Word of Mouth

Top Chef DC, round four: Oh, baby

Last night's Top Chef DC, episode 4, felt like self-parody -- too many chefs; too many flying shots of hands chopping, sauteeing, stirring; too many judgments and too many judges using truncated phrases that communicated only the most basic facts about what they were tasting -- well-seasoned, delicious, bland, undercooked; too much boasting and whining; too many sequences in which contestants stood before judges looking anxious.

The parade of dishes was so endless, and each dish was comprised of so many ingredients, that I got lost amid talk of gnudo, tapenade, squid ink, horse-radish tempura, confit pancetta (what?), roasted tomato salsa and pickled chiles, and in the end simply couldn't remember who had won what part of the challenge or what was special about his or her offering.

The Quickfire was structured around Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio's recent babies: create a dish the adults would enjoy and that could be successfully pureed into baby food. No one talked very seriously about what babies actually eat -- though on his blog, Colicchio says the idea that babies should be given only bland food is false; they can enjoy well-seasoned dishes. This might be true for his little top-chef-in-the-making, but I know my grandson would gag on the curry, lobster stock, ginger, licorice oil and bloody duck breast we saw being prepared, and his opinion of mushrooms has been definitively written in upchuck.

But then, no babies were invited to the judging. Colicchio chose Tamesha's vegetable chowder with grilled salmon and licorice oil as his favorite, and Padma singled out Kenny Gilbert's panang curry chicken with mushrooms and a mango-carrot salad. Or it may have been a mushroom-mango-carrot salad. You really couldn't tell as the descriptions flashed past.

A couple of character-revealing comments from the contestants about the $10,000 award that came with the Quickfire: Before the judging, Arnold said that if he won he'd donate the money to a Thai orphanage; if the bonus had fallen to Alex, it would have gone for a hooker and an eight-ball. I'd pegged Alex for a discombobulated goof. Turns out he's a sleaze as well.

The Elimination was a tri-parter. The challenge was to cook a breakfast, lunch and dinner for the Hilton Hotel chain -- the promo-ing throughout the hour was relentless -- and Beth Scott, the chain's restaurant concept woman, was on hand to join the judging panel and keep an eye out for "easily executable" dishes. The chefs got into teams of two. Those who served the best breakfasts would be safe from elimination and could retire from the fray; the same went for the chefs who created the best lunch.

The three teams that lost these contests would go on to prepare dinners, and both members of one of these teams would be sent home. Hence the endless parade of dishes and judgments. Joining Scott, Colicchio, Padma and Eric Ripert on the panel were three past contenders who didn't really add much -- Spike Mendelsohn, Bryan Voltaggio, Mike Isabella -- and the very charming Washington restaurateur Nora Pouillon.

Though she was deeply frustrated at not having avoided this all-or-nothing part of the contest, Vail's Kelly Liken worked beautifully with Andrea, and their short rib dish won them the challenge and also trips to Italy and Spain. The other results were depressing. Two of the season's best contestants landed at the bottom: Telluride's Kenny, who'd won the babyfood Quickfire, stood beside Kevin looking deeply glum.

And then there was quirky little Arnold, last week's Elimination winner. His teammate was Lynne, perhaps the most unlikeable member of the group. We had seen them bickering in the kitchen earlier: Arnold most emphatically wanted to start cooking his hand-made squid ink pasta; Lynne was adamant that fresh-made pasta took only a minute. She was sulky, passive, aggressive and a good bit older than Arnold, and he'd have had to physically wrestle with her to get that damn pasta in the pot. The judges found the dish delicious -- as they did all three dinner dishes. But the undercooked pasta got Lynne and Arnold sent home.

Arnold is a serious talent. His food, as far as I can tell, is bright and original. Losing him takes a lot of the spark out of the show. But that's not how Lynne saw it. "Letting the younger chef take the lead," she commented sullenly on her way out, "that was my mistake."

Read last week's review here.

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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