The Wife:

Curse you, Bravo, with your clever T-shirt marketing! Now I totally need to buy my husband an “I Heart Padma” shirt. I wish Ted Allen were still an occasional guest judge so they could make a shirt that says “I’m Gay for Ted Allen.” I would totally wear that, and then me and my husband could walk around with our cool foodie Bravo shirts, and hang out with his sister and her Bronnie tee from Make Me a Supermodel. We’d be so awesome.

But clever tees aside, Bravo went on to complete horrify me by introducing this week’s Quickfire challenge. Along with guest judge Hung, who was only there because he’s the “fastest Top Chef in history,” Padma instructed the chefs to create an acceptable meal out of horrifying canned and processed “pantry staples” in 15 minutes. (That’s why Hung was there. A Quickfire is usually 30 minutes. So, you know, 15 is faster.) I was so horrified by this challenge, because it goes against basically everything restaurant cookery is about, something Jamie made known in the confessional. But, to the cheftestant’s credit, they are truly all Top Chefs because they were able to take a pantry full of crap and actually make it look (for the most part) like edible, actual food.

The Quickfire Dishes

  • Leah: waffles with strawberries and sausage
  • Stefan: baked bean soup with Spam and a grilled cheese and Spam sammie
  • Fabio: mac and cheese with roasted mushrooms, artichokes and chili pepper (this actually looked surprisingly appealing)
  • Radhika: spicy red bean dip with grilled bread
  • Hosea: sweet pea soup with Spam
  • Jeff: deep fried canned conch with coconut sauce and a pina colada
  • Jamie: garbanzo bean and artichoke bruschetta with baked mussels
  • Ariane: Thanksgiving turkey Spam sandwich (Uh, by the way, everyone, Turkey Spam is called Treat. I’m very sorry that I know this, but constantly calling it “turkey Spam” was driving me nuts. Why the fine people at Hormel foods think that a faux-turkey Spam concoction is a treat I will never know.)
  • Carla: salmon cake with lemongrass and ginger mayo
Upon closer inspection, why didnt Ariane get automatically sent home for this shit sandwich?

Upon closer inspection, why didn't Ariane get automatically sent home for this shit sandwich?

Hung did not care for Leah’s extra crispy waffles, Radhika’s bean dip (on the basis that it wasn’t an entree, but a snack) and Jamie’s bruschetta, which Hung said looked like she just opened cans and put them on bread. He loved Hosea and Stefan’s soups, as well as Jeff’s well-plated seafood trio because he took the time to bread and fry the conch. Stefan was given the win and Hung’s highest accord, which was that Stefan’s dish looked like something Hung would eat at three in the morning. (That’s a compliment, right? Like, after a long restaurant shift and some after work drinks with the kitchen staff, you want to go home and soak up the booze with a grilled cheese and Spamwich and some baked bean soup?)

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs were told that they would be creating a family-style lunch for 16 using seasonal ingredients that honor a signature protein. The almighty knife block was introduced to place the cheftestants into the protein teams. Hosea, Leah and Dr. Lisa Cuddy drew Lamb. Jamie, Carla and Stefan formed Team Chicken while Radhika, Fabio and Jeff comprised Team Pork. The newly-formed teams headed back to Chez Chef to work on their menus. Ariane felt really left out because Hosea and Leah have spent so much time canoodling, which Jamie and Stefan got into a major tiff because Stefan was dead-set against hearing other ideas for the menu, even when Jamie and Carla presented him with the valid concern that what they were serving wouldn’t be seasonal enough.

The next day, the teams were taken shopping, but realized something was different when they headed out of Manhattan. They arrived at Dan Barber’s Stone Barn, a farm-to-table restaurant that grows all of its ingredients on site. Barber told the chefs that they would be able to “shop” on his farm for their ingredients while learning about farming from the head farmers, for whom they would be cooking lunch, served straight from the Stone Barn kitchen.

I love the idea of this challenge. I really do. I think this episode was actually really well structured to balance out my horror at cooking with processed foods versus cooking with farm fresh ingredients. I’m an avid reader of Michael Pollan and I’ve come to realize that most “foods” found in the supermarket are not actually foods, but byproducts of a nutritionalist movement that actually removes real food from the American diet. Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma explores methods of food production and, much like reading Sinclair’s The Jungle, once you read it, you will seriously reconsider buying things that come from factory farms. In his follow-up to that book, In Defense of Food, Pollan writes a short treatise about returning actual food to the American diet. In short: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. By food, of course, Pollan means vegetables, fruits, meats, dairy and grains. He does not mean Hot Pockets and Easy Mac. The challenges in this episode highlight the difference between the way, I wager, most people eat, a product of the Age of Convenience that began in the 1950s, and the way they should be eating, based on an agrarian model that should have never been disrupted. Sure, cooking with real food takes a bit more time and effort, but the benefits are well worth it. Just look at the difference between the pantry food in the Quickfire (cooked in additional haste to illustrate the point of convenience foods) versus the meals presented at the farmer’s table.

