Word of Mouth

Top Chef D.C., round eight: Rice checks

Everyone hates Alex. The viewing audience hates Alex. His fellow contestants hate Alex. Ask any food obsessive you encounter whether Alex stole Ed's pea puree, and the answer will be an unhesitating "of course" -- though no one really knows for sure.

So, perversely, I've been feeling kind of sorry for him. Sure, he's a goony, clumsy, blurty, uncertain guy, whose food is all over the place, but he's also a lower-middle-class kid from -- as far as I can tell -- an eccentric, immigrant family, and I can't help thinking there's a story there beyond his wild swings between competence and ineptness in the kitchen. Still, when he ended up among the bottom three on Top Chef this week for both the Quickfire and (with Stephen and a profoundly humiliated Ed) in the Elimination, I assumed he'd be going home for his incoherent take on Spanish cuisine.

But he was spared.

The loser was Stephen, who'd messed up his rice. There's been lots of harrumphing from the blogosphere to the effect that no serious chef should ever mess up rice. But combine the intense stress of competition with the nasty chafing dishes that were all the chefs had to work with on the second day of preparing dishes for ambassadors and dignitaries, and it's not that hard to see how it happened.

The theme was international cuisine. The Quickfire was judged by Swedish-Ethiopian Marcus Samuelsson, and the contestants were to prepare food inspired by Ethiopia. Spanish chef Jose Andres judged the Elimination, for which each chef was assigned a different country. Winner in both: Tiffany. She acquired immunity by winning the Quickfire - despite the fact that her stew, which she called goulash, had nothing to do with Ethiopia that I could see, and probably not much more to do with Hungary. This was a nice outcome, though, because Tiffany's been in the top tier a few times and never broken through; because she seems warm, solid, and comfortable in her own skin as a cook; and because her delight on winning was so infectious.

Though she won immunity, she didn't rest on her laurels, coming up with a rich chicken tamale dish. Kevin joined her in the top three, having expertly braised a chicken and put together his own curry powder mix -- despite saying beforehand he knew nothing about the cuisine. Kelly, one of our Colorado entrants, did well, too. She'd taken the Sterno limitation into account and made a beef carpaccio that was simple, classic and delicious. It looks like she's over last week's humiliations and has her feet firmly back under her.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman