May 29, 2008

Top Chef Chicago High Steaks

***spoiler warning***
When rail was king, Chicago was known as the "Hog Butcher for the World". This week's theme and challenges were made for this Midwest city. The episode begins this week with clips of the contestants mooning over how close they are to the finals. Stephanie is especially excited over the potential for all three finalists being female. Perhaps Stephanie is really excited about the possibility that Richard will slip up and get eliminated? She has to know he's her biggest competition.

The two part quickfire challenge begins at the Allen Brothers butchery. A dry aged rib rack awaits each chef and they are given 20 minutes to carve out 7 tomahawk steaks, a ginormous frenched rib eye. Spike mentions he's part of a butcher's family and whizzes through his carving. When the time is up they return to the Top Chef kitchen and are introduced guest judge Rick Tramonto (beware, obnoxious music plays on his site). Each chef is then given another 30 minutes to cook one of their steaks medium rare. Various methods are employed by the contestants. Antonia finishes her steak in what has to be 2 pounds of butter! Poor Richard bemoans the fact that with only 30 minutes he's not going to be doing his steak sous vide, but pulls out a torch in the end to improve his steak's crust. Tramonto reviews the cooking of each steak as well as the butchery of the uncooked. Richard and Stephanie both under cook their steaks. Antonia's butter bath works in her favor and she receives an honorable mention for the steak's crust. Spike's wise decision to use the oven to finish his steak along with his superior carving earn him the quickfire win. Finishing a steak that thick in the oven treats it more like a roast and allows for more even cooking. It's a smart move on his part.

Padma reveals that the elimination challenge for this week will be to take command of the Tramonto Steak and Seafood restaurant for dinner service. Each contestant will be required to use the supplies at Tramonto to create an appetizer and an entree for a fully packed house. Spike's advantage will be to choose a unique protein for both of his dishes. The contestants go home for the night and are seen chowing down on steak dinners. (I'm hungry.) The next day they head to the restaurant. The interior does look beautiful. Spike makes his pick scallops and the aforementioned tomahawk. The other contestants make their selections and begin prepping for service. Both Richard and Stephanie have chosen sweetbreads and beef tenderloin. Is this a sign they aren't afraid to go head to head? Antonia decides to make an egg and bacon salad for her appetizer and a bone in rib eye for her entree. Lisa makes disparaging remarks over Spike's choice of frozen scallops and picks shrimp and NY strip. When he opens the scallops up, Spike begins to worry and spends time attempting to dry them off. Chef Tom Colicchio looks over the contestants prep and more ominous comments are made about the frozen scallops. He also produces his patented Colicchio flinch when Lisa mentions she's making peanut butter mashed potatoes. I can't blame him, it sounds awful to me. She shrugs it off and claims she knows what she's doing. Colicchio pokes at Richard and wonders if he's playing it too safe. Richard's defense is the restaurant's steak house theme. Further along during prep, Lisa has to bring up "sabotage" again when she gets a little too toasty in front of the wood burning oven. Her whining is generally ignored.

Before dinner service Colicchio announces that he will be expediting this evening and introduces them to their VIP guests. Out pop Harold, Ilan and Hung, the winners of previous seasons of Top Chef. They offer their advice for the competition: be true to yourself (Harold), don't shave any one's head tonight (Ilan) and don't worry about being the fan favorite (Hung). Service begins and each chef is told to create tasting plates for the judges and VIPs. Stephanie and Richard's dishes are enjoyed by all with the sole complaint of Richard's steak cooking being inconsistent. Antonia's salad is well executed but doesn't wow them. Her entree is deemed very rich but good. Lisa's grilled and chilled shrimp come under criticism. She pulls off the peanut butter mashed potatoes but her accompanying steak is flawed. Spike's scallop dish falls flat. He couldn't save the frozen scallops and the dish itself is lacking in texture and flavor. His tomahawk is commended for its execution but the plate itself looks far too spare. Its honeyed sweet potato side is deemed too sweet as well.

The chefs complete their dinner service and leave to go to their last judging in Chicago. Stephanie, Richard and Antonia get positive assessments of their dishes. Both Lisa and Spike have their appetizers critiqued. Spike pushes it a little too far in arguing that if Tramonto had the frozen scallops they shouldn't have been so bad. He has a point but isn't diplomatic enough in the way he brings it up. The contestants are sent back and the judges deliberate. Spike regrets his comments and fiddles a set of worry beads. The contestants are called back in and Stephanie's dishes are both deemed excellent and she takes the win. She receives Tramonto's latest book and a full kitchen of GE Monogram appliances. Even if she doesn't win in the end she has definitely collected some good loot from her various wins! Richard's appetizer is praised and he is in for the finals. Antonia gets her spot for her entree. Finally the choice has to be made and Spike loses his place in the finals to Lisa.

It's off to the finale in Puerto Rico for Stephanie, Richard, Antonia and Lisa! From what I've seen I think Richard and Stephanie are very nearly equal in great ideas, but Stephanie definitely has had more slip ups in execution. Antonia seems like a solid player and deserves her spot but I just don't see the same spark in her. Lisa is my least favorite. I haven't been intrigued by anything she's made all season. In addition she seems like she cooks to please herself not to create pleasure and excitement in others. I find her very much like her antagonist predecessor Tiffani from season one. She does serve to create drama in the show. We'll have to wait and see if there are any surprises in store.

This week's winning dishes: Veal Sweetbreads and Beef Tenderloin with Salsify Puree

Update: I always write my posts before I read other blogs but here's more info I found on the scallops from Hungry Magazine. Turns out Tramonto's not responsible for the scallops, Bravo is.