'Top Chef' recap: The chef who came in from the cold

Like most people, I tend to assume that Padma Lakshmi’s job hosting Top Chef is just a cover for her real work as an international mercenary superspy. These suspicions were confirmed on last night’s episode, in which the remaining contestants cooked a top-secret meal at Langley while Padma delivered coded messages to CIA Director Leon Panetta. Befitting the setting, it was an evening of disguises and deceit – in Angelo’s case, self-deceit. Culinary meta-chemist Wylie Dufresne was on hand, although the only real espionage he participated in was the theft of Elvis’ sideburns.

Quickfire Challenge: The Mystery Box

“I am totally mentally exhausted,” said Angelo. Poor timing: the Quickfire had the contestants thinking fast. They started off with one mystery box filled with random ingredients – fish, fava beans, and a “no-label can” (a riddle wrapped in an enigma!). Every few minutes, a Secret Service agent brought in another box, filled with necessary ingredients.

Some of the contestants grooved onto the challenge immediately – Tiffany relished the improvy thrill of not quite knowing what was coming next. Angelo disintegrated into a tiny ball in the corner, dithering over whether to make his dish hot or cold. Box 2 came out: squid and black garlic. (Kelly: “I don’t know anything about black garlic.”) Box 3: ramps and passion fruit. Box 4: jicama. Am I the only person who really, really likes jicama? I think it’s my favorite vegetable, even though I had to check the spelling five times before writing it.

Alex delivered a rockfish with fava bean puree, with ramp fondue and sautéed squid. Dufresne asked if it was raw. “It’s not raw,” she protested, “It’s been slowly melted.” (That’s my new alibi when my girlfriend asks me why dinner is so undercooked.) When I saw Kevin’s dish – Pan-seared rockfish set atop hominy puree, jicama, and passion fruit salad – I drooled. I actually kinda liked the look of Angelo’s smoky hominy pot-au-feu, but to judge by Dufresne’s reaction, it tasted like sweat-stained desperation. (Angelo seemed to think that the Quickfire’s $10,000 reward would help him bring his fiancée from Russia to America. Silly Angelo. As we all know, it takes at least six figures to bribe immigration control.)

In the end, it was Tiffany’s fish stew that won the day. “That’s $20,000!” she rejoiced, making plans to spend the money on her fiancé. Sorry, Anonymous Russian Girl.

Elimination Challenge: We disavow all knowledge of what we are saying right now.

“Your challenge tonight is a case of national security,” said Padma, doing her best Judi Dench impression. Since the chefs would be serving food to the CIA uppity-ups, the theme was secrecy: they had to create a new identity for a classic dish. Amanda, for one, thought she could make a good spy: “I could seduce some secrets out of the KGB.” We really have to do something about our education system.

Kelly was assigned Kung Pao Shrimp. Problem: she’s never cooked Chinese food. In a nifty move which I would describe as vaguely Bourne-esque, she found some Kung Pao seasoning and reverse-engineered the ingredients. Smart move, Kelly. But why reverse-engineer, when you can just…non-engineer? Angelo had what I thought sounded like a clever plot – turn Beef Wellington into a pizza – but he committed a cardinal sin by purchasing puff pastries straight out of the freezer. This was exactly what got John kicked off way back in episode one.

It seems like Angelo is caught in a bizarre tailspin right now: he’s clearly talented, and he knows it, but he keeps on forgetting the basics. Anxiously considering the food’s temperature, taking the easy road to a high-concept dish… he’s trying to wow the judges, without necessarily planning any (or all) of the steps along the way.

Meanwhile, over in Bizarro World, Alex informed us that he used to work as a professional videographer, that he filmed over 500 weddings and bar mitzvahs, and that he considered it a huge advantage that he was vastly less experienced than the other contestants. We also learned some of the contestant’s spy names. Ed is Muffin Winthrop. Alex: “Dr. Zhivago. My mom always wanted a doctor in the family.” Tiffany: “Brigitte.” (Tiffany loves La Femme Nikita. I’m not sure if she means the French movie or the Peta Wilson TV show, but either way, she’s my favorite forever.)

