Get ready for an episode loaded with lots of cool stuff. With a whiney-sucky-baby-fit spiraling into delusion towards the end.
Open on Sheldon preparing for the day by sharpening his knife on a whetstone (this is known as foreshadowing. No, not foreplay – foreshadowing) and breathing in the spirit of Menehune: Hawaiian warriors ready for battle no matter what is set before them. The sites I checked make them sound more like the Hawaiian version of leprechauns with a penchant for building, but I’m not about to argue with a guy who never left Hawaii until he went to work at Disneyland.
Master Bladesmith Bob Kramer waits with Padma to deliver the challenge. He makes knives. Himself. “His knives cost $500…” Padma says, and I’m thinking, that isn’t so bad, I once briefly considered spending $125 for a knife, when she finishes the sentence: “…an inch.” Which makes for a $4000 knife. Whoa. There’s a terrific video on the Bravo website showing how he makes them. They’re pretty cool; you can see all the layers of metal on the blade. He shows the chefs how a proper knife cuts through a 1″ hemp rope in one slice (while Padma tries to figure out if she can smoke the piece that falls to the floor). Sheldon wants to hug him. I kinda do, too.
It’s a Skills Challenge quickfire, with three rounds, and it sounds like a complicated setup but it makes perfect sense once you see it in action. The important rule: if anyone gets the slightest nick from the knife at any time, they’re immediately DQ’d. The winner gets immunity and a Bob Kramer custom knife. Sheldon: “I always wanted a $4000 knife.” I think I’d be afraid to touch it. This computer didn’t cost that much and I was afraid to use it for a couple of days.
Round 1: Sharpen
They draw knives – dull knives – for teams of three, then sharpen those knives on a whetstone something like the one Sheldon was using just that morning (see, I told you, foreshadowing, and nothing at all to do with foreplay) until the knives are sharp enough to slice through a piece of paper.
Green Team (Brooke, Stefan, Lizzie): They’re the slowest, so they’re out.
Red Team (John, Kristen, Josie): John calls check before Kristen’s ready – “it’s paper, not cement” – so she’s extra-pleased when he fails the test, but they eventually all get the paper sliced and go on to round 2.
Blue Team (Josh, Sheldon, Micah): They get it done without any drama. At least none that gets aired.
Round 2: Tourne Potatoes
Tourne (cut to a football shape with seven sides) fifty potatoes per team. I can’t find anything definitive on why seven sides. Probably because it’s harder than six or eight.
Red Team (John, Kristen, Josie): John: “I came up in French restaurants, I tourned every day, but with a paring knife.” While that sounds like an excuse, it does seem to be the standard way to approach the task, and I’m not sure if they switched it up to make it more difficult or if someone was asleep at the switch when they designed the challenge. Josie gets a nick (Hugh tweets: “The medic makes sure. She is asked what her name is and she looks at her headband.” I love Hugh’s tweets) so she’s DQ’d. John and Kristen can’t keep up, and they’re out. John’s annoyed they lost by two potatoes. They probably lost by more than that, but he’s warming up the whine machine for what will be an extended performance.
Blue Team (Josh, Sheldon, Micah): Micah hates tournes. He notices Sheldon isn’t doing so well (“They look like poop logs”) but he notices John is really zipping along: “That old bastard knows everything.” Old bastards usually do. That’s how they got to be old bastards. Despite Sheldon’s constipated efforts, they get it done and move on to the final round.
Round Three: Rabbits
The Blue team members now become competitors and race to break down two rabbits and french the racks. Or maybe break down one rabbit and french the two racks. I can barely french lamb, let alone something with ribs the size of darning needles. But that’s why I’m not a chef.
Josh is having issues with the frenching, since the bones are so tiny. Fail.
Sheldon never broke down a rabbit before. Josh advises him it’s exactly like breaking down a cat, but somehow that doesn’t help much. Fail.
Micah: “For some reason breaking down bunnies is a sad moment for me.” Wait, wasn’t he the villain just a couple of episodes ago? All of a sudden, last week and this, he got so cute. Winner. He picks out his $4000 knife.
