Someone warned me that the next episode of Top Chef was the worst one ever. Nah, not the worst one, I think. Cooking in the desert. The obligatory outdoor challenge. I kinda liked it. It sure beat the Ken and Barbie bachelor/ette party. It’s also a challenge of resources and environment, which beats the previous episode for being a challenge of “what sauces do you remember from French cooking school.”

I’ve combined the most recent two episodes because there wasn’t much to say about “Cooking in the Desert.” It’s also magazine article deadline time and the wedding is in a couple of weeks. Kinda distracted. But I’m curling up with a rocks glass of chilled Gyeongju rice wine, fresh off of the Penn & Teller episode to do some keyboard sniping.

Quick notes about “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Ass Ceviche”:

  • Last season it was about scallops, as if global warning had killed off all edible creatures except scallops. This season it’s ceviche. How many ceviche have we seen thus far? Why don’t we just all make one big scallop ceviche and call it a day?
  • Too many freakin’ seafood dishes OUT IN THE DESERT. Haven’t they watched Top Chef before? It’s like the girl in the horror movie who goes down into the basement, where her cell phone loses its signal. Anyone who’s watched ’80s slasher flicks knows that’s where you don’t go. Anyone who’s watched Top Chef knows that you don’t bring highly perishable items like shrimp and fish when you know you’ll be cooking outdoor in a desert.
  • Regarding the attempt to create a Red Lobster near Area 51 with all that seafood, it was because everyone was trying to outguess what the others would do. They all thought that someone would do steak. No one did steak. There was plenty of ceviche but no steak. There was very little mammalian protein anywhere. It was no surprise that Brian Voltaggio, he of the paralyzed face, won because he did pork.
  • The Asian fetish makes it easy again. Miso soup? Granted, the watermelon sounded like a good addition. But it didn’t fit the ranch theme that well, which I think should have been a hit against it the same way that not completely destructing a dish was a big knock for Ron (okay, one of many big ones) that killed him in the next episode. Miso soup shouldn’t have been a finalist for a ranch campfire cook-off.
  • Armchair Chef Mode: Rippin’ off on what Brian and Laurine had done, I woulda done a fire licked Korean style pork belly, dandelion kimchi (I’ve had this, and it’s awesome), and a sweet potato and sesame leaf puree made out of potatoes roasted in the embers. Maybe make a spicy galbi jjim–beef ribs braised with gochujang in one of those cast iron pots or braised the pork belly in there.

Now on to the Penn & Teller episode. They did that classic cups and balls trick that I saw on YouTube.

I never get tired of that.

The Quickfire Challenge was to make a duo of two dishes that represented your good and bad side. Remember what I said about scallops? Well, they were exhumed and resurrected for this one. It’s round. It’s bite sized. It looks like it’s already gone through a cylindrical mold. Chefs love it for its plate-ability.

And guess what… we get a scallop ceviche!

Nonetheless, our man Eli made it into the top three with his duo of scallops. Robin, who has been receiving a good bit of animosity because she’s narrowly escaped each elimination while better chefs (in the minds of the other contestants) packed their knives and went. They even did a first (I think) of combining the “Oh, Damn!” drum sound effect with the “Winner of the Quickfire” theme music. But… oh… man… Eli went into douchebag mode and really had diarrhea of the mouth in the commentary–some sour grapes about Robin using her battle with cancer as the background story for her dish.

I think Eli just replaced Asswipe Mike as the villain for this season in the eyes of the public, confirmed as I read the comments on the other blogs. Wow!

Trying to remember, though, if the guy who had testicular cancer in season 3 used it in describing his dishes. Maybe a good thing he didn’t.

[Eli explains his side on the Bravo site.]

Robin, despite the other chefs dissing her, received her second Quickfire win, which is more than some of the other contestants.

For the Elimination Challenge they had to deconstruct classic dishes. I love this type of stuff. It really calls for creativity, and it’s the ultimate in playing with your food, for both the chef and the diner. Like Clay, who didn’t understand what an amuse bouche was in season 3, Ron had trouble wrapping his mind around the deconstructing concept. He may have thought they said “destruction.” The dish he had was paella.

Armchair Chef: Do something separate and unique to the seafood, chicken and sausage. Do the ’80s style chicken wing lollipop. Make your own sausage. Stuff a squid with something like black cod. Create a saffron sauce that brings the elements together. Then do this Korean technique of making really oversaturated rice. Heat an oiled wok to white hot. Spread the rice on the bottom and sides of the wok and let it sit. Don’t touch. A lot of chefs, including Ron, get in this habit of flipping their food in the pan. Don’t do it! Let the rice crisp to almost burnt. Turn the wok over and flip it out. You now have a terrordome of crunchy rice, that element they said was missing from Ron’s version. Oh, for the curious, the Korean rice stuff is called nurungji 누룽지.

Eli had sweet and sour pork. For some reason he used a digital pressure cooker that he had brought and gotten damaged on the plane. He duct taped it together. Well, that Tim Taylor solution didn’t work so well, as it exploded, coating Eli and Michael V. with lovely porkiness.

Jen was running all over the kitchen, another one of the many who was not comfortable with the deconstruction concept. Compare her to Laurine, also in the same camp. One ended on top, one on the bottom.

The judge’s table included the usuals plus Penn and Teller, Toby (back from England), and Chef Michelle Bernstein.


  • Part of Top Chef is selling your food to the judges. Asswipe Mike just doesn’t do that. He looks like his boss made him leave the kitchen to explain what was on the plate, which he does while looking at the floor, bored, eager to get back to watching his football game on TV.
  • Happy the testicular sweet and sour pork got all the right comments. Was a bit surprised it didn’t make the top four. Maybe was Toby’s doing.
  • Kevin has been able to do was Richard Blais wasn’t able to do in season 4–make a brown schmear that didn’t look like someone had wiped their ass on the plate.
  • KEVIN WON!!!!
  • I know that it’s Teller’s schtick, but we have heard him talk in the past. It was weird having Padma try to interpret what he was trying to say, as if he had a real disability or that he was Lassie telling everyone that Timmy was in trouble at a strip club.

Okay, so the pitcher of snark has about run dry. Ron, who had major trouble acknowledging the theme to the challenges, finally had it catch up to him. He’s gone now. I’m still missing Hector on the show. I’m still disappointed that we didn’t see much of their true cuisines. When you think about it, the challenges have played to the strengths of a minority, particularly Kevin and the Voltaggio bros. They do deconstruction all the time. They are classically trained (so they know all their French sauces). I’m still hoping for something that truly challenges all of them equally or turns the tables on the classically trained chefs, favoring the non-traditional and ethnic chefs for once.

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