Top Chef – Episode 6-3 Review

“Thunderbirds”

Ah, sweet mystery of <i>Top Chef</i>…the past 5 seasons have shown us the dishes that constitute a death sentence on the show: Dessert (except for Radhika’s bread pudding in Season 5), “burnt, brown, rubbery” eggs, plus green and or/pasta salad and of course, never do a second dish if you don’t have to, and if you can’t support your dish DO NOT serve it. Remember that I said this.

And we know Tom is sick unto death at the collaborative “I don’t know who came up with the idea for the dish” and the “s/he did this dish and I did that dish” attitude the chefs have when they lose a team challenge. And every season has a special occasion challenge (wedding, commitment, etc.), a somewhat celeb event party and a large group challenge with limited conditions and ingredient availability. These are almost givens (like the mise en place relay.

Mark Peel, a favorite of mine since <i>Top Chef Masters</i> was guest judge. Cute – “Peel” judging a Quickfire potato challenge. The chefs walked into a kitchen overrun by every conceivable variety of potato and were given 45 minutes to create an out of this world potato dish. I had to laugh along with Ash because his failed ice cream ended up as a successful chilled custard. And poor bumbling Jesse over-cayenned her sweet potato soup, almost sending Mark into paroxysms of choking. Ashley pulled together potato gnocchi – not an easy thing to do – but there was a minor crisis when Preeti mistakenly used Ashley’s pasta water to blanch asparagus.

This wasn’t a high stakes money challenge, but Jen C. took it easily with a shellfish dish incorporating potatoes as a component and also as part of the sauce. Note to Jen – seafood is not the only protein available. Trust me.

I think Mike Isabella used Jen’s immunity craftily to keep her out of the cooking for the elimination challenge. She couldn’t be sent home and she’s a well-organized, excellent chef ; Mike Isabella suggested that she be tournant for the entire group to organize what they were all doing and she was very comfortable doing that (she’s an executive chef at an Eric Ripert restaurant, duh! Of course, she’s comfortable with that role). Also, a tournant fills in wherever needed so it’s like having an extra pair of hands.

Jen has star quality: after the chefs paired up, she made a list of what each team would do and you could see the precision of her suggestions when they got to the base kitchen. She circulated and kept things going, and made sure that the limited heat resources were allocated timely and properly. I thought she was excellent.

The challenge was for them to work as paired teams as part of a unit to prepare 300+ meals for the airmen and airwomen and families at Nellis AFB. So – much like the Foo Fighter challenge, the chefs were going to be cooking under less than <i>Top Chef</i> kitchen standards. And boy, were they: no stovetops, no blenders, no Robot-Coupes, nothing but a huge kettle-like skillet and some burners with wok-sized skillets. While there were fresh proteins and some produce, there were no fresh herbs, only dried, and the remainder of the provender was canned.

And here I was, waiting to see someone use Spam creatively – but none of the teams went near it, except to goggle at it as though it were an ancient artifact.

Ashley and Ash did a chocolate bread pudding and peanut butter sauce, a dish that can sit well as long as you keep it moist, so they also served as runners to refill serving stations.

The serving stations were already set up for the chefs and Jen immediately had them set up 2 stations for their dishes, each on an opposite service side. She even told them to speed it up when they told people what was in their dishes, so that the lines would keep moving along. I say it again: she can do it all.

I thought that Kevin and Eli showed a great deal of thoughtfulness with their Southern BBQ and potato salad dish. It was homestyle cooking at its best under very difficult conditions and they served with grace and style. No wonder they were a hit and made it into the winners’ category. Mike I. and Michael V. had a wonderful dish in a pork belly bacon “taco” using lettuce as a container. Michael V. is another, like Jen, who understands how to serve large crowds quickly and keep the line moving. And they also made it into the winners.

Well, maybe. Because Michael Voltaggio won the elimination challenge (he and his brother are tied at 1 elimination win each) BUT Mike I. went from the top four to bottom three because he did a second dish.

Of course, he and Michael V. didn’t work as a real team; as Michael put it, they assessed the proteins, talked about the dish, and went about their tasks. Mike I. decided, in his almighty cockiness, to bang out a second dish, a cold salad of olive oil poached shrimp with Greek salad ingredients.

The dish could have been a winner except that the shrimp were bland and undercooked. Thus, Mike I.’s tumble down the ladder to the bottom three and he did not go gently or easily. He was angry (“Livid” was the judges’ assessment) yet admitted that he couldn’t stand behind the dish and had actually doubted whether or not to serve it. He didn’t need to make that second dish and should have worked with Michael as a team. And he realized it in the harsh light of “you could go home” reality.

Preeti and Laurine were in the bottom as well for – guess what? Yeah – PASTA SALAD. Have they learned nothing from contestants past? They used artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, broccoli and a few other vegetarian components for what could have been a bright, tasty dish. But when pasta “sits,” it gets mushy. And it was boringly bland. Sometimes I wonder what goes through chefs’ minds – they forget salt and pepper. Laurine and Preeti would not own up as to whose idea the pasta salad was but Laurine was clearly mortified by the whole thing and Tom called her on it. I guess that for them, pasta salad was a “Preeti bad choice.”

A couple of teams did basic chili and chowder dishes, but those are crowd-pleasers and they worked because they were safe. Robyn and hector had the chili which was appealing and while Ron and Jesse picked a corn/clam chowder on a 90 degree day, they managed to imbue it with flavor and appeal (yeah, Tom had a comment – it was too thick, and Gail finds cream too rich sometimes when it’s hot).

So. The tremulous deep bass chord vibrates and the three losing chefs eye the judges warily. Mike I. was defiant as he reassured them that he’d never make that kind of mistake again (I was hoping Padma would say, “darn right, because you’re packing your knives and going” but that didn’t happen). At the end of it all, Preeti was sent packing. She has lacked focus in the challenges and does not seem to have the savvy that a good cook or chef needs in order to win.

I was thrilled to see them cook for the Air Force because they did it with such love and consideration. And the airmen, airwomen and their families loved all of it – it was truly gourmet feasting for them, and their thanks brought some of the chefs to tears. To me, it was about functioning as a paired team as a subset of an overall team to serve a huge group. And their enthusiasm was great to see. The Southern style food was greatly welcomed and I will say that given the conditions of the kitchen, they all performed well. But a couple of better decisions should have been made, as we all know.

Next week is going to be exciting: a table full of master French chefs and a Quickfire challenge that is crucial: whoever loses at the Quickfire will be sent home!

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