'Top Chef': A Chill in the Air
As the show opens, we're down to ten contestants. This week's guest judge is Rocco DiSpirito, he of his own culinary reality series, The Restaurant, which originally aired in 2003 and was asked to pack its knives and go after two brutal seasons. Rocco and Padma announce that the Quickfire Challenge this week will be a cooking "bee"—a quiz where the chefs are asked to identify ingredients by either sight or taste. Miss one and you're out. Get more items right than anyone else and you've won immunity. [Warning: Spoilers after the jump; click at your own risk. ]
Most of the contestants quickly go down in flames. Howie, Hung, Casey, and Brian distinguish themselves by lasting more than two rounds. Long story short: Casey beat out Brian in the sixth round. Brian ended up getting stumped by a bowl of Japanese eggplant. To his credit, it did seem like a tough vegetable to name in less than five seconds. To Casey's credit, she very quickly identified bow-tie pasta. It took her, like, two seconds, tops. All in all, it was nice to see a different kind of Quickfire. I hope the producers have more of this kind of variety in store.
On to the Elimination Challenge, which was prefaced by perhaps the most embarrassing product placements yet. In order to set up the challenge, DiSpirito was given the sad task of extolling the virtues of Bertoli's 10-Minute Frozen Pasta. Um, awkward. Yet he powered through it like a pro—a pro who recognizes that frozen foods are, as Padma informs us, a multibillion dollar industry. What an inspiration for the young chefs! It was really very touching. I think I may have cried a little just then.
The challenge itself was to create a frozen Italian meal that could go from freezer to plate in ten minutes. The chefs would team up in pairs and collaborate, with $100 to shop, two hours to cook, and one hour to get their meals out of the freezer and into 15 individual containers.
Some teams worked better than others, naturally. Tre and CJ shared the same wavelength and, knowing their personalities, each would've gotten along great with any of the chefs. As it was, they were practically telepathic in their cooperation. In the same vein, Dale and Casey were just like a two schoolgirls at the mall. They seemed to have the most fun with the challenge and, unlike the last time she had immunity on a team effort, Casey made sure she took care of business.
On the less functional side were Hung and Joey, who seemed like they were going to be a powerful nerd-meets-caveman kind of team. Unfortunately, the brainy Hung couldn't really get his point of view across to the intensely focused Joey. In the end, their tricolor fusilli and tomato sauce dish reflected badly on the partnership.
Similarly, albeit in their own imitable way, Howie and Sara (the cheesemaker) hated working together. Of course, judging by this and previous group outings, Howie doesn't seem like the best compromiser or communicator. In fact, if Howie were cloned and asked to partner with himself, it seems fairly likely that things would end in a bare-knuckle boxing match. Needless to say, Sara did what she could to stay out of Howie's way and needled him just enough to be able to honestly deflect judge Tom Colicchio's assertion that she "didn't seem to do much" on this challenge. I think she did a lot. She managed to survive three hours with Howie as her partner. It must have been the hot tub.
The morale of the story: Happy teams make happy-tasting food. Unhappy teams make crap. Tre and CJ were the only contestants who went to school on the appropriate freezing method for a meal that is meant to be prepared in a skillet in less than ten minutes. By individually freezing each ingredient, the pair produced a nicely presented, moist dish of linguine with Italian kale, black truffle, tomato confit, and grilled chicken. Most everyone else ended up with a solid brick of food that suffered from uneven heating or ingredients interacting too much in the freezer. Dale and Casey's pesto-slathered orecchiette and meatballs came in a strong second, but ultimately, it was Tre and CJ who won the challenge and the bonus prize—a trip to Italy for each of them and a guest, where they will presumably dine like Medicis on the finest frozen pasta in Europe.
On the other end of the spectrum, Hung, Joey, Howie, and Sara were soundly chastised by the judges for not working smart, working well, or delivering decent-tasting food. In the end, it was perhaps the fact that Joey and Hung couldn't give away a single bag of their food to the supermarket consumers who helped judge the competition that doomed one of them to ex-chef status. The judges faced a difficult decision between eliminating Hung, who had clearly known the appropriate way to freeze the meal, and ditching Joey, who owned up to both his lack of understanding about freezing techniques and his lack of good listening skills.
As the ax fell, it did seem like the judges made the right choice. Joey headed home, having done a lot of redeem himself from the initial impression he gave of being a complete raging asshole. He produced some good dishes, earned the acceptance of colleagues that he'd fought with, and generally went out as a likable guy. And, in a moment that was simultaneously excruciating and endearing, Joey set a new record for tears shed in an exit interview. One can only imagine the razzing that he'll endure in the kitchen this morning. Undoubtedly, he'll manage it with his head held high.