Revisiting the heyday of department stores and five-and-dimes

'Top Chef': Jill, we hardly knew you

Maryann here, recapping for you live(ish) from Mary's couch. (And Mary here, in italics.) This week, we had a chance to watch the show together. Not a lot of drama from the cheftestants, but plenty of eye-rolling and scoffing from us. 

It's the morning of the second challenge. Ariane reflects with Carla on her dismal by-the-skin-of-her-teeth performance and caps it off with a bad food shot. Reality show editing is so cruel.

Meanwhile, Stefan and Fabio bathe in the gloriousness of the Euro Duo as Stefan remarks that Fabio is his biggest competition. I'll admit they're both good, but I will be actively cheering against them this season. Sure, Europe has some freaking cool food stuff going on right now, but c'mon. Team America is where it's at.

Plus, Fabio is like a caricature of himself. Ooh, that's so post-modern.

But I digress. On to the challenges.

Padma introduces this week's judge, Donatella Arpaia. I can't say I've heard of her, but it doesn't matter; Padma and our gushing contestant of the week help us out. She's owner of restaurants davidburke & donatella, Anthos and Mia Dona, and, according to Zagat, she's the "hostest with the mostest."

She also apparently is selling sauces made from San Marzano tomatoes. How creative.

One of my favorite parts of "Top Chef" is when they cut to the contestants, scuse me, cheftestants, to talk about the Judge du Jour. These guys are prepped, I swear -- the always just happen to love the chef who's judging that week. It could be Chef Boyardee and they would be like, "He's an innovator pushing the line in canned foods."

Thank you for getting the cheftestant part right. "His spaghetti-O's reinvented the wheel -- into a noodle."

The Quickfire Challenge, Padma says, is based off a food that New Yorkers love so much. Mary yelled out 5 billion foods -- bagels, pizza, lox, tricycles -- but the mystery food was revealed to be ... roll out the cart ... hot dogs.

Maryann had a good guess with cheesecake.

Hot Dogs!!

They have to compete with a hot dog made by wee Angelina, a hot dog stand proprietor from Queens. We assume she's popular; we know she's adorable and comes in wheeling a giant hot dog vendor cart, which adds to the humor/surprise level. (Side note: If you're looking for a unique Christmas gift for someone special, look no further than this puppy. Side-side note: It's not really a puppy. Click the link.)

Fabio doesn't know how to make a hot dog and opts for a panini (New Yorkers don't eat panini!), Ariane does what she does best and complains about not making sausage since '89, and Long Island Daniel goes Sinatra and says he's gonna make a dog "my way."

Baltimorean Jill of Red Maple fame decides not to make a sausage because she wants to be a smart on her time. But her dish -- a spring roll with hot dogs, soy sauce and chili sauce -- is a dud. It looks unappetizing, and Donatella calls it one of the worst ones. Everyone else made their own dogs, she says, and even with her pre-made hot dog, "you didn't do anything with it."

I want to know where they got the ingredients for this quickfire -- and what scheming crew member bought already-made hot dogs to tempt the slacking contestants. You, madam, good thinking!

Stefan is also on the low list with his "world dog," which is a surprise to me. It looked good (even though it looked like another panini), with its cheddar, horseradish, Irish tartar sauce and French bread. Actually, scratch that. Now that I write that out, I've gotta agree with the unpelasant look on Donatella's face.

Don't forget he poured a German beer to go with it, as if getting the judges drunk will help. The problem with the hot dog, panini-style, is the meat has nowhere to go. It was shoved to one side of a long french bread roll. 

In the yay pile are Fabio; Hosea, with his hot dog with bacon and roasted red pepper; and the ultimate winner, Radhika. The judges love that she embraced the Indian theme -- kabob-style dog -- but I don't. I thought she said in the first episode that she wanted to show she didn't do just Indian? Haven't seen that yet. She's too drunk on the joy of victory to think about that.

The Elimination Challenge.  The cheftestants have to serve a three-course "New American" lunch menu. And, oh yeah ... it's in Tom Colicchio's flagship restaurant, Craft. And, oh yeah, Tom's running service in the kitchen. And, OH YEAH -- the diners are all the Top Chef rejects! The cheftestants won't need seasoning in their food; the diners will be salty enough.

