Top Chef Seattle: Episode 2, A Shock at the Space Needle

They really mean it – the back to basics thing. At least, so far. Great episode – interesting food, clear display of cooking techniques, and a big surprise. Oh, and geoduck, which are always fun.

Quickfire:

I never heard of the “waterfall look” before (and it doesn’t show up on the first page of a Google search, so I’m assuming it’s not just because I’m an old fart), but that’s what Micah calls it – that head-to-toe appraising glance, with an edge of intimidation, that happens in a first gathering of people who are going to be together a while. Or maybe it means scoping out potential bedmates, I don’t know. It’s actually a clever phrase. Hugh now gives it to his dog a lot. That’s a little creepy.

It’s a pretty straightforward challenge: they divide themselves into five teams of three, and prepare local shellfish in twenty minutes. There’s a pretty good video of Supervising Culinary producer (and S3 contestant) Sandee Birdsong setting up the challenge, which included hiding geoduck and razor clams in the mud, and putting the mussels underneath the huge crabs (to make the quick-cooking mussels harder to reach than the more time-consuming crabs). And if you like behind-the-scenes stuff, there was a cool article on Nosh Pit this summer.

Guest judges are former contestants CJ (S3), Stefan (S5), and Josie (S2).

Blue Team: John, Sheldon, Kuniko

John picks Kuniko because she’s Japanese so maybe she has good knife skills. Ok, it’s stupid, but at least he didn’t call her “Origami.” He knows from watching all the past season that the decisions you make are as important as how well you cook (which is true). He starts plotting with his teammates while Padma is still giving her spiel: “Excuse me…. Listen up.” Weak, Padma. The guy is begging for a beat-down. But he’s working well with Kuniko: “Who says the most hated chef in Dallas can’t get along with people?” He’s playing that title for all he’s worth, isn’t he.

Kuniko isn’t all that good at expressing herself in English and worries that’ll get in the way.

Sheldon knows seafood, being from Hawaii. I kind of wonder if Pacific Northwest seafood isn’t a bit different from South Pacific seafood, but maybe it’s close enough.

Their Winning DishGeoduck Sashimi, Ponzu, Apple and Cucumber. CJ loves the thin slices of sashimi (which John did, so there’s a limit to how far he’d trust Kuniko’s knife skills), and the apples are great. Stefan loves the pine nuts, though he and Padma agree it could use just a hint more salt. The prize of immunity is determined by a knife draw, and what do you know, it’s John. “The nice thing about immunity is that you can have an extra glass of wine and sleep.” You know he’s lying: he’s one of those hyperdriven achieving types who expects to win every challenge. But he was really pleased to win this challenge. He’s not really living up to this fearsome reputation. Other than talking in class.

Yellow Team: Danyelle, Joshua, Eliza

Joshua sends Eliza to get geoduck, and is disappointed when she comes back with razor clams instead. “Stefan’s a bit of a dick, one of those guys who knows everything.”

Danyelle has this red Cosette hair, its driving me nuts; sometimes it’s really pretty but in her interviews it looks like a cheap wig. And a dirty one at that. She’s bummed about losing out on the geoduck.

Eliza tried, she really did, digging around in the mud, but the last geoduck was gone. She figures the ex-competitors are going to be vindictive, since they’re the losers. Ouch. “You can burn something and call it Cajun, you can undercook something and call it mid-rare, but you can’t underseason.” Yeah, well, you can’t really get away with that other stuff either. But I’m looking forward to watching you try.

The Losing Dish Razor Clam and Grilled Corn Chowder with Fresno Chili and Grilled Lime. It’s underseasoned and watered down, even if CJ does like the grilled lime.

Green Team: Kristen, Micah, Tyler

Kristen wants geoduck since it’s something that can be done quickly. “It’s great except it looks like a penis. A really big one.” Yes, it does (I remember my first geoduck… it was a summer day at the brand-new Public Market, and Portland Seafood had this thing sitting on ice…). She proposes geoduck two ways, sashimi’d and fried belly.

Micah and Tyler don’t say much.

Fried and Sashimi Geoduck, Radish and Bok Choy Salad, Yuzu Chili Vinaigrette: Josie’s impressed by the nice contrast in texture of the geoduck; CJ and Padma wish the sashimi was cut thinner.

Orange Team: Carla, Chrissy, Lizzy

Carla is a chef but a woman so she wants to look good when she’s cooking: “I want to be a James Beard [sic] and I want to have a nice ass.” She also wants to jabber nonstop. Loudly. Repetitiously. Five minutes into the season, and I’m praying she goes home early.