Sheldon’s disappointed. “That knife is pure sexiness.” Scary thing is: he’s right.
Hey, that was really fun!
And we go down Memory Lane: what do you think when you hear, “Pea Puree?” Ok, everybody (except Lizzie, it seems) knows that one – how about, “Ecuadorian line cooks?”
The chefs must create a healthier version of a dish associated with a memorable moment from past seasons, which is a nice way to do a retrospective without a boring Flashback Reel. Padma chirps: “The winning dish will inspire a new Product-Placement frozen dinner.” I bet that hits the spot with these guys. But the $15,000 prize goes over better. Boy, are they spoiled – in the early days, nobody got anything until the very end. Two hundred “superfans” (the sound guy’s cousins, someone Tom picked off the street last week, the hunky busboy Padma took a shine to at the Space Needle) are on hand to serve as customers.
Padma plants a little teaser – something about the current season’s memorable moment being held for later – but everyone forgets about that right away, including me.
And the Masters are at the Table: Chris Cosentino, who won TCM4. Jonathan Waxman, TCM1 & 2. Wylie Dufresne, TCM2. And Wolfgang Puck, who’s just there because it’s his turn (Hugh tweets: “They won’t let me and Wolfgang and I judge on the same show cause of the incident between LiLo and I at Spago in ’93″).
They serve the judges in order of their assigned seasons, in clusters of three.
Josie: S1 –Tiffani Faison’s roast chicken and root veg from the first Restaurant Wars; Dave Martin’s “I’m not your bitch, bitch.” Josie allows as she’s had a few of those moments: “Sometimes you just have to let people know, I’m not your bitch, bitch.” Someone – Brooke? – says, “I love you, Josie.” She pretty much recreates the dish without much change other than steaming the root veg. Wylie finds the chicken nicely roasted, but the skin could be crunchier; Waxman isn’t impressed, it’s a dish you could get at any standard restaurant, fine, but not exciting.
Stefan: S2 – Betty Frasier’s winning Bada Bing Betty’s Tuscan Portabello Melt with Smokin’Fire Roasted Red Pepper Soup from the firehouse challenge; hey, don’t laugh, it got her on the TGI Friday’s menu. The clip is Betty ripping Marcel a new one. Josie: “They’re like two people who love each other and don’t know how to say it so they rip each other’s eyes out.” I’m beginning to feel sorry for Josie, who seems to have a very skewed view of the world. Stefan phones it in, using spelt bread to make it healthier, but he adds some olive oil and butter because it has to taste good, after all… “It may not be the healthiest thing on earth but I’ll get away with it.” When he sees the table, he has second thoughts: “I can’t believe I’m serving grilled cheese to these guys.” Yeah, that’s what happens when you don’t bother to show up. And this is one of those dishes that’d be really fun to recreate. But that’ll have to wait for someone more recreative. Cosentino notices the richness and fat content; “Greasy is what it is,” says Wylie. Chris likes the soup, though.
John: S3, Howie Kleinberg’s Mushroom Risotto,
the stuff that glopped around. The clip is from a different episode, though, the one where he didn’t finish in time and called out Bourdain on the Ecuadorian line cooks [Addendum: I got my Howie Risottos mixed up; it wasn't the gloppy one, it was the one from the Bourdain ep where the frogs' legs didn't make it to the plate. Many thanks to MoHub for the correction]. This is where John breaks out (or the producers edit in) the Jimmy Sears confessional: “I hired Anthony Bourdain and introduced him to Eric Ripert and the rest is history.” Well, for them. For John, it’s history, all right. He knows about the Curse of the Risotto, he’s gonna ride it out. But he can’t find a decent pot with a flat bottom to properly cook his Umami Risotto with Chicken, Salmon Roe, Burdock Root, and Carrot Emulsion. It sounds amazing, but Padma isn’t a fan; Wylie and Waxman both point out some of the rice grains are mushy and some aren’t cooked. Tom: “If you don’t cook the rice right, it doesn’t matter what’s in there.” Words to live by. Risotto, 1; John, 0.
