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Natalie Portman shakes up ‘Top Chef’

The chefs get thrown for a loop on a surprise vegetarian challenge and while some triumph others find themselves in the weeds..
/ Source: Entertainment Weekly

Bad news, readers: Archana had to catch a last minute flight to San Fran to console Laurine after her crushing loss last week. Such a do-gooder, that one. In her absence, I’ll be recapping the most unappetizingly titled show in “Top Chef” history: “Meat Natalie.” Ooph. I love a good pun as much as the next guy, but that’s just plain wrong. Anyway...

After the bloodbath of last week’s restaurant wars, the cheftestants started this episode with a well-deserved lazy morning. Michael V. sharpened the knife he planned to use to slit his brother’s throat. Jennifer blow-dried her hair after a long night of flagellating herself with a balloon whisk (“Broken sauce? Bland trout? You! Stupid! Idiot!”). Robin sagely remarked that “waiting for coffee is like watching water boil” (read that a few more times) and then commended herself for “holding her own” (translation: “squeaking by on dumb luck while others fail around me.”) Just another morning in Vegas.

And then they were off to the M resort, where Padma was waiting with this episode’s mentor, Paul Bartolotta, owner of Vegas’ celebrated Capisce Ricotta di Marcello Mastroianni restaurant. (That’s what she said, right?) And the challenge, sponsored by some other magazine that sometimes covers TV stuff, will be gourmet interpretations of TV dinners. The very idea made Jennifer smirk, visions of deconstructed oil-poached fish sticks dancing through her head. But it was not quite that open-ended. Each chef’s dish has to be inspired by a classic TV show. That’s it? No other limitations? Isn’t this begging to be one of those great microwave challenges that makes the chefs furious at the idea of having to reheat their work in a super-fun-awesome-tastic GladWare® container? Guess not. This one’s going to be a cinch for everybody.

Oops. Spoke too soon. Robin doesn’t watch TV. In fact, she’s never even heard of the concept and is still a little unclear on why the men with shoulder-telescopes keep following her around while she’s cooking in this fun competition. Luckily, she was assigned “Sesame Street” and was able to vaguely connect that to the names Cookie Monster and Big Bird. Eggs and cookies it is.

Looks like the producers decided that today’s unofficial theme is Childhood Memories, so Michael V. told a poignant little anecdote about how he and Bryan stopped getting homemade food when they left their mom and moved in with their dad as kids. And then they both became chefs. Huh. Have fun in therapy, boys! Then Jennifer revealed that her favorite “Flinstones” character is Pebbles, because she thinks it might be fun sometimes to get dragged around by her hair. That breeze you just felt was Gloria Steinem sighing.

TIME! As Padma slithered back into the room, Michael I. and Eli high-fived just for funzies and Jennifer threw in the towel. Like, for real, she actually threw her towel on the ground. Her “Flinstones”-inspired chicken roulade didn’t come out at all the way she wanted, and she was not looking forward to another sleepless night in the cilice of her disappointment.

Then Michael I. served up sausage and peppers inspired by “Seinfeld,” which he has NEVER SEEN BEFORE. What’s with these people? Even Padma is shocked, and the last thing she watched on TV was a rerun of “Glitter” in 2007, just for old times’ sake. Kevin won the Captain Obvious Medal of Literalness for doing meatballs in honor of “The Sopranos,” but Bartolotta said they were good because “there are definitely peperoncino here.” Which is more of a statement than a judgment, but never mind.

Then came Eli, who made macadamia nut shrimp with sweet potato puree for “Gilligan’s Island.” I know I just slammed Kevin for being unimaginative, but if ever a dish was begging for Ginger, this is it. Next!

Michael V. made chicken parmesan for “Cheers.” “Fennel, that’s what I taste,” proclaimed Bartolotta, who was apparently the type of kid who would narrate his sandwiches to anyone at the lunch table. Of course, we all know that the real secret ingredient in all of Michael V.’s food is anger, but the fennel probably masks it a bit.

Meanwhile, Robin’s “Sesame Street” dinner turned out as burgers and salad, and Bryan’s “M*A*S*H” meal was meatloaf with MASHED potatoes. Get it? The pun? Because of title? Of the show? Padma rated it an “Mmmmm,” although, to be fair, I believe she gave a similar rave to the Hardee’s Thickburger not too long ago.

