Top Chef recap: In the Spirit of Things
Adam filling in for Kate here. There, there — we all miss her. But she’ll be back next week. And in the meantime, allow me to be a meager substitute: the Splenda to her sugar, the spam to her chateaubriand, the MSG to her fleur de sel.
Now, in case you were wondering why stores are crowded and people are stressed and your grocery store is playing Mariah Carey on repeat….Christmastime is here! And Top Chef decided to celebrate with a holiday-themed episode full of surprises and cheer and seven — that’s right, seven — actual Christmas Miracles! So let’s get started:
As the episode began, the chefs were just rolling out of bed. Ariane, who won the last two challenges, had a spring in her step. Eugene, whose lack of formal training was catching up to him, had a chip on his shoulder. And Stefan…well, apparently Stefan had a shoe in his ass. Or so he said rather cryptically before explaining that he’s referring to the butt-kicking he got from the judges last round. He joked a bit with Fabio, and then channeled his anger by carving a likeness of himself in a watermelon. Seemed a little odd, but I’m gonna go ahead and assume that fruit effigies are a considered a perfectly reasonable way of dealing with emotions in Finland.
But there was little time to admire Stefan’s handiwork, because it was time to head over to the Top Chef kitchen, which brings us to….
CHRISTMAS MIRACLE #1
The Top Chef kitchen was covered in Christmas decorations! The walls were trimmed with garlands, the tables were covered in pine cones, and Padma was wearing…blue. Way to kill the theme, Lakshmi (side note: She still looked hot). As the chefs buzzed with Christmas cheer, Padma explained their challenge: Create a holiday feast using a single pot or pan. And they got a special helper to guide their culinary sleighs last night, who just happened to be….
CHRISTMAS MIRACLE #2
Martha. As in Martha Stewart, a.k.a. Our Lady of the Copper Cookware, The Duchess of Dutch Ovens, The Jersey Devil. Martha “I’ll-kill-you-then-hand-carve-your-coffin-out-of-legally-harvested-teak” Stewart. Full confession, dear readers: I’m a huge fan. The lady knows her business, and her business — or at least a big part of it — is food.
So anyway, Martha walked in, glowing like a Christmas tree and clutching a copy of her latest magnum opus, Martha’s Cooking School. She quoted Einstein; I swooned. Forgive me if the details here are a bit fuzzy.
Then it was time to get cooking. The chefs had 45 minutes to whip up something that would please Martha (I can just hear her daughter Alexis chiming in: “45 minutes? Please. I’ve spent 43 years trying.”) Jamie grabbed scallops; Hosea picked paella, presumably because it rhymed with his name.
Time was up, and Martha and Padma came back in to taste. Eugene, who made a spicy Korean stew with pork and mushrooms, quickly fell prey to Stewart’s merciless palate. “The broth is thickened,” she hissed, rightly picking out the cornstarch he used as a shortcut. Nice try, Eugene, but you might as well try to slip a poly blend past Michael Kors.
NEXT: All hands on deck
Having graced each of the contestants with a moment of condescension, Martha brought in the verdict. Jeff (potato risotto), Eugene, and Fabio (mushroom polenta) were in the bottom three, and therefore not worthy to lick the soles of her sensible-but-chic clogs. Hosea and Jamie (potato and kale stew with scallops) made it to the top three, but the prize went to Ariane, who fooled Martha into thinking there was butter in her cauliflower purée. (Fool Martha once; shame on her. Fool Martha twice and you’ll wake up with a Friesian horse head in your bed).
Next, it was time for the real challenge. Padma announced that the chefs would have to cater a swanky AMFAR (American Foundation for AIDS Research) benefit with 250 guests. Then, suddenly, along came….
CHRISTMAS MIRACLE #3
The Harlem Gospel Choir sang “The 12 Days of Christmas”! Okay, so maybe this one wasn’t so much miraculous as just kind of confusing. Luckily, trusty Padma was there to clear things up (maybe she really is good for something). Each chef had to create a dish based on one of the days of Christmas. They got three hours to prep that night, then an hour on location before the party. Carla griped that it was not much time for such a big event, but I say Santa only has one night to bring toys to all the kids in the world, so quit bitchin’ and get in the kitchen.