The chefs processed into CIA HQ, the place where “major s— goes down,” according to Ed. In the kitchen, anxiety reigned. Kelly’s rice cooker mysteriously backfired. She explained that she’s used to cooking in higher altitudes, which is my new alibi when my girlfriend asks me why dinner is so overcooked. Tiffany offered to help her out, which is another piece of good karma on the road to (I’m betting) ultimate victory. Amanda worried that she hadn’t disguised her dish enough: “Helen Keller would be able to guess what this dish is.” Angelo was anxious that his dish wasn’t deep enough: “Normally, I would deconstruct the living daylights out of it.” (Speaking of The Living Daylights, I have a funny feeling that we’re right around the corner from a serious reconsideration of Timothy Dalton, just as soon as the Roger Moore apologists age into obsolescence.)

Enough preparation! Panetta hungry!

Angelo: Tartlette Topped with Slivers of Beef

Chief Panetta summed up Angelo’s disguised dish thusly: if it were a secret agent, “they would have captured this individual and hung him.” Cue awkward laughter from around the table.

Kelly: Spicy Shrimp Broth with Rice and Szechuan Shrimp Tempura

Panetta couldn’t sense this dish’s true identity. Tom Colicchio Wylie Dufresne: “For once, I know something you don’t.” Cue awkward laughter from around the table. Panetta smiled, then whispered to an aide: “Get me his tax records.”

Tiffany: Roasted Leg of Lamb with Smokey Eggplant, Tomatoes, and Pickled Onions

Eric said, “This is the most elegant gyro I ever ate in my life.” Never has his Bond-villain accent felt so appropriate.

Kevin: Romaine Lettuce, Tomato, Bacon, Roquefort, Avocado, Cucumber, Turkey

Now that’s what I call a Cobb salad! Panetta was surprised: “I thought it was something Mexican,” which are words you never want to hear in CIA headquarters. At this point, Chief Panetta pretended to get a mysterious phone call and stepped out, perhaps suddenly fearful of the fact that, no matter where history takes us, he will forever  be known as the first CIA Director to appear on a reality show.

The unflappable Ms. Lakshmi asked the attending bureaucrats, “Are you used to Director Panetta having to dine and dish?” “It happens often,” said a lady who looks just like Liz Lemon.

Amanda: Consomme with Oxtail Marmalade, Caramelized Onions, Shaved Gruyere

“This tastes like honey and lemon cough syrup,” said a handsome, faceless G-man. Quick, call Helen Keller!

Alex: Veal and Parmigiano Cheese Tortellini with Tomato Sauce and Tempura Cheese

Mmmmm, cheese on cheese, with some cheese mixed in! Liz Lemon-bot was not amused. She said, “The execution was poor,” which are words you never want to hear in CIA headquarters. Eric that the food was suitably disguised, but that he would have preferred “less disguise and better dish.” Viewers, let’s debate: was this competition just inherently flawed, since at a certain level it seemed to demand that the chefs not make their dishes?

Ed: Roasted Chicken Breast, Ham and Cheese Croquette

Maybe not: Ed managed totally own the concept by presenting an inside-out Chicken Cordon Bleu, with ham wrapped around a braised leg. Hiding in plain sight: vintage spy maneuver.

Judges’ Table

Tiffany, Kelly, and Ed took the top three. (A good day for Kelly, considering that she knew next to nothing about what she was cooking.) But Tiffany won the trip to the Paris Hilton. Hooray! I feel like she had a slightly easier dish than some of the other chefs, but she clearly deserves the victory.

On the other hand, I’m a little bit disappointed with the elimination. Not that I don’t think Alex is a semi-talentless gonzo spaceman – he is. But at least he wasn’t boring, like Amanda. (One of the judges said of Amanda’s consomme, “You took a long time to just make dishwater,” which is my favorite zinger of the season.) Still, you had to love the joie de vivre Alex showed after being told to pack his knives and his oversized spoon. “I’m going back to Cali!” he proclaimed. Cali: you can have him.

