Top Chef Masters Season 4 Episode 9: Old School, New School

Tonight, it’s all about communication.

I’m a big fan of communication, really I am. Some of my best friends are communicators. Though I wouldn’t describe myself as a communicator, I communicate fairly often. Communicating is a good thing. An important thing.

But when we’re down to the last challenge before the finale of a cooking competition …shouldn’t it be about cooking?

I can understand why the QF was postponed this long. Flying all those relatives in from who knows where – oh, wait, no relatives? The critics, who are already sitting around waiting for the elimination challenge, are the mystery partners? Well, that makes sense, too, because there are only three critics… wait, there are actually four with Krista Simmons, five if you throw in Alan Sytsma, both of whom have critted this season. I’m sure they could get a nearly unlimited supply of culinary arts student. So why do they wait until the final elimination to have an episode in which the chefs are judged on food they haven’t cooked?

But mine is not to reason why, mine is to snark and move on.

Quickfire:

The chefs know what’s up when they see the partitions set up in the kitchen. We all remember Naomi Pomeroy from last season yelling at her father for the whole twenty minutes. That was funny once; this second time, not so much. Curtis will judge on the basis of how similar the dishes made by each pair taste and look.

We know, and the chefs seem to know, the mystery guests will be someone they know. Turns out, the critics get to cook. I love this idea. Francis Lam graduated from the CIA (not to mention the University of Michigan, but that had nothing to do with cooking), and I know from her book Garlic and Sapphires that Ruth is an experienced cook; I suspect James knows his way around the kitchen as well. But for all the chefs know, they’re dealing with their crazy uncle Eddie, another chef’s parent or spouse, or previously eliminated chefs (which would be pretty cool, actually).

Chris and James make Prawns with Sautéed Celery , thyme, pine nuts, and chili threads. James puts on a slightly southern accent and Chris has trouble understanding him; I still think it sounds like him, but apparently Chris doesn’t pick up on it. Curtis notes the presentation of the two dishes is similar, but James’s dish doesn’t have as much celery. He can’t decide which he likes more: James’s has more butteriness, but Chris’s is crunchier. They are the winning team, and Chris gets another $5000 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation, for a total so far of $41,000.

Kerry and Ruth go with sautéed chicken, Swiss chard, bacon, and Parmesan with rosemary cream. Ruth uses a French accent; Kerry asks if she can cook, and she says she’s a home cook. He’s mostly worried that he will get too far ahead, so he forgets to tell her that he’s cutting the chicken tenders in half; the dishes don’t look anything alike. Curtis thinks Ruth’s chicken might be more tender. I think that’s just his shtick for this segment.

Lorena and Francis head for pasta, but Lorena’s spaghetti doesn’t cook (we never see if Francis has the same problem); I’m not exactly sure what Lorena is thinking, but it looks to me like she uses chopped up Swiss chard as the pasta for her Swiss Chard with Sautéed Chicken, onions, and Parmesan. Curtis says soupy, and Lorena tries a fake: that’s exactly how she wanted it. Not so much, no. Curtis thinks it’s quite beautiful, and good, they just need something to put it on. And again we run into the Competitive Reality conundrum: would she have been better off to have served undercooked pasta? Of course not. But whatever you do, the judges will point out the road not taken.

Elimination Challenge:

The chefs will be mentoring two students each, from a high school culinary arts program; the kids will do all the prep and cooking under the direction of the chefs, and they’ll serve the completed dish to the critics, their teachers, and their parents. The chefs don’t really get to plan the meal, either: they must use as the inspiration for the dish whatever the kids present as their favorite dish. Again, it’s a pretty stupid time to throw in a hands-off challenge. In fact, I was convinced throughout the episode, right until the final knife pack, that Curtis was going to say, “Since you all did such a wonderful job [regardless of how wonderful or not it was], all three will be moving on to the finale. I was wrong.

I was also struck that both Chris and Kerry went out of their way to reassure the students about being in this culinary arts program to begin with. Kerry said several times that he, too, went to vocational school. Chris comments on the problems he had because of learning disabilities. Is there something wrong with vocational school now? There wasn’t when I was a kid. Then again, The Godfather hadn’t been made yet when I was a kid, and these kids never heard of “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” Our local Portland Arts & Technology High School, which offers programs in everything from music and dance to cooking (and distinguishes between Culinary Concepts and Fast Food) and marine (boats) repair, is highly regarded and hard to get in to. But somehow it feels like both of them regard “vocational school” as akin to reform school: something you’re slightly ashamed of until you make it big, at which point it becomes something you’re proud you rose above. I don’t get it.

