Top Chef Texas Episode 2: The Heat Is On

Bacon-Wrapped Shrimp over Polenta with Port Wine Fig sauce

A few tips: Hugh Acheson’s Bravo-TC blog is pretty good. A terse Bourdain. And FoodieBuddha, an Atlanta-based site, does a terrific wrap-up of the more esoteric ingredients and elements used on each episode. And a shout-out to the All Top Chef Recap Roundup people (Hi, Minx!).

We open with the Bubble People. I like that term. Those who continue on can heretofore be known as Bubble Chefs. Or not. Anyway, Edward says they’re prisoners in a room together, starting to bond. I think the kind of bonding prisoners do is not really the kind you guys want. Did you know Grayson used to work at Jean George? She must be able to cook. Of course, for Top Chef, it only starts there.

Back in the kitchen, the final group of wannabes comes in for their shot at the Qualifying Challenge. Hugh Acheson is the third judge for this set. Padma is wearing Anya. The chefs introduce themselves. No one tries to pull the “I’ve cooked for celebrities” crap, though there is one private chef, Jonathan. Toast, man. Ashley is the last hope for Seattle. Kim worked for David Burke, so she must have chops. Chaz interviews he’s had a crush on Padma for ages; in middle school he had a picture of her in his locker. How old is this kid? Top Chef has only been on for what, six years? Was she that famous to pubescent boys before this? Or is he bullshitting? Paul and Andrew, from Texas, know each other and hope to represent the state. Beverly is supporting her husband and baby. Yowza, from the pic, that baby must take a lot of support.

They’re presented with ten ingredients (Brussels sprouts, octopus, lamb chops, mushrooms, a wide variety); they have to figure out amongst them who will get which one. Each ingredient comes with a cloche they aren’t allowed to lift; it’s a surprise. Uh oh. There’s a catch, so they’re suspicious. Chaz sees rice with a sign that says “Risotto” (I guess that means it has to be made into risotto, not just steamed) and his wife is Italian so he picks that. No, Chaz, don’t do it! Risotto has been responsible for some pretty big downfalls in the past. And besides, being married to an Italian isn’t going to help you much here. Too late, he’s committed. “Am I a Navy Seal or GI Joe?” Wow, pretty stupid to get the entire army mad at you, man. Beverly knows about octopus, since her mother makes it, but the octopus in her restaurant is pre-cooked (what the hell kind of restaurant is that? Sic Gordon Ramsey on them!). Andrew and Ashley do rock-paper-scissors over mushrooms. He wins, and she gets oxtail, which is a pretty serious difference.

Tom asks if they’re happy. They mutter unconvincingly. He asks if anyone is unhappy with what s/he has. Ashley Oxtail says it depends on how much time they have. Aha, I didn’t notice no time limit had been given yet. That’s a pretty big detail. I mean, some people have mushrooms and some have oxtail. But now they get to lift the cloches and they discover… timers! Some people have 20 minutes; some have 40 minutes; some have an hour. It’s a pretty clever way to stagger the cooking and serving; I’m impressed someone thought of that. And the times make sense. Oxtail Ashley has and hour; Risotto Chaz has 40 minutes; TroutMan Paul has 20 minutes. It would’ve been really mean if they’d done it the other way around.

So let’s start with the 20-minute people: TroutManPaul, LambKim, and MushroomAndrew.

Paul has three food trucks in Texas, and he’s been on Bourdain, which he seems to think is about the same as a good NYT review. He grills his trout and adds an Asian salad. Tom says it’s his favorite dish of the group, seasoned nicely, the fish is grilled correctly, in. Hugh calls it a precise dish, in. Paul is IN.
Kim‘s a mere sous chef who makes seared lamb chop over fennel puree with kalamata olives, arugula and a pan jus. Padma says the lamb is greasy; out. Tom says it’s not there, and he can’t get past the overcooked lamb; out. And Kim’s out.
Andrew is nervous; he isn’t proud of his dish. He was running out of time and the plating is sloppy. He presents roast mushrooms with brown butter vinaigrette, a poached egg, and crunchy fried spinach for garnish. Tom thinks the mushrooms are gritty but roasted nicely; bubble. Padma (wow, she’s done more judging already than she did all of last episode) likes the earthiness (oh, Padma, you would) but it’s messy, with greasy fried spinach; bubble. Andrew goes off to join the Bubble Chefs in prison and bond.

