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Stars, Stripes, and Pasta Salad: Separating the Wheat from the Chaff on "Top Chef"

The opening episodes of each season of Top Chef are notable for the fact that there are typically a few stand-out contenders right from the start (to wit: Jennifer Carroll, whom I interview here) and there are some, er, less than likely winners in the bunch. The first few challenges then seem clearly designed to cull some of the chefs who are wilting under the mounting pressure.

This week's episode of Top Chef: Las Vegas ("Thunderbirds") seemed planned to do just that, with several chefs stumbling over some rather large speed bumps: they'd be cooking as a single team for roughly 300 airmen and their families on an Air Force Base. But the kicker was that they didn't know what their ingredients would be in advance, nor the fact that there were not pots or burners in the military kitchen.

So who soared like an eagle and who landed with a deafening thud? Let's discuss.

There are several chefs who seem destined to bow out of this competition pretty quickly unless they can step up their game and fast. I'm still not sure how Preeti, Jessie, Laurine, and Ron have made it this far as the judges seem particularly displeased with what's being presented to them on a weekly basis so far. The Quickfire Challenge, this week judged by Campanile's Mark Peel, tested how well the chefs thought outside of the box when confronted with one of the most basic ingredients: potatoes. They had 45 minutes and choice of just about every type of potato on the planet (or, well, dozens of them anyway) to create a potato-based dish that wowed Peel.

Proving why she's the current front-runner to win this competition, Jennifer offered a dish of steamed mussels with Yukon Gold and blue potatoes and a lemongrass-potato sauce which she poured from a small accompanying pitcher. It was a gorgeous and focused dish that spoke volumes about her creative temperament, her vision, and her ability to squeeze complexity out of some seemingly innocuous flavor profiles. (And you have to admire the tenacity of a chef who uses duck fat, butter, and creme fraiche in her sauce.) A stunning dish that once again makes everyone in the competition take notice of Jennifer, especially the obnoxiously arrogant Mike I., whose skills so far have yet to match his ego.

I also thought that Ashley did a superb job with the Quickfire, creating potato gnocchi with hen of the woods mushrooms and homemade ricotta, no small feat considering the brevity of the challenge time. That Ashley pulled it off--even with Preeti blanching her vegetables in the water reserved to cook her gnocchi--was very impressive. The judges were also quite impressed with Ash's sweet potato custard with toasted pecans, which was especially amusing as he intended it to be ice cream but ran out of time during the freezing process. (Lemonade from lemons, Ash.)

I'd also give high marks to the brothers Voltaggio once again. Bryan turned out a gorgeous sunchoke and Yukon Gold vichyssoise with applewood smoked salmon caviar while Michael offered up an inventive dish of confit tuna and potato sandwich, a well-balanced dish that once again reimagined something pedestrian as something wildly creative and unexpected.

Moving onto the Elimination Challenge, then. I can't say that I was surprised that Mike I. would put Jennifer up for the role of executive chef given her Quickfire win (and subsequent immunity) as I really do believe he was thinking less about her safety from elimination and more about the fact that she could look a right fool in front of the judges if things went pear-shaped on the day. The sheer jealousy that Mike I. seems to have towards Jennifer (in just three episodes there have been no end of misogynistic comments directed at, toward, or about her from Mike) is palpable and I think he was making a calculated move to try and knock her down a peg or three. But Jennifer, who after all is a chef de cuisine in her real life, rose to the challenge and kept the team on time and under control, deftly managing the troops beneath her with the skill of a martinet.

So how did the chefs do working under some rather undesirable conditions? Pretty well overall. There were several standout dishes that wowed both the judges and the military personnel. Several chefs thought about comfort food and elevated it to a new level, resulting in some surprising combinations, flavors, and techniques that displayed their culinary skills and their ability to execute complex dishes in some pretty adverse situations.

It was no surprise that Michael V.'s braised "pork belly" with soy mustard and peanuts was a favorite and Michael walked away the winner. That he managed to pull this off using slab bacon was staggering, a true marvel of creativity and ingenuity that used what was on offer and transformed it into something beautiful and complex. The sweet spiciness of the pork belly was nicely contrasted with the crispness of the romaine heart which he used as a sort of taco shell-like conveyance. Well done. Also earning raves were Eli and Kevin's Georgia-style braised pork shoulder and potato salad, two dishes that spoke a great deal about their partnership on this challenge and their roots. It offered familiar flavors but took them to a different level, never losing sight that this was a culinary competition to both feed the troops and impress the judges. (More on that in a bit.)

I do wish that the judges had singled out Mattin and Bryan for praise; their roasted beef strip loin with mushroom demi-glace and cauliflower gratin was rather impressive given the lack of burners or pots. That they pulled off perfectly cooked beef and bechamel sauce like that should have earned them a spot at the top, which instead went to Mike I. Or did it?

