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Top Chef: The Loneliest Clone

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Before we kick off one of our more queasily emotional Top Chefs ever, let's talk about last week's "Watch What Happens Special," a strange, stilted reunion show of sorts, with a few people from each season there.

Our hosts were Padma, Tom and Gail, plus Ted Allen (although he's only been guest host like, what, three times?) and Andy Cohen.

We had Harold, winner of season 1, Ilan, winner of season 2, but sadly, no Marcel. We've got Leanne and Dave from season 1, Cliff and Mike from season 2, and Lea, Sandie, Micah, Camille and Clay from season 3. Ilan and Mike are decked out in tuxedos. On Mike this is charming, on Ilan it seems annoying.

The best thing I learned is that Padma is actually pretty hilarious. She's got a really dry sense of humor (although that might be the pot) and some amazing, laconic delivery (although that might be the pot.)

We learn that Micah's mother is American and Tom says "finger point" a lot. There's a plug for Perilla, which got some pretty good reviews. Tom nicely says that Harold is a "chef's chef," which must be a pretty amazing compliment coming from a chef you hold in high esteem. I'm curious that Harold and Ilan were here, but no Marcel. Padma says Marcel is on a "fishing trip" and couldn't come. I'm not sure if that's code for something a la Brokeback, but I read that Harold said he didn't want to come to the reunion but was contractually obliged, although that might have been the cooking show reunion, not this one. So it's interesting Marcel isn't here. I wonder if he got out of it because Cliff, the would be barber from Hell was there?

There are some shots of the casting tape, and I find that Marcel is actually cute without his crazy mad scientist hair.

On Gorgeous Sam's casting tape, who is now even more handsome and less Fabio with his new short hair, he says "If I could make love in duck fat I would make lots of love in duck fat."

Duck fat sells out in supermarkets across the nation.

Ilan, ever spiteful, manages to shit on both Sam and Frank -- joking that Frank was hired for his looks, and saying (on a taped segment from the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen) that Sam "surrounds himself by woman because he's insecure." Sam looks baffled. Ilan squirms. When they ask Ilan what's next for him, he sidesteps, saying: ""I'm still in a whirlwind, traveling a lot, doing a lot of demos across the country. I can't commit to anything because I've got too many things going on."

We also find out that Tom is a "Bear" icon.

The best line of the night is from My Man Tom, who says that the camera "puts on 10 pounds of bitch."

That explains all those photos of me!

Anyway, enough of these navel-gazing shenanigans! We're finally back to real episodes.

Our newest opens with:

"Stormy Weather"

No bikini shots today. This makes me sad. At this point, it doesn't even feel like it's Top Chef without some lithesome blond scampering down the beach. We do have the usual shots of people waking up: Malarkey is in bed with a hat on. I know people did that in colonial times -- so they didn't get the croup or something -- when there was no heat. But I hardly think that's an issue in 2007 Miami.

Anyway.

We have some voice-overing from CJ, who comments on the dwindling number of people and the fact that it's getting more competitive.

There is a dramatic, lingering shot of Joey at the balcony, as he voice-overs, "You do whatever you have to do to survive another day here....if that means throwing someone over the bus...or over the balcony..." !!

The chefs go to the competition kitchen, where they are greeted by Padma, and our guest judge, "Rocco Dispirito....in all his Rocco glory" someone sneers. The chefs seem a little leery of Rocco, who Padma announces is a James Beard winner (nothing to sneeze at!) but who we probably mostly know from his TV show and his travails on Page 6. During the show, my friend texts me that she wants to marry Rocco. To me, he looks a little too smooth...dare I say, Botoxed.

Rocco starts off by saying how the chefs need to stay curious about food, which is both a rationalization of his partnership making frozen dinners for Bertolli Pasta, and a lead-in to our quick fire challenge, which will be a Culinary Bee!

