This week on Top Chef: Trials of a bewitching banshee
Watch What We Say: Top Chef
By Jason Lee
January 23, 2009
Top Chef finally has something that it's lacked since Season 1. A villain.
Sure, there have been some intensely aggravating, hateful, despicable chefs. I intensely disliked Marcel (runner up from Season 2) and couldn't wait for him to go home. I despised Hung (winner of Season 3) and his arrogant, near-intolerable-and-insufferable cocky attitude that led him to exploit every opportunity to show off the fact that he had (at least in his own mind) more talent and skill than his fellow chefs. I literally yelled out in anger when he won this competition two years ago.
But for me, neither one of those chefs incited the same brand of blind fury, the same level of teeth-gnashing malevolence, the same sort of all-encompassing malice and pure repulsion as Season 1 Stephen -- vile, evil Stephen. Stephen is the type if contestant that if I saw him walking down the street, I would rip my arm off so that I would have something to hit him with. He's not the type of person that you love to hate. You just hate him. And hate I did.
Now, to be fair, this season's villain, the cruel and depraved Leah, is not on par with Stephen... rather, my comparison to him is meant to demonstrate the depth of my disdain for the harlot Leah. "What did she do?" you might ask. Well, gentle readers, I still have not forgiven her (nor will I ever) for the way she despicably let my beautiful, beloved Ariane flounder and fail at cooking her lamb - withholding any real assistance and refusing to take any responsibilty for the portion of the dish that she did complete. Instead, she was willing to stare blissfully into Hosea's eyes, immersed in a sea of sin and infidelity, purposefully ignorant of what was going on in the kitchen.
"But enough with last week," you might be saying. "Jason, we're wondering what happened on Top Chef THIS week!" You are right, I would be remiss not to delve into the machinations of this week's episode so in transitioning, I will only say that I tuned to Bravo on Wednesday, hoping only that I would see one thing: Padma turning to Leah and saying, "Pack your knives, biotch, it's your turn to go!"
But of course, before that can happen, we have the Quickfire Challenge. Our guest judge for this week is a high-profile, highly successful restaurateur, Stephen Starr, who's responsible for such fantastic restaurants like Budokan and Morimoto (I've been to neither but I hope to some day). In preparation for the highly anticipated Restaurant Wars Elimination Challenge (Yippee!), they have to prepare a tasting of one dish that communicates their concept for a new restaurant. The two winners will not get immunity, but instead, they get to choose their team and open their own restaurant using that concept.
Immediately, I think that the chefs with the best hopes for winning this challenge will be the chefs with a clear concept of a cuisine and a skilled hand at cooking it - in my mind, the chefs are Jeff (South Florida cuisine), Radhika (Indian) and Fabio (Italian). Jeff and Radhika seem to be proving me correct, cooking a sunchoke puree and salmon and a pan-seared cod with butter braised corn respectively, but Fabio has gone off the deep end, cooking a full on lunch course with
an appetizer, salad and sandwich.
As expected, Fabio ends up on the bottom (Stephen Starr "didn't get it"), surprisingly along with Jeff, whose salmon was "unimpressive."
On top we have Radhika (as expected) with Starr's favorite dish and the most unique flavors. Joining her as the top is Leah (god, I hate her) with a tempura poussin with dashi. As co-winners, they take turns choosing their restaurant teams. I have no doubt that Stefan will be the last chef picked.
Radhika goes with Jaime, Carla and Jeff while Leah goes with Hosea (big surprise there), Fabio and Stefan, who is indeed, the last one picked. I wouldn't mind seeing that entire team go home.
Radhika's team (with a restaurant dubbed Sahana) and Leah's team (dubbed Sunset Lounge, though that sounds incredibly Studio 54 to me) head to buy decor and accoutrements for their restaurants. This part is relatively uninteresting save for a moronic attempt by Stefan to buy all of the un-scented candles so that Radhika's team has none.
Back at the loft, the teams start to plan their menu and assign roles. On the Sahana team, Carla has smartly been assigned to cook dessert. Jaime wants to cook and despite Jeff's charm and admittedly handsome features, he has requested to cook as well. Now, despite the fact that Radhika knows this cuisine the best and has won challenges cooking Indian food, she acquises to Jeff's request, allowing him to work in the kitchen and volunteering to serve as front of the house.