After the commercial break (side note: Seeing that promo for season 2 of Millionaire Matchmaker just made my week), the chefs bolted to Whole Foods for ingredients and things start to get tricky. Some of them had pretty simple themes: Leah got Three French Hens, so she made braised guinea hen. Duh. But others got puzzlers. I felt especially bad for Jeff, who decided to interpret the uninterpretable Ten Lords-A-Leaping as some sort of cheeseventure through the Greek islands. Huh?
Back in the kitchen, everyone chopped, diced, and sliced their goods, while Hosea turned the room into a hot box with some super smoky grilled pork tenderloins. When the timer sounded, the chefs stuffed all their ingredients into a row of fridges, each packed to the gills. No problems yet. But when the contestants came back the following morning, they were shocked to find….
CHRISTMAS MIRACLE #4
One of the refrigerators was warm! Somebody left it open, so everything inside was unusable!
What’s that, you say? Not a miracle? Allow me to explain. This was not a miracle for the chefs who had meat in that fridge. They were totally screwed. Instead, it was a miracle for us, the viewers, who otherwise would’ve had to sit through a pretty conflict-free (read: dull) episode. So hooray Christmas! But before you call me a grinch, hang on tight because here comes…
CHRISTMAS MIRACLE #5
Giving up precious prep time, everyone pitched in to help Radhika and Hosea, the two chefs who lost all their meat to the accident! Aaaaw. Now there’s some real, honest-to-goodness Christmas sprit that would make Jimmy Stewart proud.
NEXT: I got pinned!
At the benefit, celebrity guest judge Natasha Richardson (Joely’s sister, Vanessa Redgrave’s daughter, Liam Neeson’s wife) told a crowd of pretty ladies and well-heeled gays that they were to taste all the dishes, and then pin their red AIDS ribbon next to (or on) the chef of their choice. The judges started their tour through the food, savoring Stefan’s pot pie while dissing Carla’s braised chicken (Tom: “It’s very one note.”) and Jamie’s raw scallop, which actually triggered Padma’s increasingly sensitive gag reflex.
I have to say, I thought the chefs did a pretty good job with the themes. My favorites included Hosea’s smoked pork for Seven Pipers Piping (Get it? Pipes? Smoke?), and Fabio’s so-crazy-it-almost-works explanation of crab cakes for Nine Ladies Dancing (something to do with crab legs and she-crabs being dancers; it made total sense with his accent).
Overall, the party seems like a swell affair, and apparently Jeff’s bizarre seared cheese concoction was actually a crowd pleaser. As the night drew to a close, the guests pinned their ribbons by their faves. And then, before you knew it, it was time for the judges to decide who was naughty and who was nice, gastronomically speaking.
They started with the top four: Hosea, Radhika, Stefan, and Jeff. Radhika in particular was pleased as punch that her duck dish ended up as one of the night’s highlights in spite of her kitchen nightmare. True, you could argue that she didn’t actually make her dish since everyone pitched in, but that definitely wouldn’t be in the Christmas spirit. So shut it. Then the lovely Ms. Richardson has the honor of announcing the night’s winner, a.k.a…
CHRISTMAS MIRACLE # 6
Hosea! His pork dish won! He had to start all over after the fridge malfunction, but he found enough leftover pork to make snacks for 250 people — just as one bit of oil was magically enough for the Maccabees to light the menorah for eight days! Oh wait. That’s Hanukkah. Never mind.
Anyway, the bottom three were next: Jamie, Eugene, and Melissa. Jamie’s raw scallop was too slimy, Melissa’s steak was too cheesy, and Eugene’s weird coconut thing was just plain bad. Guest judge Michelle Bernstein chewed him out a little for being stubborn. Natasha said nothing but looked quite concerned, in a British babe way.
And as for Tom? He was just mad. The food was “universally poor,” he said, before marching into the Glad Bag Dungeon to deliver a group scolding to all the chefs. But then, just as it looks like old Mr. Scrooge will make sure nobody has any excuse for holiday cheer, along came…
CHRISTMAS MIRACLE #7
Tom said nobody was going home! Everyone got to stay! The carolers caroled, the treetops glistened, and chestnuts roasted on an open fire — before being puréed for a lovely soup with sourdough sage croutons. And God bless, us everyone!
Your turn, TV Watchers. Was this episode a lovely Christmas present to us all or a lump of coal in your stocking? Should the judges have disqualified Radhika and Hosea for accepting help from the other chefs? And shouldn’t the next challenge be Hanukkah themed?