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Top Chef recap: Room to Improv

After being forced to make a product-placement dish in 15 minutes, the chefs have to cook a $10 family meal with kids as assistants

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Top Chef

TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, Gail Simmons
Reality TV

When I saw that the title of this episode was ”Improv,” I decided to write this TV Watch without actually watching the show. You know,be creative. So the following 1300 words are a diary entry on the fabulous fish and chips my colleague Tanner Stransky and I devoured while on vacation in the Poconos this past weekend. First, we ordered drinks…and of course, I’m just pulling your leg, à la episode 7, though it’s safe to say Tom Colicchio and company were much more creative in their trickery.

Let’s start with the table of sweets. This is season four of Top Chef, right? I’m just checking, because as Padma mentioned, dessert has been the Achilles’ heel of many chefs in previous seasons. So, like, practice making some friggin’ desserts, people! Apparently, some of the chefs did. Thank you, Spike. But Antonia, who was fully aware of the danger of dessert, admitted to not having rehearsed any sugary concoctions. And Lisa said she had sworn to herself she’d never make a pastry because she doesn’t like to measure. ”If you miss baking powder in a pastry or in a bread,” she said, ”you’re f—ed.” Point taken. But ladies, this is the World Cup of cooking. It’s like showing up for the game without bettering your corner kick. Otherwise, this show would be called Almost Top Chef.

Besides, how can you not love dessert? It can be comforting, painful (ice cream headache, anyone?), and, well, sexy. Indeed, the sexual innuendo that’s been a constant in recent episodes continued into this week, except that it was a lot less subtle. (Hey, nothing wrong with it. I’m all for sass.) The guest judge, for instance was the James Beard Award-winning Johnny Iuzzini, who has a book called Dessert FourPlaycoming out in December and a photo on his website in which his body is dipped in what looks like white chocolate. Which is rather unappealing — if only because white chocolate is the gastronomic equivalent of something that tastes like plastic but melts in your mouth.

Speaking of desserts that are unappetizing, I was stoked that Spike had a molten-cake recipe ready to go but decided instead to wing it on a pineapple rum-raisin soufflé. It sounded interesting in theory but looked like kind of a mess when he housed it in the pineapple. And my pal Mark pulled out his Australian guns with the use of wattle seeds in a dish that lacked a through line or a connection, if you know what I mean. Iuzzini said he got the vibe that some people came into the competition already feeling defeated by it. Then there were the more intriguing dishes: Richard’s banana ”scallops” with banana guacamole, Dale’s halo-halo, Lisa’s yogurt puree with fried wontons, and Stephanie’s chocolate cake with salted basil ganache. Like a broken record, Richard came out on top again, gaining immunity.

All the cheftestants thought they too would get a moment of peace while watching the Second City improv show. As Mark explained, they all got dolled up: ”Me and the boys, we don’t want to clash, and obviously [Richard] Blais wants to wear pink. Goes well with the skin tone, doesn’t it?” (His remarks are really apropos of nothing, aren’t they? And that’s why I heart them. As a tribute, I’m going to start dedicating a quote-of-the-episode to stoner Mark, and will end sentences with a sincere rhetorical question: don’t ya think?) Then came the elimination challenge: The chefs would have to cook dinner for the troupe and judges the following day based on a random trio of colors, feelings, and ingredients that the audience was asked to provide. At least they got to change, am I right?

The five courses were yellow vanilla love, depressed purple bacon, drunk magenta Polish sausage, green perplexed tofu, and orange turned-on asparagus. Already I thought, ”This could be one of the toughest challenges in Top Chef history — and if not, it’s one of the most creative.” And then came an additional twist: After having bought groceries and beginning prep, the chefs discovered there were no electric appliances in the kitchen. That was a bit of a zinger for Andrew and Spike, who were making butternut squash soup — the same idea the latter had for a previous challenge that former teammate Antonia had put the kibosh on. Only now, they’d have to hand-puree it, and if they won, Antonia would eat crow and then vomit in her mouth. Blurgh.

Just as the five teams were getting a handle on their dishes, Colicchio walked in to give them a triple whammy: pack everything up in 20 minutes, finish up at the house, and serve the troupe and judges there. This really was one for the books in terms of difficulty.

NEXT: Naughty asparagus