Top Chef Masters Season 4: Episode 4 – Grand Canyon Cookout

Grand Canyon West Skywalk

Grand Canyon West Skywalk

What do you get when you dangle an acrophobic Asian over the Grand Canyon, and tease a Frenchman with a root but give him a flower instead? A winning dish. And that, friends, is what a Top Chef Master is.

First course is salad.

How ironic. One of the Truisms of the Top Chef franchise is, “Do salad, you die.” So there’s usually a salad QF somewhere along the line.

Curtis waxes poetic about the salad bar of 52 ingredients. I thought it had something to do with playing cards. Then he says: “Here’s your salad bar. It’s as big as a whale. You’ve got eight minutes to make it set sail.” To me, it just sounded like he was trying too hard, but those familiar with The B-52s probably recognized “Love Shack.” Hey, I kinda missed the 80s. I was… doing other things. Getting married. Having shock treatments. Going to hospitals. You’d think I would’ve connected the first with the second and third, but nooOOOooo…

Back to our show. Make a salad in eight minutes. Kate Pierson and Fred Schneider of the B-52s are the salad judges. Because… who knows why. They need the publicity and the price was right? They were hungry? Maybe because Kate once went to the longest salad bar in the world, and claims it was in Maine. I’ve never seen advertisements for the longest salad bar in the world, and I’d think that would be something they’d be touting. There’s also nothing on the Internets. I think she made that up. The chefs make their salads and retire to the Whine Room to watch the proceedings on TV, just like we get to do. Except, of course, they have skin in the game. Not much skin – it’s only a QF – but still.

Lorena shocks everyone by grilling cauliflower; they only have 8 minutes, after all, and it seems like an extravagance, except, come on, how long does it take to grill cauliflower florets? Thirty seconds probably does it. Turns out it was a good investment of time: her Grilled Cauliflower with Lemon Vinaigrette wins the day with its tingling taste sensation, after Kate worries about the “sad” teardrop tomatoes (note to myself: if I’m ever a guest judge on a reality show, resist the urge to be clever) but likes the saltiness and the smoke of the grilled veg. Five grand to Alliance for a Healthier Generation which combats childhood obesity caused by spending too much time at Taco Bell.

Thierry informs us a salad sounds easy, but it’s actually the hardest thing to do (bullsh*t) because the seasoning and combination of ingredients is so important. Kate doesn’t usually like fruits mixed with veggies (I’m betting she doesn’t know tomatoes and cucumbers are fruit) but likes his Baby Arugula, Beets and Blueberries with Rice Vinegar Dressing anyway; the combo works, and the dressing is, as they say, “zingy.” Second place.

Kerry creates a Salade Russe with Yogurt. Ok, I’m ignorant; I’ve never heard of salade Russe (service a la russe, sure, but salad?) but apparently it’s sort of the Caesar salad of Russia. I’m not sure what the key component is. Kate likes it anyway, the yogurt has a nice tang. Girl likes her tang. Third place.

We never hear who the least favorites are (must’ve been Art, and there’s some contractual restriction on how many times he can be shown doing poorly). But the also-rans are:

Patricia: she avoids the rush at the salad bar itself and hits the pantry first to pick the finest oils and vinegars for her dressing. Here’s the problem with that approach: you’re dealing with a couple of rock musicians, not practiced chefs. Her Chopped Romaine and Chinese Noodles with Yuzu Dressing got a mention by Fred: he loves crispy Chinese noodles; “I know they’re tacky but I love them,” he says. “Thank you very much,” Patricia pipes from the Whine Room.

Clark sees hearts of palm and goes middle-eastern with Green Olives and Hearts of Palm with Mustard Vinaigrette; he thinks it’s out of the ordinary. And seems it is: Kate has to take a step back after tasting it, and Fred claims the mustard dressing is, um, tangy. I think that means too tangy. Sigh. Another bad showing for Team Maine.