Team Pork

  • Seared pork loin
  • Sausage ravioli with pesto
  • Fried green tomatoes
  • Grilled corn salad with bacon
  • Crème brûlée with fresh berries

Would you like to stroke my cock?

Would you like to stroke my cock?

Team Chicken

  • Breaded chicken cutlet
  • Lemon-herb roast chicken
  • Chicken ravioli soup
  • Nectarine and strawberry tartlet

Team Lamb

  • Roasted duo of lamb (a roulade and a medallion)
  • Heirloom tomato salad
  • Rosemary and garlic roasted potatoes
  • Swiss chard
  • Summer berry trifle
Tomato! Tomato! Tomato! (Thats my excitement over tomatoes.)

Tomato! Tomato! Tomato! (That's my excitement over tomatoes.)

I can’t honestly capture in words how excited I was to see Jeff go for fried green tomatoes from the garden, as they are one of my favorite foods. I love any and all tomatoes, but I adore fried green tomatoes, especially served with a little goat cheese and a balsamic reduction. It’s a pretty perfect meal. But fried green tomatoes aside, I question why, in the height of summertime, Team Pork didn’t go for a more traditionally Southern menu. Had they done, say, collard greens with ham instead of the sausage ravioli with pesto and replaced the pedestrian crème brûlée with a more summery dessert (something involving melons, perhaps, if any were available on the farm), I bet they would have hit it out of the park. The judges and the farmers seemed to respond pretty negatively to the amount of pesto on the ravioli, with Toby Young calling it:

“The pesto is the big bad wolf that has blown this pig’s house down.”

Which would have been really clever, had Jeff not introduced their team as The Three Little Pigs. Many people questioned Team Chicken’s decision to serve a soup on a hot summer day, but regardless of the heat factor, it was a really great soup. But then there’s Team Lamb, which completely dishonored the signature protein by letting Ariane beat the shit out of it and overly tenderize it. The judges weren’t fans of the crème brûlée, but they were really in hate with the shoddily constructed trifle from Team Lamb. Dan Barber, however, loved Carla’s tart and Tom praised her for making a killer pie crust. (Which is no small feat.)

A fine tart.

A fine tart.

At Judges’ Table, Team Chicken was called in. The judges thought all of the dishes were well-prepared and allowed the protein to shine, and made no short shrift of letting Carla know that hers was their favorite desert. Because of their collective efforts, Dan Barber awarded them with a joint win. Then the remaining six cheftestants were called in. The judges grilled Team Lamb about their mishandling of the lamb itself, wondering why Leah and Hosea would just leave the lamb to Ariane if she had no idea how to tie it or properly butcher it. Team Pork was criticized for their seared pork loin, saying that it was lacking in fat content and thus not as savory as it could have been. Toby Young, by the way, “didn’t even get to first base with the pork,” finding the dish to be bloodless and anemic. (I now worry that he actually has sex with food products back home.)

When the cheftestants returned to the stew room, seated under giant boxes of Diet Dr. Pepper, the drink product that just won’t fucking leave me alone, the judges slowly began to realize that Dr. Lisa Cuddy just can’t cook at all. Padma tried to be nice and say that it was only in this challenge that she really failed, having cooked well for them before, but Toby and Tom both snickered at the thought. So glad they’ve finally realized that Arine has just been around on this show for far too long. And, indeed, when the losingest cheftestants were called back in to Judges’ Table, it was Ariane who was told to pack her knives and go, which couldn’t have made me happier.

Also, are Bravo’s text addicts totally smoking Diet Dr. Pepper? They answered that Team Lamb best honored the protein in the Bravo text poll? Were we watching the same show? Did we not all see Ariane torture that poor dead lamb? Maybe they were just lulled into a false sense of security by the rosemary and garlic roasted potatoes (which I make at home, actually) and the heirloom tomatoes and Swiss chard. This team definitely had the best use of farm-fresh side dishes, but that lamb was whack.