“I can’t wait to eat. I’m starving!”
No kidding, Zooey. If I objected to meat and dairy of any kind and was allergic to most pastas and bread, perhaps I too could be a doe-eyed indie-flick object of desire. But more on that in a bit.
In light of what was to come, it was an excellent idea for Top Chef Masters to kick off tonight’s hour with a burger challenge, because God knows what Zooey Deschanel would have done if confronted with the two-and-a-half pound beef monstrosity Michael put together for the Quickfire. If the Elimination Challenge was all about working within rigid dietary boundaries, the burger challenge was more about expanding one’s definition of what a burger could be, not contracting into something narrow and joyless. Poor Anita, who was so dominant last week and in the opening round, was guilty this time of expanding the definition too much, which is the sad consequence of her creative impulse. To me, the very idea of burger bits floating around in a cheddar soup sounded pretty repulsive, but it was a shame that Anita couldn’t make it a revelation against all expectations. Perhaps there are limits to what a burger can be, after all.
As for the others, Hubert was a victim of runaway hubris: After boasting about the 1000 burgers/day at his restaurant—one of which will set you back $5,000 (if there’s not a $4990 bill stuffed inside, I’m not eating it)—he topped his beef patty with a Roquefort cheese that the guest judges found bold but overpowering. (And for once, it was a pretty acceptable group of judges, with two burger “experts”—including Spike, who was never brilliant on Top Chef, but appears to have found success—and Super Size Me gimmick-meister Morgan Spurlock.) Art acquitted himself with a cornmeal hoecake burger (nearly Zooey-friendly, that one) and Rick retreated to his Mexican wheelhouse with a “queso fundido” burger with three types of guacamole on the side. (His reaction to the judges’ “Why do I need all this guacamole?” response speaks to a fussiness that makes him a meticulous chef and probably a pain in the neck to his kitchenmates. Michael triumphed by sticking to the basics: A big-ass burger with truffles that was cooked perfectly and tasted like a good steak. Can’t go wrong with that.
The Elimination Challenge made for tremendously entertaining television, because watching great chefs squirm their way through a vegan menu is like subjecting a movie critic to a Pauly Shore marathon. (Line of the night, from Gael Greene after the dinner party: “The vegans seemed so surprised. God knows what they get to eat.”) Add to it the fact that the meal had to be gluten and soy-free, and I honestly was wracking my brain trying to figure out what, besides a fruit-and-vegetable platter, Ms. Deschanel and company could safely consume. Credit the five remaining chefs for doing their best under the circumstances, though Rick had a massive advantage in both the plethora of vegan-friendly staples in Mexican cuisine and in the fact that his daughter once had gluten allergies. The others made do with what they had, and a couple had some pesky ingredients, including Michael, who had a hand-separate his quinoa pasta and the overmatched Art, who took dessert (always a mistake) and made store-bought rice ice cream a central component of his dish (an even bigger mistake). Hubert coasted on his appetizer plate, which could comfortably incorporate a beet salad and avocado along with a soup, and Anita, who was off her game all day, struggled with an Indian-flavored eggplant that everyone thought was too oily and overseasoned.
After Anita whiffed both the Quickfire and Elimination challenges, it seemed certain that she was out the door, but I was happy to see her get another chance to redeem herself. Anita’s failures tend to be failures of ambition, which to me are more respectable than failures of imagination or craft. Art has never really seemed on the same level as the other chefs, and his quick embrace of the dessert course came with an admission that he simply didn’t know what else to do. Doesn’t matter how fresh those strawberries were: Nothing could redeem that vile scoop of ricecream.
• Over on the Twitter, Movieline (and erstwhile Defamer) writer Mark Lisanti and I have been exchanging alternative vegan titles for Zooey Deschanel movies. A few of my suggestions: (500) Days Of Sunchokes, Failure To Lunch, The Non-Food-Related Happening, Bridge To Arugula. A few of his: The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Carnivore Robert Ford, Vegan Elf, and (my personal favorite) Almost Flavorless. See how a social networking tool like Twitter can enrich your life?
• A blunt assessment of veganism, from Michael: “Think of the things you love to cook and just say, ‘no.’ It’s off-putting to say the least.”