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Threat Level: Orange

Ted Allen sheds light on the joy of Velveeta.


How to Watch

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

Erik, Spike, my good men, my chefs -- you know I love you, but would you like a little queso with that whine?

Come on, guys. Think outside the bun, already.

This Quickfire was much like the Elks Club challenge in Season 3, when the chefs were asked to reinterpret American comfort-food classics into something more special. Season 4 didn't do much better than their ancestors. And I'm kinda mystified about it.

Reinterpreting a humble classic is something chefs are called upon to do throughout their careers, from culinary school to the grave. The concept should not seem unfamiliar or even daunting (although we might cut them some slack -- ahem -- given the 30-minute deadline). If anything, it should be an impulse that comes naturally. Not to put too fine a point on it, but a great many chefs have made a lot of money selling witty, sophisticated turns on simple foods; Daniel Boulud's famous, $27 hamburger comes to mind. Unfortunately for Spike and Erik, this kind of reinvention has been coming naturally to Rick Bayless his entire career. Also unfortunate: their responses to this challenge. Spike's, to defy the instructions and to just make really good street food. Erik's, to tell a great American chef to go screw himself. On television. (Letter to a Young Chef: Don't do that.)

In all fairness, Erik, I really liked the flavors in your corn dogs, despite the textural problem, and I was sorry to see you go. And Spike: I liked your hat. ted_403_02_320x240.jpg

Happily, Richard and Andrew were in the extra-bun zone, and they executed nicely. Yes, Richard, exactly: Make a "taco" without a taco shell! Yes, Andrew: Make a taco with a gorgeous, luxury meat! That's the way you do it. And congrats to Richard for the win.


Now, if you could indulge me in a little Chicago backstory .... That block party in the Ravenswood Manor neighborhood looked exactly as I remember the fiestas from our similar old haunts in Edgewater. Cheesy, corny, and sweet. (The only things I hate at Chicago block parties are the garage bands of 40-something, pot-bellied dads, mangling Dave Matthews jams, and the face painting. I hate face painting.) But I love those craftsman bungalows, beautifully built for workers in the '20s; they made the American Dream a reality for so many people, and they still go on endlessly today for miles and miles on the city's North Side. ted_403_07_320x240.jpg

But this is no longer a shot-and-a-beer crowd. Some of those little houses are now worth a million bucks. The governor of Illinois lives one block north of where Team Red and Team Blue slung their grub. And I couldn't help noticing in one of those once-humble kitchens where the chefs were raiding the pantry, there was a 48-inch Viking pro range, slate on the floor, and soapstone counters. Those were not just bratwurst aficionados, chefs. Some of those fridges contained fresh asparagus and prosciutto.

Then again, it was a block party. And there were kids. So, speaking of queso, there should be mac-n-cheese.

To that end, special to Nikki: Last December Barry and I tucked into a helluva meal at the chic, fancy Lambert's BBQ in Austin, Texas. When we finished I approached the distractingly good-looking executive chef, Larry McGuire, to ask about his superb version of noodles and gooey goodness -- among the best we had ever tasted. Our discriminating palates picked up the tang of cheddar in the sauce, we told Chef, but what was that other vaguely familiar, yet bewitching cheese that rounded things out? An aged gouda, we proposed? Pecorino?

Larry's face split into a grin, and -- you see where I'm going with this -- he revealed with delight: Velveeta. There are not many good things you can say about Velveeta. But there is one: It melts beautifully, and does not congeal or separate -- probably because of some synthetic polymer or other scary NASA technology. I know you faced many obstacles in this episode, Chef Nikki, and I respect that. Just a note: Should you need to perfect mac-n-cheese in a future gig, that hulking brick of Threat-Level Orange might be just the ticket.

Spike and Co. somewhat redeemed themselves with showmanship. I mean, what child doesn't love a blowtorch? But it wasn't enough. I felt bad, seeing a Red Team that had had so much fun at the party, that so clearly thought they had kicked booty, only to be crushed so brutally at Judges' Table. I'm sure everybody hated us that night; none more than Andrew. (Damn, was he ever shooting daggers from those eyes!)


Please believe that none of us takes pleasure in beating up chefs -- I'm pretty sure, anyway. We just have a job to do. We are tough on this cast because they are the best cast yet, and they're capable of great things.

What we love, actually, is seeing Stephanie's face, dazed from battle and sleep deprivation, light up with disbelief when she wins -- again! Nice job, Chef!

Join us next week, with special guest and longtime friend of mine Richard Roeper, columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times and, of course, co-host of Ebert & Roeper at the Movies, not to mention a certain hamburger cook named Daniel something.

And please join me at my new Web site, complete with scandalous, personal bloggerhea, acres of behind-the-scenes photos, and -- this just in -- Sudoku! That's Only I lied about the Sudoku. You knew that.

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