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'Top Chef' recap, 'Rebuilding New Orleans'

Phew! They did it!  They survived week one of "Top Chef," Season 11. Chef Patty was crying over the experience, which didn’t win her any points in chef Stephanie’s book -- she insisted  she’ll only cry when she is kicked off. Hmm, foreshadowing? Let’s start a tally now of how many times either chef Patty or Chef Stephanie cries. So far, the score is 1-0.Time to open the bottles of real wine (not cooking wine), pour a glass, kick back and revel in their awesomeness. Not so fast. Moments after cheftestants have come off their first experience at the Judge’s Table and they think they are off the hook, Padma walks in to surprise them with their first Quickfire Challenge. For their first QC and first shot at immunity, the chefs must cook one of Louisiana’s more beloved dishes, gumbo.  Gumbo, which is rich in history and flavor, takes a long time to cook properly, so the contestants are promised they will be given extra time for this challenge. Score! Just as the chefs' ears begin to perk up at this, Padma lets them know that they will begin cooking as soon as they get home.  Yep, it’s gonna be a gumbo-all-nighter!At the house, the 18 remaining chefs work the best they can while sharing a kitchen.  They are working in what looks like a Crockpot commercial.  I have never seen so many in place at once. Well, maybe at Costco.Well into the night, chef Michael decides that he is not happy with his gumbo and choosesa to toss it and start from scratch -- at 1:30 a.m. After his second attempt at his drunken chicken gumbo, he declares that he “nailed it!” I wonder how that will work out for him?Padma is joined by Leah Chase, a New Orleans chef, author and television personality known as the Queen of Creole Cuisine, to help taste and judge the Creole creations from the chefs.Most of the chefs decided to take a creative spin on the classic dish. From Jason’s version of pork, potatoes and beets, Shirley’s Chinese-Mexican combo and Aaron’s Asian hot & sour spin to Justin’s traditional take on the N.O. staple, chef Chase is offered up a culinary world tour of gumbo.In the end, chef Carrie’s combination of Iowan and Trinidadian flavors, despite its odd green color, was Leah’s favorite, earning chef Carrie immunity on the next challenge. Guess you didn’t nail that drunken chicken after all, Michael.To announce this week’s Elimination Challenge, the chefs are introduced to Susan Spicer, a famous “Nawlins” chef who will be their guest judge. And this week – team challenge! Team challenges are usually awesome; this is when we really see how chefs handle pressure, and egos and claws come out.Padma randomly divides the group this time around. No knife drawing yet; this is kind of like Russian Roulette for Top Chef. We learn that each team will be running a food truck. Are food trucks cliché yet? Luckily, the food from these trucks will serve the hard-working people of Habitat for Humanity, who are still working to repair the damage from Hurricane Katrina.Divided into four teams; the chefs plan their menus and the fun begins.Sadly for entertainment purposes, the Blue team, Green team and Yellow team get along great. They plan delicious-sounding menus and barely have a glitch while food shopping! The closest we get is when Whole Foods does not have a rolling pin for Carrie. Oh the humanity! But wait, her resourceful skills kick in and she buys the biggest bottle of wine they have to use as a makeshift. (See, wine really DOES solve all problems.)  Her dough, which reminds her of her first cooking experience, making cinnamon rolls from scratch with her family, is saved! Where is the "Top Chef" drama we’ve signed up for?Luckily for us, the Red team comes though. As they are throwing out dish ideas and planning menus, we immediately see that chef Bene is ignored by his teammates. Maybe more than ignored, more like invisible. He may as well have been on the Blue truck, down the street at Café du Monde or even at home. First he suggests a Po Boy. No reaction. Sloppy joe? Nada. He tries again, just louder: SLOPPY JOE! Crickets. Alright, Bene…what are you going to do about this?As the teams wrap up their dishes, we hear an excited “Hey team, make people happy!” from a cheftestant.When lunch time rolls around, the Habitat for Humanity workers start to line up for their specially created dishes. We get to hear the local volunteers sharing their stories of recovery, hard work and the determination they experience each day rebuilding their beloved city.Judges, Padma, Tom, Gail and Susan visit each truck and each construction site and enjoy a diverse range of treats.The Yellow team offersa up an empanada made with Carrie’s famous dough -- which, lo and behold, was made even better by being rolled out with that ice-0cold wine bottle! Tilapia tacos and ceviche round out their menu.The Green team serves an ahi tuna burger, crispy chickpeas and a lamb salad. (What the heck is lamb salad?)The Blue team made a salmon roll, which chef Jason wrapped way ahead of time – dude, have you not watched this show? That’s going to come back and bite you. They also present a spiced shrimp, coconut ceviche and a tuna slider.Lastly, we see dishes from the Red team – or the Troublemakers as I call them, for ignoring their team member and essentially demoting him and his dumb ideas to sous chef. Bene, Micheal, Nina and Justin showcase a cold gazpacho, lobster and crab fritter, a jerk chicken sandwich (you would make something with the word “jerk” in it, team Troublemakers) and ricotta with stone fruit and burnt honey.At this week’s Judges table, the Yellow team is on top for serving a hearty and delicious lunch and working extremely well together. The judges loved Carrie’s dough. She didn’t even need her immunity from winning the Quickfire Challenge. Chef Carrie may be the one to watch this season.The Blue team was the judge’s least favorite this week. In Bret’s dish, Tom complained, he couldn’t taste watermelon and it was far too sweet. He also threw it away after one bite, ouch.Jason is critiqued for rolling his salmon wraps ahead of time and not to order. They were soggy and the texture was off – see? Told you, buddy. Patty is again on the verge of elimination over the tomatoes on her slider. “It was nothing special” she admits, to which Tom, in true form, snaps back “If it isn’t special, don’t use it!”Nicolas’ use of poor garnish in no way impresses the judges. We can see early on this season that the smallest of details make the difference. So, who is packing their knives this week? Spoiler alert: It's Jason. A soggy wrap will get you canned every time. Words to live by. He plans to dominate Last Chance Kitchen for a chance to make it back on the show.The end of week 2 of Top Chef 11 still leaves much to be desired. We have yet to learn much about the chefs and have had very few opportunities for any tempers to get spicier than jambalaya. At least this week, we got to hear many heartwarming stories from the volunteers with Habitat for Humanity. Perhaps Chef Brian summed it up best when he said: “We might not know how to swing a hammer, but we know how to make people happy with food.”

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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