Top Chef: Chicago takes the chefs to experience the Windy City blood sport of improvisational comedy. Oh, sure, you think it’s easy, but there’s always some smartass in the audience yelling out "Octiron!" and "Existential angst!" and "Durian!" during the suggestion phase. Granted, that smartass is often me, but the point stands.
This spoiler comes with nutella.
The chefs are greeted by a table full of desserts and pastries: It’s time for the dreaded dessert challenge. Guest judged by Johnny Iuzzini sums up the cheftestants and the challenge nicely: "Some of them came into it excited by the challenge, some of them came in already defeated by it."
Spike decides to be ambitious, making a pineapple rum raisin soufflé. He gets points for chutzpah, but the dish itself doesn’t taste great. Antonia, who was dreading this challenge, "tried to make" (her words) a lemon curd brûlée with lemon cake. She failed. Mark makes mini pavlovas with laced with wattle seeds, but the little meringue pillows hardly add up to a whole dessert.
Lisa gets a shout-out for her yogurt with fruit puree, which seems weird to me — how much work did she actually do? Apparently it was summery and light, and the berries were perfect, so what do I know. Dale got praise for his halo-halo (a Filipino shaved-ice dessert), the only dessert he knows how to make. Richard went high-concept (surprise!) and came up with a banana "scallop" with chocolate and guacamole. He wins the challenge and immunity, and his recipe will appear in the Top Chef cookbook.
The crew gets a night off to take in Chicago’s world-famous Second City. If you’ve never been to improv comedy, players solicit suggestions from the audience and work them into their pieces. When the actors start asking for ingredients, the cheftestants know what’s coming: They have to design a meal around those suggestions. And they are:
- Yellow love vanilla: Spike and Andrew
- Depressed purple bacon: Mark and Nikki
- Magenta drunk Polish sausage: Lisa and Antonia
- Green perplexed tofu: Dale and Richard
- Orange turned-on asparagus: Stephanie and Jen
Spike takes this as an opportunity for redemption — I WILL do a squash soup! Andrew is happy to go along with it. Dale and Richard get high-concept, making their tofu perplexing by marinating it in beef fat and surrounded it with a green curry. Lisa and Antonia decide that Polish sausage is way too déclassé for them, and they’ll make a fish dish. They will add chorizo — after all, no one will know the difference, right? In this town? With the largest Polish population outside Warsaw? Trust me — we’ll know.
The cheftestants learn a bit about improvisation — first, all the electric gizmos (food processors, blenders, spice grinders, etc.) have mysteriously disappeared. Second, they’re interrupted in their cooking, told to pack everything up for their home kitchen, and finish and serve there. That many chefs in that small a kitchen? Oy.
The judges adore the soup and are completely knocked out by the tofu. The bacon dish gets raves, but hey, it’s bacon. Duh. The asparagus dish goes wrong — Jen and Stephanie decide to make it a penis joke, which is fine, but the charred/soggy bread makes it hard to eat, and what was supposed to be a ménage a trios between orange, asparagus and goat cheese turns into some sort of tawdry group grope. And the judges are confused by the Polish sausage dish, which contains no Polish sausage. It tastes good, though.
Teams Soup and Tofu get top marks — Team Soup presented something perfectly seasoned, while Team Tofu managed to take one of the most difficult assignments and make it delicious. Team Tofu wins.
Teams Asparagus and Polish Sausage are the lowest rated. Asparagus gets quizzed: What was with the bread? Why make the dish so hard to eat? And why did goat cheese get the money shot, while asparagus and orange served mostly as fluffers?
Sausage also gets grilled — um, where was the Polish sausage? Where was the drunkenness? Why did you get tequila shots when we didn’t? Did you really think we don’t know the difference between Polish sausage and chorizo?
In the end, it comes down to which dish tasted better. Team Asparagus fails, and Jen — who was responsible for the nasty bread component — goes home. At least she’ll be back with Zoi…
Highlights, thoughts and odds and ends
- Richard explains his tendency to go high-concept: "Writing the menus is as important to me as the meal itself." In this case, it worked for him (twice).
- Mark, on their leisure destination: "There’s been a couple of good people coming out of Second City." A couple? Try dozens — from Alan Arkin to Tina Fey. We’re damn proud of our comedy here.
- Personally, I liked Jen and Stephanie’s presentation of their asparagus dish — they played up the penis joke aspect of it in a really cheeky fashion. If only it had tasted good.
- Richard can cook, but he shouldn’t write comedy: "This tofu tastes like beef — what’s up with that?"
- One of the reasons Dale and Richard won the challenge is because they kept complimenting each other, making it clear it was a team effort. Spike, who made it clear that soup was all about him, was not amused.
- Even though they didn’t win, Spike and Andrew’s soup got high praise from Padma: "I would lick my bowl if I wasn’t on camera."
- Mark explains why their dish fits the criteria: "The bacon is very depressed it has to share the plate with Brussels sprouts."
- The Second City judges agree the bacon dish is just about perfect — I mean, how depressed can bacon be? "Maybe they could have made the sauce with their tears…"
- Lisa and Antonia deserved to go this week because, as one of the Second City judges said, "you can’t choose the terms of the challenge because you don’t like the ingredient." Still, it’s kind of a shame they were shopping for Polish sausage at Whole Foods — we’ve got some stores out here where no one speaks English and the sausage would completely blow their minds.
- Lisa and Antonia claim they had latitude in the challenge: "What happened to that word improv and interpretation?" Antonia moans. Antonia, improv means you have to work with what they give you, not ignore everything and do what you want.
- Lisa’s quote is equally telling: "I’m not going to dumb down my food because of what some drunken schmuck screamed out in the audience." Improv is all about taking what some drunken schmuck screamed out and making it a hell of a lot funnier/tastier than anyone could have imagined.
- My final complaint at Lisa: She was shocked she’d be in the bottom two because of a "slight wording thing." Slight wording? Polish sausage and chorizo are different beasts. There’s nothing "slight" about it.
- I will treasure this challenge because it gave me this comment: "The asparagus were meant to be erect?" Hee!