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'Top Chef': Underdone pasta, woebegone challenge

February 3, 2011 |  6:30 am

Mike undercooked his pasta.
Dale messed his up, too.
Angelo misspelled “crocodile.”
And the wrong chef was sent home.

Wednesday’s “Top Chef” started with silliness and ended with ineptitude. If the cream is supposed to be rising to the top, someone forgot to tell the contestants—and perhaps the show’s producers, too. After all, aren’t we past the halfway point?

The episode opened with an absurd Quickfire challenge that was larded with product placements that were appalling even by “Top Chef” standards (particularly the plug for Padma’s jewelry line, which if it was represented by her necklace may owe a royalty payment to King Tut). Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi supervised a test in which the chefs were asked to assemble a dish that looked great but didn’t need to be edible—in fact, no one took one bite of anything.

Yes, presentation is critical to fine dining, but has “Top Chef” really run out of ideas to have to come up with a challenge like this? How about a winemaking competition in which the wine was judged solely by color and never drunk? If this were a show about car design, could you draw up an automobile that didn’t really go? Maybe a contest to make the best movie—but you never show a frame of film to anyone!

The “Top Chef” contestants gamely tried to impress Mizrahi, but his tastes were hard to pinpoint, his observations bizarre. He tastelessly compared Angelo’s “crocadile” typography  (the misspelled reptile was writ large across a counter) to the crime scene graffiti of Charles Manson,  and complained that Antonia’s nuts were too big for her fake tree.

“I think it’s the most ridiculous comment I’ve ever heard in my entire life,” Antonia said, and we couldn’t agree more.

The elimination challenge was a more legitimate (how could it be anything but?) test of the chef’s talents.  Divided into three groups, the chefs were asked to prepare three courses for the team at Rao’s, an impossible-to-get-into Italian restaurant.  The remaining women (Antonia, Tiffany, Carla) served some very good antipasti, while Richard, Fabio and Angelo plated some great-looking main dishes.

The backstage silence when Antonia won for her steamed mussels was deafening, with Fabio in particular wondering how his ambitious chicken cacciatore didn’t win over a far simpler dish.
But the real crime was when Tre was sent home for risotto that wasn’t moist enough and might have been too flavorful. 

At least the guy tried, and barely missed.

Mike, on the other hand, served a bowl of raw rigatoni with calamari. I mean, isn’t undercooking pasta like not knowing how to boil an egg? And he’s Italian? And he’s serving dinner in an Italian restaurant? For sheer failure, he should not have been spared. Dale also could have been given the ax for his pasta with pancetta and Brussels sprouts, too. 

Maybe Mizrahi was helping judge the elimination secretly, because Mike and Dale’s food at least looked good.

-- John Horn

Photo of Tre Wilcox: Bravo