Catering a dinner for critic Richard Roeper, the contestants team up to make dishes based on their favorite films; plus, they show off their skills with veggies

By Vanessa Juarez
Updated April 03, 2008 at 12:05 PM EDT
S4 E4
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Can we talk about the fact that Richard Roeper was throwing a party for Aisha Tyler? Seems like a bizarre connection, right? Well, it turns out that Tyler subbed for Roger Ebert when he was recovering from cancer surgery a couple of years ago.

Now that that’s settled, wasn’t this episode one of the most exciting in Top Chef history? In all seriousness. For starters, the level of the game is being amped up by the week: white chocolate, wasabi, and celery root all in one dish, and it’s good. Perhaps it’s that season 4 has been fairly uneventful. No huge arguments. No fisticuffs. No hot-tub action. No self-pitying raps. No consequences typical of a reality show. That’s why ”film food,” the elimination-challenge concept, sucked me in. The one annoying detail: The contestants were broken up into teams, so they weren’t able to individually pick their own favorite movie.

You know the saying ”You are what you eat”? Do you think you are also what you watch? I’m not a big believer that your favorite film defines you as a person, but I can say with confidence that Ryan and Mark have tastes, and presumably personalities, that are poles apart. When the duo tried to decide on a film, Ryan was getting stoked over Dumb and Dumber (definitely would have called for something with hot sauce) and Old School, while Mark suggested To Kill a Mockingbirdand Mad Max. (Read: Ryan was once a frat boy, and Mark is socially conscious.) They compromised and settled on a happy medium: A Christmas Story. ”First-of-the-season cranberries…awesome, you know, that’s Christmastime right there, isn’t it?” said the curly-haired cutie in all sincerity.

Il Postino and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory made for more interesting choices, for obvious reasons: Italian food and chocolate are food-pyramid musts. I thought team Dale-Richard-Andrew might rue the day with the latter choice, seeing as how contestants haven’t wanted to touch dessert with a 10-foot whisk. A savory dish would just have to be innovative and really, really good. And though Richard may not contemplate his hairstyle when he wakes in the morning, he must be constantly thinking about how he can exploit new flavor combinations, technology, and techniques. ”Willy Wonka is about imagination,” he said. ”It’s about making a gumball that tastes like a roast beef sandwich that turns into a blueberry pie.”

Before we get into what happened, which of your favorite movies would you want a dish to be inspired by? I posed the question to my roommate, who said, ”I suppose if someone was going to cook something really good, I would pick a French film: Rules of the Game. It’s from the ’30s, set in the French countryside, and I just remember there’s hunting involved, and that would mean fresh game.” My pick lacks sophistication but is all heart: Pieces of April. There’s something about a dysfunctional family and Thanksgiving dinner that’s comforting to me.

Stephanie and Lisa came through with comfort food by way of Top Secret!: sautéed New York strip, braised short rib, and an apple pot sticker, topped off with a caramel drizzle. And Mark and Ryan had some scrumptious-looking quail breast with carrot puree and spring rolls courtesy of A Christmas Story, which Ted Allen said was his new favorite dish. Willy Wonka ended up coming out on top, and who would want it any other way? ”I thought it was whimsical,” said Tom Colicchio. ”I thought it was fun.” Guest judge Daniel Boulud announced that Richard was the individual winner.

NEXT: Flops

On the other end of things, team Zoi-Antonia and team Manuel-Spike ended up on the bottom. The former was on the chopping block primarily because their film-food combo was a bad sell as a concept, whereas the latter bombed altogether. Zoi was a bit confrontational at the judge’s table: ”The bottom line is flavor,” she said, her voice quavering; then she admitted that the purportedly vibrant colors ”weren’t as we had imagined.” My roommate was convinced Zoi was drunk (after swilling those beers backstage). I couldn’t tell if it was that or that knot in your throat you get when you want to cry but are holding it in. I had sensed that Manuel could be going home this ep. He bottomed out in the quickfire, and it wasn’t the first time. He’s very endearing — ”It’s an honor and privilege to work with a talented group of individuals” — but there’s some sort of disconnect with his execution. Meanwhile, my prediction for the next chef to pack up his knives: either Spike or Ryan. What do you think?

Just so you guys don’t accuse me of not watching the episode — because I do, more times than you know — the quickfire challenge said a lot about who might be sticking around for a while. Creating a vegetable plate for Boulud was a pure test of skills and creativity — one that couldn’t be masked with sauces, foams, or cheese. Given what they produced, we’ll be seeing Richard, Stephanie, and Dale for quite some time. Boulud said Dale’s vegan sashimi was beautiful. It was intimidating enough that Lisa scrapped a similar concept.

And finally, did you see the promo question that read, ”What do you think of Andrew’s idea to present the food as Oompa Loompas? A. Long on laughs. B. It fell short.” I think ”as bonkers as both Andrew and the movie characters” should have been a third option. What would have your multiple choice answer been? Ten words or less.

PS: Like Water for Chocolate, the flick Manuel had originally suggested, is a great film.

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