The chefs will be shown a food -- they either need to taste it to guess, or they might get a food that they have to identify just on sight. Howie says he loves this quick fire, because he's really "more of an academic...a thinker." A thinker who bellows and rages his opinions at everyone, that is.

Joey says, "You've got Padma there looking all sexy, and this asshole next to her!" Which kind of makes me suspect that Joey is secretly funny. Perhaps editing has been severe. I'm feeling contemplative about our man Joey. He's pulling ahead in the clone race for my teeny-tiny bitter bloggy heart.

Hung does well on a few rounds but then is eliminated when he identifies a food item without even bothering to taste it. After tasting it he gets it right, but it's too late! There is a bit of schadenfreude going on amid the chuckling chefs. Malarkey says of Hung "He's a younger chef....got a nice little ego with him." Or, as CJ puts it, "He came off like such a douche!"

In the end it's down to Howie, Casey and Malarkey and then just Casey and Malarkey. Casey wins the challenge, and immunity, by correctly tasting and identifying roasted red bell peppers.

The elimination challenge:

To make a Mediterranean, Italian style frozen dinner that will be cooked in 10 minutes at a grocery store for diners to try and take home. The chefs have two hours the night before to prep, and then an hour the next day to prep before they go to the supermarket to cook.

A special prize is two tickets for each chef to go to Italy! Joey would like to send his mother and sister to Italy. I actually believe him. I've taken some accusations of snobbery for not liking Joey and Howie, but it's just that I cannot deal with yellers. But I think Joey secretly has a heart of gold. Joey! My teddy-bear!

They draw knives for teams of two, and are given some Bertolli Frozen Dinners (courtesy of Rocco, this week's product-placement Jezebel) to examine for clues as to how to make them.

The teams are:

Casey and Dale

Tre and CJ

Howie and Sara M.

Hung and Joey

Sarah and Malarkey.

CJ, safe in the arms of Tre, looks at Hung and Joey and comments "That looks like an absolute meltdown."

Sara M., staring at her partner, says diplomatically "Howie is a little bulldoggish."

Hung has a positive view on his pairing with Joey, saying "His family background is Italian, and I understand the science behind it."

Dale and Casey are as happy as can be. They do seem like BFFs. Dale says, "We instantly clicked."

Malarkey and Sarah seem like they'll get along, but Sarah does remark, "We have totally different styles...I'm a lot more simple with my food."

Which brings us to the duo of rage: Howie and Sara M. They are, of course, not positive. Howie, in fact, says, (paraphrasing....it's a bit hard to get all the vitriol)... "Sara is kind of negative...kind of a whiner..." then he works himself into a real lather "...people specifically like SARA think my food is too simple to be good...but people like SARA don't realize that putting a bunch of bullshit on a plate does not make you a chef!" Then his head explodes.

Off to the Market:

Everyone seems to be buying chicken, except for Howie and Hung, (they get shrimp) and Dale and Casey, (they get pork and turkey to make meatballs.)

Tre and CJ decide to class up their frozen chicken dinner with the addition of expensive black truffles...which isn't actually expensive because they smartly use black truffle butter! Huzzah!

Howie and Sarah are deciding on pasta -- Howie is deeply insulted by the tri-colored pasta Sarah picks up: "I would never cook with it...that's the cheesiest, corniest pasta that you see in every buffet table in every schlock house across the country." Can't he just say no? Although I like his use of the word schlock house.

Sarah lets Howie call most of the shots, saying, "I don't like confrontation."

Howie voice-overs, "I'll be damned if I'll go home for someone else's inability to work as a team."

Prep Time:

Dale and Casey picked things specifically they knew would freeze well, such as pesto and meatballs. CJ and Tre are working along happily enough. Hung is psyched because he "understands the science behind" the frozen pasta, which is to cook and freeze everything separately.

Howie and Sarah are cooking but Howie seems to be in a silent rage. Sarah remarks, "He's not easy to read at all." I would say she's just ignoring the hatred in his eyes.