And now the 40-minute crew: JonathanBSprout, DuckLaurent, ChazRisotto, and ShortRibBerenice.

Chaz is stirring and stirring a gigantic vat of risotto – I don’t get it, he only had to make four servings, does he think he’s cooking for the combined Army and Navy? “Just make sure it’s cooked correctly and I’ll be sending a powerful message to the judges.” He asks someone about time, but he doesn’t realize how quickly a minute passes and never plates his risotto. I don’t quite get what he did: he poured it from the pot onto a tray of some kind. Is that a technique for making risotto? I’ve never seen that before. It’s more like what they do with sushi rice to vinegar it. He goes to the Judges’ Table with empty bowls, for a wonderful visual of failure, and the Risotto Curse chalks up another victim. Tom asks what happened, and Chaz is pretty straightforward: “I made an ass of myself.” Padma PYNAG’s him, and he’s broken-hearted: “I feel like she’s breaking up with me. I want my CD’s back, we have to split up our friends. Oh, Padma, you cut me deep!” I like Chaz. Which is odd, because that sort of thing could be really annoying, but it wasn’t. It’s the exact opposite of that dumbass from last week whose ouster was so satisfying. But getting food on the plate in 40 minutes – not 41 – is part of what makes a good cook a good Top Chef cook. Sorry, Chaz. Navy Seal, you’re not.
Jonathan is a private chef who’s used to a more relaxed pace, and finds this to be chaos. Yeah, well, that’s why private chefs don’t usually do so well on this show. He serves Spanish style Brussels sprouts over soffrito with hazelnut gremolata. Tom says the sprouts are undercooked and not seasoned well; out. Hugh outs him, too. I told ya, private chefs don’t do well on Top Chef. CJ was just lucky, and it was only Season 4.
Berenice frets about her marinade not working fast enough. She makes Asian style short ribs. Hugh calls it one-dimensional and uninspired; out. Tom knows who she works for (Michelle Bernstein), but the dish in front of him is a no. She’s gone. Tom cut Jen in the second round of All-Stars, so working for someone isn’t going to help much. I’m kind of glad, because I don’t like her name. Hey, it’s still my post-Anya phase, deal with it.
Laurent is from France, and he was brought to the US in chains, then decided LA wasn’t so bad and now wants to stay forever. “In France, you have to become a cook, a priest, or an army guy.” Really? France really has gone downhill, hasn’t it. The oven isn’t hot enough so his duck isn’t crispy. It’s official, he’s a prick. He’s Stefan Lite without the humor. I don’t even know what he serves. Duck. Hugh says he brought a gazillion things to the plate but it needed to make sense; bubble. Tom acknowledges his experience, but gives it a no. Padma gives him the bubble. Damn.

And Sixty Minutes wraps it up tick-tick-tick-tick-tick: AshleyOxtail, OctoBeverly, VealLindsey.

