Friday, Nov. 20, 2009 | 5:10 p.m.
Keep it simple, stupid.
Often shortened to the acronym KISS, this half-insult, half-sound advice effectively sums up the road to success used in this week's episode of Top Chef: Las Vegas. It's a bit ironic, really, because none of this season's prior challenges tested the chef'testants' culinary skills (and nerves) quite like the Bocuse d'Or.
Explained by chef'testant Jennifer Carroll as the "Olympics of Culinary," the Bocuse d'Or is the championship of championships for chefs, bringing together the culinary elite from more than a dozen nations in a competition that takes months of preparation. The quickfire challenge asked the final five competitors to create an updated version of the Bocuse d'Or dish crafted by Café Boulod chef Gavin Kaysen: chicken ballotine with crayfish. For the culinary novice, that translates to "a protein-inside-protein-inside-protein." Like turducken.
According to Kaysen, his dish took four months to "figure out." In true Top Chef-style, the chef'testants far less than that — just 90 minutes. Oh geez.
Despite the pressure, Jennifer shone. The lone female participant opted for a dish of calamari steak, scallops, salmon, shitake mushrooms and shiso with rice noodle salad. When asked why she opted to use seafood, Jennifer explained she was more comfortable with it. Stick with what you know. It's a simple and effective winning strategy.
After sampling Jennifer's winning dish, Padma praised the meal and slyly told the chef, "Welcome back." It was music to the ears of any viewer who'd watched helplessly as Jennifer fought to get past the brick wall she seemed to hit a few episodes earlier.
With Jennifer proving once more that she's a formidable force who can hold her own against Kevin and the Voltaggio brothers, one might assume tensions would be high. However, the opposite appeared to be true. Affable Kevin winked at Jennifer after Padma complimented her. Later, during preparation for the elimination challenge, Kevin asked the group questions about a technique he'd never used before. Bryan, the nicer of the two V. Bros, gladly shared his knowledge.
"Even though this a competition, being a chef is very much about sharing information," Bryan explained, before throwing in a slight jab toward Michael, "Some don't. My brother might not have."
Her quickfire win awarded Jennifer an extra 30 minutes during the Bocuse d'Or elimination challenge, which prompted the chefs to create a regal presentation platter with one protein and two garnishes. She used her extra time to help Bryan, who struggled to beat the clock.
I guess what goes around, comes around.
Sampling the dishes were an unprecedented 12 culinary judges, which included Thomas Keller, Alexander Stratta, Daniel Boulod and Jerome Bucose. Yes, Bucose — as in the son of the guy the whole damn competition is named after.
The judges held nothing back. Stratta found a bone in Michael's salmon, which the judges noted would automatically ruin your chances of winning the real Bocuse d'Or. Furthermore, the judges criticized the chef for taking too much poetic license with both the quickfire and elimination challenges. Apparently, he didn't get the KISS memo.
Meanwhile, undercooked meat hurt dishes by Eli, Jennifer and Bryan, though the latter was praised for his knowledge and ease of comfort. He just needed more time.
Keller criticized Kevin's dish as being "a little elementary for the time he had and his talent." At the judges' table, Gail Simmons probed further, asking the bearded chef if he felt he'd played it safe. He responded, "If anything, it's a risky decision in choosing to use less-obvious techniques in favor of something else."
If this chef thing doesn't work out, it seems Kevin has a potential career in public relations. His defense of his simple-but-effective techniques may have helped him bag the elimination-challenge victory, the opportunity to compete to be the U.S. representative in the next Bucose d'Or, and $30,000 from M Resort to boot.
Bryan foreshadowed the win early in the episode, during the quickfire challenge, when he said of Kevin, "He continues to put out product that's more simple than the plates I've executed, but simplicity is OK if you do it correctly."
For his lack of precision, youngster Eli was told to pack his knives and go. The tearful chef expressed no harsh feelings about his fifth-place finish. Hey, at least he outlasted Robin, right?
There's no denying that Eli was simply outmatched in skill and experience by Kevin, Jennifer and the V. Bros, who have been frontrunners from the start. However, the goofy, I-still-live-with-my-mom chef revealed that his mentor is Top Chef season four runner-up Richard Blais, and with a mentor like that, Eli should be able to bounce back quickly.
Still, personally, I'll miss the banter between Eli and his southern brethren Kevin. Example: Eli asks Kevin before the elimination challenge, "What are you going to do tomorrow, chef?" A nervous Kevin responds without missing a beat, "I dunno. Pack a f—king suitcase?"
Though his prediction that he would be sent home proved incorrect, Kevin was right about one thing. He, along with Jennifer and the Voltaggio boys, will indeed be packing their suitcases. The fabulous four will be bidding adieu to Las Vegas and traveling to Napa Valley in California for the final episodes this season.
As the competitions grow harder each week, what could be worse than the Bocuse d'Or? I'm not sure, but I can't wait to find out.