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No Jews In Space

This week on ‘Top Chef D.C.’

Marc Tracy
September 02, 2010

“Amanda left yesterday,” Kevin helpfully reminds us. “I didn’t think she’d make it this far.” So there are no more Jews, but as long as Top Chef D.C. goes on, so will these round-ups. And we have, like, three or four more episodes in D.C. to go. Right, guys?

Wrong! “There’s one more challenge in D.C., before the finale,” someone says. Wait, what? They’re leaving D.C.? Have they really run out of gimmicky political and indelibly local things to do? (Realizes they’ve done The Palm, the C.I.A., Capitol Hill, Ethiopian food, the Chesapeake Bay, Nationals Stadium, and even Bethesda.) Okay, fair enough. You have to watch a bit more to find out where they are headed after this episode, though. Or you could just keep reading.

Ooh, but first, we learn a little more about Angelo’s mysterious marital situation, which appears to consist of a Russian bride whom he talks to more than the rest of us talk to girls (five hours most nights!), only he does it by phone and has only met her “a few times.” Apparently he was divorced last year; apparently his passion for cooking was part of the problem. It got in the way of the relationship!

Only Host Padma Lakshmi read the black-tie fineprint at the bottom of the invitation to this episode.

She is joined by Dana Cowin, the editor-in-chief of the elegantly ampersanded Food & Wine magazine. Ed is friends with her on Facebook! Such an insider! He is also friends with Sam Sifton: Not Sam Sifton, the Times restaurant critic, but Sam Sifton, this guy he went to high school with.

The Elimination Challenge features the pairing of food and & wine. Winner gets a trip to London. Kevin is making pork belly. Kelly is making boar. Angelo is going with foie gras (nice). Ed is mixing grape juice and beer, he calls it Sparkling Beer-Wine; no, he’s doing Wagyu beef. Tiffany’s doing rib eye. They are spending a lot of time showing them cooking, probably because the loud Jews are gone and the producers have no more content.

Kevin’s pressure-cooker didn’t do his pork belly properly, and now as a consequence he must, yes, cook under pressure! This is a very dialectically useful pressure-cooker. With the pork belly out of the question, Kevin’s gambit is to grab a pigeon from the windowsill and start defeathering grill quail. Cause when you hear “I have seven minutes to cook and I must pair what I cook with red wine,” you think quail. What, you don’t?

Time to eat and judge. Kevin’s on the bottom, obviously. So is Kelly, whose blue cheese foam took her otherwise-good dish “off the chart,” according to Cowin—“off the chart,” you see, is bad, as opposed to “off the charts,” which is good. Dana Cowin is a lover of food, wine, & linguistic nuance.

On the top are Angelo and Tiffany. And the winner is Angelo! “I haven’t won in three challenges,” Angelo says. Which is like eight challenges for normal people, and 72 in dog years.

Now it’s time for the big reveal. Which place-that-isn’t-D.C. will the four cheftesants remaining after this episode travel to? It’s …

… Singapore? Wait. Okay. They’re going to Singapore? In fairness, I have heard Singapore referred to as the “D.C. of Southeast Asia.” Or maybe that was Phuket. Anyway, at least Angelo is happy: “I feel Asian inside, 100 percent. I tingle inside just to think about it.” Maybe you should get that checked out by a doctor! (Sorry, I feel obliged to insert what little Jewiness I can.)

But we still have this episode, and surely there’s one more gimmicky-government-D.C. button they haven’t pushed yet? “We’re sending you,” says Padma, “to NASA.” Yup, there it is.

Now the chefs are receiving instructions from astronauts aboard the International Space Station. This is actually kind of cool. Apparently their favorite meal up there is chicken fajita, which is extra handy, as you can see, as a flotation device, should you ever find yourself drowning in outer space.

The challenge? “Design a dish that’s truly out of this world.” Oh, I get it! The Top Chef writers were really proud of that one, I bet. Winner’s dish gets prepped and freeze-dried for space travel down in Houston, and then gets sent up for the astronauts, the aliens, and all the other denizens of outer space, like Larry King. “Shoot for the stars!” the cheftestants are advised. The writer who came up with that one didn’t have to pay for pizza that day.

Oh, and one more thing: Buzz Aldrin is a guest! This is also cool, although he is going to have to work extra-hard to top his next most recent TV appearance.

