Missing the Points

Gail Simmons judges the Super Bowl challenge ... from her couch.

I grew up in Canada, as I've mentioned in previous blogs, so the Stanley Cup was a much bigger deal in my house than the Super Bowl. I've tried to become a football fan, but I really only watch the big game for the over-the-top commercials and the opportunity to eat spicy chicken wings, spinach-artichoke dip, and potato skins for dinner. Viewing this episode of Top Chef, however, certainly put me in a spirited mood. I thoroughly enjoyed not only how enthusiastic the cheftestants returning from seasons past were to get back in the game, but also how fiercely competitive our seven remaining Season 5 chefs became when they discovered their Elimination Challenge would involve cooking against former contestants in a race against the clock.

This challenge had a few more rules and regulations than most. It was judged on a point system that dictated which chef won each set of a seven part cook-off. Each of our New York chefs was pitted against a chef from a previous season. They were asked to create -- in front of a live audience -- a dish inspired by food from one of seven great football cities: Dallas, Green Bay, Miami, New Orleans, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle. The judges allotted seven points to the dish they liked best. Four tasters from the audience also weighed in, bestowing three points on their favorite. If a New York chef lost in their individual heat, they were up for elimination. Thankfully, our hometown chefs won the day overall. Jamie (San Fran), Carla (New Orleans), Josea (Seattle), and Leah (New York) managed to create dishes the judges and fans really liked. To their dismay, Stefan (Dallas), Fabio (Green Bay), and Jeff (Miami) lost their respective challenges and faced the judges' wrath at the end of the evening.The most surprising and satisfying portion of the episode for me was watching Stefan's overconfident attitude deflate completely after losing to Andrea Beaman, best known as the health food chef from Season 1 who was eliminated twice! Since shooting in San Francisco with her way back in 2005, I've gotten to know Andrea a little. She is not only incredibly knowledgeable about ingredients, but also exceptionally passionate and focused in her work. The sting of Stefan's defeat was compounded by the fact that Stefan was the winner of this episode's Quickfire and, instead of receiving immunity in the elimination, was allowed to choose both the city he wanted to represent and the chef he wanted to cook against. He clearly chose Andrea because he viewed her as the weakest of the lot, underestimating how well she can cook and how familiar she is with the food of the Southwest, a choice he may never live down. The judges were split on who should win but in the end declared his meat duo -- Roasted Pork on Coleslaw with Cilantro & Ancho Chilies and Pan Seared Steak with Roasted Corn & Pepper Salad -- lacking in the bold flavors for which Dallas is known. Stephan's dish may have been prettier, but there was no question the audience preferred Andrea's Tex-Mex Chili.

Fabio's problem was his overcooked Venison Tenderloin. There was no way he could defend that to the judges, no matter how hard he tried. Spike, Season 4's hat-wearing provocateur, easily beat him with an impressive Five-Spice Venison.

It was Jeff who made the final fumble. A resident of Miami, he chose what he was convinced he could cook best, but his inability to focus his presentation and concentrate on just a few key ingredients sent him packing his knives. His opponent, Josie from Season 2, may have created an unconventional variation on ceviche by serving it warm (ceviche is typically cold raw fish or lightly cooked seafood, marinated in citrus, which causes the protein to break down and appear "cooked"), but it certainly looked tasty. Jeff's Rock Shrimp Ceviche with Mango, Jicama, Cilantro Sauce & Sangria Ice was overworked and underwhelming. Kind of like watching that missed field goal sail wide in the final seconds.

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