Before we get into tonight's episode: I'm still hearing frustration from fans about our decision to send Jennifer packing last week, including some viewers who think the judges broke the rules. At the risk of being the butt of still more sausage jokes (ahem), gimme a quick second, here:
First, to my knowledge, there is no Top Chef rule book. If there is, I hope Andy Cohen never makes me read it. We base our decisions on whose food tastes the best, and who responds most cleverly and appropriately to the challenge. And that's how it should be. I'm not interested in some rigid, black-and-white system that hampers our ability to use our judgment and experience to make difficult, nuanced decisions and to be as fair as possible.
It was a little unclear in the episode whether Antonia and Lisa used any of the featured ingredient, Polish sausage, in their dish.* Many people were sure that they did not, and thus, that they defied the challenge and should go home. While there is no such rule, per se, clearly, ignoring the terms of a contest is a great way to piss off the judges and get a plane ticket outta here. But what if a chef decides to think outside the bun, to do something conceptual? What if A&L had reinterpreted the idea of Polish sausage but used, say, higher-quality meat and more interesting spices? What if they made their own sausage with chunks of lamb, rosemary, fennel, and something Polish (I dunno -- you got me) instead of whatever-the-heck kind of ground animals are in actual Polish sausage? That, too, would have meant they didn't use the actual ingredient. Yet, it would have shown creativity and effort.
*As it happens, this is all moot. They did use Polish sausage. Not much. Not enough. But they did. Case closed. Deep beneath a delicious piece of fish that had no business being there, chunks of Polish sausage mingled with chunks of the estimable chorizo. The Polish was not highlighted the way a featured ingredient should have been -- hence, A&L's presence in the bottom two teams, despite their dish being absolutely delicious -- but it was not omitted entirely. For more on this kerfuffle, check out the very thorough and generally excellent coverage of Top Chef on this blog, www.skilletdoux.com. I'm not going to confirm or deny the accuracy of webmaster Dominic's weekly rankings of the contestants, but I appreciate the time and depth of knowledge he displays reaching those rankings; he truly does a great job. (Note to Shauna: He might be a great guest judge next season.) I also appreciate the photo he posted that clearly shows two different types of sausage awaiting cooking at A&L's station.
Finally, back at Team Menage-a-Trois, Jennifer was responsible for two of the most offensive elements of a really bad dish: the overwhelming goat cheese, and the soggy bread. And so, we put a fork in her. She was done.
And now, for your intermission pleasure: Some folks were concerned that I may have dissed the late, great Paul Lynde last week. Didn't mean it that way; I loved him and consider him a trailblazer -- and he was great with the one-liner. Here's one: "I'm Liberace without the piano." Heh. Heh. Now, try this with that nasal, Center-Square accent: "I sang in the choir for years -- even though my family belonged to another church!" Heh. Would love to have a martini with that cat.
But I digress. Tonight's epi really had me guessing about who was going home. The producers always try to throw you off the scent with their crafty, devious editing. Often, when you see lots of personal time spent with a contestant -- Antonia saying "F--k everybody," then cooing on the phone with her daughter, Mark with his didgeridoo (why do Ozzies and Kiwis like those things, again?), Steph fretting -- it means the Magical Elves are creating a narrative arc for why someone's cracking up and on their way out. To say nothing of being caught smoking, as Lisa was, adding that potent ingredient of unlikability to her constant glower. The blogosphere, she no likey the smoky! Jen was caught puffing last week, you know, and look what happened to her.
But, with one exception, those personal moments were red herrings -- and Antonia scored a double-header! Good on her.
This episode was a lovely showcase for the award-winning, humanitarian work of Chef Art Smith. You will never meet a sweeter, more generous soul. You can see why Oprah ate his food for so many years (at this point, though, Art has struck out on his own with a jewel of a restaurant in downtown Chicago, Table 52. Call weeks in advance and get yourself a table -- and order whatever Art recommends.) Also excellent: This nugget from Art, which came out during the Quickfire: Most chefs oversalt their food, when what it really needs is more acid. Vinegar. Lemon. Tomato. A great piece of culinary advice. Try it at home.
Now, on this Elimination Challenge: Feed a family of four for ten bucks? At Whole Foods?! Have you ever been to Whole Foods? It costs $10 to drive past the place. I once brought an organic melon to the checkout in a Whole Foods in Chicago, and it rang up at $12! (Needless to say, that melon stayed in the store.)
But this challenge was wonderful in many ways. First, it reminded the fortunate among us that many, many people in our great (but should-be-better) country cannot afford fancy ingredients. Many can't afford food at all. I once made a smart-ass reference online to the Web site www.hillbillyhousewife.com; then, later, I spent some time reading it. While I'm not down with the religious fervor there or the lessons on how a woman should dress modestly, I am amazed at the generosity, love, and smarts behind this effort. On this site, there is a complete shopping and cooking plan for feeding a family of four -- from scratch -- for $47 a week. That is $6.71 a day, with three squares and a snack here and there! No, there's no meat. There are lots of beans. There is definitely no Starbucks. But it can be done -- naturally, healthfully, and tastily. If you're a little short on cash, give it a look. It's really inspiring.
The other great thing about this challenge and its connection to Art and his charitable foundation, Common Threads, was that it demonstrated right before your eyes the way cooking and eating together brings the generations together, whether they're family members or reality-show contestants. Really sweet, seeing these chefs work with kids; it seemed to relax most of them, and made the cooking really fun. Also, there was considerably less swearing in the kitchen!
Hopefully, Spike didn't tell his young charge what "pasta puttanesca" means in Italian: "Pasta in the way a whore would make it."
The challenge also brought out some touching stories from our chefs. The currently quite-slim Andrew revealed that he was once 200 pounds overweight, and expressed concern over Americans' terribly unhealthy diet; Dale bonded with his similarly not-tall sous-chef; Mark laid bare his fear that Tom just doesn't like him ...
In the end, I was glad to see that Stephanie and Lisa survived; they've both been cooking better than Mark. But I will miss his charm, his New Zealand quirks, and his "stoner chic" look. So long, Dude From That 70s Show.
And then, just when you were reveling in the drama, savoring a battle well won, and bidding farewell to another talented chef, along comes this random bit of nasty from Andrew: "I have a culinary boner right now."
Great to know, Andy. Somebody hide the pie.
Meanwhile, over at www.tedallen.net: Beans, beans, the magical fruit! You want a cheap, easy, flavorful dinner? Visit my personal blog for the best black beans recipe ever, made super-fast with the pressure cooker.