Top Chef Masters Season 3 Episode 9: A Soldier’s Story

Only four chefs left: Floyd, Mary Sue, Naomi, and Traci. This is the last regular challenge; next week is the final, in which three of these chefs will compete.

The Quickfire: This was a terrific QF! I’ve been very critical of the QF challenges (and Elimination challenges, for that matter) this season, but I have to give credit where credit is due: this one hit all the right notes. The chefs had to think fast, consider many possibilities and unknowns, and there was the surprise at the end. Bravo!

Curtis explains it as a communications test. The stations are set up in pairs with a divider creating two work stations for each chef. They will have a mystery teammate, and the chefs will have to explain to their teammate how to make the same dish they are making. They will not be able to see the teammate or what is happening with the food; they’ll have to rely on what is said only. The goal is to produce two identical delicious dishes.They will be judged on how the dishes taste, and on how similar they are.

This is pretty cool. Naomi interviews she is worried if the teammate will be able to do what she asks them to do. Mary Sue points out, “We don’t know if they’re cooking school instructors or children.” Yeah, good point. Turns out, they’re the chef’s brothers, sisters, father. Awesome!

Traci, unknown to her, is working with her brother Mitch. She’s yelling, “Chiffonade!” and he says, “I don’t know what that term means.” She interviews that he must not be a cooking student. She tells him to mince, which he understands, so she minces hers to make it the same. He asks how he can tell when the asparagus is done, and she tells him to taste it. This is great, really. She’s making sautéed halibut with asparagus in brown butter vinaigrette. She tells him to take the fish out with tongs, not to pour the butter onto the plate, because now they’re going to add vinegar. It’s a “magic” brown butter vinaigrette sauce she makes from time to time and she’s taught it before. That sounds like a great idea. I can use that. When it’s time to reveal her little brother teammate, she’s surprised, she didn’t recognize the voice at all. I guess it’s because the kitchen is noisy with four pairs of people shouting. They do not usually cook together. Curtis says their plates look exactly alike except the fish is cut slightly differently. He says he can’t tell which one he likes better, but he appreciates the acidity and the “vivaciousness” of the asparagus. I never thought of asparagus as vivacious. Traci gives Mitch credit for knowing her brain. Curtis says the dishes could have come out of the same kitchen, and Traci wins. She gets $5000 for La Cucina.

Naomi is unknowingly working with her father, Toby. This is pure gold. She’s yelling at him all the way. She interviews, “I don’t know what’s going on with this guy, he’s a quiet talker. I find myself getting irritated.” She screams at him. Part of it is that he can’t hear her, but part is just that she’s annoyed and wants him to do it right. She tells him to crack an egg into boiling water (to poach), and she interviews, “Most people can crack an egg. I’m not getting disqualified because he can’t crack an egg.” He doesn’t know what a shallot is, and she’s stunned. He tells her the egg is a little runny, and she tells him it should be. All along she’s calling him “Dude,” as in “Dude, we have to plate.” The other chefs are all hearing this. Floyd interviews, “the more Naomi screamed, the less I wanted to do the same to my guest.” Traci interviews, “She’s been yelling at her dad the whole day.” When his identity is revealed to Naomi, she’s surprised of course, but he says she talked to him like she always does, she was like that at breakfast time, so she runs the kitchen now. And Traci says, “Yeah, and we know how.” This is hilarious. But in Naomi’s defense, she wasn’t vicious or nasty, she didn’t even seem angry, she was just frustrated trying to get something done, and I think a lot of it really was just a problem hearing across the divider. But it was really funny that she has this reputation of being bossy and pushy and it came home to roost here. She makes a fricassee of mushrooms, bacon, and shallots with a poached egg. Curtis says they look identical and the eggs are cooked just right. The seasonings are a little different but the flavors are very similar. She comes in second.

Floyd is teamed with his sister, Debra Furtado. He thinks she’s got “a slight Indian accent” so, he says, “they got me an indian woman who’s going to make my life hard.” At least I think that’s what he said. I’m surprised he didn’t get an inkling of what was up. He makes a shrimp, mushroom, and asparagus stir fry. When he finds out who his partner is, he says he could’ve done something more “aggressive” because she’s a bad-ass cook (I think that’s what he said. I’m having trouble hearing, too). Thing is, his sister doesn’t cut the asparagus, so it’s sticking up from the bowl. Curtis points out her asparagus looks like it’s been growing for four months so the dishes don’t look similar. He loves the crunch of the asparagus and the depth from the mushrooms, but the difference in appearance puts them in the bottom two.

