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Know Your Audience!

The eliminated chef scared Rocco DiSpirito. Let him explain.

By Rocco DiSpirito

"By the people and for the people" is a great sentiment to found a government on, but it's not one to follow if your intention is to become the next Top Chef. When Tom, Padma, Ted, and Rick Bayless are deciding your fate, do yourself a favor and cook for them. All too often, the cheftestants get caught up in the theme of the challenge and forget it's the judges they need to impress with their superb cooking skill. The judges notice things that most mortals would easily forgive in any setting, much less a block party. (Incidentally, I am a big fan of block parties. They offer a free pass on so many levels. You can get away with drinking too much, eating a lot of horrific food that sits around in the sun for hours, and most importantly, you can wear your least fashionable, most ill-fitting clothes. A day of worry-free haberdashery is always fun.)

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A soggy corn dog, a chicken-heavy Waldorf salad, and macaroni and cheese in which the Velveeta was used improperly (How do you improperly use cheese that isn't proper cheese to begin with?) are epic errors to the judges of a cooking competition. And, hello?? Why didn't anyone do anything Mexican in the Elimination Challenge??? Know your audience! When Ryan of the Red Team dismissed, offhand, the idea of cooking for the judges, and Zoi used the words "classic Americana," I knew their fate was sealed.

Rick Bayless and a handful of other chefs put Chicago on the culinary map. He is a very nice guy and very talented. It was nice to see him on Top Chef. He's done more to create national awareness of the wonders of Mexican food than just about anybody. How could you resist a taco challenge with Rick as the judge?

Tacos aren't as easy as they appear to be. As with any sandwich (yep, a taco is a lot like a sandwich), the perfect combination of cooked meat, raw vegetables, condiments, and other flavorings easily eludes us. And in this challenge, the taco had to be "elevated" to the echelon of fine dining. (I personally think that a great taco is already fine dining -- and there's a restaurant in New York City called La Esquina that proves it every day.) Lisa undercooked skirt steak, Erik's was a "train wreck," Ryan dared to use paper in his presentation ... you see, not easy stuff.Elevating street food to fine dining requires a deft hand and some clever marketing skills. You need to embrace the streetiness of the original flavors while at the same time make it entice like something for which you'd pay 10 times the street price. A few came close -- Spike captured the soul of the street, and Andrew made one of Rick's favorite tacos, but it was Richard who broke the code with his combination of a great filling and a fancy jicama wrapper. Jicama is nothing like a tortilla. It's starchy, but it's not made by hand with anything resembling wheat or corn. Sometimes called the Mexican potato, it's a tuber known for being at-once creamy, crunchy, and juicy -- and you eat it raw. It's a great choice for a new spin on a wrapper. Obviously, Rick felt that way as well.

Richard, the Quickfire Challenge winner, gained immunity and immediately picked his team. Of course, he picked many of the early superstars. He's no dummy. Strategy is as important as skill in any competition. Stephanie with one win under her belt, Antonia, who made a thrilling pasta dish in the first episode, and Mark who can lose ingredients and still win a Quickfire Challenge are already very impressive contestants this season. Spike seemed to think their choice to team up with the guy who is immune to elimination was a bad one. I am so tired of hearing cheftestants hypothesize that somehow the person with immunity will take a dive in the Elimination Challenge because that's just not how chefs operate. We always put too much effort into our work.

When Richard steered the Blue Team in a fine dining direction, it was clear he knew who he was cooking for. Hearing that you're cooking for 40 adults and 70 kids, it's very tempting to get out the burger buns, hot dog relish, PBRs, M&Ms, and lollipops. But as Zoi said, you're not going to win Top Chef by making pasta salad. Poor thing. Dale also sensed he needed to "push," and, in fact, his pork skewer was the best thing the team made. And while fun is always paramount at any gathering of any kind (and, as Andrew points out, chefs must know how to entertain), trying to win on the "fun" ticket isn't wise, this isn't really a gathering. It's a televised competition with 100K at stake. Eyes on the prize, kids. Another thing to remember is that even though the cheftestants are often divided into teams, they're always judged on individual talent. I bet many of them are happy they each chose to make a dish of their own in this episode.

Someone like Nikki should be very thankful she was on the winning team.Watching the cheftestants interact with the neighborhood folks was telling. A chef must be polite, charming, and likable, and all of them -- with the exception of Spike's momentary lapse of judgment -- were. Andrew even complimented Ryan on his looks and ability to "speak very well." (Ha -- he clearly wasn't around for the piccata debate.)

I wasn't overwhelmed by either of the teams' performance in this elimination, but both of them did some things right. The Blue Team plated all the food for their guests and served a sophisticated fruit dessert, plus a great drink. The Red Team made s'mores to order and had a great dip bar. Ultimately, though, the Red Team served the least successful dishes. Spike defended their decision to cook for the "neighborhood", but as Ted pointed out, good food is good food regardless of what it is or who's eating it. Soggy Waldorf salad, pasta salad that's no better than the store-bought stuff, and two-hour-old fried food just didn't cut it this time.

I don't envy Tom and Padma for having to tell anyone to go home and this time was no exception. I am sure Erik is sweeter than honey, but there's something about his look that scares the heck out of me.

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