It’s time for a variation on Name That Ingredient, one of my favorite Quickfires.
The chefs enter the Top Chef Masters kitchen and see at each place there is a blindfold, headphones, and a nose clip. “A nose thing?” says Celina. Yep. A nose thing. They have to identify ingredients using one sense only. The winner will get $5,000 for his or her charity, but no immunity. Floyd is worried, since he’s claustrophobic and has balance issues.
The first sense is Taste. Strictly speaking, this also uses touch, since they eat the ingredient and can tell the texture, but I think the idea is they’re not allowed to touch it with their hands, so I’ll accept that. After all, the only other option would be to puree stuff and drip it on their tongues which would be weird. They all put on their blindfolds, nose clips, and after receiving instructions, their headphones. We’ve all heard that 90% of taste is actually smell, so I’m curious about how this will work out. “The chef that identifies the least amount of ingredients in each round will be out” says Curtis. “Fewest, not ‘least amount’” I scream. Yeah, I’m the one in the supermarket who cringes at “Twelve items or Less.” And I’ve learned the hard way that cashiers do not want to hear about it.
A tray with five custard cups containing the ingredients are put in front of each chef. They seem to have trouble actually getting the stuff into their mouths;much spillage results. I’m not sure if this is deliberate, but I suspect so. They could’ve used porcelain spoons, even soft skewers, with glasses for liquids, maybe had the servers hand them things. So, ha ha, isn’t is funny to watch everyone have stuff flop on their faces and spill down their shirts. What’s next, dribble glasses?
Mary Sue doesn’t feel like she’s tasting anything without smell. Hugh says his ears are jamming as he chews. They taste all five ingredients; the trays are removed, and they have to write down what the ingredients were. Traci points out that remembering five things adds to the difficulty. I agree. This seems pretty poorly designed; I think they should’ve done them one at a time like they have done in simple blind tasting challenges. I don’t understand why they didn’t, in fact. The hearing thing is kind of bogus, anyway. What, hearing yourself swallow worcestershire sauce is going to give it away? Rig the headphones so they can hear Curtis give instructions (which, it’s hilarious, at the end he says, “Ok, take off your headphones” and they all do so on cue). Maybe I’m just grumpy, but this could’ve been very cool if I hadn’t been so distracted by nonsense.
Curtis reveals the ingredients. Water chestnuts (Floyd thought it was jicama), worcestershire sauce (which Traci spilled all over herself, Curtis gleefully points out), cashews, papaya (which Mary Sue wrote down but changed to tomato), and mustard greens (which no one got right, guessing basil or parsley instead). Most of them got only one right, confirming the importance of smell to taste. Floyd didn’t get any right (maybe he was focusing on not panicking and staying upright) so he is banished to the W(h)ine Room.
Next, smell. Same idea, they smell things in custard cups, then the trays are taken away and they write them down. The ingredients were: Epoisses cheese (which no one guessed), hot sauce (Naomi guessed capsaicin but they don’t tell us if that counted), root beer, rice vinegar (Hugh laughs at himself for guessing coffee), and mayonnaise. Mayonnaise? How does mayonnaise smell? Of course, I’ve never had authentic mayo, just the stuff in jars, so maybe the real thing smells more. Naomi is distressed that she missed mayo because apparently she’s famous for loving the stuff. Traci got nothing right, so she joins Floyd in the W(h)ine Room.
Touch: Chayote (Hugh wrote mirliton which is the same thing – aha, I learned something!), Gummi bears (Hugh interviews that as the proud father of a six- and an eight-year-old, he knows the properties of gummi bears; Mary Sue asks Curtis if they have them Down Under and he sneers), blackberries (all four of them get that), okra, and Arborio rice (how can you tell which kind of rice it is? Hugh and Sue got it – I’m impressed). Hugh and Mary Sue got them all. Naomi and Celine got three, but they’re out anyway.
