Last night, while everyone in America watched the 12/12/12/ Sandy benefit, I watched Top Chef. Our episode opens with the aftermath of last week’s CJ-dectomy. The chefs believe he’ll be back — he’s simply too talented not to rise from the grave and take his revenge. Nobody seems to miss Tyler.
This week’s guest Quickfire Challenge judge is a food writer named Marilyn Hagerty. She’s the lady who wrote an infamous review of a local Olive Garden. The charming review went viral. (Marilyn admits she didn’t know what that meant.) Needless to say, she went on to get a book deal with Anthony Bourdain, and now she’s on Top Chef standing close enough to Padma to smell her hair! The Top Chef producers have outdone themselves in celebrating Internet-celebrityhood. Here are my suggestions for future Top Chef guest judges:
1. Tay Zonday
2. Nardwuar the Human Serviette
This week’s challenge — and here I’m transcribing directly from the DVR’d television screen — is to “create a sweet & savory holiday dish using Truvia® baking blend with sugar.” What’s Truvia? As far as I can tell it’s a miracle powder from the future. Padma says, “The great thing [about Truvia] is it has 75 percent fewer calories than sugar.” The camera pans to a package of Truvia (which looks like a portable astronaut toilet) as Marilyn Hagerty tells us more about its amazing properties. Has this poor woman been roped into corporate spokespersonship against her own will?
The silly thing about this week’s challenge is that all the chefs must share a single knife. (My notes: “Has Top Chef always been this gimmicky?”) Josh starts using the precious blade immediately. Stefan tries chopping an onion with a cheese grater while John, the most hated chef in Dallas, uses a spatula as a knife, just like you would in prison.
There are many shouts of “Who has the knife right now?” and “Where’s the knife?” It’s like the bathroom key at the public library. All the chefs make holiday dishes from their childhoods, representing their ethnic heritages — all of which will be crushed by the rolling armageddon of Truvia Baking Blend, the one true heritage for all humanity.
Padma and Marilyn taste all of the contestants’ family-history memory-meals while bonding over the fact that they’ve both had sex with Salman Rushdie (JOKE). Marilyn’s verdict: The chefs have produced an “amazing display of creativity that put me in the mood for the holidays.”
Nevertheless, Marilyn thinks Bart’s waffle and chicken was too busy, while Micah’s “taco” (actually a tamale) was too dry. (Micah knew this flyover-state idiot wouldn’t like his Mexican dish.) The winner is Brooke, for her all-American TRUVIA apple-pie-deconstruction.
On to the main challenge and this week’s celebrity judges: Hollywood superstars Anna Faris and Chris Pratt! I’m not sure who Chris Pratt is — based on his appearance, I assume his biggest gig is working as Seth Rogen’s stunt double. [UPDATE: He’s actually on a sitcom called Parkinson Wreck, which doesn’t sound very funny to me.] Anna Faris, on the other hand, is a talented actress with whom I have a Kevin Baconstyle connection: You see, I once met Anna Faris’s dad at a party! Where was the party? I’m glad you asked. It was at Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein’s apartment. This is not a joke. I would tell you more, but I don’t have time to kill all of you afterward.
Anna Faris admits to being a huge fan of Top Chef, while Chris Pratt admits they’re from the Pacific Northwest and are looking forward to the party Top Chef is throwing them: “This is much more important than some stupid Sandy benefit,” he says. (JOKE) The chefs must cook amazing food for the Hollywood power couple. The winning chef will get a blue Prius, the gas-guzzler from Toyota. We’re treated to a micro-commercial for Prius folded seamlessly into the night’s programming.
Chris Pratt likes game (he’s a hunter), so Eliza’s making elk. Danyele is making boar chops, but she’s worried they’re too thin for a sear. Josh is making souckatosh (sp?) with pork shoulders; he hopes to redeem his pork disaster from last week. John’s making clam chowder to remind Anna and Chris of Seattle’s abundant waters. Apparently John used to work for a seafood expert named Rick Moonen. (I thought he said “Rick Moody,” the novelist.) The mention of Rick Moonen excites my hosts for the evening: One of them tells me a story about graduating culinary school and “trailing” Rick Moonen, which sounds pretty sketchy. My other host says: “I can send you a picture of Rick Moonen and my sister-in-law.” Suddenly it feels like the walls are closing in.
Stefan and Kristin flirt. Somebody burns a spatula handle. Paul McCartney sings with Nirvana, or so Twitter tells me.
The party is being held at Chihuly Garden & Glass, where glass topiary melts and pulsates in the sunlight like a nightmare. The chefs are excited to meet Faris and Pratt’s family. I wonder if Anna Faris’s dad will be there? “There he is!” I yell as Anna Faris’s dad walks onscreen. I then spend five minutes explaining to my hosts how I came to have a conversation with Anna Faris’s dad at Lloyd Blankfein’s apartment. (I should mention that we’re all pretty bored by this episode, so we’re constantly pausing the DVR to talk about the wine business, the rye I’m drinking, and what we’re missing at the 12/12/12 Sandy benefit concert.)
Padma arrives at the party with Tom, Gail, and ... Rick Moonen. John freaks out! His former boss is going to taste his dish! Meanwhile, I’m wondering why Marilyn Hagerty wasn’t invited to the party — is Padma ashamed of her?
