Sunday, October 25, 2009

Mission Impossible

Top Chef - Season 6, Episode 9

Previously on Top Chef: Robin's annoying habits, such as passive-aggressiveness, constant chatter, and having the nerve to be an older woman made her very unpopular in the house. Nerves also frayed between Michael and Bryan, whose relationship goes much better when the entire continent is between them. Kevin won another challenge, while Ash got swept out the door. Eight chefs remain. Who will be eliminated tonight?

Opening credits. Timiffany has finished carving their pumpkins for the season, and we got to snack on the roasted seeds. Yaaaaay!

Monday Morning Quarterback session. Jenc struts her stuff in a bikini. Laurine is relieved that she hasn't been cut yet. Kevin is slightly morose over Ash's elimination, since he brought such a sense of camaraderie to the household. With him gone, the base level of tension escalates, especially between Michael and Bryan. Michael admits that he's always been an instigator, and Bryan an overbearing caretaker.

Quickfire Challenge. The chefs are met in the Kitchen by Padma and this week's guest judge, Rick Moonen. As Kevin says, Rick is a champion of sustainable food, a soundbite we'll be hearing a lot this evening. Of course, what makes a food sustainable is never mentioned in any capacity whatsoever. It's like calling yourself "green" or slapping a pink ribbon on something as the extent of your support of breast cancer research. Caring about food sources is an admirable quality, but I need something a little meatier than an announcement about how lofty your goals are. Padma tells the chefs that they can only go so far on their individual talents, and Rick agrees that they work with bunches of people, and thus need "synergy". I put that in quotes because corporate buzzwords annoy me, especially when they're unnecessary, and can be replaced by eminently respectable words like "teamwork" or "cooperation".

That aside, the Quickfire this week is a clever, new kind of challenge, and thus very welcome. The chefs will be competing in a tag team relay race. The chefs draw knives to get their teams, and everyone's is blank except for Jenc's (who gets "First Choice") and Michael's (who gets "Second Choice"). Those two get to act as team captains. Jenc briefly mulls over whether she should split the brothers up or not, but eventually makes a wise choice, and picks Kevin. Michael snags Bryan. Jenc takes Mike. Michael takes Eli. Jenc takes Laurine, so poor, friendless Robin is picked last. She shuffles off to Michael's team, much cheerier about it than you'd expect. The teams will take on various names throughout the evening, so Jenc's team is now Blue, while Michael's is now Red. The teams will have forty minutes to complete one dish. Each team member will get ten minutes to have a crack at it. If that sounds overly simple, there's a hell of a catch. The chefs are not allowed to speak to each other. At all. Not only that, but until it's their turn to cook, everyone will be blindfolded. Padma promises a big advantage for the team that comes up with the most cohesive dish. Plus, this is high stakes, so the winning team will split $10,000.

The teams get a few moments to decide the order that their members will be cooking in. Competition aside, I feel a bit sorry for whoever goes last, as they have to stand blindfolded in a wordless room for half an hour. That doesn't strike me as the height of fun. Michael decides that Eli will go first, Robin second, Bryan third, and Michael himself will take the cleanup spot. That's a pretty smart order. Since Robin is deemed the weakest chef, the second spot, where she's neither choosing the initial ingredients nor wrapping up the dish for the judges, is a good one to put her in. Over on the Blue team, they bookend with the Wonder Twins, having Jenc go first and Kevin go last. They put Laurine in second and Mike in third. Planning time runs out, and everyone except Jenc and Eli puts their blindfolds on. Ready? Go!

Eli and Jenc grab a bunch of ingredients. Jenc wants to clue in her team by pulling out the proteins she wants, and gets black cod and scallops. After a quick prep on those, she wants to get a sauce going. She's hoping to poach the fish in olive oil, and whacks some shrimp and mushrooms for someone else to add later. Eli takes a more basic tack, unsurprisingly. He gets a lot of ingredients going that can be used in a multitude of ways, so instead of hoping to lead his team to a particular dish, he'll give them some cooked steak and chopped vegetables and let them do what they want. Neither strategy is half bad. Eli worries about the cohesiveness of the Red team's styles, making sure to get another dig in at Robin. Padma blows her whistle, so Laurine and Robin jump into the fray. Jenc worries that her teammates won't follow her "flavor profile", the third time in forty seconds that the phrase has been used. I understand that it conveys a helpful concept, but give it a damn rest.

