Top Chef: “50’s Food Flashback”
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Top Chef: “50’s Food Flashback”

Quickfire

One of the best shots of tonight’s episode came out of the quickfire challenge: CJ nibbling bits of beef carcass while others carefully butcher around him. It’s a solid plan for this week’s quickfire, which requires the chefs to butcher and prepare beef from two giant slabs hanging behind curtain. This type of setup smacks of early-season technical gotcha, inviting chefs to clumsily carve up the meat only to get nailed for it later, but in spite of a few shots of Sheldon hacking and sawing at the meat, no one ends up in trouble for his carving skills. The other lead we’re given—only two chefs can butcher at a time—seems equally perilous, but the chefs all play nicely and there doesn’t appear to be any time crunch related to that constraint. So when it comes down to it, the challenge is simply, “cook some beef.” CJ’s plan to sample the raw beef before committing to a particular cut proves smart: He plates a nice tartare and lands among the top three. Jekyll-and-Hyde John edges him out, though. He can’t decide whether to play nice, but he can quickly braise oxtail. So the villain who besmirched Kuniko’s good name wins immunity, and I cry undercooked potato pavé-flavored tears.

Elimination Challenge

For the elimination challenge, the chefs take over Canlis restaurant for an evening, transporting it back to the 1950s, when it opened. They must work from the original menu. “What a fabulous concept!” I thought, and then realized, slowly, as the hour played out, that I’d completely misunderstood the challenge. Here’s the thing: When they introduced it, they used the word “revive.” I thought we were in for a contemporary interpretation of classic 1950s dishes, a kind of riff on what Next in Chicago did with its Paris 1906 menu last year. The concept with that menu wasn’t to replicate Escoffier’s recipes to a T; Grant Achatz and Dave Beran paid homage to the original by modifying it. They imported the look and feel of that era without being slave to it. Based on a true story, but not bound by the true story. My point is: If we have sous vide today, why not use it? Was the cooking of the 1950s so sublime that if we had a restaurant time machine, we’d go there?

Tonight’s elimination challenge feels like a missed opportunity. By “revive,” the producers really meant “recreate.” The language changed between the introduction of the challenge and judge’s table, and it didn’t feel like the chefs had enough information to really do well here. The challenge left little room for the chefs to interpret or innovate—a far better challenge, in my opinion, would be to give them all the knowledge of the original (photos, recipes, maybe an exact recreation of the dish), and then have them bring that dish into 2012. None of the dishes had me too curious, because they were straight-up recreations of 1950s dishes. The closest contender was liver, because Stefan apparently respected the liver, and I never have.

This is the first challenge of the season that pulls our giant cast into a restaurant to cook altogether, and the divvying of the menu falls to pushy personalities. There are clear winners and losers in the way this shakes out. Chrissy lands the only menu item (the Canlis salad) still on the menu, for example, and Kristen pulls two side dishes. Both come with serious risk. Chrissy’s got a modern-day dish (and therefore fresh memory) to fight with, and Kristen’s sides might not be enough. In similar challenges in Top Chef history, chefs were docked for not doing enough, or worse, not doing their little part well. A ruined side dish somehow seems worse than a ruined entrée. They come out on opposite sides, though, with Chrissy being eliminated for her soggy, overdressed salad, and Kristen taking the win for her mushrooms and onion rings.

This brings me to something I can get behind: onion rings and double elimination! I love anything that quickens our approach to the finale, especially at this stage of the game, when there are still too many chefs to keep track of, or to care about. (Between last week and this, I totally forgot Danyele existed. Keep making sundaes, friend.) Joining Chrissy this week in thanking the judges for this opportunity is loudmouth Carla, whose antics won’t be missed. She served squab that was undercooked for the diners but overcooked for the judges, and improperly served with the breastbones included. (I’d like to forget the images of her crushing that poor squab into submission during prep.)

Stray observations:

  • Thanks to Margaret Eby for filling in last week while I was traveling.
  • This episode sent me down the long, fruitless path of trying to educate myself about beef. It started here: There were two primal cuts hanging on the hooks, right? I spent awhile trying to figure out which cuts these were, but as far as I can tell, they pulled meat from more than two primal cuts, producing plates from the chuck, rib, loin, round, and flank cuts. Did I miss something? Surely they couldn’t have given over an entire cow to the quick fire challenge. Help me out, bovine experts. What exactly was hanging there?
  • Since I wasn’t around last week, I would like to take this space to publicly mourn the elimination of Kuniko. KUNIKO NOOOOOOOOOOOO. May you live on forever in my mind’s eye’s stomach, and above all, in Last Chance Kitchen. You’ve got to maintain a hell of a streak from here to the end.
  • I’d be more pumped about Kirsten’s win if the image of Stefan rubbing her feet wasn’t still burning my eyes. Stefan, good God, get your hands off of her.
  • CJ is fast becoming one of my favorite chefs, perhaps because he’s preposterously tall. (And maybe because he reminds me of Chris O’Dowd.) I could hardly focus on the judge’s comments because of all of those wide shots to accommodate his ridiculous height. 
  • From the previews, it seems we could be looking at another double elimination next week—one that’s doled out as punishment. Hooray!

Last Chance Kitchen (spoilers)

So apparently there’s a Top Chef purgatory where eliminated chefs go to live. I love how they’re all sitting around talking about how it sucks to suck when who should arrive but Tom Colicchio. LCK is back again, and this time, the winner is guaranteed a spot in the finale. So we’re back to two simultaneous seasons of Top Chef, with the same contestants competing in two parallel universes. Eliminations work differently; instead of simply surviving each week, you have to win each week in LCK. This seems almost impossible to sustain.

I’m not going to formally write up LCK each week, but the debut episode warrants some attention since it rounds up all four of our previously eliminated chefs. I almost enjoyed it more than the main episode’s elimination challenge. Tom goes down the line and lists the chefs sins—overcooked, undercooked, overcooked, and… not enough lemon? One of these things is not like the other, and that thing is Chrissy’s elimination. In LCK light, we’re getting a slightly different version from the main ep, in which they emphasized how overdressed the salad was.

The first challenge is a near-replica of a great one from All-Stars, in which the chefs had to confront (and redo) the dish that sent them home. Here, the chefs are given the ingredients that sent them home, but they can make anything they like. To quote Kuniko, who adorably has only two butterflies in her stomach: “It is the revenge to my potato.” Jeffrey Jew is the only chef who’s been eliminated for a dish he created himself—the other three were given more specific marching orders. He doesn’t change much, and unsurprisingly, doesn’t advance. Neither do Carla, who still can’t cook squab, or Chrissy, who makes a better salad. Kuniko ditches the pavé (she’s not stupid) and takes the win with a potato soup. Go Kuniko, go!

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