The chefs are challenged to create finer-dining versions of a Mexican snack and block-party favorites

By Vanessa Juarez
Updated March 31, 2008 at 12:02 PM EDT

Top Chef

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This week’s episode of Top Chef started with a bit of obvious editing to make an issue out of something that’s, well, true: the proverbial glass ceiling for women in the fine-dining biz. (It’s the reason Catherine Zeta-Jones, if I recall correctly from an interview I did with her last year, took that part in No Reservations.) And the folks behind Top Chef seem to be keenly aware that women on the show have yet to break through. ”It’s definitely sad to see another woman leaving,” Stephanie said, referring to last week’s loser, Valerie. ”We all just want a woman to make it to the finals and to represent.” Then Zoi said, ”It’s not common to have one lesbian in the kitchen. It’s not common to have one woman in the kitchen. That is probably the biggest struggle as a female, just break people’s image of what a chef is.” Aside from the fact that I thought Casey from last season was clearly talented, I was rooting for her for this reason, but now I’m hoping the judges don’t favor a person only because they realized that they’ve given the final prize to three males in a row. All right, I’m going to get off my Rosie the Riveter bandwagon and proceed to a more important subject: tacos.

For the quickfire challenge, the chefs had 30 minutes to reinterpret the Mexican staple as fine-dining cuisine. It was a tough challenge. Gourmet tacos means the juices from said bundles of joy shouldn’t drip down your arm and off your elbow, which really is part of authentic taco-stand fun, isn’t it? That’s where some folks got tripped up on this challenge, which Mark noticed. ”I’m starting to see a lot of street food going on,” he said. ”I don’t get it, because I’m pretty sure the challenge said fine dining….I don’t know where the street food came into it.” A high-end taco — as in you’re paying $10 for three nibbles of goodness — really calls for an upgrade in ingredients, which means something totally creative or using succulent pieces of seafood, duck, or pork. If I’d been there for this challenge, I may have gone for what have been two essentials in my apartment: First is a soft corn tortilla filled with scrambled egg, chopped-up hot dog, and leftover borracho (drunk) beans; second is a crunchy taco filled with mashed potatoes or chorizo mashed potatoes (and the chorizo has to be the soft Mexican kind that meshes with the potatoes, as opposed to the sausagey kind from Spain). But really, if you have a kick-ass salsa to top off your taco, it could be filled with corn flakes and still taste good. (A couple of my friends who are native Austinites make an off-the-hook chile de árbol salsa that I can get the recipe for if you’re interested.) Okay, wow, I got carried away there.

So Richard used a jicama taco shell, which looked interesante; Ryan stuffed his with squash; and Andrew went for duck, which seemed like a lot to live up to after guest judge Rick Bayless said that duck-filled tacos are his favorite. Manuel surely had all of the other contestants sweating as he described his tacos to the judges by rolling out his accent. In case you missed it, his taco contained the following: chorrrrrizo, pican’ verrrrrde, tomatillos, pepitas (pumpkin seeds), and something about avocado and cilantro that even I couldn’t understand. (Could you tell he was really disappointed when he didn’t win?)

Bayless — correct me if I’m wrong — lost to Bobby Flay in an Iron Chef America battle over Southwestern cuisine. I’m just saying. He is a Beard Award winner. I think I have his book Mexico One Plate at a Time lying around somewhere waiting to be used for something other than setting my hot plate of non-Bayless-inspired food on top of. Maybe all of this explains why he chose Richard’s jicama wrap as the winner. If it had been a reinterpretation of a taco salad, I’d say bravo. But I really think immunity should have gone to Andrew, or to Spike for his ground-pork-infused taco. Maybe, in the end, they’re better off having lost, given that Bayless stole Richard’s dish for one of his own restaurants. (What about royalties? Paging the Top Chef union.)

Before I wrap up the quickfire discussion, thank you to the Top Chef music supervisor for scoring the challenge with that Latin-tinged music, lest we and the challengers forgot the task at hand and got a sudden craving for a croque monsieur.

NEXT: New kids on the block party

On to the team challenge, which I’m not going to spend too much time on because it got boring really fast. They arrived at a random neighborhood in Chicago to find out what the challenge would be. ”As you know, Chicago is a city made up of neighborhoods,” Padma told them. Okay, I had to pause right there. No way! Neighborhoods? In Chicago? ”The reason you’re in this one,” Padma said, ”is because they’re having their annual block party tomorrow, and we want you to help make it the most memorable yet in a Mealstogether.com elimination challenge.” Eh? Anyway, it was the kind of regurgitated ”Let’s cook for Middle America” challenge that they’ve done in previous seasons — big whoop, hamburgers and corn dogs — except this one did have one socially intriguing twist: They had to go grocery shopping in people’s homes. (Insert knock-knock joke here.) Erik called it ”one hell of a curveball.”

This episode generally lacked tension and infighting. Erik got booted. No surprise there. (I will miss the big guy.) So before I split for this week, I thought I’d mention three things that are really apropos of nothing:

First, Andrew made me laugh for the first time when he seemed to genuinely ask his teammates, ”You guys smell that?” A teammate bit — as did I — and said, ”What?” ”Success,” he answered, in a very meathead-Kazakhstan way.

Second, Padma’s promotional spots are ridiculous. ”Let’s put Padma in a sexy dress showing cleavage,” a Bravo exec must have thought to himself, ”and then let’s have her take a bite out of an apple.”

Third, the poll during the commercial breaks asked, ”Which will happen first? (A) Female President. (B) Female Top Chef.” Eighty-five percent of voters chose Female Top Chef. This means two things: (1) Given the outcome of this week’s episode, perhaps the First Lady could be Stephanie, and (2) this does not bode well for a former First Lady who’s running for (A).

What did you think about the episode? Did Andrew go overboard when he defended his work by saying they’d have to drag him out of there if he lost? Would you like to see more drama from this group? How numskulled was Erik for pre-frying his corn dogs? Did he learn nothing from what happened to Valerie last week? And based on this week’s ep, who do you think is most at risk of going home next time, when Daniel Boulud will be guest judge? (I’d say Ryan.)

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Top Chef

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