The contestants form teams to cater a party with dishes based on zoo creatures' diets, coming up with some stuff even dogs won't eat
S4 E2
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Aside from increasingly tough and inventive challenges, there are a few themes already developing on season 4 of Top Chef.

Two of them involve things creatures produce. Can you guess? One is fairly obvious: hair. There’s an ongoing debate in my apartment about whose quasi peacock hairdo needs to go: Richard’s or Jennifer’s. We’re split down the middle. Richard’s drives me nuts. It’s a fauxhawk — granted I am no hairstylist — but it’s too short for the traditional spikes, and it strikes me as being as formal as his food and personality. Could it be that he uses the same molecular extracts in both? If we had scratch-and-sniff TVs, perhaps last night we would have smelled eucalyptus. Actually, Richard is less of a mad scientist than guest judge Wylie Dufresne. The reason I bring up the WD-50 owner (I haven’t made it out to his New York restaurant; have any of you?) in this discussion of hair is that he deadpanned a great line while tasting everybody’s quickfire dishes, muttering to Mark, ”Nice sideburns.” It was just so unexpected. Even Mark giggled.

The second trend — and there’s no way to put this delicately — is poop. If you recall, in episode 1, Erik made that terrible nacho soufflé with a streak of refried beans going across the plate. I mean, as a half Mexican I love me some refried beans, but a pretty garnish they do not make. During last night’s quickfire, which involved creating an entrée using five ingredients from a green market, Andrew used an unauthorized component: balsamic vinegar. His response when busted? ”Poo.” Soon after that, Nikki made dried-blueberry-and-cheese-stuffed mushrooms, which looked like — you guessed it! Here’s hoping this movement is over.

Onto the food. Is it just me or has there been a lot of red meat? Steak au poivre, sirloin steak, seared rib-eye steak, tenderloin tips, lamb chops. Though my stomach is kicking at the thought of it all (I’m sensitive), I would have loved to try Mark’s immunity-winning ”sirloin steak turnips, mushrooms, peaches, butter” because I love a play on sweet and savory or sour. (My late great-aunt, for instance, used to make an amazing sauerkraut with apples and brown sugar.)

Here’s a test of our mutual gullibility: When the main challenge came along, how many knives did they have to pull before you were finally convinced that they were not going to have to cook exotic animals? Even though Antonia wondered how she might braise bear, I was pretty confident by then that there was something more to this contest. (Besides, either PETA or Morgan Freeman would have hunted down Padma and Tom if they had given the order to prepare penguin à la king.) And while we’re on the subject, I just can’t wrap my head around the creature that is Andrew. Did you hear him growl like a lion? He’s a caricature with those facial expressions, that voice, and the things he says. It’s 10 p.m. Does Elmer Fudd know where his child is?

NEXT: Eating like animals

So the animal thing was a nice twist on the usual catering gig: They had to base their dishes on the diet of their chosen species. ”What’s the diet of a vulture?” Zoi asked. ”Decomposing carcasses, road kill, rats…” The chefs were given three hours of prep time before going to the venue, which seems generous but is actually tricky for those who haven’t really thought through how their fab ideas for hors d’oeuvres will hold up. A cocktail party for 200 people. If the joint isn’t properly ventilated, you have to think about how that body heat is going to make things sweat. So on we went with blini and celery chips and stuffed mushrooms. It was fairly predictable how things were going to end up, depending on what you think was worst: a badly garnished pancake that hadn’t seen a griddle in what seems like ages, crab mush, or putting something in your mouth that looks like a turd. Nikki was responsible for the aforementioned mushroom monstrosity (cheese is not a garnish, by the way; it changes everything), as well as the bright idea that they should buy some accessories to gussy up their table instead of spending their cash on food. Um, hello, Top Chef, not Top Design.

The judges thought the Russian pancakes flopped too. That was a bit ironic given that while Valerie and Stephanie were pumping iron at the beginning of the episode, Valerie had said that she would like to work with her at some point. Well, didn’t she rue the day.

What did you all think of this ep? Was there a nibble in the main challenge that you would have loved to try? (The banana bread, the marinated anchovies, and the Moroccan meatballs looked appealing to me.) And what the freak was that promo spot with Padma twirling around with really big knives?

By the way, thanks to reader DC Foodie for the tip on Richard. He was on Iron Chef — who knew? I used to be into who would reign supreme — and the show is still fun every once in a while — but I don’t want my DVR to overload. How did Richard do? And which chef did he go up against?

PS: I had drinks with someone last Friday who is friends with Rocco DiSpirito, and after I mentioned I had written some mildly disparaging things about him in my last TV Watch, she was hell-bent on getting me to go out to dinner or drinks with him. To change my mind, you know? (I have to admit, it is easier to give someone the smack-down when you’re not saying it to their face. Ahem, be civil, people!) I’ll let you all know if it ever happens.

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Top Chef
Tom, Padma, and Gail tell the cheftestants to pack their knives and go.
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