The episode began with the chefs being woken at the crack of dawn by Tom Colicchio. Talk about robbing the chefs of some dignity. Was that necessary? I would have a problem being taped as I rolled out of bed. Although maybe they gave them a couple of minutes to pee and primp, because Richard's hair was standing at attention by the time the chefs lined up in the kitchen to find out what was what. Surely it doesn't stay that way while he sleeps.
I have to admit, I always watch Top Chef once just to enjoy it, and then a second time to write about it. The second time through this episode I found myself thinking about what would have happened if seemingly minor things had been different ... and how much luck plays into this competition.
The Quick Fire was to work the egg station at a Chicago restaurant called Lou Mitchell's (I don't know the place). Helene, the owner, had a personality that seemed as though she would like to eat newbie chefs for breakfast. Spike did a great impersonation of her. By the time the challenge was over, she said all of the chefs did a "remarkable" job -- was that good? She was torn between two chefs -- Dale and Antonia. Antonia got the win. What if she had chosen Dale?
Next, they head over to a warehouse-type building with a cool looking interior, with rustic hard wood floors and beams. Padma announced that Restaurant Wars is on. Antonia gets to pick her team and she unsurprisingly picks Stephanie and Richard. What if she got only one choice, and the rest drew knives?
Antonia's team decided to open Warehouse Pub, a gastropub (a fine dining restaurant with a relaxed atmosphere). The other team had experience with Asian food, so they come up with "Mai Buddha," a fun Asian restaurant. Lisa and Dale both wanted to be executive chef, and they flipped a coin and Dale wins. What if Lisa had won the coin toss? Or ... what if Dale had strategically let Lisa be executive chef, knowing Lisa is difficult to manage, and knowing the executive chef is usually first on the firing line?
In walked Tony Bourdain, announcing he's filling in for Tom Colicchio, bringing his "warmer, sunnier" disposition. Honestly, I don't see him as being more or less sunny than Colicchio. In fact, accounts from people who have met Bourdain indicate he's a really nice guy.
Bourdain being guest judge understandably made the Buddha team nervous. Bourdain has done a lot of traveling throughout Asia and knows that kind of food well. Bourdain comments that the gastropub menu seemed safe. "Mai Buddha," on the other hand, could be a disaster or a home run. Given the team's past, what do you suppose happened?
The judges headed to Warehouse Pub first. Guest judge was Jose Andres, a chef from Spain. Stephanie, who was working the front of the house ina dress that was way too low cut for her, greeted and seated them.
The beet and goat cheese salad (a combination I love) and linguine with clams received high marks. The two main courses are trout with cauliflower and lamb "squared" - loin and braised shank. ("Squared" must be the same as "two ways" from previous seasons.) Both received high marks from the judges.
The dessert course was interesting to me, because the two chefs I've pegged for the finale, Stephanie and Richard, went head to head. Stephanie's dessert was a savory Gorgonzola cheesecake served with a sweet potato puree and concord grape sauce. Padma said she thought she'd hate it (which was also my reaction), but she loved it. Ted gave her points for difficulty.
The other was Richard's banana scallops with chocolate ice cream -- identical to a dish Richard did a few episodes ago, plated slightly differently. To be fair, this photo doesn't do justice to his plating, because the ice cream has melted. But the judges commented on the plating, which was a paintbrush smear of chocolate ice cream topped with some kind of a garnish and a quenelle of chocolate ice cream.
"I'm not a fan of the smear," said Bourdain.
"Especially not brown," said Ted Allen. "It reminds me of the New York City sidewalks."
Bourdain said the cilantro with the bananas didn't work for him, and I have a hunch I'd feel the same way -- probably because I don't like cilantro.
Over the course of the season, Stephanie has successfully made three desserts: banana bread with meringue and caramel sauce, a beautiful chocolate wedding cake, and now this one. Desserts are usually avoided by the chefs, and she has done a great job with three of them. Richard has done one and repeated it. Advantage: Stephanie.
Next the judges moseyed over to Mai Buddha. The first comment was on the decor.
"Silver and purple?" cracked Bourdain. "I feel like I'm in the back of Prince's van."
"Is it more Prince or Aerosmith from the mic stand?" quipped Ted. OK, this rocker doesn't get it .... someone want to fill me in?
First course: Lisa's Spicy Shrimp Laksa soup and won tons. The judges love the won tons but pan Lisa's Laksa.
Next comes a braised short rib that they love, and Dale's scallops with butterscotch sauce, which they hate.
"It's like Willy Wonka scallop," says Bourdain.
The dessert course is Dale's Halo Halo, another repeat dessert. The dessert has an avocado component, which turned brown when Dale made it, and it seemed to put him in freaked out mode for the rest of the evening. What if the Halo Halo had gone as usual?
Bourdain found the Halo Halo familiar (what wouldn't be familiar to him?), while Jose liked it, enough to wan to put it in his next cookbook. Padma calls Lisa's mango sticky rice an atrocity, and the rest of the judges seem to agree.
The winning team was the gastropub. And the winner was Stephanie! I'm not sure why they chose her over the other two, but good for her! She wins a culinary tour to Spain.
It clearly came down to Lisa and Dale for elimination. Spike kept his nose clean in the front of the house and was very willing (to the point of being gleeful) to distance himself from the culinary failures of the team.
Spike's true colors were revealed when the judges asked who picked out the tablecloth and napkins. Spike, who had heard the judges' quips, answered that all three did, even though it was clear from Lisa's and Dale's eye rolling that Spike did it. And lo and behold the judges said they liked the front of the house, and Spike couldn't take credit! Ha ha!
In the end, it was Dale that was sent home -- disappointing, because his skills should have landed him in the final four. All it would have taken was any of those minor elements to go a different way, and it probably would have been Lisa who was eliminated. I would have preferred to see the surly Lisa go home, because she has been on the chopping block several times, but I don't think it was unreasonable that they eliminated Dale.
But the biggest surprise of the whole episode was Dale sobbing at the end. Totally unexpected. I suspect that some of that was pure exhaustion, but it also showed how much he wanted to win.
I once had a coworker, Jane, who had a saying that some people's emotional pendulums swing wider than others. Some people -- like Stephanie -- have a relatively narrow emotional pendulum. Her reaction to winning isn't dramatically different from being in the bottom three -- she operates on an even keel. Dale has a wider emotional pendulum -- ranging from being thrilled to meet Chicago Bears legends to being furious when his team lost the relay race. When I worked in advertising, I too was known for my wide emotional pendulum, so I could relate to Dale. There's nothing wrong with having a wide range of emotions, but you do need to be able to keep them under control. It's too bad that Dale's inability to do so may have gotten him eliminated before his time.