'Top Chef: New York' serves up a Christmas miracle: Lackluster food, but no elimination

Tomcolicchio_padmalakshmi_topchef_2 Top Chef: New York channeled all the best Christmas specials this week. The Heat Miser took up residence in one of the fridges, prompting all the Cheftestants to pitch in like Peanuts characters around Charlie Brown's pathetic tree. Plus, Tom Colicchio subbed in for the Grinch, carving up the chefs' egos like so much Roast Beast.

Merry Spoiler, Charlie Brown!

OMG, it's Martha Stewart! The chefs are in a tizzy, possibly none more so than Ariane, who idolizes a Jersey girl made good. (Of course, as soon as she made good, Martha moved to Connecticut. I'm just saying...) Martha challenges the chefs to come up with a holiday one-pot meal that's simple, but not too simple. Oh, and it has to be done in 45 minutes.

Apparently, my definition of "one pot meal" is different than others -- by my reckoning, you don't take anything out of said pot until you put the food on the plate, But many of the cheftestants cook something in a pot, take it out, cook something else in the pot, take it out, cook one MORE thing in that pot, and then combine it all together on the plate.

Hosea, Stefan, Eugene and Jeff follow my definition of a one-pot meal, producing paella, stews and risottos that don't call for a lot of juggling. Martha loves Hosea's paella and bonds with Stefan over his choice of mushrooms in the veal goulash. She disdains Eugene for using cornstarch to thicken his pork stew with spicy Korean broth, and uses the words "unusual" (which could still be ok) and "pungent" (which is probably not) to describe Jeff's potato risotto.

Martha also likes Jamie's potato and kale stew topped with a ginormous scallop, and reminisces about diving for scallops in Maine. She's also amazed that Ariane's cauliflower puree, which she serves with herbed filet mignon, isn't swimming in butter, but instead uses just a little cream.

It comes down to Hosea, Jamie and Ariane, and I think we all know how this story is going to end. Yep -- Ariane wins again, and Jamie misses out again.

The Elimination Challenge
The Harlem Gospel Choir sings The 12 Days of Christmas; the (11) chefs will be serving about 300 guests at a cocktail party for amFAR with food inspired by the song. They have three hours to prep, then an hour the next day to cook.

Disaster strikes -- one of the fridges fails, and all the perishable food is trash. Rahdika and Hosea in particular are screwed. But all of the chefs get together to help out, and it's really fantastic to watch. People take time away from their own dishes to make sure Rahdika and Hosea have food to serve. Sniffle -- it's a Christmas miracle!

Let's see how everyone does:

12 drummers drumming
Stefan turns those drums into mini chicken potpies, and the crowd really like it.

11 pipers piping
Pipers made Hosea think "Stick that in your pipe and smoke it," so he had smoked spiced pork loin with chipotle mashed potatoes. The crowd eats it up -- and several ladies in the crowd look like they'd like a Hosea doggie bag to take home with them. Leah gets mock jealous. Hee!

10 lords a leaping
Jeff looked for frog's legs, but Whole Foods could not oblige. Therefore, he's doing a nutty, sesame-y, beet salad thing with two kinds of roasted Greek cheese, and torturing the line to say that he's leaping from one Greek island to another. The explanation doesn't work, but his food -- and his charm -- apparently does, because he's got another adoring throng of smitten kittens.

9 ladies dancing
Fabio tortures that line, too, thinking dancing = legs = crab legs, so he makes crab cakes.  He spins a tale about how lady crabs dance when they bury their eggs in the sand. Whatever, dude. Folks aren't buying the food, either, which is described as dense, greasy and fatty.

8 maids a milking
Melissa does an Ode to the Cow, with New York Strip on toast with Gorgonzola and cranberry vinaigrette. The cheese overwhelms everything.

7 swans a-swimming.
In Jamie's mind, swans translate to scallops, and they swim in vichyssoise. (Of course, the words "red," "automobile" and "dodecahedron" also translate into scallops for Jamie, but what can you do.) The scallops are raw and slimy, and the lukewarm temperature turns everyone off.

