Top Chef: A Riddle Wrapped in a Protein Wrapped in an Enigma Wrapped in a Protein

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Photo: Courtesy of Bravo

Last night, the Top Chef judges decided they were done sweeping contestants like Robin and Jersey Mike under the rug, and they could finally welcome the likes of Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud into their little party. First, though, some human interest: It seems the Brothers V. are doing all of this for Mom, Kevin is doing it for his girlfriend (and Jesus), and Eli is doing it for … Richard Blais? Anyway, onward! Café Boulud chef Gavin Kaysen looked about three feet tall next to Padma — somehow her outfit caused us to picture her spanking him with a riding crop. The chefs are to pay tribute to the dish he made for the 2007 Bocuse d’Or finals — a ballottine of chicken, with chicken liver, foie gras, and crayfish. No mention of the fact that, owing to a mishap in which a dishwasher accidentally ate two of Kaysen’s sides, his platter placed fourteenth. In any case, everyone had 90 minutes to make their interpretation of a “protein in a protein in a protein” (shame on This Is Why You’re Fat for failing to get a plug on the show).

Kevin thinks he and Eli are ballsy to serve up home-style food (in Eli’s case, a bacon-crusted sausage with a six-minute egg in the center; in Kevin’s case, slightly overcooked catfish fillets wrapped around shrimp and scallop). Bryan, who wraps a rack of lamb and a Merguez sausage in caul fat, is diplomatic about what he calls Kevin’s lack of finesse (“simplicity is okay if you do it correctly”), but his brother, less so — “The food Kevin cooks is the food that I cook on my day off.” And Kevin isn’t the only one Michael is better than. When Kaysen tells Michael his chicken with turkey and bacon mousseline is more of a terrine than a ballottine, Michael is like, “He didn’t say make a ballottine. And if he said that, I’m pretty confident it would’ve been as good as the one he probably made in the Bocuse d’Or.” So there. Meanwhile, Jennifer takes the competition by playing to her strengths via a calamari steak, scallops, and salmon (accompanied by a saleh, i.e., a salad). She gets to tack on 30 extra minutes to the four hours she’ll have to compete in the subsequent “mini-Bocuse.”

The challenge: Create a presentation platter with one protein (a choice of lamb or salmon) and two intricately prepared garnishes. The judges include Thomas Keller and his chef Tim Hollingsworth, Daniel Boulud, and a delectably décolleté Gail Simmons. Alex Stratta and Jerome “Son of Paul” Bocuse are also there — both could probably beat even Amanda Freitag in a dour-expression contest. The prize: $30,000 and the opportunity to compete for the U.S. in the Bocuse d’Or (or rather, the opportunity to compete for the opportunity to compete for the U.S., but unlike protein in protein in protein, that would’ve been too hard to explain).

The chefs had so much fun wrapping stuff in other stuff during the quickfire that they decide to do it again, and they go nuts crusting everything, too. Kevin decides he’s going to do something he’s never done before and asks the nice brother how to sous vide his lamb saddle. We see disaster ahead — Kevin sous viding is like Dylan going electric. This could go very wrong, or it could be genius — and Tom Colicchio knows it when he checks in on Kevin in the kitchen and begs him with his eyes not to eff this up. To make matters worse, Kevin totally shirks the obligation to prepare his garnishes in an elaborate manner, saying he’s going for complex flavor instead. He simply poaches a lamb loin in caramelized lamb fat and olive oil. But, phew, the judges like it, even if it’s “a little elementary,” and after freaking out that he might be going home, Kevin gets the surprise win.

Another bad sign: Bryan’s nervous laughter when he says he’s hoping his braised lamb shank and parsley-crusted loin turns out okay. He’s doing in four hours what he’d normally do in ten, so it’s no surprise when his lamb ends up tough and undercooked. But the judges see where he was going with it, and they’re impressed with, among other things, his garlic chip made by spreading garlic purée over acetate and dehydrating it. He gets a “nice technique” from Keller which is the equivalent of getting a “nice ass” from J.Lo.

Meanwhile, Michael appalls everyone by describing his salmon loin paired with a cauliflower-chickpea tart plus a zucchini tsatsiki as Mediterranean, and “very traditional, very classic” to boot (what the hell is classic about cauliflower cous cous, Tom wonders). To make matters worse, there’s a bone in the salmon, something that would’ve been a fatal fail at the Bocuse. But he’s saved because, other than the bone, his protein was well cooked.

Jen gets in hot water (har har) for using hotel pans to slowly cook salmon in water and butter, in an attempt to make the fish cooked on the bottom but rare on top. Her salmon comes out uneven and Tom gives her the lecture on poaching fish that Eric Ripert apparently never did.

Eli’s sausage-wrapped lamb loin was also undercooked to the point that there were inedible chunks of fat in it. The judges at least liked the yogurt foam that topped his carrot purée, and Tom seemed to say it was Bryan’s dish that was at the bottom, but in the end, Eli was the one to go. He didn’t get to do Richard Blais proud, but it was okay, because at least he didn’t lose to that stupid Robin. Let’s admit it, you had to feel for Eli when he choked up a bit, but the fact is — we’ll never have to hear him say “small, sexy, and tight” again.

Next week, the cheftestants take a train to Napa, and Padma has bangs.