Top Chef DC Review: Outside The Lunch Box

M: In the second episode of this season of Top Chef we quickly moved from the challenges being centered around introducing the contestants, to our usual Top Chef challenges incorporating the host city, and some neat twists.  In the quickfire challenge it was once again confirmed who the early favorites are, while in the elimination challenge it was VERY clearly defined who the season’s villain is.

E: Ugh.  Sooooooo obvious.

M: Find out who’s who after the jump!

M: Last week in the premiere we had Angelo, the smarmy Michelin star recipient from Connecticut and Kenny, the confident, bordering on cocky Colorado chef at the top of both challenges.  Angelo won both, and in an amazing display of humility, declared that he intended to win every challenge over the entire season (store that away, we’ll come back to it).  In the quickfire, they continued their dominance, and clearly set themselves up as the front runners, not just in my eyes, but in the eyes of the other contestants as well.

E: As much as I wasn’t a fan of Michael V last season, Angelo has taken far less time to annoy the heck out of me.  I really, really dislike him.  I mean, he makes Kenny look humble, and that’s saying something.

M: As I said, this episode’s challenges started to give us a feel for the competition in DC specifically.  The guest judge for this episode was White House assistant chef Sam Kass.  In the quickfire Padma informed the contestants that they would have to pair up, and would then have 30 minute to work together to make a “bipartisandwich”.  Har Har.

E: Silly, but I thought it was cute.

M: Of course, being Top Chef, there was a twist.  In the spirit of bipartisandshipwich (E: groan.  M: hey, if they can make bad puns, so can I), the pairs would have to wear a half blue, half red apron that allowed them each to use only one hand.  This was actually a really fun challenge to watch.

E: I know, right?

M: It had people ripping packages and bottles open with their teeth, partners skittishly holding things while the other sliced them with a knife, and in one shot someone using a cleaver to chop the top off of one of those big cylindrical canisters of salt.  Seriously, slicing the top off of a package of salt?  Anyway, Tim (who terrified his partner Alex, who kept thinking he would chop his hand off slicing bread or opening packages) put it best when he said it was genius, and then asked “who got high and came up with this?”.  Putting the drug use aside, as someone who has had to come up with crazy games for a summer camp, I appreciated it.  There was mayhem, with pairs running as best they could all over the kitchen, most of them trying to carry everything by themselves rather than working together, and making a mess.

E: I’m all about that, but the teenage campers we’ve worked with have been much more coordinated than these experts.  Too many egos getting in the way?

M: In the end, Angelo faced off again Kenny and Ed.  Ok, admittedly, Angelo was paired with Tracey (who confessed to having a “secret crush” on him, though its not very secret if you spill on national TV, now is it?), but he didn’t appear to let her have any say, and didn’t let her get a word in during presentation, while all the other pairs had both people talk.  Angelo took it again, and he (and Tracey) won immunity.

E: Much as I loathe him, the man does own an upscale sandwich shop, so he should have had a leg up here.  And it did look like a really nice sandwich.  Although that confuses me – is it his sandwich shop that has the Michelin star, or someplace he worked before?  I don’t think I care enough to look it up, however, because he grated on me so.

M: Stephen and Jacqueline, along with Lynne and Tiffany ended up on the bottom, but it was a bad sign for both Stephen, who is overconfident and hasn’t impressed me in the least, and Jacqueline, as neither of them did well last week, either.

E: Yeah, not looking so good.  I have to say, though – I want Lynne to do well. I think it’s cool that she’s a culinary school professor.

M: The elimination challenge continued the DC focus, with the contestants being divided into four teams of four, and tasked with cooking lunch for 50 public school kids… on a budget of $130 $2.60 per kid, just like the schools have.  However, despite the budget they are doing this under the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” program to combat childhood obesity, so they had to make it healthy and nutritious.

E: This is a seriously brutal challenge.  I mean, what’s cheap?  Pasta and sugar. What’s expensive? Proteins and fresh veggies and fruit.  But by the same token, it’s genius.  And I loved hearing that Tom’s mother spent 20 years running a school kitchen, so that he was intimately familiar with the challenge’s challenges.  Tom’s mom was a lunch lady!  Who would have guessed?

M: Angelo and Tracey got to choose their partners, and chose Kenny and Ed.  I thought at the time that it was a wise tactical choice, choosing the best chefs to be on their team, giving Angelo the best shot at winning the challenge.  Again, we’ll come back to this.

E: I had the same reaction at the time – I thought it’d be an unbeatable team.  Quite interesting where this went.

M: The others joined pairs, with by far the most volatile grouping being Kelly, Arnold, Lynne and Tiffany.  Kelly, who I liked right from the introductions, took a leadership role immediately, and the other chefs, being, well, their own bosses outside of the competition, didn’t take well to it.

E: I liked her, too, so I was a bit taken a back that her colleagues didn’t.  That gives me pause.  She seems to volunteer at a school, and felt very much invested in the assignment.

M: It became a running theme through the whole challenge, with her teammates confronting her at one point, but Tom Colicchio basically backing her, mentioning that they can’t be “all doing it together”, as each person specifically had to be responsible for one course so they had something to judge each of them on.

E: She did make absolutely certain everyone knew which dish was hers (“I’m responsible for the carnitas!”), which was perhaps a touch overboard, but on the other hand, they were very specifically instructed that each of them was responsible for one individual portion of their meal, so as Tom rightly noted, “we all came up with it” is not what the judges wanted to hear.

M: The challenge got really interesting when the teams went shopping, with people not grasping the restraints of the budget AT ALL.  The not so promising team of Stephen, Jacqueline, Amanda and Tamesha ended up spending money on sherry cooking wine to braise their chicken in (for middle school kids!), while not being able to afford chocolate for their chocolate pudding dessert.

