Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Top Chef -- Dave Folds in Vegas

Bravo's Top Chef, part one, is done and Dave is cooked.

His food was consistently better liked than Tiffani's by tonight's judges, but in the end his lack of focus, his nerves, his uncontrolled emotions and his (admittedly flavor-filled) relatively simple cuisine led to his elimination. It didn't help that he forgot to make a dish.

Tonight was filled with plot twists, tight deadlines, mystery judges and lots of Kobe beef.

The three finalists, Tiffani, Dave and Harold, had the run of a MGM Grand Hotel kitchen in Las Vegas. To say that the pantry was stocked would be an understatement. From fresh herbs to caviar, the kitchen's abundance almost overwhelmed all three. In fact, they only had 10 minutes to familiarize themselves with the kitchen's equipment and larder before they had to start cooking for the first challenge -- one of the evening's many plot twists.

The evening's challenge was split into three parts and run like a quick fire, but it was an elimination round. The chefs had 30 minutes to complete each of the three different "room service" requests.

First up were three "high rollers" who wanted to be impressed. They asked for two courses, one cold seafood and one hot. The mystery high rollers, and three of evening's many guest judges, were the recently eliminated Miguel, Stephen and LeeAnne. The high rollers gave high marks to Harold's dishes -- mussel and paprika soup and a fish crudo with Japanese cucumbers and avocado. Dave's flavors got a nod (although his grilled fish was ruled overcooked and dry), but Tiffani's dishes left them cold. (By the way, all the contestants had color-coded napkins and their dishes were tasted blind.)

Chef Tom wondered why no one grabbed the caviar and worried that the dishes were not impressive or substantial enough for high rollers. Over and over again he stressed that being a top chef meant being responsive to customers' needs.

The second part of the quick fire challenge was to create four snack foods for a group of poker players at a table in the casino. Phil Hellmouth and his pals were happy to dig into Dave's dishes, all of them giving high marks to his egg rolls, fried shrimp and chocolate-covered strawberries. Dave also had a salami paninni. If the guest judges commented on it, their remarks were edited out. Harold had what the poker players considered the best individual dish -- honey Dijon chicken wings. Ironically, it was a dish that pretty much came right out of the MGM kitchen freezer and into the fryer. Harold's onion rings, mini pizzas and grilled cheese were not really mentioned, but all the poker players thought Dave and Harold "got" the kinds of easy to eat, flavorful food they wanted to eat at the table.

Tiffani, who announced that she was a Las Vegas poker player herself, went all in and busted with her gourmet interpretations of snack food. A quince and flatbread Napoleon looked great, and the players all thought her flavors would make great appetizers but said the dishes needed a fork.

Okay, so far, Tiffani has not scored a win or even a real strong second in any of the quick fires, and Dave is coming in surprisingly strong. But the pressure, the rapid pace (which he continually moans about) and the unfamiliar kitchen all came together to derail him.

The third and last of the night's 30 minute challenges was to create three high protein, high carb and low fat dishes for Cirque de Soleil performers. By now, all three cooks have taken proper stock of the wealth of food offered to them and they all offer Kobe beef. Tiffani also concocts a blueberry, crab and caviar salad and offers a pork dish. Harold creates a lobster pasta and a chicken with crispy skin and potato gnocchi. Dave's Kobe beef is accompanied with a kick-ass, no-oil pasta dish that reminded me a bit of Guy Fieri's cooking on The Next Food Network Star.

If you are counting dishes, you know what happens next. Dave has only produced TWO dishes. According to him, he just spaced and totally forgot he had to make one more until there were literally seconds left and he saw the other chefs' room service carts lined up and ready to go.

My son and I were yelling at the screen. "Grab some apples. Put some bread on the cart. Anything, just do it!," but Dave just stood there, his perpetually worried face looking drained and defeated, his hands and body finally still. (One aside, did anyone else think that even when something good happened to Dave his face registered nervous upset?)

Chef Tom took the food carts to the circus performers who gave very informed and insightful criticisms of the food. Dave's beef was the hands down favorite. Harold's cart was praised overall. Tiffani was criticized for pork (one judge called it rubbery) and her salad (too salty).

While the guest judges had a big say in the individual quick fire elements, in the end it was Chef Tom, Kathy Lee Joel (who had less to say than usual and therefore was much less annoying), Food & Wine's Gail Simmons and Hubert Keller, the chef-owner at San Francisco's famed Fleur d'Lys restaurant, who made the decisions.

After dinging Harold for winging it with the frozen chicken wings, it was clear that Harold was in and would continue to the final challenge. Then the judges started praising Dave and carving up Tiffani.

Dave's food, his win, his almost win if he had only made one more dish, his flavors were all discussed. The praise was so strong, I thought the judges were making a case for keeping the technically weaker candidate. I rationalized this continuation of Dave's Cinderfella story by Dave's continually astute reading of what his patrons would like to eat. It never seemed like he was cooking for the food cognoscenti, it has always seemed to me that he makes food for the "regular" guy.

Tiffani was scored for never having the winning dish or cart and for her misreading the needs of her poker-playing patrons.

Well, I thought, the nice guy is going to finish, if not first, at least second, but then the plot turned, and the judges announced to Tiffani that she was staying and that Dave should pack his knives.

I was surprised but not surprised. In terms of a finale, Tiffani is more evenly matched with Harold. She also adds more drama and confrontation. (See my post where I discuss the Wendy Pepper rule in reality competition shows here.) If the lack of one dish was the reason Dave was eliminated for not following the rules it was never clearly expressed. I think the judges just saw his nervous lack of focus and perhaps his lack of top technical skills as not being "top chef" material.

From clips of the next show, it looks like the judges were all top food professionals, an audience that with one key exception never warmed to Dave's food. (The exception was his win over LeeAnne in the Napa challenge.)

A few other snippets:

Harold has opened his own restaurant.
Tiffani would use the prize money to travel the world and explore the food she cooks with.
The restaurant Dave worked for was sold and he is out of a job. He's being doing some catering and vowed at the end of the show to keep cooking and looking for a mass audience to expose his flavor concepts to.

Was Dave robbed or did he deserve to go home? Leave a comment below and I'll tally them up for next week's wrap up report.


Unknown said...

At first I thought that Dave got robbed, too, but then when I added it up, that "disqualification" on the third task really would have netted him less points overall for the day.

Tiffani and Harold really have been the standouts from the beginning, and although I'm more intrigued by Dave's flavors, I think that the right two are left.

Harold has shown the talent of a chef and the grace of being a humble leader from the very beginning.

Jeremy said...

Dave was robbed. Yes, his leaving off a dish should have given him a big hit on that one but it's obvious he still would have placed above Tiffani overall. I really think the judges have had it out for Dave and have been wanting to eliminate him; I suspect that might even be the reason for the 11th hour elimination quickfire when they've been told all along all 3 Vegas finalists would be able to showcase to the end.