Editor’s Note: Dining editor and restaurant critic
Bill Addison is at the Southern Foodways Alliance gathering, so Rebecca Burns, interactive director and Top Chef obsessive, is filling in with this week’s recap.
Reality show traffics heavily in schadenfreude—we love to watch contestants squirm, freak out, or fall apart. This is especially appealing when we know something they don’t, as was the case in this week’s challenge. The contenders were told they’d be taking over Tom Colicchio’s Craftsteak and spent the night before the elimination challenge working up meat-centric menus. Let loose in Tom’s kitchen, they went bonkers in the walk-ins, salivating over steaks, sniffing slabs of ribs, and generally oohing and aahing over the carnival of carnivorous offerings. Aha! We viewers, thanks to last week’s promo, already knew that the guest judge would be Natalie Portman, famously vegetarian. “Don’t spend that time rhapsodizing over ribeye!” I wanted to yell to Jenn.
So once they found out the nature of the challenge–cook vegetarian entrees for Natalie and her pals—the chefs scrambled for Plan Bs. Oh no! Would this mean a fatal blow for the seemingly invincible Kevin Gillespie, king of meat? With no bacon jam, would his veggie plate flop? After all, according to the laws of reality TV, getting a lot of upfront screen time means a possible comeuppance by the end of an episode, and Kevin scored plenty of airtime in the Quickfire round, winning (again!) with meatball-centered homage to The Sopranos. Each chef was asked to create a culinary interpretation of a TV show. The highlight of the segment was a flashback to the Voltaggios in high chairs, so cute and yet so menacing even as toddlers. Mike Isabella, claming to have never seen Seinfeld, made an inexplicable sausage and peppers plate while Robin, assigned Sesame Street, overlooked the obvious Cookie Monster shout out for a weird egg-on-a-burger mess. Kevin, whose angelic baby face gets more endearing each week (he’s the spawn of Cyndi Lauper and Gimli, the red-bearded dwarf from Lord of the Rings), proved himself even more likable by talking about his family. They all live on the same street! His grandma still cooks breakfast for everyone! Every day! They observe Lent!
In Tom’s kitchen with two hours to prep for Natalie and friends, the chefs searched for steak substitutes. Eli and Jenn squabbled over the same eggplants, he won and she groused over the runty batch she settled for. Robin, talking to herself incessantly, went nutso with the veggies and tried two things she’d never made before (fresh garbanzos and stuffed squash blossoms). Bryan and Michael V. were on slow simmer.
Natalie proved to be a charming guest judge. Commenting on Michael’s over-the-top experiment with banana polenta (!) and tomato sashimi, she remarked, “Who is this guy’s dealer and does he want new clients?” She and her pals took Padma’s observation about a garlic blossom—“a prick on my tongue”—to raunchy levels that had Tom choking on his beverage.
The top three were Kevin, Michael, and Eli, who was charmingly thrilled just to make the top round (and Kevin graciously high-fived him, shooting those nice-guy ratings into the stratosphere). Although Kevin had been muttering that his duo of mushrooms dish wasn’t pretty (true), he won, sending Michael into a pouting “I could have made that as an apprentice” snit.
The bottom three were Jenn, Robin, and Mike. Jenn has me worried. Stress is getting the better of her; witness how she dribbled butter sauce all over the guests. Robin, who probably should have gone long ago, hung in there, and it was curtains for Mike I. Maybe he was booted for his “whatever, whatever” shrug in response to the judge’s criticism of his undercooked stinky leeks, maybe it was because the producers wanted to keep the gender ratio a little more balanced. Whatever.