Art, speaking of bad showings, does another spiel about all the weight he lost and how wonderful salad is and how good he is at making it. So he makes watermelon soup. Soup? Wait, it’s a salad challenge – oh, ok, he also makes Tomato, Cucumber and Pomegranate Salad with the watermelon soup. Because he’s so awesome he just can’t contain himself, I guess. It looks to me like there’s something else in the blender with the watermelon –omething white and ring-shaped, like uncooked onion rings – but the recipe just says watermelon and seasonings. He figures the B-52s are from Macon, GA, and cucumber, tomato and vinegar are the holy trinity of the South (not to mention pretty much any garden salad anywhere, but hey, if he wants to make a religion out of it, who am I to object. Thing is, the Trinity is already taken by Cajuns for onions, peppers, and celery, isn’t it?) so he should be fine. Kate loves the combination; Fred thinks the dressing is light (I’m not sure if that’s light as in yummy light or light as in where is it) but the soup is too sweet.

Chris spends more on produce for his restaurant than anything. I’m dubious; his menu isn’t heavy on expensive proteins (though the fois gras app, still on the sample menu from July 18, 2012 on the Incanto website, comes with a copy of California Penal Code 422; I’d assumed this was the law banning foie gras in CA as of 7/1/12, but instead, it’s a law outlining the penalties for threatening physical harm to someone; I’m guessing he’s had some issues with PETA. Or maybe he got the to the bill wrong) and he isn’t serving Green Giant string beans, but still… He focuses on a light hand with the dressing for his Romaine Lettuce with Radish, Egg and Soft Herbs (the soft herbs are chives and tarragon according to the recipe, if you’re curious). And the B-52s think it’s underdressed and bland. “Bullshit” says Chris from the Whine Room. Kate asks Curtis, “Are we overdressed?” Chris again answers someone who can’t hear him with “Yes, you are.”

Takashi makes Romaine and Arugula with Beets and Pickled Radishes. Kate likes the flavor of the dressing; it’s – guess what – tangy. Really into tangy, this woman. But not too tangy, Clark.

Elimination Challenge

First: Dear Bravo, take note: yes, I known, the 11pm rerun is just a rerun, but if you keep covering the screen with tweets, I can’t see the cooking or the helpful graphics listing names and dishes. Please stop it.

Curtis introduces Louise Benson, who gets the puzzled stares of eight chefs trying to figure out who the hell she is. She’s the chair of the Hualapai tribal council in Arizona. They’ve been conduction an ethnobotany project, teaming elders with youth to pass down the history of traditional food ingredients. The chefs will be cooking with these traditional ingredients. Clark’s really excited; his dad went to the University of Arizona and set up programs for Indian education so he has some knowledge of Indian food culture.

They’ll be cooking on the Hualapai reservation, the rim of Grand Canyon West. I’m intrigued; it’s run by the Hualapai on their reservation, “as an alternative to Grand Canyon National Park.” Hey, I think it’s interesting; who knew there was more than one Grand Canyon?

And, by the way, they’re travelling by helicopter. Chris keeps yelling he’s never been to the Grand Canyon and he’s never been in a helicopter. Chris, I like you, you’re my guy, but you can shut up now; the more you talk, the less my guy you are. Takashi is excited, until wet blanket Chris asks if he’ll be ok. Seems Takashi has a well-known fear of heights. “Sometimes I can’t even change a lightbulb,” he says. “Does this mean he has the same idea all the time?” blogs Hugh Acheson. You wouldn’t believe how long it took me to figure that one out. Two points, Hugh.

They draw knives for teams and ingredients; each team of two has a protein and a veggie:

Art and Lorena: Quail and prickly pear. Am I paranoid, or is Art getting all the breaks? He and Lorena have had this lovefest going on for weeks now, and quail is about as close as you can get to Art’s beloved chicken. Lorena, however, has never worked with prickly pear. Remember this. It’ll come back later when Lorena’s prickly pear half of the dish outshines Art’s overcooked birds.

