In a blatant rip-off from Top Chef, they go to the Improv where Kevin Nealon (remember him?) greets them and a fake audience. The challenge is all about improvisation, so this makes sense!
Alton lays out the structure. There are four food groups: protein, carb, fruits, and random. Obviously they did not pay attention in Health Class when the Four Food Groups were taught (though most of us modified them to fit our own tastes. For example, my Four Food Groups are Chocolate, Bread, Fizzy Sugar-Free Drinks, and… did I mention chocolate? Well, I only have three food groups then).
The audience will call out items to fit in each group, and Kevin will write them down (Kevin Nealon is a key player in this process, I see) and then he will pick one from each group (oh, I see, they do have something for him to actually do) and that will be what the chefs have to cook with. It is sort of like Chopped. For all I know, this is how they pick the ingredients on Chopped. Except I doubt many people have ever heard of violet mustard and jew’s mallow.
Back to this show! For proteins, audience members suggest rabbit, beef jerky, and octopus. For carbs, they call out tortillas, challah, and corn nuts. The fruits are kiwi, goji berry, kumquat, and lychee, and Random things are mayonnaise, prune juice, cheese puffs, and marshmallow (not at all related to jew’s mallow which is similar to spinach).
Kevin picks octopus, tortillas, kumquats, and marshmallows as the ingredients they must feature. They go back to the Kitchen where they have 45 minutes and whatever is in the pantry. Falkner won the last challenge so she gets an extra five minutes. Chiarello thinks five minutes is not that big a deal for a one hour challenge, but for a 45 minute challenge it is a huge deal. I think he needs a step between “not a big deal” and “huge deal”. It is miraculous that the kitchen is stocked not only with a variety of tortillas (blue corn, for example) but with a variety of octopus, from big ones to tiny babies. I am sure it is perfectly legitimate; maybe Alton called someone in the kitchen as soon as the random audience called out their off-the-cuff ideas and Kevin Nealon picked what he thought would be fun, and someone ran to the fish store and bought all kinds of octopus.
It is a battle of the pressure cookers!
Alex regrets that she made too much stuff last time and did not pay attention to individual components. Her reaction to kumquats is, they have a lot of pits, and they have a lot of pith. At least I think that is what she said. I tried kumquats once at the suggestion of my writer friend Melissa (hi, Melissa!) and I did not think they had either pith or pits. Maybe it was something other than kumquats. Zakarian is going to make brunch. Falkner and Chiarello are going to Spain, but I do not think they are going together. Anne is going to change the form of the octopus. Chiarello learned from the last challenge to nail the candy element first since it is hardest to figure out.
Marcus will tell the story of his life, from Africa and Sweden. That is going to be tricky, I think, using those ingredients. I am somewhat Swedish, and I do not think octopus and tortillas and marshmallows and kumquats play a big part in Scandinavian cuisine. Or, for that matter, Ethiopian. Though he says marshmallows are from Africa. I do not believe him. Possibly there is a mallow plant from Africa that marshmallows mimic, but marshmallows are gelatin and corn syrup. And I read somewhere that only Japan, Greece, Spain, and Mexico use octopus in their traditional cuisines. But I could be misremembering!
And so we have:
Alex: she puts the octopus in a pressure cooker and another one in a saute pan and she will see which one works better. She will candy the kumquats. In the end, the pressure cooker octopus is better so she goes with that. She makes octopus marinated with dill, a nappa cabbage puree, sweet and sour red cabbage with marshmallow and burned marshmallow to give a campfire flavor, because campfires taste so good! Michael Symon says the octopus is perfectly cooked; he likes the chiles, a very successful dish. Simon thinks it is outstanding, he is very pleased with the cabbage; he licked his plate. Seriously, he holds it up to show her he licked it clean. Except he must have done that when the camera was on someone else because we did not see any licking. His plate is clean, though he could have done that with a napkin and thrown it on the floor! Judy likes the crunch of the tortillas and the marshmallows.
Zakarian serves blackened tortilla and octopus polenta with scrambled egg and frotp li,qiat/ <S. pme mpte bit gppd/ Su,pm. That is what my notes say! I think my fingers slipped over one letter on the keyboard! Anyway, Simon complains about the black mushrooms making the whole dish muddy.
Falkner snapped up sherry vinegar from the pantry in her head start time, and got her octopus in the pressure cooker right away. She wants to make a romesco that includes cocoa nibs for their familiar bitter nuttiness. Hey! A familiar bitter nuttiness! I like that! It sounds like me! She serves red wine braised octopus with tortilla chip romesco and creamy kumquat vinaigrette, with a sprinkle of marshmallow ash on the plate. Marshmallow ash is burned marshmallow! MS loves the romesco, and the octopus is cooked well. Judy thiniks the marhsmallow ash is clever. Simon thinks her technique is terrific but he is not sure about the plating. Judy sees order in the chaos of the plating.
Chiarello grills some baby octopus, and it is rubbery so he hopes he can pressure cook some to be better, but he keeps opening the pressure cooker because he does not want it to turn to mush! Opening a pressure cooker takes time! Octopus is usually tough, not mushy! Alex hears him opening it for the final time with just three minutes to go and thinks, “Bold!” I think, “Does not know how to cook octopus.” He makes a Spanish tortilla (which is like a big omelette in a pan, not like a Mexican tortilla) with octopus, paprika, serrano ham, and kalamata olives, with a marshmallow aeoli. MS says the flavors are balanced and the aeoli is brilliant. Judy loves that the pungent octopus is dampened with olives. Simon says it is a well considered dish beautifully executed.
