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The Purloined Purée

This week on ‘Top Chef D.C.’

Marc Tracy
July 29, 2010

The episode begins where the last one left off: With talk of strategizing against Kenny. “Would you rather for Kenny to go home,” Kenny asks rhetorically, “or Amanda to go home?” He is referring to the other chefs, who would presumably want the stronger chef (Kenny) out of their way. Speaking as a viewer, I would rather Amanda go home. But then again, speaking as a blogger focusing on Top Chef D.C.’s Jewish aspects, I need my Amanda Baumgarten fix like these chefs’ seared bay scallops need haricots verts. Sorry, them’s the breaks.

The Quickfire Challenge features Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Illinois), the youngest member of the House and, as featured in the New York Times, possessor of a killer six-pack. (Also, he recently voted against repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Who exactly does Bravo think its viewers are again?) Congressman Schock is here to give us an ethics lesson. Wait, we’re getting an ethics lesson from a politician? You know the ethics those guys have, it’s like a notch underneath child molester! (Related: Is it ethical to lift quotes if you provide a handy hyperlink?)

The challenge requires putting the flavors of a whole meal onto a toothpick, in keeping with the relatively new law that allows lobbyists to serve legislators only toothpick food. Winner gets not only the usual immunity but, additionally, $20,000. This really is a lobbyist-themed challenge!

“I notice Amanda,” says one cheftestant. “She doesn’t seem like she really knows what she’s doing.” Yes, in more ways than one.

(By the way, if any of these chefs understood how D.C. politicians worked, they would be using some ingredient—really any ingredient—from Illinois. “That corn whose kernels are currently getting lodged in between your teeth? Why, that particular cob was grown in wholesome, family-owned soil 100 miles outside Urbana, yessiree it was!” You could just grab any old corn husk and say it was from Illinois! What do they care if you’re lying, they’re politicians.)

Amanda serves lamb kabob with heirloom tomatoes and salsa verde. Turns out lamb is one of Schock’s favorite meats. Alex Reznik, the other Jewish cheftestant, serves pan-seared scallops with crispy bacon, strawberries, and basil essence. I render surprise that he didn’t pair his usual trayf with some fruit that was cursed by a rabbi specifically to be made un-kosher. Schock puts Alex on the bottom. “It had kind of a lot of flavors going on,” he says, “and I didn’t enjoy it especially.” Dude: An Illinois farmboy just told you your bacon sucks. Mazel tov.

And the winner is … Angelo! Kenny grimaces as Schock tells Angelo that eating his food was like “fireworks in my mouth.”

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs will serve a D.C. power lunch at, in host Padma Lakshmi’s words, “the historic Palm D.C.” Yes this one is more historic even than the literally 27 other Palms. More historic even than the one a few miles away in Tyson’s Corner! (Reality check: The Palm, on Connecticut Avenue a little south of Dupont Circle, actually is where lots of the deal-making is done, because official D.C. is classy that way.)

The chefs draw knives for proteins. Alex gets salmon, “and a million things go off in my head,” he tells us. “You can serve it raw, medium rare, poach it, grill it.” He is talking to us as though he is Dr. Seuss: One fish, two fish, rare fish, blue fish.

Amanda draws porterhouse. “I’ve never cooked a porterhouse steak before,” she says. (Um, I’m pretty sure I have.) “So I have zero intention of serving a porterhouse in that elimination challenge.” And there Amanda is, dutifully slicing the filets mignons and New York strips off the bone.

Okay, now you have to pay attention: You are about to embark upon l’affaire purée.

That night, at the Kalorama manse, Alex announces that he still doesn’t know what he is doing. He still has not decided which of the many captivating methods to use for preparing his salmon. (It is not clear what he was doing during the two hours of prep time?) Offhandedly, Kenny mentions that Ed, who is doing lobster, is preparing a pea purée. Alex processes this, as you can see below.

Hold that thought while we cut to The Palm. Kelly, the other porterhouse-er, has some thoughts on Amanda: “I think Amanda needs to go home. She’s not very experienced, and she shouldn’t be here right now.” Kelly is upset that Amanda didn’t bring salt, and is instead asking to borrow hers; Amanda is upset that Kelly is being stingy with her salt. Then, Alex asks Amanda for salt, and Amanda says she only brought enough for herself. You know, Amanda, I’m being paid to root for you, and I don’t think I can do it much longer.