Laurine gets a good sense of Jenc's intentions. She starts the scallops, and after a little confusion, figures out that Jenc wanted to poach the fish in the olive oil. Robin grabs the yuzu and anchovies and whips up a vinaigrette for a fennel salad. That lady sure likes her fennel. Padma blows her whistle again, and Mike hilariously claws at his blindfold, trying to get it off. He takes a while to figure out what to do, but seems to fall in the team line eventually. Bryan takes the Red team off in an Asian direction with pureed avocado and soy, adding even more yuzu to the mix, because he's unaware that Robin just used a bunch.

Another enthusiastic whistle blow brings Kevin and Michael in to clean up. Kevin knows exactly what the team was going for, and decides to chuck most of their ideas. Heh. He disregards the scallops entirely, and though he knows the olive oil is waiting to poach the black cod, he decides to pan roast it in butter, instead. Michael has a more difficult task. The steak isn't cooked enough, and the soy mixture is too salty for his tastes, so he has a lot more work to do. Both of them plate in their final seconds. The Red team has come up with strip steak with a whipped miso avocado puree, a bit of nasturtium, and various pickled vegetables. Eli admits to the judges that this isn't exactly how he envisioned the steak winding up, but it isn't too far off. The Blue team has made pan-seared black cod with some sauteed mushrooms, a mushroom/ginger broth, and some radish on top. Jenc misidentifies the black cod as trout, which Rick calls her on. She's embarrassed.

As far as results, both teams did an admirable job, but the Blue team emerges victorious, thanks mostly to Jenc's well-made stock. Laurine is happy to have her first win, though it must sting a little to only win when you've got the Wonder Twins backing you up. Michael is disappointed by the loss, and says that he's learned that you have to rely on teammates if you want to succeed. The Vulture of Foreshadowing circles his head and begins to caw loudly.

Elimination Challenge. Padma reminds the Blue team that they'll get an advantage, and reveals that the challenge is the "most anticipated of the season". Yes, it's Restaurant Wars time again, and I don't mind telling you that I'm not as big a fan of this challenge as the rest of the Top Chef viewing community seems to be. The chefs are excited, though. Kevin and Bryan say what we're all thinking, which is that talent-wise, it looks like the Blue team is as destined to triumph as Team Winner was. The teams will be taking over the two floors of Rick's restaurant, and as Quickfire winner, the Blue team gets to pick which floor they cook on. I'm sorry, what? That's the big advantage they get for winning? I think the people who write Ptom and Padma's patter for this show really need to reacquaint themselves with the definition of the word "advantage".

In better news, Padma says that the chefs don't need to worry about decor this time. Good. Spending ten minutes of the episode watching people paint walls and pick out tacky napkins was not the most entertaining aspect of previous seasons' Restaurant Wars. Padma also warns that front-of-house and service will be taken into consideration at judging, and that the front-of-house team member will be responsible for conceiving and executing one dish. In other words, there won't be any hiding from the firing squad, a la Spike. Shopping duties will be split between the grocery store and the restaurant supply store. Rick cautions them that they need to stay true to his vision of sustainable food, and that they'll be judged on that, as well. I will tell you now that this admonition is patently false. Padma tells the Blue team they have the option of taking their $2500 a piece, or letting it ride to turn it into $10,000 a piece if they win the challenge. They opt for the latter. Sure, why not? It's not like they have to go to the nearest bank and withdraw $2500 of their own money if they lose. Might as well take the shot.

The chefs get thirty minutes to plan their three-course menus. The Blue team has seen this show before, and instantly decides that they're going to stay far, far away from dessert. Laurine volunteers to take front-of-house. The Red team says that their menu will be "Modern American", which is code for "Whatever The Hell We Want". Bryan thinks he's strong enough in pastry to do a dessert. Michael points out that the judges loved Robin's apple crisp, so she volunteers to do another version with pear. Bryan wants to do a better version of what he presented in that same challenge, which worries Michael, because Bryan was on the bottom in that Quickfire. Bryan assures him that it will work this time, undoubtedly because he has a lot more time to work on it. Michael remains unconvinced.

