Top Chef recap: Strategy Shmategy!
Hey! Mallika Rao here. I’m filling in for Annie Barrett this day before Christmas Eve. So hello everyone! And how about these All-Stars?
Personally, I am sad the Spice Girls’ bodyguard, a.k.a. Dale, is gone. I loved Dale. He was huge and sweet and put veal on French toast. But if Top Chef is all about shaking off the victories, as winning Dale puts it, it’s also about moving on from the losses. Bye sweet Dale! We hardly knew ye. Meanwhile, Spike Mendelsohngets the cut this week after some dark moves by car salesman Angelo and black hole Jamie, who managed to undercook beans, avoid elimination, and claim all the while that she hates strategizing.
The “Swanson broth quickfire challenge” asks the chefs to (surprise!) create a delicious stuffing without using knives and kitchen tools. I’m not sure what falls under “kitchen tool” and neither apparently is Fabio, who decides he’ll have to crush potatoes with his head. (Instead, he uses a poison grater.) Meanwhile, redheaded Tiffani correctly calls stuffing a “mother-specific” dish, and says her mother’s stuffing is the best. “Jedi f—ing stuffing.” But Tiffani’s over-sweet stuffing ranks toward the bottom, along with Casey’s and Carla’s, both of whom seemed to doom themselves by avoiding the rush to grab ingredients. “Whatever is meant to be will be,” Carla says. “And what is left is quinoa.” (I’ve only had quinoa once, but I think there’s a reason it was the only thing left.). Tre tells us his family didn’t “accept” what he made this Thanksgiving. “Nothing against my family, but I’m cooking for a little bit more refined palette.” Nice call Tre! Guest judge and Italian expert Tony Mantuano deems Tre’s Southwestern stuffing “well-balanced spicy,” and the dimpled one snaps up $20,000 to fund the raising of his daughters, plus immunity. “Swanson: call me up,” Tre says, which somehow sounds like a threat the way he says it, but presumably is not.
NEXT: Tennis, anyone?
Elimination challenge: This is a complicated one. Each member of the two teams must create a dish suitable for the lean athletes of the U.S. Open and face off “head-to-head” (dish-to-dish) against the opposition, earning or missing a point each round until the first team gets to four points. Like a tennis match! “Strategy is involved,” Mantuano says. (“Damn you Mantuano!” Spike says, way later, maybe.) “Do you play your strongest dish first or do you save it to win a more crucial point in the game?”
The teams retreat back to their lair to hammer out some menus. Carla is excited about her team’s multi-ethnic menu and wants to do an African peanut soup. Like Casey before him, Dale shows poor psychic abilities. “Has anyone been to the U.S. Open?” he asks, a distinct tone of judgment in his voice. “It’s a very upscale event.” He explains via confessional that vegetarian soups are not upscale, using “vegetarian” in the same vaguely sinister way some people say, “Barack Hussein Obama.” (SPOILER: Carla’s vegetarian soup wins.)
Over at Team Yellow’s huddle, all kinds of strategizing is going on, none of it good. Spike (poor, doomed Spike) wants to bring out their worst dish first, under the assumption that Team Orange will bring out their best and “waste” it. Isn’t a better strategy simply to not have a worst dish? Because maybe, Spike, you made Jamie think she should fill that category. For her part, Jamie tells us she’s not hot on Spike’s strategy, or really any strategy ever. “If I can avoid fighting, I’m going to avoid fighting,” she says, frowning slightly. Since she’s actually using the word “fighting” to mean “participating,” this seems like a bad life philosophy (but, as it turns out, a brilliant strategy).
At Whole Foods, we learn Tre put on weight eight years ago. That is okay, Tre. You sleep naked now! Angelo busies himself getting a bunch of mackerel he surely knows he won’t be using, since he likes to take ingredients (and happiness) from the people around him. Carla reiterates that she’s sticking to her downscale vegetarian guns.
For this challenge in particular, people are all kinds of terrible at predicting what will go over well. Casey tells us faro is an unusually tasty grain, then hides it under a slab of pork. Antonia doubts the wisdom of Fabio’s whole wheat gnocchi, and while I support doubting Fabio’s wisdom at all times as a sort of default mode, the dish sounds clever. She also drops a good personal history tidbit: “I never played sports in high school. I smoked a lot of pot and did nothing else.”