Sheldon: S4, Zoi’s underseasoned Carpaccio and Mushroom Salad that could’ve been Spike’s butternut squash soup. And the fight that resulted. Angry Dale. Jennifer. Oh, yes. I don’t remember the carpaccio, but I remember the fireworks. What if Spike had been sent home instead? It was that close. Funny how things sometimes turn on a dime. Sheldon’s Beef Carpaccio, with Poi, Mushroom and Mizuna salad, and silken tofu foam is another of those things that sounds amazing but falls short. Chris thinks the meat looks like a mess, like it was put through a grinder; Wylie likes the idea of substituting tofu, but it has no flavor.
Lizzie: S5, Jamie’s scallops and Fabio’s immortal line, “It’s Top Chef not Top Scallop.” Stefan points out Jamie was his S5 girlfriend. I can picture Jamie watching somewhere, screaming, “Like Hell!” Lizzie trots out her resume which includes a spell with TCM3 Traci Des Jardins at Jardiniere, but apparently she wasn’t in charge of seafood selection: she buys less than fresh scallops. As she’s cooking, she notices they’re leaking liquid (ewwww) so they don’t sear. I kept wondering why she didn’t know they were less-than-great at the store; isn’t that what chefs do, find good ingredients? She was, of course, committed to a scallop dish, through no fault of her own. Tom has some thoughts on this on his Bravo blog. Fact is, buying nasty scallops trumps nearly everything. Everyone at the table is smelling them. They do that as a matter of course – there’s nothing like seeing Wylie Dufresne with a scallop stuck up his nose – but the film really emphasizes it. Wolfie: “The quality of the scallop is dubious. What is the word in English?” Everyone else: “Dubious.” Very dubious. I suppose if they were actually rancid they would’ve been pulled.
Josh: S6, Michael Voltaggio’s braised pork belly from the Air Force Base challenge. Josh knows he’s had some “issues” with pork in this competition – like every time he’s done pork, he’s been in the bottom – so he’s out for redemption. He uses tenderloin instead of belly to lighten it up, and finally hits a pitch: his Soy-Glazed Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Smoked Cashew Puree and Heirloom Peaches works. Padma recalls that MVolt got a standing ovation for this dish; Tom recalls Padma got a standing ovation for her jumpsuit, but she denies it. For the record, she did not wear a jumpsuit. She wore a leopard minidress. Do you suppose Tom spends a lot of time imagining Padma in a jumpsuit?
Brooke: S7, Alex’s Pea Puree. You knew it was coming. It was actually a salmon dish, but all anyone remembers is the pea puree. Lizzie hasn’t heard the legend, so Brooke recounts it, with an ambiguous ending (which Tom goes to great pains to address in his blog: Alex did not steal the pea puree. Nobody believes him, but it’s nice of him to stand up for the guy. She’s intimidated by following in the aprons of such notable chefs – don’t worry, Brooke, Alex Reznik wasn’t all that notable. Then she has her Lucy Caboosey moment: she “went through a heavier period” which isn’t quite as gross as it sounds. She wasn’t hemorrhaging, just a little chubbers. So she knows about lightening up: for her Smoked Salmon and Forbidden Black Rice with English Pea and Parsnip Puree the parsnips eliminate the puree’s butter and cream. That’s a really good idea; I love parsnips, I love peas, I might try that. Padma likes the looks of it. Good dish.
Kristen: S8, Carla Hall’s Chicken Pot Pie with pea salt. Kristen remembers Carla’s joy and passion for everything. Yeah, so do I, and I couldn’t watch that awful Chew show because that joy and passion seemed to get dampened down for a mainstream audience. Made me sad. Kristen has a tough job: not only was this a great dish, but pot pie is inherently unhealthy, with pie crust and velouté. But she’s all over it, with modifications and portion control. Instead of crust, we’ve got tiny dumplings, and instead of velouté, there’s a tofu emulsion. And there’s miso and herbs instead of butter or cream. Wow. It’s not really a pot pie, but the Poached Chicken Breast and Carrot Puree with Garlic and Tofu emulsion (and pickled peas; no pea salt) flummoxes Waxman (his word): “it’s a great version of what I thought would be pot pie.” The only flaw is that Cosentino doesn’t have a sauce on his plate. Oops. That’s a big deal in Chopped.
