Homage to Tom Colicchio, Hubert Keller, and unibrows.
The Quickfire: Heavenly foods in hellish time.
Curtis tantalizes the chefs with a display of all the things they love to cook: fois gras, truffles, caviar, scallops, prawns, tenderloin, crab claws, tuna… and they know there’s going to be a catch. Of course there is. They have seven minutes to produce a dish, in an homage to Tom Colicchio’s 8 minute 37 second Quickfire time. They must produce two plates, and the winner gets $5,000 for his or her charity, plus immunity.
When they’ve finished cooking, Mary Sue notes they’re usually sent to the W[h]ine Room (thank you for giving it a name, I’ve been struggling with that; oh, and the [h] is my own addition) but not this time. As an added twist, they have to taste and rate each other’s dishes, 1-7. There are seven chefs, eating off two plates, which seems pretty slapdash in terms of what each chef will actually taste. Like reading a paragraph of a short story and rating it. Hmmm. But no one mentions this, so maybe it isn’t really an issue. Traci isn’t crazy about rating each others’ food, though, feels it might start animosities.
Traci makes beef tenderloin carpaccio with maitake (or matsutake, I’m not sure) mushrooms and truffle vinaigrette. She’s suffering from adrenaline overload and is having trouble cutting the beef. I seem to recall you’re supposed to chill the beef to almost-frozen to make it easier to cut very thin, and of course she doesn’t have time to do that. Naomi finds it simple and delicious. On judging, Traci scores herself third. Naomi ranks her first, praising her simplicity. Mary Sue also ranks her first, saying it was the dish she wanted more of. Traci wins and gets $5,000 for La Cocina. This is the third QF she’s won.
Naomi sears fois gras with chanterelles and fried lady apples. She thinks she can get it done in time, though it’ll be close since it takes 5 minutes to sear. Interesting, because I always thought fois gras was one of those things you barely cook. I’ve never eaten it, or cooked it, have no desire to be in the same room with it in fact, but every time I hear anyone knowledgeable talk about it, they say it’s made of fat so it’s like cooking butter, it hits the pan and you take it out. Apparently that’s an exaggeration. In fact both Celina and Hugh comment that they aren’t as ambitious as she is in tackling this. She says it’s about getting the ingredients on the plate and highlighting them quickly and effectively. Well, duh. At judging, Hugh rates her plate as the best, saying it’s natural and beautiful. She rates herself second. Floyd rates her sixth, says his bite was salty. Naomi says Floyd’s been called out for salty food a few times so it’s odd he’s picking on her saltiness. I don’t think she likes criticism. Traci interviews that she’s surprised how Naomi is flourishing in this contest since she has the least experience of all of them. She finishes second, so her own evaluation was right on.
Alex makes a prawn ceviche with celery and kumquats and a blood orange vinaigrette.. He rates himself sixth, he should have chopped the ingredients. But he does get a first place vote. He finishes third.
Mary Sue makes a scallop with pink salt, lime and cilantro. Naomi thinks it’s perfect. Mary Sue rates herself fourth; Alex rates her first because he loved the simplicity. Hugh interviews her style is straightforward and not as refined as the other chefs and he’s surprised that she’s been able to use that skill set to do well in the competition. That’s pretty condescending, especially since Hugh with his refinement was sent home first. He places her 5th, better than his by 2, and he and Curtis do a little comedy routine: Curtis says, “You didn’t think it was worst,” and Hugh says, “No, I thought my dish was worst, we’ve been through this already.” So maybe he was in a bad mood when he snarked on her in the interview. She finishes fourth, exactly where she put herself.
Floyd makes a prawn with serrano chili, wasabi, and fried head. Mary Sue loves that he used the head.
He rates himself third. Naomi rates him sixth (leading Curtis to speculate they each downrated each other so maybe they don’t like each other’s cooking) because the blood orange too powerful. Floyd interviews he likes bold flavors and really likes that he used the head. He finishes fifth.