Ashley struggles with her pressure cooker. Everyone always struggles with pressure cookers on these shows; add that to the list of things they should practice before showing up. With lots of makes and models. She just got married a month ago – oh, cool, so spending six weeks away from her husband is probably something she’s looking forward to. Her husband is Philipino, and his grandmother taught her some dishes; she makes a Philipino oxtail dish, Kare-Kare, which seems a little risky to me. In fact, a lot risky. Tom finds the meat not right, out. Padma thinks it left a lot to be desired, gives her the bubble. Hugh thinks she needs to mature, out. So much for Ashley.
Beverly has memories of her mom’s Korean cooking, including octopus. It’s tough so she cuts it in little pieces to tenderize it and serves Nakji Bokum with pickled cucumbers. Padma asks if she’s familiar with octopus, and Beverly says No. I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt and assuming that was edited, since we know she is, sort of. Tom appreciates the risk, and likes the dish: it tasted Korean, comforting and soulful, so he wants to see more of this craziness, in. Hugh, in. She’s in. I Can I Must I Will rules the day. We’ll see if she continues to shade the truth or if that was a twist of the Magical Elves.
Lindsey is an odd-looking blonde. I don’t know how to define that, except something about her appearance bothers me. That’s very unfair of me, I know, so acknowledging it is the first step to overcoming it. She’s pressed for time so when she sees Tom heading towards her in the kitchen, she runs away. Someone else did that in some past season – Jen? She makes braised veal over creamy polenta with a warm salad and charred carrots. Tom loves it, it appears simple but there’s a lot going on. He calls it “good cooking” which is high praise. Hugh likes it, too. She’s in with what seems to be the most favorable reception this week. I’d better get over whatever my issue with her is.

The In group celebrates with champagne, while the Bubble Chefs fret. Molly says something positive for once: it’s better to be waiting than not to be there. She expects people to look down on her because she works on a cruise ship. Well, yeah. Edward interviews if they leave him in the stew room long enough, he’ll kill the other chefs to get his jacket. Fortunately, Padma calls them into the kitchen before that becomes necessary.

Six people (Edward, Laurent, Molly, Janine, Grayson, Andrew), two slots. Janine says she has a 33% chance of getting into the final 16. Ok, I’m going to rant a little, because this happens in every competitive reality show. She does not have a 33% chance unless it’s being decided by random draw. How much of a chance she has depends on how well she cooks and how well other people cook. SO STOP SAYING THAT! /rant

Using any ingredient in the kitchen, they have 45 minutes to make a dish to show why they should be there. Emeril and Hugh will both be on the panel.

Molly goes back to being a grump and complains that it’s too broad a challenge, too much choice. What, any ingredient? How can anyone cope with that? Shut up, Molly. She picks tiger shrimp to highlight the protein, since that was the problem with her last dish. She realizes as she’s plating she’s forgotten the shrimp and they might be overcooked. She serves stuffed jumbo prawns and yuzu pudding. Tom says the shrimp is overcooked; the skill is there but the main element is not right. Hugh thinks she came close, but needs more marrying of flavors and more “push” overall. Padma thinks the flavor overall is bland. Hey, she cooks on a cruise ship, that’s as bland as it gets.

Andrew goes for mussels, which he’ll do with Spanish flair. I don’t know why, but I like Andrew. He wants to get plating, so he doesn’t put out a dirty plate. He serves mussels with sherry and charred shrimp panna cotta. Wait, panna cotta? Oh, damn, Andrew, panna cotta has eliminated more chefs than risotto. Emeril likes the paprika but he’s confused by the panna cotta. Tom wishes he’d stopped with the mussels which are great, the rest is just confusing.

Grayson likes polenta, figs, bacon, shrimp. That does sound good. Then she tells a hilarious little story about when she was fifteen, her mother sat her down and asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She said, “Mom, I’m fifteen, all I want to do is drink!” Grayson for the win! She’s happy everything is under her control this time since that little twerp did her in last time by destroying her tenderloin. She thinks her flavors are right. She presents creamy polenta with bacon wrapped shrimp and port wine and fig sauce. Tom asks about her intent, and she answers him oddly. What he was getting at was that figs and shrimp don’t make sense, but bacon and shrimp do, and figs and bacon do. He kind of leads her to the right answer. It’s flavorful but the grits were dense. Emeril thinks it’s a solid dish, a different kind of shrimp and grits.

