Top Chef Texas: Episode 9, BBQ Pit Wars

Modernist Cuisine image: How a Pork Pot Roast cooks

Ok, before we get started, let’s talk about Nathan Myhrvold. As presented on the show, it sounded like he’s a chef with a broad range, from traditional barbecue to modernist cuisine. First, he’s not a chef, though he did an observation and apprenticeship in Seattle with Thierry Rautureau. But he has earned a PhD in physics and worked with Stephen Hawking on quantum theory and cosmology. And he’s a billionaire who was in charge of development in the early days at Microsoft for over a decade. And founded the controversial
Intellectual Ventures, a company that’s bought up thousands of patents. By the way, he wants to fix global warming by running a couple of garden hoses a few miles up into the atmosphere over the North and South Poles by means of balloons to pipe sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere – sure, it’ll cause a little acid rain, but it’ll cut sunlight, too (and if that doesn’t scare the hell outta ya, nothing will). Is he Leonardo DaVinci or Darth Vader? Remember, Leonardo did design all manner of war machines, but never could draw a clitoris.

Oh – and Nathan grows Miracle Berries in his basement.

Are we having fun yet?

Now, on to Top Chef.

Prequel

They’re all sitting around their Austin digs rehashing old wounds. Heather‘s departure has generated mixed feelings. Someone says fought for it at Judges’ Table. “Oh, yeah, she fought for it,” says Beverly. Grayson laughs. Edward still hasn’t gotten over the cake. Grayson seems to think it’s surprising it was his cake recipe. Sarah talks behind Edward’s back about how rude it is for him to talk behind Heather’s back. If he had the winning cake recipe, he would’ve made the winning cake. Which is, I must say, a good point. We’ve all seen The Social Network a few too many times.

There’s a knock on the door…. Who could it be? Room service, a gift from the management? Malibu Chris perhaps imagines Padma, her dark tresses gleaming and dancing down her back… wow, see what a week without Top Chef does to me?

It’s not Padma, but it’s not really room service, either. It’s a cookbook. Which is kind of like describing Nathan Myhrvold as a versatile cook. It’s THE cookbook, the modern equivalent of Escoffier, everything you want to know about food but were afraid to ask. Modernist Cuisine, all six volumes, which can be yours, too, for anywhere between $450 and $700, depending on where you shop. I remember reading about this in the NYT Magazine, how they had to invent new methods of photography to show how a pot roast cooks. Check out “Waiter, There’s a Physicist In My Soup” for more behind-the-scenes information, including the 30-hour way to cook the perfect cheeseburger.

A little note from Padma tells them to study up, because there’ll be a test tomorrow.

Quickfire:

Nathan Myhrvold, the man himself in person and everything, is in the kitchen with Padma. MotoChris is impressed. “If I could be one-tenth as smart as he is, I could rule a small continent.” The challenge, Padma says, is to “explore the modernist in all of you.” Nathan says modernist cuisine began in the mid-1990s, and overall is a way to use new techniques to delight people who eat your food. It’s often, but not necessarily, based on science; what used to be called molecular gastronomy (the term is passe) is a small subset. It’s really about creativity.

They have 45 minutes. The winner gets immunity, and a copy of the book. Ty-lor is happy. MotoChris is practically peeing himself.

Ty-lor explains how tapioca maltodextrin mixed with olive oil creates an olive oil powder that turns back into liquid when eaten. Then he makes it. He presents watermelon with vanilla bean honey, black pepper, saffron, and olive oil powder. The recipe looks super-simple. Nathan calls it a successful dish, with interesting spices and a good use of olive oil powder; it’s the winning dish for his creativity and execution. Ty-lor beams. MotoChris looks devastated.

MotoChris runs hither and thither with liquid nitrogen, yelling “NITRO COLD NITRO COLD” to get people out of his way and impress them. He hasn’t won a Quickfire yet (or a challenge that wasn’t a team win, for that matter) and this is his style. He’s going to use the Miracle Berry, which does funky things to the taste buds, blocking sour, intensifying sweet. Ty-lor calls him the nutty professor. I understand how he feels, but I remember Marcel meeting Wylie Dufresne (and Kane meeting Miss USA, for that matter) and Chris is acting like a two-year-old. When they come to his table, he tells them, “First you take the red pill…” giving it an Alice in Wonderland spin. He starts to explain the Miracle Berry, but Nathan interrupts with the news that he grows it in his basement. That shuts Chris up (in an unnecessarily cruel way, I think). He wants to visit that basement. Once their palates are protected, he instructs them to eat the lemon on the plate. Padma exclaims, “It tastes like a really intense tangerine.” She’s impressed. With the pill, not with MotoChris, unfortunately. He then orders them to eat his deconstructed cheesecake, which presumably was made with liquid nitrogen, and drink a glass of sparkling water with lime and lemon. Paul mutters there’s no technique there, just the berry. But Nathan says it’s a good effort, nicely staged. MotoChris is in the top three, possibly because they were afraid he might throw a tantrum if he wasn’t.