Hugh makes tuna two ways, a tartar with caviar and a poached ventresca with celery. He’s nervous about the poached portion, says he may be making the most elaborate cat food of all time. At tasting, Floyd finds a bitterness due to the caviar. I don’t understand why Hugh didn’t taste the caviar and notice it was bitter, or for that matter, why the caviar was bitter in the first place. Hugh says something about “I’m Hugh and I like quiet walks on the beach.” At judging, he gives himself a 7. Others do, too. Traci says lacked seasoning and the caviar was bitter. Floyd didn’t like the poached tuna at all, and interviews he was surprised because it looked like cat food. I think cat food is overused as a description of bad food, especially bad fish. I deal with cat food daily. The stuff’s disgusting. It’s a whole other level of awful. I use a separate fork for it because I don’t want to eat off a fork that’s touched cat food. Hugh finishes in sixth place.
Celina makes a scallop crudo. She interviews she hasn’t won anything for charity so she hopes she wins. Hmmm, sorry, Celina. Traci says it needs salt. Celina rates herself sixth, and pretty much everyone else agrees. Mary Sue rates her 7th for lack of salt. Celina finishes dead last. Wow, there must’ve been something besides the lack of salt for it to be that bad.
Curtis tells Traci to pick a team of either three or four chefs. She picks Hugh (who says she’s one of the chefs he’d be very happy to work as a dishwasher for, so he’s glad she picked him), Mary Sue, and Naomi. They’re the Black team. Floyd, Alex, and Celina are the Red team. And they find out they’re going to be cooking for Maroon 5, which of course we found out last week. Mary Sue cooked for Rolling Stones (and yes, she assures us, they really were like that). Floyd is excited because he and his kids like Maroon 5. I can’t tell if he’s just saying that or if he actually knows who they are. I like “Harder to Breathe” but what I really like are two songs they never released (they were used on a TV show), “Good at Being Gone” and “The Fog” and I sure wish I could find recordings somewhere.
The band gives their food preferences. Adam Levine likes Japanese food, and steak. There’s a vegetarian, of course. And a guy from Nebraska who wants corn. Then there’s the guy who’s still upset they missed Thanksgiving dinner when they were in Australia. And one of them likes LA so wants Mexican food. Presumably that means LA-style Mexican, Because if you tell someone like Rick Bayless you want Mexican food, you’d better mean it. But Rick Bayless isn’t here, sigh.
They’ll be serving family style at a hotel. They can plan their menus on the way to the grocery store, and will prep on the way to the hotel, which must strike them as odd – whaddya mean, prep on the way to the hotel? Yes, on the tour bus, complete with a three burner stove and an EZ Bake Oven. No, it isn’t really, but everyone keeps calling it that. Thus we have elements from the Foo Fighters TC episode, which was pretty dismal. Oh, and they finish cooking on the bus, too – they don’t get to go into the hotel kitchen and cook. Nope. It’s a roadie trip. Hugh interviews he called a bunch of groupies, cut off the sleeves of his t-shirt, and he’s ready to go. He’s really the only one with a sense of humor here.
Celina recognizes space is an issue, so she thinks maybe having a team of three chefs is better. She’s going to make spanikopita and corn soup. Floyd is thinking steak. Alex wants to do enchilladas.
For the Black team, Mary Sue will make a vegan mexican salad with fried avocado. Hugh will make corn soup and spanikopita (does this sound familiar?). Naomi will make a vegan crisp, turkey, and potatoes. She interviews there was some tension as they plan what they’re going to make.
In the grocery store (you know which one), Alex’s cart gets stuck on the escalator. I’ve never seen an escalator in a grocery store before. It’s an escalator just for carts. That’s really cool. Except that it gets stuck, of course. He runs up the people escalator next to it trying to grab stuff out of it, or maybe unjam the cart, but that doesn’t work. It doesn’t look like there’s much in the cart, so I’m not sure why he doesn’t just start over but eventually a store guy comes along to unstick the cart.
Mary Sue is worried about time management: the faster they shop, the more time they have for cooking. Traci gets tequila to make margueritas, which is probably the smartest thing anyone on either team does. The Red team finishes shopping first in spite of Alex’s stuck cart. Hugh interviews they look like they have their stuff together. We all know what that means: doom is just around the corner.
