Most surreal Top Chef episode ever? Possibly? When you open with Muppets and end in a Target aisle’s 4 a.m. florescent glare, one could be forgiven for thinking tonight’s challenges were just a glorious fever dream of epic weirdness. But since James Franco never came skipping down around the corner in a pair of Paul Frank panties, I’ve come to the conclusion that, yes, Elmo actually did declare Antonia’s cookies looked like shit during the Quickfire. And that is a universe I am happy enough to live in.
I’m going to state the obvious here, but in case you are somehow immune to their charms (and therefore have no soul): Muppets kick ass. And bravo (heh) to Sesame Street and Top Chef for allowing Cookie Monster an adult forum for his sugar neurosis. His Royal Cookieness, Elmo, and Telly were all on hand to issue the chefs a cookie challenge. I love the word “cookie” almost as much as I love cookies themselves. Why? Because there is no other word for “cookie.” Not really. I guess some call them “biscuits” but that’s a cultural thing and doesn’t count. (Yes, I just discounted the heritage of almost the entire English-speaking world, but – seriously? “Would you like a biscuit?” does not evoke the same anticipation as “Would you like a cookie?” Though I love me some biscuits, I cannot lie. And I am perfectly aware that my logic is earth-shatteringly stupid here.) But the biggest, hairiest, scariest looking dude on your block says “cookie.” COOKIE. See? Ridiculous, this word. And so, so wonderful.
Right – cookie challenge. We all know pastry has been the nemesis of many a Top Chef, but since there’s no elimination at stake, they roll with it and actually have FUN. (I know!) It’s also one of the quietest Quickfires from the chef-side because, as Dale points out, you can’t curse in front of Muppets. It’s, like, an unspoken agreement between generations of kids, their adult selves, and the spirit of Jim Henson. Those creepy puppets in the Neighborhood of Make Believe do not garner this level of respect, trust me. And that’s what makes this entire segment so gosh-darned charming. Not even stupid Mike Isabella’s bitching can overshadow the lilt of Padme’s voice as she talks to Elmo, Telly, and Cookie Monster throughout the forty-five minute cook time. This Quickfire was firing on 10 cylinders of unleaded adorable. So adorable, in fact, that five minutes into the show and I’ve already forgotten the Fabio love-fest that happened at the start. It’s like the show brought out of the big guns to distract from my beloved Italian’s absence. Well played, Top Chef. Well played.
Our Sesame Street faves are savvy cookie judges. Richard overreaches with his zucchini/mint ice cream “cookies” (Cookie Monster declares they aren’t really cookies at all – ouch) and Angelo’s chocolate chip-hazelnut cookies get a big thumbs down. (On a side note, because both Angelo and Mike said this during the challenge – how on earth do you get to be a chef not having made a single cookie in your entire goddamn life? Are you for real? Did you skip childhood altogether? Fetus to chef with no sugar, eggs, and butter in-between? Next you’re gonna tell me you never played in sprinklers when you were a kid either. Sometimes these people depress the fuck outta me. God.) At the top of the cookie heap: Dale, who somehow made potato chips and pretzels and shortbread in a blender an appetizing sweet n’ salty treat, and Antonia, who made cow chips with chocolate and sprinkles. (Hey, Elmo said it, not me, and it was absolutely true. Antonia leaned over and whispered “my cookies look like shit.” ‘Twas quite funny.) The winner: Dale! And he manages to be genuinely touched, declaring it one of his top three most amazing experience on Top Chef. Did I mention how ADORABLE this entire segment was? My heart swelled to ten times its normal size, I’m convinced!
…and maybe that was a good thing, since the last half of the episode was a Target commercial. This might not have been so irritating but there was some sort of home decorating tie-in…? I don’t even know. What I do know is that Target is Target and, even on TV, the waxed white floors and overhead lighting screams “Twizzlers are three aisles over from the pillow cases!” Target’s actual commercials, which aired during each break, get major points for featuring Kevin Gillespie from Top Chef Season 6, though. And his absence from the All-Stars round was particularly missed in this Elimination Challenge: Cook and present a meal to 100 Target employees at 3 o’clock in the morning, only using appliances and groceries bought in the store.