It's true, though, that she is passive aggressively asking him a lot of little chiding questions, like "did you season the sauce? Did you portion it correctly?" This is probably because he didn't let her make any decisions at all and now she's pissed. Howie voice overs, every gallant, "where the fuck do you get off?!"

Tom (bear icon) is here!

He goes around, to and fro, as is his wont, interviewing chefs. Malarkey, of the cutesy hats and even cuter names, is making "Trojan Chicken Rigatoni" -- which sounds frightening.

CJ shares his strategy with Tom, that they are going to freeze everything separately and then cook it together at the supermarket.

Joey remarks to Tom that he's "teamed up with Flash Gordon" as Hung bangs around the kitchen. Joey is, as Tom says "plodding along." To be fair, everyone plods along next to Hung, who is a whirling dervish of culinary bravado and anxiety.

Hung says that "I'm constantly reminding him that we need to individually freeze everything." Joey says, "Hung starts to get under my skin a little...(but) it's not the end of the world." I'm actually impressed by these two, they've kept it pretty civil. However, unfortunately Joey then just plops everything together, to Hung's horror, and freezes it. Hmm.

Tre, who is being especially charming this week, with a voice as smooth and rich as butter, and CJ are getting along swimmingly. They've managed to cook their chicken without drying it out at all, which I guess will be very important for freezing and then reheating later.

Tre: "It's true what they say about black folks...black folks know how to cook chicken." CJ and Tre are the only team to freeze things individually. This baffles me! This also baffles Hung. Dale says, "Hung is pissed off...it's not looking good right now."

Back at the House:

Howie is trash talking Sara M. to an under-enthused audience. He really is the biggest trash-talker on the show. Cut to Sara M., who is -- hysterically -- in the hot tub topless (or in a strapless bikini), and angrily puffing away on a cigarette, a glass of wine next to her. I think if I were paired up with Howie, that is exactly how I would end my night also -- unconscious. But, in all seriousness, drinking and smoking is such a bad combo in a hot tub. However do they do it on all those dating shows?

Howie is saying, "Maybe I gave her too much leeway..."

Meanwhile, Sara M. is actually voice overing something kind of nice about how they are both good chefs even if they don't work well together.

Howie, ever gracious, continues, "I wouldn't hire her to work in my kitchen...I wouldn't hire her to wash dishes in my kitchen! With that attitude....she thinks way too much of herself."

Prepping the next day, all the other teams except Tre and CJ have nothing to do -- they just have frozen bags of food. If I were them, I would have smashed my frozen bags of food (which are all icy, hard blocks) so that they would be easier to cook. CJ and Tre are meanwhile, cutting up frozen sheets of sauce into cubes, etc. Hung peers jealously at their quick-freeze operation. "At that point, I knew we were in trouble."

At the supermarket, prepping food for the shoppers, Tre and CJ are noticing how everyone has to frantically cook their frozen foods at high heats. As Tre says, "They just put that shit in a ripping hot pan over there." CJ and Tre don't even need the 10 minutes to cook. They put their food in after four minutes. They've made a "Black Truffle & Parmesan Linguini with Grilled Chicken, Tuscan Kale and Tomato confit."

Dale and Casey make "turkey and pork meatballs with orecchiette, vegetables and spinach almond pesto."

Hung is depressed. "I started tasting the pasta, and it's mush." I guess overnight, the pasta absorbed the sauce before it froze.

Howie and Sara M.'s Mediterranean shrimp pasta with fennel & sun-dried tomato vinaigrette is not winning a lot of praise.

The Judging:

Rocco starts off with a comment about the great chefs of the world starting to explore frozen food or something. Tom looks kind of mortified. I wonder if there is a back story here? Is it just straight up contempt?

The top two teams are, unsurprisingly, Casey & Dale and Tre & CJ.

