Thursday, May 1, 2008

Top Chef 4: Common Threads?

by Xani and Erin

We've reached Episode 8 of this season of Top Chef which means half of the original competitors are gone! We were hoping that meant this episode would highlight the advanced culinary skills of the remaining competitors... but what we really got was microwaveable rice and kiddie meals?!?

Granted, the challenges were... challenging. The Quickfire Challenge forced the chefs to prepare a family-friendly entree in just 15 minutes. Surely not impossible, but they are given only seconds to figure out their dishes and begin to cook, plus they have to incorporate the awkwardly forced product placement, Uncle Ben's microwaveable rice. There were some creative dishes that came out of the challenge: Richard's tuna steak with whole grain and regular rice, tomato and yuzu, Dale's pineapple fried rice, and Antonia's "rice salad" (a dish her mother used to make) are favorites of the guest judge, Art Smith, Oprah's personal chef and James Beard Award winner. Antonia wins immunity for her rice salad, which Smith loved because of the hot and cold elements.

Onto the Elimination Challenge! The chefs are briefed on Smith's humanitarian organization, Common Threads, which brings families together to eat. This definitely strikes a chord with us BCD girls-- growing up, cooking/eating dinner together was a major part of our family life. We both started helping out in the kitchen at a very young age, watching both of our parents cook and learning by their sides, then sitting down to dinner together almost every night to talk about school, work, and, of course, food! We still keep this tradition going with our epic Sunday Dinners.

But the challenge isn't all warm fuzzy memories; the chefs must prepare a healthy, delicious, family-friendly meal for four, with a measly $10 budget! The chefs are NOT happy about this, and the shopping is a mess, with people buying tons of chicken (cheap, easy, mostly healthy) and Stephanie wandering around in a daze...

Back at the off-site kitchen where they will be doing the cooking, Padma reveals another twist (which were all knew about because of the previews for the episode): each chef will be paired with a young sous chef from Common Threads!

The chefs seem excited about this and Antonia immediately starts bawling as the theme of this episode is that she misses her daughter. Most of the kids seems pretty shy at first but then warm up to their partners, even Spike's kid who cuts himself with a peeler within seconds of picking it up. But tough little guy that he is, he goes right back to work! Tom Collichio remains in the kitchen during the whole challenge, observing, conversing, tasting, and generally making the competitors sweat. No great drama in the kitchen (personally we're glad no kids got horribly burned or lost any fingers during the challenge).

Unfortunately for viewers, there was no great drama with the dishes, either. With the constraints of the dish (family-friendly, simple to prepare, healthy and cheap), we weren't surprised to see pretty basic fare with little-to-no "wow" factor. The top three are Andrew (chicken paillard with fennel, apples, and oranges), Antonia (chicken and vegetable stir fry with whole wheat noodles), and Nikki (one pot roasted chicken with mixed veggies and tomato and cucumber salad). Antonia sweeps the episode by winning both the quickfire and the elimination challenge! As a single mom, she's got a leg up on the other contestants-- she makes food like this for her daughter all the time, and it shows. (Cue the creepiest line of the episode, Richard saying he wants to go home and "make babies." AWKWARD!)

The bottom three are Mark, who made vegetable curry, cinnamon rice and cucumber salad which the judges felt was too sweet with not enough protein, Stephanie, whose couscous was overcooked, chicken with peanut butter and tomatoes was "disgusting", and dessert – apples and granola was blah, and Lisa who made flavorless chicken over flavorless and undercooked edamame and black beans. A little drama when Mark accused Tom of not liking him... Tom defends himself but sends Mark home anyway, then awkwardly says they should have a beer sometime ("or a 'pint' as you guys call it" cringe-worthy).

Xani's Take:

Seriously folks, I should just give up now! I got ONE POINT this week-- ONE! I mean, a slight improvement over two weeks ago when I scored ZERO points, but still, majorly disappointing. I thought my team was pretty strong:

But Antonia was the dark horse this time, and I haven't had her on my team for weeks now. Anyhow, in addition to my disgusting score, I was not thrilled with the episode-- I make simple, healthy meals on the cheap for myself all the time at home, and nothing they did really wowed me. I am looking forward to the next challenge which seems to involve marathon cooking (14 hours?!) and weddings. OH, I will say that my favorite part of the entire episode happened after the ending credits, when many viewers might have already changed the channel or switched over to watching DVR'd episodes of The Office, the cut to a one-on-one shot of Andrew who says "I have a culinary boner right now." I can't even comment-- hilarious.

Dish I wished I were eating: Eh, maybe Andrew's chicken? Like I said, nothing much I was drooling over this episode.