Mary Sue works with her sister, Chris DeWitt. They make spinach salad with shredded chicken and avocado. When her sister, who is from Omaha, is revealed, Mary Sue says she came a long way just to make a chicken salad. Come on, it isn’t all that far. Curtis says the avocado is very different on one dish, they’re both messy dishes, and he wishes they would’ve done something a little more difficult. They’re also one of his least favorite dishes.

Elimination Challenge: since the Quickfire was awesome, the Elimination Challenge has to be awful. It’s the obligatory Support Our Troops show, which means two things: it’s rife with sentimentality, and short on cooking. It’s going to be an off-site buffet which means reheated mediocre food at best. And it’s food for “the masses” meaning stuff I can make. I’m sorry to be a curmudgeon about this, but if they want to support the troops, they should vote for increasing funding for the VA, vote to bring troops home, and donate to veteran’s-related organizations at least for this show. Otherwise it’s all for show. Some of it makes a pretty good show, I have to admit, but I’m tired of “let’s drag out the firefighters and army guys and be really soulful.” I’d rather see really good cooking. Why not, make an extraordinary meal for these families, instead of catering to a hundred people in an American Legion hall? It’s cheap schlock.

Ok, I’m done ranting.

The chefs draw knives and each gets a branch of the service: Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force. I guess the Coast Guard doesn’t count.

They are to team up with the family member of a returning serviceman (they keep saying “men and women of the armed forces” but they’re all men, so come on, it’s ok, you can say servicemen when you’re dealing with service men; I won’t even complain that you couldn’t find one returning service woman to put on). They are to plan a meal – an entrée, two sides, and a dessert – for the serviceman based on his favorite dishes, and they’ll serve it buffet style to 100 people at the aforementioned American Legion hall, which is as depressing a place as has ever been. Couldn’t they have rented a hotel ballroom and put up a bunch of flags there? Or was the American Legion really proprietary about it? That could be it. I just think it would’ve been nice to have made the setting a little more pleasant.

Oh, dear, I’m ranting again.

The critics for this episode are James Osleland, Ruth Reichl, and Danyelle Freeman. The Grocery Store Relay Race is not shown on this episode; we don’t know how much they get to spend. I hope it’s a lot. They get four hours to prep and cook in the kitchen, then go to the American Legion hall where they have an hour to set up and finish.

Mary Sue will be cooking for Marine corporal Marlon, and she talks to his brother. It’s actually an interesting story (yeah, I know, in spite of myself). Marlon and his family are from Guatemala and Marlon became a naturalized US citizen while he was serving in Iraq. Mary Sue loves the challenge. She’s in her element. Marlon’s brother says he likes spice, chili, and barbecued ribs. Mary Sue feels comfortable with the flavors (as well she should, boy did she luck out) and feels he is easy to please. Mary Sue makes ribs with spicy tomatillo bbq sauce, avocado corn relish, potato and rajas (sautéed chilis), and apple and cream cheese bread pudding with crema. Marlon is very happy with his meal. James asks him how it stacks up against Mom’s cooking, and he wisely says, “No comment.”

Naomi gives the military history of her family. Seems like everyone’s been in the service except her. She’s cooking for Bruce, a Captain in the Air Force who’s been in Afghanistan. He delayed his retirement from the service to do another tour. Ok, that’s impressive. He’s originally from Hawaii so he loves pork and comfort food and he wrote his kids that it was hard to get good seafood in Afghanistan. At the actual banquet, he says the bread he had there was some of the best he’d ever had, but the rest was meh and it was the same food over and over. Naomi makes glazed pork, shrimp fried rice served chilled (it’s also called shrimp rice salad), poke salad with raw tuna, and panna cotta with caramelized pineapple. She interviews that while she likes a relaxed atmosphere so doesn’t usually wear a chef’s jacket, she did so this time to honor the servicemen. Ruth asks Colonel Bruce about the food in Afghanistan, and here we learn the bread was really great. What he missed the most, and he hedges a little before saying it, is Spam. They really like the food, though. Ruth isn’t sure about the fried rice, and someone at the table says it’s different. Someone at another table isn’t sure about the poke: “We cook our food” which, while I agree with the sentiment, is kind of a snotty thing to say.

