'Top Chef': Made in Manhattan

Top Chef in NYC

After last week's airport challenge, the remaining five chefs—Brian, Hung, Dale, Sara M., and Casey—spend a morning strolling around Manhattan, soaking up the atmosphere, and eating a few kabobs from a street vendor. The stage is set for four of them to graduate to the Season Three finale in Apsen, while one unlucky cook will wash out a single episode short.

The lead-in to the Quickfire Challenge offers some truly inspiring shots of Le Cirque's facade and dining room. Here we are introduced to the legendary restaurant's owner, Sirio Maccioni, who presents the chefs with a special dish—a fillet of halibut wrapped in a thin layer of potato on a bed of leeks and mushrooms. We're told this is a staple dish of the restaurant, but not on the menu, only for VIP diners. As the contestants are finishing their meal, they're told that their challenge is to duplicate this dish in 25 minutes in the Le Cirque kitchen. [Warning: Spoilers ahead.]

Hung is up first. Despite the glares of the actual Le Cirque cooks, who were clearly instructed to take a "tough love" approach to the interlopers in their kitchen, he successfully duplicates the dish, meeting with a genuine "Bravo!" from Maccioni. Since this challenge is being run one chef at a time, Hung gets to return to the waiting area and trumpet his success to the other contestants. Dale, naturally, tries to get Hung to share the secrets, since he believes that they're all one big happy Top Chef team. Hung, to no one's surprise, politely declines to delineate his techniques. Each chef, in turn, takes their time in the Le Cirque kitchen and presents Maccioni and Padma with the fruits of their labor. Despite some rough patches ("How do you work a mandolin again?"), most of the chefs manage to tame this very difficult Quickfire. All except Sara, who meekly neglects to ask for a saute pan until it's much too late to complete her dish. Her great accomplishment, in my book, was to avoid bursting into tears as she served the owner of Le Cirque a hunk of semi-cooked sea bass.

Needless to say, Sara got the nod as the Quickfire failure. Then Maccioni tells Casey he wanted her to win because she's attractive, but he ultimately gives the prize to Hung. Sure, it was sexist, but in a cute way. Older Italian men are so charming, especially if they're wearing expensive suits.

On to the Elimination challenge, where Hung will have an extra half hour of cooking time, as a reward for winning the Le Cirque competition. This time, the competitors are brought to the kitchens of the French Culinary Institute—"New York's finest cooking school"—and told that they next to create a sublime dish using whole chicken, russet potatoes, and yellow onion.

Hung uses his extra half hour to slow-cook the chicken, sous vide, in a vacuum-sealed bag. He also creates a fried chip of chicken skin and a puffed up side dish of potatoes dauphinoise. Not sure where the onions ended up, but maybe it was in the salad the rounded out the plate.

Dale decided to go "balls out" because he's a "big, gay chef" who will "outcook your ass." He certainly is the master of the sound-bite if not the food-bite, and he chooses to get all fancy and present a "duet" of chicken dishes.

Most of the other chefs decide to keep it simple. Casey makes a two-hour version of coq au vin. Sara whips up some Jamaican chicken fricasee. Brian goes for a shepherd's pie sort of deal, using some sausage he picked up at the famers' market in Union Square. It's a bold choice, considering that the pie is topped with a bilious green layer of whipped potatoes and leeks. Despite the odd presentation, Brian is certain that his "bright, light, extreme, heavy, peasant expensive gourmet meal" will meet with the judges' approval. Whereas Hung describes the dish as "a pile of mess." I guess they'll have to agree to disagree.

After Tom Colicchio takes his inquisitor's stroll through the kitchen, he introduces the chefs to the diners they'll be serving—the deans of the Institute. It's a murderer's row of classic cuisine, including Andre Soltner, Jacques Torres, Cesare Casella, Nils Noren, Alain Sailhac, and Dorothy Hamilton, the founder of the school.

The meal goes well, with each chef introducing their creation to the assembled panel. The major hiccups were Dale forgetting to sauce his chicken duet, which fell on less than appreciative palettes, and Sara misjudging the doneness of her chicken, alternatively criticized for being both over- and under-done. Oops.

Not a single word of critique fell on Brian's "pile of mess" pie. In fact, Colicchio, one of Brian's staunchest skeptics singled that dish out for high praise. Hung's potatoes didn't go over as a perfect example of the classic recipe, but that criticism seemed like the judges were trying to find a crack in the diminutive chef's armor. And in that same vein, Colicchio and Soltner spent a decent amount of lip service to the idea that Casey's dish couldn't be called coq au vin, due mostly to the time involved and the age of the bird. It seemed a niggling detail about a dish that everyone thoroughly enjoyed.

In the end, it was Casey and Hung, neck and neck at the finish line, a situation that will undoubted continue into the finale. Those two are clearly the chefs to beat, yet it would be hard to handicap a favorite between the pair. In this exercise, Hung won out and got the win. Was it that extra half hour? Was it Casey's short-handed description of her dish as coq au vin? We may never know. In any case, Hung seems to have found his groove at just the right time. His results are finally in sync with his swagger and it's hard to argue with the choices he's making and the technique that he wields in the kitchen.

As for the walk of shame, the decision came down to Dale and Sara. All the judges agreed that Dale's dish suffered from a surplus of ambition, while Sara's was simply executed badly. The deliberations seemed to center on which was the greater sin—overreaching or underperforming.

To Dale's credit, he admitted that his duet was a flawed concept. On the flip side, Sara refused to believe that she'd served unevenly cooked chicken, insisting that she'd personally inspected every dish. Her exact words, back in the kitchen: "That chicken was not [bleeping] raw!"

At the end of the day, it was decided that undercooked chicken is the unforgivable offense, and Sara was bid farwell. Here's hoping that she someday she gets a shot at redemption, preferably on a reality show about cheesemaking. Top Cheese, anyone?

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