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Tofu: It's What's for Dinner

Ted Allen elaborates on the judges' decision in the improv challenge. Plus, a haiku!

Tonight, Dale and Richard gave us one of the best performances I have ever seen in four seasons of Top Chef. Conceptually and technically, laughing in the face of a really tough challenge, their work could not have been better.

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Think about it: What the hell would you cook to respond to the word "perplexed?" blogs_tc_407_dale_richard_plate.jpg

Generally, when a dish is perplexing, as Jennifer's and Steph's was, here, that means it has failed. Confused, unharmonious, a train wreck -- these are not words you want applied to your cooking. Yet, Richard deployed the full powers of his wit and technique and came up with a way to play that word brilliantly, despite having immunity he could have easily chosen to coast on (or to try to take down Dale, one of his strongest competitors, too). Not Richard; always a chef. Where does it come from, the idea to take the most iconic symbol of vegetarianism, the ultimate rejection of the reddest red meat, and make it taste like its nemesis? How clever was it to grill beef fat to develop flavor, render it, and use it to impart a meaty essence to the quintessential anti-beef? Brilliant, nothing less. Meanwhile, hard on the heels of a great win last week, Dale is really finding his voice. That green curry was great; deeply complex, perfectly spiced, an excellent foil for steaky soy goodness.

Watching them work, you could see them trying to hide the energy -- they knew this was a great idea. This, friends, is what we judges are talking about. These guys could have taken the word "nauseating" and run with it.Overall, right about now is where this season really gets interesting. We're down to a sharp collection of cooks. The remaining shows this season will force some of the tightest, toughest, and (to some people) most controversial decisions we've ever had to make as judges on Top Chef. Take it from me: It's a good problem to have.

Now, then: If you producers would just stop leaning on the token gay guy to work in the sausage jokes ... more on that later.

But let's take a step back. First, in the Quickfire with Johnny Iuzzini, most of the chefs really excelled -- at dessert, no less! Stop the presses; finally, a TC cast that knows they need to have something sweet in the repertoire. I admired Spike for taking a chance on souffle, although I thought his presentation was a little too Edible Arrangements. Dale's work sounded delicious. Richard's left me a little cool; when you're cooking one ingredient to make it resemble a different ingredient, there's a fine line between clever (see tofu, above) and cutesy. Still, Johnny is a pastry chef who's really into humor and avant-garde techniques; so as long as the flavor was there, which it evidently was, Richard played the right card.

When Padma told the chefs they were going to enjoy a night out at the venerable Second City, cradle of improv, birthplace of most of Saturday Night Live's greatest, I had to laugh. (Never believe Padma when she says you're getting a night off.) I especially had to laugh when the chefs were getting dolled up, and Stephanie said, "it'll be nice to hang out together as friends." Heh. Perhaps Steph missed the Miami nightclub-slash-roach-coach episode last season.Last week, I trashed Spike for blathering on and on about the squash soup he wished he'd made, but, ya know, he vindicated himself. It was superb, it was special, it was not the overly sweet stuff you get in every American restaurant come October. I particularly liked his and Andrew's response to the discovery that they were missing a food processor. What did they do? They cheerfully picked up a food mill, and discovered that processing the squash by hand lent an even more personal connection to their dish. Excellent.

And then, the real corker: Tom informed the chefs that they had 20 minutes to pack up their food -- coincidentally affording them the opportunity to use the Glad Family of Products (OK, Top Chef Drinking Gamers: Chug!) -- and take it to the TC McMansion. This was not good news; the chefs' meal-planning decisions would (hopefully) have been different had they known the food would need to hold up for hours.

However, I've said it before; this show is not called "Anybody Can Be a Top Chef." This curveball once again forced the chefs to rethink their work. If any of those dishes contained, for example, blini (the little pancakes that sunk Valerie in Episode Two), or corn dogs, which took down our friend Erik, or a phallic piece of toasted bread (?), this would have been a good time to reconsider using those elements.

If you'll permit a pretentious digression: The musician/artist/producer Brian Eno used to say that some of his best work resulted from problems and mistakes that arose in its creation. One of his credos was to "flaunt the imperfection," an unconventional, non-linear kind of thinking that could very much benefit a TC contestant at a time like this.

On the other hand, screw that: You are evil, Top Chef producers! EVIL!Back to the challenge: Spike and Andrew spent a full 30 minutes tasting, re-tasting, and adjusting the seasoning in their soup, and man, did it pay off. That soup was soulful, complex, a little heat, a smoky back-note of bacon -- and it conveyed "love" like a warm hug from Mom. Magnificent job. Herewith, tonight's career-changing superlative, this time from Chef Tom: "Probably the best-seasoned dish that we've had all season." Take that one with you, gents, wherever you go.

Jen and Steph were hilarious in introducing their dish -- and, believe me, so were the Second City actors in response. (Ah, the good ol' dick joke will never grow old -- or will it? Stay with me). But the dish didn't work. Their "turned on" story was belabored, and the bread became soggy inside the containers. They needed to edit their dish. And then, Antonia and Lisa indulged themselves -- but not their customers -- with a shot of tequila, in apparent lip service to the idea of drunkenness. As a guest, I found this off-putting; if the chef does a shot, she should offer one to her guests. And the idea of drunkenness was supposed to be in the food, not its creators.

Cracked the hilarious Robert Janas, "I love Polish sausage," turning to me to add, "Now, don't take that the wrong way."

No problem, Robert -- I'm not Polish.

But I have to say, producer folk: Yeah, yeah, I'm the gay guy on the show. But you're layin' it on a little thick. First, as the chefs leave the kitchen to serve the soup, you hear Stephanie tells her colleagues to serve the ladies first -- and then the show cuts immediately to ME receiving my plate. Ahem. This a few epis after making it look like a dick joke (it wasn't) when I said to Tom at the block party, "Thank God we're finally getting some sausage." Basta, already -- who am I, Paul Lynde?

Typecasting is a bitch, folks.

Best line of the show came in response to the "depressed" dish: "Maybe they could have made the sauce with their tears." God, I love Second City.During deliberations at Judges' Table, Lisa argued in the Stew Room that if she had used actual polish sausage, we judges would have said, "What's with this bar food?" Actually, no. Not if she and Antonia had made their own Polish sausage. Not if they had figured out a clever way to (again) flaunt the imperfection -- in this case, a humble ingredient -- by making it the focal point of a dish, and ALSO somehow ingeniously coming up with a way to elevate that sausage (your dick joke, here), using it in a brave new way. That's what this is all about.

I'll refer you again to tonight's heroes, Richard and Dale. I mean, you want to talk about a tough ingredient to blow people away with? They won with effing tofu.

Next week: Cute kids in the kitchen, plus the most delightful, kind, generous man in all of American cooking: Art Smith, Oprah's former personal chef.

And now, a farewell haiku to Jennifer: Goodbye, Jennifer!
Ah, lesbians and fauxhawks
We're down to one each

If you liked that one, toddle over to my personal blog, where a poetic reader named Steve has crafted a different haiku for every episode of TC so far this year! Taste the genius!

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