Shopping. Eli pledges to be a good teammate with Robin, no matter how much he dislikes her. Robin gets pissy when the Blue team sees that she's picked up some sparkling water, and picks up some of their own as well. Laurine makes the apt argument that whatever team wins, it's not going to be because there's sparkling water on the table. She's right. Of course, I'm trying to imagine what would happen if Robin were the one to pick up the idea from someone else. I envision a lot of interviews about how weak and out of her league she is that she feels the need to copy someone else.

Back at the house, Eli picks out an unattractively shlubby outfit to wear for his front-of-house duties. Both teams discuss their plans. Michael comes up with the idea to call their restaurant "Revolt", as a mashup of their names (Robin, Eli, and Voltaggios). Everyone cackles and agrees. Robin brings up the fact that patrons not in on this inside joke will just see a word that doesn't have the best connotations when it comes to food, but Bryan is confident they'll see the other meaning, as in "to rise up against authority". The Red team now styles themselves "Mission", which is much better, especially in paying lip service to the whole sustainable food aspect of the challenge. Michael gives Robin ideas on how to elevate a simple crisp into a more high-end dessert. Mission convinces themselves that Kevin's track record with meat dishes should overcome any problems the judges have with not serving dessert.

The next day, the chefs head to the restaurants, which are on two floors of the same big room. Mission picks the floor they want, and Revolt is somehow not blown into shock and submission by this awesome "advantage". The chefs have three hours to prepare, which as Kevin points out, is hardly enough. Michael is becoming too domineering, which is rubbing Bryan and Robin the wrong way. Eli seems all too happy to be told what to do, just as Ash was. Laurine tries to help Mission prep as much as she can before she's needed in the dining room. Mission's menu includes: Asparagus with a six-minute egg, Arctic char tartare, a bouillabaisse consomme, seared trout, pork three ways, and lamb with carrot jam. Mike is preparing the first two, Jenc the second two, Kevin the pork, and Laurine the lamb (which Kevin will actually cook). Jenc discovers that they're a lot further behind on time than they should be, but there's not much they can do about it at this point.

Revolt will be serving Michael's chicken with calamari "pasta", Eli's smoked Arctic char, Bryan's duo of beef, Michael's cod with a billi-bi sauce, Robin's pear pithivier, and Bryan's chocolate ganache with spearmint ice cream. Once the brunt of the prep work is done, Eli and Laurine break off to get the dining rooms settled. Ptom drops by to Ptimewaste. Laurine promises him that if the dishes that come out of the kitchen don't meet her satisfaction, she'll send them back. Ptom ascertains that Jenc is busy, and doesn't ask a single question about what she's making. I sure am glad that we are privy to these fascinating inner workings of the competition! They really need to do away with this segment. If Ptom's not going to help them or offer any sort of feedback (which I find silly, but more than fair), and we don't learn anything important as an audience, why are we forced to go through this every week?

After a final montage of prep work, along with some sniping by Michael and Bryan, diners flood both dining rooms. Mission is nowhere near being done. Even as people are being seated for dinner, Jenc is still trying to butcher her fish. She shrugs that she may have to wind up cooking each piece to order. The judges come to Revolt first. Toby's here again. Please come back soon, Gail! Once Eli greets them and gets them seated, he shuffles off to get their food. The judges agree that the restaurant has a terrible name. Eli soon reappears with his smoked Arctic char (which is misidentified by the Reliably Shitty Titles Department as Bryan's), which has beets, a horseradish sour cream, and some potatoes. It is paired with Michael's pressed chicken with calamari noodles, some fennel, and tomato confit. The judges love Michael's dish, but find Eli's bland. The second course takes a long time to come out, which the judges note. Michael continues to snipe at Bryan in the kitchen.

