Friday, November 20, 2009

The Silence of the Lambs

So the mini Bocuse d'Or, presided over by Thomas Keller and other Bocuse cookerati, was just the challenge to knock out Eli and his undercooked lamb, leaving us with the most solid final four in the history of Top Chef. Since the start of the season, Jen, Michael, Brian, and Kevin have dominated this competition. Between them, the foodie four has managed to win every single elimination challenge, with Jen logging one, Bryan and Michael three wins each, and Kevin five, including taking top honors at this Bocuse challenge. In doing so, he locked up a chance to compete for a spot on the 2010 American Bocuse team, along with a crisp 30k.

Kevin's only failure this season came during restaurant wars, when he notoriously served bloody "jello" lamb, but managed to get Laurine kicked out instead because the dish was ultimately hers and it was her responsibility to have sent the lamb dishes back to him to cook properly. But if that one challenge faux pas on redbeard's record haunted him at all, he was given the opportunity to silence the screaming of those lambs when he chose lamb over salmon as his protein for the mock-Bocuse. But just like Clarice Starling, he couldn't take on the tricky task without consulting a more seasoned pro for advice on how to properly sous vide his piece of meat.

And we all know by now exactly who knows all the culinary tricks on this season's Top Chef. Whether you want to emulsify eggs, dehydrate garlic, or flambe a flower, look no further than the Voltaggio brothers, who've turned more tricks on a day in a Vegas kitchen than Airforce Annie does on each episode of "Cathouse." Lucky for Kevin -- though potentially a missed opportunity for us sadistic viewers -- he chose to consult the non-sociopathic, non-overwhelmingly ego-saturated younger brother Michael and instead asked Bryan how to prepare his protein. Honestly, I thought this was pretty ballsy of Kevin at this point, because this is a competition, and if he'd have asked me, I'd have been torn between being a competitor and telling him to fuck off and being a "good sport" and helping him out. (A third option, which would've been incredibly naughty, would've been to give him improper directions and sabotage him. Which, by the way, I've wondered in passing isn't what Kevin did to Laurine -- fucked up her dish, even if it was subconsciously.) Bryan, of course, had this dilemma cross his mind, but it was merely a passing thought, and as he explained, cooking is about learning and teaching others, so he told Kevin exactly what to do. In doing so, he ironically probably lost out on the 30 grand himself and the opportunity to Bocuse it up, because Bryan's dish was, overall, much more intricate and beautiful and showcased a couple of culinary clever twists that the judges appreciated. But Bryan's lamb didn't cook exactly correctly, and Kevin's did. So even though the judges agreed that Kevin's dish was "too simplistic" they awarded him the win for a lack of any mistakes. Have the lambs stopped screaming, Kevin?

Also cooking lamb with Kevin and Bryan was big loser Eli. Lamb is quickly joining panna cotta as a dish of death for this program, as over the past couple of seasons, bad lamb has claimed a lot of decent cooks. Eli managed to turn out an interesting looking dish, but his arugula coulis couldn't cover up his way-bloody lamb. It puts the sauces on its meat! But it still manages to go home, leaving viewers to rejoice at the best final four ever!

Meanwhile, while Kevin chose the lamb for "sustainability" reasons -- most definitely the buzzword and social conscience of this season's Top Chef, Jen managed to climb back on the horse and take the win at the quickfire challenge when she made a seafood ballotine with calamari that looked pretty damn tasty. Kevin also racked up cute karma points when he winked at her in happiness after she got her good review from Padma and guest judge and former Bocuse chef, Gavin Kaysen. However, in the elimination challenge, she undercooked some of her salmon which kept her out of the running for the win. But she made good looking dishes that most of the judges agreed tasted really good, and it seems like she's pulled her shit together to head into the semi-finals. Also notable is that Jen also showed a lot of class and paid back Bryan's Kevin-helping karma by helping Bryan get his plates together in time.

And that gives us the perfect segue to talk about the one who has not wracked up good karma or been shown to display a lot of class. I have tried. I really tried and initially got behind Mike V's swagger because he could cook his ass off. But it hits a point where enough is enough, and I know they're editing him to make him look like a perfect jackass, but it's also not like they're making him say some of the shit he's saying and with the attitude he's saying it. Talk about Silence of the Lambs, fuck, It's now hit the point where he really shouldn't be allowed to sit down and give his confessionals unless he's outfitted with a contraption like this:

I mean, seriously, this dude manages to always say something obnoxious anymore. It actually hit the point where even I was exasperated with him when he mouthed off about Jen hitting a wall and having nothing left to offer in the competition. (This was shown just before Jen won the quickfire, making him look even assier.) But, lucky for him, I enjoy rooting for the villain and I actually found his assholery funny by the time he idiotcially whined about not winning the quickfire by saying that they never specifically said they were supposed to make a ballotine, when in fact that was specifically stated, and that if he had known he was supposed to do that, he could've made a better one than Kayson could ever make. I mean, I actually laughed at this point because they're getting such great asshole material from this guy. It would be one thing if he was spouting off saying this stuff with a light attitude or smirky swagger a la Stefan, but instead he's devolved into actually saying this stuff with a serious, smug, and sneering edge to it, which just makes it so damn obnoxious. Worse, it makes him look so small and petty, as though he's going out of his way to cut down not just Kevin now, but absolutely everyone who anyone might perceive as being a good cook, because Chef Michael just must be the smartest and most technically gifted chef ever. He's actually comical with it, though, sadly for him, unintentionally comical, much like Kristen Wiig's weirdo character who one-ups everyone she speaks to.

He's at the point where I don't think there's any possibility of a redemption edit for his "character" on the show. I seriously cannot wait for the reunion show to see Andy Cohen start picking at this scab and to see how Mike is going to react to it all. Will he be able to laugh at how he was portrayed? Or is he going to bring his sourpuss along and whine about how unfair it was and reinforce the perception of him being a self-serious shit and make Andy's "Jackhole of the week" list?

That said, though, his dish wasn't a judge favorite this week because Alex Stratta found a bone in his piece of salmon, and no one was a fan of his cucumber-tzatziki garnish, but, overall, he still managed to turn out one of the more interesting dishes. But the question is, is he also getting wound tighter and will his hubris do him in? If he can show up in Napa and cook the way he's capable, he could still win. But if he shows up and serves his ego with some fava beans and a nice chianti, he might just get knocked out.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Life isn't always fair, and neither are all the challenges on Top Chef. This week, after a breakfast-in-bed quickfire featuring Nigella Lawson, the six remaining chefs got shipped off to different hotels from which they were supposed to draw their inspiration. The unfair part? One gets sent to Bellagio, while another gets sent to Circus Circus. For non Vegas-philes, that's the equivalent of giving one contestant foie gras to work with and the other one cat food. But cooking ability is a hell of an equalizer, and it turned out that both of those chefs landed in the bottom.

Surprisingly, the most disturbing part of the show wasn't the freakishly bad Circus Circus themed dish offered by Eli -- a weird caramel apple/peanut soup with crushed popcorn garnish and raspberry dome. As off-putting as that was, it was still just profoundly sad to see Jen struggle again. The girl can cook, we all know that by now. But the competition portion doesn't seem to be her forte, and while I don't blame her for that, I can't help but feel bad for her, because it's obvious that she's embarrassed and nearly mortified every time she does something less-than-perfect on national TV. What is slightly charming though is how she makes pleas for affection with each successive failure. In the "Glad" sorrow pantry after restaurant wars, she sadly asked if anyone wanted to cuddle with her before she met her fate with the judges. Last week, after being assigned "The Flintstones" tv show for inspiration, she spoke of how she relates to Pebbles, because she has a big strong boyfriend who pulls her by her hair, which could be fun. This week, she again got a shit draw as she was forced to go to the Excalibur Casino for her assignment. Talk about a shithole. But Jen made the best of it by drinking beer and then reinforced the idea that she embraces brutish behavior when she asked Mike V. if he'd want to be her prince charming.

It's a testament to how adorable Jen is that I felt instant animosity toward Nigella when she made a lame-but-catty remark about Jen's food. Also interesting was how the other three judges fell completely silent and neither agreed with nor encouraged Nigella's remarks. Once again in this strange, enjoyable season, my Colicchio disdain clicked down another level when he tried to reign the bitch in. I don't know when it happened, but somewhere along the way, with all the fun he's been having this year, I've come to actually sort Tom now. As for Lawson, I'd always thought Nigella was gorgeous, and she still is, but her commentary seemed pathetically rehearsed and cloying. Saying that panna cotta should "jiggle like a 17th century courtesan's inner thigh" is just a little over the edge with supposed cutesy factor and ends up sounding lame. The woman has traded on her looks as a mistress of food porn for a long time now, but when those sorts of quips are neither sexy nor clever, and I kind of hoped she'd choke on some of Eli's popcorn soup by the end of the show.