Jeff organizes everyone into three groups -- five each of appetizers, main courses and desserts -- just like he's a school marm and they're in kindergarten. (I thought he showed a lot of leadership there -- as well as some major cockiness. I'm torn.) They head to Whole Foods and mow down the soccer moms. Hosea looks for Dungeness crab to make a tried and true appetizer, but settles for tinned crab when he can't find it. Fabio settles on beef carpaccio: "light, refreshing, perfect."

Jill gets all starry-eyed when she finds Ostrich egg -- how does this store have Ostrich eggs but only one source for crab? -- and decides to make quiche. When back in the kitchen, she reflects on her priorities in the Quickfire. Meanwhile, Jamie's voiceover cuts into Jill's zone of wonder, and she says: "There's a difference between "playing it safe and playing it ridiculous ... and I think that one is playing it ridiculous."

That giant egg looks so incredibly unappetizing, and Fabio comes over to help Jill figure out how to open it. (Stab it with a knife. Done.) Jill's in over her head again, and is also literally shaking the ostrich egg above her head, Fabio says. It's hard to watch.

Ariane settles on a lemon meringue while doing what she does best: complain about what she doesn't do. List so far of things Ariane doesn't do: 1. Middle Eastern food. 2. Homemade hot dogs. 3. Desserts. I think I'll throw a party if she ends up doing something she knows.

Back at the house, Eugene seems to emerge as the "I'm not here to make friends" guy. (There's always one!) Well, at least according to Mary. I'm not so sure, but his line about the Euro Twins is deliciously snarky: "The flight from Europe was pretty long. I'm sure the flight back is even longer."

He also says he's not out to win this for himself, but also for his family. His backstory could get more interesting, soon. And don't forget the serious flirting between Hosea and Leah!

Day Two. Carla, wearing some questionable windbreaker pants, remarks on having to cook in Craft's kitchen, just as they'd gotten used to the competition kitchen. "The challenge is about not getting your footing," she said. Word.

In the Craft kitchen, Jamie thins her cold corn soup, and Fabio sorta bad-mouths Jamie's dish as he works on his special olives that are solid on the outside, liquid on the inside. "It's a new technique," he says. Sounds cool, but I don't know if I'd wanna eat 'em.

Over on Team Entree, Jill worries about about her time. She says her quiche will take 45 minutes in the oven, and she looks like she's arranging asparagus and greens into little quiche cups -- only to pour a GIANT OSTRICH EGG over them. Ugh.

On the dessert line, Carla frets over her apple pastry while Richard engages in a little bit of sabotage. When Ariane asks his opinion about her lemon meringue martini, he admits to the TV that it's too sweet but tells her it tastes fine. But everyone else on Team Dessert ruins his half-baked plan and tells Ariane it's too sweet.

After the critique, what does Ariane do? She lets it stay as is. Ariane, honey, you are not going to last long.

She is driving me bonkers. She has no palate! No confidence! No ideas! No cojones! And this is what makes good reality TV.

I'd go over the Top Chef rejects, but all I heard was blah, blah, blah, bitter. So on to the tasting.

I noted a few choice comments: "I would have done this differently." "Mine would have been better." "I would have done this differently." "Mine would have been better." OK, covered.

The appetizers.  Jamie's chilled sweet corn soup with chili oil and mint is the first to come out. Padma loves the bejeesus out of that mint. Hosea's cold crab with citrus vanilla dressing doesn't go off quite so well. Gail complains of a "slimy feeling" that "really turns me off." The crab's tinny taste doesn't bode well for him either.

Padma says Leah's Yukon potatoes with seared scallops is "very 80s'" (I don't know what that MEANS! It reminds her of shoulderpads and slouchy socks?) but Fabio's carpaccio is a big hit. The olive's insides are like an egg yolk! They're beautiful! "It's the perfect lunch dish!" Donatella proclaims. Melissa's grilled avacados get a chilly reception from the peanut gallery. (Along with everything else?)

I think it was Leah's presentation -- sort of disassembled in teeny bites all over the plate. This is something the cheftestants do a lot -- choose their dish, realize nothing matches, and spread the items far apart hoping the judges won't notice.

The entrees. Gail proclaims that Jill's Ostrich egg quiche with pecans tastes like glue. The other judges agree. (Mary's bf: "How does she know what glue tastes like?" Hee. Indeed.) The only real problem found in Eugene's open-faced meatloaf sandwich was bad presentation. (I thought it didn't look bad!) (I agree, and I don't eat meatloaf, being of the firm belief that meat should not come in ball or loaf format. Open-faced sandwich format, yes.) Stefan's pan-seared halibut with tortellini looks absolutely wonderful. The judges seemed to like Jeff's southwestern chicken and chorizo, but I thought it was boring, just like Alex's pork tenderloin with fresh veggies, which the judges hated.

