It's cards on the table time. I was really let down by most of the contestants on last night's episode of Top Chef ("Family Favorites"). Am I alone in that statement?
Sure, part of my frustration might be that I was watching this episode around 1 a.m. after attending the Transformers premiere. But one of the reasons I love this series, a full head and shoulders above FOX's similarly themed cooking competition, Hell's Kitchen, is that on any given week the chefs show an extraordinary range of inspiration, creativity, and talent. None of those things really came through in this week's challenge, which required the chefs to reinvent stodgy American comfort food and update it with a modern twist and an emphasis on low cholesterol.
To me that seems like a really interesting challenge and I expected to see some really innovative takes on dishes like chicken a la King, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, fish sticks and french fries, tuna casserole, and pork chops. I'll admit that I don't eat most of those dishes (ahem, food snob, ahem) but, in my own way, I do love comfort food and would gladly eat something deconstructed and innovative that's based on one of these classic dishes, so long as it wasn't covered in grease or loaded down with macaroni. (Anything involving a can of cream of mushroom soup is strictly verboten in this household.)
In any event, I was interested to see what the chefs would pull out of their hats when faced with such an enticing challenge. However, I can't say that I was really impressed by the dishes or techniques that they utilized. It was hardly a surprise that Howie and Dale-- the only two chefs who produced anything that came close to fulfilling the brief-- ended up in the top two. (I, like the judges, had a hard time coming up with a third best dish and decided to leave it there.)
Howie's fennel crusted pork chops with apple fennel salad and sultana raisin emulsion perfectly captured the spirit of this challenge, updating the tired old pork chops and applesauce for the new millennium by ditching the baby food staple for a crunchy fennel and apple slaw while never sacrificing flavor for low cholesterol. (Take that, Joey!) Meanwhile, Dale took a family recipe for pierogies and transformed it into an update on chicken and dumplings, giving the two generations of Elk Lodge members a memorable dish: chicken filled potato dumplings with broccoli, horseradish, and celery root.
The other competitors? Not so smart. I thought half of the dishes looked atrocious and must have tasted even worse and the other half just seemed clueless about the challenge and tried to take the easy way out. (Hello, Lia, I'm looking at you!) Brian may have had immunity after his genius performance for the Quickfire Challenge, but that's no excuse to throw the brief out the window. I am glad that the judges took him to task at the judging table for doing just that. His lobster and shrimp roll with lobster broth looked delicious but lobster is one of most cholesterol-laden things you can possibly eat, nor am I sure what the thematic connection to his original dish was meant to be. Odd and disappointing.
Did anyone else notice that the editing of this episode was especially tight? We skimmed over most of the dishes in the Quickfire Challenge, with nary an on-screen caption and the pacing on the Elimination Challenge was similarly mercurial. I nearly missed Casey's rib eye Sloppy Joe's with butter pickle and apricot compote, as it went by so quickly.
I'd agree with the judges that CJ's tuna casserole, updated with whole wheat pasta and yogurt and a flax seed tuile, looked just awful; it was comprised of a grassy green mess that resembled nothing less than foodie road kill. Hung's skinless yogurt-marinated chicken and pasta with vegetables was a beige mess on the plate and didn't bring fried chicken and mac and cheese to my mind at all. Similarly amateurish was Joey's lasagna with turkey sausage, eggplant, and mushroom, a messy pile of pasta sheets, sauce, and color filling a bowl to the brim. (What happened to elegant plating?)
I am, however, stunned by Lia's thinking that she had this challenge in the bag with her grilled chicken sausage with Dijon lentils, carrots and onions. Had she made the sausage herself (as Brian did recently with seafood sausage), things may have turned out differently. But she grilled and cooked the sausage with some Guinness, undercooked the lentils completely, and then prepared some vegetables. A winning dish? Hardly. Way too many shortcuts going on here and nothing innovative.
In the end, the two worst perpetrators were hands-down Micah and Sara M. I'm really not sure what was going on with Sara's take on chicken a la King, here presented with a puree of mushroom sauce, couscous, and watercress salad. Sure, Hung messed her up by turning down the oven where she was cooking her chicken, but the flaws of the dish were in the idea itself rather than the execution; what relevance does this dish have to the original? Color me baffled. But it was Micah's jaw-droppingly bad rendition of meatloaf and mashed potatoes (easily the most versatile dish at their disposal) that had me reconsidering these chefs' creativity. Her Italian-style meatloaf with smashed garlic potato and roasted pepper sauces was inedible, leaving an odd aftertaste and an even odder texture.
It was only fitting then that she should be the one to pack her knives and leave. I felt conflicted by Micah as she proved herself so unpredictable and inconsistent: the winner one week, in the bottom three the next. She was all over the place. Sure, she missed her baby (did she remind us enough?) but she had an odd attitude this week, even in front of the judges, which probably didn't exactly endear her to Tom, Padma, guest judge Alfred Portale, and Ted Allen, who now seems to be filling in for Gail. Sayonara, Micah!
Next week on Top Chef ("Cooking By Numbers"), the chefs must work together in teams of three; Joey and Lia butt heads; and Howie admits making an error in judgment.
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Jace is an LA-based television development and acquisitions exec who watches way too much television for his own good and would love a TiVo for every room in the house. (He’s halfway there.) His blog, Televisionary, can be found at televisionaryblog.com.