Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Back in the Kitchen

The Project Runway Web site was giving me trouble this evening, so a recap of Wednesday's episode will have to wait until Friday. Here's something to tide you over:

Project Runway
was a no-show for the holidays so I bravely sat through the Top Chef holiday special, in which contestants from all three seasons returned to compete for $20,000.

Before the special begins, host Padma "What have I been smoking?" Lakshmi tells us which cooks we'll be getting reacquainted with. From Season 3, there's C.J. (Yay!), Sandee (Meh) and Tre (Yay!) Returning from the loathsome depths of Season 2 are Josie (I totally forgot about her ... but it's better than having to see Ilan again), Betty (Kill me now) and Marcel (who I know I'm supposed to hate, but I can't. I feel sorry for him.) Apparently, the producers couldn't convince three chefs from Season 1 to come back, so we get to see Tiffani (Hiss!) and Stephen (tool and douchebag ... but only in the nicest way.)

We open on scenes of Christmas in Chicago (except that it's totally June.) Stephen arrives by SUV, brags about the restaurant he plans to open and lies about how cold it is. Tiffani is up next and she is also opening a restaurant. Always the bridesmaid and never the bride, eternal runner-up Tiffani interviews that she's in it to win this time.

Tiffani and Stephen check out the ostentatiously-decorated Top Chef house and we learn that Stephen is Jewish (Yay!) Josie comes in next and reminds us how annoying she was when she got kicked off in the fifth episode of Season 2. Betty comes in screaming and bursts one of my eardrums. Marcel arrives wearing a natty scarf and shades ensemble. He and Betty hug and Betty cops to acting like a shrew to him during their season. Marcel, clearly a bigger person than I am, forgives her and says that Top Chef is his surrogate family. That's kind of sad considering the "family" in question tried to tackle him and shave his head.

Sandee comes in next and I really don't know why she's here, considering she was the second one eliminated last season and this is supposed to be a "best of" type competition. Plus wouldn't it have been awesome if they got Malarkey to come back? Tre (Yay!) is next. Oh Tre how I've missed you so. Tre reminds us that he got eliminated for making a crappy dessert and an old clip of C.J. reminds us that Tre was a great chef and totally got screwed.

Speaking of C.J. (Yay!), he's still freakishly tall and I predict that he's going to hang off the end of the bunk beds in the house. C.J. has started his own catering company. He shares in an interview that he's a Libra and likes the color blue and long walks on the beach. Sign me up.

The contestants lie their asses off some more about the time of year and pretend to enjoy the Christmas holidays. They receive gifts that allude to their Top Chef downfalls: C.J. gets some broccoli from Tom "I'm a Judge! Not a mentor!" Colicchio and Tiffani gets a T-shirt with the quote "I'm not your bitch, bitch!" (Where have you gone "Crying" Dave Martin?) C.J. seems amused. Tiffani, not so much.

Marcel, who looks rather fetching with his new goatee, says he's excited about getting to compete with a new set of contestants. They all concur and proceed to cook and eat dinner, enjoying one nice evening before being tortured by the judges.

The next morning, the group arrives at the Top Chef kitchen. Despite the fact that it's "Christmas" in Chicago, Padma is wearing a sleeveless dress. Way to keep up the illusion, Padma. She's standing next to Santa Claus, who keeps a low profile as Padma reveals the Quickfire Challenge: make a treat for Santa. Of course there's a catch: under the tree are wrapped gifts containing ingredients the chefs will need to use in their respective dishes. They draw knives to pick gifts and find out that they'll get the chance to steal each other's "gifts."

Tre gets cheeseballs. C.J. gets smoked salmon, which is stolen by Betty. C.J. gets truffles, which are stolen by Tiffani. C.J. gets walnuts and a nutcracker. He reminds us that he only has one of those other kind of nuts. Oh C.J., I find even your bathroom humor adorable. Sorry, back to the challenge. Marcel steals the truffles from Tiffani. Tiffani picks up some sweet potatoes. Sandee gets prosciutto. Stephen steals Tiffani's yams and Tiffani gets caviar. Josie is last and she steals the truffles. Marcel grabs another gift and gets turo. "Santa" turns out to be chef Eric Ripert (disclaimer: I love food but I am not a foodie by any means. So don't expect to read much fawning over the guest chefs. I'm sure they're all awesome but I really wouldn't know.)

Anyway, Ripert was on an episode of Season 3 and all the contestants are excited to cook for him. They burst into action. Tre laments his bad luck at getting stuck with the cheeseballs but resolves to work through the pain. Betty blathers about leeks and raisins and saffron orange vinaigrette and none of that really sounds good with her smoked salmon. Josie can't open her truffles because there's no can opener. She searches the kitchen for a while and then goes at it with a knife. It doesn't work until the last minute and hustles to finish in time. Josie isn't exactly exuding confidence here.

