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This week on ‘Top Chef D.C.’

Marc Tracy
August 19, 2010
Alex last night. Spoon!(All photos by the author)
Alex last night. Spoon!(All photos by the author)

Opening thoughts, as always, turn to Alex Reznik: specifically his alleged non-cooking in last week’s Restaurant Wars. “Alex did not put up a dish, I think his team carried him,” says Kevin. “Has he dodged some bullets? Yeah, absolutely, no doubt about it.” Call him Neo. But as Keanu Reeves’ character in The Matrix learned, the trick is not to dodge the bullets, but to not even need to do that. Will Alex realize that? Or will he just, you know, get shot? “I hope Alex either steps up or goes home,” Kevin adds. Me too. Ditto for Amanda Baumgarten, our other Jewish cheftestant. It’s time. It’s past time. Let’s go to the Quickfire Challenge.

The chefs walk in and see Wylie Dufresne along with boxes with question-marks, like those of an uncolorful Riddler. The challenge: Use what’s in the mystery boxes—they have identical ingredients—and incorporate also the ingredients that will arrive in subsequent mystery boxes. Winner gets $10,000. Angelo says he needs the money to help get his fiancée to New York from Russia, which among other things means working out “visa issues.” I am going to give Angelo a pass and not suggest that he has a mail-order bride. Wait, I think I just failed. Oh, well.

They open the boxes and … OH MY GOD! GWYNETH PALTROW’S HEAD! JOHN DOE HAS THE UPPER HAND! Just kidding, it’s fish, fava beans, and a label-less can. “Am thinking,” says Alex, “I wanna show every ingredient, cook it in some interesting way, and create a composed dish.” Congratulations, you just successfully regurgitated the basic requirements of this challenge. “But I have no idea what it’s going to be.” Ah, that’s the Alex we’ve come to know.

The next mystery box arrives, carried by a man in a black suit and tie with dark shades. He is definitely some sort of Secret Service or intelligence agent, and definitely not an attractive model that Bravo hired to appease the 90 percent of its viewers who are straight women, gay men, and bloggers who need joke material.

WHAT’S IN THE BOX? WHAT’S IN THE BOX? It’s squid and black garlic, not to be confused with normal garlic, which is white; Creole garlic, which is purple; and Redskins garlic, which is burgundy and gold. By the way, guys, here’s my suggestion: Use the fish and the squid to make a seafood dish. You’re welcome.

“I’m not sure what my dish is,” says Alex. “I have a million things going on in my head. It’s like a ping-pong match.” In fairness, his head sort of resembles a ball.

The second new box comes in. “Are you kidding me?” asks Alex. Yes, they are! April Fool’s! No, they’re not. This box has ramps (so seasonal!) and passion fruit.

Third new box comes in: Jicama! Amanda just juliennes it and throws it in there. Wow, they are all really hot and sweating! Wylie tends to have that effect on people.

Alex made rockfish with fava bean purée—don’t worry, he didn’t steal it, he only steals pea purée—plus ramp fondue and sautéed squid. “Alex, quickfire, equals bottom,” says Alex. “It’s math.” No spoilers! Amanda has striped bass, squid fricassee, leek and mushroom fondue.

Alex is on the bottom. (It’s math!) Amanda is on the bottom. (Math again!) “That was the most nightmarish mystery box challenge ever,” Amanda says. Most of her experiences with mystery boxes are actually quite lovely. Tiffany wins. Yay.

The Elimination Challenge is “a case of national security,” says host Padma Lakshmi. “You’ve been recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency.” The object is to take over a new identity; which is to say, take a classic dish and disguise it, while keeping the flavors. They will be serving to a group of CIA hands, including Director Leon Panetta, at HQ in Langley. They draw knives to determine the classic dish. Amanda gets French onion soup, Alex gets veal parmesan—which, for the record, are two of the easier ones (Kelly, for example, draws kung pao shrimp).

“The head of the CIA is going to be eating my French onion soup,” Amanda kvells. “I’m going to get recruited. I could seduce some secrets out of the KGB.” You see, Amanda possesses, in addition to feminine wiles and beauty, a time machine. “I’ve always wanted to be a spy,” she adds later, “just cause I would think it would be pretty cool to say my name is Natasha.” I guess you adopt a spy name once you become a spy, sort of like porn names? Here is Amanda saying “Natasha.”

Meanwhile, before Alex was a chef, he tells us, he was a professional videographer. Um, OK. He’s shot over 500 weddings, bar mitzvahs, and sweet 16s. (They let him around 16-year-old girls! Somebody call the CIA! Oh, wait.) “Having only six years of experience can be considered advantageous, because I have an open mind to all culinary styles,” explains Alex. It must be that advantageousness that we can thank for Alex’s perennial bottom-feeding.

Angelo is buying pre-made pastry for his Beef Wellington, which he is going to turn into a pizza, which is admittedly clever. But still: pre-made pastry? It’s like each week a different contestant takes a fall for Amanda and Alex to make sure they are safe. Maybe they are secretly the president and vice president.

