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Red Scarves and Legerdemain: The Magic of Deconstruction on "Top Chef"

It's funny how camaraderie can evaporate the minute someone feels one of their number doesn't deserve to win.

On this week's episode of Top Chef: Las Vegas ("Penn and Teller"), the chefs seemed to offer a unified front, even going so far as to honor the memory of their fallen compere Mattin by donning his trademark red scarves (just how many did he pack?) in the Top Chef kitchen. It was a touching testament to how much of an emotional impact Mattin had on the chefs (even if not in a culinary sense) but that sense of community was quickly shattered by the results of the Quickfire Challenge this week.

Now I've long felt that there have been several chefs still in the competition at this point who should have packed their knives a long time ago. Perhaps it's the fact that there seem to be four incredibly talented chefs gunning for the final four (that would be Kevin, Jennifer, and the Voltaggio brothers) but the majority of the other contestants haven't made much of a mark thus far. That said, there are some who I'm shocked to watch squeak past elimination time and time again. And clearly, the chefs feel the same way I do.

This week the chefs had to prepare a duo for their Quickfire Challenge and then serve a deconstructed classic to magicians Penn and Teller for their Elimination Challenge. Just how did the chefs do? Let's discuss.

For this week's Quickfire Challenge, the judges would be critiqued by tough-to-please Michelle Bernstein; they had an hour to create a preparation of duos that would best signify the angels and devils sitting on their individual shoulders. I was impressed that the producers gave them an hour to prepare; granted there were two dishes involved but many of these chefs have been able to pull that off in roughly 30 minutes. So I had a feeling that they wanted the chefs to really pull out all of the stops in this challenge and really wow Padma and Michelle.

Here's what they prepared:
  • Ashley: scallop crudo and scallop puttanesca
  • Ash: spicy asparagus custard with cornbread (he was unable to complete his coffee custard)
  • Bryan: frozen coconut lychee and dark chocolate mousse
  • Eli: scallop with radish and greens and scallop with risotto and butter
  • Jennifer: simple scallop with olive oil and scallop with butter sauce
  • Kevin: halibut with seasonal vegetables crushed deviled eggs and bacon
  • Laurine: chicken consomme and vegetables and chicken saltimbocca
  • Mike I.: cucumber yogurt soup and rack of lamb kabob-style over couscous
  • Michael V: rillete of salmon and sopa and confit salmon and ice cream
  • Robin: raw salad of apple and fennel and cardamom ginger crisp
  • Ron: Chilean sea bass with carrots and yucca and corn mash

Some interesting dishes there (Michelle seemed to love Jennifer's butter sauce but didn't single her out for acknowledgment) and some truly awful ones (Ash's gooey custard). But I have to say that I was stunned that Robin walked away with immunity... for making a salad and a fruit crisp. Yes, they may have been great offerings but this is Top Chef and people have been sent home for making a salad in the past.

Given that Robin's performance to date has been so terribly underwhelming, I was really hoping that this would be the week that she'd be sent packing but no dice. I, like the chefs, have to question whether her reveal that she had cancer played a role in establishing some sympathy in Michelle's mind. Whether it was done consciously or not, it was a manipulative thing to say and Robin didn't offer it up as a vague aside but rather as a specific part of the angel/devil scenario; she was also way too specific ("two kinds of lymphoma") rather than even just stating that she had cancer.

I can understand why the chefs were so perturbed by her win but Robin later added insult to injury in the Elimination when she chattered on endlessly about her dish and what she was doing and then, despite having immunity, had the nerve to ASK LAURINE FOR HELP. That to me was crossing a line that shouldn't have been crossed. If she's that oblivious to the irritation she's engendering in everyone around her, she should at least have the common sense to just do her own thing and get it done on her own as she doesn't have the threat of elimination hanging over her head. Mind-boggling, really.

Moving on... The Elimination Challenge this week was to take a classic dish--randomly selected by drawing knives--and deconstruct it. Which seemed simple enough but several of the cheftestants had difficulty understanding just what deconstruction meant in the first place. Modern chefs love to deconstruct dishes; it's the process of breaking down the overall flavors of a dish into separate elements, which when combined back together approximate the flavor of the original. Unlike classical cuisine, it's a post-modern technique and it has its adherents and its detractors. Personally, I think if done correctly, it's a mind-blowing experience that shows some real intelligence and creativity on the part of the chef and requires an exacting execution in order to pull it off properly.

Ash had shepherd's pie and offered a pan-roasted pork chop with braised leeks, glazed carrots, pea puree and a Madiera jus. I was baffled by this dish. I love shepherd's pie and I didn't feel like he approximated any of the flavors of the classic English comfort food dish in the least. Yes, he had planned to serve a potato and parsnip puree (it turned out "gummy") but I don't think that would have helped matters. His lamb was not evenly cooked, the tomato just looked unappetizing and he missed the boat completely here. Not a surprise that he landed in the bottom.

Ashley, on the other hand, has won me over in the last two episodes for some well-executed dishes. Here, she drew pot roast and created a dish of seared strip loin, potato puree, crispy shallots, and carrot foam. She understood deconstruction and nailed the flavors of pot roast while creating something innovative and beautiful on the plate. Well done.

Bryan landed pastrami reuben and created a dish of tuna pastrami, warm mayonnaise, shallots, rye, gruyere, and fried capers. Eli deconstructed sweet and sour pork and created a dish of tempura pork rillettes with broccoli puree, sweet and sour sauce, and celery salad.

