When you think “fabulous entrée,” do the words “Uncle Ben’s microwaveable rice” come to mind? They do for Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi, apparently. This week’s episode starts off with a healthy dose of improbability when she asks the contestants to create a delicious entrée in 15 minutes, with a helping hand from Uncle Ben’s.
In less time than it takes to microwave a bag of prepackaged rice, Padma sets out to judge an array of hastily assembled dishes, with guest judge Art Smith. Who is Art Smith? He was a 2002 James Beard Award winner for Best Cookbook, he won the James Beard Humanitarian of the Year award in 2007, and he used to be Oprah’s personal chef. (Thanks, Google!) He also looks like a gentle, kind man who would be shocked by the constant stream of foul language that emerges from the contestants’ mouths. We fervently hope he stays away from Dale.
We know Stephanie’s seafood pancakes will be at the bottom of the challenge because she admits she didn’t taste her food. She’s joined there by Mark—whose turkey is so dry Padma thinks it’s chicken—and Lisa, whose Southwestern shrimp dish is deemed unoriginal. Meanwhile, Antonia’s steak-rice-and-salad concoction wins her immunity and she flashes that smug cat smile again.
The Elimination Challenge is inspired by Art Smith’s charity, Common Threads, which Padma explains is “dedicated to bringing families back to the table to eat together.” The chefs will make a simple nutritious meal for a family of four, with a budget of $10. Considering that they’ll be shopping at Whole Foods (not to mention the current rice shortage), they may want to tuck some of that Uncle Ben’s under their chefs’ jackets.
After some obligatory milling around the Whole Foods aisles, the chefs are poised to start slicing when suddenly Padma announces that they’ll have a little extra help in the kitchen. Enter a merry little band of sous chefs, a group of kids from the Common Threads program. The chefs’ faces fall—who are they expecting, Eric Ripert?—but for the first time in Top Chef history, they swallow their disappointment and complaints. In fact, after a few awkward moments—such as when Spike’s kid helper cuts himself with a peeler—everyone seems to develop a friendly rapport. Richard is most inspired, saying: “After this experience, I want to go home and I wanna make some babies.” America cringes.
Judge Tom Colicchio drops by the kitchen for some friendly chit-chat, charming the kids (Tom: “What do you like about cooking?” Kid: “Eating!”) and generally scaring the bejesus out of the chefs, particularly Mark. He stays in the kitchen for the judging—cue shot of Tom shoveling in food like a truck driver—while Padma, Gail, and Art taste the dishes with other kids in the dining room.
Nikki’s hardscrabble chicken—inspired by her single-parent childhood, which she mentions not once but twice—and Andrew’s chicken paillard with fennel salad are favorites with the judges. (Side note: Andrew also reveals that he used to weigh 200 pounds, which makes us more sympathetic toward his current spastic energy. Until, that is, he announces he has a “culinary boner.”) But it’s single mom Antonia who wins yet again with her savory stir-fry of whole-wheat noodles with bok choy, chicken, edamame, and cilantro. Honestly, it sounds like something we’d whip up when we don’t feel like cooking, but Gail does sound quite patronizing when she declares, “This was real life for her. Not really a stretch.”
Meanwhile, Stephanie announces that she has overcooked her couscous and we know she’ll be on the bottom with her chicken with peanut butter and tomatoes, a dish that Padma says she “detested,” and for once we have to agree with her. Joining her is luckless Mark, who seemed to forget he was cooking for kids, making a vegetable curry. And there’s grumpy Lisa, with her bland quinoa-crusted chicken, beans, and edamame.
Stephanie stiffens her upper lip and takes her criticism gracefully. Lisa—surprise, surprise—does not, choosing instead to argue with the judges, as if that’s going to change their minds. Mark turns surprisingly whiny—or, given his Antipodean accent, whingey—saying, “I think Tom doesn’t like me.” Perhaps his instincts are right. His curry is deemed too sweet, with Tom declaring it “a very sloppy plate of food.” He packs his knives and departs. We’ll miss the didjeridoo.