Jen and the boys take on their hardest challenge yet

By Archana Ram
Updated November 19, 2009 at 02:44 PM EST
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Top Chef

S6 E12
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Just in time for the winter Olympics, Top Chefhosted its own Olympics of sorts in last night’s episode. (A mere coincidence considering Bravo is owned by NBC, which is airing the Vancouver games? Yeah, probably. We entertainment writers may be too cynical sometimes.) The cheftestants participated in their own version of the Bocuse d’Or, which are basically the Olympics of the culinary world. I’ve seen my fair share of Top Chef challenges and this week’s took the cake in my book for the hardest challenge to date. And appropriately so, pretty much everyone’s dish bombed.

Starting from the top: For their last quickfire in Las Vegas, the chefs had to create a version of a ballantine, the dish that 2007 Bocuse d’Or participant Gavin Kaysen created at the competition. A ballantine is the Matryoshka doll of cooking, meaning it’s a protein within a protein within a protein. It took Gavin four months to figure out this dish, and the cheftestants? Well, they had 90 minutes to crank it out, natch.

Michael V. finally got booted from his innovative high horse, and I loved it. Instead of following the parameters of the challenge, he created a poultry terrine. Gavin didn’t specifically say ”make a ballantine” and Padma did say to make a ”version,” but this late in the race, with this tricky of a meal, why on earth would Michael V. make a terrine instead? Terrine does not equal ballantine!

On the up side of things was Jen, who pulled herself out of the quagmire she’d been stuck in thanks to a beautiful calamari steak. At first I thought Gavin didn’t approve of her choice to use seafood, but I guess he was just setting up Padma’s ”Welcome back” line. Jen was practically giddy and Michael V. was visibly dismayed, his pout all the more wonderful for Jen fans considering how much he ragged on her earlier. Side note: When Michael V. said about Jen: ”It’s great that we’ve gotten to know each other and all that sort of stuff,” what ”stuff” was he referring to?

Bryan and Eli had pretty ho-hum dishes — the former a rack of lamb and merguez sausage and the latter a Cadbury egg — I mean, breakfast sausage — but the only thing worth noting was Bryan and his brother are more similar than I first thought. Bryan’s ballsy decision to cook such a time-consuming dish in 90 minutes sounded like something Michael V. would do. But thankfully, Bryan doesn’t have that arrogant snarl.

Kevin’s cornmeal-fried filet of catfish was just not all that it could’ve been. It was overcooked and dried-out, but Kevin disagreed — in his confessional anyway. But Gavin did love Jen’s seafood ballantine, and it was enough to give her the win, which earned her more than just an extra 30 minutes of cooking for the elimination challenge; it was also a much-needed confidence boost.

But that high didn’t last long for Jen — or anyone else for that matter — at the elimination challenge, where they all had to create a presentation platter with one protein (either lamb or salmon) and two garnishes for an all-star judging panel, which included chef and owner of The French Laundry, Thomas Keller.

There was something wrong with all five dishes, but to be fair, it was the duty of these faux Bocuse d’Or judges to be that nitpicky. Choosing the winner was more a matter of the least of five evils.

NEXT: Michael V. boned it

There was a common blunder among three of the dishes — undercooking their meat. Jen’s unilaterally cooked salmon wasn’t uniformly cooked; Bryan’s crusted lamb loin had technique (the judges also loved those garlic chips), but, again, poorly cooked; and Eli’s sausage-wrapped lamb loin? Also undercooked. They might not have known their meat wasn’t done, but all three weren’t 100 percent happy with their dishes anyway. Eli’s meat mistake was only reinforced by his sloppy chopping job. Did he really think it was a good idea to hack his meat right there? The judges didn’t think so and for that and his undercooked lamb, they sent him home this week. If Eli were a more interesting character — perhaps a Voltaggio triplet — I think it’s safe to say Eli would’ve stayed.

In fact, for a second, I thought Michael V. would go home. His dish, which wasn’t about undercooking but about disparate flavors, didn’t follow his heavy-handed Mediterranean theme. I’m with Tom; Salmon and caviar don’t at all scream Mediterranean to me. Even worse, chef Alex Stratta found a bone in his fish. That’s an automatic DQ in the real Bocuse d’Or right there.

Lucky for Michael V., he’s good for TV and his fish bone blunder was inconsequential compared to his history of successful dishes — and the sibling rivalry story line. It’s hard to say that Eli shouldn’t have gone home this week considering his uneven record, but I don’t think his was the worst dish of the bunch.

I definitely thought Kevin was drinking the stupid-juice that Michael V. OD-ed on during the quickfire because he, too, adamantly refused to do what he was asked. For a challenge in which the food is presented on the famous Bocuse d’Or mirrored platter, one would think that presentation mattered. To top it off, he cooked his lamb sous vide, a method he was totally unfamiliar with. But in a weird turn of events contrary to Tom’s initial looks of disbelief, he actually won. What? Yeah, I was similarly perplexed and thought Bryan would win considering how much everyone praised the work he put into his dish and what it could have become had he more time.

But as simple as the dish was, the judges chose Kevin’s for being the only one that was cooked properly and most completely. With the win, he earned $30,000 (!) and a spot in the 2011 Bocuse d’Or (!!!). In a way, I’m glad he won because his happiness was way more effervescent than Bryan’s. The older Voltaggio, I finally realized last night, is too stone-faced serious. A little gush of happiness — or even a smile — isn’t going to hurt, Bryan.

Most of them would be disqualified from the real Bocuse d’Or if they served those meals, but considering this was one of the toughest elimination challenges to date, I threw them a bone, and so did the judges, who tipped their hats to the cheftestants for all of their hard work. The top four might not be so lucky next week when they compete in Napa Valley — on a train!

What did you guys think of this weighty elimination challenge? How about the winner and loser — did they deserve what they got? And is anyone else upset about this newfound trash-talking aimed at Kevin that has even Bryan dissing the loveable southern chef?

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Top Chef

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