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Top Chef D.C. Episode 12: Bang, Zoom, to the Moon

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To thoroughly enjoy the glory that is Top Chef D.C., we welcome comedian Max Silvestri, who will be here every week to take us through season seven.


What a week for Top Chef, friends. Yesterday was Padma Lakshmi's 40th birthday. She has a new baby, and she looks great! Her eyes don't look a day over always-crazy. Plus, the show won an Emmy Sunday night for Best Reality Show. A total coup, and it reminds us once again that "foodie" culture (barfie) is mainstream.

It was legitimately such a thrill to see Tom, Padma and Gail up on that stage. You go, guys. Especially Gail. What a party monster. I love her so much. You know that while she was standing up there, smiling on the dais, she had a fully-loaded beer bong hidden behind her back. "Put a shot of whiskey in it, Tom. I'll throw up in my clutch, I literally don't give an F. I will punch a cop." Well-deserved, team.


The other blessing this week is Amanda's absence from the competition. What a delight. I didn't even notice it until halfway through the episode when it suddenly hit me why the challenges were so much more pleasant to watch. It's like leaving New York to spend a weekend in the country and suddenly realizing, "Oh yeah. Not every place in the universe is filled with constant din of women and children screaming and delivery trucks back-shifting at all hours of the night. What a change of pace, and what a tragedy I assume the opposite is the norm." Bye Amanda! I don't miss you one bit. Occasionally, when "characters" are eliminated from Top Chef, I regret it, because even if they weren't technically capable, they were fun to write about. Not Amanda. "Whoops I put all my hair in the blender. How do belts work? My voice is loud also pills!"

During the episode's opening, we learn that Kelly misses her husband. His support has allowed her to get as far as she has in her career. Aw. That is nice. We also learn that Kevin dry shaves his neck, which is bad for your skin and someone should tell him that. And Angelo was divorced only a year ago! How did the producers keep this a secret this long? I'm very impressed with their discipline. Only three weeks left and just now we learn he went from wife to mail-order bride in under a year? "Her family believed in saving face. They didn't approve of my profession, that I wasn't a lawyer or a doctor." Saving face? Is that a racist way of saying his wife's family was Asian? Or am I racist for assuming that? Let's compromise and say both.

The judge of this week's final high stakes Quickfire is heavy-hitter Dana Cowin, editor in chief of Food & Wine. She is also Ed's Facebook friend. She gestures to all the wine laid out on the table and says, "10% of wine pairings are awful. 10% are genius. Hit that magical 10%." Which? The genius? Or the awful? No way to know! The creator of the best pairing wins a six-night stay in London courtesy of a company. The winner also gets a meal served to them by Padma apparently, because she is dressed like a caterer.


Angelo is excited to pair wines. He's a total wine-head. "I go to vineyards a lot." What a cool thing to say, Angelo. It doesn't at all sound like something a terribly insecure person would say on a first date. "The only irritating thing about summering in Monaco is how few vineyards there are there." All five of the remaining chefs sincerely express their talent for pairing wines. That makes sense, as they are accomplished chefs working at nice restaurants. "My restaurant only has its daiquiri and root beer license, and I've never tasted wine, so this challenge will be really difficult for me." Maybe that is what Amanda would have said?

Even so, Ed pairs a red wine with a steak, which even I know how to do, and I'm a wine idiot. "You can definitely taste red notes in this red wine, and a hint of it being red, and I noticed raw steak is red, so I think they'd pair together really well because I remember my dad saying that one time to my mom when I was eleven."

Ms. Cowin's least favorites are Kelly's spice-rubbed boar tenderloin, which went off the rails with a blue cheese foam, and Kevin's quail. Kevin meant to make pork belly, which could have withstood the red (I don't even know what that means), but then he screwed it up and switched to quail. On the top are Tiffany and Angelo, but Angelo's foie gras with black salt wins him a trip to London. He is very excited! He hasn't won in a few weeks, and now he feels like he has his mojo back. Maybe he can have his Russian bride visit him in London? I'm sure it'd be very cool to meet her a third time before he spends all his winnings importing her to his "home" country, America.


This week is the final Elimination Challenge before the Finals, and we learn that this year's finals are going international: to Singapore. Woah! That is pretty cool. Angelo, a known Asiaphile, flips his shit. "I feel Asian inside. I tingle just thinking about it." Settle down, hot shot. To review: one chef will be eliminated this week, and the remaining four head to the finals. In Singapore. Which is another country.

The chefs head to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center for an out-of-this-world, etc elimination challenge. The chefs receive a live (not-live) message from the International Space Station. Real astronauts, in space! They are floating and stuff, and they explain some of the freeze-fried astronaut food they eat in space. The food doesn't look great. But let's be real, messages from space are amazing. Space remains very cool. One of the top places to go.


