Top Chef --The Saddest Goodbye

Andrea Strong explains why she was hearbroken for Antonia.

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I'm a sap. I'll be the first to admit it.

I'm one of those people who cries pretty much at the drop of a hat. I cry at commercials, reading magazine articles, while watching trailers to movies (I was a mess every time I saw the one for Richard Jenkins in The Visitor, which was an excellent film), so it should come as no surprise that last night, while watching the first of the Top Chef final episodes in Puerto Rico, I cried when Antonia was eliminated. I was very sorry to see her go. Top Chef is a show is about skill, creativity and raw talent; it is also about people, their behavior, their personalities, and who they are when they're not on the show. In the case of Antonia, I thought she was not only a talented chef with vision and a wonderful palate, I thought she was an impressive contender.

She was even-tempered, gracious, calm under pressure, and she really became one of my favorite chef competitors. Those qualities put her over Lisa any day of the week. Her under-cooked beans and her decision to plate all her dishes together (a very odd decision for a chef to make, indeed) were her downfalls, and I can't imagine how frustrating that error must have been for her. I was really heartbroken for her when she said her goodbyes. To knock Lisa any more than she's already been knocked will serve no purpose. She clearly can cook, but her abrasive personality and stance makes it tough to root for her. This combination is something that we've seen before on this show and is one of the reasons why Reality TV is engaging and addictive. A cast filled with sugar-sweet contestants would not fare as well. A witch is always needed in the Cinderella mix. In any case, we'll see what her fate is next week.


The challenge last night was again, an excellent one, and I was impressed with the agility of the chefs around that pig. Butchering a whole animal is not something these chefs do every day, and I was wowed by the way they took to the task with confidence and relative ease.

What I thought was even more challenging than the butchery though was their sous-chefs' task of shopping at the San Juan market. Andrew (one of my favorite former contestants) was hilarious. I loved his mime-like attempts to communicate, and his attempt at Spanish which was pretty much English with a Spanish accent. That was priceless. I thought the challenge of shopping in that market I thought was quite steep. I mean, Whole Foods that market was not, and so much of the produce at the market was unknown to the sous-chefs. This was probably really exciting, but also a bit terrifying because the results of their hunting and gathering would become the dishes that their chef contestants could be eliminated for.

Those sous-chefs did great. One of the other things that also impressed me last night was the way Stephanie handled herself when Dale screwed up and left their pork belly out over night. I think it's fair to say that if Lisa had been in the place of Stephanie and Dale had done that to her, or if the tables had been turned and Stephanie had left the belly out, a major tantrum or brawl would have erupted.

Instead, Stephanie stayed cool and collected, and didn't berate Dale, which would not have done anyone any good. He felt bad enough. Her poise and maturity allowed her to stay focused on the prize -- turning out great food -- and she and Dale came up with a creative chichirones salad that was a huge crowd pleaser. Nicely done.

On another note, some of you have written in the comments section that you don't get what this blog is about. My goal in this column has been to comment on the episode, but to also offer some sort of culinary or restaurant tie-in. So if the episode is about eggs, I've given you some of my favorite egg dishes, if the episode is about a wedding, I've offered suggestions for first dates, that sort of thing. This way, we hoped that you, our readers, would get something more than just episode commentary, but perhaps some dining suggestions that might be fun to try. That's been the goal, and if it has worked, that's great, if not, we'll try harder to make it fun and interesting and useful in the future.


For this episode, which focused on whole pig dining, I have a great place for you to try, if you haven't been yet -- Daisy May's Barbecue. Chef Adam Perry Lang, a barbecue master, turns out some of the most succulent ribs and saucy pulled pork in the city, but he also serves something quite special and unique. He calls it the Big Pig Gig. As the name implies, this menu offers a whole suckling pig, and yes, it's served whole -- snout to tail -- on one of his picnic tables in his Hell's Kitchen restaurant, so you almost feel like you're at a cook-out somewhere down south, or in Puerto Rico.

The pig is prepared from a secret recipe that scored Lang a blue ribbon at the American Royal Invitation (the world series of barbecue in Kansas City). The meat is so moist it's practically buttery, and comes encased in a crispy honeyed skin, so you get that contrast of crunchy and tender and just the great flavor of smoky pig. Just in case the protein overdose isn't enough for you, your Big Pig Gig includes piles of Texas Toast (brioche rubbed with roasted garlic), sliced watermelon and a slew of sides (read: troughs) like lardon-stocked baked beans, creamed corn and candied sweet potatoes).

Of course, eating large animals can get messy. So you won't have to toss your clothes after dinner, Lang provides giant, smock-like bibs and surgical gloves (you'll be eating with your hands, and that little piggy can be hot). Once you're all suited up, it's a free-for-all pig fest. Enjoy! Daisy May's: 623 11th Avenue at 46th Street, 212-977-1500. BYOB. All Big Pig Gig items must be ordered two days in advance.

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