Top Chef Recap
By Jason Lee
December 18, 2008

A bunch of underachievers live another day.

This week on Watch What We Say: When women rule the world

As a gay man, I love strong women. There's something really inspiring about watching a smart, witty, confident and accomplished woman complete a task with finesse and draw the respect and admiration from others around her. I think this stems from an overall appreciation for seeing a non-male figure succeed in a hetero-normative world, which as you can imagine, is a heartening experience for a non-heterosexual person.

In any case, strong women are what this week's episode of Top Chef is all about – both in the kitchen and at judges table. The episode opens with two strong women that are coming from two very different emotional places. Ariane, no longer Underdog du Jour, is still giddy from having won the last two Elimination Challenges. While I still cannot quite bring myself to believe that she can win the entire competition, I'm starting to view her as a dark horse candidate for the finale, provided she keeps her confidence up and cooks the food that she knows how to cook.

On the other side of the spectrum is Jaime, who was on the verge of elimination two weeks ago and found herself narrowly edged by Ariane last week for the overall Elimination Challenge win. She is understandably frustrated at her inability to win a Quickfire or Elimination Challenge, though I would caution her against this. As we saw in last year's finale with Richard, sometimes when you get focused on winning a competition, you forget to cook the food that got you that far.

Not a strong woman but pissed off nonetheless is Eugene who in my opinion should have gone home last week but stuck around while his fellow teammate, Daniel, got the boot. He pledges to step it up and start cooking the great food that he's capable of.

Aaaaaaaaaand, we're off and running in our holiday Quickfire Challenge. Padma introduces the parameters of the competition: in the spirit of great American home cooks that manage to make simple, yet delicious holiday meals, cook your own seasonal dish by using only a single pot. Immediately, I love this challenge. Not only does it force the chefs to simplify (avoiding the all-too-often-seen mistake of including too many elements onto a plate, as seen last week with Eugene's "New" dish) but it's also reminiscent of a dish made by last year's contestant, Nikki, in the kids challenge in which she made a dinner of chicken and brussels sprouts in a single pot.

So who's the guest judge for the Quickfire? It's none other than home cooking auteur and media giant, Martha Stewart. Personally, I think I'd faint if Martha Stewart walked into a room I was in. She just seems like this mythic figure who incomprehensively combines both the affable, approachableness of a home cook with the shrewd, intimidating personality of a multi-billionaire who owns a global media conglomeration. She's definitely a strong woman.

The chefs scurry about, possessing a mere 45 minutes to complete their dish. I'm starting to think that the contestants this season have an annoying tendency to ignore the objectives of the challenges. Remember how a few weeks ago, almost every chef made amuse-bouches that were too large to eat in one bite? Yeah, there's a similar problem here. Many chefs are technically using one pot to make their dish, but their dishes are so complex and incorporate so many elements that no home chef could ever hope to make it. It's out of the spirit of the challenge.

The major violator seems to be (surprise, surprise) Eugene. His dish appears to have five elements on it, including a homemade stew (artificially thickened with cornstarch), salsa and tarot chip. Yeah, I'm sure that I could make that in one pot at home.

My two strong women, Jaime and Ariane, seem to have made winning dishes. Jaime cooks scallops, which frankly, we've seen WAY too much of on Top Chef. You simply cannot mess up a scallop, they are just too yummy. Season after season, scallops have been a go-to ingredient for chefs and I've been waiting to see who harnesses their tasty goodness first this season. Apparently, it's Jaime.

Ariane, on the other hand, cooks filet mignon with a cauliflower purée. Granted, these are not ingredients that are readily accessible to home cooks, but it's a dish that has an overall level of sophistication that we haven't seen from Ariane very much this season. I like that she's stepping up.

Martha samples all of the dishes and names her bottom three: Eugene with his overly-complicated, cornstarch-infused Korean stew, Fabio who had puréed mushrooms for his polenta but ended up turning it an unappetizing shade of grey, and Jeff who made a potato risotto that just didn't taste very good ("Pungent" was all Martha had to say after taking a bite).

As for the happy chefs, we have Hosea with paella that was both yummy, simple and reminiscent of home cooking (I'm starting to think that he's an emerging dark horse candidate, too), Ariane and Jaime. Martha says that she's awarding the victory to the chef who made the best dish and followed the spirit of the challenge. It's . . . . . . . ARIANE!!! Good for her, I've been rooting for her since the beginning and I'm really glad that she's starting to shine.

