Top Chef recap: The Italian Job
The chefs try to out-fashion and out-Italian each other, with some devastating results
Last night’s episode of Top Chef started, as they all do, with an obituary for the recently departed. Marcel is no longer among us. It’s easy to complain about the guy, but I’d rather applaud him. As Tre points out, Marcel is a good chef. He also rapped, which made for stellar TV. We’ll probably forget all about him until he pops up in some future spin-off (Top Chef: Just Foam). But until then, he rapped! And nothing our next villain does can possibly compete.
Our next villain: Mike Isabella. To judge from last night’s episode, Mike has one main personality problem: he talks constantly about all the wrong things. We see him chat nonstop about how Marcel was rightly kicked off. It’s not a smart move since we all saw the footage, and Mike didn’t come off any better. Mike talks A LOT about being Italian, which good for him, but Fabio’s Italian and you don’t see him bragging about it. Generally, Mike talks about things no one cares about nearly as much as he does. Unsurprisingly, before the opening credits rolled, Antonia the Black Hammer puts him on top of her enemies’ list.
When the chefs enter the kitchen there is someone mysterious standing next to Padma. He is not the normal rotund scruffy-faced chef du jour. No, this is Isaac Mizrahi, overseer of the fancy clothes in Target. Fabio is “picturing already him telling us, ‘Chef, you gotta make-a great dish and then. I hafta wear it.'” We learn that, fortuitously, Angelo’s two loves are food and fashion. So either he’s about to win this challenge or the TC editors are making his eventual missteps more tragic.
And now: Padma has a jewelry line? Isaac Mizrahi is unveiling some sort of Xerox machine-inspired runway wear? It’s Fashion Week? I don’t know. Mizrahi says something about how Xerox machines trick your eye, and everyone nods. Even Mizrahi looks concerned about the strength of the concept, but they’re all nodding furiously. Yes, Emperor, your clothes are stunning! Padma’s dubbed voice hastily adds that Mizrahi is co-host of a clothing show. I like to imagine Mizrahi standing with a taser pointed at the base of Padma’s spine as she mouthed that line into a mic. How dare you forget my co-hosting of that clothing show!
The Quickfire Challenge is a true fashion world idea: prepare food that’s meant to be looked at, not eaten. (Eating makes you fat!) Mizrahi is judging purely on visual aesthetics. We learn our chefs’ respective advantages. Carla was a model in Paris. This makes complete sense. Have you seen her neck? It is wonderfully long. And not that it matters, but she’s soooooo nice. I bet she was the nicest model in the world.
Blais has this idea about black. Mizrahi, he’s noticed, wears black all the time, so Blais is gonna do it that way. Black ice cream, that’s his game. Dale is inspired by some picture he bought his girlfriend, which is very Dale-ish, being moved by his own art selection. Angelo tells us he always wanted to be a “food stylist.” Go figure. Fabio says he’s sorry, but Angelo, your dish looks like a bag of vomit.
Next: Angelo sticks both feet in his big mouth
Meanwhile, talky Mike is talking, but this time he’s saying some good stuff. “Antonia has like a tree with gravel on a plate, Tre has like different colored dots on his plate like he’s playing connect the dots, Angelo has a bag of salt with an egg in it and he’s painting the table.” Good, descriptive, unsettling stuff.
We move from Carla’s and Tre’s inoffensively pretty plates – a borscht with cucumber lattice work, and a salmon and beet connect-the-dots formation – to Fabio’s, about which WTF? I have no idea what is on Fabio’s plate. There is a paragraph? Written about his sense of style? And some explanation about ladies under the rain and how the ladies are tuna and their umbrellas are mushrooms and now they’re cowering under lemon acid rain showers! Tiffany calls it “bullcrap” and “ridiculous,” but those two qualities are exactly what the fashion world famously yearns for, no? Seems clever to me, considering the challenge. To Mizrahi too. He makes a face that looks disgusted but is actually joyful.
