Top Chef, Episode 11: Casino Not-So-Royale


Ah, back in the Recap Seat after a long absence (thanks to Rebecca B. for subbing)—and we’re now down to six chefs: ATL homeboys Kevin and Eli hanging tough, Robin, the Brothers Voltaggio, and my girl, Jen, who is unraveling. It seems like there’s one snippet per episode where Robin is yapping in Jen’s ear and Jen half-ignores her, mute and disappearing evermore into herself. Come back, Jen, you can make it to the finals, girl!

We see Bryan V. have a phone conversation with his young son (who calls him “Bryan,” eliciting one of those rarely glimpsed smiles). No Foreshadowing of Doom here, we all know the Bravo producers have head-to-head BroVo action planned for the finale.

And they’re off, only this time the frazzled band of once-merry chefs find themselves not in the M Resort but in the belly of the Venetian beast. A call comes through to the windowless kitchen catacombs. It’s Padma on the line: She’s snuggled in bed and she wants room service. With her in the room, in an identical bed and white terry cloth robe and in full make-up despite the early morning scenario, is my very favorite television food personality—Nigella Lawson. She pretty. She smart. She sassy. And she knows her food. Those first shows of hers filmed in her London townhouse? Brilliant.

OK, so our six go to work, in shifts of two, to fashion breakfast for the prone beauties. Eli and Robin kick it off—Eli confident as usual, Robin talking to herself and fumbling around the kitchen, also as usual. She serves blintzes. Nigella stares at her blankly, almost apologetically. Not good. Surprise.

Robin trashed the kitchen, making Mike V—who’s part of round two with Kevin—angry about having to clean up the station, and in turn Mike yells at Robin when she reenters the kitchen, and Robin gets all offended. It’s at that arch of the season. Everyone’s surly.

Except Kevin. Kevin is gentle and careens on, preparing meat and doing it well. He makes steak and eggs for breakfast, warning that the plate is hot. Nigella’s tight smile relaxes for a moment.

Bryan and Jen go last. Jen makes creamed chipped beef, which I loved as a kid and haven’t eaten probably in 25 years. Jen conjures the old nickname for this dish—s**t on a shingle—which doesn’t encourage me to try it again anytime soon, and doesn’t do any favors for the ladies’ waning appetites, either. Bryan goes last, with an egg-polenta-King-crab asparagus number, doused in a vanilla beurre blanc.

Cut to Nigella fully dressed and bundled into her signature jeans jacket, and she’s telling Bryan that she couldn’t cope with the vanilla in the dish—it was like breathing in dessert. I love listening to Nigella talk. I need to find those old shows on DVD, or YouTube even.

Anyway. Eli wins for his tangy corned beef Reuben with Thousand Island dressing that “slapped” Nigella right out of her jetlag. Eli tries to plaster a humble expression on his face, but fails.

Padma has the chefs once more draw the Fickle Knives of Fate for their Elimination Challenge, and they each get assigned a casino resort to use as inspiration to compose a dish that will feed 175 of “Vegas’ elite,” whoever they might be.

Jen wanders through Excalibur, looking lost and decidedly uninspired. I want to reach through the TV and give her a hug and a pep talk.

Cuddly Kevin gets to play with dolphins at Mirage, so he’s cooking dolphin filets for supper. Just kidding. But he does leave the pig behind this week in favor of sockeye salmon with “compressed slaw and spicy cucumber broth.”

Eli—Yike. Circus Circus does not resonate with his culinary soul. (Other parts of his soul? Probably.) Flash forward to a Top Chef slumber party where Eli continues brainstorming his dish. Circus, circus … hmm. Peanuts, caramel popcorn, a pink dome … Oh, Eli. No!

This might have been the break Robin needed to stand out, but Robin stood mesmerized by the brightly colored Dale Chihuly glass sculpture in the Bellagio, and she’s gonna make a panna cotta capped with glassy-looking sugar. Except, Robin doesn’t know how to work with sugar. Or panna cotta. Nothing more need be said.

Jump to the party: Jen is behind even in the setup, and the judges traipse over to her station and Padma snarks, “Well, it looks like you’ve sold out.” Where’s my confident, tough-as-leather Jen? She sticks toothpicks in unattractive hunks of meat dappled with reduced red wine sauce, and that’s her Excalibur “sword in the stone” dish. Nigella is so not impressed. “I need Excalibur to cut it,” she says of the meat. “This is the stone.” The Renaissance disaster makes her feel “ready to be in wench mode.” Her British wit pummels Toby Young’s British wit—he can only rhyme Spamalot with Camelot in response to the dish.

Mike nails the crispy skin on his New York-inspired chicken wings with blue cheese, and folks gush over the contrast in temperature and texture. Bro Bryan does right by his escabeche halibut. Kevin rocks it out with his salmon: Cut to revelers knocking their heads back to practically lick their plastic bowls of the last brothy rivulets.

Robin—ever apologizing—can’t serve the sugar that wilted during its travel from prep to party, and serves overly stiff panna cotta with little flavor. Nothing more need be said.

And Eli—wow. Think of a vanilla milkshake made by a five-year-old who has a spread of peanuts, popcorn, melted raspberry popsicle, and caramel apple, and a weak grasp of how to operate a blender. That is Eli’s offering. Nigella can barely face it.

And so the Judges Table plays out with zero surprises. Padma ushers in our three leading men—Kevin and the BroVos—and Mike wins for his crispy chicken skin. Nigella hands him a magnum of wine. Where are all the good sponsors this season? Oh, right. They’re recovering from the recession.

In go Defeated Jen (who whispers in the Stew Room at one point, “Can I just go now?”), Robin, and Eli. Robin is already crying. And if she hadn’t been in the bottom time after time after time after time, Eli would have been asked to assemble his cutlery and depart. The judges have that staged moment where Padma always asks, “Are we agreed?” But Nigella does not look agreed. She wanted Eli out for making her put that churned nastiness in her mouth.

And, anyway, Robin’s panna cotta should have had the “quiver of a seventeenth century courtesan’s inner thigh,” says Nigella. (Can’t Nigella replace Toby altogether?) So Robin is, at last, gone. And the other five all hug her, because she’s red from sobbing and they’re so happy to see her go. Robin, in interview mode, sighs that she should have just stuck to her comfort food. Um, bye, Robin.

Up next: A relaxed-looking affair starring Thomas Keller. And Mike V. picks up the bouchedag mantle by sniping that Kevin cooks the food that Mike cooks on his day off. Watch it, pal.