Kevin would have been ALL OVER THAT, am I right? And as the challenge unfolded, I was confident Antonia had this one in the bag. Seven professional chefs and she’s the only one who does the classic equation in her head: “3 a.m. + breakfast food = EASY WIN.” Eggs and grease are God’s gifts to human beings at that hour and four of these jerkfaces (Dale, Carla, Mike, and Angelo) are making soup. And don’t get me started on the parmesan cream she whipped up for the eggs – evoking hollandaise, right? I thought she was showing off some brains and major cajones. At one point, Richard makes a comment about his dish being all hearty and “blue collar” and I laughed at him, and laughed harder when a Target employee rather prissily declares during the meal she doesn’t usually care for curry. Dude, Richard, whatever; it made me love Antonia’s parmesan cream even more. (See what happened there? This episode switched up my long-running loyalties with its wackery.)
Oh, did I mention Carla yet? Carla wandering up and down the aisles of Target, pushing her cart like a Monday morning coupon shopper, only without the coupons? Carla, who wasted one and a half hours of her allotted three-hours-to-cook-for-100-people? It would have been a good opportunity to use a spray bottle, I think. Obviously screaming at her through the television wasn’t working and I have a physical need for her to make it to the final. Something else that had me screaming – the Mike/Angelo bromance. [insert full body shudder here] Thank goodness that horrifying development wasn’t long for the world.
The judges for this challenge: Padme, Tom, Anthony Bourdain, and Ming Tsai. Like Bourdain, Tsai is a chef who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. But the actual judging was very anti-climactic, because the parameters of the challenge were so strenuous, the chefs made it easy on themselves. And I can’t entirely blame them because it was a crazycakes situation. This is why I don’t care for challenges like this. In theory, it should showcase the chefs’ ingenuity (Antonia); in practice, it makes for a very boring culinary experience (everyone else). Also, it reminds me of camping and I loathe camping.
Far be it from me to knock stoner food – I dip my BBQ potato chips in sour cream and eat dill pickles with an orange juice chaser (because I like my face to feel like it’s imploding) – but there must have been flavor dynamite in that soup because I am straight-up BOGGLING how grilled sandwiches and tomato soup won Dale $25,000 tonight. On one hand, I like to think that Top Chef is about whether the food tastes good. On the other? Bourdain actually called Dale “goofy and devious” for the iron trick. Sizzling your grilled cheese with an iron is not THAT impressive, judges. It’s not. Someone’s doing it in their dorm room as I type this.
In the elimination, it came down to seasoning – Carla’s curried apple soup had none (she left herself little cooking time to develop the flavor properly), Tiffany’s “jambalaya” (it was actually gussied up red rice) had a prepared seasoning mix, and Angelo’s deconstructed baked potato soup was deemed inedible because of too much salt. The lack of protein in Carla’s dish was also a huge sticking point, with Tsai declaring her soup was a two-dimensional but would have been an excellent sauce for a protein. When it was revealed that Tiffany’s seasoning was from a mix she purchased in the store, I thought for sure she’d be going home. There was in interesting exchange about having an affection for childhood foods (Tiffany said it was a seasoning mix her mother used while she was growing up), with Tom finally declaring that just because you grow up with it and are fond of it doesn’t translate to good.
But Angelo said it best in the stew room: “How do you get past salt?” Salt is often the maker and breaker on this show and this time it was a definite deal breaker. Though, from the judges’ comments, salt was not the only thing wrong with the dish (Bourdain pointed out the bitter mouthful of scallions that killed the taste of the soup right off the bat). After Tiffany’s teary “I’m from Beaumont, Texas” speech, I was hoping she’d be making her exit, but I’m satisfied with Angelo going.
Next week: PAULA DEEN, Y’ALL. She gives me urges. I see her and I just want to cram a stick of butter right into my pie hole, roll around in pecans, and molest a honey-baked ham.