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
S4 E7
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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

The first dish served was Spike and Andrew’s soup, which Padma said was so good she ”would lick the bowl if we weren’t in front of the camera.” (That, or a marketing guy told her to save it for an erotically ridiculous Top Chefpromo.) Then Stephanie and Jen presented their orange turned on by asparagus, which really wasn’t refined looking. They got caught up in the idea of a phallic presentation, which prompted one of the troupe members to say, ”I’m going to feel weird eating this” — and it was not because his palate was being challenged. As pretentious as they can be, Dale and Richard really are quite the team. The execution of their green perplexed tofu was impressive. Cooking a vegetarian’s go-to food in beef fat? Brilliant.

Following that duo was really detrimental to Antonia and Lisa, who had been assigned magenta drunken Polish sausage. Rather than use store-bought Polish sausage, they went with chorizo. At first, I gave them props for not settling with something mediocre, but they still used store-bought chorizo. Given that Nikki got lambasted the week before for not making her own sausage, it seemed as obvious as practicing for dessert competitions that they should have at least attempted their own Polish sausage. Granted, I know next to nothing about kielbasa, but grind it with something else — ad-lib! — and create something new. Needless to say, my empathy waned, and so did the judges’. But what mattered most: the rules of the challenge or the overall taste of the dish? It was obvious that Stephanie and Jen were in trouble when it was pointed out that they not only hadn’t followed the rules well (cheese was the main ingredient in their dish) but also hadn’t awakened anyone’s taste buds. Stephanie’s been on top too many times to get the boot, so it wasn’t difficult to guess that Jen would go home.

Richard and Dale won the competish, along with $2,500 in cookware, but the moral of this story is that there’s ”no room for error,” as Richard said. Ironically, they’re the exact words Antonia, who was nearly sent packing at the end, uttered in the first minute of the show.

Who knows what’s going to happen next? Nikki and Mark were a good match here. Nikki typically plays it safe, while Mark usually gravitates toward the eccentric — so they wound up in the middle with their pork and glazed bacon. But they could end up anywhere separately. With Jen out, we’re down to five guys and four women. And talk about a roadblock next week in the form of little kid helpers: Adorable, honest, and/or obnoxious are the usual kid modes. And I can’t wait.

What did you think of project improv? Did Jen deserve to go? And are there any other white-chocolate haters out there who want to start a club?

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