The guidelines for the dish include not using too much sugar (doesn’t freeze-dry well) or large pieces of ingredients (ditto); and, spicy is good, as is comfort food. Angelo is horrified that his sugar use will be limited. He was planning on making candy canes, with extra sugar!

Back at the kitchen. “You guys missed it,” Kevin says after Tiffany slips. “Tiff did the moonwalk.” Get it?? Kevin, no matter what happens, know that you just made a place for yourself on the Top Chef writing staff. Angelo says it would be “extremely embarassing” not to go to Singapore, what with him having recently beaten the Chinese premier in a who’s-more-Asian gameshow, and so he has carefully drawn up instructions, adopted from Alex Reznik’s recipe, for how to steal Ed’s pea purée. (Actually, I don’t believe Angelo ends up making pea purée after all. So much waste of a perfectly good Sharpie!)

Angelo tells Tom he’s doing glazed short ribs, and Tom gives him a look, and then Angelo wants to know what that look was all about, and Tom says, Nothing and mutters something about what Angelo is factoring in from what the NASA person told them, and Angelo says, Look, I am consciously using less sugar, and Tom is like, Well but I was hoping, and then Angelo is like, Why do you always have to undermine me in front of the cameras, and Tom goes like, You are just acting insecure because your father never showed his love for you but I am not your father, and then Angelo screams, GOD you ALWAYS DO THIS, ugh.

Kevin says he has to think “outside the box,” and then announces he is making New York strip with bacon-jalapeño marmalade and corn purée, which sounds fairly standard to me, but I don’t eat pork so what do I know? I didn’t even know that jalapeño is a fruit!

Uh-oh. Tiffany’s mussels have frozen, and are therefore unusable. Who would have thought they would freeze in the freezer?

Now we’re at the Ronald Reagan building downtown. It’s a small kitchen—Ed says they’re having … no just wait for it … “spacing issues.” Spacing issues! Tiffany is dealing with the mussels conundrum by just sorta working around it, I guess? Oh sure, Top Chef producers, pour on the inspirational syrup: Have Tiffany tell us how she started as an IHOP hostess (see what I did there with syrup?), and she was told women couldn’t work in the kitchen, and that just made her work harder, and look where she is now. Oh jeeze.

Meanwhile, Buzz Aldrin is just cooler than you. He looks great at 80, he helps Padma Lakshmi into her chair, and—and here is where he beats even Salman Rushdie—he walked on the moon! “How was that feeling,” Tom asks Aldrin. “You know, it’s funny,” Aldrin replies. “No one’s ever asked me that before.” Kidding! His response is, “Magnificent.” Hey Russia, remind me, which of our countries got to the moon first? It was you guys, right? Or maybe it was us who beat you there? I can’t remember.

Kelly is having plating issues, but here her dish comes. She’s talking, and the camera pans over the judges, who include several astronauts. Padma, yeah, there’s Padma … Buzz Aldrin—Buzz frickin’ Aldrin!—giving the thumb’s up … Eric Ripert, he’s here for this one … Anthony Bourdain, that’s nice … Tom … Wait. Hold on. OMG. No, OMFG.

It’s Anthony Bourdain! Okay, sorry but I love Anthony Bourdain, and if you don’t, you probably just haven’t seen his show yet (much less read the excellent Kitchen Confidential). Anyway, anyone who’s job description is “Chef/Author/World Traveler” is going to be the one with the coolest job description at the table, or rather at any table where someone else’s job description isn’t “astronaut.”

Kelly serves pan-roasted halibut with artichoke and fennel barigoule (barigoule? don’t mind if I do!) and salsa verde salad. Aldrin likes it, but they wonder how they could ever freeze-dry something with so much excess liquid.

“Well,” Tom quips—get ready for this one—“if they can put a man on the moon, they can probably figure it out.”

Such a quip! Here, let me try: I mean, I’m sure they can manage to freeze-dry it, it isn’t rocket science! The quipping is contagious! I have the hic-quips! Okay I’ll stop now.

Next is Ed. “I took us on a trip to Morocco,” he announces. Didn’t you hear them, Ed? You’re going to need to take Buzz Aldrin to Saturn to impress him. But your yogurt-marinated rack of lamb with eggplant purée and couscous croquette, plus some hummus (why not?), looks alright. Tom likes it; Ripert doesn’t. Anthony Bourdain, entertain us!

