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Top Chef: Chicago, Episode 12 – Where Simplicity Meets Perfection … and then Runs Away Screaming


Rich is determined to prove something to Chef Tramanto and to Tom, Padma and Gail. He says that it would suck to go out fifth and that it is no different than going out first. I say, tell that to Nimma. I am sure she would have enjoyed 11 more episodes of exposure on television!

Commercials – I’d like to be onboard that Stella Artois train, at least up until they separate from the rest of the train so they can pour the beer.

Chicago at Night. We enter the restaurant and Antonia thinks that it is beautiful with “high ceilings, rich colors” and a gorgeous kitchen and beautiful brick ovens. She also gets Spike into gear with picking his proteins. He sees the tomahawks and grabs them since he “fell in love” with them the day before. Here is where I bid adieu to any remaining meat = penis jokes. It’s been fun. At least for me.

Spike also says that he had his mind set on making scallops and he spots a bag of frozen scallops. Ok, even I know that this is a bad idea. Frozen scallops are ok for you and me to make, not for someone in the Final Five for Top Chef. As I have learned from Tom’s blog – seriously, it’s a great read – scallops have a water absorption problem that really makes it difficult to cook them properly. They can also break easily when frozen which hurts presentation. Spike should know all of this.

Rich certainly does and mutters to Steph, “He’s taking those f****n frozen scallops?” Steph replies, “They’re frozen?” Lisa reacts to his choice with an audible, “Jesus.” She THs that she initially wanted scallops, but these were frozen and looked really bad. She saw shrimp and will “roll with the shrimp.”

Antonia says there is a lot to choose from, making Spike’s choice even more curious, and she loads up with mushrooms (yuck), potatoes, lettuce and ribeye steaks as she piles things into containers. Steph kind of mutters to herself and laments over the three hours to create a full menu. She tells Lisa about her appetizer of veal and sweetbread – which for the uniformed is a thymus gland – she says sweetbread sounds unappetizing, but it tastes like a Chicken McNugget if done right. I must say that “sweetbread” actually sounds appetizing, until you learn what it is. Sort of like the Greenland-Iceland name switcheroo. Also, I think we should all WISH that McNuggets just had thymus glands in them.

Lisa thinks the ricer is beautiful, although I am still doubtful that she can actually cook rice, and talks about her peanut butter mashed potato. Let me just say that I think that sounds AWESOME! I can almost forgive Lisa for several episodes of unappealing food and behavior for creating a brand new way to use peanut butter. She wants to make things that the judges haven’t seen before and wow them with flavors. Good strategy for 12 episodes into the show, don’t you think?

Antonia looks for a mandolin – I am waiting for some Bruce Hornsby before I realize it is a kitchen tool – and is excited about the challenge. Rich has no set plan and wants to be spontaneous, and I really don’t believe him with that. He slices off something into thin bacon-like strips and plans to top it with crispy nuggets of sweetbreads. He will also be deconstructing a classic Italian dish for his entrée.

Lisa is wondering why a burner door is open. Antonia has it open to get air and get hotter and asks Lisa if it is too hot. Lisa says her back is on “fire,” not literally, and jokes about sabotage. Although with Lisa, you never know. Antonia doesn’t want the fire to die and Lisa wonders about what would happen if she died. I mention this exchange for Antonia’s great line, “Then I guess you won’t be going to Puerto Rico, Lisa.” HA!

Lisa is quite nervous. She gave up everything to come on the show, especially her job and a break from her life. According to the Wikipedia listing for Top Chef 4 Lisa is still unemployed. Hey, NY restaurants, I know she seems to be the ‘villain’ this season, but to get as far as she has gotten, Lisa deserves a job.

Spike is starting to realize his error with the scallops. They are torn and soaked with moisture. He is trying to adapt to the situation, but I don’t believe him. How about putting them into a broth, Dr. Soup? Maybe some kind of scallop cake? Dude, I am totally useless in the kitchen and I can tell that if they cannot hold up on their own, you need to mask the flavor and appearance with something else.

Tom enters. He asks about whether Spike’s reward through Lisa off. She says no, she wanted scallops but they were frozen. Tom seems rather surprised that Spike took frozen scallops. Steph tells him about how much she is enjoying the last Chicago challenge. Rich puts out a plate of bacon, and seriously, I am looking at his two dishes on the website and I see no bacon. Something happened here. Rich is nervous, but likes the challenge. He talks about how as he gets older he has begun to enjoy beef tenderloin more and more. As you get even older, Rich, you will enjoy 4:30 dinners, butterscotch candies (not scallops) and non-reality CBS programming.

