Top Chef Masters Season 3, Episode 3: Diners to Donors

No, I won't post pictures of people eating bugs!

I think I’m beginning to figure out why I’m not feeling the love with this series. Most of the chefs are maybe 5 years out from Top Chefdom. It isn’t like they’re Hubert Keller, or even Rick Bayless or Marcus Samuelsson or Susur Lee. Granted, I’m not exactly familiar with the Who’s Who of great chefs in the universe, but one or two superstars would really help up the excitement quotient. I think a lot of them are legends in their own minds, but really, I think the Voltaggios might give them a run for their money right now. There’s no Masters Mystique working here.

Also, they’re pretty boring. The closest thing to a bad guy is Naomi Pomeroy, but she’s pretty much just a take-charge type in a room of people standing around going, “Huh?” Now, they’re probably very fun people, fascinating, to talk to, but on TV, only Naomi, Suvir, and Hugh have any personality at all. I’d trade ’em all in for one Carla. And since we don’t get to see much cooking, all that’s left is personality.

Now to current matters:

Do you know:
Horned worms are half protein…
Darkling beetles are high in protein…
Crickets have three times more iron than beef…
Canadian night crawlers are high in calcium…
Scorpions contain lots of vitamins?

Yes, these little creepy crawlies will be ingredients for the Quickfire, along with leather fern, salsify, aloe, sparklers, and other wild plants, for experienced bug eater judges. Mary Sue wonders if these experienced bug eater judges are enthusiastic bug eaters or have-to-eat-to-survive butg eaters. Yes, Mary Sue, I’m sure they’ve imported some people who live in circumstances so dire they have no choice but to eat bugs to survive. The judges turn out to be reality TV stars from Man, Woman, Wild which makes them enthusiastic bug eaters who eat bugs to survive: Ruth England and Mykel Hawke (that must be a fictitious name, he was in Special Forces after all) who do a show on Discovery about, I don’t know, a man and woman in the wild? Mary Sue declares them Qualified Bug tasters. Hey, if she’s happy, I’m happy. The prize is $5000 for the winning chef’s charity, plus immunity in the Elimination challenge. They have 20 minutes.

Hugh hasn’t eaten crickets yet and it’s been bugging him. Yes, that’s what he said. Hey, he’s a chef, not a comedian. Tempura crickets with sunchoke and carrot puree, salad and a blood orange vinagrette. Ruth says the puree is very delicate. Curtis wonders how he did the puree in only 20 minutes.He wins. His charity is Wholesome Wave which tries to link low-income consumers with fresh food from family farms. And Hugh says the experience will pay off handsomely when he opens his Bug Shack.
Mary Sue will eat eyeballs, brains, anything, but not bugs. She focuses on masking them in a spicy Thai sunchoke salad with beetle vinagrette. The judges think it’s a great way to use beetles since the shells are so hard. I’m feeling sick just listening to this. She’s got the second best disgusting bug dish.
Celina ate crickets in Bangkok, and they tasted like soy. So she makes an asian inspired dish of soy crickets with salsify salad. Mykel says it’s plenty salty, which is good, and thoroughly cooked, which is the preferred way to cook crickets. He would prefer to have the legs removed prior to preparation because they hang around in the mouth afterwards. Celina remembers pulling cricket legs out of her mouth for hours in Bangkok; so he should man up and get some floss, I guess.
John has never eaten bugs, but he used to stuff them in his brother’s mouth when they were kids. Karma’s a bitch, isn’t it, John? He figures everyone will be using the deep fryers, so he decides to grill his scorpions, then serves them with a poached egg and oyster roots (which apparently is the same thing as salsify). Mykel says it works all mixed up with the spiciness of the egg.
Naomi makes tempura fried nightcrawlers in elderflower and herb salad with pistachio vinagrette. Ruth explains she’s had all kinds of disgusting things in her mouth since she married Mykel, bugs are just one more. TMI, Ruth. Mykel says why bother with a salad when you have these terrific worms…
Alex declares bugs have been eaten in many cultures, and tells oyster story (the brave man who first ate an oyster. I still haven’t eaten an oyster, so don’t blame me). He doesn’t know if beetles stay crunchy when they’re cooked, or if they smell bad. He serves angel hair with beetles and flowers, which sounds very poetic. Mykel says it tastes good; Ruth likes the crispness of beetle against the soft pasta. I think they’re both insane.
Traci makes a salad with chipotle-dusted fried scorpions. Mykel notes the bellies of the scorpions swelled up with cooking, and he doesn’t like that. Yeah, me neither. I don’t like even writing it. Ruth doesn’t like the aloe, it’s too bitter. Hey, with all the other stuff going on, bitter aloe is the least of your worries.
Floyd makes an omelet of nightcrawlers and shiitaki mushrooms and amaranth.
George doesn’t eat bugs, and doesn’t cook bugs, but takes a Southeast asian approach and makes horned worm and coconut soup with lime, lemongrass, and basil. Mykel says it’s awful; he didn’t cut the horned worms small enough. It’s one of the worst bug dishes.
worm soup
Suvir grew up Hindu in New Delhi where he ate of many bountiful things without taking another life. His hand can cook but can not butcher animals. So he makes a Himalayan jungle salad (which means, I guess, throwing together all the stuff that’s available) with a jar of green worms and a blowtorch. That way, the diners can, if they choose, torch their own worms. I call bullshit. You cook veal, your hands are already dirty. He should’ve just left out the bugs, it’s a quickfire, he wouldn’t go home. Or he shouldn’t have agreed to come on the show anyway unless he could get them to promise he would only cook vegetarian. Anyway, Mykel takes a worm out of the jar, dispatches it – it looks like he just pulls it in half, I guess that’s how you kill a horned worm – then torches it, spears it with his fork, and gobbles it down. It’s really disgusting. But whatever, Suvir is in the bottom. And he’s probably going to come back in the next life as a horned worm.

