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Review Wed Jun 04 2008

Top Chef, Episode 13: Puerto Rico

The remaining Top Chef Chicago episodes may no longer be taking place in our fair city, with only one more show remaining after tonight before a new winner is crowned, but Stephanie Izard is still representing the Chi down Puerto Rico way -- and representing how flushed and uncomfortable Midwesterners look in the tropics. Work that rosy glow, sister! This week the Top Chef kitchen, more exponentially more cramped and sweaty than ever before, sizzled, sneered, and ultimately surprised in a little episode I like to call "There Will be Pigs." Oh yes, here come the meat sweats.

Ed. Note: Spoilers run amok! You've been warned!

Without the Top Chef townhouse, it seems the cheftestants' beauty routines are a thing of the past, and they skip right to telling us how they've been spending their time over the break before the finale -- Stephanie puts to bed the rumors that Scylla closed because her "travel plans" included Top Cheffing. She really was traveling, to Cambodia and Thailand! On her Top Chef Hiatus. Wait. Antonia shares that she's opened her new restaurant out West and become a deadbeat workaholic mom. (Awww. Wait.) And somewhere in Georgia, Richard's wife was about to go into labor! Awww, for real! (Warning: too cute.) The three Happy Chefs all admit they did not expect to be arriving in the finale with Angry Chef Lisa -- which she seems to anticipate, and decides to arrive in the islands looking like someone else. The 'do may be new, but the attitude is clearly the same.

The cheftestants are ushered into the quickfire, where a bananarific centerpiece is distracting from guest judge Wilo Bennet. I admit I'm not familiar with Wilo, even though Richard swears he embodies Puerto Rican cuisine. Really? Because doesn't he look more like he would embody Norwegian cuisine? No matter, Wilo is here, and demands deep fried crispy things! To eat while enjoying a beer! Wait. Are we really out of Chicago? The Final Four have 40 minutes to pick some plantains off the centerpiece and create two separate types of frituras for Padma and Wilo's enjoyment. Lisa, taking a page from Spike's book, quickly runs inside to claim any proteins that might be up for grabs in the kitchen, while Richard and the other girls descend upon the plantains like a horde of tropical termites. Stephanie vows to win by having fewer ideas, while Richard gets acquainted with the roaring blaze (Blais, meet blaze! Ahhh, I kill me) of the gas grill.

Stephanie fries up some tostones with seared tuna, and a pork, plantain and shrimp fitter with brown butter lime and basil sauce, sending the amphibian part of my brain to wondering whether I have painkiller fixings and crispy snacks to snack on when I get back home... Wilo says it's not bad for her first try. Antonia presents crisp oysters with plantain jam and cilantro (plantains on the side -- risky), and a basic fried plantain with spicy slaw. The judges are not bowled over, and Wilo gets a little squeamish about the uncooked plantains sliminess. Lisa also goes the tostone route, using her pan-roasted duck and a mango papaya salsa, and puts together a sweet plantain, red onion and chorizo fritter with spicy chutney slaw, which just is too many nouns in a row for my taste, but seems to get good marks with the judges. Richard goes for a pork meatball with ripe plantain sauce, and green plantain chips with ripe plantain salsa -- apparently trying to KILL THE JUDGES, since raw plantains are a little bit poisonous. At least he gets points for Spanish food names? Stephanie, despite her first try at frituras, pulls out the quickfire win.

Clearly in need of at least a little vacation on this trip (Lisa is wearing a shirt that says "Kosher," while Stephanie is sporting "I heart Tahoe Boys", and nary a sarong is in sight), the chefs are then treated to a little time out of the kitchen at an Old San Juan party in the afternoon. Nothing says party like bongos, dancing, and a big old pig on a stick. Do the rest of the American viewing public and I smell foreshadowing along with those cracklings? Of course we do -- the elimination challenge this week will be to cater a garden party at La Forteleza, the Puerto Rico governor's palace, and party means pig, baby. Each chef has to prepare three different cuts of pork. And, again in a surprise that follows every other reality TV competition formula, the previous four cut contestants are back to serve as sous-chefs/maybe get right back on everyone's nerves for the big feast. And Stephanie, as quickfire winner, gets to decide who works with who. She picks Dale, Richard gets Spike, Antonia gets Nikki, and Lisa gets Andrew (ominous tone in background music). The sous-chefs are sent off to the local market -- take THAT, Ho' Foods! -- while the Final Four stay behind to butcher their hogs, in a kitchen that suddenly looks much more like a 7th grade biology classroom getting ready for dissections. On steroids.