Janine picks up scallop and watermelon and tells us about the commitment ceremony she had with her girlfriend, and how a month later the girl broke up with her over the phone because she didn’t like her vows. “A post-it note would’ve been more touching.” She tells it with a touch of humor, so it’s cute rather than maudlin. She reminds me of an old friend of mine (Hi, Carol!). I kinda like Janine. She serves seared scallop with baby clams and snap peas, garnished with watermelon and lime juice. She tells the judges she simplified it a little. Hugh wanted more watermelon. Emeril can taste every component, simple and well-executed.

Laurent goes for a duo of scallops, one tartare and one seared. He wants to give them something different, something refined and exciting. Oh, good, why don’t you do that then, Laurent? He makes the scallop duo on fennel and saffron. Tom says the tartare is not appetizing, it’s grey. Emeril appreciates the concept, the seared scallop is good but he agrees the tartare is not.

Edward sees everyone is doing seafood, so he picks duck. “Outside of Kentucky I’m a nobody.” I love him. “I want to show the judges you don’t have to live in NY to do this.” Um, other than Harold in S1, has any winner been from NY? Then Edward cuts himself. I’ll have to look at this again – it looks like he knocks the top of a bottle off with his knife – don’t tell me he’s sabering? No, not possible, it must’ve been an accident – and he cuts, not his finger, but his wrist? He’s bleeding all over the place, but there’s no blood on the cutting board which makes him happy. He’s cooking with one hand while a medic is bandaging his gushing wrist. [eta: he did cut his finger; the wrist bandage was apparently to keep the glove secure so that blood would not leak out; hey, cooking isn’t for the squeamish] Ok, Edward, I’m all yours, you can stop now. You were supposed to kill the other chefs, not yourself. He makes duck with bbq and sweet Asian custard, a blend of Southern and Asian cuisine, with pickled corn and candied bacon. They show tweets on the show, and someone tweets: “Asian and southern, is that a thing? Can we make it a thing?” Come on, it was on Food Network Star, it can’t be that esoteric a thing. Emeril loves the flavors and thinks the presentation is fantastic. Hugh thinks the duck may have been a little overcooked.

There’s an interstitial about the bunk beds some of the chefs will be sleeping on, including the two guys from Chicago who work together. They’re very happy. Keith, who is 6’4″ and weighs 300, is less enthusiastic. I think it’s the person on the bunk under him who should be unenthusiastic.

The verdict:

Molly and her overcooked shrimp are out. Bye, sourpuss.
Laurent and his competing flavors are out. That’s fine with me, too.
Edward and his bleeding wrist are in. Yay!
Andrew is out for everything after the mussels. Aww.

So it’s between Grayson and Janine. I like both of them. Janine was confused about the watermelon, and it needed something to tie it all together. Grayson had good flavors, though it wasn’t that imaginative but the fig was unexpected (hey, you just said…). Grayson is in, Janine is out. Aww, poor Janine.

BUT… there’s the Last Chance Kitchen… Ok, my attempts to watch video on my computer usually end in tears. [eta: I have learned that this is available On Demand from at least my cable system] I’m not going to struggle through a 30 second commercial (which can take a long time; I’m not kidding about the tears) so I’m going to depend on the LA Times blog.

Andrew and Janine battle off against each other, making pizza. It isn’t as simple as “if you win, you’re back on.” Andrew wins, so he’ll have to do another Last Chance Kitchen against whoever is in the bottom next week. And the next week, if he’s successful. And the week after that. In other words, if Andrew wins against every chef eliminated, he can be back on the show. Don’t forget – these are all losers competing. But presumably stronger losers as time goes on. And if he wins for 9 weeks, but falters in the 10th (or however many shows there are), he’s out, and the 10th chef is back in.

It kind of makes sense, even if the LA Times doesn’t think so. Everyone will be cooking each week; this is no “one win and you’re in” thing like Project Runway had with the cockroaches Vincent and Angela. One chef will redeem him or herself by the end of the season – it isn’t as if a chef will come back every week, which is the part that had me confused. So I’m ok with it, at least for now. But I’m still not watching the 30-second commercial to get to it. Occupy that, Bravo.

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