Friday, September 28, 2007

Top Chef Semifinal – Ranch Dressing.

I’ve got no idea what’s going on in the previews at the end of last week’s show. The previously segment for tonight’s show reviews the whole show, emphasis on camaraderie. Interesting, because that’s been a real difference from past shows. As much of an insufferable ass as Hung can be, he still seems pretty much accepted by the group, unlike Tiffany in Season 1 or Marcel last season, both of whom had pretty much burned bridges with the larger group. If Howie was still around things may have been different, but this season we don’t have the group and the outcast.

OK, I’ve just seen Casey, Dale and Brian hug like crazy when they meet up, then Hung roll up to a perfunctory “it’s been a while.” So it’s not big love between Hung and the rest. Not out and out hostility like, say Marcel and everyone else, but definitely a chill

The chefs ride a limo that rolls up to a Top Chef hot air balloon and are given a nice hot air balloon ride. During the ride, we get some up-close-and-personal with Dale and Hung. Dale had lost a job and a boyfriend and was generally out of the game when he signed up for the show. Hung talks about his father getting out of Vietnam and working here to get the rest of the family out.

By the way, Vietnamese ex-patriots by and large rival Cuban ex-pats for antipathy for the current regime in their homeland. They are not, for example, uniformly enchanted to learn that Kid T is Vietnamese.

Back to the show. The chefs are getting smarter. They know as they set down in the middle of no where, that something is up. They walk through the woods and see Padma and Eric Rippert, another returning Top Chef judge.

They are on the banks of Frying Pan River, a noted Aspen area trout stream. The challenge is to clean and cook a fresh trout on a camp stove. Their prep surfaces are the uneven and sloping tops of big tree stumps. Casey, Brian and Dale all note that they are out of practice trying to beat the clock.

Hung finishes with more than seven minutes left. And when time is up he realizes he forgot to add lemon juice. I’m not clear on whether he planned to add it last, and forgot, or just plain forgot for, um, seven minutes and five seconds, apparently.

Least favorites. Brian – the salad isn’t salted. . .? By the way, one thing I’ve learned from watching the show is that haute cuisine connoisseurs expect the food to be seasoned something close to how they like it. You never see a judge ask for the salt shaker. Brian says it’s all good because trout is not seafood.

Favs. Hung, “highly refined,” but you needed lemon juice. Casey gets high marks and her food “has a soul.” Hung looks ready to physically rip Rippert’s soul form his body. In interview he complains that his dish was “more refined.” This is back to Dale’s remarks last week – Casey has heart and Hung is all about refined technique.

We have some more up close and personal, including Hung talking about his mom. If this means anything, it suggests the producers are softening the blow for a Hung win. But apparently they don’t know who won yet since somehow they plan to announce live.

Elimination Challenge.

They are at Moon Run Ranch. I’m writing all this about big Aspen sites like it means something. I’ve never been to Apsen so I take Top Chef at their word that these places are special. Jerome Hotel, Moon Run Ranch.

The challenge is to cater an annual rodeo roundup. We have interview shots of chefs fretting about what cowboys eat. And either Dale has ramped up the ribald talk or the editor has decided to let that side start coming through, but we learn that Dales only experience with cowboys is, erm, experience with cowboys.

Because she won the quickfire, Casey gets to use whatever special ingredients she brought..

Colicchio and Dale are both dubious about Brian braising the elk in three hours. When Dale says it’s a problem because the meat is very lean, I think he is talking about how long it will take to melt enough collagen to make the meat taste moist. Generally, when meat is cooked through it feels dry in your mouth. It can gain a moist mouth feel from fat and/or melted, dissolved collagen. Collagen is connective tissue which is a shank has plenty of. Dale, I assume, is thinking it would take a very long braise to melt and dissolve enough collagen in the shanks to make the meat taste and feel moist.

Casey is not taking advantage of her quickfire win. She’s saving her stuff for the actual finale. Colicchio says that “because of the level of competition” three going to the finale.

Dale is giving up on his tart and switching to some potatoes and cauliflower dish. After almost three seasons of Top Chef, we are finally seeing chefs say something isn’t working and scrapping it.

Whoa, Casey suddenly rolls out a Texas drawl as the customers roll up. Casey’s is the very rare meat we heard Colicchio complain about in the previews. Dales is the “lot going on on the plate” dish.

The chefs all seemed confident but as soon as Padma says Judge’s Table everyone seems to get suddenly paranoid.

Judge's Table.

Sounds like Dale is up top, they have real problems with Casey, Brian and Hung. Casey meat is too rare, Brian put too much on the plate and Hung mixed summery garnishes with wintery potatoes.

I hate this “why should you go on” business. It always strikes me as made for TV. This time, though, Dale’s answer is actually fairly touching. It’s hard to believe he hadn’t cooked for a year and half before the first quickfire – you would think there had been an audition. Nonetheless, it’s a nice redemption story.

Hung all through Judge’s Table is completely full of crap. He told the camera he hated the elk challenge, now he loves it. He told the camera, screw the cowboys, I’m just cooking for the judges. Now it’s all about giving the customers good food. And when asked about why he should go on, the uses the word “soul” about a dozen times.

I’m at the commercial break. Dale is the clear winner of the challenge. Hung is in – they aren’t going to send him home now just because he got no soul. It’s between Brain and Casey who is packing and who is staying. Brian’s dish is too sweet and has too much crap on the plate. Casey has a great sauce but undercooked meat and a weird cauliflower dish that nobody liked.

When Tom says that Brian’s dish is a typical Brian dish, it doesn’t sound good for him.

The viewer question is who people most want to see sent home. Hung by a landslide.

The winner is Dale, which had been pretty well telegraphed.

Brian is packing. No build up, just gone. Brian didn’t learn the lesson of his last challenge – less is more. If they were only putting two in the finale, Casey would almost certainly be out, but now she has a shot at the big prize.

Dale seems to be peaking at the right time and could pull off an upset. Otherwise, it’s Hung vs. Casey; technique vs. soul. The finale is next week, plus we’ve been teased for another reunion after that.