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Sibling Rivalry and Grating Voices: Battle of the Sexes on "Top Chef: Las Vegas"

It's interesting as each season of Top Chef wears on to see just how your initial gut-instinct contenders fare as the challenges begin piling up.

I'm happy to say that so far the three chefs that I picked as the three major contenders have all continued to fare well this week. Just which one of them will walk away with the grand prize remains to be seen but there's no doubt in my mind that each of them will be sticking around for some time to come.

On this week's episode of Top Chef: Las Vegas ("Bachelor/Ette Party"), it was a battle of the sexes as the chefs were split down the middle and had to pair three shots with individual dishes at a bachelor and bachelorette party. But before that, there was the Todd English-judged Quickfire Challenge where the cheftestants rolled dice to see how many ingredients they'd have to work with--anywhere from two to twelve--and prepare a dish in under thirty minutes.

So how did they fare this week in Sin City? Let's discuss.

I thought the Quickfire Challenge was an interesting one this week because, though it was based largely on luck, it didn't hit us over the head with the Vegas allusions and because it challenged the chefs to work within some strict confines. Having a limited number of ingredients can be freeing in a way as it forces the chef to commit to strong, intense, and simple flavors and execute their vision precisely. There wouldn't be any superfluous squiggles of puree on the plate or an overabundance of elements.

Plus, it was interesting to see which chefs--Kevin Gillespie and Jennifer Carroll for two--were actually hoping they'd land less ingredients than more. These two are definitely on my Major Contender list and both of them excel at clean, simple flavor profiles that are complex without being chaotic.

So which dishes stood out from among the pack? Despite landing ten ingredients, Kevin offered up a deceptively simple dish of asparagus and celery salad with fennel cream and boiled egg. (Sometimes more can be less.) Once again, Jennifer managed to wow the judges with her simple elegance (which always seems to belie an intensity of flavor) with a smoked salmon with lemon, garlic, shallot, parsley, and jalapeno emulsion. And Michael V. reinvented the humble gazpacho as a nitro gazpacho with compressed cucumbers and toast, a modern molecular miracle that had him walk away with $15,000 and immunity in the Elimination Challenge.

But all was not good in the Top Chef kitchen. I think that Bryan was extremely disappointed to place so poorly in the Quickfire for his poached black cod with carrot-ginger puree and daikon radish sprouts, but it still shows some major initiative and conceptualization. Which can't be said for some of the other dishes. As soon as I saw Jesse's dish--scallops with chimichurri and smashed garbanzo beans with toasted garlic--I knew she'd land at the bottom of the pack. The scallops had no coloring whatsoever and the rest of the plate was comprised of two piles of mush resembling baby food (baby food, people, I'm trying to be kind). I never understand the mentality behind plating in this fashion; there needs to be some thought put into executing a combination of textures as well as flavors and offering up mush and more mush just doesn't cut it. Full stop.

As for Eve, I've been scratching my head as to how she made it onto the series. Her chilled asparagus salad with raisins, pine nuts, and blue cheese was woefully executed, with the blue cheese overpowering everything else on the plate. I made a comment in my original advance review of the season opener that Eve's voice was like nails on a chalkboard and that holds true here. Which I'd try my best to overlook if she had some stunning vision or skills in the kitchen but it doesn't seem to be the case here.

Moving on to the Elimination Challenge, there was some definite bad blood behind the choice of the challenge, with Jennifer Carroll irked about the division of the sexes (in a gender-equal competition like this I have to agree with her) and Ashley upset about the wedding-themed nature of the competition, given the nearly universal ban on gay marriage in America at the moment. Unfortunately, being a chef means cooking for people whose ideas, ethos, way of living, or sense of being conflicts with your own. You are there to compete and as a professional chef, it's not up to you to decide that you shouldn't be cooking for certain people or because of certain circumstances. Top Chef has featured wedding-themed challenges in the past and this season is set in Las Vegas, so it was only a matter of time before something of this nature came up. I can understand Ashley's frustrations about the larger political/social issue but this wasn't the forum for that and it wasn't the intention of the series' producers to make anyone uncomfortable or angry.

(Getting off my soapbox now.)