What did you think of the episode, viewers? Are you jumping on the Tiffany train with me? Was this the best thing the CIA has done since [FILE DELETED] or the worst thing they’ve done since [FILE DELETED]?

Comments (211 total) Add your comment
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  • CoCo Chenille

    I think Darren has been tipping the cooking sherry. It was Wylie Dufresne that said he knows something that Leon Panetta doesn’t. Right? Or am I talking turkey with no dressing?

    • Fridge

      No, you’re right. I thought the same thing when I was reading this. It was Wylie that told the director that.

    • Marguerite

      Yeah, and it was “dine and dash”, not “dine and dish”. But we quibble!

    • Tlynn

      You are definitely correct. Why wouldn’t he rewind the show and get the right information?

    • Marti W

      I think Darren must have rushed this to the editor without proof reading it, lol. I had to keep re-reading stuff to figure out what he was trying to say.

      • RF

        Am I the only one bothered by his repeated use of the “my new alibi when my girlfriend asks me why dinner is so…” phrase?

      • allie

        I thought it was kind of funny actually.

      • ani

        I actually thought it was funny as well. However, I don’t think alibi is the appropriate word for it; ‘excuse’ or ‘rationale’ seems more fitting.

      • mary q contrary

        I agree, I thought it was a funny line, and repeating it was only part of the joke. Oh, and can I just say: HALLELUJAH for giving us a different recapper, even if it’s only for the week. Archana’s recaps suck. She’s not funny, and her assessment of some of this season’s key players left me scratching my head.

    • e

      It probably was a joke in the the spirit of the challenge: Tom disguised as Wylie.

  • jknyc

    wow. I haven’t even finished reading this recap and there are three mistakes! Tiffany said she doesn’t like surprises. But she still won. Alex is a man, baby! “It’s not raw,” she protested, “It’s been slowly melted

    And it was Wiley Dufresne who said he knew something Panetta didn’t.

    • Ember

      The content still beats the regular recap writer.

      • mary q contrary


      • Sookie

        Agree, can we have Darrin from now on?

  • Hula Hoop

    Thrilled that Alex is gone and hopefully we can off Amanda next. I’m tired of her fake surprise every week when the critcize her dish. It’s too sweet. Shock! It was overcooked. Horror! Enough already.

    • Brooke

      I know! Sometimes I want to jump into the television and cook FOR her. That’s when you know a contestant sucks!

    • darclyte

      Exactly. Also, it was hard to take her comment about being a seductive spy seriously with that herpes cold sore on her lip.

      • Karate Pants


      • ElisaQ

        I’m pretty sure it’s a mole on her lip.

      • ani

        i dunno…it does kinda look like a cold sore…i dont remember if she had it at the beginning of the season?i hope she’s not tasting foods and re-dipping spoons if it is indeed a cold sore.

    • Katie

      Yes! She has been skating under the radar for long enough, always in the middle. But she’s not better than the other 5 remaining cheftestants.

      Not to mention, she thinks she is SO cute. Which she is not. Tiffany and Kelly are a lot cuter, because they don’t try to be. Take a cue, cold sore.

    • Hypnogal

      I wish there could have been a double-elimination last night so that Amanda could go home as well. It’s hard to believe Alex’s dish was worse than dishwater (plus disguised soup as….soup!)

      • Sookie

        When Tom said “she made soup, soup” it reminded me of Project Runway when Heidi said “she made pants out of pants”. At least Alex did disguise his dish.

  • TT44

    I could have sworn that Wylie made the “for once I know something you don’t clip.” Maybe not. Glad creepy Alex is gone and why in the world is Amanda still hanging on?!?!

  • Karate Pants

    Good riddance, Alex – I couldn’t stand one more minute of that obnoxious skeeze!
    How Amanda has been treading water this long? I suppose she’ll be the next to go.
    Why didn’t they just call the quickfire “The Chopped Challenge”?? Such a rip off.

