Friday, March 21, 2008

Mother Nature's Recipe? Top Chef: Season 4, Episode 2

Anyone who watched Season 3 of Top Chef knows that seemingly straightforward catering challenges have a hidden agenda, and mushrooms as canapés run a high risk of drawing earned comparisons to excrement. Apparently most Season 4 contestants were too busy perfecting their opening credit poses to actually watch the show. The egregious offenses starting piling up as soon as the teams were picked; with Antonia and Stephanie choosing to ignore both their ill-fated teammate Valerie and the inconvenient fact that gorillas are vegetarians; while team Bear argued over whether to max out their budget on actual food or pretty flowers. Hmm…tough call.

It was easy to see that the Gorillas and the Bears would be battling it out for the bottom spot. Valerie’s blini must have been pretty bad for Colicchio to ignore the fact that her team’s menu was better suited to a Junior League Ladies’ Luncheon than a gorilla’s graze. The only critique of Stephanie’s crabmeat salad was that it was salted too early (according to Colicchio’s blog, this is an amateur error that even a casual cook would never make. Really?) Who here minds that crabmeat would send a primate into septic shock? Anyone? No?

Even though blinis (not the champagne cocktail! Although that probably would have been less of a disaster) were a ridiculously bad choice, I feel pretty bad for Rachel Dratch – I mean, Valerie. When the episode opened, she and Stephanie were BFFs, until Stephanie suddenly turned around and shoved her head up Antonia’s ample derriere. Valerie had serious reservations about putting meat on the menu, and it sounds like her concerns were completely dismissed. Conversely, Antonia seemed to know pretty early on that Valerie was shooting herself in the foot with her choice to serve blinis. But did she speak up? Doesn’t seem like it. It does seem like she wanted to make sure someone’s dish was worse than hers, even if that person was on her team. (But I still think she’s kind of adorable. And she has an eight-year old child! Good on her).

The biggest surprise of the week was Andrew’s winning performance. Considering how much unflattering face time he got during episodes 1 & 2, I thought he was going straight to the chopping block. (Granted, there was some wishful thinking on my part). His team Penguin took the challenge above and beyond expectations, and Andrew gave contestant Richard a run for his money with his balsamic tapioca “caviar”. Richard, for sure, thought this was his day to shine, what with fellow molecular gastronomer Wylie Dufresne as guest judge. Too bad the foam from Richard’s mouth wasn’t enough to impress - WD flicked him away like the errant stem of a eucalyptus leaf. But kudos to Richard for seasoning his quick fire dish with trace amounts of deadly, fragrant poison. He’s a serious contender, and I think he’s going to get even more serious now that he’s been snubbed by his hero in favor of a spastic, coked-out semi-hack. (Who, to be fair, completely deserved the win).

The second biggest shock was the bizarre pecorino scandal involving Dale and Nikki. I can’t believe how easily Dale got away with completely running Nikki’s (already precarious) dish. Every one of the judges cited the pecorino as the death knell of Nikki’s berry-stuffed (?!) mushrooms, but held Nikki entirely responsible for the abomination. Sure, she should have tasted her dish after the pecorino was added, but I’m not even sure she knew Dale doctored the shrooms. And of course, she never should have reintroduced the mushrooms after deciding to take them off the table. But Padma and Colicchio are pretty scary, especially when it’s feed time. You can’t really blame her for cracking under the pressure of their collective steely gaze.

So what’s next? The teaser for Episode 3 promises a shouting match between Antonia and an unidentified cast member. In an EaterLA interview, Antonia hints at a twist involving her command to “stand by your dish!” This suggests that the crisis involves someone leaving their dish physically unattended. What could it mean?

For the long term, I see Richard and the New Zealand guy taking it pretty far. It’s too early for me to make any confident predictions about the women – there don’t seem to be any standouts now. Both members of the lesbian block seem pretty solid, and I don’t think the Magical Elves will ruin the fun of having lovers compete against each other by eliminating one too early on. I think we will see more of Antonia, but I don’t know if she is in it for the long haul. Nikki doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence, but she seems like she could have some tricks up her sleeve, and it’s hard not to compare her with last season’s Sarah, who hung in there until the final four despite some serious missteps.

What we learned from Top Chef Season 4, Episode 2:

Mushrooms: They look, travel, and taste like shit. Even on their best days. Save them for a garlic-friendly ragu – but keep the pecorino away.

A la minute = Right Now. Not a la little later.

If you dish sucks, don’t serve it. Colicchio is light years more forgiving of well-intentioned omissions than shitty food.

Spike is the most insufferable Top Chef contestant in the history of Top Chef. He needs to be eliminated. A la minute!

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