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'Top Chef': Spare the snark, spoil the chef

Hi all, it's Maryann leading the charge this week. Happy New Year!

I was bombarded with Top Chef teasers the other day while watching The Real Housewives of Orange County (I couldn't help it! It sucks you in!), so I already knew the two main draws of this week's show: We have a new, snarky British judge, food critic Toby Young, and TWO people go home! (Yay!)

But while it was way better than the lame-fest that was the holiday episode, I just wasn't excited. So much so that I put off blogging this recap. (Just in case you're curious, I'm Gail, according to the Top Chef judge quiz.) Why, you ask? Mary and I will dissect the show after the jump and you can see for yourself.

 

The show opens with the cheftestants in the chef house, pre-competition. Eugene still is puzzled from last week's competition -- he's the best thing since sliced bread! (What are you smoking, Eugene?) Meanwhile, Melissa talks about the pressure of "Top Chef." Around that point, Mary predicts she's going home. I bet it's Eugene.

It was more like: "How could it NOT be Eugene?" And I was thus stumped.

Quickfire Challenge

The cheftestants are greeted in the kitchen by Padma and this week's guest judge, Jean Cristophe Novelli, a lauded French chef, cooking school founder, book author and gastro-pub owner. (Phew.)

As they do the setup to the challenge, I mused how it'd be great to see them do a baking challenge. Chefs are so often afraid of doing desserts, especially baked goods, and I think it'd be great to see them do something they're unfamiliar and even scared of.

And what does their Diet Dr Pepper Quickfire Challenge turn out to be? Make a dessert. With no sugar.

AWWWWW YEAH. I think I see a lot of honey in our immediate future.

The kids hustle to make their desserts. Most dishes seem a little questionable, a few actually sound good (I liked Eugene's cute idea of a mini blini "burger" and banana lumpia "fries," complete with strawberry "ketchup"), and one -- Hosea's green figs with peaches in yogurt -- made me scrunch my face up.

I would like Eugene's better if he hadn't started the Quickfire by saying he's not good at pastry or dessert. Well, what are you good at? Oh, wait, we know. Sushi. Spare me.

Stefan has the same reaction, calling it "green vomit." Word. It didn't even sound good.

Green vomit aside, the bottom three turn out to be Ariane, for her whole wheat crepe with pears and cream (watching her pour Diet Dr Pepper in the blender meant we knew that was not going to end well); Carla, for her botched bananas with chocolate coins and baklava; and Jamie, for her napoleon of stone fruit (right). I've gotta agree especially with Jamie's dish. It was too much phyllo and not enough ... other stuff. Cream, especially. Sweeten it with honey and slather it on!

Leah lands in the top spot with her delicious-looking crepe with ricotta, strawberry and balsamic; as well as Don Johnson (aka Jeff), with his South Beach-savvy baklava spring roll with cherry and fig frozen yogurt. (Enough with the frozen desserts!)

If it could possibly be served in a parfair dish, Jeff's going to make it. He had also earlier made some snarky comment about how more than half of his desserts he makes at his restaurant are fat-free. Um, delicious?

Though Novelli is a tough cookie (ha! I slay me!) when it comes to most of the desserts, he has nothing by love for Radhika, who gets immunity for her challah bread pudding with lavender, peaches and yogurt. And this is from a girl who says she doesn't care too much for sweets. We could never be friends.

Novelli says "very innnnnnnnnteresting" to everyone. It's hard to tell whether it's good or bad, and then he skewers a lot of them shortly thereafter. Lots of eye-rolling from the chefs.

Elimination

Post-sweets, Tom announces that the cheftestants will be cooking a family-style dinner for judges, foodies and critics. And since there was nobody eliminated last week, there will be a double-elimination this go round. (Mary nearly let out a victory yell at that.) (There was no "nearly." I also pumped my fist.) And, oh, yeah, there's a new judge to take place of Gail, British food critic Toby Young. Fabio notes that this "bad-ass food critic" isn't someone to mess with.

The chefs are randomly put into two groups, and Radhika gets to choose which team to be on. She chooses the team that Stefan isn't on. 

At Whole Foods, Melissa decides on Ahi tuna fish tacos, Eugene shops for snapper for his fried snapper with daikon fettucine and tomato basil sauce. Jamie stomps all over Eugene's idea, saying it doesn't even make sense. I've gotta agree, mainly because daikon served as pasta? It's in the radish family for goodness sakes!

Jamie decides on seared sea scallops with fennel and garlic cram and shaved fennel salad. I just roll my eyes. As Fabio says, "This is Top Chef; it's not Top Scallops!"

I was waiting for that line, after seeing it in the previews last time. But it's been so long since we had a new episode that it lost a lot of its humor; I barely remember all of Jamie's previous scallop dishes.

Hosea decides on halibut wrapped in bacon, with baby roasted veggies, Radhika picks a spicy crab bisque, and Fabio settles on a sous-vide lamb with ravioli. "Meat and fresh pasta is myself," Fabio says, and then goes into another memory of his grandmother. Can I eat at her table, please?

