By Mary Alice Fallon Yeskey
10:09 AM EST, November 22, 2012
It's a "Top Chef" Thanksgiving! (Even though this was probably filmed in August.) The guest judge for this week is Editor-In-Chief of Food & Wine, Dana Cowin.
Padma shows the contestants a map of the world and points out that there are 17 countries highlighted, each with its own regional dumpling. Dumplings! My biggest weakness! [Dear "Top Chef" Producers, the next time you have a dumpling challenge and you need a judge, holler. Love, Mary Alice.]
Each chef yanks a knife off the map to determine which country's dumpling they are creating; they are also loaned a Kindle Fire for five minutes to research the cuisine in case they are unfamiliar.
"Your time starts NOW," quivers Padma as she grabs Dana's hand and dives away from the map, sensing the coming stampede. CJ gets first dibs as he is eight feet tall. Micah, of a more diminutive stature, bemoans his "choice" of Kazakhstan.
The chefs steam and fry their way through 45 minutes to prepare their dishes. Carla is struggling, as she cut her hand last week and can't type the word "fufu" (an African dumpling) into her Kindle Fire. Seriously -- the screenshot shows her searching for "fubu recipe."
Kuniko is doggedly working on her dish but isn't watching the clock -- she has nothing on her plates when Padma calls time. "I'm extremely embarrassed," she stammers in her interview. My heart hurts for her.
Dana gives immunity and bragging rights to Josie, for her Korean mandu dumplings. Stefan, also in the top three, looks positively perturbed he has not won.
For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs will be preparing Thanksgiving Dinner (natch) for FareStart, a Seattle based nonprofit that recently won the James Beard Humanitarian of the Year Award. The gang is split into two teams, each will create an entire holiday meal. The team leaders? Tom Collichio and Emeril Lagasse. The background music as they walk in is a clear rip off from "Kill Bill." Unfortunately, neither of them are wearing a yellow jumpsuit.
No surprise that Emeril is giving his menu a Creole slant, while Tom's is Italian-American. Josie declares it the Civil War of Thanksgiving. Let's hope it's a lot less bloody.
Emeril, on turkey: "Stuff that ass with a lot of butter in there as it roasts." Bam!
Prep is underway. Tyler looks utterly gobsmacked as he observes Emeril make a roux. It's quite sweet, actually. Tom and Emeril engage in lighthearted football/cuisine banter ("Make cornbread, not war!").
And just like that, time is up. CJ starts shouting orders at his crew, and declares "For me to win this, my team needs to win this. So I decide to lead this time into victory." Easy there, red leader: you've got a judge leading your team.
The chefs move into the FareStart kitchens and have five hours to finalize the dinner for their staff and volunteers.
Tyler confesses that he's struggled with alcoholism for years and that he's been sober for seven months, and that is giving him new focus with his cuisine. Props to him for being so honest and brave on national television.
Josie's turkeys are getting a bit charred so she lowers the temp on the ovens and hopes that will result in a better bird. Tom and Emeril peek into the kitchen and take some approving bites of the dishes.
Stefan and CJ taste Carla's soup before she's finished seasoning it, and they start getting into it. Stefan says, "Carla, honey, relax." and she blows up. Even though she has thus far come off as completely loco, I have to agree with her. Stefan called Josie "honey" earlier when he was whining about counter space and got my feminist hackles all up. He just reeks of smarm.
Carla shouts, "Girls are 'sweetie' or 'honey' -- but guys are 'chef.' What the f---?!" Amen, sister. Perhaps I misjudged the staccato verbal assault of last week. I think I may just like her!
Padma and the judges (joined by Seattle's Thierry Rautureau) take their seats and learn about FareStart's mission -- to provide culinary and foodservice training for homeless and disadvantaged individuals.
Emeril's team presents first. Everything looks delicious until they carve into the turkey. "Is that bird cooked, Emeril?" asks Tom. Dana points out it's "a little pink" while Thierry advises it's "not recommended by the USDA." Yeesh.
Tyler's gumbo is falling flat and Kuniko's potato pave is so undercooked Padma remarks "Ew" before she's even tried it. On the plus side, Brook's biscuits are a unanimous hit and both Chrissy and John's desserts are crowd pleasers. Dana offers that the entire meal was well-balanced, despite the missteps.
Tom's Italian-American Thanksgiving is up next. Their bird looks stunning. Carla's creamy carrot soup gets high marks. Josh's ravioli is tough to bite through and Tom explains to the table how he could have fixed the dough to cook more evenly.
Micah's Brussels sprouts get the thumbs down from Dana for being underseasoned and greasy. Lizzie's mashed potatoes (or "potato puree" if you're epicurian about it) is gorgeous on the screen and thrills everyone with their simple perfection. Stefan and Eliza's desserts are both disappointments to the judges.
Both meals are all over the map with successes and failures. Emeril and Tom declare they are recused from judging the winning team. The remaining judges unanimously vote the superior dinner was Tom's team. The judges move on to nitpicking the worst of Emeril's team's meal: Tyler's bitter gumbo, Sheldon's undercooked greens, and Kuniko's raw potatoes. They also agree Josie's blackened/raw turkey should send her home but luckily she has immunity.
From the winning red team, CJ, Carla and Lizzie are called back to decide the challenge victor. Padma commended their meal was "near flawless." Tom said he was confused by Carla's carrot soup as she had told him she was making cabbage soup. Lizzie chimes in, "I think she said carrots, but it sounded like cabbage," and Carla confesses, "Sometimes I need a subtitle." Again, she may be warming on me.
Dana loved Lizzie's potato puree as it neared the "half-potato, half-butter" mark. Padma gushed over CJ's perfect turkey and Tom noted he picked up on the fact that CJ was leading the team in the kitchen.
The winning dish goes to Carla's carrot and turkey meatball soup. "Really, me?" she asks, surprisingly touched and sweet in her victory.
Tyler, Kuniko, and Sheldon are called back for the bottom three -- Josie, as well, who again has immunity, but the judges thought her turkey so bad they felt the need to berate her regardless. Emeril keeps pronouncing Kuniko’s name "KOON-uh-coh" and it's driving me batty. [I shall now only pronounce his name EHRM-ruhl.] Josie does Kuniko a solid and lets the judges know that even though her dish was poor, she used a lot of her time assisting her teammates.
Josie's hail Mary does Kuniko no good, however, as she is asked to pack her knives and go. She admits in her exit interview she has "a long way to go to be a good chef - not just a good cook."
In the stew room, the gang is mourning Kuniko’s loss. John Tesar chides, "We had five hours, man. If you can't taste your food in five hours, your mind is somewhere else." The entire room turns on him.
CJ asks why everything John says "ends up being a lecture." John counters, "You're full of s--- right now." Thus setting the stage for next week. I hope they wrestle. Heads up, John: CJ is EIGHT FEET TALL.
Next week -- an entire side of beef gets butchered, and two eliminations. And, if we're lucky, CJ squishing John like the cockroach he is.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!
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