There is a lot of talent on this season of “Top Chef.” So much talent that it almost feels like half (err four) of the contestants belong on “Top Chef Masters” instead. Watching Jenn C., Michael and Bryan Voltaggio, and Kevin Red Beard strut their stuff in the kitchen isn’t terrifying like it is when I see Robin or Ash getting too close to a burner. I know the fab four are going to rock it out (or at least they will when all the circuits are working correctly and there is plenty of pork around for Kevin).
The contrast between the Jenn, Michael, Bryan, and Kevin and the rest of the motley crew of cheftestants is startling, but not just because they cook things that Padma doesn’t want to spit out. While Michael admittedly likes to push older brother Bryan’s buttons in the kitchen, they at least keep their lover’s quarrels in the family circle. The other chefs do not, and as a result, seem even more unprofessional and amaueteristic in comparison.
Exhibit A: Eli. In the opening sequence the “Top Chef” producers give the audience a big giant present – Eli reveals that he lives with his parents. I can practically hear the collective “Ohhh…” spewing out of the mouths of the audience at home. Because suddenly I get why Eli is a whiny brat who thinks camping is stupid and cancer survivors are lame and black shirts are totally rockin’, duuuude. I’m so happy to have petulant Eli figured out that I don’t even find myself that appalled when Michael V. compares himself to Babe Ruth. I mean, really Michael, that’s just like way out of (bad pun alert!) left field. Babe Ruth has nothing on you! Swing higher, kid – you make fancy foams – he’s only (debatably) the greatest baseball player of all time!
So as the cheftestants head into the Quickfire Challenge, Michael is all pumped up to never make another mistake again (he’s got a legacy to build), and Robin, despite all the mind-clearing Pilates, is still delusional and thinks that she can actually win “Top Chef.” Right. That will happen when Kevin’s pig tattoo can fly, Robin. Or when Padma takes a look in the mirror before going on camera. Seriously, Padma, what is going on with your wardrobe this season? First the green onesie, now the space cowboy outfit complete with huge belt buckle and white knee-high boots? Think of your future child!
The Quickfire Challenge is fairly simple – make a dish that is a natural pairing for a flavor of Alexia Crunchy Snacks. The guest judge is Charlie Palmer who both Bryan and Michael have worked for in the past, but Charlie assures everybody that he will be impartial. I want to believe him, I really really do, especially because he looks so serious when he says it, but I…. just… can’t… do… it. Bryan is practically weeping with joy that he gets to cook for his mentor – he knows he’s got it in the bag of (bad pun alert)….savory onion Alexia Crunchy Snacks! Snap!
Michael’s actually kind of nervous because “Charlie has very high standards,” which Bryan translates as, “Michael thinks Charlie doesn’t like him. I think that’s funny.” Meanwhile, Jenn is freaking out because she overcooked her pork chop and doesn’t want to screw up in front of an “American icon,” and Eli is looking around at everyone like they are riff-raff because the other chefs don’t “get” natural pairings like he does since he lives with his mommy and daddy and that’s like the most natural thing ever. When you are five.
Robin, Ash and Jenn, courtesy of her overcooked chop, ultimately land in the bottom, and Eli, Kevin and Bryan are the favorites. Eli’s warm potato clam salad paired with the onion crunchy snack gets the nod, and Eli says, “I’ll take what I can get.” Yeah… like free rent, huh?
Ash is not too happy about it. He seems to have abandoned his nice guy persona in the last episode and is all about the bleepity bleeps tonight. It’s surprisingly not all that charming. But then again, neither is his chilled cucumber avocado soup…
For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs are asked to draw knives to find out what they’ll be cooking. Each knife lists the body part of a pig because, as we’ve learned in episodes past, pork is aaaaawesome. It’s really not “Top Chef,” guys, it’s “Top Bacon Bit” which Kevin understands completely. “I think it’s the best thing in the world,” He says, before admitting he has a pig tattoo. Swoon! Watch out Michael V., someone is stealing your tat thunder!
After everyone gets their pig parts and Jenn C, who receives the wild card knife, chooses pork belly for her dish, the chefs are then shuttled off to the Mandalay Bay to select a Pinot Noir to pair with their plate o’ pork. Each chef will need to make 150 tasting portions for Charlie Palmer’s aptly named “Pigs and Pinot” charity event. Eli is totally strutting his stuff because he’s “very familiar with wines.” Sometimes his mom even lets him have a little glass with dinner! But only if he finishes all his vegetables.
With wine selections made, it’s back to Whole Foods for shopping. Ash is like really stoked to make roasted pork tenderloin with polenta and cherry and is practically skipping through the aisles. Last dance for Mary Jane, perhaps? Then it’s back to the ranch for some fun times ignoring and hating on Robin. Kevin, bless his little Red Bearded soul, sums up the merriment well: “Robin has the best intentions at heart, but she’s driving people up the f*ing wall.” Without going into too many gory details, Robin and Eli get in a tiff over a dirty cutting board and Eli tells her, “You aren’t my mom so cut it out.” He’s really proud of himself for that one, and rushes to the nearest phone to call his real mom to give her a play by play.
For the challenge the next day, the chefs have only four hours to prep for the event. It’s madness, I tell you, madness! But Laurine is feeling really good about her pork rillette (translation: it’s going to be horrible), and Ash is pumped to finally cook his food. Or at least he is until he decides to cook someone else’s food and takes Mike Isabella’s brilliant advice to make chilled pork tenderloin instead of his plan for pork and polenta. You just keep digging that hole deeper don’t you, Ash?
The rest of the episode plays out as expected. The fab four – Michael, Bryan, Kevin, and Jenn C. – are the clear standouts for their pairings. Charlie describes Jenn C.’s take on pork and beans as “probably the lightest pork belly dish I’ve ever had.” Toby Young chimes in with the best/worst comment of the evening, likening the transition from American Pinots to Jenn C.’s European Pinot to “the difference between a shaved armpit and a hairy armpit.” He praises her for her ability to pick up on those hairy elements in the wine, and I throw up in my mouth just a little bit. Kevin Red Beard, however, takes it all for his pork leg pate. It’s a nice moment – he turns an appropriate shade of pink with pleasure. And then goes “Wee wee wee all the way home!”
Laurine, Ash and Robin are all in the bottom, and Mike makes it clear that he’s really hoping that “they make the right decision this time” and that “grandma goes.” Mike, honey, I love you (not really), but maybe if you had kept that big Jersey trap shut and let Ash do his pork ‘n polenta thing, you could have gotten your wish. Even though Dana Cowin, the Editor-in-Chief of Food & Wine magazine, describes Laurine’s rillette as “cat food,” and Toby Young likens Robin’s sauce to “the gunk you get when you finish a cup of instant coffee,” ultimately Ash is sent home for his flavorless, clammy piece of pork that didn’t pair well with his Pinot.
Or as he says so eloquently, “I have the least good dish. Oops.”