For those of you keeping score at home, at this point in the series, Ariane has now won more challenges than anyone else in the competition, with two Elimination wins and one Quickfire win.

But what's the Elimination Challenge going to be? As the chefs begin to ponder their fate, they hear a beautiful version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" sung by the Harlem Choir as they enter the kitchen. Wow, are they a talented group.

The chefs draw knives and each one has a number between 1 and 12 on it. Yep, it's exactly what we think it is. The chefs are going to cater a charity event for amFAR (the foundation for AIDS research) and must cook an hors d'oeuvre themed around their day of Christmas (ten lords a leaping, nine ladies dancing, etc.)

Again, I'm struck by the creativity that went into making this challenge. I honestly believe that this season has had the best challenges to date on Top Chef. Cook a meal themed around the Twelve Days of Christmas? For my money's worth, this is the most ingenious challenge since Season Two's challenge around the Seven Deadly Sins.

As the chefs file into Whole Foods, I start to try and pick out which chefs will have the toughest time. A few have obvious directions based off of their theme. Leah is, of course, going with poultry on a puff pastry since she has Three French Hens (though I'm a bit worried because the judges never like puff pastry dishes). Radhika is doing duck with a pear chutney since she has a Partridge in a Pear Tree (sounds delicious).

Little Ariane is doing deviled eggs since she has Six Geese a Laying . . . she has me the most concerned because her dish seems the most basic and simplistic. Granted, this strategy won her the competition on the Today Show challenge but as I've said before, if your answer to the question of "Will this dish win me the competition?" is "no" then you're not shooting high enough. Ariane has immunity but still...

In any case, many other chefs are having a much harder time coming up with dishes for their number. Fabio is at a loss for Nine Ladies Dancing and using the chain of association between dancing, which requires that you move your legs and crabs have eight legs . . . he decides to do crabcakes. Jeff has it equally tough with Ten Lords a Leaping and initially wants to do a frog dish (none available at Whole Foods) but settles for doing a seared cheese dish (rationale: he'll use cheeses from different Greek islands so they'll be "island hopping).

The chefs head back to the kitchen at midnight and they'll have until 3:00 a.m. to do the majority of their prep work before the day of the event when they'll have a scant hour to prepare dishes for 250 people. Everyone is tired and rushing but there aren't any obvious culinary debacles like last week's "overcooked sushi rice" mistake by Eugene. The cooks put in a good day in the office then go home for some rest.

Upon returning to the kitchen, disaster has struck. One of the refrigerator doors was not closed all the way and so Hosea's pork tenderloin and Radhika's duck breast have gone bad, while Melissa's cheese has melted. Hosea is angry, Radhika is in tears and Melissa is emphysemic. I know that this is a terrible situation for those three chefs but really and truly, this is fantastic reality television.

I know this episode was probably filmed back in September but in the holiday spirit, all of the chefs band together to help Radhika and Hosea complete their dishes. It's actually a really moving sequence, with chef after chef talking about how you always have to lend a hand in the kitchen, you don't want to beat someone because they had a strike of bad luck, they're competitors but also friends, etc. etc. Again, it's great reality television.

Hosea finds some extra pork in the freezer and everyone contributes to breaking it down for him. Radhika thanks her lucky stars that she saved all of the duck legs from the previous night and Fabio starts helping her break those down. It's a total team effort and as they head over to the ballroom for the amFAR event, every chef will be able to (for the most part) present the dish that they'd been planning.

Serving as the guest judge this week is Natasha Richardson, whom I know as the Tony Award winning actress from the revival of Cabaret in 1997. Stepping in for Gail (who's busy with her wedding) is the beautiful and uber-talented Michelle Bernstein, who I totally have a straight-crush on. And yes, for all those wondering, this means that I have straight-crushes on three women on Top Chef: Gail, Padma and Michelle. All strong women.