6 geese a laying
Ariane does deviled eggs six ways. Look, deviled eggs are yummy, but they're not exactly ambitious. Points for taste, but Tom is nearly apoplectic at her lack of ambition.

5 gold rings
Eugene makes Poisson Cru (a Tahitian ceviche) on pineapple rings. The judges hate it -- it's too sweet, you can barely taste the fish, just ick.

4 calling birds
Apparently said birds weren't in Product-Placed Phone Co.'s calling plan. No calling birds for us!

3 French hens
Leah does braised guinea hen on puff pasty. The pastry base is dry and dull.

2 turtledoves
Carla's braised chicken has mushroom caps standing in for turtle shells, but the judges say its too salty and a one-note dish.

A Partridge in a pear tree
"I would probably have to hunt my own partridge to find one, so I'm doing duck," Rahdika says. Her duck legs with pear chutney on brioche is juicy and nicely spiced.

The Judging Table
Hosea, Jeff, Rahdika and Stefan are on top. Rahdika tells them about the fridge failure, and how everyone helped her and Hosea recover. None of the top four gets an unqualified review -- Stefan's pot pie was a little boring, and the cheese portion of Jeff's dish may have detracted from the whole. Hosea wins.

The bottom three is Eugene, Jamie and Melissa -- and none of them take it gracefully. When the judges tell Jamie that her scallops were warm, she says that they must have gotten the last dishes she plated. But several people commented that her scallops were warms and slimy, so I don't think that was it. Melissa denies that her cheese was overpowering, and thinks she should get points for the cranberry vinaigrette. Eugene is the most truculent: I have no idea why I'm here! My dish was great! You're all wrong! Dude, you got eight ribbons out of 300, and all of the judges are saying the fish couldn't stand up to the combined sweetness of coconut milk and pineapple. Perhaps you should listen?

I'm convinced Eugene just talked his way out of the show, but the judges have other things on their mind. On the one hand, everyone did pitch in to help with the kitchen disaster, which is good. On the other hand, none of the food -- not even from the top four -- was inspiring.  What's wrong with these chefs? Tom stomps into the stew room and reads the chefs the riot act: you all disappoint. None of you are wowing us, and we want to be wowed. Shape up, or heads will roll.

Just when everyone is thoroughly demoralized, Tom unleashes a Christmas miracle: No one is going home. Because everyone helped their neighbors after the fridge went on the fritz, and "in the spirit of the holidays," everyone gets another chance.

Highlights, thoughts and odds and ends

  • Stefan and Fabio lament that Team Euro is getting its ass kicked by the judges. Stefan carves a sad face in a watermelon, and Fabio remarks that it looks like Stefan -- it's bald, too!
  • Fabio barely restrains himself when Martha disses his polenta. His grandmother taught him to make polenta back when he was an ill-behaved boy! Fabio, unless your grandmother is uncommonly tough, I'm pretty sure Martha could take her.
  • Eugene really seems to be fading, making mistakes that the other chefs don't. No one else thickened their stew with cornstarch, for example.
  • Ariane needs to learn that some challenges -- the one-pot meal, the TV demo segment -- call for simple food, and some challenges -- a ritzy cocktail party -- call for more sophisticated fare. Deviled eggs are never going to cut it for an elimination challenge.
  • Jeff has gotten in trouble before for thinking too much and trying to do too much. That, I think, will be his downfall. He's angling for the busy medal.
  • When Tom rips the chef a collective new one, Leah protests that even if it wasn't amazing food, they did ok. "But Leah, we're looking for amazing food," Tom says. "We're not looking for a little throwaway canapé." "Like mine was?" Leah asks, daring Tom to answer. "Yeah," he replies. Oh, Leah -- don't ask a question you don't want to know the answer to. Tom WILL tell you the truth.