This is a dangerous, dangerous move. I understand her rationale that since it's her restaurant, she should serve as the figurehead but she's clearly not excited, not enthused and not looking forward to being front of the house. This is not the right mix for a winning team so far. I'm worried.
On the other side, things seem even more dire. Stefan seems hellbent on exercising every pompous, stubborn bone in his body - not listening to anyone else's ideas and loudly (and arrogantly) voicing his own. It is finally decided that Fabio will be front of the house(smart decision), Hosea and Leah will cook (together) and Stefan will do two desserts, although he refuses to tell his team what he's going to cook. I wish that Leah would just put her foot down as the team's leader, but of course, she's too much of a wimp to do anything butlook at Hosea for support.
And support, she gets. Top Chef perplexingly has seemed to turn into The Young and the Restless as Leah snuggles with Hosea on the Top Chef couch, sluttily saying things like, "I wanna sleep here tonight, it's comfy," in the most lascivious, seductive manner possible as she runs her (pointed) fingernails along his chest. We thankfully only see this (disgusting) scene from far way, but even the distance cannot save us from the unmistakable smacking sounds that comes when Leah and Hosea start making out.
The next morning, they both profess shame for what happened last night. Hosea claims that he still loves his girlfriend (yeah, right) and Leah says that she's worried about what happened because she still has a boyfriend at home that she'd like to be with him after the show ends...though she at least has the foresight to posit that they'll probably break up after this episode airs (ya think?). Stefan says that the tension is palpable between the two of them and Fabio says that both Leah and Hosea seem to be in bad moods.
The drama continues into the kitchen where it seems like despite everything that's at stake in this challenge, Leah and Hosea can't stop thinking about their smoochy transgression. Hosea claims that it's "throwing him off his game" while Leah seems aghast that it happened in the first place since she's never cheated on a boyfriend before (can't say that anymore, Leah).
Along with this storyline, the major developments on this team are the fact that Leah badly butchered her fish (what comes around, goes around...), Fabio looks dashing in a white suit as he preps for service and no one knows what the heck's going on with Stefan's dessert.
Over on the other side, things are just as worrisome. Carla is convinced that her desserts are a disaster. The freezer is not cold enough and her frozen yogurt is not setting correctly. And as spazzy as she's getting (and believe me, Carla can get seriously spazzy when she sets her mind to it), she's freaking out even more because she's not getting any feedback on her desserts from Radhika because their fearless leader seems slightly dazed and confused - unsure in her role in the front of the house and unable to adequately concentrate on anything in the kitchen. She reminds me of my friend Drew when he hasn't taken his Ritalin. But less hyper. Much less.
Service begins and the judges head over to Sahana. The breaded appetizer is tasty, the scallops and curried carrot soup are nice, the chickpea cake is great and the braised lamb shank is executed nicely.
The snapper in tomato water is just okay but overall, I'm relieved. There isn't a bomb on this team yet and it looks safe to say that someone from the other team (ideally Leah or Stefan) will go home.
But then, something horrible happens: the dessert is served. Not only is the frozen yogurt pretty melted by the time it reaches the table ("yogurt soup" remarks Tom) but Toby is left without a spoon. The harping begins. The cake is not good. The frozen yogurt is bad. Radhika has not been a good server, totally unattentive, not warm and frankly, says Tom, "if we were to leave right now we wouldn't even get a goodbye."
"Let's leave them," suggest Padma, and they do. I have a horrible knot in my stomach. I know that Carla served two bad desserts but as the leader of the team and the face of the restaurant, it seems like Radhika has committed a horrible crime by not serving as a strong presence in the dining area ("she seems to spend a lot of her time back in the kitchen, wandering around," muses Jaime). I have a strong suspicion that if Sahana is the losing team, she'll go home.
I can only hope that things are even worse at the Sunset Lounge.
Things start off well for them (and badly for me) when Fabio seats the judges, oozing charm from every pore. The first dishes of soup, sashimi and spareribs are mediocre but then, Leah's cod comes out.
And the responses from the judges are music to my ears.
"It's a disaster", Toby remarks.
"That sauce is brutal" says Tom.
