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Top Chef: "Film Food"


Top Chef

"Film Food"

Season 4 , Episode 4

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As the Film Editor of the A.V. Club, based here in Chicago, I was particularly excited about tonight’s episode—so excited, in fact, that I was willing to look past the professional jealousy of “famed Chicago film critic” Richard Roeper taking the guest judge slot instead of, say, me. (No offense to Richard, but three of the four words in the phrase “famed Chicago film critic” are questionable.) Create a dinner where each course is inspired by your favorite movie? Great idea. Who would be the bold contestants to choose Alive? Rescue Dawn? Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life?

But first, there’s the Quickfire, which asked the contestants to create a beautiful vegetable plate demonstrating three techniques that might impress guest judge Daniel Boulud. Not being a hoity-toity chef, the mind races to figure out just what those vegetable presentation techniques would be; evidently, dumping spinach dip into a hollowed-out sourdough bread bowl would not impress Mssr. Boulud. Nor would anything that our dear departed poop-smearing Erik might have concocted, so it’s probably best he wasn’t around for this.  In any case, the challenge was appealingly wonky, especially to those of us outside of the culinary world who aren’t always conscious of knife skills and plating, even if it subconsciously enhances the dining experience.

The Quickfire also separated wheat from chaff like no challenge to date, because it immediately let us know which chefs have advanced skills and which ones haven’t progressed much beyond culinary school. I think it’s safe to say that anyone in the bottom three (Nikki, Lisa, and Manuel) are marked for eventual (or in Manuel’s case, imminent) death, as are those like Zoi, who admits to not being “classically trained,” and Ryan, who apparently worked with Boulud but found that his was “not my style.” And on the other end, we get confirmation that Richard and Dale are likely not going away any time soon, unless Richard takes some sort of crazy gamble that doesn’t pay off. Mostly, though, the challenge was a vocabulary lesson in fancy, mainly French-sounding techniques: Batonettes, chiffonade, tourneé, brunois, supremes, quenelle, tagliatello, et al. It’s too bad that Stephen from Season One missed out on the fun; he’d have concocted some gorgeous, inedible progression of cuts and colors that would have surely placed him in the “top three percentile.”

Onto the Elimination Challenge, the contestants draw knives to determine who they’ll be paired with and for what course in a six-course dinner. Dale, the Quickfire winner, wisely throws in with molecular gastronomist odd couple Richard and Andrew on first course. (Ever the chest-thumper, Andrew interprets Dale’s decision as “the weak choosing the strong.”) The decision to choose Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory turns out to be a brilliant one, because it gives the group license to experiment without seeming too desperately whimsical. As much as Zoi and the others complain about their flavor combinations, you have to appreciate the miracle of smoked salmon with faux caviar and wasabi while chocolate sauce cohering into an appropriately light, delicate first course. No doubt Roeper and the gang were taking a “culinary crap in their pants” when sampling it. (Please, Bravo: Bring Andrew back next season in some capacity, at least as a guest blogger on the website. You just can’t get turns of phrase like that from Gail Simmons.)

For me, the big disappointment in this episode is that the dishes were imagined first and the movies were proposed to accommodate them. Granted, it’s probably too limiting to require the contestants to make dishes inspired by their favorite movies, because they probably won’t agree on the movie and also because many great movies have nothing to do with food. So the solution for most was to ignore the challenge, which worked out for everyone except Spike and Manuel, whose choice (Good Morning, Vietnam) was too blatant an excuse for picking a dish in their (okay, Spike’s) culinary wheelhouse. Ultimately, Manuel gets sent home for being the more passive of the two, but if Spike is a supposed expert on Vietnamese cooking and the best he can do is a ho-hum spring roll, surely his days are numbered too.

As for the others, it looked like everyone fared pretty well. Antonia and Zoi were lumped in with the Spike/Manuel team at the end, but no one had any strong objections to their rack of lamb, except that it didn’t match their spiel about the “vibrant colors” in Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk To Her. (The best of the six films, incidentally, and the opportunity to pay tribute to Almodóvar’s color scheme was a bad one for them to miss.) The other dishes looked tasty: The rustic Italian of Il Postino (though homemade pasta appears to be Nikki’s one trick), Mark and Ryan’s surprisingly clever and even more surprisingly well-executed twist on A Christmas Story, and Stephanie and Lisa’s beef-and-short-ribs dish seemed accomplished, even if the progression of the meal overall is a bit unbalanced. The last course of a six-course dinner really should be dessert, but credit Stephanie and Lisa for knowing the cardinal rule of Top Chef: Never make dessert! And if that means diners ending the night with strip steak and braised ribs, so be it.

Grade: B

Stray observations:

• I’m really curious to hear how the big movie-themed dinner came together. At the end of it, Padma thanks Roeper for inviting them to this cinematic feast, which is ostensibly in honor of actress Aisha Taylor, who has made a couple of appearances on Ebert & Roeper. What’s the honor? Did Top Chef crash the party after the plans were afoot? Seems hard to believe. And yes, petty to contemplate.

• Ryan, the sophisticate, hasn’t seen more than two movies in three years and considers Dumb And Dumber the height of filmic achievement. He’s the sort of guy who makes my job that much harder.

• When is the last time you’ve even heard Good Morning, Vietnam come up in conversation? It’s nobody’s favorite movie, that’s for certain.

• Manuel misses his sons. Bye-bye, Manuel. And kudos on one of the more gracious exits of a reality television show I can recall.