Service begins and things are NOT looking good. Apart from Hosea's pork (which is pretty good) and Stefan's chicken pot pie (which is tasty), the judges find very little to like about any of the other ten dishes. Radhika and Leah fall victim to the judges' dislike of overly bread-laden hors d'oeuvres. Jaime's raw scallop (yes, she prepared scallops for both the Quickfire and Elimination Challenge) is both slimy and lukewarm. Ariane's deviled eggs are too simple (I told you so). Eugene's seafood ceviche (with pineapple and coconut milk) is far too sweet. Melissa's beef dish is overwhelmed by her use of blue cheese and so on and so on.

While I would argue that this episode, rife with drama and tension, is the best so far in Season 5, clearly the food that was served was the worst so far from this group of chefs.

The judges reconvene at Judges Table and while they're disappointed in the evening, they select Hosea's pork, Radhika's duck, Jeff's cheeses and Stefan's pot pie as the winners. As excited as the chefs are and as eager as Radhika's is to tell them about the fridge-fiasco, I can't help but get the feeling that the judges' enjoyment of these dishes is as lukewarm as Jaime's scallop. The dishes were good and clearly better than the other seven . . . but at Judges' Table, the winners have as hard a time picking out pieces of praise from the judges as John McCain did finding a talented, intelligent running mate.

The judges don't really seem to care, but Hosea is named the winner. For those keeping track at home, Hosea has now tied Ariane for the most wins on Top Chef so far this season with three.

The losers of the challenge are called out. We have Eugene with his overly-sweet seviche, Melissa with her overly-cheesy beef and Jaime's overly-slimy scallops.

Maybe it's the holiday season, but the judges seem pretty harsh on the chefs for the second week in a row. In particular, Strong Woman Michelle Bernstein delivers sharp, barbed denunciations of each dish. Jaime should have seared her scallops instead of serving them raw. Eugene should have tried his ceviche, because if he had, he would have realized that the sweetness in the dish overwhelmed the fish completely. Melissa's blue cheese was warm and had the effect of coating the entire mouth of the diner to the point where they couldn't taste anything else on the plate. I know that my recap of their comments is pretty straight-forward but lemme tell ya, I would not have wanted to be in front of those grouchy judges. Except Michelle Bernstein. She can grouch at me anytime she wants to.

The chefs return to the Stew Room in total consternation while the judges discuss things further. Michelle Bernstein reveals that her least favorite dish of the evening was Jaime's raw, smushy scallop. Tom confesses a total displeasure at the dishes presented that evening, saying that yes, Jaime and Melissa and Eugene were at the bottom but any of the other four chefs could have easily been there, too. Natasha Richardson, who sits on the board of amFAR, tentatively says that she was "a little disappointed with the food," to which Tom responds, "There was not a single dish tonight that I wanted to go back and try again. Not even the winners."

"But I did like the way that all of the chefs banded together in the face of the kitchen crisis," Natasha pipes up.

"Maybe that is something to consider," Padma admits.

"I'd like to talk to all of the chefs together about the quality of the dishes that they're putting out there," Tom grumbles. He's definitely looking like an angry bear that got roused out of hibernation by someone before the end of winter.

After a couple quick edits, "So we're all agreed?" Padma asks. Everyone is. Tom heads to the Stew Room. *BUM BUM BUM* Insert ominous music.

The chefs are all mildly terrified when Tom enters the room. This seems to me to be the equivalent of your boss stepping into your office and closes the door while you're having casual lunch with a co-worker. Nothing good can come of this.

Tom, in a gruff but honest way, tells them that they need to step it up. They need to start cooking like top chefs. They need to stop making little throwaway canapés.

"You mean like mine?" challenges Leah.

"Yeah, basically like yours," Tom responds. "And not to single you out," he gestures to Ariane," but you're not going to win with deviled eggs. You need to cook to need to remember the food that got you here."

It's harsh but exactly what the chefs needed to hear. Mediocre food should never come out of the Top Chef kitchen and I'm frankly glad that Tom gave them the butt-kicking that he did. Then he drops the bomb.

"In the spirit of the holidays, no one is going home tonight." In effect, because most everyone's food sucked but acknowledging that everyone banded together to make sure that each chef had a dish, the group gets a free pass. No one's packing their knives and going.

The chefs look relieved. They stumble out of the Stew Room pledging to cook better food moving forward. I certainly hope so. In season two when the judges decided to not send anyone home, they sent two chefs home on the very next episode. I don't know if that will happen this time around, but I think that the chefs have some very good reason to be worried about the consequences about messing up again.