Time's up and it's time for the tasting. Betty describes her dish using the royal "we," which is, of course, annoying. Ripert and Padma approach Josie who interviews that she had to leave two key ingredients out of her dish. Seeking sympathy, she shares the story of the missing can opener. To the shock of no one, Padma and Ripert don't really care. Josie hopes Ripert can overlook the lack of truffles in the dish. Yeah, that's totally going to happen Josie.

Stephen has made yam, mocha and lavender soup, which just sounds really weird. Ripert doesn't comment much before moving on to Tiffani and the caviar. Tiffani has made one of the ever-popular Top Chef "duo of (insert item here)," which if you recall was her downfall in the Season One finale showdown with Harold. Some people never learn.

Before naming a winner, Ripert rips on Stephen's wacky soup and says the dish tasted like soap. He also hated Tre's rice, which was the one part of his dish where he actually used the cheeseball. He also hated Josie's truffle-less truffle dish. Shocker.

Marcel scored a hit with Ripert, as did Betty. And the winner is -- C.J. (Yay!)

We don't find out what C.J. wins until after Padma explains the Elimination Challenge: make a three-course meal for nine diners. All of the food gets served head-to-head and the diners will eliminate two chefs after each course, leaving two finalists. The judges will then choose a winner. As the Quickfire winner, C.J. gets a "get of jail free" card for one course (not the final course.) Sandee interviews that, due to the lack of wacky gimmicks, the onus for screwing up the challenge falls on each chef's shoulders. Similarly, I can only blame Sandee for the unfortunate tie-dyed fisherman's cap she's wearing during this interview.

We get some shots of downtown Chicago (*Sigh*) before catching up with the chefs as they take a trip to Whole Foods to buy ingredients. They've got $350, 45 minutes to shop and three hours to cook. The chefs are relieved at the large variety of protein available at the meat counter. Sandee decides to buy her produce first and loads some pumpkins into her cart.

Betty annoyingly talks about how her Quickfire triumph has her feeling confident going into elimination. As the chefs, describe their menus, Betty is the first to reveal her intention to tackle that great Top Chef scourge: dessert. She's making baklava.

I'm a total food novice and the one lasting lesson I've gotten out of three Seasons of Top Chef is this: being a chef and a pastry chef are two different things. Also: when it comes to dessert, you can't win. Try it, and the judges slam you for cooking an unappetizing dish. Leave it out, and you'll get criticized for not being "brave" enough to attempt the course.

C.J. feels up a goose, Tre slams Whole Foods' celery root selection (and Stephen, for buying it) and they all head to check out. They arrive at the kitchens and Sandee and Tiffani discuss the need to cook all three courses simultaneously to come in under the time limit.

Tiffani also plans to try dessert -- butterscotch pudding. She can't get past the idea of a holiday dinner without dessert. Meanwhile, Betty is searching her station for yeast. Turns out she forgot to buy some and it's an essential ingredient for her first course. After self-flagellating at her workstation, Betty tries to borrow some yeast from another chef. Since they all have visions of $20,000 dancing in their heads, a loan is pretty much out of the question. Tre thinks she made a mistake by revealing a weakness, while Betty comes up with a solution that she tries to convince herself will be better than the original plan.

Tre plans to take his own advice about not showing weakness. He's not making dessert. He and Marcel are making the same third course, lamb chops. The chefs all talk some more about using their time wisely before Colicchio shows up to "judge" them. And by "judge" I mean "nitpick and insult."

(Time out for a sec: The whole "Colicchio is not a mentor" conceit is always truly fascinating to me. He's really in the kitchen to be a spy for the judges, but the contestants always seem to forget that and spill the beans about every mistake or problem they're having at the moment. I think they're so caught up in their own brains that it's too tempting not to unload on someone. I've definitely been there and it's awful when that kind of thing gets held against you. Especially when the guy doing the holding is a smug jerk like Tom Colicchio. Time in.)

Colicchio approaches C.J. first. C.J. describes his menu, ending with the goose. They talk about C.J.'s goosing experience. Don't worry Tom, he can practice on me!

Sorry, got sidetracked again. Next up for ridicule is Sandee. She describes her intent to make dessert (chocolate pecan pie.) It's only Sandee's second time making pie crust.

Next, Colicchio approaches his crush, Tiffani (I always thought he wanted her to win Season 1.) Tiffani shares that she's also working on opening a restaurant. Stephen kibitzes about his restaurant as well before admitting that he's a little rusty in the kitchen. Bad idea, Stephen. Show no weakness before the Colicchio!

