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

By Vanessa Juarez
Updated May 01, 2008 at 11:58 AM EDT

In the spirit of this episode of Top Chef, titled ”Common Threads,” we’ve outlined nine common threads below.

Common Thread #1: A helping hand In both the quickfire and the elimination challenges, the nine remaining cheftestants got an assist, either from Uncle Ben or from one of a group of sous-chefs — though the latter, who aren’t even old enough to drive, prompted a bit of a squabble in my apartment over whether having kids help served any kind of purpose (aside from the fact there was a charity tie-in). One roommate thought the experiment — in the grand spectrum of challenges on this show — was unrealistic and silly. (He obviously never saw Aaron Eckhart and Abigail Breslin cooking it up in No Reservations. No feat of cinematic brilliance, to be sure, but it does make you hungry for some pasta.) Meanwhile, his point prompted another roomie to shrug off the entire show as being unrealistic fluff. I respectfully disagree with both of them. Whether or not the cheftestants could work with kids revealed a number of things: for starters, their patience in a stressful situation and their ability to teach others.

And just for the record, I thought the kids were adorable. I hearted Manuel, who, when asked what he likes about cooking, replied, ”Eating,” and Alex, who doesn’t have a girlfriend — ”not yet” anyway. Ditto for Richard’s girl, Abigail, who had never tried a beet before, enjoyed it, and then sat down with her table of comrades, who asked what was in their salad. ”Beets,” she declared, as if she’d been roasting them in her Easy-Bake Oven her entire life. (Also, if Spike doesn’t win Top Chef, think twice about hiring him as your nanny.)

Common Thread #2: A helping of are you kidding me? Fifteen minutes to cook up a quickfire challenge. That was followed by a $10 budget for the elimination challenge, in which they had to cook up a healthy meal for a family of four. And they had to shop at Whole Foods, where, in New York City at least, that’ll barely get you a deli-made sandwich and an iced tea. Um, paging Wal-Mart Superstore.

Common Thread #3: Chock-full of new personal details Antonia chatted on the phone with her squishy-sounding sweetie of a daughter; they shared a knock-knock joke that ends with the punch line ”Smell my poo.” Also, Mark has a ”my lady” for whom he cooks veggie curry when he’s ”strapped for cash.” Lisa has a girlfriend who has a child. And Andrew weighed over 200 pounds in high school. It’s nice to have some insight into who these people are — and the factors that may be driving them in this competition.

Common Thread # 4: Stephanie is losing her culinary mojo It seems like she psyched herself out before she could break into her bag of Uncle Ben’s rice. ”So I wake up this morning,” she said. ”Jen’s not here. I’m starting to realize that there are a lot of people gone. It’s been a long haul so far, and we’re only like halfway through to get to the finals. I’ve been at the top a bunch of times, and now I know what it’s like to be on the edge of getting cut. I’m lucky to still be here. So I need to prove that I’m actually supposed to be here.” But she blew it. Last week it was orange turned on by asparagus that got her into trouble; this week, her brown-rice pancakes flopped and her tomato and peanut butter combination turned everybody off. Padma said she ”detested” it and called it ”disgusting.”

NEXT: Mama’s cooking

Common Thread #5: Bottoming out doesn’t mean you can’t pick yourself back up againCheck out Antonia. She phoned it in last week with that drunken Polish sausage. This week, she won immunity during the elim challenge for her rice salad with skirt steak — and she didn’t even need it after busting a move with that chicken-veggie stir-fry dish. She said it was a no-brainer: ”Honestly, if I didn’t win that challenge, that would have been embarrassing. Like the mom can’t cook food for kids.”

Common Thread #6: Dude, where’s my car?The prizes for the elimination challenges are getting lamer by the episode. Antonia got nada — or at least her prize wasn’t shown on air. Come on, guest judge Art Smith — you’re Oprah’s personal chef. Where’s the car with the keys in the ignition?

Common Thread #7: Is it just me or do the judges’ lines seem slightly dramatic? ”Speed and efficiency are highly prized in professional kitchens, where an entire dinner service can crash and burn if just one chef on the team falls behind,” said Padma. Crash and burn. Those strong words reminded me of some quasi-culinary words my volleyball coach, who called us her little eggs, used to say: ”A little bit of pressure, and [smacking her hands together] you crack.” Then, near the end, Tom, describing Lisa’s dish, said, ”The beans and edamame were undercooked and really bland, like no seasoning at all….It wasshocking.”

Common Thread #8: It’s the food, stupid The best of the episode looked to be Spike’s puttanesca, Nikki’s roasted chicken, Dale’s more adult-friendly turkey bratwurst with cabbage, and Andrew’s chicken paillard.

Common Thread #9: Chock-full of nuts Mark got off to a rocky start in the quickfire challenge with his miso-glazed turkey over rice, which Padma mistook for chicken. Ouch. And Mark knew it. ”Yeah, I don’t think I’m going to be in the top three in this one,” he said. Then things went awry with his ladies’ man curry. When Mark found himself in front of the judges, he actually seemed to be serious when he said, ”I’m a little baffled, Padma. I think Tom doesn’t like me.” Tom laughed, and Mark ended up getting the boot anyway. But Tom added, ”Just for the record, again, I don’t dislike you. You’ve been a great competitor. You’ve been fun to be around. And I’m sure we’ll catch up after this and share a beer.” (Sweet words from Tom, who’s usually not that empathetic.) Ohhhh, sniff. Mark made me laugh every week. He even went out saluting everyone with a fist-pumping mantra at the end: ”If I could say anything to my fellow chefs, it would be ‘Rock on, rocker!’ ”

And speaking of nuts, did anyone stick around past next week’s preview, when Andrew had this outlandish outburst: ”I have a culinary boner right now.” It was apropos of nothing at all, and to be honest, I was shocked that Bravo put that in. Of course, the only explanation I can think of is the common thread of sexual innuendo I mentioned last week — except I’d go out on a limb and say this was a lot less subtle.

What’d you guys think of this ep? Did I miss any threads? Who’s next to go? And is anyone else starting to feel Bravo is promising us too much with the teasers, suggesting all this drama that actually never pays off (like Antonia’s minor sobbing over her daughter)?

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