This week, the Top Chef: Chicago crew takes on the venerable Windy City institution of the block party, with varying results. We learn that playing to the audience is a dangerous endeavor, that you’ve got to be careful what you call your dish, and that a couple of people need to learn to shut the hell up before Tom Colicchio lunges across the judges’ table and throttles them with their own tongues.

I don’t believe in fine-dining spoilers.

Our guest judge is Rick Bayless, who challenges the cheftestants to take the Mexican street-food staple, the taco, and reinvent it as something that could be served in a fine-dining restaurant.

Eric gets spanked for a plate that "looked sort of like a train wreck." Eric is unrepentant: "I don’t think fine dining and Mexican go together, so he can go screw himself." Eric: You’re wrong. You’re really, really wrong. Go to Topolobampo and get back to me — it’s been a while, but I’ve had some phenomenal fine-dining Mexican food there.

Lisa serves a taco featuring rare skirt steak, which I so chewy that Bayless can’t gnaw his way through it. Doh! And Ryan loses points for wrapping his taco up with paper — not fine-dining presentation.

Bayless loved Andrew’s plantain and duck taco and Spike’s ground pork and tomatillo tacos, but he gives top marks to  Richard, who went for the outer limits. Richard uses shaved jicama for the taco shell, and it looks more like a burrito than a taco to me —  but since he mercifully doesn’t say "molecular gastronomist," I’ll give him a pass. Bayless praises it for being simple, tasting like Mexican street food, and coming in a package that’s pure fine dining. That’s why he’s going to add it to the menu at Topolobampo. Not bad.

Spike is pissy — how could Richard win when Bayless said such nice things about me? It’s not fair! Spike is starting to get on my nerves.

Elimination Challenge
The cheftestants divide into two teams and are taken to some random neighborhood in Chicago. (I can’t catch any street numbers, so I can’t narrow down the ‘hood. Grrr.) They’re told to gather food from the folks on the block and use those supplies to cook for 100-odd people the next day at the annual block party. Whoo-hoo! Bring on the bouncy castle!

Team Blue decides to cook for the judges — they want to make an upscale menu, something that smacks more of fine dining than backyard barbecue. Team Red decides to cook for the people — they’ll make tastier or more creative versions of block-party favorites.

During the party, a couple of dishes fall flat — Erik’s corn dogs are soggy after sitting in trays for two hours, and Nikki’s mac-and-cheese dries up. But for the most part, everyone seems to be having a great time. Team Red definitely wins at the entertaining aspect -Ryan and Andrew shoot hoops with the kids, Spike gets in the dunk tank, hilarity reigns. But folks? It’s not Top Block Party Host. Don’t get cocky.

It turns out neither approach is completely successful. Don’t get me wrong, the food both teams serve looks a hell of a lot better than what I usually see at Chicago block parties, but the judges are still underwhelmed. They call Team Blue first, and read them the riot act: It wasn’t that good! We expected more from you! A couple of dishes sucked! Oh, and by the way, you won. Poing?

The two dishes that got the most criticism are Nikki’s mac-and-cheese — Bayless said it was  "a brick" — and Richard’s paella. Tom complained that the paella was just a pilaf — sure, it tasted ok, but  it didn’t have the yummy crusty bits from the bottom of the pan. If you advertise something as a paella, that’s what discerning diners are looking for. I can’t help but think that if he’d called it a pilaf, he wouldn’t have gotten that grief.

Stephanie nearly has a heart attack when the judges ask her what she did. Um, the drink and the dessert? She needn’t worry — the judges pick that fruit dessert with cinnamon-sugar wonton crisps as the best thing on the menu, and say it pushed Team Blue over the top. Stephanie wins again. Yay, Stephanie!

Team Red is incredulous that they lost. Spike and Andrew immediately start spouting off — we were cooking for the people man! They loved us at the block party! We worked well together, tasted all the dished, and we rocked! So there!

Yeah, but… Ryan’s Waldorf salad was watery, Erik’s corn dogs were a soggy mess, and as for Zoi’s pasta salad …. "Everybody tasted Zoi’s pasta, and everybody thought it was good?" Tom asks. "Then you guys collectively have really poor palates, because it was bland, it was oily, it had no flavor at all." Ouch.

In the end, the judges decide to boot Erik — he does corn dogs in his restaurant, and he should have known better than to make them when they’d be sitting around getting soggy and nasty. Zoi and Ryan live to chef another day…

Highlights, thoughts and odds and ends:

  • Spike was just pissing me off this episode. His little rant to the judges when Team Red lost was too much. Just because YOU have refined palates and, like, really taste things doesn’t mean that the untutored masses don’t like our stuff! Judge Ted Allen (Wheee! Hi, Ted!) is having none of that: "Regardless of whether you guys are making a jelly donut or duck breast, I think we can still tell if it was done as well as it can be or not."
  • Ted expands on that idea later: "If you think you’re playing to the crowd and not the judges, you’re condescending to that crowd." Rick chimes in: "And to tell you the truth, good food sells to everybody." Amen.
  • Andrew. You’re just not going to make it easy for me to make up my mind about you, are you? First, you’re all goofy and adorable when you talk about sending Ryan out to gather ingredients from the neighbors: "Ryan’s a pretty boy and he speaks well… so he can say hey, I’m tall, dark and handsome and I need some grapes." And then you do a weird tantrum at the judging, making me fling things at the TV. Pick one, ok?
  • I’m actually surprised that Zoi wasn’t the one to go after Rick’s review of her pasta salad: "If you can go to any grocery store and buy a pasta salad that’s going to be more satisfying, that says a lot right there."
  • Much as I worry about Team Red, I have to admit the s’mores-on-a-stick thing was brilliant: They toasted individual marshmallows with a chef’s blow torch, then rolled it in crushed graham crackers and drizzled with chocolate. So cool!
Posted by:Sarah Jersild