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Like Water for White Chocolate: Chefs Create Film-Inspired Menu on "Top Chef"

I have to say that I was pretty damn impressed with the chefs on last night's episode of Top Chef ("Film Food").

After a so-so week involving some unimaginative block party fare, I was really hoping that the contestants would step it up and I was pleasantly surprised to see that they did just that, delivering a six-course menu for film critic Richard Roeper and friends that would incorporate a different cinematic inspiration into each course.

But before the Elimination Challenge, the chefs had to face down the awe-inspiring Daniel Boulud in the Top Chef Kitchen for their Quickfire: to create a vegetable plate in 30 minutes that incorporated three different culinary techniques. It was a daunting challenge, especially for those chefs that weren't classically trained, but some chefs focused too heavily on the small details: making sure that their techniques were pitch-perfect... instead of thinking about the overall dish and how the ingredients would really come together.

Manuel was guilty of this error, turning out a dish that had no throughline whatsoever; yes, he supremed a lemon beautifully and pencil-tipped those asparagus but the ingredients had no relationship to one another on a plate and I agree with Boulud that it was "Level 1" basic cookery. Richard, on the other hand turned out a gorgeous plate that consisted of a deconstructed salad: blanched mushrooms, picked beets, sliced radishes with lime juice and scallions. It was simple, elegant, and delicious and could have appeared on a menu at a high-end establishment. And Dale's dish of daikon marinated in Tobanjan with a tournee of avocado and cucumber--which incorporated lightning-fast Japanese knife skills--blew me away with its wit and finesse. It was no surprise then that Boulud would award him the top spot in the Quickfire, earning him immunity and an advantage going into the Elimination Challenge.

I was curious to see how well the chefs would work together in pairs; after all, these are some mighty big personalities we have here and I wasn't sure that their individual skill sets and culinary backgrounds would really be able to mesh on a one-on-one basis like this. Add to this the fact that they would have to draw inspiration for their dish from a film and it could have been a recipe for disaster.

The only teams that really seemed to struggle in the planning phase were Spike and Manuel and Ryan and Mark. Spike knew he wanted to do Vietnamese food as he had been cooking that for two years now. Correct me if I am wrong, but isn't the point of Top Chef to move away from that mentality or is he just cribbing off of Ilan's pagebook? Spike then just randomly chose the film Good Morning, Vietnam as the "inspiration" for their dish without it having any connection, whether culinary or otherwise, to their dish whatsoever; Manuel then allowed himself to fall under Spike's Mad Hatter rule (Spike even referred to him in a talking head as an employee) even as the dish failed to approximate anything not typically found in your run-of-the-mill Vietnamese restaurant: a summer roll with black vermicelli, green apple, and Chilean sea bass and a random pile of slightly pickled swiss chard. Odd and unoriginal, to say the least. I had a feeling that Manuel would get the blame for this, even though it was all Spike's fault because he didn't exert any leadership himself.

Ryan and Mark also had a difficult time finding inspiration, not helped by the fact that Ryan had only seen three films in a two-year period and the films he did know--Old School, Dumb and Dumber--didn't exactly scream out with culinary inspiration. Still, he at least came up with a good idea (even if he couldn't remember the title) with A Christmas Story, specifically the scene in which the family ends up at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas. Fortunately, their dish: quail breast with carrot puree, cranberry chutney and quail leg spring rolls with watercress sauce hit the mark and dazzled all of the guests. It was a risky, inspired dish that perfectly incorporated the film's story with the ingredients and was presented in a holiday-themed pairing that emphasized the seasonal colors on the plate. Bravo, guys.

Nikki and Jennifer selected Il Postino and offered a slightly dull dish of tortellini with cavolo nero, fresh ricotta, pecorino, kabocha squash and African peppercorns. It wasn't a bad dish, per se; it's rusticity perfectly matched that of the film but it didn't dazzle in the way that some of the other dishes did.

Speaking of dazzling, the troika of Andrew, Richard, and Dale presented a light first course offering that completed tied into their selection of film, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, even if their handheld electric smoker failed to work after the third plate. Instead, they fired up a piece of wood block to delicately smoke some seared salmon and plated it with faux caviar (tapioca pearls) and a white chocolate-wasabi sauce. It was light and ethereal, elegantly constructed, and effortlessly executed; it captured the madcap nature of the film and was presented perfectly. I am just glad that Andrew didn't follow through with his threat of dressing up as a Oompla-Loompa to deliver the plates. Because that would have been scary.

