Is it me, or has every episode this season opened at the chef house? This week we have the obligatory product placements, some push-ups and shoe tying, Kevin bitching about something, Alex looking creepy, Amanda spilling coffee on the garden table, and Angelo eating yogurt. Riveting footage, Magical Elves. Really and truly.
In the Top Chef kitchen, the competitors are greeted by Wylie Dufresne, chef/owner of New York’s WD-50. A row of black boxes is on each prep table. Kevin says what I thought was, "Wylie is known for using 'nortech leeks,' " and I waste 10 minutes Googling "nortech leeks" until I realize he said "newer techniques." Duh.
Tonight's Quickfire is a Mystery Box challenge. The cheftestants have 30 minutes to cook a dish using the ingredients in the box in front of them, and every chef gets the same ingredients. To make it interesting, more mystery boxes will arrive with even more ingredients they must incorporate into their dishes. Angelo looks nervous but says he's ready to roll with it, and Tiffany flat out does not like this challenge at all. Padma tells us the Quickfire winner gets $10,000, but I'm more interested in Angelo revealing he's got a a girl in Russia and needs that $10K to bring her to America. Can we have an INS Elimination Challenge?
The chefs open their boxes to reveal a whole rockfish, fava beans, and a can of hominy. Kevin gloats at Angelo's discomfort. A few minutes into the challenge, another box arrives containing squid and black garlic. A third box arrives a few minutes later with ramps and passionfruit. And, with just a few minutes to spare, a final box of jicama appears in the kitchen. Everyone's sweating.
While Wylie likes Alex's fava-bean purée, he thinks the rest of the components—rockfish, ramp fondue, and sautéed squid—didn't come together. Wylie also doesn’t think the skin was crispy on Amanda's self-titled crispy-skin bass with squid fricassée (which sounds barfy to me) and says her entire dish was too oily. On the other hand, Wylie loves Tiffany's fish stew with hominy, fava beans, saffron, and black garlic (Are you drooling? I'm drooling), and Kevin's pan-seared rockfish with hominy purée and a jicama/passionfruit salad, which also makes me salivate. Tiffany is declared the winner, and we move on to the Elimination Challenge.
This week's Elimination Challenge is CIA-themed. Blah blah blah, puns, plays on words, something about secret identities, life and death . . . and the chefs are told they must take a classic dish and give it a makeover. Tyra Banks is guest judge. No she's not. It's less a makeover, I guess, and more of a disguise. The chefs must use the same elements and ingredients of a classic dish but disguise it as something else, giving it a completely new identity.
They draw knives to determine who gets which dish. Amanda gets French onion soup, and Ed has to disguise chicken cordon bleu. Angelo is assigned beef Wellington, Kelly gets kung pao shrimp, Tiffany needs to reconfigure a gyro, Kevin chooses cobb salad, and Alex draws veal Parmesan.
CIA Director Leon Panetta is this week's celebrity guest eater, and the meal will be served at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The winner not only moves forward in the competition, but wins a trip to Paris, furnished by Hilton. Please don't beg me for a Paris Hilton joke here. I just can't. Ed mentions that his ball-and-chain has been "bugging" him to go on vacation and concedes that Paris would, indeed, be "awesome."
As the chefs shop at Whole Foods, we learn that Alex has been cooking for only six years and was previously a wedding and bar mitzvah videographer. He thinks his lack of cooking experience gives him an advantage because he's not stuck in his ways and "open to all culinary styles." Kelly reads prepared-sauce labels to figure out what the hell is in kung pao anything. Angelo buys—gasp—puff pastry. After some prep time in the Top Chef kitchen, the chefs walk into the CIA building, and Amanda says, "wW're really at the CIA!!" and I think, oh honey, this is the building everyone acknowledges publicly as the CIA, but everyone knows the real shizz goes down somewhere else. Go buy an FBI hat and have your picture taken with cardboard-Obama.
The chefs get to work, and while they all fiddle and fool and slice, Amanda laments she hasn’t disguised her onion soup enough because she disguised it as . . . soup! Kelly overcooks her rice because she forgets she isn't in Colorado and didn't un-adjust for sea level. Tiffany coaches her off the ledge and tells her to do it again on the stovetop, and even helps her plate her dish because she has some time to spare. I love seeing the two of them support each other, and in fact, I am hoping they're the top two in the finale, aren't you?
