According to an unreliable guy at the dog park, this coming Monday is the most depressing day of the year. It's science, he told me: The holidays are over, the days are short, and spring's a hell of a long time away. I stood there nodding, only half listening to him talk, honestly enjoying the snowfall. Tonight's Top Chef was another story—oh, God, remember corn? And watermelon? And tomatoes? It's almost cruel to air shots in January of summer markets at the height of their season. We'll have to dream on it and wait awhile before trying out some of these recipes.
Fresh fish + fruits/vegetables = ???
No quickfire tonight! The chefs take off in the early morning from Top Chef central and head out to Montauk Point, where they fish and shop the markets before serving a beachside meal to 200 guests. It's a double elimination challenge, and the absence of a quickfire doesn't bother me a bit. It affords us a hell of a lot of time to focus on the food—this week, fresh fish. Top Chef is at its best when it gives us the reality-show challenges and drama but remembers in editing that it's still a food show. It's great to see so much focus this week on the ingredients' preparation. I love it when the chefs have to cook with a shared ingredient; it's closer to a controlled experiment. We're able to evaluate within stricter parameters, instead of having to think about how we'd rate a down-home, southern-style plate, for example, against some noodles from Momofuku. Here, it's bass against bass, or bluefish against bluefish. And, hey, I learned about a fish named porgy.
It's also a team challenge, though, and as we all know, that messes with the chefs' heads. The food's simple this week, but last week's disaster of a team challenge is fresh in their minds. Work as a team, and it becomes harder to identify who does what, and therefore makes it harder to figure out who should go home. But then again, collaboration also means you could go home for another chef's mistake—especially in a double elimination. Tonight, three approaches emerge: Jamie, Tiffani, and Antonia prepare three dishes alone, as do Tre, Dale, and Carla; Richard, Fabio, and Marcel create one dish in a six-component illustration of u-n-i-t-y; and Angelo, Tiffany, and Mike work together on two dishes.
Strategy bites mostly on the bottom: Antonia's porgy po-boy might have landed her the win, had her teammates not dragged her down. And maybe they wouldn't have done so if she'd worked to help make those dishes better. Also on the bottom are bromantic Fabio and Richard and their annoying adopted child, Marcel. I'm surprised these three didn't see it coming when imagining six components on the plate. It was crying for editing, and we've seen so many chefs fall to those trappings—Marcel included. But he needed a foam, and Richard needed a concord gastrique, and then also a succotash and a corn puree and a tomato confit. And the bass.
Carla and Tiffani both decide to smoke the bluefish, which is fatty enough to stand up to the smoke, which in turn helps hide any fishy flavor. Similar strategies landed them on opposite ends of tonight's episode, though, their level of success tied to their knowledge of the fish. Carla gets it: She takes her time at the market, working carefully to find a balance for the oily fish. Tiffani, on the other hand, serves hers skin-on with a simple salad of tomatoes, roasted cordon, and zucchini. Tom spooks her in the kitchen with the warning that bluefish "deteriorates quickly," but he doesn't tip her off to her real problem—that she's leaving on the skin, and therefore the bloodline, which guarantees a heavy fish flavor. A simple salad can't stand up to it. Carla gets rid of the skin and bloodline and creates a lettuce wrap with pickled watermelon rind, radishes, a little dill, and some bagel croutons—unexpected but light, and nicely accented, says guest judge Kerry Heffernan. Carla takes the win; Tiffani heads home.
Joining her is Jamie—finally! She notes in her wrap-up that she was "bummed" to have missed out on cooking in two challenges, as if she hadn't consciously decided to skip those two. She's been the poorest performer, always the bridesmaid on the bottom, and tonight her striped bass with watermelon, radishes, and cucumber water lacked enough flavor to get her out the door. She added water to cucumbers, which are around 95 percent water by weight, which does seem a little boneheaded. I like Tom Colicchio and his rhetorical questions.
- O, the shrieking on the boats. Those poor fishermen.
- Did you guys catch what Fabio said about Richard? Did he really threaten a "nut attack?"
- Enjoyed the play on Twitter tonight between Fabio and Tom, who told Fabs that Kerry Heffernan was twice the chef Fabio would ever be. Fabio's Twitter feed (@fabioviviani) is ridiculous enough on it's own: "SORRY GUEST JUDGE if you do the 95% of the knife work means you did all the dish ! Idiot ! Whats left ? Sautee a Pc of fish ? Puree corn ?"