Top Chefs Fail to Make Creative Canapes on the Cheap

This week's episode of Top Chef ("Chef Overboard") tasked the chefs with catering a cocktail party for some of Miami's most beautiful people aboard a beautiful ship. The catch: they were only given a budget of $350 to split between all seven of them.

I love when this competition forces the chefs to work together, but I didn't feel they were a cohesive unit at all last night. Not because of the leadership of Brian, per se, though he didn't help matters by creating a far too egalitarian environment, but because they didn't all see the bigger picture here. Some chefs created more than one dish, others wisely focused on just one, but there was just no sense of uniformity. Judge Tom Colicchio was right to call them out for their choices: with such a small budget, why spread it out over many sub-par dishes rather than put that money ($50 per chef) into one, incredible dish for each chef? Foolhardy, in my eyes.

Also, one of the main focuses of the challenge was to wow these partygoers and I didn't feel that, for the most part, the chefs really followed through on that. (Why, I kept asking myself, was no money put aside for garnish?) No, they didn't have a lot of money to work with, but $50 is still $50 and when you're making bite-size canapes, you can stretch that out pretty far.

The standouts? CJ's delicious seafood sausage perched atop a perfect little brioche crouton with a pickled ginger and radish salad, Sara's gorgeous savory tomato bread pudding with basil cream and balsamic reduction, and Casey's beef carpaccio with a fried caper and arugula, served in a spoon with a shiitake brodo. These were fantastic dishes that looked amazing on the plate and, according to the judges, tasted fantastic to boot. One need not have a budget in the tens of thousands to create a series of bites that pleases the eye and mouth, and these three realized this quickly.

I was really, really disappointed by Hung, whose dish, a piped smoked salmon swirl on cucumber slices with Meyer lemon and salmon caviar, was straight out of the 1980s. Yes, it was easy to make and, yes, it was cheap to produce, but it definitely didn't have any wow factor and didn't fit in with the Miami environs or the nature of the challenge. For such a promising young chef, Hung really does often miss the mark completely with his execution. (His "smurf village" breakfast, created for the Quickfire, was jaw-droppingly odd.)

Brian, stop using seafood every single challenge! You yourself mentioned this earlier in the episode during the Aisle Trial Quickfire Challenge that Tom Colicchio was always on your case about using seafood, so why did you do yet another raw dish (ginger tomato ahi poke)? No more tartare, no more ceviche, no more poke. Enough with fish, altogether. Just a suggestion. Dale, giving up the goat cheese (or hell, using the more traditional gruyere instead) for your gougeres was a huge mistake, especially when it was sacrificed for an unnecessary and low-end chicken dish.

But my vitriol is really saved for Howie, who was finally told to pack his knives last night. (Thank god!) I've had it with his bulldog nature, his constant displays of aggression, his inability to be a team player or complete tasks within the given time frame. Additionally, he's ended up in the bottom two more often than not for dishes that seemed amateurish and unappealing. That is, when he actually completed the task at hand. I could not believe that he didn't even serve anything during the Quickfire Challenge, stating that as a chef he had a responsibility not to serve something that didn't meet his stringent guidelines, but then turned around and served mediocre, greasy, and tasteless food during the Elimination Challenge. His two dishes, a "cigar" of asparagus and prosciutto and a duxelle tartlette, looked disgusting, vaguely institutional and were casually thrown on the plate with little thought for presentation.

I was surprised that Howie addressed the judges to announce he was removing himself from the competition, allegedly to save Brian from getting sent home. (Loved that Padma told him that it was the judges' decision, not his, who would pack their knives.) But I felt it was less an altruistic move that a preemptive strike. It was fairly obvious that it was either Howie or team leader Brian getting the sack, so I could definitely see Howie trying to assuage his wounded pride by quitting before he was fired. In any event, the judges decided that it was time to kennel this bulldog and sent the chef packing. Whew. My prayers and dreams have finally, finally, been answered.

In next week's episode ("Snacks on a Plane"), the six remaining chefs hit the road as in a Top Chef first: they are sent to an unknown location. But first, a mile-high challenge aboard an airplane and everyone's favorite enfant terrible chef, Tony Bourdain, makes an appearance. I can't wait!

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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.