Before I talk about tonight’s hugely entertaining episode, the Chicagoan in me has to express a little bitterness. When it was announced that Season Four was going to be set in my beloved city, it was obvious that Top Chef: Chicago would have to tackle deep-dish pizza (which was knocked out in first Quickfire, at Pizzeria frickin’ Uno), but I was equally certain that the show would take on encased meats in some way, too. This is the land of the beer-soaked backyard sausage, after all, and one of the few remaining major American cities with a proudly flagrant disregard for personal health. And dealing with encased meats would have to take the contestants to Hot Doug’s, the mecca of fancy-pants sausages and duck-fat fries, where this week one can sample from a special menu that includes brandy-infused Portuguese chorizo, Veal bratwurst, and antelope sausage, among other delicacies. You might have to wait an hour and it might shave a day off the end of your life, but it’s worth it.
So it was bittersweet, to say the least, that tonight’s Quickfire Challenge asserted the fetid New York cart dog as the pinnacle of American cased meats. As far as I’m concerned, New York can provide the quantity of dogs needed for a 4th of July eating contest, but leave the quality to us, thank you very much. Nevertheless, it was tremendous fun to see the 15 remaining chefs try to hand at hot doggery, in part because there are so many of them left and so many that have no chance at advancing very far in the competition. That means lots of grim attempts to reinvent an American classic, like Jill wrapping her store-bought dogs in rice paper like sushi (what I wouldn’t give for a shot of her thawing them out in the sink) or Jamie torturing poor Padma with her ground-bone-infused pork and beef number. (Between that and Ariane’s dessert later on, Padma seemed rather freaked out by the whole business of eating.) After crushing the competition last week, Stefan took a surprising lump for his “world dog,” and equally surprising was Radhika coming through with a winner with her Indian-inspired kabob dog, which looked delicious.
Keeping with the American theme, the Elimination Challenge brought the chefs to their inevitable stop at Tom’s flagship Craft restaurant with the assignment to create dishes for a three-course New American lunch menu. A few big pluses about the challenge: 1. Though everyone was separated into appetizer, entrée, and dessert groups, this wasn’t a group challenge—a big relief, since the early rounds in previous seasons have leaned too heavily on catering clusterfucks that don’t allow the individuals to stand out. 2. Tom himself was there to expedite service at his own restaurant, which had the duel effect of putting extra pressure on the contestants and giving the sometimes sleepy and apathetic bear a nice shot of energy. It really felt like the caustic, witty, passionate Tom of old was back. 3. Filling the restaurant with 50 chefs who didn’t make the Top Chef cut was a masterstroke. The show has often featured judges from past seasons, but to bring on the rejects to sample (the mostly dismal) dishes was a marvelously cruel little twist.
You knew right from the trip to the store that the screw-ups would be widespread: Hosea, the self-proclaimed seafood guy, was so intent on making a crab salad that settled for canned meat rather than regroup around a fresh protein. Jill went for the ostrich eggs despite never having worked with one, but worse still, she decided to fold them into a quiche, which we know from past seasons is always a disaster. (Recall that Candice, the pretty but overmatched culinary student from Season One, went out on the head-slapping decision to make a quiche in the microwave challenge. The only dish that would have reheated worse in a microwave is a bowl full of tin foil.) Then there was the floundering Ariane, who whipped up something called with “lemon meringue martini.”
On the other end of the spectrum, the two snooty Europeans (being European, by the rules of American television, automatically makes them snooty, you see) are in friendly competition far ahead of the pack so far. Fabio’s gregarious personality will likely polarize viewers, I’m guessing, but I’ll be generous and say that I’m enjoying his antics so far, especially his preemptive Judges’ Table defense of what turned out to be their favorite dish. That said, a tip of the hat to “Team Rainbow” (ugh) member Jamie’s cold corn soup, which isn’t appetizing by the sound of it, but seemed to be simple and full of subtle little touches in the seasoning. Carla’s flaky apple pastry was the consensus best dessert, though that slice of cheddar did seem a little clumsy.
Overall, a fun hour. And more heartening, the show seems to be making some improvements. In addition to the aforementioned pleasures of watching Tom in his element and having an early-round challenge that still focused on individual achievement, I thought it was a good idea to bring the best and the worst contestants all back at once, a la Project Runway, rather than in two separate groups. This led to the awkward spectacle of Hosea believing his canned crab dish was top-notch, and generally added a note of suspense. Going into this season, I was worried that Top Chef might have reached its tipping point, but for this night at least, it felt revitalized.
• Dish Of The Night: I’m Fabio’s winning beef carpaccio was every bit as brilliant as advertised, but I’m inclined to go with Euro-buddy Stefan’s entrée of halibut with a light and rich ravioli. Quickfire stubbed-toe aside, Stefan still seems like he’s working on another level.
• Nice soundbites of embittered Top Chef rejects sarcastically dissecting the menu and forking down one substandard dish after another. Though I was surprised Ariane didn’t hit the bricks, the rejects were especially harsh to Jill’s quiche, which was likened to “dog food” and tasted “like glue.”
• Tom with a dose of reality: If that was their idea of New American cuisine, they “just set American cuisine back about 20 years.” Ouch.
• What was with the odd two-minute segment of Leah flirting with Hosea? Is this part of the show or some weird deleted-scene-commercial-type-dealie?
• After the savant brilliance of his improvised Indian dish last week, it was sad to see Eugene settle into some banal, poorly presented meatloaf sandwich. You hope for the best from hard-working, self-trained types, but they rarely stick around for long.