What wasn't lame was Toby's comments in the winner's circle. Once again, Kevin and the Voltaggio brothers had the cuisine that reigned supreme. Kevin had visited the Mirage and was too cute playing with the dolphins and he turned out a salmon dish that looked damn good. Bryan V had a hilarious moment this week when he called home and said hello to his 2 year-old son and the kid hollered, "Bryan!" Not "Dad." "Bryan!" Bryan sort of laughed at it though and said, "Yeah, it's...okay, it's Bryan. Sure." He then visited Mandalay Bay and Shark Reef, bought a little stuffed shark for his obviously precocious child and cooked up something, I don't know, I think it was halibut and polenta, because he always cooks halibut and polenta and he ended up in the top of the challenge after once again bombing out in the quickfire, after serving, I don't know, I think it was halibut and polenta with a vanilla cream sauce or something.

But the high entertainment again came due to the younger brother, Michael Voltaggio. He made the winning dish of a de-boned chicken wing that was inspired by New York, New York Casino. It was cooked confit in a curry flavor and served with a blue cheese semifreddo and it did seem interesting and looked tasty. But Toby busted out this gem, then. He told Michael that it seemed very representative of Mike's cooking style, which is generally rather "delicate, and sometimes even effeminate." Oh Ho! That comment, I'd assume, would really get under Mike's skin, but I think that either he didn't hear the "effeminate" crack, or he didn't understand the "effeminate" crack, or the editors had a little more fun with him, because Mike responded by enthusiastically smiling, nodding and saying, "I'm a big believer that the personality should come across on the plate." That is just too funny to imagine that Mike Voltaggio happily agrees that he's effeminate. Something tells me that while he may be extremely smart about food, when he's out of the kitchen he just may not be playing with a full knife set. Meanwhile, we got treated to a whole new brother reaction shot to that whole exchange as Bryan just smirked like all shit with it. Yep, it takes a real man to be called "Bryan" by his toddler son and understand the implications of cooking effeminate food. I guess halibut and polenta is at least three ticks higher on the macho scale than confit chicken. I'm telling you, not since Frasier and Niles have we had so much fun with fucked up brothers on TV.

As the recent Top Chef reunion dinner just showed, though, people don't forget if you're a slamming cook, but they also really don't forget if you come across like a jizz on this show. I know Bravo expected us all to think that season five's Stefan was douchebag numero uno for his season, but that never panned out, as his lesbian love and amazing culinary chops overshadowed his ego. And though he did show a propensity for arrogance, he was pretty funny about it and never once took himself seriously. I mean, he called himself a twat a couple times. So he was actually kind of lovable, and it's still a travesty that he didn't take the title, and it was great to see him again. Also at the dinner, though? Season two's Marcel and Ilan. What the fuck. If you didn't watch that season, I can't even begin to talk about the assholery that ensued to explain it to you. Which is why the Bravo wizards forced poor Fabio to try and rehash all the distasteful -- no, actually borderline disgusting -- behavior that erupted that season. And if Michael V doesn't chill out a bit with his blatant self-serving comments and quick temper, he could easily end up filling one of the seats at Bravo's "notorious" table at the next reunion show. At the very least, Andy Cohen is gonna have his ugly way with him when the season ends.

But, as much as the production team pokes the bear with Michael, and for as strange as Eli's dish sounded this week, it was Robin who finally, mercifully, got the axe. She was the one who was sent to the Bellagio for inspiration and she ended up making the panna cotta that didn't jiggle like a courtesan's whatever, and her "stained glass" sugar decoration didn't work out, so she bit the dust. First of all, panna cotta will always get you into trouble on Top Chef, presumably because it's not a difficult dish to turn out, but the chefs inevitably fuck it up, which makes it less forgivable than someone like Eli who takes a leap with his apple-peanut soup and screws it up. But Robin's big downfall is that she fell into the trap of feeling "less than" in this competition. She got sucked in by watching the Voltaggio brothers perform culinary pyrotechnics and so she kept trying to do some cool things that she'd never done before and would fail at execution of both the tricky shit and the simple shit. If she's just made food that tasted good, maybe she could've persevered. But instead of playing her game and cooking her food, she tried to cook V-bro food and failed. Man, I love to cook, but I would never attempt to cook like those V brothers at home, because I know it'd turn out a hot mess. Also, I don't have liquid nitrogen at my disposal. (Here's hoping for some for Christmas!)

So, next week, the final five get to compete in the lauded Bocuse d'Or, with Thomas Keller judging. Will he be cool? Will Tom continue his good guy gracious ways? Will the brothers and Kevin keep dominating? Will Michael figure out what "effeminate" means and give an on-camera confessional shrugging it off like a cool guy while he then abuses some cooking utensils and curses when he thinks he's not being filmed? Will Jen pull herself out of funk, or will she continue to self-destruct while throwing herself into the arms of another random waiting man? Will Bryan's son come to accept him as his father? And Eli? Well, who gives a shit about Eli. It's always been about Kevin, Jen and the Volts, and hopefully they'll all make through the B d'Or to hit final four.