In one of the very best Top Chef twists to date, Mike I. was booted from his spot at the top of the pack when the judges learned that he had absolutely nothing to do with the winning dish, which was strictly the work of Michael Voltaggio. Mike I. put his foot right in it when he described how he and Michael went their separate ways on this challenge, with Michael preparing the pork belly while he worked on his own dish, the ghastly Greek salad with cucumbers, chickpeas, olives and olive oil-poached shrimp. Underseasoned, unbalanced, and undercooked, the dish was universally reviled by the judges. The look on Gail's face when she realized that Mike had solely been responsible for this travesty made me realize that something was afoot. And I'm glad that they put Mike in his place. He's been beyond cocky throughout these three episodes but his dishes have left a lot to be desired. And he couldn't stand behind his dish at all. It was a "throwaway" dish, a salad that was there because there wasn't another one, that he seemed to throw together without much care. Poorly done, really.

But it was Laurine and Preeti who earned the judges' harshest reprobation. I personally found it staggering why the two of them would choose to make pasta salad for this challenge. Did they have a ton of ingredients to work with? Hell no, but neither did the other chefs and they still turned out fantastic and flavorful food. But to make a farfalle pasta salad with roasted red peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, broccoli, red onion, and red wine vinaigrette was just foolhardy, especially as they had FOUR HOURS of cooking time. Laurine got under my skin last week when she made a comment about the men's team's food being "contrived" while the women's team were offering food that was "more familiar." Those sentiments were echoed again this week as Laurine once again said that she wanted to make something "familiar" for the diners. There's a huge difference between something that's familiar but elevated or reinvented or something that's just woefully average. "Familiar" doesn't mean better, it just means familiar.

The pasta salad that they prepared was a dish that anyone in that hanger could have made in a half an hour. It showed no skill, no foresight, no sense that the judges would skin them alive for daring to do something so boring and bland. That Preeti was so delusional about the weakness and laziness of the dish was shocking; that Laurine claimed to have forgotten she was even in a competition was blatantly stupid. This is a culinary challenge; you have to feed the diners but even more than pleasing them is pleasing the judges who, unlike the diners, stick with you week after week.

Did they really think that airmen either returning from war or about to be deployed wanted to sit and eat pasta salad? And that to say it was a "vegetarian offering" was a cop-out of the lowest level that showed zero creativity or innovation? That Preeti would then have the temerity to compare their dish to Jesse and Ron's New England clam chowder was mind-blowing to me; I'm glad Tom threw it right back in her face.

If it were up to me, all three of them would have packed their knives. I've yet to be impressed with any of the bottom three this week but Preeti's delusions rankled me in a way that no one else has so far. There was such a disconnect between her perceptions and reality that it was shocking to see her rationalizations in the face of the judges' criticism. If only one had to go home, I'm glad it was her. She's overstayed her welcome and I think the competition will be the better for her absence.

What did you think of this week's episode? Do you agree with the judges' decision to send Preeti packing? Or would you have sent home one of the other two candidates for elimination? Discuss.

Next week on another super-sized edition of Top Chef: Las Vegas ("Vivre Las Vegas"), the remaining cheftestants are paired up and tasked with creating classical French dishes for such culinary masters as Joel Robuchon, Daniel Boulud, Hubert Keller, and Jean Joho. But first: a Quickfire Challenge featuring escargot.

Top Chef: Las Vegas Sneek Peak -- Gotta Be Really Effin' Hungry:

Top Chef: Las Vegas Sneek Peak -- Joel Robuchon in the Flesh:


Bella Spruce said…
The judge's table was fierce last night! I was thrilled that Mike I. got dragged into the bottom group after foolishly admitting that he had nothing to do with the winning dish. He is so full of himself and clearly doesn't have the skills to back up his cockiness.

I was stunned when he whined that Jennifer C. won the Quickfire because of "favoritism." What does that even mean? Mark Peel judged the Quickfire and he had never encountered Jennifer before so how could he show favoritism? Nope. Jennifer won that fair and square. Could it be that Mike I. is just a little intimidated by her talent? Absolutely!
Hannah said…
So glad that Preeti went home (even though I would have liked it if all three of them were cut from the competition).

I could't believe that she thought the other chef's dishes were no more creative, complex, or skillful than that sad, lame ass pasta salad.
Remy said…
Truth be told, I haven't watched the episode yet. But since I need some entertainment during the work day, I've read all the recaps and I'm thrilled Preeti is gone.

Right from the first episode, I pegged her, Jennifer Z, and Eve as the obvious weak links. Glad to know I've nailed three-for-three thus far. As much as Mike annoys the **** outta me, you know he's in for at least a few more episodes to amp up the drama. And considering I still don't remember who Laurine is, I'm willing to bet she'll be out fairly soon.

Great recap - thanks for being so thorough for those of us who haven't gotten to watch yet! :)
Ally said…
As usual, the editing pointed me right towards one of the bottom three. Since I'd barely noticed Laurine until this week, and she did so much talking, I knew she was doomed to the bottom. I am glad Preeti went home, cause she's been riding the bottom, but I really l wish it would have been Mikey.
Ally said…
As usual, the editing pointed me right towards one of the bottom three. Since I'd barely noticed Laurine until this week, and she did so much talking, I knew she was doomed to the bottom. I am glad Preeti went home, cause she's been riding the bottom, but I really l wish it would have been Mikey.

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