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'Top Chef': To bacon or not to bacon? That is the question

September 10, 2009 |  1:23 am

Joel Repeat after me: Fat equals flavor. Fat equals flavor. It's a cooking school mantra -- or at least it was at mine, and I went to a very French institution. (More butter, more cream!)

It is why bacon, a once-humble cured and smoked pork product, rules on the flavor scale. It is why it's so "in" right now. There's nothing bland about it. Lots of fat, lots of salt, a little meat, a winning ratio.

But can there be too much of a good thing? Looks like it. Even during Wednesday's very fat-happy French episode of "Top Chef."

Before the Quickfire Challenge, Jennifer's doing quite a bit of talking to the camera, which makes me nervous because usually that's what the people who are going home do at the beginning of every episode. (Stop scaring me, "Top Chef"!) The contestants are ordered to whip up escargot for chef Daniel Boulud -- and the loser will go home immediately. High stakes doesn't mean a cash prize this time; it means a surprise elimination.

Jennifer does not like snails, but I bet she still does something incredible to them. Mike I. says he's got a handle on them. Robin steals Ron's snails by accident and tells the camera she has no clue about preparing them. (Let's face it: it's only a matter of time for her.) Jesse's still crushed from being in the bottom multiple times in just three episodes and is doing her best not to have a nervous breakdown in the kitchen.

Before you know it, Tom and Daniel are ready to slurp down some slugs. (By the way, they're delicious.) They remain mostly poker-faced throughout the tasting, but it's pretty easy to tell who will be on top. Mike I., who tanked last week but was supremely confident this week; Jennifer, of course; and Kevin, who served his snails along some bacon jam. Bacon jam! (Behold, the recipe.) That's two episodes in a row where the fattiest dishes have been the judges' favorites during the Quickfire Challenge. Coincidence? I think not.

Now who's going home? Jesse, Ashley or Robin. My guess? Robin. But wait, Tom says they have 20 minutes to make an amuse bouche using anything remaining in the kitchen to save their lives. Robin makes avocado soup with crab. Jesse does tuna tartare and I think, "Really? How many of those have we seen on this show?" And Ashley does foie gras. Nicely played Ashley, but can an obvious bribe in the form of a fatty piece of duck liver save her? Of course! Jesse gets put out of her misery. This is probably best for her health. Moving on...

For the Elimination Challenge, things get even more French. The contestants will be paired into teams, each responsible for preparing an entree of one protein and one sauce. The French are very big on the sauces; the four main ones are "mother sauces" and they're a part of classical French training. The contestants really wet themselves when they find out they'll be cooking French for French culinary masters Hubert Keller, Jean Joho, Laurent Tourondel and Joel Robuchon.

Oh, and Joel it turns out, has been named the chef of the century by the French. Good luck, cheftestants! Except for you, Kevin. You won the Quickfire, so you get to sit this one out and eat alongside the man.

Here's where I feel like the bacon gets abused. Resident Frenchman Mattin makes an instant mistake, I think, by deciding to do a bacon-based veloute. I love me some bacon, but bacon veloute with poultry? Chicken's bland enough, but it's sure to be overpowered by such an ingredient. Unless they're doing something radical to the chicken, but really, why not chicken veloute? Oh well, maybe I'm wrong, but it's still a puzzling move.

Less puzzling: The fates deciding that Ron and Robin should be a team. It's like watching the blind leading the blind. I don't care if Ron says he's made frog legs 250 ways, I don't believe they're among the real contenders this season. They're just taking up space. Same goes for Hector and Ash, a pairing like Robin and Ron that I can't seem to care about either way. They can't get their beef to get past raw. Eh. And while I think Eli could outlast several of these folks, I'm also unconvinced by his partner Laurine because, well, she gets no screen time. They're making lobster with sauce Americaine, and it looks like they're taking a pretty straightforward approach.

At this point, it's way more exciting to see who'll win rather than who'll be cut, and the real competition it seems is between Jennifer and Mike V. vs. Bryan and Mike I. The latter decide to do a deconstructed, eggless bernaise to go with their trout. That's risky. I'm not usually sold on the idea of deconstructing anything just because you can, but these two can probably pull something imaginative off. Jennifer and Mike V. are so in sync making their rabbit chausseur they're practically making sweet cooking love in the kitchen. Brother vs. brother again. Bravo really lucked out.

When it comes time to dine?

Ron and Robin's frog legs are, you guessed it, overcooked and dry. The almighty Joel says the "flavors are masked" and you can't taste the frog. Bryan and Mike I.'s trout and bernaise is a big hit. Boulud especially likes it, and Joel says "I liked it a lot." (All of you viewers who wrote Mike I. off, I told you so! I'm sure I'll be eating my words when we hit the second half of the season, but still.) Eli and Laurine's lobster is poo-pooed by one judge for being tough. Joel says its missing something "genuine." Still, not as harsh a critique as Team Frog Legs got.

Bam! Mattin and Ashley's poussin (a young chicken) and veloute is knocked. Why? Because it's all bacon flavor. They didn't ask for a bacon dish, after all. Tom dubs the Jennifer and Mike V.'s rabbit "mature." Alas, Hector and Ash rush through plating their chateaubriand and I see a guillotine in their future. The meat looks, well, not what you'd serve to this murderer's row of French chefs.

And looky who's on top: Jennifer and Mike V. And Mike I. and Bryan. The team love overflows. Bryan takes the win for the trout, and his prize is the opportunity to stage -- pronounced stAHj, and meaning to work for free! -- in Joel's Vegas restaurant. Nicely done.

Who escapes the bottom? Ron and Robin. And Eli and Laurine. Interesting.

So what is the graver offense: Overdosing on bacon? Or not knowing how to cook beef. I think the answer is clear, but here's a hint: Boloud gets angry about just one thing...

...and that's the beef dish! Since Hector handled the meat, he's outta here. Bacon once again sneaks by.

What say you? Is there really a bad time for bacon? Or were the judges just too picky about it? More important, are you sensing some real affection between Jennifer and Mike V.? I think they kind of look cute together myself...

-- Denise Martin

Photo: Padma Lakshmi and Joel Robuchon. Credit: NBC Universal

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