Top Chef Masters Season 4: Episode 1 – The Buffet Must Go On



This snuck up on me; I didn’t know the series was airing until a few days ago. Maybe I’m getting old, but the pacing throughout seemed very fast. Fortunately, several chefs are familiar either from prior seasons or from other competitive cooking shows. From the list, I was most excited to see Chris Cosentino, but now that I’ve looked into things, there’s a matched set from Maine, so I’ve got to go with Clark Frasier and/or Mark Gaier. I can’t tell them apart (my poor facial recognition skills are documented elsewhere), so I may end up calling them Frick and Frack. I can’t tell some of the women apart, either. And one guy reminds me of that oozey guy from the first TC:JD. Don’t want to think about that.

They’re in Vegas, a nice change of pace from the usual LA location. Even if Vegas is my least favorite place in the US. I hope that doesn’t mean ever challenge has a Vegas tie-in.

Quickfire: They pair up, and each pair is dealt two cards (Vegas tie-in #1; boooo) with ingredients they must use in their single dish. The winner gets $10,000 for his/her charity, with three “world-class card dealers” making the call. It’s debatable whether the ingredients are distributed randomly or in pre-determined pairs. I suspect the latter; they all go together a little too well to be random.

Team Rib Eye and Catfish:
Chris Cosentino is all about guts. Offal Good is his “educational and inspirational” website (twitter @offalchris), featuring the picture, above, of him holding a bunch of guts. Ya gotta love it. But you don’t have to eat it. Oh, and he once worked for Patricia Yeo. Which might be why they teamed up for this QF. He’s playing for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
Patricia Yeo was a Princeton Biochem major when she took a cooking class, and that was it. She moved to Southeast Asia for a time to work and study the cuisine, and has worked in CA, NY, and Boston; but she’s been weathering some rough times, and just prior to the airing of the show, she announced she was going to Chicago for an unspecified corporate position. She worked for Bobby Flay and was his sous chef a few times in the early years on ICA; then she challenged Morimoto in Battle Tofu in 2007 (you have to ask? I mean, come on, Morimoto?). Her charity is Heifer International which happens to be one of my favorite places to put money, seeing as they were featured on a hilarious segment of The West Wing.
Though Chris is dismayed by being presented with a whole catfish, they pull it together and present Beefalo de Gato Pescado. The dealers like the kick of the jalapeno.
They win, and each of their charities gets $5,000.

Team Langostines and quinoa:
Clark Frasier is Frick (or maybe it’s Frack), one of the Maine team, James Beard winner, sustainable chef-owner along with partner and now competitor Mark Gaier of two Ogunquit restaurants (the flagship Arrows with a SE Asian flavor, and MC Perkins Cove for more traditional Maine seafood), plus Summer Winter in the Burlington, MA Marriott. Oh, and you can order stuff like Strange Eggplant Dip and Mom’s Steak Sauce as well as their cookbooks at MC, which seems to stand for both Maine Classics and Mark & Clark. The local paper also ran a nice article last week, and yes, I overlooked it. He’s playing for Outright Lewiston/Auburn, which helps create safe and affirming environments for LGBTQ youth.
Debbie Gold is a TCM Season 2 alumna who studied and worked in France, has been a pastry chef, won a James Beard award, and cooks Heartland food in Kansas City. Her charity is Children’s TLC, a therapeutic learning center for kids in Kansas City.
They make grilled langoustine and parsley pistou with candied popped quinoa. The pistou is too grassy for the dealers. Ewwey faces all around.

Team Brandy and honeycomb:
Missy Robbins is President Obama’s favorite chef. Oh, wait, she worked at Spiaggia in Chicago (remember Sarah from TCT?) for Tony Mantuano who’s Obama’s favorite chef. No, Spiaggia’s is his favorite restaurant and she was the chef at that point. Whatever. I’m just happy someone wants to be called Obama’s favorite chef. She’s a Georgetown grad who worked at Spiaggia (remember Sarah from TC9? Tony Mantuano from TCM3?) before opening her own Italian eatery in NY. Her charity is Grow to Learn NYC which promotes school garden programs.
Sue Torres, CIA alumna out of NYC, is not Mexican – she’s an Italian/Puerto Rican American – but she loves to cook Mexican food. She’s been around the Food Network a bit, ICA in 2009 (lost her bananas to Bobby Flay) and as a judge on Chopped. Her charity is the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation .
They prepare Brandied pineapple with Honeyed Yogurt, Almonds and Chilies; the dealers find it sweet and refreshing.

