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Ethiopian Cabbage

This week on ‘Top Chef D.C.’

Marc Tracy
August 05, 2010

We begin this week where we left off last week: L’affaire purée. “I had no idea Ed had pea purée,” Alex Reznik, the thief and one of two Jewish cheftestants, says. This is a lie. He really is daring those karma police. “I don’t care what anyone else thinks. Now I feel good—I won the last challenge. I want to get out there, I want to cook.”

And Ed, whose purée was (probably) stolen? “I’m not angry about the pea purée, I’m just confused. Did somebody take it or throw it away? I’m perplexed.” Dude: Alex took it. And won. But he won primarily on the strength of his impeccably cooked salmon.

“When you watch Alex cook,” Kenny observes early on, “it’s like he’s throwing darts at a wall, and it doesn’t work. I think he’s probably the weakest one right now.” This we shall see.

As the chefs walk into the kitchen, even I recognize the guest judge: It’s Marcus Samuelsson, who is famous. Host Padma Lakshmi introduces the Quickfire Challenge with a bit of a lecture on Washington, D.C. “It’s a mecca for global cuisine.” This is false! “But there’s one country that dominates the food scene: Ethiopia.” This is actually true!

Create an Ethiopian-inspired dish, that’s the challenge. Use berbere. Lots of berbere. And honey wine! Actually, there is no honey wine, which is a shame, because that’s my favorite part of Ethiopian food.

I’m guessing honey wine is Amanda’s favorite part of Ethiopian food, too, but instead she goes right for the leg of goat. Alex goes right for the beef tongue and the lamb tongue. “I grew up lower-middle-class,” he says, immediately making himself authentic and therefore likeable. “So my grandmother would go shopping, and she’d buy lean cuts of meat, like tongue, and she’d make stews to develop their flavor.” Astute point: You can make such meats taste good only by putting lots of time into their preparation. Which must be why you selected them for the Quickfire Challenge.

Alex grabs the last remaining pan of some kind from Kelly. “Gotcha!”

For his dish, Alex presents beef and lamb tongue stew, with cabbage and potatoes. “I don’t eat a lot of spicy food,” he admits. “I didn’t know how spicy to make it.” “It’s not spicy at all,” Padma admits right back. Basically, Alex made unspicy tongue with cabbage and potato. Which should sound familiar—he made Jew-food. But hey, they said Ethiopian; they have Jews! Tell me I’m wrong!

Amanda makes stewed goat on grilled injera, which is something Ethiopian. Marcus likes it! In fact, it turns out to be one of his three favorites, and its Samuelssonian epithet is “Absolutely fantastic exclamation mark” (he doesn’t actually say “exclamation mark,” but you can hear it in his voice.) And one of Samuelsson’s least favorites is Alex’s “too dry” stew. Shocking. The winner is Tiffany, whose Ethiopian food was so clearly Ethiopian that it was called goulash, which is a type of Hungarian stew.

The Elimination Challenge involves a geography lesson: Padma and Samuelsson bring out a map of the world. “You never know what’s going on, they tell you nothing here,” says Alex. They have puzzled Alex and me both with this latest maneuver. I wonder if there is any latent connection between the number of countries on the map that are highlighted (nine) and the number of contestants remaining (also nine)? Alex and I will have to ponder this for awhile.

“I’ve spent my entire career studying French food,” Amanda tells the camera. “I want French.” (Oh I forgot to mention, but, for your and Alex’s benefit: The challenge is to cook 100 portions of a dish representing the cuisine of one of the listed countries for emissaries from that country. They draw knives to determine choosing order.)

Amanda scores her beloved France; Alex gets Spain. “I’ve been to Spain,” he says. I’ve traveled through Spain extensively.” Don’t tell him about Spain; he knows all about Spain. (He loves the hostels.)

Amanda is making boeuf bourguignon with pommes fourchette and horseradish mousse. She takes care to enunciate every single one of those Frenchy-French syllables the way they do it in the Third Arrondissement. “It’s something that’s so simple”—and yet so hard to pronounce!—“and so often done poorly, but when done properly can really shine,” she says.

Here is a picture of Alex tripping!

“Alex is just a spazz,” says Ed. “He has no technique.”

He also has no more space in his food-transporting container. “Does anyone have room in their hot box?” he asks.

“There’s actually not room in my hot box,” Amanda replies. [Marc, keep it clean. –Ed.]

It’s game-day, and Amanda is panicking. “My beef’s really dry and I’m not happy about it. I’m going to fix it by cutting it smaller, making sure my sauce is delicious.” Alex starts eating all his food, because I guess he’s hungry? Save some for the Spanish, dude, they will want to eat your Catalan borscht and potato pancakes too.

Guest judge is José Andrés, of Oyamel and Zaytina and Jaleo (two Jaleos actually; yup, there’s one in Bethesda). The one chef who actually does make D.C. an authentic foodie mecca! Oh it is going to be epic when he gets to Alex’s Spanish dishes.

Alex did tapas: Braised veal cheeks, jamón torta (there’s the standard Alex trayf) with olive, and tomato salad.

“He is trying to do the torta española. It doesn’t work,” says Andrés.

“He just needs more focus in the dish,” agrees Marcus.

“I was just hoping for a little bit of a punch, and everything was just a little bit muted,” notes the lovely Gail Simmons.

“You guys, just admit he can’t cook worth shit and get him off my television screen forever,” add I.

Next is Amanda. “Bonjour!” she says. Why is she speaking Finnish to them? And: “Why did she choose to cut her meat so, so small?” (Oops.)

“I like the flavors overall, but the beef was a little bit dry,” says some stuck-up Frenchie.

“I used the wrong cut,” complains Amanda. “Awful. I’m going home, unless someone else is terrible.”

Have you not been watching this season, Amanda? There is always someone more terrible than you. And indeed, she escapes the bottom three—safe. Alex? Not so lucky. He is called in, along with Stephen and Ed (Ed is embarassed—not that he is in the bottom three, but that he is in the bottom three with Alex. This is vaguely like that Seinfeld when Jerry finds out that not only did the girl he was currently dating once date Newman, but he broke up with her.)

Stephen is taken to task for making chimichurri and calling it Brazilian, when clearly chimichurri is Argentinian. Racist! Also he didn’t cook rice properly, which is equal parts hilarious and pathetic.

“So, Alex,” says Padma, “you won the last challenge, and now you find yourself at the bottom.” Incisive point.

“When I saw the flag of my country,” adds Andrés, “I was like, no matter what, I’m gonna enjoy this dish.” He concludes: “And I wasn’t wrong!” No, no he doesn’t. Actually, he says: “Wow. It was like a little nightmare.” Hey, at least it wasn’t a big nightmare.

“Wow,” Alex responds. “I screwed up. I’m really upset with myself. I got really excited when I heard I was gonna do Spain.” He also notes that he had heard Chief Judge Tom Colicchio say during the cooking process that it didn’t have to be a Spanish dish, just Spain-inspired.

“So you’re saying it’s my fault?” Tom wants to know. Tom is entering his kill-zone mood.

“The sauce was so thin and watery,” Tom explains. “There was nothing that reminded me of Spain. Nothing at all.” Oh, snap.

The chefs leave, and the judges dissect away. “For me, Alex’s dish,” says Andrés, “not because he didn’t represent the country: It was his techniques, the ingredients he chose, quite frankly the way he presented the dish.”

“He wasn’t good enough to make those flavors work together,” Tom concurs.

But Alex is safe! It is Stephen (who genuinely does come across, over the course of the episodes, as the weaker chef) who is going home. Alex is extremely skilled at surviving. Now if only he could cook worth a damn.

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