Chrissy: “There’s an extreme lack of communication right now.” You could call it that. Everyone’s talking and no one’s listening. My shoulders were up around my ears just from the six-second shot of the nightmare that is Team Orange. And by the way: “Stefan looks like a thumb.”

Lizzy isn’t happy with the dish, and she would’ve rather Carla was drowned at birth. “With Carla I almost want to say, “Be quiet.” Almost? I want to tell her to shut the fuck up, myself, and I have the volume control. “You can see the crazy in the dish.”

Oven Roasted Crawfish with Fennel and Herb Salad. CJ wants more acid, but Josie thinks it’s well-seasoned and gives it two thumbs up. Everyone wants Carla to go away. And by the way – I was surprised to see crawfish in a Seattle shellfish challenge; I thought they were gulf critters. Turns out there’s more than one kind of crawfish, and some of them like Seattle just fine.

Gray Team: Bart, Jeffrey, Brooke

Bart: “In Belgium, we’ve been conquered so many times, we just keep everything from everyone who’s conquered us.” Dang, he’s right: The Romans (57 BC), the Franks (5th century AD), Austria (1477), Spain (1566), Austria again (1714), France (1794), Holland (1815), and Germany in both world wars. And Belgium is still there. That’s flexibility.

Brooke prefers a more rustic approach than Bart’s French emphasis, but she’s a team player so she’ll go along. She, too, tried to get geoduck, but John found it first.

Jeffrey… well, he’s there, yes, he is.

Crawfish with Pickled Red Chili, Fennel and Crawfish Cream. CJ thinks it’s a little old-school. Stefan finds the crawfish well-cooked; it’s good, though there’s a little too much dill.

Surprise!

Now that Stefan, CJ, and Josie have made a lot of friends criticizing everyone’s food, Padma announces they are joining the competition. As fellow competitors. They become the Red Team.

Really?

It took me a while to wrap my mind around that. Why would they bring people back? Why would they bring these people back? Actually, two-thirds of that is easy to answer: I would imagine they didn’t want to do another All-Stars season, but figured they could get some mileage out of these guys.

CJ was pretty well-liked during S3 (though IIRC he could be a little devious in subtle ways) – Padma had tears in her eyes when she sent him off for bad airline food. I still remember his introductory line: “I have one testicle and I’m here to cook.” In fact I thought of him when Anthony Ryan said something similar on PRS9. He just did a stage at Noma in Copenhagen, which a few years ago replaced El Bulli as the Best Restaurant in the World. I’m not sure what it takes to get a stage there, but it’s not easy to get a reservation.

Stefan was the runner up to “Hootie…. Who?” (aka Hosea) in S5, in probably the most disputed call in TC history. “I have nothing to prove. I drive a Porche. I own eight restaurants. I lost to Hosea, and there isn’t one person I’ve met who hasn’t said, ‘You should have won.'” Including, I have to admit, me. But that doesn’t mean I want to be stuck watching him again for a whole season. Especially if he continues to bird-dog the women.

Josie became kind of famous, not as the Global Soul Chef, but as the target of a gay-bashing following her TCS2 appearance. She didn’t exactly ace S2: she went home on the fifth challenge (though she was saddled with a less-than-helpful teammate). Seems like a pretty random selection.

Needless to say, the other chefs are not happy about this. Me, I like it fine, but I’m just watching it on tv. I saw something on TWoP last week about “returning chefs” but I kind of skimmed by it, not sure what they were talking about. Now I know. It’s kind of a cool twist early in the game, like the cattle call last year. And for me, a fun surprise in a show that doesn’t really offer that many actual surprises any more.

Elimination Challenge:

You knew when you heard “Seattle” the Space Needle was going to figure in there somewhere. And it does. They stay in teams, and head to the rotating restaurant up in the sky to prepare a dish for Seattle chef Tom Douglas (“Seattle’s got a lot of great restaurants, and he owns half of them,” says Tom). The guy beat Morimoto at Iron Chef. That says something.

The teams have 47 minutes – one revolution of the restaurant – to cook. They go “shopping” in the Top Chef Pantry which has been stocked with all manner of Seattle comestibles.

