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A Land of Pure Imagination

Ted Allen reveals why sometimes it's better to be in the bottom than to not go to Judges' Table at all.


How to Watch

Watch Top Chef Season 21 Wednesdays at 9/8c on Bravo and next day on Peacock.

Finally, Dale breaks out! You could really see him chafing in the past couple of episodes. He obviously wants this. But whether he was held down by an unsuccessful group challenge, or his work just fell somewhere in the middle for the judges, he hadn't really distinguished himself in any challenges until tonight. Not a bad time to do it, when the judge is Daniel Boulud, and the test is technique. When established restaurant chefs want to evaluate someone's skills, they often assign them a deceptively simple task: Cook an omelette. If a chef doesn't know the basics, he probably doesn't have much to offer.

I'm sure it's nice for these guys to receive praise from anyone, but I always find it especially cool when they hear it from a legend like Daniel: "Your knife skills are perfect," he told Dale. "You really pushed it to what a chef should do." Congrats, Chef D. Nice to see Zoi get some props from Daniel, too. (Judging from the promo that followed tonight's episode, it looks like Dale might figure prominently -- if angrily -- in next week's show, too. Whether that's a good thing ... well, we'll see.)

Inside factoid, gentle viewer: You might imagine that the chefs hate it when they're ranked in the bottom at Judges' Table, and they definitely do. But an interesting wrinkle popped up this season: As long as they don't get cut, chefs in the bottom group at least have one advantage over contestants who end up in the middle: They get feedback. Several of this year's chefs who consistently ended up somewhere between winning and losing didn't get that dialogue with the judges, and, understandably, complained about it. But at this early stage in the competition, there are too many contestants to permit lengthy discussion of every dish. This becomes less of a factor as the field is winnowed.

On to the Elimination Challenge. This, folks, was fun. It was really great to hang out with an old pal from my days in Chicago journalism, columnist and film critic Richard Roeper. I think the challenge was a great one. It's a very open sort of test, one that you could respond to literally -- like serving a Vietnamese spring roll for Good Morning, Vietnam -- or more creatively. (I would have preferred a movie -- any movie -- that does not contain Robin Williams ... but that's just me.)

Richard, Dale, and Andrew picked the perfect film for me. Not only was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory my favorite book as a kid, but I can't imagine a movie that better embodies the kind of attitude that a young, modern chef should have. It's about magic, curiosity, and wonder, about nothing being impossible, about theatrics and technology -- but always, at its heart, about delivering astonishing, never-before-experienced flavor. And they really rose to the occasion; yes, it is surprising that a smoked piece of fish would taste great with white chocolate, celery root, and wasabi -- that's what's cool about it. Not to pick on Spike, who said, "I'm sorry, those flavors don't go well together," but they did. Gorgeously.

Andrew also performed beautifully this week, making a faux caviar that I just assumed involved some avant-garde, experimental ingredient like hydrocolloids -- gelling agents that can, among other things, convert liquids into spheres -- but that was actually real tapioca pearls. (Imagine!) He also did not disappoint in the notable-quotes department: "I have no doubt in my mind that the people we're making this food for will culinarily crap in their pants." Thanks for the visual, Andrew.

In the end, Manuel lost because of timidity. As Chef Tom explained, a Top Chef needs to demonstrate drive and determination, and Manuel allowed Spike to run the show. He left with class and style -- bon voyage, chef. It was a pleasure to taste your work.

This week on a report from the Pebble Beach Food and Wine festival, two haikus from readers -- and if that doesn't grab you, nothing will -- and a recipe for the world's most fabulous cocktail snack: Parmesan crisps! See you next week.

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