Top Chef 6, Episode 3: Canned heat blues


SPOILERS aplenty from here on down (as if the pic doesn’t give the most important bit away) …

This week’s Opening Sequence of Foreshadowing hones in on Laurine and Preeti, lounging outdoors and discussing the diminishing numbers in their sleeping quarters: First went Jennifer Z. (who never unpacked; so much for that “bad luck” theory), then Eve, who, to play on Midwestern stereotypes, was pegged as the nicest of the bunch.

And into the Top Chef kitchens march the remaining fifteen. Padma awaits in a snappy yellow number that’s part West Coast hippie-chick caftan, part snuggly tailored sari. The guest judge: Mark Peel, chef/owner of long-beloved Campanile in LA and ex-husband of superstar pastry chef and pizza maven Nancy Silverton. (Campanile’s adjunct shop, La Brea Bakery, in its hey day? Mercy.)

For the Quickfire Challenge, every chef has 45 minutes to cook an “out of this world” potato dish from a mountain of myriad spuds. (No gold chip worth thousands for the winner this week.) Lord, some of these folks get ambitious for the amount of time they have: Ash tries to make ice cream, which is ridiculous if you have to cook the base first and then cool it. Score, though: He saves himself by re-marketing the dish as a “chilled sweet potato custard,” and the texture impresses Peel.

I like Peel as a judge, he utters kind words when they’re warranted and isn’t too damning when he comes across a bomb—such as Jesse’s sweet potato soup, nuclear with cayenne. Jesse needs to pack her knives and git. Too much spice in a creamy soup is amateur hour.

Drama between Preeti and Ashley: Preeti mistakenly blanches vegetables in the water that Ashley was planning to use to cook her gnocchi. Ashley yells a little but doesn’t go ballistic, and my girl Jennifer C. snarks that she wouldn’t have been as nice.

But Ashley prevails nonetheless. Her gnocchi are singled out as one of the three best dishes, particularly because Peel enjoyed her sautéing ways with mushrooms, which brought out their flavor.

Eli is called to the bottom for his sugary Southern creation. There’s an unhappy moment when Padma tastes his sweet potato casserole with (pre-shelled) pistachios and gets a nasty bit of shell. They show her wiping it onto a conveniently tussled napkin. (Kevin, using duck fat and bacon in his spuds, and Hector, using, um, yeast, both slide through in the middle ranks.)

Jen wins for her dish with mussels and lemongrass. Peel coos that Jen found “the essence of potato,” and our favorite schmuck Mike, who will taste the bitter sting of karma in the next challenge, calls her win “favoritism.”

Elimination Challenge. Colonel Dave Belote of Nellis Air Force Base walks briskly into the kitchen to announce the chefs’ “mission:” They will cook for 300 officers, some of whom have recently returned from the Middle East “theater,” and some of whom will soon be on the way there. The chefs cook in teams that they pick themselves. Bouchedag Mike names Jen of Immunity as the executive chef, which does make sense.

The chefs don’t know their ingredients or equipment in the four early morning hours they have to cook until they arrive at the base mess hall, and of course it’s torture. Or, as Ash calls it, a “worst fear kitchen.” No burners, hardly any fresh vegetables. Lots of cans, and only a few huge steam kettles for improv cooking to fight over. Jen wrangles the troops admirably, taping names on ovens and—woops—admonishing Hector for off-topic conversations. Hector is making three-bean chili with Robin: It “makes you sweat, cools you down.” Ron, admittedly, is worried about teaming with Jesse, and they’re making cream-laden clam chowder. “Clam chowder?” Eli asks, referring to the Nevada heat. The judges will ponder the same question.

Kevin and Eli (they’ve bonded over “being fat kids”) are working the Southern angle again with braised barbecue pork shoulder and a potato salad that Peel praises as tasting like his Virginia aunt’s. Food and sentimentality—an ever-winning combination. Kevin reveals his family barbecues competitively. Wish my family did that.

Michael V. and Mike I. team up but decide to each make their own dish: This will be important shortly. Michael V. takes slab bacon, braises it like pork belly (which makes sense, since bacon is pretty much pork belly cured and cut in strips), and wraps it with peanuts in a taco-esque lettuce leaf. Colicchio flashes a rare smile at this dish. Not so much the team’s other effort—a Greek shrimp salad—made by Mike I. Colicchio notes the shrimp are under-cooked. On a hot day? Ew.

So Eli and Kevin and Michael and Mike get called in as winners. When it’s revealed that the Michaels split the cooking responsibilities, though, Mike I. lands in the hot seat. He sways uncomfortably as Michael is awarded the win (that’s one for each Voltaggio brother, both of whom are pretty stone-faced. I’d like to meet their folks.)

Then, in an unprecedented Top Chef move, Mike I. goes from being in the winner’s group to the loser’s group. Now, y’all know he’s not gonna get kicked off yet. He’s the bad guy, he’s the spectacle. He’ll be getting into fights openly with Jen soon. I wager that we’ll be hating him all the way to the finale.

Now, I gotta say, this may not be the most dynamic group in terms of personalities, but a lot of these folks seem like they can really cook. In challenges like this in past seasons, there’d be some out and out horror shows. If the worst that was served to 300 soldiers and their families was a bland pasta salad, that ain’t bad.

So Laurine and Preeti are on the block for their dull-as-a-door-knob farfalle salad with vegetables. I appreciate Gail Simmon’s presence on the show, because I respect her sense of food, but this season she’s using the words “flavorful” and “flavorless” too much. My editor-self wants her to be more specific.

The judges get a little vicious at the end (probably because the producers are urging for more drama). When Mike admits that he had doubts about the salad, Padma blasts “THEN DON’T SERVE IT.” Laurine says that, in the patriotic spirit of the meal, she “forgot about the competition.” Everyone pauses. “That was a bad answer,” squeaks Laurine. Colicchio snarls.

But it is Preeti, for her insistence that the pasta salad was fine, who must gather her cutlery and exit. Padma pronounces her Indian name with the correct accent, a hint of “th” sound on the last syllable, renewing its dignity after Mike referred to her as “Purdy.”

Next week: Someone’s eliminated during the Quickfire Challenge. Ouch.