Carla decides to take it slow in the store because "I want to be able to feel my intuition," but then hems and haws over whether to do a vegetarian dish. She decides to slap a scallop on her pea risotto to cover her bases. I don't even know if Stefan settled on his dish because I was too focused on his I Make Good Babies T-shirt. Ew.

Team A, Team B

With the first team in the kitchen, Hosea remarks that Melissa is making safe food. And Fabio realizes he's made a major mistake when he sees he undercooked his lamb. He says he was so confident that he didn't take the time to really check his lamb before he cut it. He knew it was too rare but sends it out anyway.

Is this the first major error we've seen from him? It felt like it to me. He also had some trouble with the pasta machine and lots of amusing bleeped out cursing. 

The first group of cheftestants bring out the food, and then realize that the extra foodies Tom mentioned were their other competitors. And when they return to the kitchen, the group realizes that a TV is setup in the kitchen so that they can see the judges' reactions.

Each of those last two points was rolled out very dramatically, and I fell for each one. "They're the guests! Wow! AND there's a TV?! No way!" I thought both were fairly clever.

And the knives come out.

Toby likens Radhika's soup to a weapon of mass destruction, and Hosea's halibut is outshined by the supporting cast of roasted vegetables. Fabio's dish is considered perfect, except for the lamb (he knew this, we all knew this); and Toby describes Eugene's "out of the box" dish as "the bland leading the bland."

This last point, despite the fact that it looks like this Weight Watchers recipe card from the 70s. (I think we can make use of these cards once per recap, no?)

But he leaves the worst for Melissa's tacos: "I think it tastes like cat food." Ouch.

I have to say I don't really care for Toby so far, his comments sound like they were pre-written, like he's trying too hard. Tom swears we'll love him as the season progresses, but I'm not so sure. I agree with this blogger -- I miss Anthony Bourdain. Bring him back!

I don't really get the sense that Tom loves him, either. He definitely sounds like he's constructing analogies for the page (or Web, let's be fair) and not to be said off-the-cuff in a discussion. 

Group B heads into the kitchen to prep their food, and someone remarks, "I'm glad we're in group B. We know who the focus group is."

When they return to the kitchen after service and see the TVs, Leah shouts in shock, "Did they watch us?" Uh, duh.

Group B's food has a considerably warmer reception. Stefan's roasted duck with braised cabbage and dumplings is praised to the high heavens, along with Leah's bread-crusted red mullet and with fried beans in chorizo broth. Novelli calls Ariane's skate wing with cauliflower puree, pineapple and crispy capers (right) "fabulous." (I have to admit I want some of that, too!) 

But it's not a complete love-fest. "This is a bunch of hors d'oeurves," Tom says of Don Johnson's tapas trio, and everyone pans Carla's way-too-garlicky gremolata atop her scallop and sweet pea risotto. Like Fabio, Carla knows she didn't hit a home run.

Judges' Table

Before they come back from commercial, we all agree that Melissa's going home. Mary also calls Eugene, but I'm not so sure. If you look at past meals, sure, but there's that constant argument about your body of work vs. what have you cooked for me lately.

But before we can see the losers, we have to see the winners. It comes down to Jamie, Ariane and Stefan, and honestly, I was rooting for Ariane. But apparently it IS Top Scallop, because Jamie's dish is the winner. She said earlier that she was going to do whatever it takes to win, and I guess that is scallops. (Tom says in his blog that Jamie's frequent choice of scallops may have been more about store availability at the time.)

I'm not happy, but Ariane is over the moon. And oh yeah, it doesn't even appear that they gave any prize! What's the deal, Bravo? Are times that hard?

Jamie must have gotten something that was edited out, or else we'd have seen her complain about it, surely. She waited so long for her win. (I feel so bad for you.) And no case of Diet Dr Pepper for the Quickfire winner? What's the point of sponsoring a damn Quickfire if the sponsor doesn't donate anything (with the exception of Ariane pouring a can into her blender)?

When they call out the bottom three, Padma drops all pretense that the don't know who cooked what and names Melissa, Eugene and Carla.

Carla gets to defend herself first. She says she may not wow them with pizzazz (I love the hand-motion she gives), but she wants to wow them with flavor. She picks apart her dish for them and tells them she should have mixed the gremolata in the risotto to diminish its raw flavor. Tom nods in agreement. Carla proves to be even more awesome week after week; she's so positive! And professional! And on point, even when she's messed up! Love.

Coming after Carla, all of Melissa's judging table flaws show. When the judges ask what she would have to done to change her dish, she gamely says, "I would have done something else."

She may be game, but she's also vague in defending herself and why she should be there. Again.

But Eugene is even worse. As usual, he barely recognizes that he did anything wrong. "I do risky things and think outside the box when I should do simplistic things." Uh, Eugene? Management types from the 1980s called, and they want their cliche back. No more outside the box, please.

In the end, Melissa and Eugene are kicked off, Melissa for her lack of imagination, and Eugene for a lack of skill to match his wild creativity. A chorus of yays resounded in the living room!

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