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Top Chef Heads To Napa To Finish Off The Culinary Gamble

December 3, 2009 at 4:32 PM | by | ()

Last night, Top Chef officially crossed the line from prime time entertainment to nail-biting stressfest.

A lot has changed since Top Chef last filmed in Vegas. Jen’s hair got all sorts of curly (looks like Philadelphia’s end-of-summer humidity had its way with her). Kevin’s sweet little redhead seemed to lose a few hairs in the hiatus. Bryan got accessorized (note to Bryan: no one, and I mean no one dons big, oversized golf umbrellas on the west coast).

And Michael, well, not much changed with him, except he’s seamlessly stepped into the role of the resident jerkface since Mike I. got the heave ho.

The episode starts with everyone sitting at a train stop in Napa Valley, when low and behold, Napa’s finest mobile tourist trap pulls into the station – The Napa Valley Wine Train. Out walks Padma rocking some severe bangs and a baby bump (will we ever know who knocked her up?) and guest judge and owner of Napa restaurant, Bottega, Michael Chiarello.

Final Four Quickfire Challenge
The final four chefs are given their Quickfire Challenge: to make something that utilizes Napa Valley’s signature crop, the grape. The episode coincides with crush, so this comes as no surprise. Jen, Michael, Bryan and Kevin are given free reign in the pantry and 30 minutes to make something grape-centric for Padma and Michael.

The catch? They’re cooking on the train and it’s a high stakes quickfire, playing for a 2010 3rd generation Toyota Prius.

Kevin fesses up a tendency for motion sickness, but seems to fare just fine as he whips up a honey and fromage creation with olive oil and thyme. We love his sweet meets savory approach to this dish. Michael stuffs a grape leaf with cous cous and skewers grapes and bay scallops kebob on a grape vine. Bryan roasts a hen with a side of bacon, Brussels sprouts and grapes. Jen get fancy mixing proteins with a sautéed chicken livers and scallop dish with grapes.

We thought for sure Jen would take the win with her creative dish and yummy presentation, but Michael worked the grape theme best and got the keys to the Prius. (Natch, at the end of the segment, we roll right into a Toyota Prius commercial. Oh Bravo, don’t think we’re not on to your adver-whorial ways.) Jen puts on a pouty face (she apparently drives a Chevy Cavalier that’s old as the hills).

The Elimination Challenge
She’s all smiles, though, back at The Meritage Resort & Spa, where the four get all warm and fuzzy over breakfast before heading out for the Elimination Challenge. The chefs are told that Rutherford Hills Winery was hosting its season-end crush party – that night – and they have five hours in the kitchen at Brix restaurant to create and cater 150 portions each of two dishes (one vegetarian, one with a local protein).

The mission is to celebrate the best of the season, and aside from salt and pepper, every ingredient used must be raised or grown in the region. The fabulous four head to Long Meadow Ranch, an open-air tented farmers’ market, to load up on local goods.

Showing Off in The Kitchen
Back at the Brix kitchen, things were fairly civil as the chefs made an effort to help one another as they kept their eye on the Elimination Challenge prize. Bryan made a shortrib dish with fig glaze and celeriac puree, as well as a goat cheese ravioli (Can you say comfort food?). Michael made a vegetable pistou with fennel, raw squash flower and a 63-degree egg for his veggie dish, while getting all kinds of decadent with a torchon of foie gras with turnips and pears.

Kevin took his tried-but-true approach of keep things simple, roasting beets and carrots for a strikingly beautiful presentation. He also make a grass fed beef brisket with pumpkin polenta and a martinated root vegetable salad. Jen had some heat source issues making a duck dish, failing to keep the wood-burning fire going and having to resort to standard cooking procedures. Her dish ended up being a beautiful duck tour-de-force using all parts – duck legs, confit of the breast and brown butter foie gras vinaigrette with a squash puree. For the non-meat eaters, she made a chèvre mousse with crème fraiche, radish and basil. Interesting.

The Judges Take Time Out from Looking Weird To Taste The Food
In the vineyard, the four chefs gear up to serve their dishes as the hungry masses descend. The judges, Tom, Padma, Gail and Michael, make the rounds and Gail can’t seems to stop staring down at her cleavage. Padma is wearing a ridiculous black cutout top, and her hair hiked into a ponytail, a look better suited for a Robert Palmer video than an afternoon in wine country.

None of them seem to agree on anything, but that Bryan’s dish was underseasoned. Tom felt the sum of Michael’s foie gras dish was better than the parts. Padma swooned that Kevin’s roasted beets and carrots were seasoned in complex, robust way, while the consensus was that his brisket was “ropey” and had a “toothsome” quality. Tom though Jen’s duck was very “ducky,” but all four judges puckered at the amount of salt on her chèvre dish.

Tony the Terlato Appears
The next segment confused the heck out of us. The four chefs are taken into the wine cave at Rutherford Hill Winery where Tony Terlato, of the Terlato family of (crap) brands guides them through a brief tasting. Oh wait! It was more of that shove-it-down-your-throat product placement.

Who Won Big and Who Crapped Out
Back at judges’ table, Padma applauds the chefs on a wonderful season. At least one of each of the chef’s two dishes had some flaw – Bryan’s pasta needed more seasoning, Kevin’s brisket was tough, Ken over-salted her vegetarian dish, and Michael’s egg wasn’t prepared quite right. Bryan ended up the Elimination Challenge winner, and with 26 challenges behind her and all choked up, Jennifer was sent home.

Pan to the Voltaggio brothers shaking hands, then hugging (aww…Hallmark moment!), before Michael, Bryan and Kevin engage in a big group hug. We think Bryan’s swell and love all the sweet references to his son and Michael’s little blonde head has gotten too big for his own good, so we still have our money on Kevin to take home the big win next week.

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