"Top Chef" episode 2: Eve and the ladies battle the boys in a his-hers party catering challenge
Note: Contains spoiler info. Missed the show? More "Top Chef" air times.
Last time on "Top Chef": Seventeen chefs converged in Las Vegas, where they did battle via a Mise en place relay quickfire and an elimination challenge of creating a dish inspired by vice. Our heroine, Ann Arbor-based chef and restaurant proprietor Eve Aronoff, struggled in an unfamiliar kitchen and overthought her entree of seafood in curry cream sauce, finding herself on the chopping block. Fortunately, the judges gave her a second chance.
Back at the "Top Chef" house, Eve interviews that having been in the bottom four she feels torn, wondering whether she should cook things she thinks the judges will like or go all out and cook her style of food. Meanwhile, the Voltaggio brothers' rivalry continues. Bryan acknowledges that this additional level of competition pushes them to work harder and will continue to be a factor in he and Michael's performances.
Taking the guest seat at the judges' table this week is Todd English, James Beard Award-winning chef and prolific restaurateur (probably best known for his gourmet pizzeria chain Figs, and the recently-shuttered rustic Mediterranean establishment Olives). Once the host of public television show "Cooking With Todd English," he can offer some perspective about being in front of the camera as a side dish to culinary critique.Quickfire time. In addition to Padma and Todd, the cheftestants are joined in the kitchen by... a craps table. Why? Because for this QF, each chef will roll the dice to determine how many ingredients they may use in their dish. Salt, pepper and oil don't count toward the total. With 30 minutes to cook and another $15,000 at stake in addition to the standard immunity, the chefs who roll lower numbers will have to work even harder for the win — or, as Jesse eloquently put it, "Two ingredients would suck!" On the other hand, everyone wins when we get to see Todd get caught up in the casino-like excitement. At the craps table, Eve rolls an 8 and opts to make a grilled asparagus salad with blue cheese, explaining that she likes assertive flavors and hopes that Padma and Todd will be impressed.Eve presents her salad, rounded out with golden raisins and pine nuts. The judges — ever stone-faced during this portion of the program — reveal very little, with Todd simply saying, "Interesting."
Todd chooses his least favorites: Jesse's scallops with chimichurri, smashed chickpeas and toasted garlic lacked a variety of texture; Bryan's poached cod with carrot-ginger puree and daikon sprout was basically good but a little heavy on yuzu (pun alert: He "yuz"ed a little too much yuzu); and Eve's salad was overpowered by the blue cheese and a bit sloppy on the plate.
Conversely, Todd's favorites: Michael V's liquid nitrogen-treated gazpacho with compressed cucumber and toast was an inventive take on a classic; (last week's quickfire winner) Jennifer's salmon with an emulsion of lemon, garlic, shallot, parsley and jalapeÃ±o delicately blended powerful flavors; and (last week's elimination challenge winner) Kevin's asparagus-celery salad with fennel cream and a boiled egg carefully balanced the many other components of the dish and topped it off with a perfectly-cooked egg. The winner: Michael V. Smell something burning? Not quite; that's brother Bryan seething with envy.
For the elimination challenge, the chefs are divided by sexes, teaming up to cater a poolside bachelor and bachelorette party. Each male chef prepares a dish for the bachelorette; each woman for the bachelor. Whichever team is least successful will be up for elimination. This also provides the male chefs a chance to reinforce the less-than-friendly attitudes towards women they've put out thus far, as Hector comments that he thinks his female counterparts are less experienced. Conversely, Jennifer states that she's "pissed off;" whether a chef is a man or woman has no bearing on their culinary aptitude. Ashley isn't pleased, either, but for a different reason: as a lesbian, the idea of catering a wedding doesn't appeal to her because she's waiting for the day that all people can marry, regardless of sexual orientation. This isn't the place for my commentary on the subject, but I must say I respect that opinion. Fortunately Robin, a U-M grad now based in Seattle and gold chip-to-immunity winner last quickfire, is happy to be working with the women since they haven't had much time together in the kitchen so far.
Anyway, the cheftestants are joined by the couple, Karen and Greg. They bring along a tray of shots: mosco mule (sort of a gingery vodka taste), tequila and golden delicious (which Ash [not to be confused with Ashley] describes as "sweet, gooey and disgusting"). Adding another layer to the challenge, the teams must prepare at least two dishes to complement each of the beverages. With ten minutes to talk to their respective clients, the chefs take notes. The only meat Karen eats is seafood, but her friends range from run-of-the-mill omnivores to vegan. On the women's side, Eve learns from Greg that he likes seafood and lean meats but also has a sweet tooth. All in all, a lot of factors to consider — "Top Chef" wouldn't have it any other way.