Beau considers the marshmallow to be the most difficult ingredient (duh!) and makes a brule, which means he torches the marshmallows. He grills the octopus but it is tough so he poaches it as well. He has charred baby octopus with black bean hoisin marinade, blue corn tortilla fritter, and bruled marshmallow. MS found the octopus to be tough. Judy thought it was a pretty plate but the flavors were not married together. Simon says the tortilla fritter is dry, but he likes the marshmallow and the use of miso, but questions putting it together. Judy agreees, it is all kung foo fighting in her mouth. Beau thinks they are nuts, it was balanced to him.
Anne decides to puree her octopus, so she makes braised octopus ravioli in sauce topped with marhsmallow candied kumquats and chiles. Simon loves the use of champagne vinegar, it is a smart dish and surprising because it looks very simple. MS notices the technique needed to make the dish. Judy does not like the texture of the octopus; it is rubbery even though it is pureed. Eww.
Marcus makes kumquat pickled octopus, toasted tortilla gazpacho with burned marshmallow sauce. MS thinks the octopus is tender but cutesy; I do not know what that means, if it is a criticism or a compliment. Alton says he does not know what it is. Simon says he is ok with the presentation, so shut up Alton. Judy scolds him for making soup on a plate for the second time.
Four chefs were successful:
Chiarello: MS says he used the ingredients wisely.
Falkner: Judy thought the octopus was cooked perfectly and it was clever. You know, I think Falkner, who is known as a pastry chef, understood how to cook octopus better than anyone!
Anne: Alton says she had a unique approach to integrate octopus and marshmallow.
Alex: Simon again insists he licked his plate clean.
Chiarello is the winner! Falkner is surprised. And Alex makes a face when it is announced, though who knows when she made that face, it could have been three days ago. One thing I have learned about reality tv, never trust the editing.
The disappointments were:
Zakarian: Simon says the mushrooms were too dominant.
Marcus: MS says the elements were not mixed on the plate.
Beau: Judy tells him it was disjointed, conflicting, and disappointing. Wow. That means it was not good, right?
Alton says, “Marcus, it was a mess, but it was tasty” so he is safe. Beau and Zakarian do the Secret Ingredient Showdown.
And the Secret Ingredient is: coconut! They have 30 Minutes!
Beau is happy since Asian is his specialty. Zakarian thinks there is no advantage because it can be approached from the French angle as well. Yes, French coconut dishes are very popular! Thing is, any ingredient can be approached from the French angle: make a mire poire, get some butter and cream, spend three hours making a sauce, and voila, French!
Zakarian is thinking big flavors, since his dish was criticized as one-note. He fillets a halibut and everyone applauds. He thinks a piece of fish overcooked, but it will be all right. I do not understand why he did not have enough fish to use another one! He had a whole halibut! A halibut is only four fillets? I guess it is if you trim them. That is why expensive restaurants are so expensive, they cut big fish into tiny squares and waste a lot (though they use the meat in other things, but not fillets). He serves lentil and coconut coated halibut over sunchokes with raisin lime puree, and a coconut halibut crudo in a tiny shot glass. Alex worries about doing a duo. Yeah, they reamed Marcus for that weeks ago, what is this, this is the second time someone else has done a duo! That rule is only for Ethiopian Swedes? Alton tells him they have been warned repeatedly about the dangers of multiple components. Yeah, yeah, he says. Alton asks, why halibut? Zakarian says, it is white! Of course! Color coordinated with the coconut! He wanted it clean with a slight Caribbean flavor and French lightness. MS loves the sunchokes (they were cooked in coconut water and then had coconut cream added). Simon had an overcooked fillet; everyone else had perfectly cooked fish. Delicious flavors, suprisingly poor execution. Judy says the duo worked.
Beau is driving Alex nuts by rushing back and forth to the pantry to get things over and over. He goes to grill pineapple and everyone groans. Why? Grilled pineapple is delicious! They say it is old school. Well, so what, it is good! He makes coconut curry stew. MS likes the broth for its depth of flavor. He does not love the pineapple. Judy did not mind the pineapple, the shellfish was beautifully cooked, she would have liked more jalapeno, a different chile would have brought it together. Simon thinks it is one of the best dishes he has made in the competition, a thoughtful and splendid dish. I guess he likes grilled pineapple too! Beau says he put a Beauman element in your face, rich buttery clams in broth. Ok.
Alton says it was not unanimous, but they all did agree that one bite was terrific, and that was the crudo Zakarian made, so Zakarian is in. Beau is out! Alton tells him he did not have a bad day in the kitchen, he had a good day, but Zakarian had a better day. It is strange, when I was looking at the opening credits, I was thinking he would be next to go, just based on who is important to Food Network. Actually I thought Chuck Hughes would be next because I completely forgot he already went! That is how much attention I am paying to this show! Everyone left either is a Food Network bigshot or has genuine cachet as a chef. I will guess Falkner will be out next. Unless they decide to make an example of a Top Chef Master and get rid of Marcus!
Anne points out none of the women have been in the bottom yet. I did not realize that!
Next week they go to New York, and the challenge is storytelling. Yay, storytelling! That I know something about! Though I am not sure how it applies to food. Maybe they will ask them to make four courses that reflect their first food memory, the dish that made them want to be a chef, their first signature dish, and their future direction! 😉