    • Fridge

      Angelo being so off and rattled like he was kind of annoyed me. I can understand him being shaken after seeing Kenny eliminated, since there was a rivalry between the two of them. I guess Angelo realized that even though someone on the show might be a great chef if they mess up one dish they could be gone.

      Oh, and seriously, what’s with the puff pastry? I love how the judges turn their nose up at using frozen puff pastry, but do you know how long it would take to make it from scratch? Granted, none of the chefs know how to reheat it properly without making it rock hard, but I don’t see what the big deal is with using it!

      • Marsha

        I think their complaint was that he could have done something else. Using the puff pastry was too close to the original dish, it wasn’t done well, and it wasn’t disguised.
        It almost seemed to me that Angelo tried to off himself this episode. Maybe he is just tired.

      • Lee

        But I agree with you, Fridge. I don’t see the big deal with Angelo using store-bought pastry shell. How many cheftestants have actually made real pasta noodles? I know of at least one cheftestant that used storebought pasta. If the judges are going to be that picky then they should give them more time.

    • Pink Lemonade

      Ding dong Nosferatu is gone! Good bye Alex. Next up to pack those knives: Amanda the I’ve-got-to-lace-children’s-food-with-liquor.

      • Wendy

        OMG, I can’t believe someone else saw Nosferatu when they looked at Alex. My thoughts exactly

    • Sharon

      Karate Pants – Anyone who has been watching Top Chef for years would know that Food Network’s Chopped is a ripoff of an early Top Chef challenge. Likewise 24 Hour Restaurant is Restaurant Wars.

      • Karate Pants

        Oh, snap. You’re right. It seemed like Chopped had been on air longer than it actually has.
        I stand corrected.

      • Bresa

        Yes Sharon…. it was Season 2, First Challenge where they did the Mystery Box. Elia hated the American Cheese “product” and Sujai (?) went home.

      • RK

        The mystery box is a common challenge in culinary school or applying for a chef position…

    • Sookie

      Chopped ripped off the challenge from Top Chef first. And I liked that they had to keep adding ingredients, I think Tiffany handled it best by just throwing everything into a soup. I’m hopping on the Tiffany bandwagon too. (gotta love those dimples!)

      • Gina

        Yes I do! I like having someone to root for and WOW even if she loses she can take her 20Gs and vacay in Paris AND her man (who hopefully looks nothing like Ed….not that he’s the worst but I hope she’s part of a cute couple…how wrong of me!)to lick her wounds (I probably would rather not envision Ed licking her ANYthing!)!

  • joanne

    A few things:
    – Padma said “dine and dash”, not dine and dish.
    – It was Wylie Dufresne who told Panetta that he knew something that the CIA director didn’t for once.

    carry on.

    • sadiesue

      Yea, and he asked about the RAMPS being cooked or raw, not the octupi…

  • Shaw

    Yay Tiffany! She was my second favorite after Kenny. Now I’m totally on her bandwagon. Her personality and chef skills are so fun to watch.

    • Sarah

      I agree – I am on the Tiffany train now too. We need another female Top Chef and she seems to be A) a good chef and B) not a total jerk.

    • dee

      Choo CHOO! I’m aboard the Tiffany train too! It’s nice to have a likeable chef who’s also incredibly talented.

    • actingup

      Totally agree – rooting for Tiffany and Kelly FTW!

    • Cyd

      Love, love, LOVE Tiffany! Anybody else note that Tiffany spent so much time helping Kelly plate her dish (and properly cook the rice)? When they ended up in the top 3 together, I was hoping Kelly wouldn’t win. But when one of the judges mentioned the perfect balance of the rice in the dish, Miss Tiffany did look over at Kelly, but never so much as a glance from Kelly.

      • Sookie

        Yes Tiffany definitely saved Kelly’s ass in this challenge.

      • CV

        That could have been editing Cyd.

  • V

    Every time I read “Panetta,” I heard “Pancetta” in my head.