In the final assessment, Jennifer and Robin got “canceled,” while Kevin and Bryan had “a chance of going into syndication.” Kevin won (“moves into primetime”? I’m just trying to keep the theme going...), but his prize was a bummer: A version of his dish will be marketed in a line of frozen foods by Schwan’s. He forced a smile, gave the company a team-player plug in his confessional, and then presumably spit out the molar he broke clenching his jaw the whole time.

Then Padma delivered the Elimination Challenge: The chefs would take over the Vegas branch of Tom Colicchio’s Craftsteak for a night. Except instead of the usual packed house, they only had to cook for 11 people. “Huzzah!” shouted the chefs, except Robin, who muttered something about being raised on chicken feed and tree bark. But it all seems a bit too easy, doesn’t it?

After the commercial, we found out the twist: The chefs would be cooking for none other than Natalie Portman. Tom explained that Natalie is a total foodie, though we all know she’s really just on the show because Padma thinks it’s awesome that Natalie’s character in “Star Wars” was named Padmé. They’re practically sisters! But wait, there’s more. “I love food, I love eating,” says Natalie, making a subtle nod to the title of her 1996 comedy “Everyone Says I Love You.” “The one thing is, I’m a vegetarian.” Say what? Michael I. laughed, Kevin blanched like crudités, and Jennifer dropped an immediate S-bomb. But at least one person was pleased. “I’m going to shine on this challenge,” said Robin smugly.

The chefs bolted into the kitchen and immediately started fighting over the most coveted veggies. Eggplant, for one, was in such hot demand that Jen and Eli decide to flip for it “Top Chef”-style, using a dehydrated orange chip in lieu of a coin (guess they didn’t have time for a good old game of Rock Salt/Parchment Paper/Kitchen Shears).

Everybody took turns expressing their fear/apathy over the challenge. Jen was freaked out, Michael I. couldn’t care less (his mom was vegan), and Kevin was worried people won’t be “satiated” by an all-veggie meal. But Robin was in (imitation) hog heaven, running around the kitchen in a state of garbanzo bean-induced euphoria. Eli, on the other hand, admitted that he often thinks of vegetarians as “lower” human beings, worthy of sympathy. Pardon me, sir, but I’m pretty sure Ms. Portman doesn’t need pity, least of all from the guy who just referred to “Star Wars” as “the most important thing” in the world.

Then came one of those amazing duh-duh-duh moments on “Top Chef” when something goes horribly, terribly wrong, and the music gets creepy and the camera gets shaky and Michael I. informs us, in a tone of voice usually reserved for medics at combat sites, that he has......ohboyhereitcomes: A WOBBLY POT! What? A wobbly pot? What kind of world is this? The thing isn’t heating up as quickly as it should, which sets poor Mike I. behind right from the get-go.

But when the buzzer sounded, it was Robin who was really in trouble. In her legume-infused reverie, she forgot to leave enough time to plate her beloved beans, sending three unfinished dishes out to the floor. At this point in the competition, you’d expect everyone to at least keep an eye on the clock, but I guess Robin was a little too high on fiber to pay attention.

Commercial break, bathroom, chip refill, did I forget to clip one fingernail?....And we’re back! Padma toasted Natalie and friends at the dinner table as waiters brought Robin’s dishes in for judging. Her final product, a stuffed squash blossom with beet carpaccio and garbanzo beans, looks a little lackluster. Can we pause for a second to think about the idea of “beet carpaccio”? It’s obviously not raw, so we’re basically just talking about thinly sliced beets. Does that even count as cooking?

Apparently Natalie thought so. “I thought it was so beautiful,” she cooed, in a sly reference to her 1996 film “Beautiful Girls.” Tom, on the other hand, pointed out “some seasoning issues.” Too much salt. Not balanced enough.

Next came Eli, who won the contentious eggplant toss-up. His dish, confit of eggplant and lentils, looked blocky: two purple stumps on brown mush. And the flavor isn’t so great either. “I feel like I’m in Provence sucking on a bar of soap,” quipped Bartolotta after getting a mouthful of lavender. Back in the kitchen, Eli gave a word of warning to the Mikes and Bryan. “Be careful. Natalie’s got $@&% like 10 really hot friends.” Good point. Wouldn’t want anybody’s food to get overcooked by the sudden blast of hotness.

Michael V. came out with his plate of asparagus salad, Japanese tomato sashimi (read: sliced tomato), and banana polenta. I’m starting to understand how Natalie stays so skinny. “Where’s the banana?” she asks, channeling the naïveté of Novalee Nation, her character in 2000’s “Where the Heart Is.” Tom pointed her to the polenta, which she inhaled with a satisfied “Mmm.” Everyone seemed to agree.

