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Review Thu May 29 2008

Top Chef, Episode 12: Meat Madness

The heat is ON in the Top Chef kitchen, as was the pressure for me to invade someone's home and steal their cable to tune in last night. With only one more elimination before the final four take off for Puerto Rico, the tension was sizzling on set -- and what better way to characterize the bloody battle that is American reality television, than carving up giant hunks of red meat. Aw yeah, America, Top Chef takes out its butcher knives and throws down at the pass of one of Chicago's own. Better late than never, here's your recap.

Ed. Note: Mucho spoilers lie ahead, my friend. You've been warned!

Button, button, who's got the button? The cheftestants. No hair products or toothbrushing this week -- things are serious in the Top Chef manse. The only personal grooming the chefs are now allowed is the ritual buttoning of the jacket. An outfit quickly ruined when the chefs arrive at the Allen Brothers packing warehouse, ready to don USDA approved meat gladiator gear and hairnets, and leap headfirst into the quickfire: butcher a slab of dry-aged long-bone rib eyes into Tomahawk chops. In 20 minutes!

Stephanie's side of beef is bigger than she is, and the rest of the other chefs struggle to lop through the tough dry-aged parts of the meat. Except for Spike, who channels his butcher grandfather's spirit, turns his hairnet into a SARS mask, and goes to town on his meat, whipping out chops faster than anyone else in the room. It's almost impressive enough to make you like the guy. After the 20 minutes are up, the chefs box up their chops and head back to the Top Chef HQ, where Tru guru Rick Tramonto and Padma (in a very uncharacteristically unflattering pair of high-waisted pants) are waiting for part two of the challenge: cook that chop! Cook is medium-rare and make Tramonto happy. Do it! But wait, what's this? Rick isn't tasting any of the steaks -- just cutting, prodding and checking their color. Sneaky. Padma asks each of the cheftestants, a little desperately, "How did you like this challenge?" hoping to draw attention away from her pants.

Interestingly, Richard and Stephanie are chucked to the curb for this particular challenge, as Tramonto criticizes their uneven- and under-cooking of the meat, and sloppy butchery. Lisa, Antonia and Spike all get props for their well-cooked and well-formed lollipop chops, and Spike takes home the win, affording himself another opportunity to lay claim to main ingredients in the elimination challenge. Because that worked out so well last time. And that challenge: create an appetizer and an entree and then run the two stations at Tramonto's Steak and Seafood. And the ingredients will come from what Tramonto and co. already have in stock. The chefs are let go for the night to mull over the possibilities, and they finally get to eat something at home! Thank goodness those Tomahawks didn't go to waste, and we also got our moment of product-placement zen, with a Glad bag that could double as a pirate's pennant. Thanks, corporate America.

The next evening, the chefs have three hours to raid Rick's fridge, prepare their menus, and get ready for a dining room of 60 hungry suburbanites. Spike, using his quickfire card, goes for the Tomahawks and some frozen scallops, which the other chefs seem more than happy to not have to deal with. Was he blinded by his new steak love? Or the brim of his hat? In any case, he doesn't seem too ruffled, even after going through miles of paper towels to thaw and dry the little buggers, until Tom Colicchio shows up and arches his eyebrows. At which point Spike's love affairs with his proteins rapidly devolves into self-doubt and second-guessing. Much like any real relationship.

Tom spreads waves of apprehension through the rest of the prep area as well, where Lisa is concocting peanut butter whipped potatoes (straddling that fine line between awesome and horrifying) to accompany her New York strip with apple and caramel and grill n' chill shrimp starter and also falls victim to the pre-service jitters, and bitching about the heat of the wood-fired oven. Honey, if it's too hot in the kitchen... Sigh. She also manages to groan "sabotage!" to the other contestants -- it's getting old. Stephanie and Richard are rocking the sweetbreads, in a crunchy presentation with pine nuts and raisins, and punching up the flavor of a bacon-style-sliced hamachi, respectively. Richard seems a little bummed about having to cook in a steakhouse and puts together a tenderloin with turnips and apples in red wine. He seems downright alarmed when Tom, eyebrows arched, insinuates Blais might be taking it a little too easy. But what's a molecular gastronomist to do? There are no plastic sous-vide poaching or smoking bags to be found -- not even the Glad banner-bag Richard was waving around earlier. Antonia is also playing it a bit safe, pulling out her poached egg trick that served her so well in a previous challenge, and a classically prepared ribeye with a carmelized shallot and potato gratin.

The judges for this week include the past three seasons' winners, and Tom steps down from the judge's table to expedite the meal, which seems to brighten the cheftestants mood a little. The judges order a tasting menu for 6 of 1/3 sized portions of all the available appetizers and entrees -- and the feast begins. Richard's Vitello Tramonto, despite the silly name, is received extremely well by the panel, praised for its bright flavors, balance and originality. Stephanie is also lauded for an impressive sweetbreads presentation, the judges citing the crunch of fennel and bright sweet and sour taste as refreshing -- and elements that were missing from Spike's prized scallops. Despite her hesitation in the kitchen ("Does this look stupid?"), Stephanie's entree is also called gorgeous at the table, and has the judges nearly clamoring for full portions. Antonia's entree also gets raves for its succulent fattiness and overall richness. Service continues on for the rest of the tables, Tom gets in on the tasting action, and suddenly it's all over and the cheftestants and limping into the Stew Room to drink and curse (with love) until final judgment.

In the end, it shakes out as we probably all expected: Antonia, Richard and Stephanie are safe and Peurto Rico-bound, gracious, happy, and excited. Stephanie wins a Tramonto cook book (Fantastico! Really?) and a full suite of GE Monogram appliances. Every little girl's dream! (Product placement!) Richard's was the favorite appetizer of the night, and Antonia had the favorite entree. Which leaves us with the two perennial sourpusses, Spike and Lisa, who in true contrast to their teammates, are cranky, self-defensive, and stand-offish. Lisa has been on the bottom of judgment five times, and Spike has been there seven. Lisa's about-to-cry face looks uncomfortably like a something-smells-bad face. Spike blames Tramonto for having frozen scallops in his walk-in -- if they weren't available, he wouldn't have used them! We've seem this all before, and this time, Spike is asked to pack his knives and go. Wow. I was sure Lisa had it coming after last week -- she had better pray to whatever demon she’s drawing her power and luck from, man. Spike is glad to have gotten so far, the Good Chefs are sad to see him go (aww), and Lisa seems to think Puerto Rico = clean slate. I can't imagine that's true, if there's any karma left in reality tv-land, but since MAKEOVERS seem to be in store for San Juan, who knows what'll happen. Stay tuned... I'm booking my TV viewing ahead of time next week.

What happened during the last episode?

 
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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...
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