    • nykolus

      thank you, v!!! =P

    • rosygogo

      V, I kept thinking “pancetta” too!

    • S

      Me too!

    • Marci

      And me!

    • darclyte

      Ha, I totally thought that too at first! I’m glad that Darren the blogger also called Panetta out. Now I know that I’m not the only one who thought that the his leaving was phony (probably to stop detractors from saying that he was on a reality show instead of doing his job…he showed them where his priorities rest!)

      • Marci

        Did you catch all the “drama looks” on the remaining diners? Seemed a little too set up for me.

      • Emily

        Seriously–their faces said, “There he goes, off to torture someone, poor guy, never has any fun!”

      • Louhead

        I got the feeling that the other diners where wondering “hmmmm… what’s going on and how come I’m not privy to that information?”

      • Cyd

        You guys, these people probably don’t have loads of time to sit around for a TV show. Come on — he probably did have urgent business! He’s the freakin’ head of the CIA!

  • Pink Lemonade

    The only thing Padma is practicing is high conceit and condescension. She is rude and dismissive. She has no cause to be. I am quite sick of her. You can tell when she dislikes a contestant.

    • Karate Pants


    • JN

      Don’t think she dilikes them…she just needs to let them know they are BENEATH HER.

    • Fridge

      Have to agree. Padma can be totally b*tchy. This is the first season I’ve watched–is she usually like that?

      • Anne


      • V

        If this is your first season, then you may not be aware that she used to be much less conservatively dressed. As in “I think this tight vest makes a great top!” she’s toned it down a bit since she had the baby.

      • Pink Lemonade

        She wasn’t always like that when she came in to replace the awful Katie Joel. She used to be window dressing with a nice personality. She seemed genuinely interested in the contestants and the food. Now she seems to be on an ego rampage that is ugly.

      • Marci

        She is colder, there is no doubt about it. And Tom seems bored or disgusted most of the time. We get the most helpful insights and energy from the guest judges. And then, of course, there’s Gail.

      • wasabi

        She didn’t seem that way in the earlier seasons, but for the past two she’s come across as extraordinarily snarky and mean-spirited.

      • Fridge

        Wow–this is her conservatively dressed?

      • Jonilla

        Padma has very been rude this season with her “That will be all now.” comments. She seems like a shrill school marm.

      • peggym

        Yes, she’s been a waste of space since the beginning

      • bandjunky

        I’m glad to read this thread and see that I’m not alone in feeling that the regulars at the judges’ table–Padma and Tom C, I’m talking about you–have become hyper critical and cruel. I actually have to mute this part of it or switch channels sometimes because I can’t stand these over-critical comments, generally on some minor detail. I think there is real cruelty in some of their remarks, which they sometimes appear to deliver with relish. It’s really ruined the show for me.

    • DW

      Padma is awesome, though you certainly seem rude and dismissive. Projecting, perhaps?

      • dani

        I still love Padma, I don’t want her to gush for no reason – I want her to be hard on the “chefs”.

      • Jessie

        Don’t look now, DW, but you are bordering on the “rude” side yourself.

      • Marti W

        I get the vague feeling she’s playing a role. Not sure why, maybe it’s because she doesn’t really have the same level of food cred as the others.

      • Dan

        Thank you. I really think many people are misunderstanding her. Even though she was educated in the US she is much more British and I think that is where the misunderstanding comes in.

    • ardiaz

      Have you noticed Padma starts slurring her words every time she’s drinking wine? Of course it stopped when she was pregnant but I noticed the slurring came back during restaurant wars.

  • Lyn

    Ohmygosh, the latest Designated Villain is gone: Who must we root against now?! I nominate Tiffany . . . kinda smug and winning way too much loot.

    • BLB

      Hm – Why do you find her smug?

      • Lyn

        I guess I just enjoy it more when there’s not one favorite who seems to have it in the bag time after time. Don’t dislike her.