Rich adds that he wants to under-promise and over-deliver after being criticized by Tom for being a bit safe. Rich THs that this bothered him a bit. It is a straightforward meal, not “smoke in a plastic bag,” but this is a steakhouse.

Tom is very surprised by Lisa’s potato dish but Lisa explains that there are a bunch of flavors that doesn’t make it taste like a “mouthful of peanut butter.” Lisa has a funny moment as she describes Tom’s habit of blinking and tossing his head back when something strikes him as strange.

Spike is proud of the way he manhandled the ribs during the Quickfire. He cops to picking the frozen food and says that he is trying to sear it so it won’t fall apart. He says that “if I can make this look good, I could make anything look good.”

Tom tells them that they have one hour and 60 guests, three of whom are VIPs. He also says that he will expedite the meal. Antonia thinks having Tom as the expediter is awesome because by having him coordinate the timing of the dishes the rest of them can concentrate on the cooking. I find the word “expediter” to be funny, sort of like how W. is the “decider” but a lot cooler and less depressing.

Tom tells them to “roll out the apps in 10 minutes” and once they get an “all clear” from the servers to put out the entrees. Spike says that Tom got into his head about the scallops but doesn’t want to second guess himself. He doesn’t want to let getting the advantage “bite him in the ass” and just wants to make it look “pretty on the plate.”

Rich talks about how he is proud of his wife for putting up with him going on the show. He doesn’t want to come home a “loser” and that he has failed at many things in his life, he doesn’t want this to be one of them.

Commercials – Who was kicked out too soon – Dale, Andrew or Jen? My vote is actually Dale.

We return with two minutes to go and Lisa yelling for someone to get out of her way. Tom brings in the three VIPs. They are the three past champs Harold, Ilan and Hung. Cool. I didn’t watch Season One but I think I would have totally dug Harold. Ilan is not a favorite of mine as I thought there were several better chefs that season. Hung was a character, but there was no denying his talent last season.

Harold tells them to cook their style and “be yourself.” Hung tells them not to worry about being the fan favorite, as Hung would know. Ilan tells them not to shave anyone’s head. Ok, that was funny.

Antonia wonders if the Three Amigos will be more gentle or hard on them. She adds that it is easier to be critical once you shift to the judges table. Harold hopes that everyone is hungry. As for Hung, he is starving. The other judges enter with Padma majestic in her red dress and Gail showing off some serious cleavage in her yellow blouse.

Tom starts to bark orders. He will do that during the scene transitions throughout the episode. I won’t recap each one, I’ll just say that it is pretty fun watching Tom take this role. He tells them that the judges want a tasting menu; 1/3 size portions and six each. Lisa kicks herself for not anticipating this. The judges and guests all do various toasts before dinner.

Appetizers:

Lisa – Grilled & Chilled Shrimp, confit lemon zest salad with baby tomatoes and crustini
Hung wants more sugar. Rick thinks the lemon makes it work, and Padma agrees. Gail wants to know why she chose to chill the shrimp. Hung says it has a more subtle shellfish flavor.

Richard – “Vitello Tramonto” – Hamachi, crispy sweetbreads, radish and yuzu
Harold thinks it is good. Rick says Rich delivered, he likes the hot and the cold and the hamachi with the sweetbread. Ilan thinks it was perfect. Padma asks Rick if he would put it on his menu, he says in a “heartbeat.” High praise, indeed.

Spike – Pan seared scallops on a bed of roasted Hearts of Palm & oyster mushrooms
He says that he tasted it as he was going and thinks it was delicious. Harold can clearly taste some acidity in the sauce. Hung thinks the mushrooms are good. Padma didn’t think it was fresh hearts of palm. She was right about that, actually, he used canned. Ilan thinks the scallops are dehydrated. Harold doesn’t like the texture. Rick just stares at it. I wonder if he is curious about where these came from, or if he is having an “oh s**t” moment.

Steph – Veal sweetbreads with sweet and sour sauce of golden raisins and pine nuts
She thinks it looks great and that the sweetbread is nice and crispy enough. Harold thinks it is really, really impressive. His only criticism is that she should have toasted the pine nuts. Hung loves the sweetbread, the tartness and the crunch. Gail says that everything that Spike was missing in his dish, Steph had in hers.

Antonia – Warm mushroom and artichoke salad, poached egg, bacon vinaigrette
She says that her eggs were cooked perfectly and poached to order, which is not easy. Gail doesn’t think it is the strongest dish so far, but the egg is perfect. Rick thinks it fell apart and has really soggy lettuce and cannot taste the presence of the artichoke. Harold thinks it was hit or miss.


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