Takashi and Thierry have venison and banana yucca. Thierry thinks his yucca is yuca . It isn’t. Banana Yucca is a desert plant related to the agave, and the fruit is edible; yuca (aka cassava or manioc) is a starchy root often used like a potato in Mexican cooking, as well as to make tapioca. And to further confuse things, the spellings are sometimes reversed. You basically have to know which one you’re talking about to talk about it. Oh, and while we’re differentiating, cassava is not the same as casaba melon. At all. I’ve already been down this path. Food nomenclature is sometimes tricky. Ever try to figure out what a yam is?

Chris and Patricia get rabbit and acorn squash. Chris is excited about the “little bits.” He would be. Cured tuna heart is on his menu, to him rabbit liver and kidneys are run of the mill. I truly respect what he does, but I’m never gonna have dinner at his house.

Kerry and Clark must deal with beef and corn. Seems simple enough.

The helicopter ride takes them over the Hoover Dam which fascinates them more than the Grand Canyon. Hey, guys, I’ve loved Hoover Dam ever since Rachel Maddow went there in a hoodie to film a promo, but come on: dams are built like fools like us but only God (or the Colorado River) can make a Grand Canyon.

At Grand Canyon West, they walk out on the Skywalk, a clear platform over the Canyon. Takashi takes a few steps and turns around, but sticks with it. I don’t have a particular problem with heights, and I was a little queasy just looking at it on TV; I’m not sure I’d want to go stand out there. Takashi, you are a god. Only problem is I kept imagining Tyra Banks somewhere saying, “If you want to be a Top Chef Master you have to do this.” I’m sick of Tyra ruining my imagery. I need brain bleach.

They’re cooking on solid ground, at least, if outdoors under a tent over charcoal. Each pair is to serve one dish, family-style, for 26 people. The judges are the usual: Ruth Reichl, James Oselund, Francis Lam, who I am liking more and more.

Art and Lorena: (Quail and Prickly Pear) Art loves Lorena’s sexiness and energy. If he was straight he’d marry her. I think it’s good my two least favorite people in the competition are sequestered together; not surprising they love each other. The speak the same publicity-whore dialect. Art grills quail and makes cornbread dressing while Lorena makes prickly pear barbecue sauce and slaw. Some of the quail are cooking faster than others; Art covers them with foil to make sure they’re cooked.
Art begins the presentation with a long speech about food and love and sharing; Patricia’s worrying the food’s going to get cold. He finally finishes, and Lorena starts in about loving Art and loving food and, I don’t know, all you need is love as the food congeals on the platters.
Finally the judges and Indians get to eat the Barbecued Quail and Prickly Pear Slaw. One of the Indian women talks about going with her grandmother to find prickly pears. James thinks the slaw has great flavor, but Curtis wants some crunch. All agree, the quail is overcooked, but Ruth wants to drink the sauce. Remember back when I said Art knew more about quail than Lorena did about prickly pear? Lot of good it did him. And, by they way, Lorena has immunity. Not that it matters, her barbecue sauce was terrific, and she has immunity anyway. But Art has virtual immunity; we all know that, right? I wonder if his contract guarantees he’ll be in the finals.

Takashi and Thierry (Venison and Yucca) are long-time friends so they’re happy to be on the team together; I’m happy, too, they’re both strong chefs and decent people. Sure, Thierry is a little laid back, getting massages on shopping runs, but hey, there are worse things he could be. Here’s where Thierry realizes he’s dealing with yucca and not yuca. So he flours it and fries it. Hey, like Padma said, if you fried my toe it would taste good. Smart move.
They serve Grilled Venison and Banana Yucca Cake with Braised Figs. Francis loves the spicing of the venison; the flavors go in different directions then come together in a rich, dark way. One of the Indian women says they don’t use a lot of chili or spices so it’s an adventure. Ruth find the yucca a little bitter, and one of the Indians explains it’s because he left the skin on. Oopsie. Francis gives them props for working on inconsistent heat, and creating a good texture contrast.