I have to say that, with the very notable exception of Jennifer Carroll once again (who turned out a gorgeous octopus ceviche with citrus vinaigrette, chives, and smoked salt, fennel, and mint) and Laurine (who offered up a beautifully cooked lamb chop with a pomegranate and pine nut relish), I was pretty disappointed with the performance of the women's team. They did try to play it safe by offering up "familiar" foods to the bachelor's guests rather than make the guests happy and wow the judges, something that the men's team pulled off almost flawlessly.

The men's team rocked the poolside party, managing to pair well with the individual shots and offer up something creative and imaginative. In other words: something cheffy and appropriate. Michael V. completely transformed the golden delicious shot into something inventive and appetizing, delivering an apple sorbet and goat cheese cookie that transformed the sickly sweetness of the shot into something subtle and remarkable. Hector took the blandness of tofu and invigorated it with flavor, offering a tofu, lemon-lime tequila ceviche and guajillo-achiote tortilla that was intensely flavored and memorable. Likewise, Eli conjured up a unique Thai tuna tartare with puffed wild rice, coconut milk, and ginger that removed from memory every bland, underseasoned tuna tartare that came before.

But it was Bryan's dish, a whimsical sweet-and-sour macaroon filled with guacamole, corn nuts, and corn puree that really was the stand-out dish of the evening for me. It was so unexpected, so utterly distinctive and original that I was blown away by its elegance and complexity. It was after all, a play on chips and guacamole with margaritas but Bryan so magically infused it with an aura of mystery and lyrical playfulness that it was a sight to behold. No surprise then that he walked away with the win for the Elimination Challenge. Could there be two brothers left standing in the final rounds? This week proved that there very well might be...

It was no surprise who ended up in the bottom four this week for their lackluster dishes. Eve's Gulf shrimp and avocado ceviche with smokey tomato salsa, creme fraiche, and popcorn was a muddled mess of conflicting flavors and underdeveloped seasoning. Ashley could have cooked just one incredible dish (watermelon carpaccio with ricotta salata and aged balsamic) but instead bizarrely opted to cook two, creating a bay leaf and vanilla panna cotta with cranberry powder and honey as a dessert, which failed to hit its mark entirely. (It was bitter, wrinkly, and lacked the right consistency.)
The judges berated Preeti for the inelegance and lack of adroitness of her dish, coriander and sesame-crusted tuna with spicy eggplant, shiso leaf, and wonton crisp which seemed sad and out of place among the complexity and skill of many of the other dishes. And finally Jessie was reduced to tears when the judges critiqued her Thai chicken lettuce cup with shiitake mushrooms, shiso, and ginger beer, a muddle of ingredients and ideas that failed to be executed properly.

Fortunately, it was the grating Eve who was told to pack her knives and go. I'm glad that she's gotten the boot early; personally, I would have sent her home last week. Even putting aside her voice, Eve hasn't proven in the two installments so far that she can actually pull off a dish. And, let's be honest, the stakes are far too high to keep someone in this competition who is clearly out of her element.

Who do you think should have won? And who should have gotten cut from the pack? Discuss.

Next week on a special extended episode of Top Chef: Las Vegas ("Thunderbirds"), the contestants must serve 300 pilots and crew from the USAF Air Demonstration Squadron with the same "Pride, Precision and Professionalism" on deck that the Thunderbirds show in the air. Plus, Campanile's Mark Peel stops by to guest judge.

Top Chef Preview: Crackin' The Whip

Top Chef Preview: Coming to a Boil


Bella Spruce said…
Jennifer C. is definitely one of the most talented chefs in the group but, aside from her dish, I was very underwhelmed by the women's team. So boring!

While there were a few misses on the men's team, at least they showed more daring and creativity. I would have loved a taste of Michael's apple sorbet or Bryan's macaroon. I was happy to see Bryan try something a little more unique. It seemed to pay off!
Rory said…
Glad Eve is gone. I'm not really sure how she made it on the show. Tom seemed completely flummoxed by her food, which was kind of funny.

My top picks are Kevin, Jennifer C, and the brothers. At first, I was more impressed with Michael but Bryan really surprised me with the macaroon. It sounded incredible!
Brad said…
It seems a lot easier to pick out the top contenders on Top Chef than it does on this season's Project Runway. I feel like there's still a handful of chefs that you can all but rule out. Yeah, there are some surprises (Carla came out of nowhere last season), but it looks like Kevin and Jennifer are locks for the finale. That cuts out a lot of the suspense in the competition. At least the food still looks delicious.

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