Top Chef Seattle: Episode 5 – Pike Place Pickle

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The unequivocal winner of the night is… Hugh Acheson.

I have to offer an apology to Hugh. Back in Episode 1, I kinda picked on him for being off his game (“What’s wrong with him tonight?”) when he made some lame comments about armor and big salads. I haven’t been feeling Hugh so far this season. But I am now. Welcome back, Snarkmaster.

As for the chefs:

“And then there were fourteen.” You aren’t going to say that every week, are you?
Stefan: “Chrissy who? Carla who? Bye, see you later, next in line.” Mr. Charm.
Tyler: “Being in the top don’t mean shit. Kuniko was on top, one day, gone the next. Carla was top one day, gone the next.” Tyler, you do realize, you didn’t actually win last week, right?

But Stefan does have a real problem: it’s his 40th birthday. And there was this TC5 Birthday Curse…

Quickfire

Padma is wearing striped pants with large beige back pockets; when seen from the back, it looks like she’s wearing Joshua’s assless chaps from last week’s PRAS. But this is the first time I’ve noticed Padma’s clothes this season, and that’s a good sign.

She welcomes the chefs to Pike Place Market and introduces guest judge Chef Daisley Gordon who runs a few joints there. In self-selected teams of two, they have one hour to make “breakfast on a stick” for 50 market workers using ingredient supplied by Daisley and cookware from the market vendor; both members of the winning team will get immunity.

Bart and Sheldon talk about making sandwiches with lots of hand gestures like neither of them realizes the other speaks English. Bart tries to bulldoze John out of his way on the way to grab a panini press, then falls down and worries, “I hope I didn’t break it” before punching his hand through it while inserting the plates. It got going, but died; Sheldon hopes there’s enough residual heat to finish their Green Forest Breakfast Sandwich: eggs, cheese, pancetta, bacon, and spinach. I thought maybe that was an actual thing, but I guess it’s Bart’s play on Black Forest, a sort of Belgian “screw you” to Germany. Daisley likes the clever combination of ingredients, it’s well-executed, and easy to eat off a stick. In spite of the Keystone Kops start, they’re the winners.

Josh and John end up together; it almost looks like John picked Josh, but they seem to think they were leftovers. Josh didn’t exactly make an effort to find anyone, so I don’t see what he’s bellyaching about. I’m a little suspicious (there’s nothing like competitive reality tv to turn me into a raving conspiracy theorist to rival the Birthers): John may be keeping his enemies closer. Josh suggests a take on a breakfast tortilla, and John’s fine with that. Padma likes the flavor of their Chilaquiles made of Tortilla, Salsa, Quail Egg, and Avocado-Heirloom Tomato Relish (I’d never heard of these before; apparently they’re sort of like breakfast nachos). Padma likes the flavor; Daisley likes the seasoning, and appreciates the riff on the mini-taco. They’re in second place, and John’s happy they managed to work well together. Maybe he’s just trying to get along? He’s a fascinating character, and I suspect (he brings out the suspecting in me) he knows it.

Brooke and Stefan know each other in LA; she knows he can be abrasive sometimes, but he’s all heart. I guess he just hides it well. He gets his panties in a bunch (his phrasing) because there’s too many people, but Padma shows up and wishes him a happy birthday and all is well. Their Croque Monsieur (which is really more of a Monte Cristo, since it’s made French-toast style) with roasted figs goes over well. But not well enough for a Top mention.

Micah and Kristen are the youngest, so they “click,” says Micah. Micah suggests a sweet/savory Waffle made with bacon, cinnamon, and blackberry and covered with pecan maple syrup and boysenberry-strawberry jam and melon and damn do I want some. Kristen nixes the first attempt as too dense, and they try again; she ponders whether her perfectionism is a blessing or a curse. Maybe she should have pondered sweet/savory waffles instead; Padma and Daisley move on without comment.

CJ and Tyler make an odd pair. Tyler takes the cooperative approach: CJ seems passionate about doing a Salmon and Cream Cheese Crepe, sort of a WASP-y play on lox on bagels, with avocado, arugula and tarragon, so why not. CJ takes the ridicule approach: something about being like a coach with his eyes bulging, I don’t quite see what he’s talking about but that’s CJ. Padma’s surprised it stays together on the stick, but no one comments on the taste. CJ calls after them as they move along: “We really want this win.” “I know,” murmurs a tactful Padma, omitting the “well you’re not gonna get it, nyah nyah” part.