Elimination Challenge

As a group, the chefs have to create a ten-course tasting menu for 50 guests; each guest will “vote” for his or her favorite dish by contributing $100 to the chef’s charity. And the winner will get an additional $10,000 for his or her charity. Traci wisely thinks, it can’t be that easy. And of course, it isn’t. Curtis tells them to expect some curve balls.

Naomi starts taking charge right away, but it isn’t like anyone else makes any efforts to organize ten people into a team. She asks people what they’re doing and makes a list so they don’t have five pasta dishes and two soups, which seems logical, and everyone knows what’s coming before and after. Hugh says he has immunity and he’ll do the first dessert course, which seems nice of him. They all start telling her their dishes – John wants to do a risotto, Celina does second dessert, etc etc. Naomi is doing a soup so if something happens – organizationally speaking, I suppose – she can deal with it.

They realize the first curve ball pretty quickly: the water has been shut off. There is lots of water in pots and in the freezer but no running water. Floyd’s cutting raw fish and realizes he can’t wash his hands so he has to be very careful about contamination (that’s pretty scary to me). George finds it funny that his charity is Water.org which brings drinking water to communities without.

The second twist comes when they realize the dining room isn’t set up. There’s your something happening, Naomi. Then the third curve ball: Curtis announces they will start a half hour earlier than planned. Naomi starts setting up tables; Hugh jumps in, they have some kind of conflict about where plating should happen but it isn’t really clear what’s going on. Hugh interviews that though there’s some arguing about which path to follow it isn’t mean, it’s just what powerful people do. I just saw the “alpha male” episode of Top Chef Season Seven earlier today, where Angelo and Kenny each try to prove what a great leader they are, and it reminds me of that, except these folks are supposed to be a little better than that alpha dog stuff. Maybe it’s something some people never get over.

Then the fourth shoe falls. It’s a quadruped. Curtis tells them there will be no waiters, so they will have to figure out service themselves. Naomi tells them no one should be working on their own dishes during service, and Traci interviews she doesn’t really listen to Naomi bossing people around. At least someone’s speaking up, it’s been crazy so far, I’ve never seen so many sheep in my life just following Naomi around. Maybe they’ve been ignoring Naomi all along.

Sitting in for Ruth Reichl this episode is Alan Sytsma of Grub Street, who, after going through the French Culinary Institute, was an intern for James Beard in his “first year of not cutting carrots.” Celina falls all over herself being impressed, which isn’t very complementary to Ruth Reichl. But I guess that’s the thing Ruth talks about in her book, Garlic and Sapphires, about the power of the critic being part of the job, and not going with you when you leave.

Mary Sue serves the first course. She’s been making ceviche for 25 years. She can do it. It’s a Caribbean ceviche with Peruvian amarillo on a plantain chip. They like the presentation, but James says there’s not a lot of flavor. Alan thinks the avocado is like bad guacamole. Maybe I don’t understand what Amarillo is, it’s a pepper or pepper sauce, how can that be bland?

Suvir on second course wants to showcase the brilliance of North Indian cooking. And educating the palate. Uh oh. Educating always makes me nervous on these shows. Celina tastes it while he’s cooking, says she wants more acid. He serves a chickpea, potato and yogurt chaat salad with baby spinach. James says it’s gorgeous, but he’s too far inside his comfort zone. Alan likes the yogurt.

George makes Portuguese shrimp alhinho with pickled carrots, red beets, and vanilla oil. Danyelle says the shrimp is cooked perfectly. Alan says the tooth of beet is perfect; James thinks it’s too salty.

Naomi makes her simple soup; Suvir says it’s simple and beautiful, but will it shine enough? I like how he phrases things. She admits she might get dinged for presenting boring soup, but she feels confident. It’s a celery veloute with salsa verde and lemon oil. Danyelle thinks it’s delicious. Alan loved the lemon oil on top. Curtis says it’s very rich, are they thinking only about their own course or about the meal as a whole? Remember this for later.