And they’re cooking. Amanda is disguising her French onion soup as French onion soup. It’s the whole hiding in plain sight theory. “I know that a lot of people in the house don’t like him, but I like him,” says Amanda of Alex. Of course. “I respect and admire his cooking.”

The object of her admiration is meanwhile actually adopting one of those dumb Italian accents to describe his dish, which is veal parmesan—excuse me, “veal parmesan-o”—stuffed inside tortelloni. “My spy name would be Dr. Zhivago,” says Alex. “My mom always wanted a doctor in the family.” Dammit, Alex! I can’t write punchlines to punchlines!

OK, they are headed to Langley. It’s like a Jack Ryan movie! Cut to shots of the statue of the soldiers atop Iwo Jima, which I guess isn’t that far from there. What they don’t show you is the immortally entertaining sign that you can see on the highway while driving through McLean, which reads, “George Bush Center for Intelligence.”

They’re on a super-secret area, and the CIA has a secret kitchen! Ed says there are little cameras everywhere. Don’t try to steal pea purée here!

Amanda is worried she didn’t disguise her dish enough; she is thinking maybe she should have changed her French onion soup so that, at the least, it was no longer soup. (I can personally say I have eaten French onion soup ravioli at The Continental on the Caesar’s pier in A.C., coz I am classy that way.) “Hellen Keller would be able to guess what the dish is,” Amanda adds. Wow, you know what, I’m not even going to touch that one.

Angelo, meanwhile, is a mess: He is talking in barely coherent sentences about how he has messed up. I have never seen him like this. He didn’t make pizza, like he said, he just plopped some beef on some formerly frozen pastry. CIA Director Leon Panetta detects Beef Wellington immediately. “It’s not very well disguised,” he says. “They would’ve captured this individual and hung him.” Everyone laughs! AhahahahahatheCIAusedtorunblacksiteswheretheytorturedpeoplehahahaha.

Eric Ripert eats his food with a knife. What have you done today?

“It was a Cobb salad that was a salad, it didn’t really change,” is Chief Judge Tom Colicchio’s critique of one dish. Did he like it? “I did like it. But I like Cobb salad. I really do,” he adds, with genuine and inexplicable bashfulness. OK, OK, so Tom and Cobb salad, they actually went on a few dates in the ‘80s before he settled down with Waldorf salad, it was no big deal. Incidentally, my mom thinks Tom is really attractive. How do people feel about that?

Whoa! Panetta just got handed a slip of paper and excused himself! “Business calls,” is what he says. Staged? Actually sort of appears not to be!

It is Alex’s and Amanda’s turn to present. “Alex is talented,” says Amanda, “he just has a problem with his execution. I don’t like to see that he’s overcooked his veal”—which he clearly and inevitably did—“even if it’s good for me.” She continues, “I like Alex. He’s like the wise old Jewish uncle that I never had.” Ah, there it is.

She serves consomme with oxtail marmalade, caramelized onions, and shaved gruyere, which in several parts of the world, such as France and everywhere else, is known as French onion soup. Her eaters weren’t fooled! Although the sweetness of the marmalade went over well. “It was like honey and lemon cough syrup,” says one CIA employee. Oh wait, that wasn’t a compliment. Her soup sucked.

Alex has veal and parmigiano cheese tortelloni with tomato sauce and tempura cheese. “Oh, my God,” says someone upon trying to eat Alex’s leather-tough veal. Someone guesses the dish is lasagna. Whoops!

“I think the veal was as tough as pulling a post in Yemen,” Tom says. Topical! Can’t you picture Tom sitting at home the night before and crafting—crafting!—the perfect joke for the occasion?

Judging time. Tiffany wins. Yay. Neither Alex nor Amanda are on the top … and they are both on the bottom … along with Angelo. Better than even chance that one of our Jewish cheftestants gets the boot tonight. Okay this is legit exciting.

“Onion and cheese, that’s it,” Tom tells Amanda. “And you made a soup.” Make a quiche even, dude! Plus, that marmalade. Oh, that oxtail marmalade. “It was so sweet,” says Tom. “It completely threw off the entire dish.”

The judges’ take on Angelo is, almost poignantly, more of sorrow than of anger (one literally describes the dish as “sad”; Wylie is clearly very earnestly disappointed that he did not get to experience Angelo at his best). Here is this massive talent, given an extremely creative challenge, and he plopped beef on top of frozen supermarket pastry.

And, finally, Alex. “I was excited when your plate came,” says Wylie, “because it was the first that wasn’t really obvious. But it turned out that your disguise was really poor execution.”

Tom is brutal to all three of them. “If there was any disguise, you disguised yourselves as poor cooks,” he says (he spent the night before coming up with that one).

And the loser is …

We’ll miss you, you thieving, incompetent, dishonest, creepy bastard. I mean it.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.