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Gold Medals: Culinary Olympics Put the Chefs to the Ultimate Test on "Top Chef"

"Welcome back."

No truer words were ever spoken than on this week's episode of Top Chef: Las Vegas ("Culinary Olympics") in which the five remaining chefs faced their toughest challenge--a scaled down mini-version of the famed Bocuse d'Or--before getting cut down to the four chefs who would travel from Las Vegas to Napa for the season finale.

To say that anything was possible is a gross understatement. It literally came down to the wire as the judges decided which of the five was the most relatively weak. To make it this far is no small feat in and of itself, especially given the caliber of chefs this season (overall, anyway) and it was clear that the judges had quite a lot of affection for each of the remaining competitors.

Likewise, this week's installment was also a reminder of just how innately talented each of the remaining chefs is. I can't think of another season where all five remaining chefs were at the same level of skill as they are here. I don't think that the producers would have given them a Bocuse d'Or-like challenge if they didn't think the contestants were up to the challenge.

So how did they perform? Let's discuss.

First, I have to begin by saying how pleased I was that Jennifer got it together this week and was able to put aside her nerves, her exhaustion, or whatever it was that was preventing her over the last few weeks from succeeding in the competition. Her fall from grace was swift but she was able to step it up this week and get back to the Jen we all know and love, delivering confident, thoughtful, and deeply layered (quite literally this week) cuisine.

I'm not quite sure just what went wrong with Jennifer over the course of this competition but it was clear that something was distracting her from focusing on the individual challenges. Whether that was a time issue (she herself indicated last night that she's not quite as swift as the other remaining competitors) or just sheer and utter exhaustion from being put through a physical, mental, and emotional ringer, we'll likely never know.

So when Padma told Jennifer, "welcome back," and did so with a genuine smile, it was a joyful return of the Jennifer Carroll from the early days of the season. I think the taste of Jennifer's seafood ballotine pleasantly surprised Padma in the same way that it did those of us watching at home: it announced that a confident and level-headed Jennifer had returned to Top Chef and that the slips of the past few weeks had been uncharacteristic and wouldn't happen again. In other words: whew.

For their Quickfire Challenge, the chefs were tasked with creating a ballotine, a complicated preparation which essentially means layering a deboned protein inside of protein... inside of protein. (The apex of such a preparation might be the vaunted turducken, in which turkey is stuffed with a duck, which is itself stuffed with a chicken.) But with only ninety minutes, none of these chefs would be insane enough to attempt something as complex as that with the limited time they had.

Here's what they prepared:
  • Bryan: rack of lamb and Merguez sausage wrapped in caul fat with a medley of purees
  • Eli: bacon-crusted Scotch egg with a six-minute egg center
  • Jennifer: calamari steak, scallops, salmon, shiitake, and shiso with rice noodle salad
  • Kevin: cornmeal-fried fillet of catfish with scallop and shrimp
  • Michael: "poultry terrine" of chicken with turkey and bacon mousseline

Michael complained that they were never told to actually create a ballotine, but somehow the other four chefs seemed to understand the directions of the Quickfire and delivered dishes that met the brief. Michael did not; his dish was essentially exactly as he described it, a poultry terrine. Which looked beautiful and likely tasted sinfully good but it wasn't what the judges asked for. Bryan's dish looked good but I think he overdid it with the amount of purees on the plate; sometimes less is more and more is just... more.

Eli's Scotch egg looked incredible and he managed to get that six-minute egg just right; he's stuck to his guns this season and produced food that's true to himself and his down-home culinary ethos. I'm glad that he hasn't thrown that out the window to suddenly start cooking in a classical French style or something. The same holds true for Kevin. While his catfish was deemed overcooked, he wasn't defeated or deflated by the criticism and maintained that it was a matter of personal taste.

But it was Jennifer's elegant and refined seafood ballotine that won over the judges, and rightfully so. Due to the use of the calamari, unless it was perfectly cooked, it could have been a rubbery mess of a dish but Jennifer executed it perfectly and walked way with a sizable advantage in the elimination challenge, earning herself an extra half-hour of cooking time.

As for the Elimination challenge itself, I was glad to see that the producers weren't letting the final five contestants rest on their laurels, instead forcing them to compete in a pared-down version of the grueling Bocuse d'Or competition. They'd have to prepare a dish of protein paired with two exceptional accompaniments, all of which would have be served up tableside after being transported to the judges--who included The French Laundry's Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Paul Bocuse, and others--on traditional mirrored platters. And, oh, the winner would get $30,000 and an amazing opportunity, to boot.

I have to say that I was impressed overall with the concept of the dishes overall, even if the execution of the majority of them was found wanting. Granted, this was a difficult challenge of the highest order and there were a lot of moving parts to get under control and the stress of cooking for some extremely respected chefs would have added an additional layer of pressure to the proceedings as well.

