Top Chef D.C., round three: No picnic

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I hate it when Tom Colicchio gets sententious, as he did facing the losing four contestants on last night's third episode of Top Chef D.C.. Stephen, Tim, Kevin and Tracey stood in front of him, shaken and close to tears, waiting to see who'd get sent home. "Your challenge was to create the all-American picnic," Colicchio intoned. "Unfortunately, none of you created history today with your food."

A pause, but he wasn't done.

"It wasn't a good day for American chefs."

None of you created history? Their crimes were Tim's pork two ways, accompanied by tasteless sides; Stephen's overcooked bass wrapped in under-crisped bacon; Kevin's unimaginative stab at Puerto Rican food; and Tracey's meat patties, with whole fennel seeds that she should have crushed, and which Tom proclaimed "almost insulting to Italians and Italianness, me being one."

It was Tracey who got sent home. She'd been in trouble through the entire event: loud, obnoxious and off-kilter. We saw her ramming raw meat through a grinder for her patties -- which she'd intended as sausages but didn't have time to encase. We watched her getting in other people's way, indulging in a repetitive sort of talk-chant as she worked: I love me. Look at me go. Put your back into it. Look at me go. Somehow she psyched herself into despair. But she left with grace. "They were pretty harsh," she told the other contestants, "but it's fair. I deserved to go home."

The evening's surprises came from Arnold, Angelo and Amanda. An attractive woman who often seems to trade on her looks, Amanda, too, was on the edge of control, self-centered, hyper-competitive, fighting shrilly with Alex over an oven -- though when she talked briefly about the struggle with drugs she'd overcome, you felt some sympathy for her. And, unexpectedly, she turned up in the top four for her spare ribs, grilled asparagus and smoked bacon, Meyer lemon and hazelnut vinaigrette. Arrogant Angelo, who'd previously dissed Amanda as someone who could never compete with him, had a moment of humility. He tasted the ribs before the judging and pronounced them really good, better than his own Vietnamese-style beef.

I'd been suspecting that Arnold was a way better cook than his standings in the previous challenges indicated, and I like watching him because he's funny, self-deprecating and bitchy. He was thrown by the grill-something-for-a-picnic challenge, had never grilled, didn't even know how to set up and light his. So he watched ultra-competent Kenny intently, and copied what he saw. "His flame goes poof, and my flame goes poof," he said. It worked because his sesame lamb kofta grilled on a lemon grass skewer, sided by tabouli salad and gazpacho. won him the elimination challenge.

The guest judge this week was Jonathan Waxman, who'd seemed such a teddy bear when he competed on Top Chef Masters, but who turned out to be as sour and kvetchy as Colicchio was self-righteous. Along with Arnold and Amanda, Angelo made it to the top four, and, for the first time, Ed was there. No Kenny, though earlier he'd won the evening's Quickfire Challenge.

Which was to bake a pie for judge Johnny Iuzzini, a strange young man with jet-black Elvis hair. The contestants' responses to the challenge were really odd. Super-chef Angelo said he'd never baked a pie; Arnold announced that "pies live in the clouds with unicorns"; Alex created a nauseating combination of chunky crust, white chocolate, tapioca, chevre and raspberry puree. Ed, wanting to be different, sided his banana cream with salted peanuts and a celery spuma (spuma apparently being another word for cream). Tracey didn't measure her ingredients, or thicken her filling. We heard the commonplace assertion that the skills needed for pastry differ from those regular chefs possess: Baked goods require precision and an understanding of chemistry, whereas good chefs taste, adjust, experiment as they go along. But this was pie the contestants were being asked to make -- a humble treat almost all home cooks can produce -- and pastry is often used in savory dishes too.

Kelly, our Vail chef, was praised for her dark chocolate ganache pie and raspberry coulis, a delicious though ubiquitous and perhaps too safe combination. I was puzzled by Iuzzini's comments. though. He congratulated her on her emulsion and praised its smoothness. An emulsion is usually a combination of fat (oil, butter) with a liquid like vinegar or wine. Ganache is at base a combination of chocolate and cream. You'd really have to work to make it grainy. Had she whisked in raspberry juice?

I'd like to have known more about Kenny's winning entry, too: a pie he said was inspired by bananas foster, with five spice and currants. The five spice is a great idea, but I couldn't figure out what made the pie banana foster-y, other than the presence of bananas.

But then, at this point Top Chef is only tangentially about the food.

Read last week's roundup here.

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