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Review Wed Apr 30 2008

Top Chef, Episode 8: "It's an honor to cook with you, chef."

Thus far on Top Chef, we've seen tempers aplenty, back stories galore, and ever-inflating food budgets. Not to mention some really hateful hats, touching and just plain weird moments of homoeroticism, and that awesome pocket smoker contraption. So it's been a pretty well-rounded season. But this evening's episode achieved a new richness by adding some unexpected components. Namely, children (and the ticking of some surprising biological clocks), tears, and a ten dollar bill. Not to mention Art Smith, and Uncle Ben. Like you'd expect that combination. Leave it to Padma to befuddle you with product placement and yank on the ol' heartstrings at the same time. Saucy.

Editor's/Pirate's Note: Our Top Chef recaps are candid. Here be spoilers, arrgh!

After the obligatory reflections on the narrowing field of competitors, the cheftestants were off to a quickfire judged by nascent Chicago restaurateur and Oprah-endorsed Art Smith. Smith has built a name for himself on home-cooking, simplicity, and craftsmanship in the kitchen (dare we say, soul food?), so it would make perfect sense to team him with that stalwart of shortcut cooking and soul man himself, Uncle Ben, right? Right guys? Reasonable or not, someone at Uncle Ben's corporate parent Mars shelled out enough cash to clear that particular irony hurdle and get the 90-second cooking packets in front of the camera (successfully enough to do another recent deal in our fair city, though I wouldn't want to speculate on causality...).

Anyway, the chefs were given some quick-cooking and a mere 15 minutes to craft a complete entree. Some creations were fairy obvious, like Dale and Nikki's takes on fried rice (my vegetarian fellow-viewer scoffed, "I make that every night, Nikki. And I have much nicer hair"). Some were rice with a side of random, like Lisa's "shrimp with peppers and rice and stuff on a plate." And a few chefs struck out into more original territory -- Richard's take on tuna steak and tomatoes with a rice accompaniment won praise, while Stephanie's attempt at a rice-based seafood pancake (ah!! She read my mind! Well, two recaps ago, but still, soul-mates!) failed to impress. Top marks, however, went to Antonia's rice and arugula salad with skirt steak, despite her apparent unfamiliarity with the concept of quick-cooking rice. Well played, Antonia...well played indeed.

While not quite as manipulative as last week's elimination, with its hidden food processors and misleadingly set table, the components of this week's challenge did unfold over time. Taking a cue from Art Smith and many other Chicago chefs' Common Threads organization, the first order of business was to create a healthy, simple meal for a family of four. But oh! the budget tops out at $10. This kind of thrift sends Andrew into a tantrum about lobster terrine for the masses and the impossibility of creating anything worth eating. Yeah, lobster terrine just screams "healthy" and "kid-friendly" to me... Wait. But the chefs dutifully wandered the aisles of Whole Foods with their $10, putting together their ingredients, peeling leaves off produce to meet the budget if necessary. Stephanie seemed a little lost, picking up lots of potential items and struggling to conceptualize her dish -- although if I only had 10 bucks to spend in a Whole Foods, I would more than likely be doing the exact same thing. (Hmm, milk and eggs and organic canned vegetables, or this one hunk of imported super-stinky cheese? Ack.) And then we hear Andrew boast about his difficult upbringing and experience with a meager budget giving him the upper hand in this challenge. No more lobster terrine? The man is just an utter mystery, apparently even to himself.

Upon arriving back at the kitchen, the third elimination twist emerges -- the chefs get some help! From 10-year-olds. Intimidating to be sure, but this is also where things start to get super-cute. The kids are adorable, as I'm sure the producers of the show both intended and worked hard to achieve. When one of the kids shuffles up and offers his hand to his adult counterpart saying "It's an honor to cook with you, chef," I guarantee I was not the only member of the home audience to respond with a heartfelt "Awwww!" But even more than the cute factor, the addition of these sweet and shy children introduced a new element of humility to the Top Chef kitchen, and when Dale's young ward answers Chef Tom's inquiry as to his favorite part of cooking with an honest, "Um, eating?" you remember why this show is so good to begin with. There is magic in food, pure and simple, in its creation and its enjoyment. And it's good to see a little more pure enjoyment on the screen. Though Tom does complicate this lovely little tangent by tasting everyone's dish back-stage in the kitchen as if he's attacking a scientific equation with a fork. Yikes.

Touching moments ensue: kid tastes first-ever beet and gets her friends to agree it's good, kid modestly tells his tablemates he worked hard on his dish and he thinks they'll like it. Richard is so moved he wants to high-tail it home and start making babies. Furthermore, in among these utterly unaffected children, Spike and Andrew become manageable and even likable for the first time in the entire season -- the man-children finally have some peers who can look up to them, and rise admirably to that challenge. And Antonia shows a softer side, sharing for the first time that she's a mom away from home, and breaking down into tears when the youngster sous-chefs arrive. So when Andrew and Antonia end up the winners at the judges table for chicken paillard with orange and fennel salad, and a stir-fry whole wheat spaghetti dish respectively, it's a satisfying win. Antonia takes the cake for her dish, giving Richard a run for his money with another double win in a single episode.

Stephanie, Lisa and Mark are called in for a talking-to with the judges and Art Smith for their poorly conceptualized and poorly executed dishes. Stephanie's cous-cous with peanut butter and tomatoes, though something a 10-year-old would probably concoct, was baffling to the judges based on her previous dishes. Lisa took issue with the judges' disappointment in her seasoning, but Tom maintained he was shocked by the under-seasoned beans and under-cooked edamame in her dish. And Mark, the poor little Hobbit who's been looking like he's trying to kick a nasty heroin habit for the past couple weeks, took issue with Tom's dislike for his cooking when his dish was judged too sweet, too adventurous for a family palate, and too lacking in protein. But even that personal play didn't save him, and the Hobbit was asked to leave (and hopefully enter rehab).

Next week, fatigue sets in with the cheftestants... just in time for a wedding! Just what you want -- grumpy, overworked caterers on your big day. Fingers crossed for the bride and groom.

Looking for a recap of the previous episode?

 
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Dave! / May 1, 2008 12:56 PM

I'm I the only one who's had dishes with tomato and peanut butter before??? I've had tomato peanut soup, and a chicken dish with a tomato/peanut butter sauce... both at a West African restaurant many years ago...

Is it cultural bias? Or really that rare???

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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Drive-Thru is the food and drink section of Gapers Block, covering the city's vibrant dining, drinking and cooking scene. More...
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