Team Black garlic and flank steak:
Mark Gaier is the other half of Frick & Frack from Maine; see Clark Frasier above. It’s hard enough to work and live with the same person, but now to compete with him is really strange. He’s playing for Equality Maine to bring equal rights to all Mainers. Hey, it almost happened a couple of years ago. Almost.
Thierry Rautureau of Seattle is The Chef in the Hat. That’s not just me saying that, it’s what he’s called. He’s a Season 2 alumnus, if you count one outing (that was back when only one or two people were advancing per quarterfinal). He’s a James Beard winner, with, guess what, French training and inspiration. Food Lifeline, a hunger relief organization in western Washington state, is his charity.
Their dish is Flank Steak with Corn and Blueberry Salad and Black Garlic Harissa; the salsa needs more kick.

Team Peaches and Duck Breast:
Art Smith – dang, again? That isn’t fair, I guess, it’s just that Oprah’s off the air now so can we just move along? His charity is still Common Threads.
Lorena Garcia studied law in her native Venezuela and the US, then switched to cooking, with an emphasis on Latin food. She’s a Johnson & Wales grad who worked all over Europe and Asia before returning to the great American industry of fame whoring. Wow, I know, that’s harsh. But come on, she’s spokesperson for Splenda, she’s teamed with Taco Bell to create their Cantina Bell menu, and she was one of the judges on that miserable “what kind of kitschy fast-food restaurant do you want to create, no that’s not good come up with something else” show (my buddy Marko and I had fun snarking by email with that one). Ok, I’ll admit, I happen to know Jacques Pepin once worked for Hojo’s. For you youngsters who don’t know what Hojo’s was… don’t worry about it. Her restaurant is in the Miami airport. She’s playing for Alliance for a Healthier Generation which works to combat childhood obesity.
They make soul food, says Lorena: he makes American South soul food with fried duck, she makes Latin American soul food via corn salsa. In the end, they send out Duck Lettuce Wraps with Corn Salsa and Peach Ricotta Crème. The dealers find it very fresh-tasting with good flavors.

Team Pork Tenderloin and Bologna:
Takashi Yagihashi from Chicago does French/Asian fusion. He actually earned a degree in Interior Design in Tokyo, but couldn’t find a job in the field so turned to cooking full-time; his boss asked him to relocate to a new restaurant here and he made the most of it. He recently lost to Michael Simon, Battle Egg, on ICA. But he has a James Beard award which is a lot better. His prizes will go to Japanese Tsunami Disaster Relief (in later episodes it appears this means American Red Cross Disaster Relief, though there doesn’t seem to be an option specific to the Japanese tsunami at this time; there’s no link on the Bravo bio so this is a guess but what the heck, it’s a good cause no matter what).
Kerry Heffernan is Tom Colicchio’s buddy and the Fishing Guy judge from TCAS Ep 6, remember how Dale caught a 37 pound fish and Tiffany Faison got sent home for serving bluefish bloodline? Damn, I watch WAY too much Top Chef. Though I did have to look up the 37 pounds; I thought it was 35. The food rescue group City Harvest is his charity.
Together they come up with Sauteed Pork Tenderloin with Bologna Frisee Salad and Soy Ginger Caramel Sauce. The dealers like the spice.

Elimination Challenge:

They must do a Vegas buffet (ok, that’s two Vegas tie-ins, can we knock it off now?) for 200 show performers. Curtis randomly (apparently) into two teams; they shop, cook, and – surprise twist! There’s a lot that goes on – they each get scratch cards with instructions to lose 30 minutes, switch teams, get immunity, and take a bonus of $1000 for charity, and a final surprise for each team: one must make Indian dishes, one Mexican. This is after they’ve done their shopping, though they’re allowed to go out for more.

So here’s how it panned out in the end:

Red Team: Mexican Buffet
Art gets immunity. Damn.
Chris gets $1000 for his charity.
Lorena loses 30 minutes.
Patricia gets $1000 for her charity.
Missy switched teams, ends up on Red.
Kerry – well, I missed him, I told you, it was fast-paced. I’m going to guess he lost 30 minutes since that would even it up – 2 immunities, 2 switched teams, 4 bonuses, and 4 time-outs.

Art goes shopping and takes forever but does bring back the cilantro.

Blue Team: Indian Buffet
Debbie gets immunity.
Thierry gets $1000 for his charity.
Frick (the one with bangs) gets $1000 for his charity.
Frack loses 30 minutes.
Sue loses 30 minutes.
Takeshi switched teams, ends up on Blue

In one of the stupidest decisions made on TCM since Anito Lo went ahead with her raw bar even after she found out they’d be serving outside on a hot rooftop, they decide not to waste time shopping, because after all, Indian food is just like American/French/Latin/Asian, who needs additional ingredients. Then there’s Thierry, who has all this beef to fit into an Indian dish.

