'Top Chef: Chicago' and the tiny sous chefs

Antonia_topchefchicago The folks on Top Chef: Chicago had to cook like mere mortals this week, which blew their minds. Some of them adapted well to time and budgetary constraints, while others seemed to be thinking "You can have my white truffle oil when you pry it out of my cold, dead hands!"

Kids don't eat spoilers.

The Quickfire challenge was quicker than usual: Prepare a healthy meal in 15 minutes. If only there were some sort of product-placed foodstuff that could make things go more quickly....

Stephanie apparently suffered a blow to the head when we weren't watching. She decides to make a scallop and rice pancake, but she doesn't actually taste it. Antonia makes an old family favorite: Rice and salad. She knows it sounds insane, but she swears we'll love it. Mark does a miso glazed turkey breast -- he tastes components, but not the dish as a whole. That doesn't sound like a good plan.

Guest chef Art Smith doesn't like Mark's dish -- it just doesn't hang together. Stephanie's pancake was a good idea, but it was heavy and the scallop was superfluous. Lisa's grilled shrimp and peppers over rice was nothing special -- it was pretty, but Smith said he felt like he'd seen it before.

Smith praised Dale's fried rice with scallops and Chinese long beans, as well as Richard's tuna steak and tomatoes with yuzu vinaigrette over rice. But it was Antonia's seemingly random combination of rice and salad that took the challenge -- Smith loved the combination of cold and hot. "You made a believer out of me," he said.

Elimination Challenge
Here's where you could start to see the chefs' brains dribble out of their ears. They had to create a simple, tasty, nutritious meal for a family of four, with a budget of only $10. Yipe!

Just about everyone swarms the poultry counter -- chicken is relatively cheap. Notable exceptions: Dale, Mark and Spike. Dale wants to show he's more than just the Asian cook, and therefore picks up turkey brats. Mark decides on a vegetarian curry, since that's what he makes for "[his] lady" when money is tight. Spike is going for a pasta puttanesca along with a carrot soup. It's Spike, of course there's a soup!

Remember what I was saying about possible head trauma with Stephanie? We get more evidence of it here: She doesn't know what she wants to do, has no clue how to cook simple or healthy food, and seems completely lost. Come on, Steph -- you're my favorite! You can do it!

At the kitchen, we meet the pint-size sous-chefs: several kids who are in a Art Smith's Common Threads culinary program. Tom Colicchio watches over the proceedings, and he's quietly freaking out over all the potential injuries. Andrew's kid wails away at the chicken paillard with a pot, and Tom flinches every time metal hits the counter. "Watch your fingers!" Spike's kid suffers a cut seconds after picking up a vegetable peeler. I'm almost shocked to see Antonia set her kid to work chopping carrots and peppers with a big chef's knife. The kid looks a bit surprised about that, too.

The judges love Nikki's one-pan roast chicken with vegetables, and praise Andrew's surprising refined chicken paillards with fennel and citrus. Who knew kids liked fennel?  But it's Antonia's chicken stir fry with vegetables over whole wheat noodles that wins the challenge.

Lisa, Mark and (gasp!) Stephanie end up in the bottom three. Mark's veggie curry is too sweet, and really only features sweet potatoes as the major component. Couldn't he have sprung for a variety of veggies? Lisa's chicken with black beans and edamame is bland, which Lisa takes issue with. You told me it had to be healthy! I followed instructions! OK, but that doesn't mean it had to be tasteless. Stephanie confused the heck out of everyone with her overcooked, mushy couscous topped with a chicken in a peanut butter and tomato sauce. Um, ew.

At this point, I was terrified that Stephanie was going home -- her dish seemed so ill conceived, and the judges didn't have anything good to say about it. But it's Mark who is asked to pack up his knives and go home.

Highlights, thoughts and odds and ends:

  • Andrew freaks out when they announce the challenge: "How the f*ck am I going to buy dinner for four with $10? It's impossible. Impossible! It's not like I'm going to do a lobster terrine with $10!" Well, no, you're not, and that's just the point. What CAN you do that tastes good without costing a gazillion dollars?
  • Once again, I'm sorry the chefs had to do their shopping at Whole Foods for this challenge. I love the store, but it's NOT someplace I go when I'm trying to stretch my budget.
  • Antonia was having a roller-coaster week. She misses her kid like crazy, so seeing all the tiny chefs in the kitchen set the tear ducts flowing. But she credits all the cooking she does for -- and with -- her daughter for both of her wins.
  • Stephanie, when she's introduced to her kid sous chef: "Oh, hey, you're just as tall as me." Hee!
  • Lisa makes a strategic error right out of the gate. "You like garlic?" she asks her kid helper. "No," he replies. "Garlic's going in the garbage," she says. Doh! Perhaps keeping that garlic would have made her dish less bland.
  • I am perversely amused that Spike decided to do Pasta Puttanesca, since it literally translates to "Pasta in the way a whore would make it."
  • Nikki not only works the dish, she works in a bit of a sob story. I started cooking for myself at about age 8, she says. This roast chicken was one of the first things I ever learned to cook. The judges are impressed.
  • Andrew tells us he fell prey to unhealthy food, and weighed more than 200 pounds in high school. It's difficult to picture that, since he's such a rangy, skinny, hyper guy. (In other news, I have this weird mental block where I want to call Andrew Spike. Sigh.)
  • Richard has an epiphany: "The whole experience of seeing these kids, seeing Antonia cry, I want to go home and I want to make babies." Sure, why not. Just as long as you don't make a mobile of hand-held smokers to hang over the crib.
  • Andrew continues to be the official hyper puppy of the show -- he nearly collapses with relief when he finds out he's in the top three.
  • Mark think he knows why he's in the bottom three this time: "Tom doesn't like me... It's undercooked, it's overcooked, it's too salty, how do I make this guy happy?" Well, you could cook tasty food that actually looked good on the plate, Tom responds.
  • Mark continues to wax oblivious when they criticize him for his one-note curry. There are lots of vegetarian meals out there! Sure, but put some variety in it, not just a single vegetable. My opinion? Veggie curries are made for cauliflower.
  • Lisa gets defensive and obstreperous when she's called out. I'm getting really, really sick of her. Art Smith agrees: "If you're going to be a great chef, you've got to take criticism."
  • Stephanie's dish gets the worst criticism: "I really detested it," says Padma. Smith agrees: "Couscous has been around for a long time, It ain't that hard to cook."
  • With Mark gone, who will Spike share the bubble bath with now?
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