Marcel's goatee distracts me and before I know it, Colicchio heads out. He interviews about Betty's dessert mishap. Apparently she plans to worry about her third course if she makes it that far. I couldn't be happier to join Judge Tom in doubting the effectiveness of that plan. Betty would have to come to my house and cook a five-star meal for me to forgive her ridiculous posturing against Marcel during Season 2. Yes, Marcel is annoying. But that's why you ignore him, Betty.

Colicchio shares that he doesn't think Stephen's heart is in the cooking. This does not bode well.

The contestants race to begin plating the first course as the judges sit down to dinner. Gail, Tom, Ted Allen(!) and Padma are there, as well as chefs from past seasons. I know the contestants hate cooking for regular people, but I wish I could judge Top Chef. The food almost always looks great, although I have to take the judges' word for it on the taste.

The chefs describe their dishes and head back in to work on the second course. The judges toast and tuck into the food. They think Sandee's "creamy" mushroom soup is watery but enjoyed Marcel's "rustic" monk fish. Betty's duck baklava is panned for not really being baklava, while Stephen's gnocchi was apparently nasty. C.J.'s dish is given a resounding "meh," Tre's scallop gets a thumb's up and they're split on Tiffani's apple/bacon creation. Colicchio liked Josie's duck and butternut squash dish the best.

That's unfortunate because Josie returns to the kitchen to find that she's overcooked her second course, a turkey. Ugh. That turkey looks awful. Betty also overcooked her lamb.

Back at the table, the contenders for elimination are Stephen, Sandee, Betty and C.J. (No!) We have to wait until the cooks come out with the second course to find out who's out.

Sandee and Stephen are out and they go back to the kitchen with their food. I hope there was a backstage table full of crew members waiting to eat the food of the ousted chefs. It's a shame for all of that work to go to waste. Stephen interviews that the competition taught him that he needs to focus on opening his business, rather than Top Chef.

The judges dig in as the chefs begin preparing course three. Josie's turkey is panned, as is Marcel's dish. Tom gives C.J.'s goose a thumb's up, as does Padma. They also liked Tre's mac and cheese. Gail and Ted like Tiffani's duck. Betty's lamb is slammed for being overcooked and under-seasoned. Ted says the awfulness of the overcooked turkey pales next to Betty's lamb and whatever the heck Marcel made.

Back in dessert-land, Tiffani shares that she's been practicing her recipe. Betty decides to make an almond cookie for her last-minute third course. Marcel and Tre are both doing lamb for their final dish. Marcel interviews that he likes to keep his lamb half-raw, which isn't going to win him any prizes from Chicago's health inspectors.

The chefs roll out of the kitchen with their dishes. The overcooked twins -- Betty and Josie -- are out. Betty laments the lack of love given to her "beautiful" dessert.

Time to eat. I wonder how much time the judges spend eating the food. They must have to do it all in a day. That's a TON of food for one day, even if you only sample each dish.

Tre's lamb is lauded, while Marcel's half-raw technique proves to be his undoing. The judges rave about Tiffani's pudding. They liked C.J.'s dish but hated his presentation. The final four return to the dining room and Marcel and C.J. are out. C.J. laments because he needed the money. I'll miss you C.J.!

Tre and Tiffani are the final two. They enjoy a moment of zen, thinking that only judges table stands between a winner and the $20,000. Wrong! Padma shoos them back into the kitchen to cook another course. Tiffani is mad at herself for not seeing this twist coming.

The final two have 30 minutes to scrounge up leftovers in the kitchen to create a new dish. They enlist the others chefs to help out. Stephen, Sandee and Josie are helping Tiffani, while Betty, Marcel and C.J. help Tre. Tre has thrown out his leftovers and Stephen won't give up his veal because he has to help Tiffani, so Tre has little choice but to use Betty's discarded dessert items. Tiffani decides to dress up the concept of a leftover turkey sandwich.

Josie interviews that it's time for a female chef i.e. Tiffani to triumph on Top Chef. Marcel and C.J. cheer on Tre as he and Tiffani head for the dining room. The judges dig in. They liked both dishes. Gail praises Tre for successfully conquering dessert. Others prefer Tiffani and it's all up in the air as the four main judges head off to deliberate.

Back at judges table, Gail praises Tre and Tiffani for producing consistent, tasty meals. They all compliment the last-minute dishes and Padma reminds those living under a rock that $20,000 is a lot of money. Colicchio tells Tre that the scallops were his best dish and praises Tiffani for the butterscotch pudding.

After a few seconds of adieu, Tiffani is declared the winner. Tiffani seems to have grown up a lot since her Season 1 machinations, so congratulations to her for that and the win. Only a few months to go until Top Chef Season 4!

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