B

Top Chef: "Zoo Food"

B

Top Chef

"Zoo Food"

Season 4, Episode 2

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Oh Valerie and Stephanie. Such good friends, and why shouldn’t they be? They’re both from Chicago. They work out together. They seem like they could really bond as the season goes on… Okay, enough of that. I’m sure all of you reality-show junkies were thinking what I was thinking: Boring B-roll footage of budding “friendship”= Paula Abdul complimenting you on how nice you look this evening (i.e. the kiss of death). And since Stephanie won last week’s Elimination Challenge outright, there was little suspense as to who was going home.

(Not that I blame the producers for such naked machinations. There are 15 contestants left and you can’t really let someone go without at least a taste of their personality—and crappy dirt blini—so I expect these next few weeks will offer up some pretty obvious tip-offs.)

I promise these things would be shorter, so let’s go straight to the Quickfire, which set a stampede of contestants loose on the Green City Market. The challenge is to cook an entrée using ingredients from the market, but the twist is that they’re limited to only five of them, including whatever materials (save for salt, pepper, sugar, and oil) they use from the pantry. Personally, I have a word for home-cooked meals composed of five items or less: “Dinner.” But of course this is a slight challenge for chefs accustomed to gussying up their dishes with ras al hanout, yuzu, and maybe some sort of unholy tableside foam.

Remarkably, Richard, seemingly the most promising and least crazy of our “molecular gastronomists,” finds room for eucalyptus in his chicken soup, and even more remarkably, this somehow fails to impress guest judge Wylie Dufresne, who’s a pioneer in the field. (And really, how many of your mouths were watering upon hearing the news that eucalyptus is “edible…in small amounts”? Let that be a lesson for you, amateur chefs: Take it easy on the eucalyptus.) Elsewhere, Spike finishes up shopping so quickly that he can smugly bask in some acoustic folk music, but he failed to take a closer look at his tenderloin tips, which he aptly described as dog food-esque. Our wildcard Andrew apparently can’t count to five, and he gets disqualified for splashing balsamic on his dish. The winners and losers are all topsy-turvy, with Richard and Spike taking a hit and bottom-dwellers like Valerie, Ryan (of last week’s breaded-chicken-and-gnocchi dish), and Kiwi Mark delivering the goods. I was happy to see Mark win immunity, in part because he seems like a good-natured guy and in part because he might use his bulletproof status to terrorize Padma with another marmite-slathered concoction.

For the Elimination Challenge, we head to the Lincoln Park Zoo for a cocktail party. The parameters of the challenge are quite clever: Teams of three are assigned animals and must create hors d’oeuvres based around the main foods in the animals’ respective diets. (Chicagoans might cynically suggest that the other possibility for a Lincoln Park Zoo challenge would be to cook the next animal to die there prematurely.) Right away, you have to look to Valerie for the night’s biggest gaffe, and she comes through with black olive blini cooked hours before the party—which to anyone who’s had pancakes of any kind seems like a pretty egregious rookie mistake. Last week’s winner, Stephanie, also makes the mistake of finishing her crab dish too far ahead of time.

The other dog of the night is Nikki’s stuffed mushroom dish, which Team Bear wavers on serving in the first place, since they “look like something a bear would produce, not eat” (nice zinger, Gail!). The botched mushrooms are made worse with the cosmetic addition of pecorino cheese, courtesy of Dale, who’s quickly emerged as the villain this season. Dale gets irritated that any part of the food budget would go toward making the table look spiffier (“I’m not a fucking interior designer”) and he likens his dish-destroying cheese innovation to “putting perfume on a pig.”

And how’s crazy Andrew doing this week? He’s right at home serving some grim-looking palette-cleansing yuzu mint “glacier” to Chef Dufresne. (And he gets to do an odd little glacier dance, too.) The gimmick doesn’t pay off, but his squid dish does, and he impresses the molecular gastronomist where Richard did not, and takes the victory. (Which comes with no prizes for the second straight week. At least get Padma to sign her crappy book for him or perhaps have Chef Dufresne extend a hollow offer for dinner whenever Andrew finds himself in Manhattan.)

Overall, a solid if unmemorable episode tonight. Valerie made even less of an impression in two weeks than last week’s bootee Nimma made in one. I think the Quickfire could have been a bit more inventive and I’m disappointed that the chefs’ fidelity to their animal’s dietary requirements wasn’t more of an issue in the Elimination Challenge judging. It seemed like a sure thing that kicking up an all-vegetarian diet with meat would land Team Gorilla in trouble, but those cold, soggy (and yes, vegetarian) blinis did the trick.

Grade: B

Stray observations:

• During the Quickfire, I love the convention of having the contestants run about 50 yards downhill to their destination. After seeing this and poor Chris on Project Runway 4 huff across Bryant Park toward swaths of fabrics, I’m thinking that there should always be a compulsory fitness element to these challenges. Perhaps a 5K fun run to Whole Foods next week.

• Boy is that lesbian couple issue a non-starter. The two have resolved, quite sanely, to treat the competition like a job and keep personal stuff out of it. Unless future challenges involve putting pairs in giant sacks together, there shouldn’t be any problems.

• Spike: “I’m molesting the produce section”

• So cell phone-texting addicts: Is Judge Tom more of a gorilla, a bear, or a penguin?

• And lest I forget: What were you wanting to eat tonight? I have to say I was fairly uninspired by tonight’s offerings, but I guess I’ll have to go with Antonia’s Moroccan-spiced lamb meatball.

Filed Under: TV, Top Chef

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