Now if you’ll allow me just a second, I have to wipe away the image of Padma in that red dress from my head and focus on the task at hand. Katie Lee Joel, Katie Lee Joel, Katie Lee Joel… Okay, that did it. Onward.
It’s hard to tell just how close Stefan came to getting the boot tonight—the judges like to amp up the drama by making two dishes sound equally problematic when there are likely clearer differences in quality—but for a second there, it really looked bad for him. I’m sure many of us were like my fellow A.V. Clubber Genevieve Koski, who wrote on Twitter after the show, “Whew. I can continue to watch Top Chef.” (My wife, too, was sitting next to me swearing that she wouldn’t bother with the finale is Stefan didn’t make it.) Of course, it’s not because Stefan’s particularly likable; if anything, his occasional arrogance was more officious than ever on tonight’s episode. But for those who care about meritocracy, it can be hard to accept the rule that the slate is clean every episode and a chef’s past performance doesn’t figure into the judging. (At least not explicitly, though consistently good or bad work has to color their opinions somewhat. That’s human nature.) Yet from the sound of it, Stefan’s overcooked salmon seemed like the worst dish. It would have been a pretty raggedy finale without him.
But that didn’t happen, so let’s relax and reflect on a very entertaining episode. I don’t have much to say about the Quickfire, which presented the chefs with the deceptively simple task of cooking an egg dish for Wylie Dufresne. Cooking an egg properly, of course, is the classic test for any aspiring chef, but here the difficulty came from figuring out whether to honor the simplicity of the egg or impressing Dufresne, a cutting-edge molecular gastronomist, by dropping science like Galileo dropped the orange. (Sorry for the weird reference there. I’ve been listening to the Beastie Boys’ Paul Boutique reissue all week.) Carla’s green eggs and ham sounds a little gimmicky to me, but one man’s gimmick is another’s whimsical treat, and Dufresne seemed charmed by it. She was also smart to zig where everyone else zagged: With the other four chefs laboring over doing two or three ornate preparations, Carla stuck to her classical cooking guns and came out ahead with Dufresne, who wasn’t in the mood to be imitated.
Guess I’m guilty of completely underestimating Carla, huh? A few weeks ago, it was only a matter of philosophical difference that Radhika’s hapless leadership in the Restaurant Wars challenge hastened her departure when Carla’s dismal desserts (and weird “sending out the love” protestations) could have sent her home just as easily. Now, she’s the darkhorse or the tortoise or whatever you want to call her—in any case, she is to this season what Casey was to Season Three, a slow starter who’s peaking at the right time. Ariane survived longer than her talent warranted because she kept it simple, but Carla’s simplicity is grounded in a more refined technique; based on her work the last two weeks, she could be a spoiler in the finale, especially if Stefan drops the ball again like he did tonight. Plus, I’ve really come to like her: Her awed enthusiasm over cooking for Jacques Pépin was infectious enough even before the touching spectacle of Pépin enthusing over her peas.
Scenes like that are why I loved the Elimination Challenge. Having the chefs cook very specific dishes for different culinary superstars obviously turns up the pressure, but it was balanced nicely by the “last meal” concept, which was kind of sweet. I often think about what I’d like my last meal to be and I’m torn: Do I go with the comfort of, say, a really good homemade mac-and-cheese dish or something more sublime, like the meal I had at Rick Bayless’ Topolobampo a few weeks ago? In any case, it seemed that most of the judges stuck with comforting old favorites, like Dufresne’s eggs benedict (by Leah) or the roasted chicken and potatoes served to Lidia Bastianich (by Fabio). And much like the Quickfire, the challenge offered that tricky choice between serving a more traditional, straightforward interpretation of a classic dish or reinventing it.
Once again, reinvention was not the order of the day. Even with a broken pinkie finger (which I so didn’t have to see—yeeouch!), Fabio still found himself right in his Italian comfort-food wheelhouse, so it’s no surprise that he was the big winner. (Got to admire his gamer’s spirit about playing injured, too: “I’ll chop [my pinkie] off and sear it on the flattop!”) Carla’s dish looked excellent, too, and I liked how she was willing to admit upfront that the squab wasn’t perfectly cooked; it’s a refreshing change from the Danny types who will defend a terrible dish like he’s going down with the Titanic. Hosea’s shrimp scampi appeared solid enough, but again, if he’s going to be the “seafood guy,” shouldn’t he be winning with it on occasion? As for Leah, she had to cook the eggs benedict perfectly, and between the runny eggs and the thinned-out hollandaise, she was a goner. In retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have sweated so much over Stefan’s overcooked fish and same-y spinach duo. Damned reality TV!
• Lots of quotable one-liners from Fabio tonight, including a Balki Bartokomous-esque malapropism about pulling shoes out of his ass in the bathroom. And, of course, the genius “It’s Top Chef, not Top Pussy.”
• Nice plug for Harold’s Perilla restaurant in New York, which our own Amelie Gillette tells me is a super-delicious. I find it interesting that the show seems to need him more than he needs it; look at his official bio on the Perilla website, and there’s nary a mention of Top Chef on it.
• So what’s your “last meal” and why? Sound off in the comments.