    • dani

      Smug? Really?..Wasn’t that her helping Kelly with her rice? I’m just hoping she doesn’t crash and burn like “Whoodie Who” did in New Orleans. I’m hoping Tiffany stays focused and can win.

      • Marci

        You know, at first I thought she was smug, but I have completely changed my mind. That was great of her to help Kelly. I also really like Kelly.

    • Julia’s Child

      Smug? I think she’s great – a good chef and a nice person.

  • JN

    Tiffany rules. Unlike Season 1’s Tiffany, who was heinous.

    • madeleine

      What? seriously? Love this Tiffany and absolutely loved that Tiffany

      • peggym

        Just watched a Season One marathon. Tiffani gave Harold the Glare of Death for the last 4 episodes. Totally over-the -top.

    • GGG

      Oh god, red-haired Tiffany was an evil wench.

    • ani

      she also looked oddly like a pig. not being mean here, i’m just saying that her facial features/skin tone reminded me of a pig.

  • josephrileyland

    That’s twice Tiffany has won the Quick Fire and then turned around and won the Elimination Challenge. Duly impressed.

  • Robert

    Glad Alex is finally gone. And he stole that pea puree plain and simple. Still don’t understand how he didn’t think it was going to be embarrassing to be exposed on national television that way. The judges don’t find out, fine, but you have to know there are cameras that record your prep and you clearly never prepped a pea puree.

    • James

      By the same token, the camera’s never recorded him steal a pea puree, so by your logic, it never happened. He didn’t think it was going to be embarassing because he didn’t do it. For that same reason it just doesn’t make sense. More than likely Ed left his in the kitchen.

    • Hannah

      If you read Tom’s blog about the pea puree, he states that Alex did make a pea puree.
      Ed and Alex both made it.

      I’m so over the pea puree.

      • BruceMpls

        What I’m over is Tom C. He is so arrogant and pompous both judging and writing his blog. He definitely does not handle criticism well. His ranting last week on his blog was like he thought we were all children and had to be taught as such (the repeating over and over and over again). I wouldn’t mind seeing him go and finding someone else.

      • Marci

        I agree with you BruceMpls. He seems impatient and bored when he is eating the dishes. I would rather see Susur Lee!

    • Marsha

      This was cleared up 2 weeks ago. He did not steal the pea puree. You can blame Bravo for that snafu.

    • MaryMary

      Tom C put this to rest in his blog last week. No film, but other contestants confirmed he bought peas, blanched them, and made the puree. It’s over. Accept it and move on, people.

    • Maggie

      Actually, if you read Tom’s blog on Bravo, he says there is evidence that Alex did make the pea puree. He had cooked the peas the night before, but hadn’t done anything with them. Probably got the idea from Ed, but appears he didn’t. I can’t stand Alex, but according to Tom he is innocent of the Pea Puree incident.

      • John

        At this point, I am totally over Pureegate, too, but why do you think it appears he didn’t at least get the idea from Ed? Didn’t we see a clip of another chef telling Alex that Ed had bought peas for a pea puree at a time when Alex was openly flailing for an idea of what to make? Unfortunately, I no longer have that episode, so I can’t go back and check it.

    • Marci

      So this week he gives us fava bean puree…what is it with the puree? Can anyone of you out there eat any kind of puree without thinking of baby food?

      • BruceMpls

        You reminded me of a couple seasons ago and Favio’s comment about one chef always making scallops – “What is this? Top Scallops?”, or something to that affect. It was one of the best lines ever on Top Chef.

    • MsDaisy

      I wouldn’t think that pea puree is all that difficult to make. Even a nitwit like Alex could have managed to make one.

  • C

    I thought Wylie Dufresne was the one who made the “For once, I know something you don’t” comment to Panetta?

    • C

      Whoops! Didn’t scan comments, sorry.

  • Julz

    So glad Alex is gone. Hopefully Amanda goes next. I think it’s going to be Tiffany, Ed and Kevin in the final.

    • Sabrina

      I’d be pretty happy with that final. Tiffany FTW!

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