Micah: S9, Heather Terhune and Beverly Kim’s ill-fated Five Spice Duck Breast. Micah: “They weren’t working as a team, I have to make it sing in harmony.” They replay the bus-throwing at JT; Hugh tweets: “OMG Heather vs Bev. The one way war. Bev just cried the entire time. I wanted to arm her.” Please, Hugh, this is how we end up with fourth-grade teachers carrying guns. Escalation is not the answer. So Micah focuses on making a bad dish work instead of transforming it, producing pretty much the same Five-Spiced Duck Breast with Miso Polenta and Pickled Cherries. So he added miso to the polenta? Tom likes the duck and the cherries, but Waxman decides miso and polenta is a Bad Idea. Wolfie wonders why he didn’t do something else, like grated corn, instead of polenta.
Padma calls out Josh, John, Kristen, Lizzie, and Brooke. Those of us at home realize these have to be the top and bottom (John and Lizzie were disasters, Kristen was a star) but the rest have no idea what’s going on.
The Good Guys:
Brooke – Wolfie liked her salmon; it was cooked perfectly, and the light smoking worked well.
Kristen – Tom loved the homey flavors without a homey presentation; Waxman recognized his grandma’s chicken pot pie.
Josh – Tom found it well put-together, and Cosentino liked the balance.
Kristen wins – you go, girl! That’s three!
Imitation as Insult:
John: Cosentino points out the problems with the rice, and John goes into defensive high gear: he’s not making excuses, it really was the pot’s fault. He pretty much slanders the kitchen they’re working in by saying they had no level pots at all. Wolfie isn’t buying it: you can excuse it any way you want, but you don’t serve crap to your customers. Then Josh, sitting pretty from his high placement, gets into the act, and gives testimony as to the suitability of his pots and availability of others. Why, Josh, why? Tacky, man. This isn’t throwing someone under the bus to save yourself, it’s opportunism. And ineffective, since the judges know all the tricks.
Lizzie: she doesn’t even defend herself, and ends up with her hands over her face when Wolfie tells her the sauce was gray and unappetizing. Tom’s surprised, because she’s been very thoughtful all along. Me, too – I just gave her a shoutout last week for being a stealth ninja, in the top four times and never in the bottom, so now she does this? Lizzie, how could you? I was positive she was out; they weren’t going to send John home, even with his scuzzy attitude.
But wait, there’s more…
Padma holds up a Tablet: “Remember this?”
I didn’t. But, in a truly well-executed twist, here’s where the Season 10 Memorable Moment mentioned in the brief comes into play: Cook-off.
The Good Guys go back to the Stew Room to fill everyone in. Stefan’s excitement over Kristen’s win is far more subdued this time than it was in E4 or E7, maybe because he’s beginning to realize she can outcook him. Or maybe because he’s still worrying that he’s in the bottom.
Lizzie and John must recreate the dreadful Pork Burger that took down CJ and Tyler. Battle Pickle! It’s not clear to me if they have to recreate the actual dish, or if they redo the challenge to use spicy pickles, which would give them more room. They both do burgers, but neither does pork. Shrug.
John goes into full-blown asshole mode. It’s really astonishing, he’s been capable of some really nice gestures along the way, but he’s like a trapped animal who’ll chew of his own arm – or Lizzie’s – to escape. He sees the whole cook-off as unfair, since he was the victim of inadequate equipment and Lizzie served foul food. He could, if he were a bad guy, take the pickles under his arm and refuse to give Lizzie any and she’d go home, and he wants a lot of credit for not doing that (Hugh tweets, “I could have taken my pickles and gone home. But I didn’t. I shared the pickles.” Ambassador John Tesar from Planet Iamsurly”). Somehow he seems to think he owns those pickles. He doesn’t realize Lizzie could do the same thing. He asks if he can take some of the dill on her station, and takes all of it except one tiny frond. He keeps leaving her oven door open, then complains that she’s pushing him around when she keeps asking him to close the door. Oh, he’s really pulling out all the asshole stops. If he wanted to get people cheering for his elimination, mission accomplished. He makes a harissa lamb burger with a fried egg on naan with a pickle-tomato salad and dill aioli. Wolfie asks if he found the right pan; two points, Wolfie. He wants more moistness in the burger, but Chris thinks it’s super-flavorful, though he questions the use of a fried egg on a light dish.