Anna Faris introduces Padma to her parents, who I have literally talked to at a party. Everyone stands around praising Anna Faris and Chris Pratt and their unborn child. My hosts, on the other hand, will not shut up about what a nice guy Rick Moonen is and how much they liked meeting him: “We love Rick Moonen; we don’t just like Rick Moonen.” I hope they talk about me like that someday.
Here’s what everyone cooks:
Bart: loin of elk with cherry beer sauce and mushroom couscous. Couscous is the single most overrated starch in history; it’s always soggy and tastes like packing peanuts. Many years ago, I made a solemn vow to never again let couscous pass my lips; each day, I thank myself for my foresight. The guests like the umami flavor of the elk. Chris Pratt is so enthusiastic in his praise he drops an F-bomb. I’m stunned that he would use profanity around his in-laws, but I guess that’s what happens to people in Hollywood — they become monsters.
Brooke: lamb-stuffed squid on black rice with coconut milk. She’s definitely overcompensating for the banality of her Quickfire dish — the plate looks like a broken video game and probably tastes like Return of the Jedi. The judges love the dish, and so do the guests.
Sheldon: braised Okinawan pork belly with seared scallop and rice congee. This is the food he likes to eat when he goes home to Hawaii. Anna Faris likes the sweetness and the savoriness; she says “every bite was a surprise.”
Stefan: German gulasch with marjoram bread dumplings and sour cream. The sauce looks a little too toilet-sourced, if you ask me. Anna Faris’s dad looks at the plate and says, “I think it might be good,” and all of a sudden I feel alienated from him. It’s sad when a friendship dies.
Kristen: Delice de Bourgogne tortelloni. I thought it was a dessert, but my host corrects me: “It’s very fancy cheese tortellini with foam on top, which looks lovely” I don’t know who these people are anymore. Kristen feels “really good” about her dish but still has doubts. Rick Moonen says it’s “the perfect bite,” which is probably what Stefan says about Kristen’s neck.
Micah: braised pork ribs with celery-root purée, grilled apples, and celery leaf salad. That’s too much celery to make a good dish — I don’t even have to taste this mess to know it’s worse than drinking grass clippings out of an old Big Mac container. The judges agree: There’s too much cream.
Lizzie: crusted king salmon with radish and beet salad. Gail wonders if Lizzie’s induction burners weren’t hot enough, because the fish wasn’t seared correctly. One of Anna Faris’s relatives complains that it wasn’t her favorite dish. Lizzie knows she screwed up.
Eliza: elk rib eye with elk-sausage polenta, spiced carrots, and huckleberry port sauce. It looks really unappetizing. (Does Top Chef photograph the food as it’s served, or do they re-create the dishes days later?) Tom’s mind is blown by how bland the carrots are. Gail says something about a hint of acid, and Chris Pratt makes a joke about taking a hit of acid. I hope he knows you shouldn’t joke about doing drugs — it’s the same thing as doing drugs.
Danyele: pan-roasted wild boar, hoppin’ John, and tomato-bacon marmalade. It looks like an old-lady’s hand grabbing a plate of airplane rice. Tom thinks it’s too thin. Gail says it’s bland. Most of the guests agree: Where’s the seasoning? Apparently Danyele’s nervous sweat wasn’t enough to salt the dish.
Josh: roasted pork shoulder and grilled corn purée with saccotush (sp?) and fennel-apple salad. It’s a big portion of meat, but nothing special. Ol’ Mister Moustache went with quantity over quality.
Josie: Malbec-braised short ribs, pork belly, polenta with cippolini onions, and figs. (My notes: “I know what Malbec is! It’s a kind of red wine.”)
John: seafood chowder with cockles, manila clams, crab, mussels, and sockeye salmon. John seems a little embarrassed to be serving what is essentially his former boss’s chowder to his boss as part of a reality show. Moonen loves it though: “It’s a hug from the ocean.” Padma says the salmon skin is “divine.” She asks John, “Can you make me a bodysuit out of salmon skin that I can wear when I’m solving crimes?” (JOKE)
Tom is relieved that this week’s food is so much better than last week’s food. Padma toasts Anna and Chris and welcomes them home to Seattle as, across the continent, Billy Joel brings the thunder at Madison Square Garden.
John, Kristen, Sheldon, and Brooke made the best dishes. Brooke is praised for going crazy while enjoying her immunity. Padma goes positively psychoanalytical on Sheldon’s dish: “This dish told me so much about you — every part of your soul was in there.” The unanimous decision: Brooke wins! She won both challenges this week! TOTAL DOMINATION BY BROOKE! And to think I had written her off as a boring chef. She grabs the keys to the Prius and quotes Descartes: “Winning a car for something that you put out with your heart and soul is — you can’t ask for anything better than that.”
And now for this week’s losers: Eliza, Danyele, Josh, and Micah. Eliza’s elk was unevenly cooked, and the carrots were an abomination from beyond the hellfire of decrepitude; Danyele is criticized for letting fear hold her back — she needs to overcome her anxieties; Josh is called out for talking up his pork expertise while producing nothing but pork-disasters; Micah’s celery root was too grainy. (My takeaway: Never make anything with celery.)
Tom feels bad sending someone home because this week’s dishes were so much better than last week’s. But the reaper must have his due: Eliza is sent home. She nods her head to the judges instead of shaking their hands because she’s “fighting a cold.” Good thing she just served food to hundreds of Anna Faris and Chris Pratt’s friends! AND SO THE CONTROLLED INFECTION OF HOLLYWOOD ROYALTY BEGINS.