and gluing paper, as opposed to sewing. Cooking isn't requisite in crafting fine dining nor is sewing in fashion, but by choosing to not employ those techniques, there is one less thing to evaluate the end product by. At least Sam's dishes didn't make Padma zaftig.
Anonymous said…
Ugh. I can't believe Sam didn't go through to the final two. Something is rotten in the state of...Hawaii. Shame on you "Top Chef" judges!

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