Laurine tried to approximate fish and chips but her dish--poached halibut with malt sabayon, tartar sauce and tomato confit, with ginger and garlic--didn't really capture the dish at all. Plus, her fish was overcooked and the inclusion of two potato chips didn't capture the "chips" element at all. Mike's Eggs Florentine, likewise, didn't do the trick either. He offered up a braised kale roll, egg emulsion, mornay sauce, and crispy phyllo but it was completely unimpressive.

Was there anything positive said about Robin's clam and fennel flan, braised celery slaw, pancetta crisp, and crushed bacon? I don't think so. I do wonder if she would have been sent home for this ghastly dish if she didn't have immunity from the Quickfire Challenge. But it was really Ron, another underwhelming chef, whose dish was truly the worst of the week. His "deconstructed" paella was a messy, soggy, overcooked mound of food that didn't quite seem to offer the requisite deconstruction or even a well-executed paella to boot. Ron has managed to avoid elimination far too many times and I just knew that this would be the dish to send him home.

I'll admit that I was worried about Jennifer this week. Deconstruction is not her thing and when she landed meat lasagna, I was concerned as I can't imagine her really making a meat lasagna in regular circumstances, much less deconstructing one here. But once again Jennifer has blown me away with her creativity and skill, offering up a dish of flat iron steak, mascarpone bechemel, tomato sauce, and parmesan crisp that perfectly captured the essence of meat lasagna, from the richness of the beef, the acidic sweetness of the tomato and the slightly burnt quality of the melted cheese on top of a lasagna. A thing of beauty, really.

I knew that Michael Voltaggio would rock this challenge, even when he landed something as innocuous as Caesar salad. Proving that he sees every challenge as a possibility, he baked his own brioche and used some molecular gastronomy techniques with his incredible dish of chicken wing, parmesan gel, romaine leaves, dressing spherification, egg emulsion, and brioche. I was a fan of Michael's from his days at The Bazaar at the SLS here in Los Angeles and I'm curious to check him out at the Langham Dining Room to see just what other magic he has up his sleeve these days.

Drawing chicken mole negro, Kevin was concerned after last week's mole didn't land him a spot in the top but he needn't have worried at all. His dish, a baked chicken and chicken croquetta with Mexican coffee, chili flakes, and pumpkin and fig jam, was a master class in deconstruction. He understood the flavor components and utilized them in creative and intriguing ways to offer up something that was essentially chicken mole negro but broken down into separate and delicious pieces.

I had a feeling that he would walk away the ultimate winner here and I'm glad to see that he didn't disappoint. Longtime readers will remember that I called Kevin and Jennifer as the two chefs to watch this season from the first episode. And I truly believe that the two of them and the Voltaggio brothers would make the ideal final four this season. Fingers crossed...

What did you think of this week's episode? Should Ron have packed his knives or should it have been Ash? Would Robin have ended up in the bottom if she didn't have immunity? And what did you make of her admission during the Quickfire Challenge? Discuss.

Next week on Top Chef: Las Vegas ("Dinner Party"), the remaining contestants cater a dinner for the chefs in the Macy's Culinary Council, but first they must make it through the Quickfire Challenge, where Lady Luck again holds all the cards... or in this case, reels.

Top Chef Preview: Playing the Slots:

Top Chef Preview: Mike Is Not Pleased:


Bella Spruce said…
I loved the deconstruction challenge and think it was fun to see some true inspiration and innovation from many of the chefs. Kevin's chicken mole negro looked incredible and it was nice to see Michael Voltaggio use his skills in molecular gastronomy. I was a little worried about Jennifer but, as always, she came through with an amazing dish.
Danielle said…
The red scarves were hilarious. Why did Mattin have so many?

Definitely over Robin. It's time for her to go--especially as she's just annoying and distracting in the kitchen. I'm delighted, though, that Mike I. gets stuck with her as a partner next week. (The look on his face in the scenes for next week was priceless.) It will be interesting to see how he does without one of the amazing Voltaggio brothers to help him out.
rockauteur said…
With all the Mattin-inspired scarf wearing this week, kind of weird the editors painted him as wallpaper until his elimination episode last week. He barely was a factor, let alone having emotional impact, from what viewers saw.

Def was weird about Jen C, thank god she pulled through to land in the top four. As I said a few weeks ago, definitely the top four are the brothers, Jen, and Kevin, along with dark horse Ashley starting to make waves.

Thank god Ron is gone... Hopefully Robyn or Ash will fall next.
Mike C. said…
I thought Eli's comment was a little unescessary however I completely understand the frustration from everyone that dates back to the first quickfire where she got to sit out.

Couldn't agree more Jace on the final four as I have consistently agreed with you from the beginning about Mike V., Brian, Jen, and Kevin. I love the little scenes they throw in there where Mike and Brian are ribbing eachother and I hope I see them on other shows like Iron Chef to take on those guys.
Ally said…
Completely agree, re: final 4, but Ashley could squeak in there. She's a very interesting chef - I like her more and more every week.

While I am ready for Robin to go home and have been ready for a while, I still think Eli's comment was out of line. Sorry, even if Robyn played the cancer card, there is something really unsettling about being so harsh on someone who has gone through what Robyn has.

Plus, her immunity made it so Ron was FINALLY sent packing. LONG overdue.

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