Alex has finally decided how to prepare his salmon—or, more to the point, what to serve alongside it. He is going to make a pea purée. “My whole gameplan”—the one he lacked as of the night before—“depends on pea purée.” Wait, isn’t that exactly what Ed’s doing? And, hold on a minute, Ed wants to know, has anyone seen his pea purée? It seems to have gone missing … .

Seriously, Ed can’t find it, even as Alex’s lusciously green purée has suddenly materialized. Hrmm. Ed wonders whether someone took his purée. Whoa. “Alex didn’t conceptualize his dish until the day of,” someone notes suggestively. Oh my. Did Alex steal the pea purée? How can we ever know? I mean, it’s not like there were SEVERAL CAMERAMEN DOCUMENTING THESE CHEFS’ EVERY MOVE.

Meanwhile, the bigwigs file in. Oh hi John Podesta. Oh hi Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia). Oh hi conservative MSNBC host Joe Scarborough. Oh hi Mika Brzezinski. Oh hi Luke Russert. Amanda presents “what I’m calling a duo of New York steak and filet mignon,” which is what normal people call a porterhouse shorn of its defining central bone. They are accompanied by pommes parisienne, which, as I understand it, is how they prepare potatoes in Prague. There is also some arugula, which all the Republicans are obliged to dislike because they are people of the people. But both parties can get together on the subject of Amanda’s steak: They love it. The lovely Gail Simmons compliments her sear. A good sear! See, you can screw with your ingredient, and if you put a good sear on it, it doesn’t matter. Only Scarborough, ever the contrarian, likes Kelly’s more.

Here is Amanda making nice with Sen. Warner. Forget it, Amanda: He is a married man!

Andrea serves Israeli couscous alongside her swordfish. All the politicians comment that while they do not agree with everything about this dish, it is nonetheless a strong, vital ally.

Alex serves applewood smoked salmon with black forbidden rice and, of course, English pea purée. Oh, look, everyone loves the purée!

Angelo, who is almost certainly the best chef standing, serves lobster with lobster foam. Joe Scarborough doesn’t like it. “I’m not a foam man,” he says. “Maybe the top chefs are doing it in Europe, Spain, wherever.” But this is Amuhricah. You heard it here first: Lobster foam is socialist.

After dinner, the talk of the chefs is how everyone thinks Alex took Ed’s pea purée. Naturally, Alex responds to this accusation forcefully in an aside with the camera: “Some people think I took Ed’s pea purée,” he says. “But you know what? It’s really coincidental that Ed couldn’t find his purée.” And that is the extent of Alex’s defense. In one great political book called All The President’s Men, this would have been known as a non-denial denial. You know who made non-denial denials? All the president’s men, that’s who. Haldeman and them. The ones who went to jail.

Alex continues tying his own noose: “I didn’t even know he was making a pea purée,” he insists of Ed. Here, Top Chef D.C.‘s producers, bless their hearts, helpfully flash us back—in black and white and with subtitles, no less, like an America’s Most Wanted re-enactment—to Kenny telling Alex, the night before, that Ed was making pea purée. So we know that Alex is a liar. That thing you saw running out of your grasp? That was the benefit of the doubt, buddy.

Bygones may end up being bygones on this one, because of what happens next: Alex and Ed have two of the judges’ three favorite dishes. The guest judge, a local chef, praises Alex’s fish, it was cooked perfectly. Then the rough part: With Ed sitting right there, biting his tongue, the guest judge continues on about “that wonderful pea purée.” “I could’ve just eaten a whole bowl of that,” he rhapsodizes. “It was simple, yet it had great flavor.” This must be like torture for Ed! Fortunately, lots of people in Washington, D.C., are okay with torture.

And the winner is … Alex! “You gotta cook for your own heart and your own soul,” Alex says afterward. “It’s gotta be your food on the plate.” You miserable prick. That said, the chefs clearly were enamored with the way Alex cooked his salmon. And Alex did not steal Ed’s salmon. He just stole his pea purée. Ed, thoughts?

Amanda is not in the bottom three, but her arch-nemesis Kelly is. Kelly starts crying. Her steak was—wait for it, no just wait for it—too salty. Others comfort her. Amanda’s responds thusly: “Kelly didn’t share her salt. I guess that’s what happens when you don’t share.” Then she makes this face …

… and adds, “She deserves to be on the bottom.”

Not today; today, Andrea is saying sayonara. But karma’s a bitch, and the two Jewish cheftestants are severely tempting its vigilant wrath.

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