And Sound: just Hugh and Mary Sue listening. Mary Sue interviews that her mother was very hard of hearing so she never developed her sense of hearing because in her house people were always talking very loudly. I think that’s hilarious. I hope that doesn’t sound mean. Curtis pours milk over Rice Krispies. I’m surprised they can say Rice Krispies instead of Crispy Rice Cereal, but I suppose they had to since snap, crackle, pop is the point. And maybe Kellogg ponied up. neither chef knows what it is. Naomi interviews she thinks she would’ve known. I think I would’ve known, too. Rice Krispies is wonderful “I feel so bad I want to eat something that won’t hurt me” food. I remember feeling achy one day and stopping at a CVS after work, paying an obscene price for a box of crap (I think it was $4.00 or something) and eating half the box. It’s my go-to sick food. I guess Hugh and Mary Sue have other kinds of sick food.
Cutis breaks a stalk of celery and they both guess it, but Hugh beats out Mary Sue in a photo finish. Literally. She interviews she wants to see the photo finish so they show it, and he does beat her by just a hair of a second. Curtis eats a potato chip. Curtis guesses a carrot, Mary Sue guesses celery which is dumb because they already had that, but it’s probably like Jeopardy where it’s a lot easier from your living room than it is IRL. Hugh says it was an awfully big crunch for a potato chip so large Australian males must eat potato chips differently. Curtis shucks an oyster. Hugh gets it. Then he butters a piece of toast. Hugh gets it again. Hugh beats Mary Sue, 3 to 0. Maybe Mary Sue was right about not developing her sense of hearing. Hugh gets $5,000 for Wholesome Wave.
The Elimination Challenge: the relationship between food and love. Or at least the love of the culinarily timid and romantically insipid.
Enter Chris Aagaard. Who? Chris Aagaard. He’s been dating Victoria Thompson (who? Victoria Thompson, pay attention!) for four years, and now he’s ready to propose. So the challenge is to provide a six course dinner inspired by the seminal moments (yes, Curtis actually says that, I’m sure a writer thought of it) in their romance, for a dining room of 21 couples including the critics. After dinner, Chris will pop the question, surprising Victoria with a ring. Naomi interviews, “I don’t know what I’d do if someone was paying that kind of attention to me.” She makes a gesture with her hand and it’s really sweet and kind of sad. At least I think it is. For all I know, she means “if anyone was ever that maudlin on me I’d either punch him or run the other way.” But something about the scene makes me feel like she’d like that kind of attention from someone. Especially in light of stuff I’ve discovered about a nasty divorce that forced her to close some of her restaurants. I’m more interested in Naomi than I am in these squibs posing as real people.
Chris comes in and meets with the chefs. He brings pictures of him with his soon-to-be-fiance Victoria. Hugh interviews, “There’s lots of PDA. I’m not really big on PDA. But that’s ok, I’m happy to cook.” I’m fine with PDA, but looking at pictures of total strangers to cook for them doesn’t really make sense.
Chris explains he and Victoria were just friends until their first kiss. Cut to Floyd interview describing his first kiss with his wife; they were friends for 8 or 10 years. Was this supposed to run the same week as the royal wedding or something? Because it’s just… not.
Chris’ favorite moment: they saw a marquee that said “Je T’aime”, and the first gift he gave her was a bracelet with Je T’aime on it. Hugh interviews it’s poignant and he’s going to throw up in his mouth. I may join him. Come on, there are love stories that will leave me sobbing on the floor, but this isn’t one of them.
We also learn: They go to sporting events and have beer and pretzels. She introduced him to sushi. She made salmon, and got him to eat it by telling him it was chicken (Naomi interviews “I don’t know how she could have fooled him into thinking salmon was chicken.” That’s just what I was thinking. Are we still talking sushi? Chicken sushi? Or is she really that bad a cook?). For his birthday she got him a red velvet cake. For her birthday he got her apple pie. They’ve never had shellfish (Mary Sue interviews, “Are you ready to get married if you’ve never had clams or mussels?”).