So what did the individual chefs offer up? Let's take a look.
  • Bryan: parsley-crusted lamb loin, lamb shank crepinette with garlic chip, and orzo au gratin with sheep's milk cheese
  • Eli: sausage-wrapped lamb loin, carrot puree with ras-el-hanout and yogurt foam, and tomato-piquillo canape
  • Jennifer: unilaterally-cooked salmon and caviar, shrimp flan and black truffles, celery root square and shiitake
  • Kevin: poached lamb loin, sherry-glazed beet and asparagus in sunchoke cream, red chard
  • Michael: salmon with cauliflower chickpea tart and zucchini tzatziki

I was a little confused by the judge's reaction to Bryan's dish. At first, they seemed very pleased with the thought and concept behind the dish, even though some of the execution was a little shaky but they seemed to appreciate some of the technical skill he showed with the garnishes (such as that garlic chip). But later at judges' table, they suddenly seemed to be of the mind that the dish wasn't good after all. Huh? What happened in between there? I think he could have gone a little more high-end than the orzo au gratin, which was his play on mac and cheese, but I thought the crepinette looked beautiful and the dish showed cohesion and thought behind it. Bizarre.

Eli's dish, I knew, would land him at the bottom. He did a terrible job of carving that lamb tableside and the fact that he left way too much fat in the loin made it unappetizing and difficult to eat. Which is a shame as his accompaniments looked fantastic. That yogurt cream alone, with the ras-el-hanout-spiced carrot puree was one of the better accompaniments of the night. But I had a feeling that he would be the one to pack his knives and go.

Jennifer, despite having an extra half-hour, still could have done with some more time in this challenge. Her salmon wasn't very evenly portioned, so some pieces ended up being cooked perfectly, while others were overcooked. And her shrimp flan suffered from the same problem: some of the portions were executed perfectly while others weren't, resulting in quality inconsistencies from judge to judge. I do think that her platter was the best looking of the evening and she turned out a gorgeous looking plate. It was just the details that she needed to pay a little more attention to.

Kevin's dish was simple but that was the point: he let the flavors and the quality of the ingredients speak for themselves. I don't think he played it safe at all, as Gail suggested. He decided to sous-vide the lamb loins, which was something he had never done before and he managed to coax a hell of a lot of flavor out of that red chard. Kevin's always been about the ingredients and a rustic simplicity but that's hard to pull off, much less under intense pressure.

As for Michael, I'm not sure what went wrong here. Perhaps it was arrogance or overconfidence. But he delivered one of the most underwhelming dishes of the evening. Sure, it was executed well overall but that cucumber and tzatziki accompaniment was an underseasoned mess and the entire dish lacked any cohesion, despite his efforts to somehow link them with a Mediterranean theme, which sort of fell apart once you looked at the individual elements on the plate. An odd performance, to say the least, as this was really his challenge to lose, given his style of cooking and his technical abilities.

But ultimately, it was Kevin who was crowned the winner of this challenge and earned himself $30,000 along with the chance to compete with the US Bocuse d'Or team, which is a rare honor in itself. And I wasn't surprised when the judges opted to send Eli home. I will admit, however, that I got a little teary-eyed watching Eli cry and say goodbye to his fellow competitors.

Only four chefs remain going into the first part of the season finale. Happy with the Final Four we long ago predicted would ascend to the final rounds? Which chef will emerge victorious? Who will be the next fall before the last challenge? Discuss.

In two weeks on Top Chef: Las Vegas ("Season Finale, Part One"), the contestants leave Las Vegas behind to travel to Napa, where they will complete in challenges (including one aboard the Napa Wine Train) that will winnow them down from four to three before the final competition.


rockauteur said…
Gotta wonder if Robin somehow had squeaked into the final five, if they still would have had the Elimination Challenge here, since she would have been an embarrassing mess... But also gotta wonder if thats why she was sent home last week, despite Eli's dish last week being horrendous, because at least Eli wouldn't embarrass the show.

Finally the competition heats up with the four best chefs facing off for a spot in the final round. This one should be dramatic... And love all their new haircuts.
rockauteur said…
Wanted to draw attention to something... Do any od you out there ever get grossed out when Tom shakes the cheftestants hands during prep? I always think - I hope he washes his hands... and it never fails to gross me out.

In fact, in last night's episode, he even wiped his nose when he was talking to one of the brothers, before he went ahead to shake Jen's hand.

Let's hope the editors cut out him washing his hands again. Here's the photographic proof:
Cassie said…
Ha! That is hysterical (and gross). I love Tom but maybe he should refrain from shaking the contestants' hands from now on...

When Padma told Jen "welcome back" during the quickfire challenge my heart leapt. I've been cheering for Jen since the first episode and it's been awful watching her come so close to elimination these past couple of episode. I hope that after a little rest she will kick some ass in the finale!

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