Lisa and Stephanie went with Top Secret and I was really concerned with how well they would be able to pull off their dish, a New York Strip Steak with braised short rib and apple potsticker with a braising liquid reduction and a Vietnamese savory caramel sauce. The result? I nearly clawed through my television set for a taste. It looked and sounded absolutely delicious; it was whimsical, ambitious, and perfectly executed. The combination of sweet and savory, rich and light at the same time made this a truly original, memorable dish. I knew these two would land at the top of the heap.

Finally, Antonia and Zoi chose Talk to Her and spoke about the way the film brought together two fiery, strong-willed females but their dish--rack of lamb with saffron cauliflower puree, romesco, and gramalata--failed to deliver this message. Where was the fire, the heat, the color, the passion of Spain? It was beautifully cooked but it didn't live up to the brief at all. I fully expected to see them in front of the judges' table but I could not believe the way that Zoi once again turned to a teary whine in front of the judges (who didn't call her on it yet again!) and then started slagging off Richard's dish to anyone within earshot. Call me crazy but maybe before you start badmouthing the dish and the flavor components, maybe you should, I don't know, actually taste it? I did like Zoi but this and last week's pasta salad incident have made me start to dislike her immensely. She needs to grow up and focus on improving her own dishes, even when she's not inspired by the challenge, rather than putting down other chef's creations.

It was no surprise to me that Richard was awarded the top prize this week. He conceptualized the dish and definitely deserved this win; he's clearly proven that he's the chef to beat and definitely has the most vision and creativity out of the remaining chefs. Will he be able to remain on top or will the judges tire of his elegant plating, whimsical flavor combinations, and artful nature? Find out next week.

Next week on Top Chef ("The Elements"), the chefs must complete in a complex taste test and cater an upscale charity event for 230 guests; Dale shows his temper following the challenge; and Jennifer redecorates the holding area by throwing chairs all over the place. Mmmm... smells like drama!

What's On Tonight

8 pm: Survivor: Micronesia--Fans vs. Favorites (CBS); My Name is Earl (NBC); Smallville (CW); Miss Guided/Miss Guided (ABC); Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? (FOX; 8-10 pm)

9 pm: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS); The Office/The Office (NBC); Supernatural (CW); Lost (ABC)

10 pm: Without a Trace (CBS); The Office/The Office (NBC); Eli Stone (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

9-11 pm: The Office.

Relive the highs (and lows) of the uneven fourth season with four (yes, four!) back-to-back episodes of The Office tonight, including: "Local Ad," "Branch Wars," "Survivor Man," and "The Deposition."


Anonymous said…
Before I read the entry, a comment -

I have to say, and this is not the first time I've criticized TC for this, the editing is a problem. Leading editing is rampant on reality tv, but often it ends up being misleading editing. Not so on this show.

We've barely hear Manuel speak this season, let alone seen him cook or gotten any sort of feel for him. As soon as he was the talking head for much of the first part of the ep, I thought, "Well, he's obviously going home." When he landed in the bottom of the quickfire, that sealed it for me.
greebs said…
I disagree with ally's comments - I thought from the editing, talking about Zoi's relationship with her partner (whose name escapes me right now) and the fact that she complained so loudly was a signal that she was gone.

I also think Spike - and his preposterous headwear - is not long for this show. Manuel didn't just go along for the ride, but he was WAY too passive to continue much farther.

One comment about the editing, though - in the "coming up, on Top Chef" they showed several judges comments that were QUITE negative about the food...then never aired that. And it seemed wholly inconsistent with their overall evaluations which was largely very positive. That's lame editing right there.
I hate the "Coming Up" segments. I don't want to see upcoming scenes of something I'm already watching. It's ridiculous!

Other than that...great episode. I was really impressed by the dishes this week, most of which were truly inspired. I also have to complain about Zoi, though. I really liked her but she acts like a spoiled brat when it comes to elimination. Last week she whined about the pasta salad because she didn't pick that dish when she should have concentrated her energy on making the best damn pasta salad ever.

And this week she stooped lower by putting down another contestant's dish. I was thrilled when Richard won, if only to see Zoi's expression. She needs to stop making excuses and just cook, already!

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