This is where I start banging my head against the wall. It’s basically a great challenge, but these two lovebirds are, culinarily and romantically, the least interesting people in the room. So, sure, let’s build a show around them! Huh? Cook for a guy who can’t tell the difference between salmon and chicken? Who’s never had shellfish? And here I thought I was culinarily naïve.Why are these people the star of the show? Why not let the chefs pick from their own romantic moments, or from some Victorian novel? And the setting is so cafeteria, it’s an awful visual. Right idea, lousy execution. Lee Ann, where are you?
The chefs start planning. They have $200 each and have plenty of time, some for prep and two and a half hours the next day to cook. Naomi is going to do something French with chicken. Floyd wants to do something with a lot of flavor, closer to his roots, and a lot of texture. Hugh isn’t sure what to do to tie his beef dish into the backstory, so Mary Sue suggests onion rings that look like bracelets. He noticed that the kids aren’t the most sophisticated palates on the block, so he’s sticking to beef and broccoli. At the market, Naomi gets chicken thighs, then thinks, what if they freak out because the chicken is on the bone? And, you know, Chris seems like the kind of guy who might. She’s worried about meeting the guests’ expectations for a romantic dinner. Mary Sue gets black mussels. Traci plans an apple galette and a red velvet cupcake. Dessert isn’t her comfort zone but she feels like it’s her turn. That’s pretty cooperative of her.
Floyd interviews, “We get into our [product placement car make and model] and drive to the Top Chef Masters kitchen to start cooking.” He reads the script well.
Mary Sue works on debearding mussels since it could ruin Chris’s idea of mussels for life if he got a mouthful of beard. She’s probably right. Naomi works on her stock for braising. She wants a powerful chicken flavor. Floyd is making something he calls kama sutra shrimp, two shrimp on a skewer hugging each other (the point of date night), with watermelon that will look like tuna, just like the salmon was like chicken. He’s a big romantic and loves candlelight dinners. For their first anniversary, he and his wife went to a NY steak house, “paid through our noses” for dinner at a time when they really couldn’t afford much. I’d really rather have more details about the shrimp. Hugh interviews he met his wife when he was 11. I don’t think it’s anywhere near as creepy as that sounded. He proposed on Valentine’s day in a French restaurant, which sounds pretty banal for him. Celina got married on her sixth anniversary of living together. They’re in the kitchen asking each other how long they all lived together before getting married. I’m so old, I can remember a time when you didn’t say things like that on television. And I’d still rather know more about the food.
Mary Sue has by far the best story. Her business partner, Susan Feniger (who I loved on the last Masters) kept telling her, “You should meet my ex-husband” and she did meet him when they were designing the restaurant. It was love at first sight. Now there’s a cool story of romance for you. Chris and Victoria, you can go home now. But then, Mary Sue cuts off the tip of her thumb. They try to make it very dramatic, but basically a medic sprays it and we never hear anything about it again – no emergency room, no stitches, no complaining about pain – so either it isn’t much of a deal or she’s incredibly stoic. Jamie, listen up!
Celina is making soft pretzels. Hugh interviews it’s something you eat on the street of NY but it’s hard to put into a fine dining experience. Traci announces the scale she’s using for pastry is off by three ounces. That’s kind of a big deal when you’re doing pastry. She decides not to do the red velvet cupcake, but focus on the apple galette.
Curtis comes in and everyone tenses for the Twist. Like, “Oh, by the way, we’ve decided to have the dinner at the North Pole and you’ll Amazing Race your way there and serve on skis after you incorporate polar bears and seal into your dish.” Turns out, the mothers of the happy couple will be watching the dinner, and the proposal, from the W(h)ine Room. What? Who cares? I’d really like to know more about the apple galette, or even about Mary Sue’s amputated thumb. Mothers? Spying on their children? What the hell is this? These guys were smoking crack when they came up with this.
