Top Chef Masters Season 4: Episode 2, You May Now Feed The Bride

Wedding cake?

Wedding cake?

All flavors of Top Chef have featured a wedding episode from the start, so imagine the chefs’ surprise when Curtis greets them with a bride and groom and tells them they’re catering a wedding the next day, with a prize of $10,000 for the winning charity. You’d think he announced they had to make dresses out of candy or something – OF COURSE there’s a wedding challenge, and OF COURSE there’s no time. The only surprise is the lack of a Quickfire. I miss the Quickfire. I like Quickfires. It does make for easier blogging, though.

The happy couple has had some really nasty luck lately, a truly sad tale; it’d be easy to make jokes about a couple who is now trying for the third time to get married, but the reasons are just too awful to do that. The wedding was all set for a while ago, and the maid-of-honor (I think it was either the bride’s or groom’s sister) died suddenly. They set up a table at the reception with photos as a remembrance. They eventually scheduled another date, and the venue disappeared along with their money. I guess they’re kind of out of options now, but I’m not sure a Top Chef wedding is the way for these two to go. At least they got the Masters. There should be something edible. And a lot of people find it exciting to be on TV. I’m glad they got the chance.

They’re looking for an Asian menu, with passed hors d’oeuvres, a plated entre, and especially a beautiful wedding cake with lots of layers. Art Smith pulls out the Robert Levine spiel – “I’ve made cakes for presidents and rock stars” – and he has no problem promising the doomed couple a variation on the pineapple upside-down cake he made for Lady Gaga’s 25th birthday (seems like the birthday cake he made for Lady Gaga was actually hummingbird cake, which, though it’s make with pineapple – it’s a modern-traditional Southern cake – isn’t the same as pineapple upside-down cake). Hugh Acheson blogs: “He namedrops both Lady Gaga and Maya Angelou in the same sentence, forging a generational alliance that has never been attempted before.” I love Hugh’s blog; more upcoming. I somehow missed it last week. But back to Art: Didn’t dessert send him home last time? And who makes a tiered pineapple upside down cake?

The shopping segment features the triple forward pass of pork belly to beat the clock to the register. And Kerry Heffernan leaving behind his cart of canned crab – wait. Canned crab? A Masters chef is using canned crab? Ewww… it’s a good thing he forgot the cart somewhere back in the fish department, though he doesn’t seem to think so when he kicks the checkout counter in a tantrum.

In the kitchen, Art Smith and Chris Cosentino continue to play the bickering old couple – and now I understand why. They will both be playing off each other in Time Machine Chef, in which chefs will have to cook using implements and ingredients of a given historical period. This pisses me off big time (and, admittedly, disproportionately to the offense). They’re here doing promotion. We the viewers are being duped. Set up. Prepped. When I saw that line in Hugh Acheson’s Bravo blog entry about this episode, I thought it was a joke. It is – a joke on the viewers. All this head-butting is staged as promotion. Glaring at you, Chris Cosentino. From Art, I expect it.

Kerry Heffernan tells the story of his wedding, with Tom Colicchio as best man and caterer. Too bad there was a hurricane that day. But I bet the food was great. Not to be outdone, Art relates how he and his husband ran to the Lincoln Memorial in running shoes with hearts on them (similar to the ones he’s wearing for this challenge) for their wedding. That’s actually really nice, I just wish it was anyone but Art telling the story.

And to keep the tension up, Clark Frasier (I think it was Clark. Either Frick or Frack) starts swearing like a sailor when Thierry Rautureau reorganizes his cart. Someone get that man a copy of Who Moved My Cheese?. Mark Gaier, partner at work and home, explains him to us: seems he’s very bossy, and maybe a little OCD.

But all in all, the kitchen is very harmonious, with lots of team spirit and cooperation. It’s nice to see on a reality show for a change, to not have a villain.

Service:

Thierry Rautureau makes his Grandma’s Blood Soup. Presumably this means his Grandma’s recipe for blood soup, not his Grandma’s blood in the soup. Yeah… I shouldn’ta gone there, huh? What can I say, words are cool. He worries about making it right so his grandmother doesn’t rise from the grave and slap him silly. Yes, to answer the question of one of the wedding guests, it does contain pork blood (and was a specific request of the groom). It’s that brown-mauve color of chocolate pudding. Ruth says it’s a classic Filipino dish, which indeed, as Dinuguan, it is. Thierry, and presumably his grandmother, is French, however. That’s ok, there’s lots of blood soup around the world. Nobody says anything about how it tastes. Me, I wouldn’t care what it tasted like, I’d be gagging.

Clark Frasier: Barbecued Duck with Sirloin Szechuan Sauce in Lettuce Cups. I enjoyed seeing him in the kitchen with a whole duck. Head and all. James Oseland is overwhelmed; there’s not a lot of finesse there. Strike one for the home team.

Kerry Heffernan: Corn Panna Cotta with Grilled Okra, Crab and Marjoram. Turns out he had plenty of crab salad even without the canned crab; I still think it was the best thing that could’ve happened to him, leaving that basket behind. James loves it.

Patricia Yeo: Pickled Mackerel with Young Coconut and Chilies on a spoon. It looks like a clear plastic spoon. Maybe it’s glass? What it doesn’t look like is a Chinese porcelain spoon. It’s just a teaspoon or maybe a tablespoon. I’m confused. But James loves it: magic, a revelation. Pickled mackerel, magic? Dang, that must be some dish.