It was a tough act to follow, and Jen wasn’t feeling confident. Her plate was small, it didn’t look great, and the clock was beeping. But out it came anyway: a hearty-looking dish of charred eggplant with braised fennel and verjus nage. (Before you go flagging this post for inappropriate language, verjus is just another word for grape juice, and nage usually refers to a broth of some kind. Now get your mind out of the gutter.) Jen, clearly awestruck by the aforementioned hotties, got nervous. Her hand shook, and the sauce sloshed onto plates. The flavors won approval from the crowd, but some found it insubstantial. “It feels like a collection of sides,” remarked Natalie in a hat-tip to her recent short film anthology pic “New York, I Love You.” Oh dear. I’m not sure I want to see what happens if Jen gets low marks again.

And now for Mike I., who sent out a colorful dish of roasted leeks with onion jus. Unfortunately, it looked better than it tasted. The leek was undercooked, and the whole thing apparently reeked of grandmotherly scents like cabbage and turnips. Blech. But it was not all bad news. “Purple is my favorite color,” gushed Natalie, finally coming clean about her reason for appearing in the 2007 underachiever “My Blueberry Nights.”

And then things got a little crazy. Like, Joan Rivers on a three-drink-minimum night crazy. It was Bryan’s turn. Time got the best of him, too, so a few of his artichokes went out sans garlic blossoms. But the diners barely even notice once they started giggling about Padma’s comment that the dish feels like “A little prick on my tongue.” Whooo! That’s rich. And it just got worse from there when Padma moved on to the garlic blossoms, which she said are “very tiny in size, and yet big in your mouth.” (Cue laughter) Then Tom piped in: “It went from ‘a little prick’ to ‘big in my mouth.”” (Laughter increases) And one of Natalie’s pals went in for the kill: “That’s what usually happens!” (Laughter is now uncontrollable. Is Padma lizzing?) Ba dum ching! Thanks for coming folks! Drive safe.

Hard as it may be to move past that, the show must go on. Kevin was in the kitchen, fretting that his kale/mushroom concoction was too homely. To be fair, it did look like something you’d see about 12 hours after a meal instead of during it, but our diners don’t judge on looks alone. In fact, Tom and Natalie were awed by the meatiness of the dish. “It’s a manly vegetarian meal,” she laughed, perhaps recalling the virile vulnerability of Eric Bana, her co-star in last year’s “The Other Boleyn Girl.”

As the chefs packed up, nobody was in high spirits. Even a goofy interlude of “power-eating” at Bartolotta’s restaurant couldn’t cut the tension. And back in the Glad Bag Dungeon, the booze was flowing freely. Then in came Padma with the good news: Kevin, Michael V. and Eli were in the top three. Everyone agreed that Mike V.’s banana polenta was a perfect gastronomic gag. “Who is his dealer and does he want new clients?” cracks Natalie, using the comic timing she picked up while hosting “SNL” in 2008. Gail loved Eli’s dish, while Tom referred to Kevin’s dish as “a mouthful of flavor.” But only one can win, and the night’s champ was...

Kevin! And for his prize, Kevin got a line of shiny GE appliances. And for our prize, we got Kevin’s reaction: a bemused chuckle and a sarcastic “Okay...” as though somebody had just told him he’d won a lifetime supply of Lady Speed Stick. Michael V, looked like he was gonna kill somebody but managed to force out a see-through “Good job” before griping to the confessional that he could’ve made Kevin’s dish in 20 minutes. Hey Michael, maybe they would’ve liked your dish better if it didn’t have all those sour grapes in it. BAM.

Now it was time for the bottom three: Robin, Michael I. and Jennifer. Here’s the rundown of their critiques.

Michael I.: His dish had no protein. His leeks were raw. And his genius defense? “It’s just like whatever whatever. What am I going to do?” Very zen of you, Mike.

Robin: Her elements didn’t come together, and she used ingredients clumsily. Tom actually looks like he’s going to vomit when Robin said she’s never stuffed a squash blossom before.

Jennifer: Her entrée looked more like a garnish, and she spilled her sauce on everybody. Tom remarked that she seemed to be cracking under pressure, which is pretty clear to anyone who’s been paying attention to the frizz-factor in her hair.

In the end, the judges decided to give Michael I. the boot, much to the surprise of... uh, nobody. Absolutely no one. Seriously, can they just get Robin and Kevin out of here already so we can get to the Brothers v. Jen showdown? Back me up here, readers. Are you getting antsy with all this build-up? And who do you think should be in the finals?