“I just want to express my disappointment with my comrade the Ripper over here,” Bourdain says. “I’ve been to Morocco, and I think Ed nailed it.” Eric Ripert, Chef; Anthony Bourdain, Chef/Author/World Traveler. Guess who wins? (By the way, there is an awesome No Reservations where Bourdain and Ripert cook on the line at Les Halles, Bourdain’s kinda-crappy Park Avenue South bistro, and Bourdain can barely keep up with his lowly cooks, while Ripert, naturally, is a genius at it. Anyway.)

Meanwhile, the diners are kibbitzing like pros. Aldrin says he still has his spoon from Apollo 11. One astronaut says she was up in space with a cosmonaut who was there for a year, he went up when it was the Soviet Union and came back when it was Russia. “Sounds like a sitcom to me,” Bourdain says. Can you do wrong, Bourdain? (Although, technically, this was a movie.)

“If I would have done something different,” Tiffany says, “I would’ve had my mussels on the plate.” Yes, well, that we knew. What do you have? Pan-seared Alaskan halibut with coconut curry, snow pea shoots, and jasmine rice. Ripert is not loving it. But Bourdain likes the fish sauce.

And now comes Angelo, with ginger-lacquered short ribs and horseradish crème fraiche. Tom thinks it is too sweet, although he likes it. Ripert likes the pickled mushrooms, but they are just a tiny too acidic. Monsieur Bourdain? “Well I’m shocked by Ripert’s dark, cynical, snarky, and negative worldview,” he replies. “It’s all about love and optimism for me now, because I thought this dish was very sophisticated, and might actually be adoptable to an extraterrestrial situation.” Never leave us.

Back in the kitchen, Angelo feels “like I just put my heart on the plate.” Which would explain the extra acidity.

Judges’ Table! “The difference between the winner and loser is really small,” Tom says. How small, Tom and Padma, who seem to know the precise length?

Thank you.

They go through them all, and they like them all, but maybe Tiffany’s is a little less than perfect—even Bourdain wanted a stronger taste from the fish. Kelly’s turn is kind of great: Tom says her artichokes were cooked “as nicely as I’ve ever seen an artichoke cooked,” and then Ripert asks if she’s ever been to Provence and learned its technique—turns out, she has—and Ripert, one of the world’s greatest French cuisine chefs, concludes, “It shows.”

Now, Angelo’s turn. “I felt like I made love to [the short ribs],” Angelo says, talking about how he just kept glazing and re-glazing them, over and over, just really getting exhausted and sweaty and glazing them all night long and then again in the morning, twice. The antidote to Angelo is, obviously, Bourdain. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he says. “Really, I just know that I loved it.”

Bourdain thinks Kevin played it a little safe with the sirloin. I mean, it is just sirloin. Kevin replies that he was going for comfort food for the astronauts, which is the most compelling back-against-the-wall rationalization in the history of the show.

There isn’t a clear loser. “It’s so close that it’s all subjectivity at this point,” Angelo philosophizes. Deep. Ripert’s favorite dish was Kelly’s—“I think she cooked without safety net.” But Tom and Bourdain point out that it wasn’t a particularly original dish. Ripert’s response? “It’s a classic.” Meanwhile, Tom and Ripert love Kevin’s sirloin, while Bourdain thinks it’s boring. Tiffany is in trouble: Cooking the pea shoots killed the freshness. Clearly they’re nitpicking, or “splitting hairs” if you prefer Tom’s simile, but someone’s gotta go home.

Bourdain—can I call you Tony?—announces the winner. It’s Angelo! Tony clearly pulled rank (rank of awesomeness) on this one. Angelo also gets a copy of Tony’s new book, Medium Raw, which, I mean, go buy a copy, it’s by Anthony Bourdain, it’s gonna be good.

And the loser is … Tiffany.

Kevin thanks Jesus (boy we really are the past the Jews, eh?). Tiffany is crying. The others are pretty ecstatic, except Ed is also sad, cause he and Tiffany were besties. “She just knew how to cook,” is his Hemingway-esque epitaph. On to Singapore! Wait, Singapore? Why Singapore? D.C., D.C., how we shall miss thee.

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