It’s the third to last episode of “Top Chef” Season 7 which means that each of the five remaining cheftestants will tell us how high the stakes are at least 15 times. The stakes are like sooo high, guys. Like higher than Angelo after he gets a whiff of his “delicious” broths, high. Everyone is predictably nervous, especially Kevin because he’s “dodged some big bullets,” like when he tried to impale Eric Ripert’s delicate French tongue with an excessively long chicken kabob skewer.
It was not his smoothest move. And that’s what she said.
Angelo is on edge, but still confident that he’s going to win. He says, “There hasn’t been a doubt in my mind ever since I started.” He must have blocked out the memory of episode #10 when he freaked out over the mystery box and then served the judge’s and CIA officers frozen puff pastry during the Elimination Challenge. Oh. The. Horror.
For this week’s Quickfire Challenge, Angelo, Kevin, Tiffany, Ed, and Kelly are asked to select a wine and then create an “amazing” dish to pair with it. Dana Cowin, Editor-in-Chief of Food & Wine magazine, is the guest judge for this final “High Stakes” Quickfire with Padma playing the role of her bell hop. Ed is like majorly stoked to be in the same room as Cowin because apparently she knows a lot about food and a lot about wine (really?!) and they are like BFFs on Facebook. Except she has no idea who he is.
Angelo’s also super stoked because wine is one of his biggest passions and he feels that “understanding wine helps you becoming a better chef because you pick up the nuances of flavors.” He selects the Evolution White Wine from “Oregone” for his pairing, and is confident that his dish – a sautéed foie gras with black salt and fennel salad – will go well with it.
Tiffany is less familiar with wine, but is still excited because the prize for this High Stakes challenge is a trip to London. She says in her usual endearing sassy fashion, “I’m already going to Paris… sure would be nice to go to London too. Hit ‘em both up.” We just love that Tiffany. So blunt. So not delirious on herbs and broth and her “passions.”
Kevin is struggling with his pairing. He tries to cook pork belly in a pressure cooker, but it doesn’t work out so well for the portly family man, and he has to use quail instead. It’s not the best pairing for the Tangley Oaks Merlot he selected. After serving his grilled quail with shaved apple, fennel salad and apple vinaigrette to Ms. Cowin, he sheepishly says that quail can go with red or white. Cowin counters, “Quail is quite delicate really.”
Kevin is predictably on the bottom, along with Kelly for the overpowering blue cheese emulsion she served with her wild boar tenderloin and Federalist Dry Creek Zinfandel. On top are Angelo for the nice contrast of the crisp wine with his foie gras, and Tiffany for her well-seasoned cocoa and black pepper crusted wagyu tenderloin served with the Two Hands Shiraz. Cowin describes Tiffany’s reduction as “elegant,” and we can’t help but think, “No Dana, you’re elegant.” (Ed likes this on Facebook.)
Angelo is ultimately singled out as the winner, and Kevin looks like a puppy that’s been kicked in the face. “Angelo wins again – maybe he’s got his mojo back,” he says a bit bitterly. There's no time for moping though. Padma lets the chefs in on a little secret – the final four chefs after this week's Elimination will be heading to Singapore for the remaining challenges. Angelo is ecstatic about the news because he – shocker alert! – feels 100% Asian inside. I mean he tingles just thinking about all the spring rolls and jicama salads he can make while he’s there! For us it just means we get to hear “Singapore” mentioned 500 times during the rest of the episode.
For this week’s Elimination Challenge, the chefs are shuttled off to NASA where they learn they will be making a dish that can be freeze-dried and served to astronauts in space. They must follow guidelines for dining in zero gravity which means they need to avoid a high level of sugar, avoid large pieces of ingredients, and focus on creating the spicy, bold flavors that the astronauts enjoy. There are a lot of bad puns to describe the challenge. The dish must be “out of this world,” they should “shoot for the stars,” yadda yadda yadda, kill me.