Blue Team: Kuniko, John, Sheldon:

Kuniko wants to poach cod in chili oil; that scares me; isn’t that awfully strong for fish? But John’s impressed: “She’s challenging me after all these years, I’m loving her choices.” John does the veg, Sheldon the dashi. John gets a little nervous when Kuniko burns the chili oil. I do, too: they call her over to tell her it’s smoking, and she looks at the pot: “This is the chili?” like she doesn’t believe it’s her pot. She explains she starts thinking and can’t stop, and loses focus (I can relate to that). But the re-do works fine: the Chili Oil Poached Cod with Dashi, Spot Prawn Shabu Shabu is a hit. Tom D. likes the smokiness of the dashi, Tom C. is surprised the chili oil isn’t overpowering (me, too, but I feel a little less stupid when he thinks the same thing). Gail loves the spot prawns: “It’s nice and light; the first thing I put in my mouth in Seattle isn’t bad.” Wait a beat. “That came out wrong.” Oh, I think it came out perfectly.

Yellow Team: Joshua, Danyelle, Eliza

In the Pantry, they encounter a Headless Fish. They do not know what kind of fish it is. Eliza guesses monkfish and salmon; Joshua thinks it’s cod, but then he seems unsure, it might be some kind of salmon. Now, I’ve never touched a whole fish in my life, but doesn’t salmon has pink flesh? The ones I eat do, and it’s silvery; this fish is brown, and has white flesh. Monkfish is huge and kind of the shar-pei of fish, right? So I’m wondering if they’re idiots, or if it’s really that hard to tell. Me, I don’t know anything beyond betas, harlequin rasboras, and cardinal tetras (I used to have an aquarium) but come on, they’re chefs. They take the fish, which turns out to be cod. Joshua is out to prove the little guy from Oklahoma is a great chef. Joshua, hon, you ain’t that little. But he did know what the fish was, Oklahoma or not. They serve Pan Roasted Cod, Mushrooms, Fava Beans, Picked Green Apple and Garlic Scape Pistou; Tom D. finds the cod translucent and perfectly cooked, but there’s not enough pistou; Tom C. likes the apple best, but it needed more; it’s loaded with raw garlic.

Green Team: Kristen, Micah, Tyler

Crispy Seared Salmon, Local Vegetables and Spot Prawn Butter Sauce. Micah’s really a leader, but it’s a team, so he’s being a good soldier. Tom C. likes the spot prawns; Gail lost the texture. Tom D. loves the salmon, it’s got a nice firm mouth feel. No, that isn’t dirty.

Gray Team: Bart, Jeffrey, Brooke

They question Jeffrey about his ring, since he says he’s not married, just engaged. “Ah, I get it, she said if you’re going to be on TV you’re going to wear a ring, right?” “He,” says Jeffrey. That’s so cute. Problem is, he sears the halibut on both sides; Brooke thinks it’s overcooked; it’s now how she’d do it, but who is she to say. His teammate, that’s who. Thing is, she’s afraid of heights, so when they go out to present the dish, she’s more concerned about looking out the windows than what she’s putting down. And yes, the Pan Roasted Halibut, Mushrooms, English Peas, Wheat Beer with Herb Sabayon is overcooked to hockey-puckness, per Padma. Tom D. likes the pickled radish salad on top, but doesn’t get any hops flavor out of the beer sabayon; Gail gets nutmeg.

Orange Team: Carla, Chrissy, Lizzy

Please, please, let Carla be out soon. That’s all I have to say, other than after service she cuts her hand putting her knives away. I can’t snicker too much, since Hugh says he’s done the same thing. Unfortunately, she’s good to go, though she’s going to milk it for all its worth. And yes, I’m being callous – I truly don’t want anyone to do serious bodily harm. But if she doesn’t shut up, I might. There’s no recipe listed for the poached salmon with beurre blanc and fava beans, but it’s perfectly cooked. It’s not seasoned that well, but the beurre blanc has lots of flavor.