Moving on, Mizrahi turns up his nose to Dale’s cantaloupe-hearts-of-palm graffiti work, calling it “unappetizing.” He raises his hand in an imperiously Mugatu way, says “Thanks,” and floats on. Dale tells us a fashion designer’s opinion means nothing to him, which would probably actually be true if the whole point of this challenge wasn’t to impress a fashion designer.
Now Mizrahi arrives at Mike’s puree, composed in the colors of Padma’s outfit. “I mean there’s nothing more delicious than a raw egg, is there?” he says, spotting one. “Especially when it doesn’t have salmonella.” This was just the weirdest! All happy and cheery and then sudden doom. It made me worry about Mizrahi. He’s probably the type of guy who can’t ride in a convertible without talking about all the car accidents he’s ever heard of.
I wasn’t into Richard’s black sundae, which looked like rabbit droppings frosted in mold. But Mizrahi seemed enthralled. Onto Antonia, who was inspired by the book The Giving Tree. Say, did you know The Giving Tree is Isaac Mizrahi’s favorite book? I bet Antonia felt pretttty clever when she heard that. But Mizrahi took issue with the proportion of nut/pebbles to the tree. He notes that “the nuts are too big or something,” and by the way, that’s what she said. “I think it’s the most ridiculous comment I’ve ever heard in my entire life,” Antonia tells us before bringing up Fabio’s tuna people. Mizrahi likes Tiffany’s take on debris, and her dish really does look better. Her crumbled rye bread looks exactly like dirt, in its purest, most dirt sense.
But then we’re at Angelo, poor Angelo, who shoots himself so many times in both feet. “Roberto Cavalli is my favorite designer,” he says, why, I don’t know. An entirely different designer, Isaac Mizrahi — who has shown himself to be a prickly, sensitive fool — is the guest judge. Still, Angelo goes ahead and says it, and now Mizrahi is doing a powerful shrug that leaves me feeling burned through the screen. Oh, and also? Angelo (1) scrawled the word “crocodile” on the table and (2) spelled it wrong. The way he’s got it down, it’s “CROCADILE,” just steps away from becoming a toll free number for male escorts in Florida. Mizrahi doesn’t even glance at the curried salted egg in pineapple skin. “This I take issue with,” he says, gesturing at the shameful mess around the plate. He calls the writing on the table “Charles Manson or something.”
After praising his guest judge-ship for providing “such a challenging challenge” to the normals, Mizrahi proclaims Blais the winner. He loves the black ice cream so much, he’s almost tempted to take a spoon to it. Black is the new black!
Next: Things get seriously Italian up in here
Time passes and some suited-up fellas strut into the kitchen where the chefs hyperventilate about pulling out guns and cutting off fingers and digging ditches. Killing people basically. But tonight’s Elimination Challenge is much more innocent: cook a three-course Italian meal for the Italian-American owners of famous NYC landmark Rao’s Restaurant: Frankie No, Junior and Dino.
In the huddles, everyone’s trying to out-Italian everyone else. Mike’s got Junior’s ear, and he’s going on about bucolic New Jersey pastimes like stealing meatballs. Tre doesn’t let it get to him. He’s going to make risotto, by golly! Because that’s the dish he won with once! “People do call me the black Italian,” he says. Explanation? Antonia misses her parents because they’re Italian. Fabio isn’t letting his accented Italianness go unnoticed. He’s all cacciatore this and contorno that. In case you’re counting, that’s three real-ish Italians with homecourt advantage. Angelo seethes. He is not Italian, no no, not at all.
I don’t know if it’s because the Quickfire was so entertaining, but the kitchen feels downright quiet tonight. Antonia raises a mild eyebrow at Tre’s risotto, which he’s not roasting thoroughly enough for her liking. As always, Carla is excited. She says the ladies are a pleasure to work with. I guess the Black Hammer thing doesn’t scare her the way they tried to make it seem like it scared everyone last week. Tiffany’s polenta catches on fire, but no bigs. She’s got more.
At the judges’ table, which includes guest judge Lorraine Bracco and Anthony Bourdain, there’s lots of hearty laughter and reminiscing about the Scorseses. “Remember that fabulous movie we made with all those fabulous people?” Lorraine sighs. Everyone else sighs too, even people who don’t remember because they weren’t there.
