Top Chef DC: Episode 7—Ethics, Schmethics

Did anyone else think it was a tad gruesome to open tonight's episode with shots of the city's cemeteries and the Vietnam War Memorial, and have the first line out of someone's mouth be, "People in our room keep getting whacked"? No, just me? Carry on, then.

Illinois Representative Aaron Schock—the youngest member of congress—introduces and judges this week's Quickfire. He talks about the importance of ethics in government (it was very hard for me to type those last three words without guffawing) and, in particular, the limits placed on meals lobbyists are allowed to buy for members of Congress. The infamous "Toothpick Rule" means that anything a lobbyist serves in an official capacity at a party or restaurant may not be on a plate or eaten with silverware. It has to fit on a toothpick. There are a bajillion loopholes to this and other ethics rules (shocker, I know), but we'll ignore those for this challenge.

The cheftestants are given 30 minutes to create "a delicious hors d'oeuvre that packs the punch of a full dish" but fits on a toothpick. The winner will receive immunity and 20,000 smackeroos. Andrea talks about how much winning that money would mean to her, and the debt she and her husband are carrying on their restaurant.

After tasting all the dishes, Congressman Schock says he thinks Alex's pan-seared scallop with strawberries and Thai-basil essence had "too many flavors goin' on." He thinks Ed's duo of tuna looked better than it tasted, and that Kelly's seared bay scallop with watermelon lacked flavor. He loves Kevin’s grilled pork-and-mushroom kebab with sherry/bacon jus and Stephen's filet and scallop surf and turf with potato cake and bearnaise sauce.But it's Angelo's shrimp and pineapple served in an old-school cucumber cup that wins the challenge. Schock says it was "like fireworks in my mouth," and Angelo gives us an Oscar-worthy performance pretending to be surprised that he won. Congressman Schock seems pleased with himself for picking Angelo, while Kevin submits an audition for a Grumpy Old Men remake.

This week's Elimination Challenge puts the chefs in charge of downtown DC steakhouse the Palm, where they have to cook a power lunch. The Palm, according to Padma, is where deals are made and bills are brokered. I thought "deals" got "made" and "bills" got "brokered" at Eric Massa's Rowhouse of Horseplay. But sure, let's just go with the story that it happens at the Palm. Why not.

The chefs draw knives to see what protein they'll be working with, then head to Whole Foods. Back in the kitchen, Angelo and Ed rightfully bitch about having to work with four-pound lobsters. They're huge (and probably won't cook all that well), as are Alex and Stephen's salmon portions. Alex halves his portion while confessing that he has no idea what he's going to cook, and that he'll likely figure it out the next day when they get to the restaurant.  

Amanda, who says she's never cooked a porterhouse steak, removes the meat from the bone, giving her a New York strip and a filet. Kelly says that it's technically no longer a porterhouse, and the rules are to cook the protein offered on the Palm's menu. It's hard to like Kelly when she moves into her haggling-with-a-professor-over-a-grade mentality.

Back at the house, the chefs give Alex a hard time for not knowing what he's going to cook or what flavors he's gonna use. He mentions he might do something with peas and Kenny and Andrea mention that Ed is doing a pea puree. Ed and Tiffany hang out in the bedroom, planning and strategizing and boosting each others' egos. Andrea decides to Gladys Kravitz them and brings up Tiffany's fiance. Tiffany reassures us that she's "got a man," and there's nothing going on with Ed.

The next morning, Palm EVP Bruce Bozzi greets the chefs and tells them this is the first time the kitchen has been turned over to outsiders. He also tells them the winning chef will have his or her dish added to the Palm's menu, as well as have their face added to the restaurant's Wall of Fame. As they cook, Kelly bosses Amanda around — asking her to move her coolers, directing how she cooks on her station, and tells us, "Amanda needs to go home; she's not very experienced and she shouldn't be here right now."  Yeah, but she has boobs and long hair and is flirty, and that's a certain kind of experience, so duh, Kelly. Amanda forgot her salt and pepper, and Kelly refuses to share.

Colicchio arrives, lookin' fly in his blue chef's coat, and watches the chefs at work in the kitchen. While Tiffany cooks quietly in a corner spot and Angelo slices off the top of his finger, Alex seemingly swipes Ed's English-pea puree. When Ed asks him  about it, Alex says he hasn’t seen it, though earlier in the segment he was seen tasting a pea puree as if it were his own. He uses it as the base sauce in his dish and ignores everyone clearly and loudly talking about The Great Pea Puree Caper of 2010. Clearly Congressman Schock's little talk about ethics didn't resonate.