E: Now, I thought that bit of the uproar about the wine was a bit silly.  While having something be braised in sherry certainly wouldn’t be a selling point to kids, the alcohol cooks off. There’s nothing unseemly about using wine to cook for kids.  I do it all the time, and I don’t doubt that Mrs. M does either.  The bit that didn’t sit well with me was that Jacqueline (and why was that pronounced Jack-leen, anyway?) got 10% of the budget instead of 25%.

M: They didn’t work together at all, and were snapping at each other the whole time.  The only team that really seemed to work well together was Tim, Kevin, Alex and Andrea.  Kenny kept commenting that he didn’t feel like their menu was nutritious enough, but didn’t do anything about it (E: I don’t know what he was supposed to do, though – he can’t make Angelo cook something he doesn’t want), and as it went along it was clear that Angelo was completely mailing it in, as all he made was celery with peanut butter mousse.  I was surprised and ultimately disappointed by this, because as much as I thought he was a bit of a dick, I thought he was serious about wanting to win every challenge.

E: Talk about unsavory.  If he really did throw the challenge on purpose – and the judges seemed convinced there was gamesmanship going on – that’s vile.  Now, on the other hand, I don’t see that it’s fair to blame Kenny and Ed for that.  Kenny did speak up, but ultimately, the judges made it very clear each contestant was responsible only for their own dish.  It’s not like he could force Angelo to do something healthier.

M: In the end, there were some great dishes, like Kevin’s melon kabobs with yogurt disguised to look and taste like whipped cream, Kelly’s pork carnitas tacos, Alex’s barbecue chicken with apple cider instead of sugar, Lynne’s black bean cake with a sweet potato “wig” on top and Andrea’s cole slaw with yogurt replacing most of the mayo.  On the other end, team sherry chicken pretty much flopped on every dish except maybe Temesha’s salad, Ed over-peppered his sweet potatoes, and as Kenny warned, his team had very little nutrition or vegetables in their menu.

E: Some of them were really well done, but yeah, there was a lot left to be desired here, too.  I still can’t believe that Angelo made a tuil (sp?) to go with his peanut butter mousse and called it a vegetable.

M: When time to judge came, the judges threw them a curveball by brining in the two worst teams first, faking everyone out because they usually bring the best teams in first.  They brought in team sherry chicken, and team Angelo.  The judges asked Angelo outright if he threw the challenge, and he said that he couldn’t “answer that right now”.  So, basically, he said yes.

E: Seriously, what kind of answer is that?

M: Then, after they were all dressed down, they headed back to the stew room and Angelo said to Tracey that he just doesn’t like Kenny.

E: Ugh, I missed that.

M: I lost any respect I had for him at that point, and ladies and gentlemen, we have a villain.  It’s always good to have someone to root against, so there’s that.

E: He’s not the only person I ended up disliking here, though.  In fact, my biggest problem with this episode is that we’ve identified villains, but not so much heroes!

M: They brought in team chaos, Kelly, Arnold, Lynne and Tiffany, and announced them as the best.  I was a little surprised, as I thought that Andrea, Tim, Kevin and Alex were better across all four dishes, but they determined that Kelly’s tacos were the top dish, so maybe they didn’t want to split the winners up the way they did for the bottom, which was Kenny, Ed, Amanda and Jacqueline.

E: I thought it was such a shame they didn’t recognize both teams!  I thought the winning team was clearly the one they picked, actually, and I knew who the individual winner would be, too, but it’s always sad to see good work go unrecognized.  When contestants feel unappreciated or uncertain how their work was received, it can adversely affect their performance level.

M: Kenny and Ed were there because Angelo and Tracey had immunity, and the two guys didn’t do enough to lead their team to make a more nutritious meal.  Amanda and Jacqueline were there because their dishes were lousy, Amanda’s sherry chicken, and Jacqueline’s sugary banana and strawberry pudding.  Kenny and Ed were too promising to be let go, so it came down to Amanda and Jacqueline.

E: Well, and Kenny and Ed were largely there because of Angelo, so you get the feeling the judges thought it wouldn’t be right to boot them.

M: I felt that Amanda was going to go, partly because she hogged the budget costing Jacqueline, and despite that she made a lousy main course.  However, combining her poor performance last week, and a pudding with two pounds of sugar in it for a “healthy” dessert led to Jacqueline packing her knives and going home.

E: I’d have rather seen Amanda go (chiefly because she was so unpleasant), but the judges seem to have more respect for people who won’t compromise on their vision (even if it’s a bad idea) than someone who lets themselves get kicked around.  Even though Amanda’s food was unappetizing, the kids liked Jacqueline’s dessert for the exactly wrong reason.

M: I’m interested to see how things will go next week, as the battle between Kenny and Angelo, and really everyone and Angelo, looks like its going to heat up some more.

2 comments on “Top Chef DC Review: Outside The Lunch Box

  1. Krizzzz says:

    Tuille, I think.

    Didn’t get a chance to watch, so I haven’t heard the particular inflection here, but in regard to…

    “Jacqueline (and why was that pronounced Jack-leen, anyway?)”

    We American English speakers tend to do a kind of “JACK-kwe-linn,” but we’re flattening out the original French of the name pretty dramatically there. Jacques == “zhahck,” is similar. The “-line” for a French speaker would come out more “-leen” than “-linn.”

    In fact, here’s a tidbit for you: Jackie Kennedy apparently didn’t particularly like being called Jackie. She was Jacqueline, and pronounced it “ZhackLEEN,” in what we might think of as the “original French.” =)

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