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Review Wed May 14 2008

Top Chef, Episode 10: A Hamburger Bridge Too Far

Thus far Top Chef has served Bears fans, Lincoln Square block partiers, and Second City players. Could the CPD really be that far behind? (Upcoming episode suggestions, before we run out of time and end up in the islands: snacks on the CTA, actually gourmet Garrett's, and some foie-gras carryout delivered to Alderman Joe Moore. Zing!) My personal programming aside, the majority of Chicago's policemen and women probably do deserve a good meal and a PR pat on the collective back in a year where less than their finest have hogged the spotlight. And nothing says "appreciation" like a microwavable meal. Mmm mmm good.

Alert: I got your spoilers right here!

Obligatory shots of the last seven cheftestants doing their hair, deodorizing, and if you're Dale, doing both simultaneously. Season two finalist Sam Talbot rolls in with Padma, the two looking like an Urban Outfitters ad come to life, for the quickfire: creating a sexy but classic salad for the modern age. The phrase "Sexyback" is invoked enough for me to assume that the secret product placement this week has been co-opted by MTV and can only hope that Justin Timberlake is getting a small pile of royalty checks out of this week's show. And the salads, much like JT's musical stylings, range all over the map, from Andrew's Thai fruit salad (the only dish to be completely ignored by the judges), to Antonia's update on a poached egg and bacon vinaigrette (thumbs up), and Lisa's "Sexy Banana" salad with squid and lobster (thumbs down). Spike pulls out his first quickfire win, and a new bright pink bandana, which gets him no immunity for the elimination or poor fashion headgear choices, though he does get a 10 minute head start on his shopping at Whole Foods and gets to take his four main ingredients out of consideration for the other chefs.

And the elimination challenge itself? Create a nutritious, balanced and delicious boxed lunch for Chicago's police officers, who apparently eat trays and trays of Italian beef and gyros from a land where Subway or Mac Kelly's do not exist. (The South Addison Industrial Corridor? What food desert are the Chicago police training in?) The chefs get a chance to wrinkle their noses at fast food while I, comfy on my pal's couch, polish off the rest of my Pick Me Up Cafe grilled cheese and French fries. In the Top Chef kitchen, each mini-meal needs to be low in fat, sugar and carbs, and incorporate four of the major blocks on the food pyramid. And in these simple instructions are sown the seeds of downfall... We'll get to that later. First, the chefs head out to Whole Foods, where Spike leisurely uses his head start to steal away some of the most obvious lunch ingreidents from his competitors. The other six chefs are left with no bread, tomatoes, lettuce or chicken. So BLT's are pretty much out...

Spike's smirking continues all the way through the 2 hour cooking period, even up to admitting to Chef Tom that he originally planned to just leave the tomatoes he'd bought out on display rather than using them in his dish, just to pain the other chefs. This is essentially Spike's personailty in a candy shell: a tough, self-defensive outer layer surrounded a manipulative and spiteful nougaty center. Of evil. Not a nice treat. Spike doesn't seem to be the only baddie in the kitchen, however, as Lisa finds her dish thwarted by a sabotage phantom who upped the heat and burnt her brown rice. The cameras don't seem to catch this particular dastardly deed, though it seems like it could have been Dale -- or possibly Lisa herself, who's already endangered herself by burning most of Tom Colicchio's mouth away with her homemade salsa. That's a good way to prep a judge's palate. The other chefs, mercifully, seem to have less trouble, turning out a slate of options that almost puts Lunch in the Loop to shame -- soup, lettuce cups, stir fry, sushi, burritos, chicken salad and beef curry. Of course, since it's Top Chef and Spike bogarted most of the grocery store, there are some culinary quirks, like bison and cabbage in the lettuce cups, olives and grapes in the chicken salad, and pine nuts replacing rice in the sushi.

The little meals are packed into coolers, carted off to the Police Academy lunch room, and laid out with hand-written heating instructions for the enjoyment of our uniformed guardians. Quick cuts reveal that the police are generally happy with the food, and the editors go for high contrast commentary between the cops ("It's good!") and the judges ('This is undercooked and underseasoned.") From the stew room, Dale and Stephanie are called out first to the judges' table -- as winners! Yay Stephanie! And Dale probably won't punch a wall this week! Happiness all around. For his creativity with a healthy and hearty meal Dale is singled out for the big win -- and awarded a big ol' bottle of wine. Oh, and tickets to the wine's home. To say hello to its mama and papa bottles. (I sense Padma's hand in this prize...)

The bottom three are called in for their talking to, and Andrew, Spike and Lisa form a red-headed wall of sourness in front of the judges. Andrew's sushi approximation was less-than-filling and tasted bad, sayth the judges, eliciting a squirmy tooth-gnashing of excuses and nutritional theory from young Andrew. Ted Allen points out that sushi probably isn't a common choice in the police lunch repertoire, and Andrew may have been better served by bridging the divide between hamburgers and haute rather than just leaping into the deep end. Spike's interest in messing with the competitors got in the way of his own cooking, and the judges took issue with the off flavor combo of olives, grapes and jicama, the obviousness of chicken salad, and the half-assed sides of "crudite" and pita. Lame. And the judges pick apart Lisa's stir-fry for its undercooked rice, "nasty" shrimp and flat flavors -- Tom even suggests it wasn't a stir fry at all, but rather a steamed veggie dish, which has "Meals on Wheels" written all over it, and not in a good, gala way. Lisa tricked him, and he's not happy. Nor is she. Nor are any of the cheftestants. And of course Lisa has to pull one more punch on her way out the door, outing Andrew for his neglect of the whole grain requirement -- which the judges had already noticed and tastefully declined to discuss (same goes for Spike's hats, one can only assume). "Well," sighs Ted Allen after the judges are left alone again, "that was interesting."

In the end it's Andrew who packs his knives. For an unappetizing, unfulfilling and generally underwhelming performance (and likely not the lack of a grain), and I can't say I'm sorry to see him go. He gets handshakes from the judges and hugs from the remaining chefs, and riffs about his honor and ability in his final interview. Spike, unsurprisingly, will miss his better half, and Lisa will likely sleep easier knowning that Andrew's crazy eyes won't get the better of him back at the apartment... And speaking of sleeping better... Zzzzz till next time.

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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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