Last night’s Top Chef managed to combine the irksome, the noble, potatoes, whining, winning, and slab bacon. You knew it would be a good episode when the Quickfire involved a man named Mark Peel and a magic mountain of potatoes — Russian banana fingerling! Purple! Sweet! — and still the producers resisted the temptation to make some sort of pun with his last name. At any rate, chefs were asked to harness the inner essence of a potato. Jennifer Carroll won the challenge, predictably, because she’s the best chef. But the real winner was Ash Fulk who, for once successfully passed off unset ice cream as custard — and the judge bought it. Then it was off to the hangar.
The Elimination Challenge consisted of cooking for 300 airmen and their families, stationed at the Nellis Air Force Base. Chefs knew neither their ingredients nor the equipment with which they’d be cooking. Bearded Southern angel Kevin was in ROTC and says he knew there would be canned goods and no ranges, but during a midnight plenary session the night before he kept his mouth shut. Instead, it was the world’s worst man, Mike Isabella, who came up with the good idea to split into teams of two and anoint Jennifer Carroll as executive chef. Maybe the only good idea ever to come from that guy.
In the morning, contestants were driven to Nellis — “It was so cool, it was like going to war,” enthused Isabella — where they discovered everything was in cans. Preeti mentions that 9/11 made her want to be a chef. “When it happened,” she says, “all I wanted to do was cook.” Clearly the woman was being set up for a fall. Those who chose braised and roasted meats did better. Michael V. treated slab bacon like pork belly, braised it, and blew Tom Colicchio’s mind. Kevin and Ira made potato salad and pork shoulder. Those who made stupid things for a hot day did not do nearly as well. Piteous dunderheads Ron and Jesse — the fat kids no one wants — made chowder. The producers could find only one soldier who liked it; he was from Boston. Preeti and Laurine made pasta salad. Mike Isabella followed Voltaggio’s slab bacon with a cockamamie Greek shrimp salad. The troops, however, seemed to like everything. There was much warming of the heart.
Mind-blown, Colicchio tapped M. Voltaggio as the winner as Isabella vainly tried to take credit for the dish. Slow-motion Lakshmi then asked baby-mind Isabella to come back with the other losers, Preeti and Laurine. Criticisms included that (a) the dish was pasta salad, (b) the dish was bland pasta salad, and (c) a reiteration of the dish being pasta salad. The judges collectively tried to get either Laurine or Preeti to throw the other under the bus, but the women held up admirably. Laurine acted the penitent, saying she wasn’t happy with the dish. Preeti, however, defended her dish, like a good soldier would. Mike Isabella swayed a lot and acted in general like a buffoonish little kid who got in trouble (which he did, and which he is). In the end — and this is also the entire premise for our justice system — remorse counted more than maintaining innocence. Mea culpa crying Laurine was left to muddle on another day while Preeti “Let Me Die in My Footsteps” Mistry packed her knives and went back to the Google cafeteria, bowed but not broken.