Kerry and Clark (Beef Filet and Corn) aren’t doing so well. We don’t hear from Kerry; I wonder if that’s because he refused to say anything interesting, or if he said stuff that was too interesting. Clark doesn’t feel like they’re clicking; their visions are very different, with Clark being more rustic and Kerry more fancy. “I can’t have a fist fight over how to plate,” he says, which seems… a little much. But still, he figures nothing will ever top this, cooking under a tent in the rain next to the Grand Canyon; he’s honored to take native ingredients and elevate them to a new level. The dish: Spiced Beef Filet and Corn with Sage Pistou and Chili Ragout. Kerry made the meat, Bearnaise sauce, and pistou; Clark made some corn ragout thing. I watched this episode twice, and I’m looking at the recipe and I still don’t understand their dish. There’s also a red berry sauce (red berries? What’s that?) which separated and didn’t look too good. And a ragout is kind of a sauce… a pistou is kind of a puree… seems like a bunch of sauce-things to me. What’s the corn in? I’m confused. Apparently the judges were, too. Clark felt he had to do simple flavors to balance all the sauces Kerry was ladling on the beef. Ruth points out everything is soft, there’s no contrast in texture. I think a lot got left on the editing room floor in that exchange. Hey, Clark? When you elevate ingredients, you’re supposed to make them better. Are you sure you’re from Maine?

Chris and Patricia (Rabbit and Acorn Squash) find the fire isn’t really working; there’s a little rain, which dims it even more. So while the three other teams are standing around fretting that their fires aren’t hot enough, Chris pulls the grill top off and lays griddle sheets directly on the coals. He makes a racket doing it (prompting Art to call him “an aggressive kid”) but, as Thierry notes, he gets the job done. And he shares the heat with the other teams. He’s still my guy. He is a little scary around the edges, though.
The finished product is: Rabbit and its Bits Acorn Squash and Agrodolce. Ruth gives high marks for using the squash two ways; it’s both roasted and wrapped in raw strips. Francis is impressed by the rabbit; it’s delicious and beautifully done, when there’s often a tendency for it to get dry and tough. He loves the little bits, too, a way of incorporating the spirit of respect.

At the end of the meal, James sits back and belches a few times. No, of course not. He calls it one of the most memorable meals of his life. Well, yeah. Even a fancy-shmancy food critic doesn’t eat at the edge of the Grand Canyon every day. One of the Indian men says the commentary provided by the critics is going to be legendary. Ruth agrees: “You’ll be making fun of us for year to come.”

Everyone dances together, Indians, chefs, judges. Then it’s time.

The Verdict

Chris and Patricia, Takashi, and Thierry, were the best. Curtis tries to put a dramatic pause in there, but it’s pretty obvious that Kerry and Clark are going to be in the bottom, and given all the screen time Clark’s had this episode, there’s little suspense.

But first, the winner: Takashi and Thierry. Takashi gets $5,000 for Red Cross Disaster Relief, and Thierry gets the same amount for Food Lifeline.

Art and Lorena, Kerry and Clark are the less successful teams. They ask Art if he considered splitting the quail to cook it more evenly; he was thinking presentation. Curtis agrees it looked lovely, but people found it “fiddly” and hard to eat. Kerry had trouble searing the beef, and the sauce separated unpleasantly. James calls Clark’s corn “bland succotash.” Ouch. Clark says he didn’t want spices competing with the beef.

The judges talk amongst themselves a bit. Francis notes Art sacrificed doneness and ease of eating for presentation. Yeah, that sounds like Art. They acknowledge that with Kerry doing two sauces, Clark had to pull back. But, as Ruth says, if you’re an American chef and you don’t know what to do with beef and corn, you’re in trouble. She likes the idea of the composite butter of red berries (oh, is that what the berry sauce was?) but it was like spitting watermelon seeds with a mouthful of steak at the same time. That sounds hilarious, actually. Like it should be a competition sport.

Strangely, the Bravo poll asks which duo is strongest, and Art and Lorena win. By what measure of strong? This is a phony poll, isn’t it?

Clark is out. I’m relieved; he wasn’t doing well at all, and it doesn’t do him any good to look bad on tv. They make a donation of an undisclosed amount to Outright LA (the LA here isn’t Los Angeles, it’s Lewiston/Auburn, central Maine’s twin cities).

Next week: Pool Party.

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