After picking up groceries, Jesse interviews that after being in the bottom so much that she fears she's going into the elimination challenge with a target on her back. On the men's side, Michael V, fresh from his quickfire win, is not happy to rest on his laurels because he thinks he has more room to grow professionally than brother Bryan, who already owns a restaurant. The women finish their cooking in the allotted time without incident, while the men scramble to wrap up. But back at the house some of the women continue to be frustrated about the nature of the challenge.A new day, the cheftestants head to the hotel where the party is taking place, complete with a shimmering, sprawling pool and large cabanas. They have another hour to set up and put finishing touches on their food. Eve prepares a shrimp ceviche with smoked tomato salsa and popcorn; Robin a duck molÃ© with cocoa nibs and apricot; Laurine a Moroccan lamb chop with pomegranate-pine nut relish; Jennifer an octopus ceviche with citrus vinaigrette and herbs. Eve finds herself in a similar situation as last week with the shrimp lacking flavor, this time because they don't seem to be absorbing their vinaigrette. In the battle of ceviche, it's a repeat of last week's quickfire as the judges prefer Jennifer's. The men's menu, to name a few: Ron's lobster cocktail with habanero-tomato sauce; Mike I's arctic char with smoked caper sauce and orange; Kevin's chilled almond soup with king crab, cucumber and grape; Mattin's boullabaise with aioli crouton and basque cheese croquette; Ash's chicken wing with pickled pearl onions.
Before going to the judges' table, during the commercial break we're treated to some bonus footage. This week, it's Mike I talking about the nicknames he's come up with for his competitors. Most notably, he calls Eve "The Ninja," explaining that Eve says she has ninja-like skills but actually she walks into walls. It's a nice look into what things are like outside of the competion side of the show.At the judges' table, the men's team prevails. The top four: Hector, who offered tofu ceviche with citrus and a fresh tortilla; Bryan, with a guacamole, corn nut and corn puree-filled sweet and sour macaroon; Michael V, with apple sorbet and a goat cheese cookie; and Eli, with tuna tartare and wild rice. Yep, the Voltaggio brothers are vying for the number one spot just as each hoped. Eli's tartare is praised for its seasoning, while Michael's dessert gets it right from concept to execution, and Hector gets kudos for bringing bold flavor to face-value bland tofu. Todd explains that it comes down to the siblings, and as if the fates wanted to even things out after the quickfire, Bryan's macaroon had the texture and playfulness to become the week's winning dish. Next, the four least-liked dishes by the women's team are on the chopping block. It's Jesse's Thai chicken in a lettuce cup with mushrooms, shiso and ginger beer; Preeti's coriander-sesame tuna with spicy eggplant and crispy wonton; Ashley two dishes of watermelon carpaccio with ricotta salata and aged balsamic, and a bay leaf panna cotta with cranberry powder and honey; and Eve's shrimp ceviche. Jesse, whose too-dry chicken landed her in the bottom last week, delivered too-watery poultry this time around. Preeti's tuna was described as over-cured, with the shiso too wilted, and the eggplant seeming out of place. Ashley's watermelon dish was well-liked, but her un-set panna cotta put off the judges. When the judges approach Eve, she acknowledges that she didn't love how the shrimp turned out, and the judges agree: the seafood was bland, and the salsa overpowered it. She explains that when she realized the vinaigrette wasn't taking she tried to boost the flavor but it was too late, like trying to salt pasta that's already cooked. The judges deliberate. Ashley is reminded that she should've focused on making one great dish rather than letting a second drag her down. Tom thinks Preeti lacked the skill to make her tuna dish work. Jesse's dish had muddled flavors and was sloppily presented. And the judges struggled to decipher the different flavors in Eve's dish, saying this fact was even worsened as she added more ingredients. Then, sadly, Eve is asked to pack her knives and go.
Eve thanks the judges for the experience. In her exit interview she says that while she hasn't won, it doesn't change how she feels about herself or her cooking. She continues, explaining that she felt out of place in the context of "Top Chef" and thinks her flavor profiles may not have made sense to the judges. Her fellow cheftestants give her a round of applause and via voiceover she talks about going home and being herself, learning and creating something special. Her commentary makes a lot of sense; truly she was being herself, but her self — her personality and attitude — were simply not a good fit for the "Top Chef" setting, where time constraints are tight, pressure is high, and your opposition is hungry to win. Eve seemed to come to the show just wanting to cook and work alongside her peers — a fine philosophy for a chef's life, but not for a chef's competition. As for creating something special? If that was a contest, with the thousands of customers who have loved the offerings at her restaurant, Eve's already won.
For more "Top Chef" coverage, on Thursday morning tune in to 1290 WLBY AM on the radio or online, where I'll be a guest at 10:05 on the Lucy Ann Lance Business Insider. If you can't listen live, the interview will be archived at her site on Friday.