The setting for this penultimate episode of Top Chef was Singapore, which ginned up the interest level quite a bit. It was fun watching the four remaining contenders picking and tasting their way through the Singapore street-food scene under the guidance of chef-author Seetoh, a calm, knowledgeable, deep-thinking mentor.
(Colorado's Kelly Liken commented that she'd read Seetoh's book, confirming my impression that she's the most cerebral of this season's contestants; the others are plenty smart, but their food knowledge is more instinctual -- and often more spontaneous and/or adventurous.)
The hustle and bustle of the market was exhilarating: I just wish we could have smelled it as well as seen it and heard it. Chefs experience the world with their hands and mouths, and this turned out to be useful for the Quickfire, when they were told to create Singapore-style street food: Instead of racing around Whole Foods, they found themselves faced with all kinds of exotic foodstuffs, with every can, box and bottle labeled in Cantonese. They had to taste out their ingredient choices.
Ed won with stir-fry noodles, lobster, black pepper sauce and gai-lan; he also received immunity -- a surprising development this late in the game. Angelo, who specializes in Asian food, looked grim.
The Elimination Challenge was to make a meal for eighty people, guests of Food and Wine's Dana Cowin, working as a team. The dishes were to be a la minute -- that is, made to order rather than in advance. Given only an hour and a half of cooking time, the chefs decided to create one dish each, though Ed was thinking of making two. And when Tom Colicchio entered the kitchen, raised his eyebrows and suggested that one offering per chef was insufficient, Ed was smug.
Everyone was jet-lagged, the heat was intense -- and the pressure not to get sent home just before the very end kept building. Angelo was shaken. Kevin had admitted during the Quickfire that he'd never used a wok before. Kelly cut herself badly, ignored the pain and bled profusely into her plastic glove.
But everyone kept going. They were chastened, low-key and uncharacteristically nice, helping each other and creating a genuine esprit de corps. Ed helped expedite the food (the waitstaff was either inexperienced or having language difficulties), but he also displayed an ugly, gloating side, sucking up to Colicchio and doing everything he could to unman Angelo -- which, in fairness, wasn't that difficult.
The judges loved every offering. They beamed. They cleaned their plates. I wish I'd been more able to imagine the tastes they were savoring, but I'm just not familiar enough with this cuisine. Kelly scored with a cool cucumber soup with bitter melon (okay, I can imagine that), along with prawns in red curry alongside an apple-guava salad; Angelo had an almost overpoweringly flavorful soup (too much like a sauce and a touch too salty, Colicchio said later) and a brilliant -- and incredibly risky -- lamb tartare. Kevin did a Southeast Asian take on clam chowder and also a kind of porridge with an egg cooked at an exact 63 degrees at the bottom of the bowl, to be broken and incorporated -- another big risk. Ed's pork was a hit, but it was his banana fritters in red chili paste that had everyone salivating. Fill up a truck with the things and pull up in Greenwich Village, Colicchio commented, and stoners would flock from miles away.
Though there wasn't a negative word spoken at the dinner table, some criticisms did surface when it came time to judge. Still, the overall quality was extremely high and the criticisms small. Ed won again. Angelo was so sure he'd be sent home and so angry with himself for failing his own standards that he began weeping even before the judges announced who would be sent home.
Alas, it was Colorado's own Kelly Liken. I've no idea what this woman is like in life, but she did come across as progressively more humble, kindly and cooperative over the course of the season -- particularly after her bete noir, Amanda, had left the show -- and she accepted her defeat with sadness and grace.
Any bets out there on who's going to win this thing?
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