Favorite chef at the moment: Looks like Stephanie has seriously taken a turn for the worse. Two weeks on the bottom! She needs to step it up and dance cook (wrong Bravo show)! I'm still an Andrew fan for now-- his filthy mouth earned me my one and only point.

Erin's Take:

Well, despite the fact that I spent all day yesterday in front of a computer, I completely forgot to change my Fafarazzi Top Chef fantasy team until it was too late and the website had been locked. So, my team was still Antonia, Stephanie, and Richard...and I CLEANED UP! I got 14 points because of Antonia (definitely the dark horse after last week's polish sausage-gate) and her clean sweep of this week's challenges. I am now in first place in the BCD group!

Despite the thrill of the win, I agree with Xani that the ep was pretty boring and I did not have an irresistable urge to eat or cook anything that anyone made. I did like that they had the kids in as sous chefs, especially Dale and his helper, who seemed to get along well since Dale saw himself in the kid. I also loved how when Andrew met his sou chef, he said "Honor to work with you, Chef" - cute! One other thing: Spike made Pasta Puttanesca for children - isn't that whore's pasta?? Well, at least it had vegetables, right?

I was sad to see Mark go, especially when Lisa and Nikki are so annoying!! He had a couple highs (remember his anchovy on quinoa, and his quail and egg roll from A Christmas Story?), but definitely many lows. I'm excited for next week's episode, which I believe is going to be "wedding wars." I don't think they've ever done a challenge like this, so maybe this is taking the place of the typical "restaurant wars" challenge?

Dish I wished I were eating: Dale's pineapple fried rice with scallops - sounded delicious and interesting, and since Asian food is Dale's specialty, I'm sure it tasted great. None of the kid-friendly dishes really did it for me.

Favorite chef at the moment: I'm disappointed in Stephanie - she showed so much promise! But, Bravo quite masterfully edits its shows, so I have a feeling we are being led to believe she is in trouble, but she will in fact wow us soon in the future. I really like Dale - he is finally showing his soul and you can tell he really puts his heart into his cooking. Also, Andrew is f-ing hilarious. Culinary boner?? I'll just leave it at that...

X & E


  1. Hmmm, I am thinking you are right on E with your thoughts on Stephanie. Although I have to say her dish did sound pretty gross. However, we just saw that she participated in a big deal Food event here in Chicago with many of the Top Chef judges- she was the only contestant. It must mean she makes it to the top 3! (Or so husband and I eagerly surmise)

  2. Xani - I'd love to hear more about your healthy, cheap meals. I suppose that stuff doesn't make great website fodder, but since most of my cooking aims to be healthy and cheap, any ideas would be great!

    As far as the show, I can't weigh in because I still don't have cable. Thanks for these posts, though. It's sort of like having cable...right?

  3. I was really disappointed in Stephanie's performance from the get go. The challenge was bad, the shopping was hurried and confused, the dish was appalling. If I didn't like her and know she can cook, I definitely would have been pissed that she wasn't sent home. Even with those mitigating thoughts, the judges screwed up again. They are brutal.

    Both challenges I thought were really weak and not very "chef" like. Again, let's get Rick Bayless out there and see what he does for under $10, cooking with a kid, having to feed four people and making it healthy. It's ridiculous.

    I scored one big point as well. Damnit. Oh well, that knocks me down the totem pole pretty well.

  4. I've been lurking for awhile and I've got to say I'm a big BCD fan! Since it's creepy to linger in the shadows I felt it only appropriate to post a comment.

    I caught Andrew's culinary boner comment too and thought I was imagining things! I had to rewind and try to catch it again to make sure I heard him correctly. I laughed so hard when I realized that is what he actually said.

  5. I am a keen reader of food blogs but just stumbled upon yours. I really like the clean design and simple layout. I started blogging myself a year ago and always thought that clean design was key. The fact that you also have good photos does help a lot. I have just started a website for bloggers, chefs and foodies to meet and share all their photos, recipes and videos called Anyway keep the great work up on the blog, have it bookmarkd now and talk soon. Cheers

  6. I don't watch it...but you know...I feel the need to comment anyway.

    I have nothing to say though.

    Any fun mexican meals planned for tonight?

  7. Andrew is starting to disturb me...

  8. I had kind of forgotten about that culinary boner thing - it killed me. Also, we think that Andrew's run out of drugs. He seems a little calmer.

    But I agree - didn't like this challenge much at all, and I was wildly disappointed in my girl Stephanie. Really, though - $10 at Whole Foods? For a family of 4? Maybe I spend too much on food, and we definitely eat too much, portion-wise, but I was really surprised by the sheer quantity of food they were able to buy for only $10.


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