Top Chef DC: Episode 8—Spanish Judge, Brazilian Fail

Winner, winner chicken—well, tamale—dinner. Photograph courtesy of Bravo TV.

It’s a beautiful morning at the chef house. Kelly talks about how she screwed up in the previous challenge. Alex sports some broke-ass jeans and an Archie Bunker-looking undershirt while he lies about Ed’s pea-ness. Ed writes in a notebook, and I’m hoping against hope that he’s not channeling bygone contestant John Somerville with some sort of “Dear Diary, I really heart Tiffany. Do you think she likes me? xoxo Ed” nonsense. We learn that Tiffany is soon to be married, and while she’s happy with her life, she’s lamenting the fact that she hasn’t yet won a challenge. With that, ten bucks says she wins tonight. Right? Right.

In the kitchen, the chefs meet Marcus Samuelsson. Padma says Washington is a “Mecca for global cuisine” and that Ethiopian food dominates our city’s “food scene.” Um, okay. Then, Stephen spouts off about how “no matter where you are in DC, you see four Ethiopian restaurants.” Uh, what? Or, perhaps more accurately for this challenge: Wat?

The Quickfire Challenge is to create an Ethiopian-inspired dish, which means Angelo will do something Asian to teff or kitfo. Marcus gives the chefs some background on Ethiopian spices and cooking, and they’re off! With immunity up for grabs, they race for ingredients. Kelly mistakes Alex being tall and able to reach something she can’t as being “aggressive.” That something was a pressure cooker, and Alex doesn’t know how to attach and lock the lid on it. Kenny, Ed, and Angelo have cooked Ethiopian food professionally. Kelly’s never even tasted it. Amanda claims she has no ideas what the spices are or the “etiquette” for mixing them. Tiffany isn’t familiar at all with Ethiopian cuisine, but she forges ahead with a flavor profile she thinks will be strong.

Padma and Marcus taste the dishes. Marcus says Ethiopian food is all about bold cooking and that Kevin’s braised chicken with chickpeas and a cucumber-mint salad didn’t meet that standard. Stephen’s stew with lamb meatballs and yogurt sauce, and Alex’s beef-and-lamb stew didn’t rock his world, either. However, Marcus loved uptalker Amanda’s stewed goat on grilled injera; Angelo’s berbere-spiced doro wat with egg, mango yogurt, and mint on inerja; and, Tiffany’s improvised beef goulash. Tiffany wins the Quickfire and has immunity.

To announce the Elimination Challenge, Padma and Marcus roll out an enormous chalkboard (because Washington is the Mecca for global cuisine, not technology, apparently) with a map of the world highlighting nine countries. Each chef must create a dish inspired by the cuisine of the country they choose and will be serving “diplomats, ambassadors, and world dignitaries” (translation: embassy drivers, florists, and vaguely European-looking Georgetown residents who answered the Craigslist casting ad for this particular segment). They have to do all their work in the Top Chef kitchen, then serve it in chafing dishes.

The cheftestants draw knives to determine in which order they choose their country, then they get to work. Tom comes into the kitchen to nose around while the chefs prep their dishes. Then, they head back to the house where Kevin talks to his kids on the phone and tells us his biggest challenge is going to be staying focused and rooted. Kelly’s husband sends her a care package filled with stuffed animals and alcohol, making me wonder. Saucy girl, that Kelly.

The chefs head to the Meridian House to warm up their dishes for service. José Andrés joins Tom, Padma, Padma’s ElectraWoman and DynaGirl necklace, Gail, and Marcus as guest judge, which makes me wanna call shenanigans on the whole Eric-Ripert-as-our-new-judge in all the promos. (Did anyone else hear Padma introduce José as the owner of Minibar and "Alea"? Padma, Jaleo is pronounced Ha-laaay-o.)

The judges fawn over Kelly’s Italian beef carpaccio. No one seems to love Stephen’s Brazil-inspired coffee-marinated flank steak in chimichurri sauce, pork, black beans, and rice. I, however, guffaw that he’s chosen an Argentinean sauce for his Brazilian dish. Alex’s Spanish-themed braised veal in wine sauce with olive salad and a torta was “unfocused” and “muted.” José Andrés, Mr. Spain himself, panned it.

Ed’s Chinese tea-smoked-duck and potstickers in Szechuan jus made Marcus smile, but José thought it didn’t represent China at all. However, Random Chinese Embassy Guy #1 said it was “very authentic with very good taste.” Amanda was thrilled to choose France, but the judges weren’t thrilled to eat her boeuf bourguignon with potatoes fourchette and horseradish mousse. A French-ish woman notes “zuh beef wuss dry.” Kevin, who has never made Indian food before, rocks the house with a stewed curry chicken with cucumber/mango salad and crispy fried lentils. Not only do Padma and José like it, but the producers found a blonde woman in a red dress at the event to say she liked it, too. It wasn’t Michaele Salahi in her red sari, but a tip of the hat to the editors for making that visual connection.

Angelo’s Japanese tuna sashimi with avocado, candied wasabi, and soy infusion makes José marvel at its color and flavor. Tom likes it, too, though he wants to taste more fish. A representative from the Embassy of Austria says Angelo’s dish tastes as if it is from one of the best restaurants in Japan. Yes, you read that correctly: Austria commenting on Japan. Tiffany’s Mexican chicken tamales with queso fresco and tomatillo salsa seem to be a home run. Tom and José love it, and a representative from the Embassy of Bahamas sings its praises. Hey, at least the Bahamas are closer to Mexico than Austria is to Japan. Padma and Gail drool over Kenny’s tamarind-braised Thai-curry pork ribs, saying the flavor balance is close to perfect.

The interstitial is a total dig at Glad for not re-upping this year’s sponsorship contract, as Angelo uses an unnamed *cough*cough*Glad*cough* plastic wrap to cover the toilet so that a drunk Stephen has some major splash action at the end of a long night.

Kelly, Kevin, and Tiffany are called to Judges’ Table first because their dishes are the favorites. Gail and Tom praise Tiffany’s tamales. Tom calls Kevin’s raita “riata.” And, José says Kelly nailed the Italian tradition while bringing her own personality to the dish. José announces the winner, and it’s Tiffany. Not only does she win her first Elimination Challenge (’bout time!), she also wins a surprise $10,000 in cash, at which José incredulously says, “Wow! A $10,000 tamale!” Padma adds that the show is giving a $10,000 donation to DC Central Kitchen in Tiffany’s name. Classy move, Bravo. As a result, I decide to match that by donating 10 percent less snark to tonight’s recap.

Heading to Judges’ Table for less-than-stellar offerings are Alex, Stephen, and Ed. The judges call out Ed  Stephen for not knowing the difference between Brazil and Argentina. Jose calls Alex’s dish “a little nightmare.” But it’s Stephen we say goodbye to, as he’s sent home with an atlas. Just kidding about the atlas part.

s Restaurant Wars next week. Frank Bruni will preside.

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