Sarah doesn’t use anything in the way of science, but hopes to get them to look at pasta in a new way by making a breakfast raviolo – a raviolo filled with egg yolk and pancetta. She succeeds. Nathan says pasta is high-technique food, since it doesn’t grow on trees, and congratulates her on doing a good job of taking something an Italian grandmother could make and putting it in the right context. I think that means she talked her way into the top three without doing anything really modernist. If she’d won, MotoChris would’ve had a seizure for sure.

Malibu Chris likes modern art (we see all the nudes he’s painted adorning the walls of his home, which he talks about a little in his TVGuide interview), so he figures he should be good at modernist cuisine. presents scallops with risotto foam, raisins, and fried capers. Nathan says it’s terrific. But not terrific enough for the top three, I guess, since he isn’t mentioned.

Lindsay makes marinated baby octopus with tempura sea beans and togarashi (Japanese seven-spice). It passes without comment.

Edward makes salmon belly sashimi
with compressed watermelon and brunoise of radishes. For the curious, compressed watermelon is made by vacuum-sealing watermelon in a bag for a few minutes. That’s why he was so testy when Beverly reached for the vacuum-sealer machine.

Paul stumbles over the word “molecular” so goes for, “I use some of those techniques” instead. He serves an endive salad with egg yolk, parmesan, and truffle powder served in a glass globe. Nathan thought it was interesting but there was no depth of flavor; he’s in the bottom three. I would’ve given him a pass just for the bowl.

Beverly squirts curry foam all over Padma and Nathan, then knocks everything within reach onto the floor. Padma is not amused. After that, who cares about her clams and mussels with mango and other stuff. Nathan restricts himself to telling her the foam was in the right direction, but not far enough, it needed to stand out, when he puts her in the bottom. He probably mailed her a bill for dry cleaning. I’m sure Padma did. Beverly interviews that since her family was very strict, she never got to go to parties so she’s socially awkward. You know, Bev, squirting people with curry foam on national TV, then knocking over dirty pans, that’s just awkward. Edward interviews that he respects Beverly as a chef and a person, but she’s an oddball. That’s why I find her fascinating, she’s a pile of contradictions.

Grayson can only do one thing: tarragon dill caviar. She makes it with gelatin squirted into cold oil. It’s pretty well explained in the recipe, and Nathan admits that’s one way to do it, but he’s not impressed with her trout sashimi with the caviar and pickled watermelon, cucumber and radish. It’s too simple a preparation. I don’t know, it sounds more complicated than Ty-lor’s, to me. But what do I know. She’s in the bottom.

Wow, that was a fun Quickfire! Can we just stop now? Because it goes downhill from here.

Elimination Challenge

Padma prepares them to move from modern to traditional, the most traditional thing in Texas being… oh, the things I could say here… barbecue. And by the way, Nathan took first place in the national barbecue contest in Memphis. I wonder if that was one of those interminable summer bbq shows on Food Network, or if it was too highbrow for their tastes. Tom talks about it on his blog, since he also sends a team (which obviously did not come in first). Sarah‘s happy because she loves to grill, which is why she was all over the grill in the grilling challenge. I assume she knows the difference between grilling and barbecue.

They divide themselves into three teams of three each. There’s the usual “I don’t want to work with X;” Beverly and the two Chrises find themselves unwanted so they become the Misfit Toys. I’m surprised no one wants to work with Malibu Chris; what, he’s great flirt material, but no one wants to cook with him? Beverly and MotoChris, I understand. Sarah doesn’t trust Edward but knows Ty-lor talks a big barbecue game so she gloms on to him and will put up with Edward because she has to. Ty-lor, on the other hand, is delighted to work with Edward, since they did so well on the game challenge.

The teams:
MotoChris, MalibuChris
Sarah, Ty-lor, Edward.
Lindsay, Grayson, Paul.

They have to cook for 300 guests at the world-famous Salt Lick, which I’ve never heard of, but I’ll take their word for it. Because they’re doing real barbecue, they have all night. They must include three meats: chicken, pork spare ribs, and beef brisket, plus two sides.

The Salt Lick guy gives them a tour of his barbecue pits. “When the smoke gets in your eyes, remember those tears are the last flavor profile of real barbecue.” Oh how Like Water For Chocolate of you.

Paul sees the other teams are doing beans and slaw, so he wants to use miso, curry, and Asian flavors. MalibuChris uses Dr. Pepper for a marinade since it was born in Texas. I think he means invented. Dr. Pepper fans are pretty devoted to the stuff. I think it’s a good idea, it’s got some interesting flavors, and they had to use it once before for a Quickfire. Ty-lor is happy with his immunity, but he wants to put the steak fiasco behind him. Edward and Sarah aren’t getting along; she’s telling him how to cook, and he’s not liking it. And MalibuChris is getting props for wearing his wifebeater. It’s hot.

Did I mention it’s hot? I’m not sure why Top Chef would have a Texas season in the summer, but they have, and this summer was a doozie, so it’s over 90 at night with a heat index of 114 during the day. Sarah needs a medic. He takes her blood pressure and calls an ambulance. Heat stroke is nothing to fool around with. You know how high school football players die once in a while from summer practice? Four died this past summer, though none in Texas. There have been deaths in Texas in past years, though. Jim Shepard wrote a story about them, “Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak” I sweat just reading it.