Lizzie gets chicken breast, and focuses on keeping it moist. “Hey, dude, where’s my dill?” Coming from her, it’s hilarious. She’s piqued, wants to “beat his bum.” So does all of America, Lizzie, we’re counting on you. She comes up with a chicken burger with goat cheese ricotta and herb salad. Wolfie likes the flavor and moistness, but wishes for a “wisp” of salt; Chris finds the salad refreshing, and likes the mix of dairy.
The Final Final Result:
Tom sees two nice dishes without a lot to criticize, but in the end… Wolfie and Cosentino both like Lizzie’s dish better, and John is out. Good girl, Lizzie. I’m still surprised they sent him home, I’d though he was a shoo-in for the finals.
He kisses Lizzie and leaves peaceably, but interviews, “I got the shaft today. I endured every challenge. I endured childish behavior.” And again he reveals the Pickle Ploy he had the decency not to use. My take: John is delusional.
This season, on the other hand, rocks.
A little extra on the BravoTV website: Padma takes the chef to lunch at Nathan Myrhold’s Modernist Cuisine Lab, where he shows them how to make pea butter (to go with Carla’s pea salt) and other peculiarities. Not just food stuff, either – he has a laser that shoots mosquitoes out of the air. Padma: “I always wanted to take the chefs out… I look at you guys, and I think, they need a massage.” I wish they’d aired this, it’s great.
Danny Meyer, culinary juggernaut and Tom’s former business partner. Intimidation all around. Gail is offended by an anti-Semitic matzo ball. And another twist: now Restaurant Wars requires an audition.
Last Chance Kitchen
CJ vs John. It’s hard to decide which self-important jerk I’d rather see go out.
CJ’s ready for his fifth win; John’s still stewing about pots and pickles. Tom tells them to go shopping: “Show me what you do best.” They can make anything they want. You know something’s coming. John gets lobster, CJ scallops and foie.
It’s kind of anticlimactic, actually: the Peanut Gallery enters, bringing with them old pots and pans. Tom says they got them at garage sales for a total of $3.50. They don’t look that bad to me, except for the rusty one, but you should see my pots. John isn’t pleased. “Is this because I complained about the pots?” Of course it is, darlin’. Suddenly, he doesn’t care about pots, it’s all about the food. CJ doesn’t care either, at least not until the handle of his pan breaks off. The main problem is that neither of them can get stuff – scallops, foie gras – to sear well. CJ goofs, and puts in more chili oil than he intended.
John makes: Corn Velouté and Succotash with Roasted Lobster and Seared Foie Gras. Tom asks, “How was the equipment?” “Excellent,” says John. At least he’s educable. But Tom isn’t done. “It wasn’t excellent, but did it get in the way?” John says no. Under some circumstances, I’d feel sorry for him, because you know whatever he says is going to be wrong. But Tom just tastes the dish; he finds the foie gras salty (“and you can ask Bart, I like salt” – ooh, Tom goes snarky all around) and the dish a little heavy, but flavors are fine.
CJ makes: Seared (sort of) Diver’s Scallop, Foie Gras Dashi, Mango and Caviar. Tom thinks it’s a little too much heat, and not enough subtle dashi flavor.
Tom agrees that pans matter; it was evident neither could get a good sear due to the cheap pans.
By a narrow margin, I’m relieved. It’s a time proximity thing; if John hadn’t just made a fool of himself for the past hour, it could’ve gone the other way for me.
Great episode. Elves, whatever you’re using for inspiration this season, keep using it.