Tom and Rocco get into a throw down over whether the meatball in Dale and Casey's dish is even Mediterranean enough (I would guess Tom feels it's more Italian-American) and then a throw down into whether truffles are Mediterranean enough (I guess he feels it isn't Italian-American enough!)

CJ retorts that he's had black truffles even in Sicily, and Tre remarks that Italy is known for its black truffle hunting. I did read a great article in the New York Times about a year ago on truffle towns in Italy, and the truffle pigs.

Rocco says the meatball he had was still a little frozen inside, but they do like the dish. He says their pesto was "one of the most balanced and beautiful pestos I'd ever seen."

CJ and Tre, however, are clearly in the lead because of the IQF factor, the Individually Quick Freezing.

The winners? Tre and CJ. Dale and Casey clearly want to go to Italy, (Who wouldn't? I went to Ponza in May and never wanted to leave.) but they look very happy for them.

A nice foursome!

The four worst:

Howie and Sara M, and Hung and Joey.

During the commercial break, Bravo does a poll of who the viewers think is the most annoying chef. Hung wins at 60 percent! Howie only had 22! I'm surprised. I guess I'm out of touch with America -- I would say Howie is more annoying, but I do hate bullies.

Anyway our foursome of antipathy goes to the judging table.

Hung says that the problem with their dish was the pasta was mush, because they didn't individually freeze every time. They judges give him some flack for blaming Joey, but who else is he supposed to blame? And it's true that Joey didn't listen to him. Joey says that Hung should have "slammed down a cutting board" and insisted that they freeze it. Which is kind of annoying. If Hung had done so, I'm sure they would have gotten into a fight and Joey still wouldn't have listened. However, I will say that Joey and Hung don't get into it with each other that much. I think Hung looks genuinely unhappy to point fingers - his face is all mottled and red. And Joey doesn't seem to take in personally.

Unlike...say....Howie.

Sara M says, "We had a problem with the sauté pans, it was a big block of ice...we did it half way, I think we should have frozen everything separately."

For some reason, this enrages Howie and he goes on a crazy rant about how all she contributed to this dish was fennel. Howie says, "I shut my mouth to be a team player!" Then he justifies his rant by saying, "If the cat's out of the bag, the cat's out of the bag!"

Sara M says, on why she didn't speak up more, "I'm not going to get into a shouting match...I was going to be civil."

Back in the holding pen, Howie sits apart from the chefs and shouts at Sara M. She says, "I was not stabbing you in the back. I you feel that way, I'm sorry." I would say if there was any back-stabbing there, it was Howie.

Rocco, however thinks that Howie's explosion "produced a lot of good information." Really? How so? And how do we know it's true, Rocco?

Howie, meanwhile retorts, "it's like every fucking five minutes you've got bullshit coming out of your mouth." CJ kind of sticks up for Sara M and then Howie and CJ get into it a little bit.

The four return for judging.

Tom sums up (paraphrased):

"Hung -- you claimed to know what had to happen, someone you couldn't
convince your partners that was the way to go...top chefs are leaders."

"Joey -- maybe you got too far ahead of yourself...you weren't working well with your teammate. "

"Howie: you talked about focusing on flavors, focusing on making a great dish. I don't think that happened."

"Sarah: you still didn't convince me you gave it your all here."

Joey, please pack your knives and go.

Look closely -- because this is where Joey's big, oozy, generous heart breaks.

Tom says something that sounds genuine about Joey being a great guy. Joey actually hugs Hung goodbye in a 'no hard feelings way' that immediately makes me like him tons. He voice overs that he didn't want to "go out screaming like a lunatic," which I support. And then we get to

THE SADDEST EXIT IN THE WORLD. He breaks down! He cries! He talks about how he bonded with people, and he'll miss them. Joey -- you had my heart at last. And now you're gone. Farewell, my teddybear.

Farewell.

Some resources:

Grub Street on Top Chef

Joey thinks Rocco is a "douche-bag"


Rocco doesn't mind