Traci meets with the wife of Navy submariner Philip, who likes really simple American comfort food. Meat loaf. Mashed potatoes. Peach cobbler. Tracy interviews, in dismay, that she didn’t grow up with food like that, and she can make fancy French dishes easier than she can make a meat loaf. Philip has been away for months and has returned to learn he is about to be a father for the second time. I’m assuming he wasn’t away for THAT long. I mean, that could’ve gotten messy right there. Traci makes what she calls a French version of meat loaf, more like a terrine, plus a Caesar salad, mashed potatoes, and peach cobbler. Curtis is hosting at submariner Philip’s table. He asks, “How is it being back from Afghanistan?” You know, just once, I wish someone would respond to this idiotic question (equivalent to, “How does it feel to be 10 years old” or “How do you like being married?”) with something different: “Damn, I miss sleeping on a cot in a tent with twenty other guys in desert temperatures and eating goat from questionable sources and constantly checking for snipers and mines and incoming mortars and planes dropping bombs. Yeah, I wish I was there right now, because this being home with my family and having professionally cooked food really sucks.” He likes the meatloaf. One of the guys is looking for ketchup because in the military you need ketchup on meatloaf. I think they were making a joke.

Floyd is worried because he hasn’t done a buffet in a long time. He’ll be cooking for Army captain Eric who just got home from Afghanistan. The wife tells him Eric has simple tastes; “Is American a cuisine?” He’s not a fan of spice, so Floyd rules out peppers, mustard, wasabi, and horseradish. Eric likes clam chowder and spinach salad. I don’t think I’ve ever known a man who would list spinach salad as one of his big likes. Floyd is positive he wants to make something for Eric, not the judges. Floyd became a US citizen fifteen years ago, so he’s very happy to do something here to honor servicemen. He makes a roast tenderloin with mushroom jus, spinach salad with walnuts and pomegranates, garlic smashed red potatoes with bacon, and clam chowder. And a tamarind marguerita. I don’t know what counts as dessert. Maybe I got that wrong. Eric and his family love it all; Eric is crazy about the steak. After service, Eric gives Floyd a coin; it’s a military tradition to trade coins when you feel gratitude. It’s a specialized coin, like a big token. Floyd is verklempt, or whatever the Indian version of verklempt is. As anti-sentimentality as I am, I have to admit it was quite a nice moment. I was also thinking, Floyd is toast. In fact, I put it in my notes: “Floyd is toast.”

The winner is announced at the banquet: Mary Sue. Her meal certainly sounded like the best, and she was the closest to her comfort zone. Didn’t someone a few episodes back say something like Mary Sue didn’t have the cooking skills needed to prevail here? Either that person was being a blowhard, or her cooking skills are just fine. Or down-home cooking is the new black.

All the military families get passes to Universal Studios. What??? That’s pretty cheesy. Though I suppose they got nice hotel accommodations for a couple of days at least. It just seems like an awfully paltry gift.

Critics table:

Since Mary Sue already won, they’re debating which of the remaining three to send home.

Ruth loved Naomi‘s poke and iceberg wedge, but many of her shrimp were undercooked. Naomi later comments that if shrimp are curled and hard, they’re overcooked, so she doesn’t agree. I think there’s some room between undercooked and curled and hard. But what do I know. Ruth has eaten a few shrimp in her time. They also think Naomi was all over the place, conceptually – as in, what was the panna cotta doing there?

Traci: Curtis says they enjoyed the dish. Ruth says the family was very happy with mashed potatoes. James asks Traci if she uses some unusual salt, because his meat loaf was salty. She’s surprised to hear that.