Ed's missing pea-ness forces him to regroup and incorporate asparagus into his dish. It's time for service! Tom tastes the dishes alone in the kitchen while Padma and Gail each host table of notables: From the NBC family, it's Luke Russert, Kelly O'Donnell, Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski, and Savannah Guthrie; and, they're joined by John Podesta, Bruce Bozzi, Senator Mark Warner, and Art Smith (chef/owner of Capitol Hill’s Art and Soul). Though the chefs are not being judged head to head, each protein group is served at the same time.

The power lunchers love Amanda's duo of New York steak and filet mignon with pommes Parisienne and, she says, arugula (but it's clearly mache), but think Kelly's porterhouse steak with crispy-potato/arugula salad, and roasted-shallot demi-glace is "half a cow" and more Texas than DC. Joe Scarborough likes Kelly's steak better than Amanda's, and for that I will take a day off from complaining about the decline in quality of Morning Joe.

Kelly and Art think Andrea's swordfish with a risotto-style Israeli couscous and a vanilla-bean/mustard beurre blanc is too sweet and buttery. Senator Warner isn’t loving the vanilla. On the other hand, the Senator, Savannah and Art love Tiffany's swordfish with olive/raisin tapenade, calling it "distinct," though Podesta thought it was slightly overcooked.

Mika praises the portion size of Alex's applewood-smoked salmon with black forbidden rice and English-pea puree, and Art raves about the puree. Senator Warner was disappointed by Stephen's "heavy" and "messy" pan-seared salmon with warm vegetable salad in a worcestershire vinaigrette.  

No one likes the texture of Angelo's butter-poached lobster with a jicama/arugula/Asian-pear salad and lobster froth, but Ed's butter-poached lobster ballontine with smoky eggplant caviar is a hit.

The tasters wish they'd seen some spinach alongside Kenny's peppered lamb with fig/pistachio bread pudding and vanilla/morel demi-glace, but clearly they're on crack because that dish on its own sounds spectacular. They don’t have kind words for Kevin's double-cut lamb chop, saying the meat was overcooked and had too many competing flavors.

Tom joins Padma, Gail, and Art Smith to compare notes. The only note I would like to compare is WHERE IS ERIC RIPERT?  Ahem.  Tom gives them the quick and dirty about the chefs being manic and sloppy. In the Stew Room, Stephen hosts an imp
romptu, supposedly-funny seminar about "being on the bottom." Insert your own joke here. They continue gossiping about Alex and the pea puree, and I'm getting bored.

Alex, Tiffany, and Ed are called to judges' table first and told they delivered the three best lunches. Tiffany bursts into tears because she thought she was going to be in the bottom three, but accepts the judges’ compliments. Ed compares the live lobsters to Volkswagens, and the judges tell him he did a great job. Art Smith practically tongue-bathes Alex over the pea puree, and the camera cuts to Tiffany crossing her arms and giving Alex the side-eye.  

Art announces the winner, and it's Alex. There are no hugs, handshakes, or fist bumps, and Ed and Tiffany are all, you have GOT to be effing kidding me. Meanwhile, the whole of Washington cancels its reservations at the Palm for lunch tomorrow, because no one wants to see Alex's smarmy face on the wall next to their table. Back in the Stew Room, everyone seems aghast that Alex won. Kenny is livid and for once, it's not about Angelo.

The not-so-powerful power lunches are from Kelly, Andrea, and Kevin.  Gail criticizes the overwhelming red-pepper-flake heat of Kevin's tomato concasse that hit her " like a ton of bricks." Art tells Andrea her couscous was "gloopy,” and Tom says the vanilla was "way too much." The judges tell Kelly what she already knows: her food was oversalted.

The judges feel like the chefs are getting distracted and and making junior-level mistakes. Tom says the challenge was to cook a power lunch, and that the three worst dishes made them want to take a power nap. But if anyone should be making putting-me-to-sleep jokes, it's the viewers.

Andrea is sent packing, and Kevin and Kelly double over in relief. Next week, Marcus Samuelsson and Jose Andres join the judging panel for an embassy challenge. Anybody have some No-Doz they'd like to share?

>>For more Top Chef DC coverage, click here.

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