The judges walk into the building and my boo, Eric Ripert, is back! Wylie sticks around to judge the elimination challenge.
Angelo, who is feeling out of sorts, turns beef Wellington into a tartlet of beef on puff pastry. Panetta nails it right away as Wellington: "Poor disguise," he says, and then adds some other commentary that I'm pretty sure his speechwriter prepared for him in advance, and everyone obligingly laughs. The judges agree it wasn't Angelo's best work and that he took shortcuts. Kelly converts kung pao shrimp to spicy shrimp broth with rice and Szechuan shrimp tempura. The "CIA staffers" at the table think it's pad Thai, but Tom correctly nails it as kung pao shrimp and likes it, as did a talkative man called "Tim" who looks mild-mannered but could probably kill you with his thumb.
Tiffany has deconstructed her gyro and made a beautiful plate of roasted lamb with smoky eggplant, tomatoes, and pickled onions. Ripert says it's "the most elegant gyro I ever ate in my life," and the judges and guest tasters practically lick their plates clean. Kevin's cobb salad looks like, um, cobb salad. There's not much else to say other than instead of tossing a salad, he just kind of lays the ingredients in and around one another on the plate, and I'm thinking he should've made cobb-salad ice cream because that would be amazing.
After tasting Kevin's dish, Panetta has a note passed to him and excuses himself to attend to other matters. The judges pretend to look concerned, and I need to put my eyes back in my head from rolling them as hard as I am.
Amanda has turned her onion into a consommé with oxtail marmalade, caramelized onions, and what looks like a half-eaten piece of bread crust topped with grated Gruyère. You'd have to be tongueless to not know what this is. One of the CIA dudes said her marmalade was as sweet as cough syrup. She's going home, isn't she? Carol greedily rubs her hands together.
Alex's veal Parmesan looks like something on the early-bird-get-home-in-time-to-watch-Matlock-at-5 menu. It's one of the saddest-looking dishes in the history of Top Chef. Even sadder than CJ's broccoli rabe in season three. Alex has accented a weirdly shaped cut of veal with Parmesan-cheese tortelloni, tomato sauce, and tempura cheese. People are having trouble eating it, let alone even getting it close to their mouths. Wylie concedes that it was cleverly disguised, but Ripert says that, essentially, tasting like crap isn't a disguise.
Ed's chicken cordon bleu also doesn't seem very good, and it looks a hell of a lot like chicken cordon bleu to me. There's a fried ball of something, a blob of green, and some sliced ch
icken, and I'm mad at Ed because he can do better than this. But then I re-learn the important lesson of TV versus reality because Tom tells us he thinks the flavors are good, it's seasoned well, and the chicken is cooked perfectly.
The judges deliberate and call Tiffany, Kelly, and Ed to Judges' Table. Eric and Wylie both rave about Tiffany's "gyro." Eric compliments Ed's perfect execution. And our winner is? Tiffany!!! She says that she'll make the Paris trip her honeymoon, and Ed seems visibly relieved he doesn't have to take his girlfriend on vacation. Nice.
The three A's—Alex, Amanda, and Angelo—have the worst dishes of the challenge. The judges criticize Amanda for not disguising her dish. They tear into Angelo about his dry, store-bought puff pastry, sloppy execution and presentation, and overall lack of imagination. Eric levels the boom when he says, "This was the challenge where you had the most freedom to express your creativity, and we ended up with something that was . . . kind of sad." Ouch. Wylie tells Alex he was excited when he saw the plate, but that it quickly turned to disappointment because "it turned out your disguise was really poor execution." Tom tells him he's had better food at street fairs and from the freezer section at the grocery store.
While Amanda's "dishwater" (™Wylie Dufresne) French onion soup should've sent her home, it's Alex who's sent packing. Look, I'm not Team Alex in any way, but Amanda should've gotten the axe—the judges even said she failed on both criteria: disguise and great dish. In their deliberations, they said that Alex, at least, put some effort and work into what went on his plate. Ugh. There's always next week, I guess. Back in the Stew Room, Amanda is the only one who gives Alex a big old hug and is sad to see him go. I'm just glad we don't have to see that giant serving spoon in his sleeve pocket any more.
On next week's episode, the cheftestants recreate baseball-stadium food for the Washington Nationals, and someone serves raw fish. At a baseball stadium. Which I heard from someone who was at that challenge was pretty dang bad. Rick Moonen is the guest judge, and the man knows his way around a fish.
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