The challenges on Top Chef this week had a little more to do with food, and less with gimmickry. For the Quickfire, the chefs were to create a scrumptious morsel on a toothpick because, as guest judge Aaron Schock, a very young Republican Congressman from Illinois, explained, legislators aren't allowed to accept more food than this from lobbyists -- a prohibition in money-and-corruption-saturated Washington so absurd that it boggles the mind.
Still, making what Patsy of Absolutely Fabulous used to call a "gorgeous little nibbly thing" does take talent. Angelo had planned for shrimp wrapped in slivers of pineapple but found the pineapple was too wet to serve as wrapping (why wouldn't it be? What am I missing here?) so he substituted spiced shrimp with cashew in a cucumber cup -- even though he winced while doing it, saying cucumber cups were sadly out of date. To his surprise, he won -- perhaps because of the Republican love of tradition -- and that win netted him both immunity and $20,000.
The Elimination Challenge involved creating a power lunch in the kitchen of The Palm, a steakhouse that features four-pound lobsters and slabs of porterhouse steak you could shingle a roof with, as well as celebrity caricatures on all the walls. The winning dish would be put on the menu, and the winning chef's caricature would go up on the wall.
I had actually started wondering if Vail's Kelly Liken might not be this season's Top Chef winner -- her dishes are more straightforward than some of the others, but she seems to have a deep understanding of technique and flavor -- but she stumbled badly this week, ending up in the bottom three for both the Quickfire and the Elimination and only the wispiest hair away from being sent home.
The stress is clearly getting to everyone: Angelo is less confident than before, and missing Tamesha; Stephen is getting manic and Amanda is bitchy and discombobulated. Ed is doubting himself. Kenny seems to be sulking. Andrea can't stop speculating about Tiffany's friendship with Ed, and Tiffany is still going on about Angelo's alleged Machiavellianism. Or at least the producers keep replaying those comments.
And Kelly -- well, you could see last night she'd lost her nerve. Scallops and watermelon, which she chose for her Quickfire, should be a great combination, but scallops with watermelon and watermelon vinaigrette is a little too one-note. Then came the salt dispute. Working beside Kelly in her usual disheveled and disorganized way, Amanda asked for some of her salt. No, Kelly said -- and I couldn't help remembering the scene in Seinfeld when Elaine, finding no toilet paper in her bathroom stall, asked the woman in the next stall to pass some. No, said this woman, in exactly the same tone. I might need it, she added. It was her oversalted porterhouse that almost got Kelly sent home, however--which does seem like poetic justice.
Colorado's other hope, Kenny Gilbert, stayed in the middle of the pack -- and we'd expected more, given his very impressive start. I've noticed that his dishes tend to look messy, and they often feature heavy, sweetish, throat-clogging ingredients. For the Elimination Challenge he made lamb with fig-pistachio bread pudding, fig jam and a vanilla morel demi-glace - not a whisper of green or piquancy on the plate.
Kenny wasn't the only contestant to use vanilla in a savory application: A vanilla-bean-mustard beurre blanc on her swordfish got Andrea sent home. Andrea seemed centered and grounded, and I'll miss her. Still, I'm very skeptical about the use of vanilla in meat and fish dishes, and I was happy to hear Eric Ripert suggest on his Top Chef video blog that you have to be very careful when using vanilla, and that it rarely works with seafood.
Balancing sweet and savory is a real art, but it's one that Tiffany Derry has definitely mastered, if the judges' reaction to her swordfish with olive-raisin tapenade, broccolini and bacon -- one of the top three of the Elimination challenge -- is any indicator. Ed was in the same exalted group for his poached lobster ballotine with eggplant and pea-asparagus fricassee. (I often have trouble with the vocabulary in Top Chef. Fricassee usually refers to meats.) Alex actually won with a serving of salmon on forbidden rice with a slaw of fennel, pear and red onion, and a pea puree. And that puree was the sorest point of the evening.
From the comments of guest judge Art Smith of Art and Soul restaurant, the pea puree was the dish's strongest virtue. But many of the contestants believed Alex had flat-out stolen that ingredient. Footage from the day before showed Ed deciding on puree for his lobster dish while Alex -- who'd already branded himself as a creep a couple of episodes back by boasting that if he won $10,000 he'd spend it on a hooker and an eight-ball -- dithered about how many ways there were to cook salmon, and how confusing he found this. On the final morning, we saw Ed racing round the kitchen asking everyone if they'd seen the puree he'd prepared the night before -- which had inexplicably gone missing. Cut to Alex, stirring something green in a saucepan.
None of the contestants had seen Alex make that puree. Alex's comment that he hadn't even known Ed was doing a puree was promptly disproved by a clip that showed him chatting with a couple of the other chefs as they discussed Ed's peas and what he planned to do with them. Kenny commented after the win that there was no way Alex could have made the perfect puree he served in the time he had on the day of the judging. The conclusion was obvious, and most of the blogosphere promptly jumped to it.
Except that things aren't really that clear. Like Ed, Alex had bought peas at Whole Foods the day before. On entering the kitchen on the final day, he announced, "I'm going to make a pea puree first thing. My whole plan is based around pea puree." (Though I suppose that could have been a cover.) A single shot flew by later of peas bouncing in a saucepan. Who'd put them there? Was Alex shocking them, or was Ed starting his fricassee? As for Kenny's comment: Michael Voltaggio prepares Alex's dish in a video on the Top Chef site, and the puree he demonstrates should take about twenty minutes. Easily doable with the quick-cooking salmon.
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You can't help thinking the producers at Bravo could sort this out if they really wanted to, since they have acres of cooking footage they could check. Perhaps they're really anxious to give us all someone to hate.
As for someone to root for? Not so easy. But I am starting to like Kelly quite a bit, irascible temper and all. "I tried to play the game," she said, weeping, waiting to see if she'd stay or go home. "I thought they wanted aggressive flavors." If she starts trusting her instincts again, I suspect she'll come surging back.
Read Juliet Wittman's last installment here.