Just once, I’d like to see footage of the contestants giving season’s greetings to a Whole Foods employee in the middle of July, but alas, everyone is pretending that the holidays are upon us. It’s just a stroke of luck that tonight’s amfAR party seemed appropriately seasonal because AIDS ribbons are red. And then, of course, there were two Christmas miracles: The chefs all working together to rescue a pair of their own from disaster and Tom granting them all a stay of execution for their collectively disgraceful catering job. The latter grace I could have done without: You know what else is Christmas-y? The red red blood of a felled chef.
Before I get into it, let’s pause for a little product placement: Hosea’s father is diagnosed with cancer, and his family apparently can only be reached through the speakerphone function of the T-Mobile Sidekick. I now invite everyone to chime in with their T-Mobile Sidekick horror stories in the comments section below. (And don’t be afraid to make up stuff, either.)
On to the Quickfire, we have the biggest guest judge ever—so big, in fact, that she only has time to swoop in to promote her book and leave poor Natasha Richardson to choke on the pedestrian hors d’oeuvres. For the short time she’s with us, however, Martha Stewart causes quite a stir, at least to Ariane and Leah (who are fans) and Fabio, who wants his grandmother to come back from the dead and beat her dissing his polenta. In any case, the challenge sounds better than it turns out to be: Create a holiday meal using only one pot. That sounds like a tall order at first—Radhika claims to use “10 cooking vessels” usually, though I rarely use the word “vessel” unless I’m flying to the moon—but the cheat is to prep various components in one pot, put them aside, and then throw them all together at the end. So really, it’s more a minor obstacle than a real problem, and very few wind up embracing the one-pot concept was it was intended.
And damned if Ariane doesn’t continue her improbable winning streak, and make me look like a fool. I think Jamie hits it on the head: Ariane isn’t particularly innovative or modern, but she does know how to execute simple dishes very well. Her herb-rubbed filet mignon with cauliflower puree looked and sounded like a winner to me, though again, her home-cooking style probably isn’t going to fly once the chaff is gone and the competition heats up. (Sorry for the cliché, but it’s late and a clichéd phrase like “the competition heats up” will have do for now.) As for the others, Hosea continues to impress, this time with paella (thought the time constraints would ruin his rice, but no); Jeff’s potato risotto was starchy and vinegar-y; and Eugene’s shortcut solution to use cornstarch as a thickener backfired. (Aside: How often has Eugene had to come up with solutions to salvage his dishes? At some point, he’s going to have to execute one well.)
As for the main challenge, I have to say I’m delighted. The people have spoken and the Top Chef producers have listened: Keep the focus on the individual and limit the group challenges. In any season, tonight’s catering event (requiring 300 plates!) would have meant dividing the remaining 12 contestants into two groups of six or four groups of three or something to that effect. Tonight, they were each responsible for a dish inspired by the 12 Days Of Christmas—great when you have 3 French hens, but not so much with the 9 ladies dancing. Still, it doesn’t take much of an effort for the chefs to think their way around the theme, even if it means “leaping” from one unnecessary cheese to another. The big drama comes when the chefs leave after their three-hour prep period, only to return the next morning to find a refrigerator had been left over and Hosea and Radhika’s pork and duck dishes ruined. It was nice—and yes, seasonally appropriate (“It’s a Saturnalia miracle!,” tweeted Noel Murray)—to see the other chefs follows that unwritten code of the kitchen and chip in to throw together another dish for the unlucky pair. And hey, they both made the top four anyway.
How awesome was Michelle Bernstein? She’s been trotted out as a guest on the show before, but I can’t recall her even being in a position to assert her opinions on the finished dishes. I thought she was terrific: Tough, incisive, animated, and obviously someone who knows what she’s talking about. It made me wish the show could bring her on permanently or at least put her in the Gail Simmons/formerly Ted Allen slot. Her biggest gripe about the losing dishes was that the main component, the protein, was dominated by other parts of the plate: Melissa’s gorgonzola killed her New York strip (personally, I love gorgonzola, but it can be a dish-killer), Eugene’s poisson fou couldn’t be tasted beneath his overly sweet pineapple, and Jaime’s raw scallops drowned in her lukewarm vichyssoise. As for the winners, Hosea takes the deserving prize for his reconstituted pork tenderloin and everyone else gets a nod for not stinking the place up. But even Natasha Richardson, who was brimming with positivity all night, finally confessed her disappointment.
With Tom making the extraordinary move to chide the entire group for dropping the ball, I was expecting a mass punishment in the form of perhaps a double elimination. But no. The stupid fake Christmas spirit took over and nobody gets the ax. I want a triple elimination next time to make up for it. Just after Christmas is prime dream-shattering time.
• Coming soon to a fine dining spot near you: Six different kinds of deviled eggs. (And maybe a gray tuna casserole if you really want to get fancy.)
• Oh Top Chef producers, why must you rope the Harlem Gospel Choir into supporting your holiday lies? It seemed like an awkward scene, anyway: The number of people listening to a choir should never equal the number of people in the choir.
• Okay, conspiracy theorists: Did someone fail to close the refrigerator door or was there some behind-the-scenes chicanery at work here?