Top Chef 6, Episode 6: Deconstructive Criticism

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When last we left our competitors, Mattin of the Basque Country had just gotten the boot for his wilted-in-the-desert-sun ceviche. The Golden Rule of Predicting Who Goes Home: If you ever see Tom spit out a mouthful of food, whoever prepared it is toast.

WARNING: If you’ve yet to see the episode, read no further, lest your viewing be as spoiled as Mattin’s ceviche.

The Opening Stretch of Episode Foreshadowing is slippery this week: We see a shot of a lone, forlorn scarf on Mattin’s now-empty bed. But aha—he left behind a stash of crimson neckwear substantial enough for all his chums to sport them in his honor.

Robin asks for the one of the scarves from Mike I., who all but sneers at her as he peels one off, like, a friggin’ roll of the things. Robin stares at his back with a hurt but patient look that says, “I know you think I should be gone, but I AM still here …” Mike isn’t alone in his feelings for Robin—my girl Jen also expresses surprise that Robin has made it this far.

This marks the part of the season where show start to get juicier—the ones who clearly can’t cut it are gone, and a few who probably should be gone but who have caught lucky breaks remain to add intrigue among the talented stand-outs (or the mouthy middlin’s—I’m looking at you, Mike I.).

And into the Top Chef kitchens we go, to find guest star regular Michelle Bernstein in the kitchen. We cut to Kevin announcing that Bernstein has been to Woodfire Grill, and he knows she likes food that is Clean and Simple. That’ll be important in just a sec.

The next Vegas-themed Quickfire Challenge: Sporting a slicked, pony-tailed ’do, Padma announces that both an angel and a devil always sit on one’s shoulders in Sin City, so the task is to make a dish that represents that good-bad duality. Yes to Elimination round immunity, but no to a $15K gold chip this week.

And they’re off. Ash, repeating a mistake that he made before when trying to whip up ice cream for a Quickfire, attempts two contrasting custards and only gets one done. He’ll be gone within three episodes, dude ain’t cuttin’ it. Kevin goes for halibut and a hefty block of bacon. Three chefs do scallops two ways.

Bryan V.—he of the most Elimination challenge wins thus far—lands in the bottom three for his disappointing dessert. Why does dessert always trip up these chefs, season after season? Laurine gets slammed for not doing anything exciting (so unexciting was the dish that, in my furious no-DVR note taking, I neglected to write down what she made).

Eli gets a top-three nod, as does Michael V. But the winner? Ruh roh: It’s Robin, for an arugula salad with apples and fennel paired with a cardamom and ginger-scented apple crisp. She explains that she got into raw food when she was diagnosed with two types of cancer, but she also craved sweets. The story moves Bernstein, but the pair is also Clean and Simple. Eli seethes over usage of the cancer card in interview-mode. I recall a glimpse of a verbal tussle between him and Robin in an early preview of the season, but it doesn’t happen this episode.

In walks Penn and Teller, which prompts Kevin to clap wildly like a little kid. The magic twosome performs some ball-and-cup routines where they deconstruct this standard trick, so voila! The Elimination Challenge is to deconstruct a classic dish—Caesar salad, lasagna, pot roast, and the like. I was under the impression that culinary deconstructionism had run its course, and that our man Colicchio was not fond of such shenanigans. The producers made them do it?

Regardless, it causes a ruckus of bitching. The Voltaggio Brothers and the geeky-cool kids (a.k.a. Kevin and Eli) heart this challenge, they so love playing with their food. My girl Jen, stuck with meat lasagna, has an unexpected crying fit. Under her tough-as-leather exterior, she’s a sensitive traditionalist and fears she will go home for not knowing the rules of this genre.

Ooh, surprise old-school visit to the kitchen from Colicchio in his cerulean chef’s jacket! Jen is so flustered she tries to dodge him, and Ron—at first excited because he has paella, which he makes at his restaurant—asks Colicchio for some deconstruction hints. Of course, TC says he can only ask questions. Embarrassing for Ron. In the interim between prep and service, Eli and Kevin attempt to coach Ron on how to rock the deconstructed paella. (Richard Blais did a fun riff on paella at his short-lived eponymous restaurant in Buckhead). Crispy, they urge. Ron stares at them blankly, his mouth agape. You can clearly see where this is going …

Jen pulls through with her dish, particularly for the wisp of crunchy cheese atop the steak-sauce-fresh pasta combo that emulates lasagna’s crave-worthy browned top. Padma looks especially pleased.

Eli’s sweet and sour pork triggers my favorite bit of dialogue among the judges:

Dour-looking judge Toby Young, making his season debut: “These look like bull’s testicles.”

“I’ve actually had bull’s testicles …” begins Padma.

“I’ll bet,” says Penn. Cut to Colicchio chuckling mischievously.

“… and these are a little too big,” Padma finishes. Somewhere, her vegetarian relatives are plotzing.

Eli makes a lasting impression, but when Padma walks into the Stew Room to purr four names in her serious judging voice, she calls out Ashley, Michael, Kevin, and Jennifer as winners. Score another for ATL—Kevin scores with his balanced, smart take on chicken mole negro using unsweetened crushed cocoa beans, coffee fig jam, thigh meat croqueta pumpkin seed romesco sauce. (What, no bacon?) His prize: A big ol’ box of Calphalon cookware. Time to call in colleagues for some bad news …

Ash and Laurine blunder again—Ash for neglecting to include anything potato in shepherd’s pie, Laurine for pulling the same stunt with the chips portion of fish and chips. I will give these two this: Cooking mistakes were to blame for both those tater absences, and though they landed in the bottom, it’s ultimately better in this competition to NOT include something you absolutely know has gone wrong, even if it’s an essential part of the dish.

So Ron, who not only failed to grasp the spirit of the challenge but who overcooked his paella’s rice and seafood, must indeed pack his knives and exit stage right. An easy call this week.

Next up: Mike continues to rail on Robin, and an appearance by one of my favorite cooks in the country, Nancy Silverton.

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