Top Chef Rundown – January 14, 2009

This week’s episode focused on two completely opposite ends of a spectrum. Hung, winner of season 4, showed up for a Quickfire Challenge that had the “cheftestants” creating a dish from only canned, processed foods while the Elimination Challenge sent them all to the farm to start with the freshest, highest quality ingredients possible.

It was great to see Hung back for a Quickfire, since he’s pretty much the quickest chef in the show’s history. He ran around the kitchen like a maniac, and broke down poultry like a machine. In honor of his speediness, the chefs were given just 15 minutes to create a dish from a collection of canned and processed foods, like Spam, Velveeta, and pork rinds.

I always get a little annoyed when the chefs start whining about poor ingredients. The show is a game, and of course there have to be restrictions. If you’re not ready to be limited in six different ways, what are you doing on the show? And yes, of course fresh ingredients are preferable, but not every one has access to fresh ingredients all the time, especially not the home cooks that are such big fans of the show. It’s good for the chefs on the show to stretch their imaginations and get outside their comfort zones.

There were a lot of mediocre results, I thought (Note to Jamie: just because you put it on toast doesn’t mean it’s a bruschetta), but I think Hung picked the winners pretty well. Hosea and Stefan were on top with variations on Spam (Hosea: Split Pea & Spam soup, Stefan: Spam & Velveeta Grilled Cheese), but Stefan won the prize: Immunity for the Elimination Challenge.

This week’s Elimination Challenge was basically the opposite of the Quickfire. The chefs headed to a Blue Hill Farm north of the city, where they broke into teams and got up close and personal with the finest and freshest ingredients available.

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I thought that the Chicken team did the best. Everyone else was trying too hard. I think that if the ingredients really are fantastic, then you shouldn’t have to do too much to them to make them amazing, and everyone else tried to do too much.

The high points: Team Chicken’s strongest players, Jamie and Stefan butt heads, but get it together in time to put out a good meal. Carla makes dessert, again, proving that at least one chef has seen the previous seasons and came prepared to make a dessert.

The low points: Ariane butchers a lamb leg, both figuratively and literally. Watching her pound the leg of lamb with that saucepan, I actually felt bad for the cut of meat. Jeff forgets that some things (pork!) are meant to be fattening. Fabio buries what looked to be awesome ravioli under a huge dollop of pesto sauce. Radhika and Leah do nothing.

Team Chicken won the Elimination Challenge, and with uncharacteristic generosity, the judges voted them all winners.

Team Lamb ultimately lost, mostly due to Ariane’s lamb, and she went home for it. I think that was fair, since she took the lead on that dish, and that was the one that the judges liked the least. The new judge Toby doesn’t add a lot to the mix, in my opinion, but he was absolutely right when he argued to Padma that it’s not about what you cooked last week, or a month ago, but about what you cook tonight. The judges have to look at what’s in front of them now. Even if Ariane had done well in the past, she screwed up, and that meant it was time to pack her knives and all of that. I think the judges made the right call, though a poll at Bravo’s site seems to suggest that I’m in the minority on that one. (73% of voters think that Leah should’ve gone home). I wasn’t sad to see Ariane go, but I do believe that Leah doesn’t have too many more challenges in her. She’ll be gone soon.

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