Padma tells Fabio that the fish is undercooked and he tries to salvage the situation. "Would you like me to bring you another?" he asks winningly.
"That won't be necessary," Padma says, dismissing him with a flip of the hand. BOOM. That sounds like the guillotine on Leah to me. Or at least, I hope so.
Other than Fabio's service, it seems like there hasn't been a single outstanding thing from this team and I'm feeling good about the chances of Horrible Loser Leah going home. But then, Stefan's desserts come out. And they're not just good, they're great. They're transcendent. They're not only the best food of the night, but from the reactions of the judges, they deserve to be put in the Smithsonian for future generations to gawk at and admire.
My heart sinks.
The judges begin their deliberations and it sounds like they're split. They're deciding between a team that had better food and a team that had much better service and fantastic desserts. I'm not sure which way they'll go and I'm just praying that the comment cards go in favor of Sahana. "The diners will save Radhika," I think to myself, "the food is what matters most."
Apparently...not. Padma heads to the stew room and calls out the Sunset Lounge team. Apparently the judges were split but by a very slim margin, the diners liked Sunset Lounge over Sahana. "NO NO NO NO NO!" I start yelling. "If neither team did well then you should NOT name a team winner, but instead, choose a loser from either team!"
If the judges had heeded my advice, this scenario would have resulted in Leah's elimination, as Tom tells her that it was the worst dish of the night and that if their team had ended up losing, it would have been an easy decision for them. But it was not to be. Fabio's service and Stefan's brilliant desserts saved the day and they ended up safe, with Stefan winning for the second Elimination Challenge in a row. Sigh. Sometimes I hate this show.
Sahana is called out and Radhika opens the discussion by saying that each chef came up with their own dish and that she didn't cook a thing. Obviously, she hasn't watched previous seasons because otherwise she would know that this is a recipe for disaster. She didn't cook, she just worked as front of the house. And she wasn't very good at that.
Speaking of "not very good," Carla's desserts sucked. Just plain sucked. She fesses up to the fact that they were bad and says that she knew they were bad, but tried to send them out of the kitchen with love. Somehow, I don't think the judges are buying this excuse. They instead blame Radhika, saying that if she knew that the frozen yogurt (as one example) wasn't frozen, she shouldn't have introduced it as frozen yogurt as it set up an expectation that would inevitably fall short.
"Should you go home?" asks Tom.
"If your problem was with the front of the house, then maybe yes, I should go home but if it had to do with the food then I don't think I should go," says Radhika.
Tom takes this as his cue to unleash on her and he does, saying that she didn't lead, she didn't direct. "Did you think it was your responsibility to lead this team?" he wants to know. "We never felt that you were in the game in the front of the house. We walked out without a goodbye."
Toby continues the diatribe, saying that she didn't follow through on anything. Stephen, our guest judge, chimes in with, "When you own a restaurant, you have to assume that no one will do their job properly."
Okay, let's just end this now. Let's just stop the pain. I hate Leah and I hate Stefan. I hate them both so much but neither one of them is going home. It's going to be Radhika, a chef that I like a lot, and I'm not happy about this. Not happy at all.
As the judges call the team back out, Tom issues final statements. Jeff and Jaime pulled their own weight and they're safe. As the chef-owner, Radhika needed to be involved with every aspect of the
restaurant but didn't carry that through in the hospitality aspect or organizing the menu. Carla's desserts left the final impression of the night and that impression was of failure.
But in the end, it is Radhika who's asked to pack her knives and go.
It's hard to argue with the judges, but I'm extremely sad to see such a warm-hearted, talented chef go home . . . especially while the horrible Leah and Stefan remain.
Radhika closes by saying that she's extremely disappointed that in a cooking competition, she's going home for her performance in the front of the house. She says in retrospect, she should have put Jeff in the front. She tries too hard to accommodate people and she's learned from that.
I've learned that talent shows up sometimes in the worst people - Stefan really saved his team with the desserts and if he'd just messed up one of them, maybe his team would have been on the bottom and Leah would have been going home. If nothing else, I'm comforted by the idea that this forces Leah and Hosea to spend more time together and that maybe they'll take their adulterous affair farther. I hope they do, cause then their respective boyfriends and girlfriends can provide the type of beat down that they deserve. It'd be my sole consolation.