Eventually, Eli does bring out Bryan's beef duo, which is a braised short rib with sunchoke puree, and a New York strip steak. He apologizes for the wait and explains the second course, which also includes Michael's cod with parsley sauce, a billi-bi croquette, and some zucchini. Michael has another winner with the cod. Bryan's is not as good. It's a tad bland, and some diners find the meat cold. Ew. Since we're between courses, it must be time for Michael to bully his teammates some more. He and Robin get into a fight about her dessert. She's trying to plate it, and he doesn't think she's doing it right, and tries to take over. She won't let him and curses at him, he gets offended and yells at her, then condescendingly tells her to relax. Bryan says in interview that in Restaurant Wars, you have to put your feelings aside so that you can get the food out, and I honestly don't know which person he's defending and which he's telling to put their feelings aside; both Robin and Michael are being assholes. The funniest bit is when Michael tells Robin not to curse at him, and his hypocrisy aside, anyone who's ever worked in a kitchen will know why that's hilarious. It turns out not to matter that much, as the judges love both Robin and Bryan's desserts.

The judges agree that Eli put forth a good effort on front-of-house, then hoist themselves up, and head to Mission. Laurine greets them, and worries about striking a balance between serving the judges and serving everyone else in the restaurant. The judges read the menu, and have the nerve to act shocked when they discover that there is no dessert. Mike, who is strangely calm and agreeable tonight, sends out the first course. I think being beaten down by the competition may be doing his personality some good. His asparagus and egg is served, along with the Arctic char tartare. Laurine disappears without talking to them about the food, and the judges agree (though Toby needs some coaching by Ptom) that the dishes need some salt. Padma flags down Laurine and asks for salt in a pseudo-friendly voice designed to let her know that she's screwed up. It's the "Pardon me. I'd wonder if you'd mind putting down the nail file for a moment and telling me where I can find the bedding department," kind of request.

Jenc is still way behind on the fish, and Laurine can't keep up with the dining room, so the second course is pretty much a disaster from the get-go. Laurine again gives the judges their food and vanishes without a word. Padma calls her back to explain the dishes. Jenc's fish course includes Idaho trout with a brown butter emulsion, braised endive, and hazelnuts. Also, some Alaskan halibut with mussels and clams, and a saffron aioli in consomme. Once she's gone, we hear that neither dish has gone well for Jenc. The consomme is not clear, as it should be, but tastes fine. The mussels and clams are too fishy, and the brown butter sauce has broken.

Mission's problems are not over. Kevin cannot get Laurine's lamb to cook evenly, although no amount of oven problems should cause a chef to look at a piece of meat that is solid red and openly bleeding and call it "medium rare". That's on Kevin. He and I both admit that the level of doneness is more a point of opinion than accepted fact. When the lamb finally goes out, Laurine explains to the judges that it has a carrot jam with mushroom sauce, and a green bean salad with herb dressing. Kevin's pork three ways is pork belly with maple glaze, cabbage-wrapped pork sausage, some cornmeal mousseline, and red-eye gravy. Laurine's lamb is considered way too rare, though I don't see how that's her fault (except where she said she wouldn't allow food she didn't approve of out into the dining room, which she now has). Kevin's pork dish is much better-received. Toby says he misses dessert. Perhaps if you guys didn't harangue or eliminate every contestant who timidly steps outside his or her comfort zone to make one, you'd get it more often.

End of service. A waiter for Revolt hands out flowers to patrons right before they fill out their comment cards. Oooh, sneaky. Michael knows they had their problems, but thinks things went fine, overall. Mission, on the other hand, doesn't have to wonder how they did; they know they sucked. Various patrons talk about how great Revolt's food was, and how disappointing Mission was in both food and service. The judges head out.

Interstitial. The editors intercut footage of Michael being a giant prick to his teammates with interviews of Michael describing the qualities of good leaders. According to Interview Michael, good leaders aren't arrogant, and don't yell and scream. According to Footage Michael, *bleep*, *bleeep*, with the *bleeep*ing *bleeeeeeeep*. Interview Michael wraps up with an avowal that he's a nice guy with the biggest heart in the competition. The editors wrap up Footage Michael with more bitching, moaning, and cursing. Ouch.

