Photo: David Giesbrecht / Bravo
After a while, you start to know the telltale signs that someone's going home on Top Chef. It's when someone has the "I've gotta be bold with my flavors!" epiphany. When they get a care package. It's the call home to the wife and kids. The "just once, I'd like to win a challenge" complaint.
In a season where we've seen so many contestants we've liked -- some of whom seemed to be pretty great chefs, mind you -- sent home, we react to any of the above moments with queasy dread. No! Don't say that! Don't you know it means you're going to be sent home?!
Only this week, the producers had us fooled. It was like bizarro Top Chef: Overconfidence was rewarded! Sentimental nods to your family meant you were staying! Complete and utter self-doubt was punished!
Perhaps the happiest outcome of this topsy-turvy episode was that Tiffany, a straight-shooting, quick-witted personal fave of ours for weeks, finally got some love from the judges. When guest Marcus Samuelsson showed up for the Quickfire to dare the chefs to incorporate "authentic" Ethiopian flavors, we were sure those unfamiliar with the cuisine were going home. But Tiffany whipped up a beef goulash with poached egg and currants that rung true -- and kept him ruminating on her flavors long afterwards.
When she got her first pick of country in the elimination challenge -- Mexico -- we were certain this also spelled doom. But the native Texan confidently whipped up a deconstructed tamale adorned with a huge, drool-worthy slab of braised chicken (you see, Tiffany laments the fact that tamales have so little meat in them). It wowed the judges and dinner guests alike, and even though her first win granted her immunity, she won the episode as well -- and ten grand to go with it.
Meanwhile, we were sure that when Kevin picked India, declaring "go big or go home," he was sealing his fate. Didn't he realize there was another possibility -- go big and go home? Perhaps he wasn't familiar with the withering critiques a certain Padma Lakshmi has levied upon chefs who "dabbled" in her native cuisine? But his chicken with leeks, parsnips and "curry flavors" (having never combined the spices before, he was careful not to say it was a curried chicken dish) impressed as well, earning him a top spot.
The bottom rungs this time were reserved for the merely confident, the unfocused, the ones who hedged their bets -- namely, Alex and Stephen. Ed was also in the pits this week, but to us it seemed he was being punished more for irony's sake than anything else -- the indignity of standing next to his nemesis Alex. Of course, it didn't help that he botched an ambitious recipe: tea-smoked duck breast that was fatty in all the wrong ways.
Meanwhile, we waited for the uncouth Alex -- the alleged pea-puree stealer from last week -- to get his comeuppance. Having successfully assumed "villain" status from Angelo -- who's been merely clueless and annoying as of late -- we thought his Spanish tapas would at least go over well with this crowd. But his plate of olive salad, veal cheeks and jamon torta was a mess, a glop of random elements that we'd send back at a ten-dollar buffet, let alone a tapas restaurant.
But it was Stephen, the snotty, self-sabotaging, lackadaisical Stephen, who committed the most heinous crimes: In representing Brazil, it was bad enough that he adorned black beans, rice and flank steak with Chimichurri -- a distinctly Argentinian sauce. But did he have to make the beef chewy, the rice broken and the beans overcooked? We'll be the first to say that we'd have rather seen evil Alex go home. But Stephen, we won't exactly miss your downer attitude, either.