The girls’ Antipasti dishes go over well with nearly all the judges, though Frankie No says Carla’s minestrone is the kind of soup you’d find in Wisconsin. More like Dis-consin! Everyone loves the sausage in Tiffany’s polenta, but it’s Antonia’s family-style mussels with fennel that hits the Proustian mark. Tom remembers clam-hunting with his dad, Lorraine remembers a meal Ma Scorsese made during Goodfellas. Padma remembers nothing, unfortunately. She raises her eyebrows instead.
Now people are out-Italianing each other at the judges’ table! “I’ve never been south of Rome. I gotta get down there,” Colicchio says. Silent waves of judgment emanate from those more Italian than him. The Primi dishes arrive and no one likes a single one. Mike’s fresh rigatoni isn’t cooked, the fresh pasta with brussels sprouts and pancetta that Dale makes for his girlfriend (who he’s suddenly name-dropping all over the place) is roundly abused. “Some poor bastard in the Witness Protection Program is eating this right now,” Bourdain says. Tre’s risotto is over-garnished. Bourdain throws out another zinger about risotto not being something to cover over like you’re hiding a body. A famous line, that. I’ve heard it in all the promos.
In the kitchen, the bromance between Blais and Fabio is clearly still in full swing. Blais calls Fabio a “magician,” which in this context means a smart slacker who does everything at the last minute and still gets it right. And yep, the judges rave over his polenta. Richard’s pancetta and Angelo’s sauteed pork chop rate more mixed reviews. Bourdain says the pork is so busy, it “violates a cardinal rule of Italian cuisine.” Tom’s response is as simple as good Italian food: “I liked the pork.”
Next: A big argument about risotto
In the waiting chamber of judgment, Mike casts vague aspersions on Tiffany’s antipasti, saying it doesn’t sound like real antipasti. This makes it all the more satisfying when Tiffany is called in with the two who are always winners, Carla and Antonia, plus Fabio, who generally does well. Mike is left scrambling for explanations. “One of them had steamed mussels and one of them had that terrine made and had a salad,” he says desperately, “It’s like, how much work do you really have to do in the kitchen?” Blais has immunity so he’s safe. He wonders if the groups are ever switched around and called in twice, or something complicated that I think is meant to appease Mike.
Luckily for Italians everywhere, no foreigners win this round. It’s Antonia! She knew “to leave a good thing alone,” Colicchio says. (Fabio argues that she actually made a French dish). When she announces the news to her waiting colleagues, there’s stunned silence followed by lurching applause. “Thanks?” she says. No one seems to understand why a bowl of mussels took the prize, but then again, they weren’t there to see the memories start flowing.
Mike is now saying he knew his pasta was undercooked. Tom says the dough was so eggy it wouldn’t have cooked even after fifty minutes. Lorraine Bracco’s input is the saddest. “It just wasn’t good Mike. I’m sorry.” Dale just looks crushed, because the dish he makes for his girlfriend apparently sucks. “I don’t know how you can make pancetta bland, but it was!” Lorraine says. Tre takes the worst beating. “If you say the rice wasn’t cooked right…” he begins. Colicchio steps in like a hero. “I will,” he says.
An argument over whether risotto should lie flat or stand up ensues. Tre says a flatter dish would have made it flatter. They all say that’s silly. Bourdain gives him another death reference: “You buried it in garnish.” Back in the waiting chamber of judgment, Tre utters one of the most poignant lines a huge man can ever say: “I didn’t make my risotto creamy enough.”
The judges call the losers back in and the words glide right out of Padma’s mouth. “Tre, pack up your knives and go.” I don’t know how to say how sad this made me. Tre smiles like an adorable child, and he said all these sweet things: Like, “See you in Dallas,” to Tiffany. And that he “won a lot of knowledge and a lot of new friends.” And a mumbled something about knowing to use a flatter dish next time he makes risotto. Isn’t it heartening to see that kind of denial and rigid self-confidence in an exiting Top Chef contestant?
Top Chef fans, were you sad to see Tre go? Do you think Isaac Mizrahi knows anything about food? How do you prefer risotto?