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Of Tragedy and Testicles

This week on ‘Top Chef D.C.’

Marc Tracy
July 22, 2010

This week’s guest judge is Miami-based Michelle Bernstein, who, according to her Website, is “of Jewish and Latin descent” (much like Miami). But already we see that this guest judge is not like any other guest judge: “Michelle and I are both chefs in Miami and there’s a bit of a rivalry between the two of us,” says Andrea, one of the not-Jewish (but still perfectly likable!) cheftestants. “So I guess I’m probably not comfortable with her judging me.” Are you sure that’s the source of the rivalry? Are sure it’s not that you look exactly alike?

The Quickfire Challenge involves cooking with odd proteins. Testicles are funny! (And they look like lima beans, at least duck ones do.) The cheftestants draw knives to determine picking order, and the two Jewish cheftestants get to select, respectively, first and last. “This is an easy choice for me, I’ll take the foie gras,” says Alex Reznik. “This one’s right up my alley,” he adds. Alex, you see, has special access to the joys of foie gras, despite it being literally the favorite substance of literally every foodie ever. Still, give him credit for picking something that, though it probably isn’t in this particular instance, at least could potentially be kosher. Usually he goes straight for the trayf.

Amanda Baumgarten, picking last, is left with emu egg, presumably because the only people who like emus are designers of crossword puzzles, who tend to find those two concentrated vowels quite helpful. “I’ve never cooked with emu eggs before,” Amanda says. “I’m having a little pity party for myself in my head.”

So the chefs start brainstorming and preparing. But wait! Host Padma Lakshmi comes back in, and tells everyone that they are now to cook the protein currently being cooked by the chefs to their left. A switch, a switch, I say! Everyone is pissed—except for Amanda, who is now working with llama (Cuidados! Llamas!). “I kinda feel like back in the saddle. It actually works out for me.”

And Alex? We’ll let him describe it: “Ostrich meat: Kinda [bleep’d].” By the way: Ostrich, not kosher.

Alex serves his ostrich barded in caul fat and basil with mushroom duxelle (whatever that all means? it sounds like something Falstaff ate). Amanda roasts her llama (taboot taboot) and serves it with a sauce, and a date and bacon compote.

Guest judge Michelle Bernstein tastes one chef’s frog legs. “The frog legs were pretty much insipid,” is her take. They reminded her of her ex-husband! Alex’s “ostrich was rather dry.” He lands on the bottom—as does Michelle’s doppelgänger, Andrea.

Amanda, meanwhile, lands in the top three; but the winner is Kelly, who ended up having to cook … wait for it … Amanda’s emu egg. (She made an omelette, duh.) The pity party in Amanda’s head has migrated to the much cooler bar down the street.

The Elimination Challenge is a “cold war”—serve a cold dish. For inspiration, the chefs go for a boat ride. Because it’s cold outside? No, because they’re cruising on the U.S.S. Sequoia, the onetime presidential boat on which Kennedy held meetings during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Which makes sense: As everyone knew at the time, if the Soviets ever bombed, you were either to duck and cover or sit on a boat in the Potomac River, and you would be miraculously saved.

Meanwhile, here’s the catch: The chefs are split into two groups, and each group will taste the others’ dishes, and select a favorite and least favorite (with the judges choosing the ultimate winner and the ultimate loser out of the two final twos).

“I don’t think anyone has grasped the gravity of the situation,” Amanda says of the chefs-judging-chefs arrangement, allowing us the benefit of her unique insight. “No one understands how hurtful, vulnerable, and scary the impending challenge is.”

Hurtful, vulnerable, and scary, eh?

Lots of the focus at this point is on Angelo’s penchant for giving everyone advice, which his rivals believe is actually a part of some insane Machiavellian plot—which, given that Angelo is comic-book evil, it almost certainly is. However, he still reserves special time for Tamesha, who, in an almost moving way, seems to be the one chef Angelo isn’t trying to manipulate, but actually genuinely cares about. This guy, kinda interesting!

Amanda, cooking Chicken Galantine: “I run into a few technical difficulties.” What else is new, ask I?

And what else is new, asks Tamesha? “Amanda, as usual, is running around quite a bit,” she says. “Just take a chill pill. Please.” Fair enough. Tamesha continues: “I could probably strangle her in a heartbeat.” Oh! Va fongool! Or the equivalent Yiddish phrase!

Our two Jews are on the same team. “Amanda gives me a little piece of the Chicken Galatine to try,” Alex says. “I think there’s a little cartilage, but I’m not gonna say anything. It is a game.” Hey, if it’s between sinister and creepy, I’ll take sinister.

Judging time. Um, yes, Andrea, maybe you and Michelle Bernstein have a rivalry because you were both rising female chefs in Miami at the same time. Or maybe it’s because you look and dress exactly alike. Ahem:

Amanda serves Chicken Galantine with mache and plum and marsala compote. Yes, marsala is a type of alcohol.

Alex serves sous vide lamb with red beet purée and tzatziki.

When it’s time to say who their least favorites are, Angelo begins by going after Kenny, who is clearly the other top chef this season. God, what a nightmare Angelo can be. And then three other chefs follow his lead! In fact, of the five chefs on this team, only Andrea doesn’t agree with Angelo that Kenny’s dish was the worst; instead, she chooses Amanda’s, because she still has Chicken Galantine cartilage lodged behind her upper molars. But wow, how about Angelo!

Anyway, Amanda and Alex are safe; their losing teammate is Kenny. The other team’s loser is Tamesha. So who’s going home? It’s Tamesha.

I’ll say this: Sad-face for Angelo, who emotionally hugs Tamesha, the one person he had some sort of human contact with, good-bye. What makes this so poignant is that you could argue it is partly Angelo’s fault: As a matter of strategy, he went to take down the strong Kenny; and because Angelo is so successful at manipulation (and, maybe, because Kenny’s dish was uncharacteristically poor), the judges’ final decision wasn’t between Tamesha and Bad Chef X (there are still plenty surviving), which would probably have saved Tamesha, but rather between Tamesha and the strong chef Kenny. Basically, Angelo is Romeo that time when Romeo gets his friend Mercutio killed while Mercutio is trying to kill Juliet’s brother Tybalt on Romeo’s behalf. “Why the devil came you between us? I was hurt under your arm.” Angelo as tragic figure? It’s by far the most fascinating thing about this season.

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