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Top Chef: "Block Party"

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Tonight’s episode neatly demonstrated two important rules that all Top Chef contestants should know going in, yet some invariably stumble over them every season. And since one of the rules gets broken in the Quickfire and the other in Elimination Challenge, I’ll divide this recap accordingly:

Rule #1: Pay attention to the frickin’ assignment.

That one seems pretty easy, but some people just refuse to listen. If you’re going to compete on Top Chef, you really have to prepare to work within certain parameters: Whether that means freezing your food for Bertolli-style boil-in-a-bag pasta or making something sophisticated out of gas station fare or using the leftover ingredients from last night’s restaurant service. Otherwise, it’s not really a “challenge,” is it? And yet there’s always some resistance, usually arising from some high-falutin’ principle about how food should be prepared, when the challenge is about how food can be prepared. If you’ll remember Harold, our winner from Season One, he nearly always prefaced his participation in a challenge by saying something like “that’s not what I’m about,” but he survived by sucking it up and making some extraordinarily inventive dishes out of limited ingredients (e.g. popcorn ceviche in a junk food challenge.)


Tonight, Rick Bayless served as guest judge, an appearance that will surprise no Chicagoan who recognizes him as the ubiquitous upscale Mexican entrepreneur behind Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, and various semi-fancy over-the-counter salsas. (My experience with Bayless’ conjoined restaurants is this: Frontera Grill takes no reservations and is a huge tourist attraction, thus making it impossible to get into unless you want to wait hours for a table. And much as I’ve always wanted to try Topolobampo, I usually don’t think a month or two in advance about where I’m going for dinner, so I haven’t made that happen, either.) Appropriately enough, the Quickfire assignment involved turning the humblest of Mexican street foods, the taco, into something upscale.

Sounds simple enough, right? But oh, the rending of garments! A handful of contestants seemed to feel that it was an insult to our neighbors to the south—and, er, our neighbors at the burrito stand around the corner—to take their cheap, unpretentious dish and gussy it up for the foodie elite. Erik was particularly incensed about it and he was among the few who revolted by keeping the “street food” as is, thus defying the essence of the challenge. On a certain level, I can appreciate Erik’s perspective: Perhaps it is a little arrogant to “elevate” perfectly delicious peasant food into something snootier and less accessible to the masses. But then, isn’t making something new and inventive and transformative with food what great chefs aspire to do? And is it really such a slap-in-the-face to imagine a taco that isn’t the usual ground beef and fixins’ stuffed into a shell? Don’t worry, Erik: The taco shall endure.


The irony, of course, is that Erik ignores the challenge and still can’t make a half-decent taco. Much like his nacho cheese soufflé, his taco plate was just plain ugly on the plate, with yet another of his patented black-bean poop smears. The ever-clueless Ryan, too, wasn’t into making “upscale tacos,” either, or else he wouldn’t have wrapped them in the paper you get at corner carts and ma-and-pa fast food joints. At least Spike—who along with his beard buddy Andrew, appears to be into imitating Borat a year too late—straddled the line a bit by acknowledging the taco as street food, but pushing the flavors to a “soul-satisfying” level. Still, there was no question that Richard had this one in the bag, since he completely reconceptualized the taco by making the tortilla from jicama and packing it with the light, cooling flavors of avocado, papaya, and cilantro stems. I’m not sure if it’s the dish I’d most like to eat from the Quickfire—I’d go with Spike’s for sure—but Richard wins for simply understanding the assignment better than his competitors.

Rule # 2: Think about how your dish will taste when it’s eaten. Emphasis on “when.”


Remember the microwave challenge from Season One, when contestants had to prepare a dish that could be reheated in a microwave without drying out or falling apart or losing any flavor? The savvy ones—like Harold with his Thai coconut seafood soup or Tiffani with her winning escolar—thought about how their dishes might survive (nay, thrive) under these less-than-optimal conditions. The fools didn’t think ahead, especially the woefully overmatched Candice, who decided to make a quiche, which of course went limp and mushy in the microwave.

We saw a little of that lack of foresight last week with Valerie’s black olive blini, which absolutely had to be made on the spot to avoid tasting like a cool lump of dirt. And we got it again this week in the Elimination Challenge, where contestants had to prepare their “block party” dishes hours ahead of time in the Top Chef kitchen and then transport it in hot boxes and Tupperware. Needless to say, the few chefs who turned out strong dishes knew that their food would have to survive the journey. The unfortunate majority failed to look plan ahead.


Before getting into the dishes, I should say that I really like this challenge a lot. Block parties are a great Chicago tradition in many neighborhoods and they wind up looking exactly like the one depicted here: Neighbors on lawn chairs and street curbs, a cheap dunking booth or moon bouncer for the kids, coolers full of beer and soda, and encased meats as far as the eye can see. My only real issue with the challenge is that charcoal grills are also ever-present, and it’s a shame that none of the food could be prepared on the spot. Otherwise, this was a nice taste of summer in Chicago.

The stinkers first: Erik’s corn dogs were a completely inexplicable choice. He knew they’re only good out of the deep fryer and that they’d get soggy en route to the party, yet he went through with it anyway. Dude deserved to go home. Nikki had the good fortune to be on the winning team, but that mac-and-cheese looked atrocious—another victim of Rule #2 above, but even under optimal conditions, how good is a Velveeta-based dish going to be? Then there’s Ryan, who took the crunch out of his Waldorf salad by piling on the chicken, and self-pitying Zoi, whose bum assignment to do the pasta salad turned into self-fulfilling prophecy.


On the plus side, hooray for Stephanie taking down the second of three challenges total. I was deeply concerned about how that “sexy drink” would turn out, but it apparently tasted better than it sounded, and her clever twist on the wonton impressed judges who normally look down at dessert. Another high-five should go to the Blue Team in general for trying to push for more than the usual burgers and dogs; as the judges rightly point out to the puff-chested Red Team, cooking down to people by assuming they’ve got common palates is another kind of snobbery.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

• I’m guessing that Ryan and Nikki will be the next two to go. Ryan has yet to even comprehend what dishes like Waldorf salad and chicken piccata are supposed to be, much less executed them competently. And aside from her simple (albeit delicious-looking) lasagna, Nikki has served up one disaster after another. When you call mac-and-cheese your “signature dish” and still fail to deliver on it, you’re not the next Mario Batali.


• Richard may seem like the odds-on favorite, but there are cracks in the façade. Tonight, one experiment (the jicama tacos) paid off while the other (the paella that was really a pilaf) fell flat. It only takes one week of two failed experiments to go home, and steadier contenders like Stephanie might win out in the end.

• Crazy Andrew: “You’d have to drag me out with security guards, because this is my house!”


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