Kerry teams up with Brittany and Erwin. They serve him chicken Florentine wrapped with string cheese, which doesn’t impress him. Take it easy, Kerry, they’re sixteen-year-olds. He decides to elevate it to Florentine-inspired Chicken (see the difference?) with orzo and asparagus ragout. He doesn’t want to waste time explaining things, but just tells them what to do: “I’m hoping they’re these dry sponges that will absorb.” It helps if you actually teach, you know. But he’s focused more on getting the dish done and not getting cut than on mentoring, I think. When they’re finished, the kids are exhausted, but Ruth’s impressed and James thinks it’s the best creamed spinach he’s ever had.

Chris works with Lacey and Emilio; the kids serve him pork tenderloin with garlic mashed potatoes. He does a terrific job of mentoring; I want to go work with him myself after watching this. He talks to them about what pigs eat, and how flavors combine, and they head in that direction with the dish. He’s emphasizing simplicity: “Food doesn’t need to be hard, it needs to be good.” He demonstrates how to cut the pork loin, even though they can’t serve the meat he cuts. Assuming it doesn’t just go to waste, I think it’s a great idea; I don’t see the other chefs do this. Am I showing my Chris-bias? Maybe. Maybe he just really shone in this challenge. During plating he gets worried, because it goes faster than he expected, and early plating could be a problem. But he tells them they’re plating like pros and he’s proud of them, leading Lacey to reply, “I’m proud of you, too.” I love that. I think he does,too; he calls her “Smarty-Britches.” They serve Pork Loin with hazelnut brown butter, apples, and watercress. Ruth finds the pork perfectly cooked; Francis loves the brown butter. But James “sensed” the early plating; the salad was soggy. Curtis wonders if Chris pushed them hard enough.

Lorena tries the lasagna JoJo and Jhane have prepared for her. I get the sense she’s a little concerned about making lasagna, but she seems to know exactly what to do. They make the lasagna with three meats, and serve it in a cast-iron skillet, which is pretty cool. Jojo tells her he has diabetes, so Lorena’s delighted to trot out her Healthy Generations shtick while making goat cheese cream for their Three-Meat Lasagna and arugula salad with raspberry vinaigrette. She knows it’s more homey than restaurant: “This is the way I cook,” says Lorena. I love the skillet presentation, myself. This was her favorite challenge. Francis likes the goat cheese. Ruth wonders if she thought about making a variation on lasagna; Lorena wanted to keep the truth. I’m not sure what that means. I would’ve said, in my best Grayson “Like a meatball?” sneer, “Like Florentine-inspired chicken as a variation on chicken Florentine, or pork loin as a variation on pork tenderloin?” Lasagna is what it is, the magic is in creating the sauce and blending flavors. And if you’ll remember, I’m not a Lorena fan – I’d scream bloody murder if she bumped Chris out of the finals and might run amok if she won everything – but I think they’re hosing her for invalid reasons here. Though she could’ve used zucchini ribbons instead of pasta to make it actually healthy instead of just talking the talk, or done individual roll-ups to make it fancy. In the critic’s private discussion, Curtis wonders if it’s something that could be served at a “fantastic restaurant.” There’s some argument about that (James thinks the goat cheese sauce was very sophisticated), but I understand what he means; after all, I can make damn good lasagna (including varieties with the zucchini strips and in roll-up form). But I still wouldn’t mind encountering a terrific basic version in an upscale restaurant, especially if it came in a cast-iron skillet. Then again, my idea of upscale is probably a lot different from Curtis’s.

Winners and Losers:

During judging, James quits. Good. I liked him a lot in the first couple of seasons, but lately he’s been playing Odd Man Out, favoring the one the others don’t like. I’m not sure if that’s at the producers’ request to ramp up suspense, or if he’s just being contrary. But I’m tired of it. Unfortunately, he doesn’t really quit, he’s just having trouble making a decision.

Kerry wins. Ruth credits him with pushing the kids to place they didn’t know they could go. And, probably a place they never want to go again. He wins $10,000 for City Harvest. I wonder if they gave it to him so his kids would feel better about what he put them through. The kids, by the way, are nowhere to be seen; I’m surprised they didn’t film a congratulatory sequence with them. Elves, what’s wrong with you?

Lorena is out. I am so relieved. There was a terrible moment when I thought the finale might be between her and Kerry.

Next Week:

Kerry vs Chris in kind of a Darth Vader/Obi-Wan showdown. But it should be interesting for culinary reasons: Kerry’s a fish expert and favors elegance, while Chris does guts, so I’m hoping we’ll see two completely different approaches. As a long-time Top Chef viewer, I tend to value elegance over homeyness, and anything over guts, but I’m still pulling for Chris.

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