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'Top Chef': Tiffany shows some sizzle

August 5, 2010 |  6:00 am

Tiffany Derry reminds us of that kid in sixth-grade math who would quietly sit in her seat all semester, offer a correct answer here or there, and then suddenly put up her hand with the solution for Fermat’s Last Theorem.

Throughout the current season of “Top Chef,” the 26-year-old Texas cook has rarely been that high, and rarely been that low. Some of her recipes looked like something we’d like to make--peach cobbler with cornmeal crust and buttermilk-lemon crème Anglaise comes to mind—but just as many of her dishes were best forgotten as soon as they were served, such as her tamarind-glazed wild sockeye salmon with Israeli couscous,  which looked like the afterbirth of some alien rodent.

For the most part, Tiffany’s drawn attention not for her kitchen work but her apparently innocent flirting with Ed Cotton back at the “Top Chef” crib.

On Wednesday night, though, she made herself noticed.

For one of the rare times this season, the show’s producers took advantage of host city Washington D.C.’s rich ethnic food scene, asking the chefs in the quick-fire challenge to make an Ethiopian dish (judged by Marcus Samuelsson) and then, in the elimination round test (judged by José Andrés) to create a dish from one of nine countries.

Even though Tiffany made clear there’s no such thing as Ethiopian cuisine in her hometown of Beaumont, she nevertheless delivered a goulash (she didn’t know what else to call it) that Samuelsson happily named his favorite dish, beating Amanda Baumgarten and Angelo Sosa. “She beat Angelo,” Ed said like a proud daddy. “That’s the best part. Because Angelo cooked Ethiopian food.”

Drawing first in the elimination challenge, Tiffany chose Mexico and whipped up some chicken tamales that brought her the second win of the night, along with $10,000. “I treated this like I didn’t have immunity,” she said after the tamale win. “I want to win. I didn’t want to stay just to get by.”

One week after Alex Reznik was accused of stealing Ed’s pea puree (as one lawyer friend pointed out, doesn’t “Top Chef” have cameras all over the place that could prove his guilt or innocence?), Reznik was nearly sent home for a veal offering that Andrés called “like a little nightmare.”

Instead, the cleaver fell on the neck of the likable (but perennial cellar-dweller) Stephen Hopcraft, who turned his rice to mush (and the judges didn’t even notice that he used canned beans as one of the three main ingredients in his steak dish).  “To go home on cooking techniques is probably the hardest thing,” Stephen said, and his good cheer will be missed.

How far can Tiffany go? She’s young, inexperienced and not terribly daring. But just like that kid in math class, she’s also given to bursts of genius. With some good timing, that could serve her well in the weeks ahead.

--John Horn

Photo: Tiffany Derry on "Top Chef." Photo credit: David Giesbrecht / Bravo.