Judges' Table. In the fret 'n sweat, Mike implies that the only way Revolt could lose is if they burned down their kitchen, then fell into a well or something. Unsurprisingly, Padma comes in and asks to see the Revolt team. They're told they are the winning team, and had the best food of any Restaurant Wars team, ever. Wow. Toby says that aside from the sketchy name and Eli being "woefully underdressed", he gives them high marks. I'm glad somebody brought up Eli's outfit, because I really am not a fan of the put-on-nice-clothes-then-untuck-them-and-roll-around-in-bed look. Bryan's ice cream and short rib are singled out as his best offerings. I thought they said the meat was bland and cold. What changed? Maybe they just meant the strip steak. Eli is commended for his service. Both of Michael's dishes are lauded. When Robin's dessert is complimented, the problems between her and Michael are alluded to, but not fully explored, which makes sense. Who'd want to throw a big tantrum when you're on the winning team? That's all of the discussion. Aren't you glad we've learned so much about what made this winning team's menu sustainable? Rick gets to announce the individual winner, and since his food was so fantastic, Michael is chosen. He wins the $10,000 that each member of Mission would have gotten, had they won. Probably hoping to mend some fences, Michael pledges to split the money with the other Revolt team members.

Back in the Kitchen, Mission tries to figure out who's going to get eliminated. Mike wishes he would have taken front-of-house, because he's got so much experience with it. Much good it does anyone to bring that up now. Revolt comes back with the news of Michael's win, and sends Mission out to Losers' Table. Michael openly hopes for Mike to survive the chopping block. Once they're gone, Bryan allows himself to get pissy. He doesn't yell and scream like a lot of contestants have; he gets curt and passive-aggressive. Robin and Eli thank Michael for splitting his prize money, but Bryan tells him to keep it. He's upset that Michael's unprofessional behavior was rewarded, and doesn't want any part of that, but only tells us that in interview. In the Kitchen, all he'll say is that Michael won, so he should keep his money. Michael is obviously well-versed enough in the ways of Bryan to know that he's being told to shove it.

Mission walks out to the judges. There was so much wrong that it's almost tough to find a place to start. Timing issues. Execution issues. Service issues. Mike's food was acceptable, but nothing special. Jenc's fish courses were a mess. Though the halibut was cooked well, the trout was a disaster. Jenc is surprised to hear about the broken sauce. In the third course, the lamb was completely underdone, and to make sure that Kevin the Golden Child isn't blamed, Ptom turns to Laurine and reminds her about the conversation they had about her taking charge of food that she wouldn't put her stamp of approval on. Don't get me wrong. I like Kevin, and if you asked me if he or Laurine had more overall talent, I think the answer is pretty clear. That said, it's not very fair to say that underdone meat is entirely a service problem, and leave the person who undercooked it completely out of the picture.

Laurine admits to a lot of other problems, as well. Once things got hectic, her anxiety started to show, which only caused things to fall apart faster. Ptom says that it sounds like what Mission really lacked was leadership, and that deciding things by committee doesn't work. I don't know if that really holds true in every situation, but I agree that it would have helped in this one. Jenc is completely beaten down. The chefs are dismissed.

Deliberations. Mission was ill-prepared for the evening, and didn't communicate well. Ptom thinks they may have been overconfident going in, which I can buy. Mike didn't have an out-and-out catastrophe. Jenc was insane to steam clams and mussels to order, and her trout sucked. The lamb was undercooked, and Ptom finally admits that Kevin has to share in the responsibility of that. Laurine fell apart in front-of-house and in front-of-everyone. The judges reach a decision.

Elimination. This one's not too hard to call. If Mike didn't have any individual issues, and the Wonder Twins are two of the remaining people, that just leaves Laurine. I believe this is the first time a front-of-house person has been eliminated. She gets good-bye hugs in the Kitchen, and tells Jenc that she (Jenc) deserves to stay. Laurine says that the obstacles presented helped her learn a lot about herself, and that competing for anything is not her cup of tea. It's refreshing to hear someone say that. I'm not competitive, either, and I get a little tired of reality show participants praising themselves for their competitive natures. It usually means they're trying to pass off being a dick on a drive to succeed, but even when it's genuine, I don't always accept a desire to beat other people as a virtue. Revolt asks Mission what went down in the dining room, and Kevin declines to discuss it, saying that he's really angry right now. I would love to hear why, but it is not to be.

