'Top Chef' Season 5, Episode 2: It's a Dog Eat Dog World

20081119-topchef-season5.jpgWhat possessed me to volunteer for Top Chef blogging duty? By 11 p.m. I am usually asleep in my comfy chair strategically located in front of the TV. Don't worry, serious eaters. I will persevere. I am your loyal and humble Serious Eats Top Chef correspondent, at least for the time being. And, by the way, I'm totally hooked. I have a Top Chef jones. In fact, I found myself really looking forward to tonight's episode, especially when I found out the first challenge involved hot dogs. I got to trot out the "dog eat dog" play on words. What else could a food writer want? Go, Eugene, Mr. Hawaiian, who started as a dishwasher, go. As for you, Stefan, the man with the Euro-centric attitude, I know you can cook, but I hope you crash and burn. Boy, I'm all riled up about this, aren't I?

On to the show, where, as Fabio put it, "It's not how many dragons you kill, it's who takes home the princess."

[Warning, spoilers ahead.]

Let me say this right off the bat: The hot dog Quickfire Challenge was misnamed. It was, in fact, a sausage challenge because only a handful of chefs in this country make their own hot dogs, as it's a complicated, time-consuming process that involves emulsification, curing, and smoking. Sausage on the other hand, specifically fresh sausage, is much easier to make. Donatella or the show's producers should have known better. But I digress.

Stefan got his comeuppance: His hot dog did sound and look truly vile. Radhika's looked and sounded good. Chicken hot dogs are a mistake because they tend to be dry. Jill was mistakenly criticized for using store-bought hot dogs, but in fact if she bought the right hot dogs—all-beef hot dogs with natural casing—she should have and probably would have been fine. Whether it was fair or not isn't the point. Jill was vulnerable after the quickfire, no doubt about that. But so is Ariane, who is so obviously in over her head.

New American Restaurant Challenge: Tom was right in the post-mortem when he said that the contestants didn't have a good understanding of what new American cuisine is. It's not about updating the classics as Jamie said.

I knew Jill was in trouble when she chose ostrich eggs as an ingredient: How can she know how they will cook up and what they will taste like if she's never laid eyes on one before? Jamie was right: Jill played it ridiculous. My man Eugene didn't stand out, but he didn't do anything to hurt himself, either.

Tom: One other twist. All the diners are New York chefs who tried out for the show and didn't make it. That made all the contestants unnecessarily nervous. They should have realized that the judges were not going to be swayed by the reactions of the diner-chefs.

Tom and all the judges were pretty disappointed overall with the level of the food prepared by the contestants. I have to say that Tom comes off as incredibly knowledgeable, straightforward, and basically encouraging. He is the person who gives Top Chef its credibility. He is why the show is respected in the chef and food communities around the country. Gail, whom I have known for years, has really grown into her role. Her comments are well thought-out and fair-minded. Padma is Padma. You can't take your eyes off her, and that's why she's there. She doesn't really add much to the discussion.

The three contestants threatened with extinction were no surprise. We knew Ariane's dish sucked before it ever left the kitchen. Hosea's dish, as Tom said, sounded plausible and credible, but when it turned out to be unseasoned and made with off-tasting crab, you knew he could have been a goner.

Poor Jill. The ostrich egg did her in, as did her judgment in general. The fact that in the judges' eyes her dish "wasn't distinguished and didn't taste good" didn't help her cause either. Hosea was probably the least likely of the three to sail off into the culinary sunset, because his food does seem to make sense. As for Ariane, I have no idea how she survived to cook another week (Jill said the same thing), considering Padma spat out her dish then pulled no punches in telling Ariane exactly what she did. I guess you could say that Ariane was saved by the ostrich egg.

If Ariane wins, I'm buying hot dogs all around.

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