John makes risotto, and wow, all I could think of was it looks just like the risotto that sent Tre home, and I wonder if Tom Colicchio should give him the lecture about how risotto should spread on the plate. Because it looks pretty stiff to me. It includes shiitake mushrooms, prosciutto and pine nuts, and smoked paprika, which also brings back the same lecture about too much garnish. Alan doesn’t want the crunch of the pine nuts, but Danyelle thinks it’s interesting. James says he hasn’t challenged himself. Curtis wouldn’t pay a hundred bucks for this dish.

Floyd comes up with rice flaked sole with roasted cauliflower. James declares it fantastic. Danyelle thinks the broth underneath is too assertive.

Obligatory Interstitial at :40: The chefs share horror stories:
Naomi remembers when the power went out, and cooks cooked with flashlights in their mouths. I wonder if they did that voluntarily – somehow I have this vision of her walking the line, stuffing flashlights…
Celina tells of the time when the bathrooms in her restaurant were nonfunctional, so customers were sent to the bathroom across the street.
John almost murdered a pantry cook for putting salt on crème Brule, and sending it out rather than realizing something was wrong it wouldn’t caramelize.

Alex serves roasted salmon with gazpacho veggies and tomatillo sauce. James says his is just this side of raw, while Danyelle thinks hers is perfectly cooked.

Traci makes a roasted rib eye, slow cooked broccoli with red wine, and fried shallots. Curtis says just by looking he can tell she knows how to cook meat. Danyelle and Alan don’t like the broccoli, and they get into the generational fight seen on the previews. James says these are bold cooked vegetables, but the young have been brainwashed by non-cooked vegetables. His blog gives a better idea of his opinion on this – he’s fond of braised vegetables as well as those more crisply cooked. I’m sure that works for collard greens, but I’m not sure about broccoli. He seems to feel it’s a trend in “luxe dining.” Good thing I don’t mess with that too often.

Hugh has immunity, so all of us who’ve seen pannacotta send people home aren’t screaming at our TVs “Don’t do it!” He serves strawberry and buttermilk pannacotta with black pepper and champagne berry soup, garnished with chili thread and fresh mint. After he announces his dish, Curtis says he’s a showman; James says he’s like Liberace. I think they need to get out more. Or maybe the editors left the good stuff on the cutting room floor. It didn’t really seem over-the-top to me. James says something about “two and a half hours to conceive and execute,” Alan says “to get that perfect burned texture,” and I’m not sure if they’re being serious or sarcastic. Danyelle doesn’t understand the chili hairs, but James explains it’s a nice bridge between savory courses and the upcoming sweet dessert. The way he says it makes me think he liked the pannacotta. But I’m still not sure.

Celina makes chocolate pudding with a ginger donut and fleur de sel. She started out baking so she likes dessert. The cocoa isn’t what she’s used to, so she uses more. Suvir tastes it, and doesn’t like the texture, it’s not pudding like he’s used to, and he compares it to plastic wrapped pudding. Uh oh. James says it’s gritty, Danyelle finds it tasteless. Alan doesn’t like the texture, though he likes the donut.

The diners vote for their favorite dishes.

Naomi and Suvir are called to Critics Table. For good news, it turns out, they got the most votes, Naomi with 43% which earns $1800 for her charity, and Suvir with 40% which earns $1700 for his, Agricultural Stewardship, which protects Hudson Valley farms in upstate NY from encroaching development. That’s 83% for those two dishes alone. That means eight other people divided 17%, wow, I’d say that’s a landslide for these two.

James says the winning dish was sophisticated, warm, and delicious: Naomi. See, Curtis, this is why chefs aren’t too concerned about fitting into a lineup, there’s no advantage to it when you call out a dish for not fitting in and then declare it the winner. Anyway, she gets an additional $10,000 for Seed Savers Exchange, which cultivates and distributes heirloom seeds to protect biodiversity.

Now for the bad news.

Mary Sue, Celina, John are in bottom.
James says Mary Sue’s ceviche was bland; Danyelle only tasted pickled onions, not fish.
Alan asks John why he just made classic risotto rather than something extraordinary? John defends classic and fundamental risotto. Danyelle says fundamentals are fine, but when you’re competing, the idea is to stand out. No one mentions the thickness of it. I wonder if Tre is scratching his head. I know I am. I’ve never had risotto, but it’s pretty deadly on Top Chef.
They scold Celina for her pudding. James tells her to “get out of desserts.”
And the loser is: John. Somehow I knew when I saw them standing there. I’m not sure why. He’s the least telegenic. But they fall all over themselves reassuring America that John is a fantastic chef so everyone will still go to his restaurant.

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