Vickie, a food scientist for NASA, explains the criteria for making a good freeze-dried dish. Spicy food works better. No large ingredients, and don't make it too sweet. Other than that, "you're open to whatever your imagination can come up with." I don't want to dwell on this, Vickie, but can your imagination come up with clear braces? It's 2010! You are not Mark McKinney playing the shy, naive girl Melanie on Kids in the Hall.


Tom visits the chefs as they prep. When Angelo tells Chef he's making ginger lacquered-short ribs, Tom smirks. Angelo gets nervous. Tom talks to everybody else, and smirks at everybody. Ed's making Moroccan lamb. Tom doesn't think there are any Moroccan astronauts, and then he smirks. Kevin says he's going for a more mainstream, comforting dish, something the astronauts might miss. Tom smirks. He is so good at smirking. He should open up a new restaurant.


The chefs cram into the Ronald Reagan Building's kitchens and try to cook on top of one another. They are all stressed here. They are very close to the end but there is still much to lose. (Or something. They will all be fine, I'm sure.) Eating their food tonight are Tom, Padma, Eric Ripert, Anthony Bourdain, Vickie the food scientist, some astronauts, and the one the only Buzz Aldrin. This is huge for Top Chef to score someone like Buzz Aldrin, because as the second man on the moon, he is a national treasure and is very picky about the sort of appearances he will make.


Here is how the meal goes. A dish is served. Padma asks one of the astronauts a softball question about space. ("Does floating feel nice? How tall is the sun?") Tom smirks and mostly likes the dish except for one thing. Eric Ripert expresses a problem with it. Anthony Bourdain disagrees with his friend the Ripper in 500 words or more. Finally, Vickie the food scientist buzzkill says something irritating about the dish's freeze-dry-ability. If it's such a problem, Vickie, just keep serving the astronauts scrambled eggs and get off this show.

After the meal is over, the chefs seem relaxed, but confident. It's out of their hands now. They head to the Judges Table to see who is headed to Singapore and who is headed knife-packing.

It's startling how close this week's competition is. Everyone did so well! Angelo's short ribs with pickled mushrooms and juniper and horse radish creme fraiche was incredibly elegant, but the ginger was a bit too sweet. Even so, it's enough to crown him this week's winner.


He's taking home both a Toyota Avalon and a fourteen dollar copy of Bourdain's new book, Medium Raw. Both are such honors. Angelo is humbled. His dish will be served on the space station! Much like the trip to the CIA a few weeks ago, this NASA competition once again brings out Angelo's true stripes. What an alien he is. Upon winning, he says, "It's too much to embrace as a human." Um, if you are human, you don't have to say you're human, Angelo. You are going to blow it. Is this why your bride is Russian? So you can take her back to your home planet? " Our scientists scanned your planet and found her eggs, of all your race, are best suited to carry our seed. Our great machines will keep her alive for generations producing new yearlings. That's why we bought her off a website." Take me with you, Angelo!

Speaking of space, in looking for a terrible space saying to use as the title for this post, I was reminded of the most incredible and idiotic poster/t-shirt/slogan/whatever-the-fuck of all time.


Such a classic. Nothing brings me more joy than how stupid that is. Sorry to digress, but I think it's important to take any opportunity offered (by myself) to share this image.

Meanwhile, the rest of the dishes all seem great, but with small flaws. Kevin's comforting New York strip steak with a bacon jalapeno marmalade and corn puree was delicious and perfectly cooked, but it was sliced a little too thinly. Also, strip steak is a decidedly boring choice. Kelly served a pan-roasted halibut with an artichoke and fennel barigoule and a salsa verde salad. Her artichokes were amazing and Chef Ripert could tell she trained in Provence. Maybe the dish was a bit too safe? Ed's yogurt marinated rack of lamb with eggplant puree and couscous croquette brought Bourdain back to Morocco, but Ripert thought it too complicated.

It is Tiffany who is cursed though. During prep, her mussels froze and died and she had to leave them out of her pan-seared Alaskan halibut with coconut curry. Would the broth from the mussels when they opened have been enough to provide the burst of acidity Ripert was looking for? We'll never know. But even with the mussels, the tomatoes were mealy and the skin on the pepper was bitter. Despite her momentum, it sends her home. Kevin whispers, "Thank you, Lord Jesus." Is that what Jesus is for? Letting you sneak by elimination on a reality show? Cool God.


So sad. Tiffany is a total fan favorite and she will be missed. She started as a cashier and worked her way into the kitchen! But don't cry too hard for her. She won $40k and a trip to Europe for her wedding, so she'll be OK.

Next week: Singapore.

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