[off topic: there's an ad for Rocco's Dinner Party – Rocco states firmly, "Nothing's worse than a dry short rib." Oh, I don't know about that. I can think of a lot of things that are worse. Murder. War. Tsunami. Raw chicken. Rocco's Restaurant show. He's still trying to redeem himself, I see. Not since Hung declared he and Rocco liked the same flavors have I been so skeptical.]
The judges are James and Gael Greene (damn, I thought Ruth was back tonight) at one table, and Gail Simmons with Curtis at another.
Floyd serves kama sutra black pepper shrimp with watermelon, lime and mint. Gail likes how the shrimp are spooning. James says he’s already feeling more romantic towards Gael. Now that’s over the line. Curtis thinks the shrimp is aggressively spicy, but that means people are drinking more wine (cut to shot of bottle with label showing) so that’s a good thing.
Celina serves a frisee salad with mustard vinaigrette and a big soft pretzel with pale ale cheese sauce. Victoria declares salad and soft pretzels are her two favorite things in the world; the only thing missing is beer and a hockey game. Seriously, these people need to get out more. James says this dish is more of a junior high romance whereas Floyd’s was a college romance.
Mary Sue makes mussels and clams Portuguese style with sausage and wine broth and a crouton. There’s something about a spoon – I though she’d served it with a bent spoon to get up all the juicy goodness, but the Team Top Chef blog says Curtis made the spoon from mussel shells which is pretty cool, too – I only wish I’d been able to tell what was happening from the TV show, people! Then again, the next sentence of the blog declares Curtis the best date ever, and I have pretty strong feelings (including laughter and gagging) about that, too. Gael says the crouton has too much crunch for a romantic dinner. I want to know what romance manual she’s reading, because I think I missed that parameter. I’ve always been a little meh on Gael Greene, but now I’m tipping towards the dislike end.
Naomi serves a porcini braised chicken thigh with sweet potatoes two ways. Gael says romantic feelings will survive Naomi’s dish. I don’t even know what that means. Gael, go home. The kids love the chicken. I think Gael loved it, too, but she’s so busy being cutesy she’s incomprehensible. No one mentions what the two ways of sweet potatoes are.
Hugh sends out strip steak with bordelaise sauce, celery root puree, and broccoli all topped with the famous Onion Ring. Gael tells James he’s been chewing the same piece of meat for a minute and a half, it’s not attractive, not seductive. I think watching someone chew for a minute and a half, and for that matter timing it, is extremely not attractive and not seductive, and telling them about it is downright rude. Chris tells Victoria he’s so full, and she leads them in a backwards arch of the back to stretch their stomachs. Which trumps chewing on the not-attractive-not-seductive scale. Then Gael gives her “I slept with Elvis” thing. The woman loves to brag with how many celebrities she’s slept with. Now we’re talking really unattractive.
Traci writes “Je T’aime” on the plates in chocolate and serves her pink lady apple galette with whipped crème fraiche and caramel sauce. Victoria is amazed by the “Je T’aime” since it’s such a unique phrase special only to her and Chris. Curtis thinks the tart is dry. Gail says it doesn’t sweep her away the way dessert should. I think Traci gets kudos for biting the bullet and doing dessert, but on the other hand, she had $200, lots of time and a full kitchen and that’s all she did?
Then for the main event, because the food wasn’t really the focus: Victoria says, “They do say the key to a man’s heart is through his stomach” and Chris says, “and what’s the key to a woman’s heart?” to which she answers, “Diamonds!” No fool, she. Curtis makes sure everyone is paying attention, and Chris proposes, one knee and all. Hugh says, “If she says ho this is going to be the most awkward moment in television history” but of course she says yes and jumps down to the floor to kiss him. The mothers are very happy. Chris’s mother hasn’t met Victoria yet. Wait – they’ve been dating four years and she hasn’t met her? I think these are Bravo staffers playing parts.
Traditional Interstitial at the 40 minute mark: They all give their “bad self” names – Mary Sue is Margaret, and they show her “snapping” which seems awfully mild by Top Chef snapping standards. Traci is Tiffany, Hugh is Hank. Floyd doesn’t have a grumpy alter ego because he can’t cook when he’s not happy. Is this such a common thing? Because I have to think up a name for the person who snapped at the supermarket cashier today. I never knew I could blame someone else.
