Top Chef has such a high level of talent this year that it’s already getting difficult to eliminate contestants in only the 3rd episode. Compared with last week’s controversy over what barbecue really is, this week’s episode moved along rather smoothly. There was more than a hint of “sore loser” attitude at the point of elimination, but one chef previously struck with bad luck took his opportunity to shine.
This week’s celebrity judge was the award-winning Alfred Portale. He is the head chef at New York’s Gotham Bar and Grill. His restaurant won the James Beard Foundation’s award for Outstanding Restaurant in 2002 and Portale himself took home last year’s James Beard Foundation award for Most Outstanding Chef in the Nation. If that wasn’t intimidating enough for contestants, Padma unveiled with a flourish the subject of this week’s Quickfire competition – a tank filled with living shellfish.
One by one contestants filed in to dip out a net full of the creatures. 30 minutes later the top 3 included Howie’s obvious, but outstandingly flavorful, ceviche, CJ’s ugly but tasty Fruits de Mer, and the winner, last week’s elimination winner Brian, for a complex and flavorful presentation built on simple steaming of the shellfish in wine. Brian was set with immunity from elimination while we had a hint that Howie might finally be on the right track.
The elimination challenge turned out to be very straightforward. Classic family food was presented – the “old classics” like tuna casserole, chicken a la king, sloppy joe, meatloaf, etc. – and the task was to re-invent the dish in a lower cholesterol, healthier version. Contestants were given $75 for shopping and a somewhat generous 1 hour for prep and 1 hour for cooking. The results were served to diners at the Miami Elks Club. Although the task was straightforward, the results were less than inspiring in many cases. Tom Colicchio felt that relatively little true re-invention was going on.
Kicking things off for tasting was a rather ugly re-invented tuna casserole with an abundance of green material from CJ. After two more dishes, new judge Ted Allen voiced the concern as “We’ve had 3 courses of ‘not wow.'” There were high points as things unfolded. Dale delivered an outstanding chicken and dumplings utlilizing instant mashed potatoes for dumpling dough and store-roasted chicken. Hung presented re-worked fried chicken topped with crispy chicken skin chips that had the fat rendered out until it was translucent (this made me wonder what fat-less pork rinds might be like!) The chicken prompted a comment from a diner that it was a little different from Grandma’s fried chicken, but “Grandma’s fried chicken will kill you!”
On to judging time, and we ended up with only 2 top finishers this week. Dale’s chicken and dumplings was picked along with a gorgeous reworking of pork chops and applesauce into a fennel-crusted pork chop plated beautifully with an apple fennel slaw by Howie. After a near fatal disaster in week 1 (finishing only one portion of the challenge) and disappointing results in week 2, Howie finally demonstrated his skills and won the elmination challenge. Take that, Joey!
Unfortunately, we did have to see a chef leave as well. An amazing 5 contestants were pulled in to discuss the bottom group. Brian, even though he had immunity, was lectured for his use of high cholesterol lobster and excusing it with saying it was fine in moderation. It was also noted that Brian works in a seafood restaurant and always prepares seafood. This is even more narrow than Ilan’s love affair with Spanish food last year. CJ’s ugly green tuna casserole, Sara M’s mystifying version of chicken a la king, and Lia’s lazy sausage and lentils were all discussed. However, the choice for elimination seemed obvious. Rarely does a dish prompt uniform comments from judges that it was “terrible.” Micah’s meatloaf did just that. She left by saying she was ready to leave before the other contestants became really ugly in turning on each other.
On Sunday night, meatloaf was a winner on The Next Food Network Star, but this night it was definitely a loser. One comment was that the meatloaf was crunchy. It was a moment that I was happy to not be a Top Chef judge.
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