Laurine is happy to have learned some innovative cooking techniques while she was here, but is also looking forward to returning to her old life. I'm conflicted about her elimination. There's no way I can deny that she really dropped the ball on her front-of-house duties, which she knew was fair game for judging. Plus, as I've said before, she's not the archetype that's favored in shows like these, so it was only a matter of time before she was eliminated. Note that everyone I said would be eliminated is now gone, save Robin, and let's face it... She's only got one or two more episodes. With regard to Laurine, though, I feel like a lot of Mission's biggest problems weren't her fault. She didn't mitigate the kitchen's problems well, but it's not like she was the reason the food was slow. She didn't fall behind on her prep work. She didn't undercook the meat. Given the rules of the challenge, it was entirely fair to eliminate her, but as the judges have often snottily reminded us and the contestants, this isn't Top Sous Chef or Top Sommelier. Is it now Top Hostess? If your overall goal is to seek out the most talented chef, is it really wise to eliminate someone who isn't a good manager?

Overall Grade: B-


JustJoan said...

Strange, I do not fault Michael this time, nor do I agree with my sweetheart Kevin that Michael has a strategy to undermine Bryan. To me, Michael as team leader was speaking as someone who knows his brother's strengths and weaknesses, and who wanted to get the best food as the product for the tables. As for Robin, if I had been there I would not have been as patient or restrained as he was. He was insisting on courtesy in the kitchen in the face of her profanity, and in fact the whole megillah was prompted Robin deciding unilaterally to change what they had agreed would be the composition of her dish. As team leader he was well within his right to call her on her going off on a personal quest at the expense of the menu's harmony. The fact that her dish was so good will no doubt give Robin the idea that she was in the right; she was not.

Limecrete said...

I half agree with you about Michael vs. Robin. I'm certainly not going to defend Robin, but I think Michael was being just as bad. I can't fault him for wanting to make sure that what went out to the dining room was acceptable, but she was right that beyond them being a team, she's being judged individually on that dessert, and needs to have ownership of it. I certainly wouldn't take kindly to someone reaching over and trying to physcially wrest my work away from me. "Patient and restrained"? No.

Thankfully, I think the whole thing was a tempest in a teapot. Am I remembering incorrectly, or were they just arguing about portion size?

Tina said...

I'm behind Laurine's elimination, simply because she did say in the beginning that if the lamb came out wrong, she'd send it back, and she didn't. That's what she could have done about it, and she didn't follow through. I'm not saying Kevin (or, Heavens, Jen) did a great job either, sadly, but I do get why the judges would ultimately decide the way they did. That having been said, I think a lot of viewers and Jen herself thought she was going. I was really glad she didn't but she did decidedly dodge the bullet.

As far as the Robin vs Michael thing, she overreacted, but he was a dick, so, eh. My read on it is that she thought she was doing it the way he suggested and rather than say why that wasn't so he jumped in on her station, which was pretty rude, really, but on the other hand, she could've let him do it and then say "Okay, I got it"... I don't know. Let's just go with "they were both wrong". I probably wouldn't have reacted any better than Robin, though.

Bryan stepping in to sort it out made me like him a bit more, and I'm sympathetic to his annoyance with his brother... I think the biggest reason he went all p-a in the stew room was he didn't want to hash it out in front of everyone (that's consistent for him with earlier stew room comments). I think there's some hidden leadership qualities there we haven't gotten to see much from him yet. Dude can be firm when he sees a need.

Tina said...

Oh, and as an addendum, I think Kevin was ticked at himself, and maybe feeling a little like it was partly his fault Laurine went home. Just a guess, though.

I'll shut up now. :D

Limecrete said...

That's what I suspect, too. I was just wondering if he was internally grousing that they sent Laurine home, even after she didn't physically cook anything.

Anonymous said...

Just one correction: Radhika was eliminated from front-of-house last season, so Laurine wasn't the first.

Limecrete said...

Ah, thanks. I had completely forgotten about that.