The sous-chefs quickly discover that no one in the Faux Foods speaks English, prompting some pre-school-style communication from Andrew, who for once knows exactly how silly he looks. Spike has a slightly easier time and stocks up a huge box of foodstuffs and a case of delicious-sounding local non-alcoholic molasses-y brew called Malta, at Richard's request. Dale goes for some local fare in the black plantains, which he says only look rotten, and are actually as sweet as candy. Because rotten/delicious is a line you really want to walk in the finale. The Forteleza kitchen, meanwhile, has gone from middleschool science lab to midnight schlock horror film, as the cheftestants hack and maul their pigs. Pork belly, popular as it's been on menus this past year, is a likely choice for several chefs -- which of course, in this case, entails cutting up the pig's belly. We hear Richard quietly planning to cook the entire pig, and then see him searing the sides of the feet and hocks. Everyone in American cringes (except, perhaps, for all those Saw fans out there...). Lisa's mallet is no match for her pig, and flies into pieces as she pounds -- so she blames Jewish karma for the pig butchery problems. Sabotage!! Antonia and Nikki have a super-girly moment over some produce ("Look at these mangoes!" "I knooooooooowwwwwww!!"). And there's some sort of liquid all over the floor, which we can only hope isn't...pig juice. Tom was right -- it IS a party. The chefs head home for the night -- and we see a tray of Stephanie's spice rubbed pork belly sitting out under a counter. That's probably not good. Dun dun DUN!

Dale left it out. All night. Steph tosses it, and loses a whole dish. If it was Lisa (or Dale himself, perhaps), mallets and screaming probably would have been involved, but Stephanie keeps her cool and in no time is good-naturedly spitballing new ideas, and coming up with a chicharrones topped tropical fruit salad to round out her menu of plantain pancakes with coconut braised pork and pork satays on sugar cane. To his credit, Dale displays more humility in apologizing for his mistake than we've seen all season. Porkapalooza is taking its toll on the competitors, however, as Antonia is having some cooking issues (Nikki can smell her fear) and Lisa continues to storm around making everyone nervous. As one of my viewing party members pointed out, it's never a good thing when a contestant says "I'm nervous" right before a shot of the meat slicer... But no one loses any appendages in the high-pressure kitchen, and everyone heads outside to finish setting up.

After mingling with the First Lady of Puerto Rico and other local VIPs, the judges finally make their way around the food circuit. Gail Simmons finds Stephanie's crispy pork skin salad refreshing (...wait) and everyone enjoys the Asian-inflected flavor of her satays. Richard has prepared classic Southern ham and "local" beans, Puerto-Rican style Malta-glazed ribs with pickled watermelon rinds, and a coffee-braised BBQ pork shoulder. He says these dishes are all about where he's from, which is apparently the most diverse neighborhood in all of Georgia. The judges eat it up. Lisa, along with her citrus pork belly with sweet plantain mash and pork-filled yucca rellenas, is serving an adobo pork butt tostone and notes the judges are anal about their expectations...um. The judges back slowly away from her before their plates are clean. And finally Antonia is in the dark as the sun goes down and she has no idea from the judges reactions whether she's made a good impression with her homemade pork sausage with pigeon peas, curried pork with yucca and pumpkin, and honey pork belly with sweet salad. Nikki gives her a hug.

Stephanie and Richard are the evening's winners -- the guests' favorites, the judges favorites, America's favorites. Everyone liked Stephanie's satays. Tom liked that Richard was able to edit himself and put together some really well-executed dishes. Padma probably just liked the boozey sauce on the ribs. But in any case he's declared the challenge winner, and gets a new car! To drive all the way back to the mainland... Wait. And then it's time for Lisa and Antonia's talking to. Lisa has had her poochy anger face on since Richard and Stephanie were called out of the Stew Room, but puts up a much less irritating defense than usual. Tom questions her moving in the Latin direction when her cuisine has been so Asian-focused, Gail didn't like the sweetness of the plantain mash and thought she put too much energy into her garnishes at the expense of the mains, and everyone was disappointed by the sogginess of the tostones. Her cooking was too unbalanced, and the flavors she chose were not good foils for each other, or the pork. Antonia admitted that her pigeon peas could have been cooked longer (no argument from Tom), and stoically took the criticism from Gail for grouping her dishes on a single plate. The judges thought she was the least sophisticated of the chefs, and that all of her dishes just blended together.

And, surprising 91% of the voting TV audience who were gunning for Lisa to go, Antonia is asked to pack her knives and head home. Shut up!! It's a big upset, and Antonia herself is clearly upset, with very few words of thanks or reflection in her final interview. Lisa adds some insult to injury when she bitches at Stephanie and Richard for not congratulating her for sticking around. Seriously, shut up. As Richard says, you won the bronze medal. Congrats. Next week is the meal of a lifetime for the remaining three -- fingers crossed for our Chicago girl!

What happened in the previous 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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