Alex has cooked on planes and boats, but never an RV. Celina cooked on a ship. Traci got carsick as a child, doesn’t like riding in bus. Things fall all over the place. Floyd tells them this is his dream after retirement, to travel all over the country in an RV, with his wife driving and him cooking. The Black Team’s refrigerator falls open when the bus swerves or stops or something. Hugh calls out, “Can we get a warning when we take a turn like that?” but gets no answer. He interviews that the driver is 140 year old and likes to take corners way too fast. I hope the driver isn’t watching this show. “Did we just run over someone?” someone asks after an ominous thump. “Sounded like it,” someone else replies. I think the drivers were paid extra to make the ride as uncomfortable as possible. Because, you know, this is what we watch this show for, the drama.
Floyd says he’ll boil pasta and drain it in bathroom, and Celina chimes in, “In honor of Hubert?” Well, at least some of them have seen this show before. Floyd has an induction burner on the toilet to make stock. It’s pretty gross actually. Hugh is making his corn soup with vanilla and coconut milk: “The standard way of making soup is not to combine everything in a pot and cook it to hell.” No, that’s the Top Chef Masters way. Alex comments he’s taking on more than he should, but enabling his leadership skills came naturally: simple, straightforward, get it done. The little doom chime goes off again. Mary Sue says, “It doesn’t feel right to set your bowl on the floor and toss your salad, but I’m tempted.” I know how you feel, Mary Sue. Floyd worries that his steak tastes bland, though he understands spices. I’m not sure why he doesn’t use any, then. Alex overcooks his pasta salad. Wait, pasta salad? Oh no! Alex, haven’t you seen Top Chef before? Pasta salad is death!
As Maroon 5 and the judges settle in the dining room, we see that Gail is a judge today. They introduce her as Gail from Top Chef: Just Desserts which seems odd. It’s fine to do that little bit of cross-promotion (seeing as TC:JD was even worse than TCM is turning out to be) but why not give her the Food & Wine credit, too? Danyelle and James are there as well. Ruth Reichl won’t be back until next week.
Red Team (Floyd, Celina, Alex) service:
Floyd serves winter salad and steak with soy and wine vinegar marinade. Gail says the steak is ok but needs more flavor; Adam says he was happy with it and Jesse loves the Asian slaw served with it. James is very disappointed with the salad; Adam says it’s the one thing he thinks he could actually make.
Celina has silky corn soup and spanikopita. Nebraska loves the corn soup, says it tastes straight off the farm, and Jesse says he isn’t religious but this might make him so. James says the spanikopita doesn’t stack up; Jesse says it’s like frozen spanikopita cooked in a microwave.
Alex brings pasta salad with broccolini, tomatoes, and garlic, his vegan enchilladas with onions and seitan, coconut almond tapioca with grapes, and turkey cutlet. The enchilladas don’t do so well, they look very strange and Nebraska doesn’t think much of them, but Curtis is surprised they’re as good as they are considering they’re made without cheese. Nebraska says because of the vegetarian requirement in their rider, they’re always getting pasta salad and it’s pretty much as bad as Alex’s, he’d hoped it’d have more imagination. Gail notes the pasta and the broccolini are both overcooked. The turkey cutlets aren’t appreciated, but the gravy is praised; Danyelle says she could eat a bowl of the gravy by itself. Nebraska says that’s what gravy is for, to cover up average meat. James thinks the tapioca is undercooked but one of the band guys thinks it’s the best thing on the table, even though it has “grape contacts” in it. Curtis notes Alex did four dishes, and wonders why. James pimps Alex’s great talent but admits he served cafeteria food.
Black Team (Traci, Hugh, Naomi, Mary Sue) service:
They’re finishing up plating in the bus. Hugh interviews that Mary Sue has covered the bed with tostadas, a fetish with which he is unfamiliar. Traci brings the margaritas. Hugh says something about walking with ice in his pocket.