Over at Team Yellow HQ, things aren’t so laid back, and the members already seem handicapped by the manipulating that’s going on. “That’s what I’m talking about, chick peas!” Jamie crows, which is just a blatant lie. Angelo darts around stealing food from people, claiming he’s “gotta make the best of it,” while Tre — who has immunity — steers Angelo’s grasping hands towards Tiffany’s tuna. (That sounds dirty, which I blame on Angelo.) As a sign of Team Orange’s innate superiority, Carla cuts half her fingernail off à la Jamie at the museum, only Carla slaps an orange bandage on her middle finger like a visible f—- you and soldiers on.
NEXT: Game, set, matchAnd so the match begins! Jamie refuses to play per Spike’s plan, pitting Casey’s pretty good pork tenderloin against Fabio’s winning gnocchi. Strike one, Team Yellow. Now it’s Dale’s edamame dumpling dressed in spicy carrot froth against redheaded Tiffani’s black bass sashimi. “Two strong dishes again,” says Colicchio, and indeed the dishes kind of look exactly the same. But except for Padma, the judges prefer Tiffani’s take, and the scoreboard is tied! Next up: Angelo vs. Marcel (who Angelo refers to as “Marcy”). “He always plates on a spoon!” Marcel points out. What is up with that anyway? Does Angelo feed a lot of babies? But the judges go for it, and Angelo’s smoked tuna with yuzu gelée beats Marcy’s cauliflower couscous topped with yellowfin tuna.
But Angelo isn’t done. His grasping hands are on Tiffany’s dish now (dirty again, Angelo!) and whether because of his “help” or despite it, a close call between Tiffany’s spiced tuna with fennel and peppercorns and Antonia’s diver sea scallops swings Antonia’s way. Show ‘em that finger Carla! The scoreboard is tied again, and while Spike is “pissing in his pants,” Angelo and redheaded Tiffani decide to manhandle Spike’s soup. Some yuzu gelée perhaps? Just what a tomato tamarind soup needs. “Angelo’s like a car salesman,” Spike says. “You don’t know if you can trust him or not.” As it turns out, Spike’s soup loses out not because of the gelée but because of the badly-seasoned shrimp, and Richard’s lamb and tabouleh (which together make “Thaibouleh” for some unexplained reason) win.
It is match point now, and Jamie’s literally hiding under a table. Tre it is! Immunity in hand, Tre lets Angelo oversear his salmon, and Carla’s vegetarian soup takes the huge win. Dale’s mind is blown as he reconsiders the meaning of “upscale.” Team Orange jumps in joy. Carla’s orange middle finger is in prominent view.
In the containment chamber, Mike is suddenly the life of the party. There’s dancing, there’s Angelo’s “playful side,” there’s Carla’s absurdly long neck. Casey, it turns out, is a pleasantly awkward dancer. And, oh, what is that? Oh yes, there’s Jamie’s lies. “Are you upset you didn’t get to cook?” Spike asks. “Yes and no,” Jamie says, though she conveniently leaves out the reason she’s not upset. “Why?” Spike asks for all of us. “Because I didn’t get to present my food. It sucks,” she insists, tucking her chin back so she looks a whole lot like Amaya from The Real World: Hawaii (anyone?), the girl who pretended she couldn’t eat pork.
Fabio, Carla, Richard, and Antonia are soon called in for high praise and the chance at a trip to Italy (Fabio looks duly unimpressed). “I would love to just go to Italy and eat my way around,” Carla says. Guess what? You get to!
Bottom Four: Tiffany, Spike, Casey, Tre. Spike doesn’t throw Jamie too far under the bus, saying only that “her beans had a bite to them” (isn’t “bite” generally considered a good thing?). But his meaning is understood. It’s Jamie who bites. Colicchio counters with the sad truth: “Well, the strategy backfired somewhere here because if you think she had the worst dish, she’s not even up here for elimination. She’s not even here.” The idea of whether Angelo tried to sabotage his team members is brought up and deemed irrelevant. “Ultimately, we cook our own food,” Tiffany says. True. Gelée or not, Spike didn’t have time to season his shrimp and he knew it. Despite all his “strategy” talk, he was the least strategic competitor of the bunch, falling prey to Angelo and Jamie who sneakily avoided elimination even with nonexistent mackerel and chick peas. Those two are officially the scariest contenders for the prize. And so: “Mendelsohn is out!” leaving the remaining All-Stars to journey into China Town to botch dim-sum without him.
Until next time, Merry Christmas and enjoy your food!
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