The desserts.  Radhika's citrus avocado mousse with wontons and chocolate milk with kahlua looked pretty, but seemed icky. Well, the avocado mousse -- what were you thinking? The judges agree that she took a (bad) chance because she had immunity after the quickfire. Long Island Daniel's pound cake with raspberry coulis seemed boring to me, too, but the judges loved it.

It was ricotta pound cake. Does that make it better, Maryann?

And now we must have a moment for Ariane's lemon meringue martini with a cherry surprise at the bottom. It's a disaster. Padma almost throws up, spitting her spoonful out into her napkin!

After Ariane, it's a cake walk (get it? ha!). Richard's banana bread sandwich with bruleed bananas is a trip back to childhood for the judges, and Carla's apple tart is a home run for Padma. Despite the presentation problem with the slice of cheese (just sitting to the side, sweating like at a deli counter, Donatella says), she can't stop raving about it.

But Tom is not impressed. At all. He says the cheftestants served up "clunky regional American," bringing back New American 20 years. What IS "New American" anyway?

The question of the night! I think a trip to Craft is in order, for research purposes, of course.

The judging table. I love this season's new practice of bringing out the winners and losers at the same time. Yes, it's cruel, but it plays up the drama. It's so delicious!

The top three are Carla, Fabio and Jamie. The bottom three are Hosea, Ariane and Jill. No surprises here, though there's a little bit of a mix-up as Fabio defends his dish passionately, then says he doesn't know why he's out there. The judges reassure him that he's in the winning portion, and he makes some elaborate hand gestures, as usual.

The judges loved Jamie's corn soup -- Gail says it tasted like "pure, fresh corn" and Jamie says she wanted to "celebrate the season," which just makes me think of cornucopias for some reason. 

Carla's tart is praised again, and Tom even was OK with the slab o'cheese on the side. 

We soon learn the winner is Fabio, and he says that he surprised all the judges. He also ups the level of competition with Stefan and says they're now tied. Does Stefan feel the same way?

On the losers' side, the defenses of the dishes are weak as heck. Hosea stands behind his (who doesn't?) and doesn't acknowledge the bad decision of buying the tinned crab meat. 

Ariane, shock of all shockers, offers up some poor reasons why her meringue was too sweet, including the one she gave last week about how you "taste and taste" and then you can't taste anymore. She needs taste bud transplant surgery.

Jill has the worst defense I've ever seen, and Gail points that out once the three leave before the final decisions. She can't explain why she used the ostrich egg, other than that it basically was unique, and spends her time flubbing reasons why she chose it, until Tom points out the egg wasn't the problem -- everything else was. Ouch.

So it's no surprise when they come back in, and Baltimore's own Jill is the loser. Anyone want to go to Red Maple anytime soon? Jill says she needs to take some time to figure out which part of cooking she's best at. (I am refraining from making comments.)

One final note: We pretty much end the show with Ariane crying into Carla's shoulder, saying, "I don't deserve it." Carla gives her a hippy-dippy reply about the universe and that everything is deserved (what?), and Maryann and I have officially thrown up our hands with her.

Maryann's highlights

Best moment: It's a tie. Evil Maryann: Padma's spit-take with Ariane's dessert. Good Maryann: Carla's moment comforting Ariane post-judging table, saying, "There are no mistakes in the universe."

Worst moment: I'm starting a tradition by naming a person: Jill. From the awful-looking spring rolls to her uninspiring quiche to her lackluster defense of her dish at the judging table, Jill just slowly dug her grave. "Lamest defense of a dish" indeed. Like an optimistic parent, I'm not mad, just disappointed. I still say Ariane should have gone home first.

Who to watch: Hosea and Leah seemed a bit too huggy at the end of the episode. Something's brewing there.

Mary's highlights

Best moment: When the hot dog cart came rolling out. I love it.

Worst moment: The ostrich egg breaking up. I wanted to vomit.

Who to watch: The Foo Fighters! They're next week's guests, and the chefs have to cook them a Thanksgiving dinner. The cutaway is of Dave Grohl making a hilariously puzzled face after he takes a bite. This is gonna be good.

(Photo is courtesy of Bravo)

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