Eliza and Josie have clashing styles. I’m not sure why, since neither of them seems to know what they’re doing in spite of overflowing confidence in their abilities. Eliza cites the summer she spent following Widespread Panic around the country selling vegan sushi out of a van as evidence of her superiority. Now, that sounds like a youthful indiscretion one would try to live down as an adult, but she seems to think it’s the culinary equivalent of inventing Facebook. She notes Josie is a chef used to being right, someone who thinks “it’s the way I do it so that’s why it’s right.” Seems to work for dumplings; for turkeys, not so much. Nor does it seem to work for Ricotta, Raspberry and Sausage Pancakes with jalapeno maple syrup. First, Padma’s falls off her stick before she can get it to her mouth. Then she observes it looks like a layer cake, and given the Foodie Fear of Sweet, that can’t be good. Daisley calls it a breakfast/dessert combo, and Josie says, “Yeah,” figuring, if that’s how he wants to think of it fine. But dessert at breakfast is not a good thing, as we all know. He found it much too sweet (told ya), and difficult to eat. They’re in the Bottom Two. I’m thinking that jalapeno maple syrup might be something I’d like to have anyway.

Danyele and Lizzie (I never know who Lizzie is until she speaks and her accent gives her away) find the dairy supplies depleted by the time they get to the pantry, so Lizzie thinks European breakfast: Summer Berries with Crispy Pancetta. In other words, take fruit from farmstand, slice pancetta, skewer, serve. A Sandra Lee breakfast. No, it isn’t that simple: they toss the blackberries in honey and the strawberries in cracked pepper. Sounds delicious, actually – Daisley praises the berries – but it’s not really cooking, and too late it occurs to Lizzie that it’s not very substantial and they should’ve made some kind of fritters (now that would be cool – fritters on a stick. Why didn’t anyone do that? No deep fryers?). Daisley says exactly that – they didn’t produce much in an hour. Bottom two.

Elimination Challenge:

They’ll stay in their teams, which makes just about everyone nervous. To summarize: Lizzie isn’t sure she knows Danyele well enough to cook intimately with her; Eliza is worried that she and Josie aren’t truly listening to each other; Josie is not enjoying this at all but she’s going to do her chefly duty, it’ll be over soon; Tyler finds CJ’s idea too simple but he’s a veteran so he’s in trust; John knows Josh is just barely tolerating him so is trying not to explode the wrath within; Josh is going along with anything John says just so they don’t start butting heads. I think these people need marriage counseling more than they need cooking.

Too bad, too, because it’s another really nice challenge: take a randomly drawn specialty ingredient, and make a lunch dish to highlight it. Time is short – an hour to shop, an hour to cook – but at least they get to cook in Daisley’s restaurant, which is a step up from electric griddles and hot plates. They’ll be feeding the very artisans – this is the word of the day: artisan, noun, the upscale and all-inclusive form for those who make high-priced chic versions of plain old stuff you’d normally just buy at the supermarket – who produce the ingredients (as well as Hugh-Gail-Padma-Tom). Lest my blogging license be suspended for high snide and sarcasamry, the products sound pretty amazing. There’s a reason this stuff sells.

Stefan and Brooke draw Rose Petal Jelly from Dale Nelson’s Woodring Orchards. Brooke: “It’s sweet, it’s floral, it’s a game changer.” Stefan: “It’s what women in the 1500s put on them to smell good.” I had rose water iced tea a few years back; once you get over the surprise that you’re drinking roses, it’s fine. I wouldn’t go out of my way to have it again, but it’s not repellent, and it’s kind of a fun variation on the usual avocados, salmon, and shellfish. Then again, I don’t have to cook with it on TV. They come up with a variation of a dish Stefan makes in his restaurant, Rose Petal Glazed Muscovy Duck with braised cabbage and cherry salad. The problem with making a dish you serve at your restaurant is, if it’s terrible, you’ve just shown potential customers how crappy this dish might be if they order it. Somehow the dish both loses the rose and overuses it: Gail gets sweet without rose, Tom needs some insulin, and Hugh needs a hacksaw for his tough duck.

Tyler and CJ end up with spicy pickles, compliments of Parker’s Pickles which is really part of Woodring Orchards which is actually a subset of Woodring Northwest – wow, an artisanal conglomerate. “I’ve got a great idea,” says Tyler, “you go first.” Aww, Tyler, that’s not the way to do it. CJ wants to make a pork burger with pickles on top, because, although he knows there’s a million dishes he can make with pickles, he can hear Tom bitching, “All you had to do was make a burger, nothing goes better with pickles than burgers.” (I suspect that interview was shot after the conclusion of the episode, for reasons which will become clear, if they aren’t already). Tyler was thinking potato oyster chowder with a pickle fritter – you know, actual cooking – but hey, CJ’s the veteran, so he lets CJ steamroll ahead with the burger idea. Too late, he wonders if they underthought. They put the burger on a crumpet for who knows why, because that’s what’s in the market, because they think it makes it less ordinary, whatever. It’s still a burger, or, more precisely, Pork Crumpet Burger with spicy dill pickles. Not even any fries, slaw, or salad? No, but lardo and pancetta, because fat is what wins. And sometimes it does, but not this time. Dale wishes it’d been more of a slider, with a less doughey bun. Hugh is less tactful: the bottom bun is spongy and gross. Tom’s stunned at the lack of originality involved in putting specialty pickle slices on a burger. Should’ve stuck to your guns, Tyler.