There’s the usual kvetching about the forced change in cuisine. I’m surprised they picked those two; after all, there are a couple of Latin specialists on the panel (one on each team), but no one who does Indian. Seems a bit slanted to me in favor of the Red Team. However…

Within minutes (it seems; who knows how long it was), Missy’s done: while slicing the zucchini on a mandoline, she also sliced the skin off her pinkie. She faced it with bravado, asking for a bandaid and a glove, but the paramedic insisted she go to the hospital, where she found out she needed a skin graft. She’s fine now, by the way, after the surgery, a couple of weeks in an immobilization sling, and physical therapy. The show gave Grow to Learn NYC an undisclosed amount as a consolation prize, and gave her an automatic invitation to the next season.

I guess they liked The Next Food Network Star Vegas buffet episode, because they do pretty much the same thing. All the showgirls, pirates, mimes, and whatevers traipse in and eat. Chris likes the view; all he sees from behind the serving line is belly and bikini bottoms. Frick & Frack enjoy the pirates. And Art likes everything.

Blue Team: Indian
Takashi: Shrimp and Salmon Dumpling with Swiss Chard and Curried Coconut Broth. James is impressed, but Ruth wants the filling lighter and smoother. No one tastes India.
Clark: Heirloom Tomato Compote with Fried Green Beans, Shallots and Goat Cheese. The shallots are a little much. And no one tastes India.
Debbie: Rose Water Lemon Curd with Spiced Streusel and Meringue. James thinks it’s not sweet enough; Ruth, claiming title of Lemon Queen, thinks it’s too sweet. Nobody thinks it has anything to do with India. Do you see a pattern here?
Mark: Curried Corn Soup with Curried Flatbread. He didn’t bring the spice. Come on, home team, what’re ya doin’ to me?
Sue: Indian-Spiced Chicken with Lentil Rice Cakes and Tomato Ginger Jam. Ruth thinks the ginger is ill-conceived, and it’s aggressively dry. I love how she phrases that.
Thierry: Masala Salmon and Beef Shoulder with Spiced Couscous. Curtis loves the layers of flavor; they all love it. But they have yet to taste India.

Red Team: Mexican Buffet
Lorena: Leche de Tigre Ceviche Salad and Tequila Horchata. James likes it, but Ruth thinks the texture is strange. I’m not so sure ceviche is the best choice for a buffet, either.
Patricia: Chicken and Beef Adobo with Cornmeal Pancakes and Peach Salsa. The adobo is well-seasoned; tasty.
Missy: Zucchini Salad with Roasted Poblano Vinaigrette. She didn’t really make it, of course, but the team completed it, and it went over well; nicely spiced, good heat.
Kerry: Grilled Steak with Arugula, Posole and Chimichurri Coulis. James likes how the flavor of the beef offsets the garlicky posole, but Ruth wishes the chimichurri was brighter.
Chris: “Pork and Beans” with Cured Pork and Chickpeas. It’s the standout, smooth and well-flavored.
Art: Pan de Tres Leches with Candied Cocoa Nib and Tequila Caramel Sauce. Ruth says he had fun; they call it comfort food and Mexico on a plate; Art at his best.

Critic’s Table

The Red Team wins, which was pretty obvious from the judging. James says it was the best food he ever had at a buffet. Individually, Chris Cosentino wins for best dish, bringing the total he’s won for the Michael J. Fox Foundation today to $16,000. Pretty good for one day’s work. Hey, if my home boys aren’t going to bring it, I’m still all about Chris. Though Takashi and Sue are growing on me.

The Blue Team gets the bad news. Their spicing wasn’t Indian. They ask Debbie about her dessert; she admits she didn’t bring anyone to India, but she felt good about it. She’s got immunity, so I suppose she doesn’t care where she brought anyone. Sue had fun and used the ingredients of India; Ruth wishes she’d marinated the chicken in yogurt to keep it moist. Takashi’s chard was delicious, but the spring roll filling could’ve been lighter.

The panel debates in private while the chefs wait. It’s between Takashi and Sue, of course, since those two were among the ones I noticed. They know Sue had the boldest flavors, with actual coriander seed crust on the chicken, but Ruth points out the glory of Indian food is how they make the chicken succulent and tender. I didn’t know that, I thought it was the spices. Curtis admires her for taking on the challenge. Hey, what choice did she have? I guess she could’ve made a lemon meringue cup, but she didn’t have immunity. Ruth sympathizes with Takashi, who had no idea what to do for Indian food; but his filling wasn’t light and it wasn’t an Indian dish at all.

Sue Torres is out, which seems bass-ackwards to me, but I have a high tolerance for dry chicken.

Next week: Well, I don’t know, but I hope Team Maine resurgams.

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