Serious Eats

'Top Chef' Season 5, Episode 10: 'Monkey Ass Filled with Fried Banana'

20081119-topchef-season5.jpgIt's Wednesday night, which means Ed and I have our DVRs ready to go and our IM windows open. We can almost see the light at the end of the Top Chef Season 5 tunnel and it's illuminated by the glow of the remaining chefs: Jamie, Stefan, Fabio, Carla, Hosea, Leah, and Jeff. Carla believes she dodged a bullet last week, and it seems that Leah and Hosea are ready to get back to cooking now that they've broken the tension with last week's kiss which Leah swears is not going to happen again. So let's get to it! It's time for the Quickfire Challenge.

[Warning, spoilers ahead.]

Quickfire Challenge: Football Squares, Top Chef Style

Padma introduces this week's guest judge, Scott Conant, chef at New York City's Scarpetta, a New York Times 3 star Italian restaurant [Note: Ed gave Scarpetta an A- when he reviewed it last June]. The Super Bowl is right around the corner, so this week's Quickfire Challenge is Football Squares, Top Chef Style. Each square across the top of the grid has a key ingredient, and down the side of the grid a food group. Before the reveal, each chef writes his name in a square of his choosing. Food groups are revealed first: vegetables, fruits, nuts and grains, seafood, meat, poultry, dairy. Fabio is none too pleased to get vegetables: "No reason to eat vegetables when there is meat and fish around." But the big reveal comes with the key ingredient, which is OAT, OAT, OAT... it's the Quaker Oats Quickfire Challenge!

Oh boy. Where's our senior oatmeal bureau chief when we need her?! The chefs are off and as usual, Jeff has more ideas than he knows what to do with. "He can't quiet the creative monkeys," says Carla. And as you can guess, what ends up on the final plates is a whole lot of Quaker-oat crusted ________. It's hard to get a good read on Conant as he tastes all the dishes, but if there's one sure thing it's that Fabio's Quaker-oat crusted eggplant is the worst of the bunch. Conant doesn't like Leah's Quaker Oat-crusted branzino and mussels with escarole and bacon (the fish is not well-cooked and clashes with the bacon), or Jeff's "very brown and heavy" Quaker-oat crusted chicken paillard, grits, and fried zucchini. Contant does like Stefan's banana mousse with Quaker oats and Quaker oat-almond petit fours, and awards Stefan his fifth straight win. There's no immunity, but Padma informs everyone Stefan will have an "useful advantage" in the next challenge.

Elimination Challenge: Top Chef Bowl

Padma sends the chefs to the stew room where there's a surprise for them—chef jerseys! It's Top Chef Bowl and time to meet the opposition: The Top Chef All-Stars: Andrew D'Ambrosi, Season 4; Josie Smith-Malave, Season 2; Andrea Beaman, Season 1; Spike Mendelsohn, Season 4; Camille Becarra, Season 3; Nikki Cascone, Season 4; Miguel Morales, Season 1. They'll be cooking head-to-head, celebrating the regional cuisine of a NFL team. Because Stefan won the Quickfire Challenge, he gets to choose the team and the chef he's cooking against. He chooses the Dallas Cowboys, cooking against Andrea from season 1. It's a strategic move—Andrea got the boot early on in season 1 and is known as the vegetarian chef. The chefs will compete at the Institute for Culinary Education in front of the students, and only have twenty minutes to cook; head-to-head losers are eligible for elimination; they have two hours of advance prep and ingredient review. The rest of the chefs choose their teams and the match-ups are announced:

Miami Dolphins: Jeff vs Josie
Greenbay Packers: Fabio vs Spike
Seattle Seahawks: Hosea vs Miguel
New York Giants: Leah vs Nikki
San Francisco 49ers: Jamie vs Camille
New Orleans Saints: Carla vs Andrew

It's prep time and Jamie is blanking, Jeff and Josie are feeling good as they both know the flavors of Miami, and Fabio is fussing: "It's not cooking, it's rushing... If they're gonna give me monkey ass filled with fried banana, I'll come up with something anyway. It's not a problem."

The next morning, the chefs arrive at the "first ever" Top Chef Bowl. The rules: Two chefs cook per round, judges' vote scores a touchdown (7 points), 5 fan tasters' vote scores a field goal (3 points). Judging today's challenge are Toby Young, Scott Conant, Tom, and Padma. Here's how it played out:

New York Giants are up first, Leah vs Nikki
Leah: New York strip with creamed corn, snap peas, arugula salad
Nikki: Chicken livers onions and goat cheese on toasted challah
Leah wins the judges' vote. Nikki gets the fans' vote.
All Stars: 3 Home: 7

Seattle Seahawks, Hosea vs Miguel
Hosea: Crispy salmon roll with ginger-blackberry sauce
Miguel: Cedar plank salmon with noodles and mushrooms
Hosea wins judges' vote and fans' vote.
All Stars: 3 Home: 17

New Orleans Saints, Carla vs Andrew
Carla: Crawfish and andouille gumbo over stone-ground grits
Andrew: Crayfish crudo with spicy lime vinaigrette
Carla wins judges' votes. Andrew wins fans' vote.
All Stars: 6 Home: 24

Dallas Cowboys, Andrea vs Stefan
Stefan: Roasted pork with coleslaw and New York steak with corn salad
Andrea: Tex-Mex chili with fried corn chips and guacamole coleslaw
Judges split (Padma and Toby vote for Andrea). Fans all vote for Andrea. Stefan gets ZERO points.
All Stars: 16 Home:24

San Francisco 49ers, Jamie vs Camille
Jamie: Crab cioppino with olives, basil, and toasted sourdough
Camille: Miso sweet potato mash with mustard crab meat and salad
Judges split (Padma and Toby for Jamie), fans' vote for Jamie.
All Stars: 16 Home: 34

Miami Dolphins, Josie vs Jeff
Josie: Warm rock shrimp ceviche w/papaya
Jeff: Rock shrimp ceviche with sangria sorbet
Josie wins judges' vote and fans' vote.
All Stars: 26 Home: 34

Greenbay Packers, Fabio vs Spike
Fabio: Venison with mustard sauce and mache salad with cheddar
Spike: Five-spice venison with port reduction and micro herb salad
Spike wins judges' vote, Fabio gets the fans' vote.

The home team wins! Stefan, Fabio, and Jeff all lost their match-ups, which means they are going to face the judges. But first, the winners. Yay, Carla wins! And it's her first. She'd be happy enough with that, but she also gets two tickets to the Super Bowl. Now for the losers. Jeff served a watered-down version of ceviche. Stefan underestimated the challenge and his challenger and didn't deliver strong flavors. Fabio over-cooked the venison and no matter how much he pleaded with the judges, he wasn't going to convince them otherwise. It's Jeff who's packing his knives tonight. I think Ed is right about Jeff: "He will learn to edit himself and become a good cook, I am sure. He might have the most potential of any of them if he learns restraint." Fabio should have gone home, but what producer is going to get rid of such a prolific sound biter? He even gets one more in, after the judges announce their decision and as Jeff says his goodbye. "I just want to say I do believe in second chances and I think tonight i got the biggest one in all my life." Seems like it's becoming pretty clear that Fabio is all talk and not so much action. Especially compared to Stefan who has been cooking for 23 years; he's no rookie, he better win this thing. Or not. Ed asks a good question: "Should Stefan be eligible for Top Chef if he has been cooking for 23 years; Would Lebron James be eligible to win rookie of the year now that he's been in the league a few years? I don't think so." What say you, serious eaters?

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