Mary Sue serves salsa diablo and guacamole with taco chips, and tostadas with black beans and fried avocado. Adam says the tostada looks like a little piece of poop rolled around, and James agrees it looks bizarre but tastes great.
Hugh presents his corn soup with vanilla and coconut milk, spanikopita with fennel and parmesan. Gail finds the vanilla flavor of the soup to be very superficial; Adam says it’s like a bad candle; Nebraska preferred the other team’s corn soup. James, in his blog, says he liked it. Curtis approves of the spanikopita. So does Jesse, says it reminds him of his mom’s.
Traci has japanese steak with daikon braised in miso, a pea shoot and cucumber salad with umeboshi vinaigrette.
Naomi brings breaded turkey cutlets and vegan apple crisp. James doesn’t like the turkey; the corn meal is too coarse and hurts the roof of his mouth. Jesse loves the potatoes with mushrooms. Adam does not. Danyelle predicts the potatoes will be their Yoko Ono. I think Yoko Ono should be left alone now, don’t you?
Adam says given the restrictions everyone faced, it was great. And Thanksgiving Boy says it would be hard to have someone pick apart the details of their shows. Hey, don’t music critics do exactly that?
Back in the bus, Traci realizes both teams made almost exactly the same menu – spanikopita, corn soup, steak. She thinks her dishes were right on but maybe the other team’s were better, she has no idea. Hugh: “I’m not worried about anything. I’ve got youth and panache and one eyebrow on my side.” Best line of the night. I’ve read so much about his unibrow (which I never noticed until I read so much about it), it’s fun to see him use it.
Traditional Interstitial at the 40-minute Mark: Hugh makes a ridiculously condescending remark about “the women are stepping up.” Gee, how about that. He’s cleaning the sink, and Mary Sue suggests he pull his pants down a little to show his butt crack. Not the finest moment, that.
Curtis asks for the Black Team to come out to Critic’s Table: Mary Sue, Hugh, Naomi, and Traci. They are the winning team. Gail admires their beautiful touches, and James didn’t feel like the meal was cooked in EZ Bake oven (which of course it wasn’t). Danyelle loved Mary Sue’s fried avocado. James appreciated the chanterelles in Naomi’s mashed potatoes, which made it elegant. Traci gets props for her cucumber salad and the umeboshi dressing, perfect and tarts. Gail loved the jus from the steak dripped over the pea shoots to give them more flavor. Danyelle loved Hugh’s spanikopita.
Traci wins. She interviews she’s always been an improvisational chef, and it would be cool to be the first female Top Chef Master. La Cocina gets $10,000.
The Red Team goes in: Floyd, Alex, Celina. Again they point out Alex did four dishes. James says the enchilladas had a bizarre texture.Gail complained Floyd’s salad was out of a bag. James didn’t sense anything of spices or flavors in Floyd’s steak. Floyd says he didn’t want it to clash with other dishes; Gail says who cares, he should’ve blown them away with his dish. James asks Celina why she paired spanikopita with couscous; Danyelle says the spanikopita was forgettable. Curtis says the duress they were under came through in the food.
The team goes back to the bus and the critics talk it over. Curtis says they needed more allocation of jobs. James rags on the pasta. Gail says they shouldn’t have served it, it would’ve made a stronger table. Curtis says others should have stepped up instead of having Alex do four dishes. Curtis keeps saying that, but nobody’s listening. Danyelle says Floyd didn’t come through as a chef. Celina made forgettable dishes. James is still amazed at the pairing of spanikopita and couscous. Curtis asks if the critics have made their decision: for the first time I realize he doesn’t have a vote in the outcome. It’s kind of nice he’s standing up for Alex.
To no avail. Alex goes home. He interviews it was a fair assessment, and he’s glad he already won $10,000 for Faster Cures.
Next week, the blind taste test! My favorite Quickfire! And something makes Hugh declare: “This is the most awkward moment in television history.” I’m guessing he’s exaggerating, but it’s probably interesting anyway. I wonder if it has to do with the couple kissing on the floor.