Kelly is really digging the challenge because she went to space camp when she was 13 and is “sort of a space nerd.” Actually, Kelly, you’re sort of a nerd nerd. Kevin is also jazzed about his strategy to cook food that is warm and comforting and --- wait for the cringe – “down to earth.” Despite the extremely high, “out of this world” stakes, however, everyone is feeling pretty good about their dishes – a nice change from when Amanda was moping around the kitchen making gray tuna tartar and reinterpreting soup as soup. It all seems to be going swimmingly for the chefs until Tiffany discovers that the mussels she was going to serve with her pan-roasted halibut are frozen.
“Houston, we have a problem.”
The next morning, the chefs wake up to find a note sitting on the counter at the “Top Chef” house telling them that their ride for the challenge is outside and the winner gets to take it home. It’s a black Toyota Avalon that Angelo is, for some inexplicable reason, drooling over. Does he think he can drive his mail order Russian bride back to NY with it?
The chefs will have one hour to prep at the Ronald Reagon Building in the International Trade Center before presenting their dishes to the judges, Eric Ripert, Anthony Bourdain, Buzz Aldrin and some NASA scientists (aka “space nerds”). Kelly, the ultimate space and every day nerd, proudly serves them a Pan-Roasted Halibut with Artichoke and Fennel Barigoule and Salsa Verde Salad. Everyone is impressed with the flavors and well-cooked artichokes that are pleasantly crunchy. They are also more or less impressed with Ed’s Yogurt-marinated Rack of Lamb with Eggplant Puree and Couscous Croquette that Bourdain feels is a great representation of Moroccan food. Ripert finds it overly complicated, but Bourdain counters, saying, “I just want to express my disappointment with my comrade over here, the Ripper. I’ve been to Morocco. Ed nailed it.” Unfortunately for the red-faced cheftestant, he’s not talking about Tiffany.
The judges are also fond of Kevin’s All-American NY Strip Steak with Bacon Jalapeño Marmalade and Corn Puree and Angelo’s Ginger-lacquered Short Ribs and Horseradish Crème Fraiche with more… pea puree. Is this Ed’s pea puree? Was Angelo the one who sabotaged him – not Alex? Most likely not, but we’re viewing this puree through Ripert’s supposed “dark, cynical, snarky, and negative world view.” Which by the way, we don’t buy either. Bourdain, hands off our silver fox. (We just love the way he says, "juniper.")
All the judges, however, are in consensus that Tiffany’s Pan-seared Halibut with Coconut Curry, Snow Pea Shoots and Jasmine Rice fell just a bit short. Even though Bourdain is a self-described “slut for fish sauce,” they find issue with her mealy tomatoes and the bitter skins on the red peppers. There are minor issues with the other dishes as well – Tom wishes Kevin had cut his sirloin into thicker pieces, and didn't love Angelo’s sweet candied ginger – but ultimately Tiffany is the one who will not be packing her bags to Singapore. Our dismay at her premature departure is somewhat mitigated by the lack of suspense at this final decision. It was clear when she found her mussels were frozen that our favorite of the remaining contestants would not be moving forward past this episode. Even Padma looks sad when she breaks the news -- she really really wanted to see Ed and Tiffany get it on before the finale.
While Kevin thanks Jesus for this turn of events, Ed reflects on the greatness that is Tiffany. “Tiffany’s she’s just great, you know. She’s awesome. She brought so much energy to the competition, you know, she just… I don’t know.”
Yes, Ed. We think you do know.
Despite his sweet candied ginger (a no-no in space), Angelo is ultimately crowned the winner for making love to his short ribs (also a no-no in space). He wins the car, his food is going to be in outer space and he makes it to the finals of “Top Chef” Season 7. “It’s too much too embrace as a human to be honest with you.” He says. So he, like Kevin, thanks Jesus instead.
It’s a nice change from his candlelight vigils to four-star chefs of yore. Of course, we’d be a-okay if he wanted to light a candle for Tiffany. (Ed likes this on Facebook.)