The chefs work as a team in less than ideal conditions to give 300 airmen a feast, but it turns out defending their dishes is a solo affair

By Archana Ram
Updated September 03, 2009 at 01:08 PM EDT
Trae Patton/Bravo

Two nights ago I was standing in my small kitchen, wondering what to make with Bisquick, kidney beans, and honey mustard. It was all I had in my pantry — clearly I needed to go grocery shopping — and since bean pancakes didn’t sound quite right, I picked up the phone like any good New Yorker and ordered take-out. A good decision, but also a lazy one. If I had the skills (and drive to compete) like the cheftestants on last night’s Top Chef, I probably could’ve whipped up a sweetened bean dip with whole-wheat crumbles, or something equally edible and perhaps tasty.

This very lesson — to make do with what you have — was the theme of last night’s elimination challenge. The contestants had to prepare a meal for 300 airmen at Nellis Air Force Base, home to the aerial acrobat team, The Thunderbirds. The catch? The chefs didn’t know their ingredients until they got to the kitchen, and not just any kitchen — a mess kitchen, meaning no burners, no pots, no pans. But the contestants couldn’t do take-out like me; they had — to borrow from another Bravo show — to make it work.

It all started, not with another nod to Vegas, but with a quickfire challenge where the chefs had to wow guest judge Mark Peel, chef/owner of Campanile in L.A., with their ”out of this world” spin on the potato. A little backstory: Peel started out as a vegetable boy for Wolfgang Puck and spent many a day with a potato in one hand and a peeler in the other. This quickfire was a little homage to Peel’s earnest roots. Too. Many. Potato. Puns.

I give it to the chefs for their inspired creations. Ash tried a sweet potato ice cream, Laurine created a potato burger with a portabella mushrooms bun and Mike I. made a risotto out of potatoes. But the quickfire was not without drama. (Hello, it’s Bravo! What would their reality shows be without that strumming-impending-doom guitar twang?) When Preeti used Ashley’s pot of boiling water instead of Kevin’s like she was supposed to, Ashley flew off the handle and then had 13 minutes left and no boiling water for her potato gnocchi — or that’s what the editing led us to believe. Still, for all her anger, she was pretty tame. If it were Jen’s pot you took, you’d probably have your eyes gouged with a wine opener. Ick.

Anyway, Ashley not only pulled off her gnocchi and homemade ricotta, but Peel called it one of his favorites, too. Crisis averted! Alas, Ashley’s gnocchi and Ash’s sweet potato ice cream-turned-custard (it wasn’t cold enough as ice cream) were among Peel’s faves, but Jen’s steamed mussels with Yukon gold and blue potatoes won immunity, yet no $15,000 chip this time. Guess the kibosh on the Vegas references spilled over to the prizes, too?

NEXT: Serving the servicemen

When time came for this week’s elimination challenge, Colonel Dave Belote, commander at Nellis Air Force Base, marched out to announce that the chefs would be making a meal for 300 of the nation’s finest airmen, some who’ve just returned from overseas and some who’ll be leaving soon. The challenge got the contestants waxing patriotic about their own relations to the military: brothers Bryan and Michael V.’s sister has served in the air force, Kevin participated in ROTC, and Preeti said it was on 9/11 that she realized she wanted to be a chef. She didn’t really explain the connection, but the bigger ”Huh?” moment was when Ashley didn’t bring up anything about gay rights after finding out the military was this week’s theme. Last week she bashed the bachelor-bachelorette challenge because she, as a gay woman, couldn’t participate in the institution of marriage. But this week she had nothing but shining things to say about serving members of an organization that has had a spotty record with the gay community. Seems a bit inconsistent, no?

The positive energy about the challenge served the chefs well, as they rallied together to come up with a plan — seven teams of two, cooking one dish each, and Jen serving as leader. It was a seemingly smart, organized game plan and unless the editing had us fooled, it looked like Mike I. came up with it. I guess I’ll give him props for that. He rationalized that since Jen had immunity, even if they didn’t do well as a team, it wouldn’t be any skin off her back. True, but the better reason to make Jen leader is her tough-as-nails approach. Daunting, yes. But it gets the job done.

And what a job they had ahead of them. When the chefs got to the bare-bones kitchen at Nellis, there was canned food, Spam, dried goods, meat, corn and zero stoves or pots. This left them with few options and even fewer cooking tools. Thanks to natural-born leader Jen, they seemed to make it work in the four hours they had, despite some sharing issues over the lone kettle, which Preeti and Laurine hogged for their pasta salad. The menu ranged from three-bean chili (Hector and Robin) and roasted beef strip loin (Bryan and Mattin) to Greek salad (Mike I. and Michael V.) and chocolate bread pudding (Ashley and Ash), but the odd dish out was Jesse and Ron’s New England clam chowder. A warm dish on a hot day? Would the airmen dig it?

Apparently, yes. It was a hit with the crowd, but…we shouldn’t be surprised because Ron’s chowder has won four times at the Montauk Festival. Impressive? I guess he needed to say something worth putting on TV, considering he’s getting less and less screen time with each episode.

Aside from the chowder, the judges loved Kevin and Eli’s potato salad and Mike I. and Michael V.’s pork belly lettuce wrap (which they made in addition to the Greek salad). But the panel wasn’t afraid to point out the advantage the two Michaels might’ve had from having already worked together. Still, the third degree they gave them was still nowhere near as entertaining as what was to come.

Once Michael V.’s dish won first for its color, flavor, and texture, then came the best part of the episode — the judges’ ‘tudes.

NEXT: Excuses, excuses

Preeti, Laurine, and Mike I. were in the bottom three, much to Mike I.’s chagrin. On the one hand, we can understand his feeling sour when his cooking partner, Michael V., won the challenge. At the same time, no one made them cook in pairs, so tough luck if your ”teammate” won and you’re on the bottom. Mike I. was livid and his mouth started running, admitting that he wasn’t 100% comfortable serving the salad, to which Padma whipped back, ”Then you shouldn’t have served it.” Ouch.

But thankfully for Mike I., the focus was less on him and more on Preeti, Laurine, and their uninspired pasta salad. In the one corner was Preeti who obstinately defended the dish as better than most of the other meals. She even had the balls to question the judges’ preference for the clam chowder. Better than their pasta salad, Tom shoots back. Nice try, Preets.

In the other corner was Laurine, who blamed the sub-par dish on poor ingredient selection. That’s a pretty lame excuse considering everyone had to work with those ingredients. Someone wasn’t paying attention in class today — work with what you got! But what seemed like the nail on the coffin was when Laurine admitted to forgetting she was in a competition. When you’re on a competitive reality show, that is never a good answer.

That kicker had me thinking that Laurine was for sure going home, but to my surprise, it was Preeti who got the boot. Surprised or not, I’m glad it was Preeti. She barely made a smidge — let alone any sort of mark — in these first three episodes. Go big or go home, and home Preeti went.

What do you guys think? Who deserved the elimination more — Preeti or Laurine? Was the plan to divide duties into teams a smart move? Whose dish sounded the most delectable? And how about the judges’ remarks?

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