Floyd: Danyelle says Eric loved it. Still, she wonders why he didn’t do more with meat; it was well coooked but didn’t do much. Floyd says the wife was specific, that Eric wanted plain food and he cooked to please Eric. This is why I hate these challenges. And why Danyelle is the Sarah Palin of the culinary world: she had to say something even if it was idiotic. James says “the riddle was the salad”, which had spinach, broccoli, walnuts, and pomegranate seeds. The riddle for me is, what’s wrong with that? Floyd defends himself by saying you can’t just put spinach on a plate, and he couldn’t do heat or spice, because he did want his guy wanted. Take that, critics. If you’re going to tell someone to cook to someone’s tastes, don’t blame them when they do so. Floyd shows them the coin Eric gave him and says he won. I’m really glad he had the last word.

The chefs go back to the W(h)ine room and the critics continue to display their lack of understanding of the challenge.

Curtis says Floyd should’ve taken a different piece of steak. That’s because Curtis doesn’t understand that to Middle America, filet mignon is the ultimate steak, even though chefs prefer rib eye or even sirloin because of its marbling. It doesn’t matter: give your average guy tenderloin, and he’ll feel well-treated. Ruth says he took exactly what Eric wanted and gave him better than expected. See? Now Ruth gets it, what’s wrong with the rest of you? James says, was it worthy of final round? James, honey, if you wanted fancy food, why didn’t you find a gourmet, or at least a gourmand, and ask Floyd to cook for him?

Curtis doesn’t think Naomi understood the challenge, which baffles me. Ruth says the family loved it. Danyelle says it was a puzzle, pannacotta with poke. Oh come on, it’s like poi except it’s less gluey. And she put pineapple on it. Curtis says Naomi is never safe. That’s supposed to be a good thing, right? Hey, if the family loved it, she did her job. I wonder, though: did anyone mention Spam?

Danyelle its torn about Traci‘s dish, she did exactly what he asked for, but she could’ve done something more. Yep, Sarah Palin right there. Curtis wanted to see something more than you could get in any home. Ruth says you wouldn’t get those potatoes in any home. James didn’t like saltiness of the meatloaf.

They bring the chefs back out for the Last Word:

Floyd: James says his sincerity is fabulous but the salad was bizarre. I think James needs to get out more. If he wants to see bizarre, I’ll show him bizarre.
Naomi: Ruth tells her the shrimp were indeed undercooked, and the dishes didn’t go together.
Traci: Danyelle says she served something safe.

Naomi is out which is a shock to me. Traci and Floyd are going to finale with Mary Sue. I’m very surprised.

Naomi interviews that she’s impressed with how Traci and Mary Sue have designed their lives to spend times with their families too. That’s kind of sweet. I don’t really see her doing that, though. I think she’s got a lot of chops and I’d like to see more of her.

Next week is the final. It looks like Susur Lee, Tom, and Gael Greene will be there. Well, two out of three ain’t bad. I’ve finally identified what I don’t like about food critics as judges: they say things that make them sound clever rather than that communicate about the food. Ruth Reichl seems to be an exception to this, but I may be biased. James, Danyelle, and Gael do it in spades. So does Nigella, for that matter: I’m still traumatized by her comment about panna cotta needing to quiver like the inner thigh of a seventeeth-century courtesan. I wish I’d been there (I don’t even remember what season it was). How does the inner thigh of a seventeenth-century courtesan differ from the inner thigh of an eighteenth-century courtesan? Or from the inner thigh of a twenty-buck Times Square whore? Or from that of a nun? And how much research has she done on thigh quivering, and just how has she determined exactly how much a seventeenth-century courtesan’s thigh quivers? Yeah, Nigella does it in spades.

Hmmm, I guess I’m ranting again, must be time to stop.

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6 responses to “Top Chef Masters Season 3 Episode 9: A Soldier’s Story

  1. “Danyelle is the Sarah Palin of the culinary world: she had to say something even if it was idiotic.” SPOT ON!

    I don’t think there’s much difference between the thighs of 17th and 18th century courtesans, but I think that Nigella meant back in those days, jiggly thighs were the preference. Whereas the attraction of a cheap whore these days is the price, not the meat. :)

  2. Pingback: Top Chef Masters Season 4 Episode 8: Foodie Flash Mob | A Just Recompense

  3. Pingback: Top Chef Masters Season 4 Episode 9: Old School, New School | A Just Recompense

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