Takashi Yagihashi: Braised Pork Belly with Pickled Daikon and Steamed Bun. Yumms all around. Ruth Reichl calls it a satisfying mini-sandwich.

Debbie Gold: Grilled Green Napa Cabbage Salad. This is a lesson in poor adaptability; she wanted to make a green papaya salad but could find neither papaya nor mango so she used cabbage and unripe nectarines instead of reconceptualizing. She loves to grill lettuce for the acidity; she doesn’t want to serve a sweet salad as a starter. Kerry helps her char it, and she’s adamant that she wants it really charred; he isn’t playing tricks on her at all, he’s following her instructions. I’m dubious about the value of charred cabbage, even mild napa cabbage. The judges do not approve. James calls it one of the weirder things he’s ever eaten. The bride, however, likes it. Maybe she’s just really agreeable. Given how her last two attempts to get married turned out, she’s probably so glad she actually got the deed done, she’d be happy with anything.

Mark Gaier: Sesame-Coated Baked Atlantic Salmon with Egg Noodle Cake. He’s struggling with the timing of the cooking in the kitchen; he wants it cooked just so much and no more: “Thirty seconds in that oven.” Thirty seconds? What does thirty seconds do? The critics get raw fish; Ruth calls it warm sashimi, which is pretty awful. Curtis asks the bride what she thinks, and hers is perfectly cooked and she likes the slight crunch of the sesame seed crust. But still… two strikes for my home team.

Chris Cosentino: Banana Leaf Braised Pork with Aioli and Adobo Sauces. Ok, that’s two pork dishes for Chris; granted, the ethnic requirements invited it, but I hope he mixes it up a little at some point. His dish is a great success.

Lorena Garcia: Vanilla Leche Flan Topped with Toasted Coconut. A guest thinks it’s overcooked; I missed what the judges said.

Art Smith: Inside-Out Upside-Down Pineapple Cake with Rum Vanilla Sauce. Predictably, it’s a mess. The cake slides off to the side, falls over. Most of the chefs help him with the repair, but it still comes out looking like the ever-popular Leaning Tower of Cake. Seems no one takes into account the heat of the lights and lack of ventilation softening the frosting and allowing slippage. And then there’s the slippery pineapple. I wonder if Lady Gaga’s cake was tiered. Ruth says she’d be very unhappy if it were her cake; besides the awful appearance, it’s one-note. James finds none of that caramel glaze a pineapple upside-down cake should have. However, the groom named it as his favorite dish. Maybe he’s just relieved there wasn’t an earthquake or a fire during the ceremony.

Critic’s Table:

Takashi, Patricia, and Chris are called first; it’s obvious these are the top dishes, but Curtis tries to milk some suspense out of it anyway. Patricia Yeo wins, bringing her total contribution to Heifer International to $16,000.

Mark, Debbie, and Art are the bottom three.

Art defends himself with his Lady Gaga line – I think she could charge royalties at this point. I’m surprised he didn’t find a way to work in the New York restaurant he just opened with Lady Gaga’s father. James again longs for the caramelized flavor that was lacking. Curtis thinks they would’ve asked for a refund if they’d paid for it. It’s kind of sad, because the bride told them in the beginning the most important thing was a beautiful wedding cake. These people just can’t get a break. I hope Art sends them a Collette cake, or gift certificates to some fancy restaurants, to make it up to them. Because it doesn’t matter what he does on this show, he’s got a lock to keep up the banter with his costar.

James uses the word “odd” to describe Debbie‘s cabbage with its overbearing charred quality; she keeps saying she likes to grill lettuce, like she’s unaware that cabbage has a sulfury goodness not present in lettuce. I love lightly grilled radicchio or romaine; not sure about grilled cabbage, especially as grilled as she specifically told Kerry to make it. James says it didn’t have any of the flavors of a Thai papaya salad, which confuses me; it wasn’t a papaya salad. I know she started with that, but is that what she was still calling it? Curtis didn’t hate it as much as the others.

Mark just didn’t cook his salmon; the other critic, whose name I forget, doesn’t get how he could send it out. Mark is surprised the salmon was raw; Curtis points out the bride and groom liked it, as their portions were cooked properly. Ruth found it wimpy; James agrees it lacked “oomph” and figures he got overwhelmed by 200 plates; it came down to skill, and he didn’t execute. Heavy sigh.

But my homeboy survives; it’s Debbie who’s cut. She admits her strength isn’t the kind of split second timing needed for this kind of setting, and she’s sorry she didn’t win more for Children’s Network TLC.

Success on these shows does require a specific skill set: the ability to deal with substitutions and changes in plan, to make substandard ingredients work, to work with unfamiliar ingredients and cuisines, all under the inexorable tick of the clock. Considering all that, most of the dishes were quite well-received.

For some of these chefs, it might’ve been a while since they actually worked on the line; grocery stores are no doubt foreign territory. Not to mention, they’ve been the boss for quite a while; it’s a room full of type-As. Add to that, catering really is a different ball of wax, which is why I don’t like catering challenges. A lot of this year’s crew are second-timers, with some experience at dealing with the environment. And several have experience on other cooking competitions.

So I’m not holding out much hope for my home team; they don’t seem to be making the jump at this point. That’s ok. They’re still my guys until they both pack their knives. Who knows, maybe they’ll catch on. But I think it’s Chris Cosentino’s to lose. Even if I am really annoyed with him right now.

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