Naomi, Mary Sue, Floyd get called back. Hugh thinks Celine and Traci hit the nail on the head for interpretation so he things they will be in the top. But he’s wrong.
Floyd’s shrimp was aggressively spicy but it worked. Mary Sue’s shellfish was great and the sausage added a lot to it. Gail liked the crispness of Naomi’s chicken skin and asks her if she crisped it after braising; she did. Now, there’s something I’d like to know more about. I suppose I’ll find out when the recipe is posted. How do you crisp soaked chicken skin? Fry? Roast? Torch? It sounds like a great idea so it’d be nice to know what she did, not what the recipe on the website tells the home cook to do.
Naomi wins. She gets $10,000 for Seed Savers Exchange.
Floyd interviews he’s tired of coming in second. In the W(h)ine room he tells Mary Sue he’s been in the top three times but still hasn’t won.
And the bottom three are Hugh, Traci, and Celina.
Celina: Gail liked the pretzel and the salad, but felt they weren’t integrated. Celina says she creates playful food, that’s what her restaurant is all about. I’m wondering how she spent $200 and at least two and a half hours on a salad and pretzels. Ok, there was pale ale cheese sauce and mustard vinaigrette. All together, it sounds kind of like a nice salad course. But Top Chef doesn’t like salad courses.
Traci defends her pastry; she was happy with it. Gail says it was missing something to add moisture, sauce. James says the Pink Lady apple is dry, she should’ve used a moister apple. Curtis notes it’s her first time in the bottom three, and she points out that everyone had strong dishes and now they’re splitting hairs.
Hugh was also happy with his dish. James says his meat as very chewy. Gael says it’s not good to serve something that takes chewing for a romantic dinner. I think the list of things you can’t have at a romantic dinner is awfully long: onions, garlic, broccoli and other cruciferous veggies, beans, fish, too much fat, etc etc… and now we have to add anything chewy or crusty to the list? What does that leave? Fried egg sandwiches? Hugh defends what they did, they cooked for the events that were listed, and had to appeal to a pedestrian crowd. Curtis nails him: “So you cook down to people?” Hugh says, “Are you going to pay the bill? Yeah, I’ll cook down to you any time.” I think he was answering a different question than what Curtis asked. I think Curtis was saying, “Did you cook down to these people because you thought they wouldn’t know the difference and they didn’t deserve your best effort?” and I think Hugh answered, “If someone pays me to cook steak and broccoli I will cook steak and broccoli for them, I won’t insist they try carpaccio or tartar or caviar.” But he came across as a bit of an ass.
The judges deliberate. Gael lets Celina have it. Why didn’t she do a lobster pot pie with pretzel puffs? You know, I have a dim view of Gael Greene, but that sounds pretty good. Gail says they expect more elevated food at this point. I have to agree with that. They recap Traci’s dry tart and Hugh’s banal dish.
Celina loses. Her charity, Harvesters, will get something. Which is good since I don’t think she won anything. There’s something appealing about her, though. I liked her better here than on The Next Iron Chef.
Rant alert: There’s something very wrong with this season of Top Chef Masters. It goes beyond the lackluster cast and the stupid challenges, because tonight’s challenge was (culinarily) fine – great, in fact – but it was a bad episode, focusing on some random couple’s boring banality rather than the chefs and the food. The food, for the most part, wasn’t anything to write home about either, from what little we saw and heard of it. I wonder if the Elves are overextended and no longer have time to carefully edit the film, or if Lee Ann was the only one with any ideas and the skill to present them well for viewers. The food is an afterthought to stupid stunts. Like mothers. I’m hard core – I’ll watch until the well runs dry – but I no longer telling people, “Oh, this show is great, you have to see it!”
Next week: an edible science fair. Padma! And it looks like Ruth Reichl really is back. But I could be wrong again.