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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Top Chef: "Penn & Teller"

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And now for my deconstructed recap of tonight’s Top Chef episode. Just jam a spoon into the computer monitor, stir up the random nouns, verbs, and adjectives, and hope it doesn’t turn out like Ron’s paella.

Just kidding. No high-concept Top Chef review for you tonight, but after two weeks away at the Toronto Film Festival—and special thanks to Claire and Emily for filling in for me—it was fun to return to the sort of episode that separates the wheat from the chaff. As I’ve explained here before, I get impatient in the early part of each season waiting for the clearly overmatched chefs to hit the bricks, and I appreciate episodes that make the real competition clearer.

The big issue tonight: How do you solve a problem like Robin? Asked to produce an “Angel/Devil” duo for the Quickfire—because, as the tortured explanation goes, this duality between temptation and prudence is what Las Vegas is all about—Robin turned to a simple apple and arugula fennel salad and an apple crisp. That was enough to win over Michelle Bernstein, who’s perfectly happy with (and perhaps favors) simple food so long as it’s well-executed. She also happened to mention that she has cancer, and thus she can ill afford to listen to the devil on her shoulder. And guess what? She wins the Quickfire and gets immunity, despite the overwhelming consensus from her fellow chefs that she’s the weakest of the lot and deserved to go home before Frenchie.

So what say you, people? Should Robin get credit for putting out the best dish or do you agree with Eli, who snorted, “pretty good way to win a Quickfire, to tell someone you have cancer”? I’m inclined to think the former myself, but the waves of contempt coming from the other contestants give me pause. It’s like a more polite repeat of the Marcel situation from Season Two: Marcel may have been an irritating and immature guy, but he always provoked much uglier behavior from others than he himself ever did. At the same time, you have to trust that widespread hatred of the man must come from somewhere and that maybe his most egregious crimes happened offscreen or are an accumulation of incidents that we don’t always see.

In any case, the other chefs are not happy with Robin. Part of it may be a respect for meritocracy: They don’t think she cooks at a high enough level and more talented people (Mattin and Hector, to name two) have left before their time. Another part of it is they simply don’t like her very much: Eli complains about her exploiting her illness to get a sympathy vote from Bernstein, and Laurine gets pissed off about having to help Robin out while her chips go soggy and her fish gets dry. Then Ash, who only got one of his two lousy custard dishes out of the kitchen for the Quickfire, has the gall to denigrate her for winning with a simple salad and apple crisp. In the end, I’m pretty ambivalent on the issue. There’s arrogance and hostility on one side, and mildly annoying know-nothingness on the other. Fortunately, just about all the people involved in the mini-spat with the exception of Eli—Robin, Ash, and Laurine, basically—are going home sooner rather than later, and the drama will evaporate in kind.

The Elimination Challenge brought professional magic-ruiners Penn & Teller to the table, and in their honor, the chefs were asked to prepare deconstructions of classic dishes. And right away, it’s clear that the real contenders are going to get some distance from the also-rans, who have no idea how to pull off an effective deconstruction or in a couple cases aren’t clear on the concept at all. As a result, there wasn’t much in the way of mediocrity emerging from the kitchen; the gifted chefs put out refined dishes like Michael’s Caesar salad or Kevin’s spicy chicken mole, and the overmatched chefs could not fake their inexperience, leading to catastrophes like Ash’s mashed potato-free shepherd’s pie or Ron’s not-quite-deconstructed paella with soggy rice and overcooked fish. Any of the bottom three could have gotten the boot, and Robin was fortunate that her clam chowder (which Padma likened to Cream Of Celery soup left overnight) wasn’t on the block. Her time will come.


And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the other big news of the evening: The return of Toby Young—or, as I’ve come to think of him, Top Chef’s Kara Dioguardi. The chefs must have been advised to quake with fear (one calls him “the meaning guy in food criticism”), but for the most part, it was a muted return for everyone’s fourth favorite judge. The canned bon mots were largely gone—though his prickly insistence on mispronouncing “paella” was in questionable taste—and he was content with meat-and-potatoes criticism. I mean that literally: The show really needed a British foodie to sample Ash’s shepherd’s pie sans potatoes. Young’s reaction shot alone when learning that the potatoes had been replaced by a pea puree was maybe the sharpest critique he’s offered yet.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

• Sorry for the lateness, but I can’t stop watching the Windows 7 Launch Party video, which will surely be a viral sensation by the time dawn breaks tomorrow. On the off chance it isn't, enjoy the mesmerizing awfulness: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1cX4t5-YpHQ


• Top Chef Rule #213: Never cook anything that has to “set,” especially in a Quickfire situation. You will end up with a runny mess that cannot be served in good conscience.

• Padma, setting the ball on a tee for Penn: “Believe it or not, I’ve actually had bull testicles.” I’ll leave you to create the perfect quip below. I believe “Salmon Rushdie” might be the right place to start.