So Sarah goes to the hospital. Ty-lor tells her not to worry about it. Edward bitches about it. I think it’s Edward’s turn to be the villain. Thing is, I see his point. Ty-lor has immunity. They never send sick people home, just ask Jamie. I think they’re worried about lawsuits, or bad press. It would look pretty bad to have chefs drop dead of heat stroke because they were afraid they’d get sent home if they got medical treatment. But that leaves Edward alone to face the music if their team tanks. So yeah, he’s nasty, but I kinda get why. I definitely get why Sarah needed to go to the hospital, though.

We haven’t heard from Beverly in a while, what’s she up to? I bet she’s doing something cute and socially awkward – why, yes, she is! She’s burning down a trailer with four-foot flames (under a five-foot ceiling) from a pot of blazing bourbon! And when she sets off the smoke alarm she carries the pan out of the trailer and puts it down on the (very dry) grass and goes back to disable the smoke alarm! Tee-hee! That silly socially awkward girl! Someone comes along and puts a pan on top of the flames to douse the fire. MalibuChris says, “She’s book smart but missing a few chapters when it comes to common sense.”

And Grayson tells Tom, doing his walkthrough, that their bbq is going to be like sex in the mouth. He doesn’t know exactly how to reply to that.

Service:

Paul, Lindsay, and Grayson go Asian BBQ with curry bbq chicken, bourbon brisket, and miso spare ribs, along with charred purple okra and brussels sprouts with kimchee sauce and a watermelon salad with nouc mam (a Vietnamese fish sauce). Or something like that. Their brisket fell off the smoking racks early on so they lost some cooking time, but since it was wrapped in foil they just plopped it back on the rack and hoped for the best. Which apparently happened. Tom thinks the Brussels sprouts aren’t cooked enough, but everyone loves the meats. Mr. Salt Lick never had cilantro watermelon before.

Edward, Ty-lor, and Sarah – except it’s actually just Edward and Ty-lor, since Sarah’s in the hospital – are making a Texas, Kansas City, and Kentucky spread. The chicken, which is Sarah’s bailiwick, uses the sweeter Texas bbq sauce; Ty-lor’s ribs are more Kansas City style (which I always thought was the sweet one, but I guess I was wrong), and Edward uses a dry rub and vinegar-y mop sauce for the brisket. Because they’re down one teammate, Edward carves the brisket into a hotel pan rather than cut to order. Ty-lor shows his math skill by calculating 300 plates times seven items per plate equals 2100 plate strokes. Plate strokes? PLATE STROKES? Sarah returns from sick call just in time to mess up the delicate system invented to mitigate her absence and dole out her drumsticks to the judges, at which point she retires to a cool corner chair to guzzle more water and feel absolutely no guilt. Edward grumbles. Again, I can see his point, but I can also see hers. It’s quite possible for both of them to be right. Ty-lor is a lot more gracious, but then, he has immunity. They also serve beans, summer slaw, and a slice of white sandwich bread. The judges like the chicken but the skin is a little rubbery and there isn’t much smoke flavor; the rib flavor is good but the texture is a little chewy. The brisket suffered from the early carving.

MalibuChris, MotoChris, and Beverly have a blast with beer can chicken. At least MotoChris does, stacking all those chickens on all those beer cans. MalibuChris wonders if he’s putting it in the right hole, ’cause it’s awfully tight. MalibuChris worries the ribs are a little salty. They also serve watermelon agua fresca, which, Gail says, needs some gin. No, you stupid Canadian, says Mr. Salt Lick, tequila. MotoChris is wearing his “I Eat Vegans” t-shirt. The chicken is roast chicken, not bbq. The Dr. Pepper ribs and brisket are seriously salty. The beans are hard, as though they weren’t cooked before baking. The brisket is chewy, but juicy.

Interstitial: Grayson sings her Bullfrog Song. It ain’t the Beef Tongue Song, that’s for sure. Grayson needs some sleep.

Judging:

The judges call back Paul, Lindsay and Grayson, who have won. Tom wants the chicken recipe. Gail says they were the only team that went non-traditional. It paid off. This time. See, that’s the thing; if they’d made lousy Asian bbq, they would’ve been scolded for going non-traditional. Lesson: if it’s really good, you can get away with anything.

The other two teams are on the block. And in the end, it’s MalibuChris who packs his knives for oversalting. Grayson and Lindsay are going to miss him, I think. And I wonder how long he’ll stay at #1 on Fan Favorite without much screen time. I don’t understand what he’s there for in the first place.

Last Chance Kitchen: For some reason my cable system doesn’t have this On Demand yet (I’ll update if it appears in the future), but TwoP seems to think Nyesha beat MalibuChris in another Gas Station challenge.

Next week: what everyone’s been waiting for (except me) – Restaurant Wars. I’ve never liked RW that much. The wrong person seems to get cut, often.

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