Red Team: CJ, Stefan, Josie

In the pantry, CJ grabs a couple of really big reddish fish; Stefan decides to get eight quail too, “just in case.” CJ had good potatoes at the Space Needle when he was seven, so he has a soft spot for the site. What the hell does “good potatoes” mean? But no time to ponder that: CJ notices everyone’s doing fish (well, it is Seattle) and wonders if they should do the quail Stefan snuck in under his raincoat instead. Now see, here’s that possible subtle deviousness again – he suggests changing it up, but Stefan has to make the protein, which is really the thing you go home for if it’s screwed up. But everyone agrees to the switch, though Josie’s a little nervous – “it’s really risky to change your dish just before you start cooking.” Same setup, more cherry, says Stefan. He’s not happy with the cherry emulsion Josie CJ first makes. She Josie tries to make another using the ten remaining cherries, but you can tell this is going south in a hurry [addendum: thanks to MoHub for the correction: CJ made the original, rejected cherry sauce, and Josie stepped in to replace it, making me want to keep a closer eye than ever on CJ]. Stefan is used to bigger breast, but hey, whatcha gonna do. “Little breast, it’s the only breast I’m going to be touching for six weeks.” Even though Gail makes him sweat in the armpits. This may be hard for you to understand, Stefan, but I don’t want to know where you’re sweating. Whatever the dish was to be originally, when it’s served it’s Quail Breast with Confit Spot Prawn, Cherries and Porcini. Tom D. likes the cherries, but Gail wants to taste them more. Emeril gets some bitterness at the end with the broth. Tom D. thought it was good: “You guys are tough.”

In the category of casual chit-chat, Emeril reminisces about pink scallops, which, Tom D. tells him, are now called Singing Scallops. I don’t hear much scallop singing on that video. Clicking, and wheezing (which might be the camera operator) but no singing. Tom C. admits he almost moved to Seattle back in the day, after a tough romantic break-up (awwww), but he stayed in NY because he was afraid his car wouldn’t make it. Tom D. is glad, one less competitor for him.

Judges’ Table

Overall, they’re impressed. Gail notices the dishes were very similar, so it was easy to compare. Tom D. thought they did very well, other than “a couple of clunkers.” In the Stew Room, the vets try to convince everyone they don’t have an advantage, they’re hampered by knowing what’s to come. No one’s buying it.

Blue is the winning color – John, Kuniko, Sheldon. Tom C. asks Kuniko if she typically cooks cod in chili oil: “No, I work in a French brasserie, we don’t do such things.” “Maybe you should do it again,” he says. Gail gives John props for the spot prawns. Tom D. called the dish the essence of Seattle. Because she did the fish, Kuniko gets the win: “Oh my gosh, this is going to make everyone go, Who is she, we didn’t even know she was there.” That’s cute. I would’ve expected the Most Hated Chef in Dallas to have taken the protein, the most likely component to win, for himself. He’s very solicitous – “You have to swallow the pill of perfection” – and it makes me nervous. And I’m nervous watching his glasses propped up on his forehead. But in general, props all around, they did what they needed to do with no muss or fuss, they even handled the problem of the burned chili oil on the low-drama setting. A very satisfying win.

On the Bottom:

Red Team (CJ, Stefan, Josie). As soon as the vets walk out of the stew room, everyone starts dishing on them, how they have an unfair advantage. I’d certainly expect so. But look what good it did them. Arrogance erases a lot of the head start. Padma asks Josie if she know why they’re in the bottom. She’s clueless. “I think something is imperfect, maybe missing texture…?” Tom is incredulous: “Really?” Stefan initially defends his overcooked quail (“They were really small”) but in the end has no excuse. Stefan in the Stew Room waiting for the verdict: “You’re a zebra, you’re wounded, you’re walking around Africa…” You’re the zebra who overcooked the quail, Stefan, stop acting like a victim.

Green Team (Jeffrey, Bart, Brooke) : They’re very different, see. Brooke does rustic, not French. Bart wanted to do the fish, but changed his mind when he couldn’t find the right beer, and made the sabayon instead. Jeffrey did the fish fourteen minutes before service. Padma was not pleased with her hockey puck: everything was dry and lacked flavor. The sabayon was overly herby; Gail got a weird flat texture.

Jeffrey is out for the overcooked fish. I’m disappointed – he seemed like a nice guy, and has an impressive background; I was looking forward to watching him. But that fish did look pretty bad, and according to both Gail‘s and Tom‘s blogs, while Stefan’s quail was overcooked, the fish was destroyed. So I can’t argue.

One final note: Top Chef Kitchen is indeed back – and the last chef standing has an automatic in to the finale. But, since there’s only one chef eliminated (the guys who never got to Seattle don’t count), there’s no TCK episode this week. I don’t expect Jeffrey to last to the end, but I’m hoping he stays in a few rounds.

Next week: Thanksgiving. Always a fun time on Top Chef. Just keep in mind they filmed this back in July. Tom and Emeril are working in the kitchen; is that Dana Cowin sitting with my little buddy from TCM, Thierry Rautureau?

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3 responses to “Top Chef Seattle: Episode 2, A Shock at the Space Needle

  1. The original, failed cherry sauce for Team Vets was made by CJ, not Josie. Josie was tasked with trying to save it using the few remaining cherries.

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