Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Howie Livingston Seagull

Ted Allen reacts to Howie's exit.

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As the sun kissed the horizon in the Bombay Sapphire sky*, a lone seagull wheeled over the bridge of the gleaming white ship, tipped a wing in salute, and carved a farewell arc in the air. (*Unpaid literary allusion) And then, he pumped his wings and soared out of frame to points unknown, but almost certainly, longingly -- finally -- to home. You could almost hear him keening -- in what? Defiance? Relief? The pain of acid reflux?

Perhaps you missed the shot, barely half a second long; it came midway through this episode's Elimination Challenge on the Pure nightclub yacht, and, tellingly, it came immediately after guest judge Michael Schwartz called Howie's asparagus phyllo "cigars" "greasy" and "really f*cking ugly." (They may be fellow Miamians, but I don't see Howie and Michael hooking up for Mah-jongg.)

Anyway: The sun setting, a solitary gull on the wing -- metaphors, people! Foreshadowing! Them Top Chef editors are getting poetic up in here. And while it may seem a bit of a stretch to see Howie as a graceful waterfowl, even the best TC cameraman isn't going to catch bulldogs flying over Biscayne Bay. (What, you couldn't scare up a pelican?)
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More importantly, Howie's TC story does share some eerie parallels with the seventies pop-lit hit "Jonathan Livingstone Seagull," which stuck like droppings to the New York Times bestseller list for 38 weeks back in the aforementioned day. Notes the Wikipedia: Jonathan is "a seagull who is bored with the daily squabbles over food and seized by a passion for flight. He pushes himself, learning everything he can about flying, until finally his unwillingness to conform results in his expulsion from his flock." Spooky! More on that later.

It's been two weeks and I'm still bummed about voting off Tre -- all of the judges thought he was a strong contender to win the whole gonza magilla. (Although I just got some exciting news about Tre today that I can't publish; just know that good things continue for Chef Wilcox -- I'll share the news when I can.) So it was a welcome thing for viewers and (most of) the chefs to have the show open with such a goofy, funny Quickfire Challenge -- 10 bucks and 20 minutes to cook something using only ingredients from a single aisle in the grocery store. Yikes!

Perhaps most hilarious, if bizarre, was Hung, who in previous episodes has represented himself as sexually ambiguous, a "Certified Professional Asshole," (WTF?), or a culinary visionary of such greatness that ordinary diners can't grasp his work. Tonight, perhaps Hung was listening to the Polyphonic Spree whilst cooking -- or perhaps he got the hookup for some extra-culinary mushrooms (as Dale put it in the kitchen: "Dude, are you building a Smurf Village over there?") When Hung unveiled his, um, dish to the judges -- featuring a "river" of crushed Froot Loops -- his competitors burst out laughing. Michael Schwartz took one look at the plate and responded exactly as I did here at home: "What the f*ck is that?" Hung's reaction later: "I didn't expect to win because I had a judge that was so closed-minded." Right. Listen to what the Flower People say...
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Back here in fact-based reality, Casey had me at go with her reinterpretation of the American classic banana pudding, born on the back of the Nilla Wafers box. Those of you unlucky enough to lack a Southern grandmother may be unaware of this dessert's majesty. It contains no Jell-O, no prepackaged food of any kind, save the cookies: It is an honest, scratch custard, with fresh banana slices and real meringue, and it is magnificent. I call it the Tiramisu of The South. My own Mama Allen served it in FiestaWare in Panama City, Florida (which, admittedly, is the capital of the Redneck Riviera, but, hey, it's a great beach, and you can easily find psychedelia there). Here: Try it yourself here. In other news of humble ingredients, Brian hit it out of the park with, of all things, Spam. Risky choice to focus on that most mysterious of potted meat products, but superb execution -- particularly the dazzling presentation.

And now, Howie. Sigh. What happened to the fight, chef? Here's a simple lesson from Ohio's favorite chef and "Iron Chef America" contender Michael Symon. I spent last weekend doing appearances in Cleveland, and went for dinner at Michael's gorgeous joint, Lolita, on Friday night. The dinner could have been a disaster -- Michael and his staff were having a very tough evening, the first night with his new Fall menu, a packed house, and lots of technical problems (including a staffer spilling duck fat all over the deck of the wood-fired oven, causing everything to stick, and not bothering to tell the chef). Did Michael close his doors, shut off the lights, send out nothing at all? No. He sent simple dishes, including a huge board piled with his delicious house-cured meats with pickled ramps and exotic mustards. He fed us, regardless. That is what a chef should do. Howie should have found something to present. A mandarin-orange soup would have been better than nothing, which is almost certain grounds for getting kicked off the show, no? Perhaps, at this point, that is what Howie wanted.

Anyway, on to the Elimination Challenge on the Good Ship Pure:

Brian took the lead; admirable. A humbled Howie seemed to be taking direction, and hoped to redeem himself by cooking two dishes. But things started to look really dicey, really quickly, from the moment Brian announced that the hors d'oeurves were served -- and the entire crowd consumed them immediately. From then on out, Brian looked like he could easily be the one to go. At this point, Hung, the chef who mocks his colleagues for doing anything obvious, easy, or cliche, usually with, "a monkey could do that," served a salmon mousse on cucumber slices -- Betty Crocker material, circa 1955. And he still managed to be condescending to others: "I chose a very classic dish that people with an average palate would appreciate." Exit the Surreal Gourmet; welcome back the"C.P.A."

Sara's tomato bread pudding was a hit, as was CJ's seafood sausage. And Casey, finally, won an Elimination, drawing kudos from Food & Wine's very tough-to-impress editor in chief, Dana Cowin. "That's an incredibly ambitious little thing," she said (of the food, not the chef, although either could apply). And Casey won a fabulous Apple MacBook Pro 17-incher, the self-same gorgeous machine upon which I'm typing right now (and which most mightily rocks). Good for her.

And now, finally, Howie. Seeing that both his dishes tanked, knowing he choked badly in the Quickfire, and sensing danger for Brian, he tried to throw himself on the sword (or "over the bus" as Joey might say). And the bulldog was back: "I will be in control of my own destiny," he declared in the Stew Room. "F*ck them."

No dice, said Padma. Tom looked disgusted. And then, just as they should have, they threw him off.

I haven't necessarily been too proud of my behavior," Howie said, by way of farewell. "I think the competition put me in the mindset of everyone being my enemy. No matter what happens I am a good chef, and all anybody has to do to know that is come and taste my food." I hope to do that someday -- as long as the kitchen is air-conditioned. (I kid -- really, I kid!)

When Jonathan Livingston Seagull was sent into exile, things looked dark for a time, too. But there was a happy ending for the indomitable bird, as we all know there will be for Howie: "An outcast, Jonathan continues to learn, becoming increasingly pleased with his abilities, as he leads an idyllic life." Ah, Howie, free at last. Fly, seagull/bulldog/pelican-man! Fly! Don't miss next week: The mighty Bourdain is back! See ya. -- Ted