Thursday, June 07, 2007

Top Chef: Who's Better? The Answer May Not Surprise You

Season 3 of Top Chef is still a week away, but Bravo wants to make sure you don't go hungry with a little amuse bouche: a cook-off between the four best chefs from Seasons 1 and 2. Well, actually, that's a lie. While Bravo is content to take the top four contestants from Season 2 (especially as S2's top four consist entirely of Marcel and his would-be shavers), they make an exception for Season 1. Instead of Lee Anne, who they claim can't compete because she's now a culinary producer for the show, they bring back Stephen. Who also creates drama. Interesting how that works out, Bravo. Very interesting. Cooking for Season 1, then, we have Harold, Dave, Tiffani, and Stephen, and for Season 2, Ilan, Marcel, Elia, and Sam. Let's get ready to gelee!

The competition starts out with a Quickfire Challenge, and Dave complains because he thought he was done with this. (Dave complaining seems to be a theme, as he also complains, with many attendant bleeps, about how people are telling him how to cook and about the amateurish wait staff.) The challenge is to cook eggs, literally with one hand behind their backs. It's silly, but this competition is just for fun, charity, and bragging rights, so I have no problem with it. Tom and Padma choose winners for each season who will then be team captains. Marcel takes it for Team Season 2 with, of all things, a saffron foam. Bless his little molecular gastronomic heart. Stephen is apparently not entirely full of hot air when he calls his dish the "Perfect Omelette," because he wins for S1 and overall, earning his team an extra $100 shopping money. Two guesses what he spends it on.

The challenge itself: make a four-course meal with scallops, lobster, duck, and Kobe beef. Each chef gets assigned to a dish. Because there's really no drama outside of Marcel annoying the Season 1 contestants in what seems to be record time, Bravo has to manufacture some, like Ilan spilling Marcel's mango. Will they come to blows? No, they won't. And then Tom, making the rounds, makes an excellent, and hilarious, point. Stephen, naturally, bought wine to pair with his dishes. But each pair of dishes is going head-to-head, so what if the wine ends up pairing better with the other dish? Nothing comes of it, of course, but it's still funny.

The dishes are judged by the usual crowd, Tom, Padma, Gail, and new judge Ted Allen (yay! I love Ted!), as well as the entire cast of Season 3. The S3 chefs are all pretty anonymous at this point, except for Hung, who reveals that he knows Marcel. So make of that what you will. If you hate Marcel, you can use that as an excuse to get a head start on hating Hung. Anyway, Bravo is careful to show the diners saying good and bad things about each dish, so it's hard to tell, at this point, who's doing well. What we do know is that Marcel not only makes a lobster foam, he delivers it tableside, for what Ted later calls an "in-your-face foam." And when it comes to Ilan's hair, which now has weird patterns shaved into the sides, Ted has grave concerns. So do I; one side of his hair looks rather like a landscape, with jagged mountains and a little shaved crescent moon above them. I wouldn't be surprised if there was also a little coyote shaved in there. Disappointed, but not surprised. Ilan doesn't need to meet Season 3 of Top Chef as much as he needs to meet with the stylists of Shear Genius.

Oddly enough, my favorite part of the episode is the judging. It's really nice to watch a judging where the chefs feel free to talk back to the judges and blow them off, because most of them (basically, everyone but Ted) could stand to be taken down a peg or two and reminded that they don't actually have the power of life and death. Harold's impatient shrug says it all: "What are you going to do to me?" So the judges can talk all they want about what they didn't like about a dish, but they're much less mean about it than usual, and none of the chefs takes anything too much to heart. The judges decide that Elia beat out Dave on the scallop dish, Stephen's lobster was better than Marcel's, Harold was better on the duck than Ilan (so if you wanted to know who was the better Top Chef and you hadn't already decided it was Harold… it's Harold), and Tiffani won the Kobe beef round over Sam. So Season 1 defeats Marcel and the Shavers, winning $20,000 for the Susan G. Komen foundation. And while the episode was mostly marking time until the real thing begins next week, but it's nice to see that a good cause got some cash. And I suppose the episode did whet my appetite for next week. Bring on the main course! And more Ted over here!