John and Josh find themselves with a bag of Uncle Woody’s Truffle Salt Popcorn courtesy of Cara Davis-Jensen who either is Uncle Woody or has an Uncle Woody, neither of which I wish to contemplate further as she seems quite nice and perfectly normal. John talks pork and truffle popcorn grits; Josh is a pig guy, after all. But he’s a pig guy in that he’ll barbecue a pig out back for a few days, and John wants him to slice and cook individual tenderloin medallions, which doesn’t really sound right to him, but he does it anyway in an effort to get along. John doesn’t like how he’s doing the pork anyway, which is ballsy since that’s how he told him to do it, but seems he expected a quick hard sear, but he’s afraid of Exploding Josh so he doesn’t say anything. Josh can tell the grits are way too thick, but John says they’re ok and he’s not going to start butting heads now. It’s much better to butt heads in the Stew Room when it’s too late to do anything about it, see. I’m having trouble wrapping my head around the idea of dumping popcorn into grits and calling it a dish. So’s Hugh, having had the disadvantage of actually eating said dish: “I’ve made grits all my life, and the grits suck.” Cara: “I would’ve liked to have seen them add some other flavors besides just the truffle.” Tom: “The meat’s screwed up and the sauce is a gloppy mess.” Daisley: “It’s not imaginative use of the popcorn.” I don’t know about that; I’d never think of it.

Kirsten and Micah are lucky to be dealt an ingredient one of them has worked with before: cheese curds. The Best Cheese Curds in Seattle, in fact, at least they were in 2010. Is there a lot of competition for Best Cheese Curds in Seattle? I’m pretty boring when it comes to cheese; I don’t want to think about words like “curds.” I definitely don’t want to eat them. They go with Cheese Curds Three Ways (in béchamel, raw, and fried) which seems a good approach to me, who doesn’t want anything to do with this dish, but the people who are sophisticated enough for words like curds don’t think so: too many components, the cheese guy thought only the fried curds stood out, and poor Padma was faced with a brown nugget she couldn’t identify.

Lizzie and Danyele luck out with coconut curry chocolate via Debra Music of Theo Chocolate (regular readers may be wondering why is it I usually avoid product placements in posts and scorn the products, but here I am not only including them but finding the websites and providing links? Well, these product placements have something to do with the challenge. And they’re kind of cool. Too cool for me, but I could be tempted to up my cool tolerance for some of this stuff. Especially chocolate). Lizzie had an idea for “snapper or fish” – did she just say fish? With chocolate? I get the coconut curry link, but chocolate? – but Danyele says they have to do a dessert so she – say it with me – goes along rather than argue; they haven’t found their rhythm yet. I wonder what the producers think of all this cooperation, after such a promising hint of blood spillage to come a couple of weeks ago. Anyway, back to the Coconut Curry Chocolate Mousse Tart with Orange Tea Syrup: Debra is dismayed to see other chocolate incorporated into the dish that’s supposed to feature her chocolate; Tom doesn’t like how it’s assembled (there’s a hard disc on top so something squirts out when he tries to cut it, giggle); Gail finds the flavors overpowering.

Josie and Eliza aren’t really collaborating well, and the cardamom bitters, courtesy of bartender and bitters entrepreneur Miles Thomas, aren’t helping. Josie doesn’t want to get too aggressive with the cardamom; it should be an accent, like a pearl necklace, at which point America falls over laughing. At least those of us with a hidden twelve-year-old. There’s a discussion of who gets the clams and who gets the juice, which would mean nothing if the pearl necklace didn’t already have my mind in the gutter. Eliza wants to make Josie happy. But Josie isn’t happy with the pistou, but she just crosses her fingers which must be a technique she learned at the Art Institute’s Culinary Program. They end up with Curry Cardamom Broth with Manila Clams and Seared White King Salmon and Bok Choy, which should be great but 1) the broth is salty, 2) Gail gets a rock, and 3) Padma gets sand. Miles is sad that his cardamom bitters are muted by the salty broth; Hugh doesn’t hear it singing. He’s just lucky he doesn’t hear Gail screaming as she breaks a tooth on the rock.

Sheldon and Bart have immunity, so who cares, but they still have to do something with Anders Miller’s salmon candy. Sheldon’s perplexed; it’s sort of like salmon bacon, and they don’t have anything like this in Hawaii. Hey, Sheldon, they don’t have apples or cows in Hawaii either, buck up. I love ya, man, but this shtick is getting old; you’re beginning to sound like Ippy from FNS. Bart wants to balance the sweet with cucumber (for freshness) and rhubarb (for acidity) which sounds like a plan. The process for their Candied Salmon with Sweet-and-Sour Salad is complicated: rilletes of ground up salmon candy mixed with sour cream on top of quick sugar-cured salmon sashimi, with some kind of powdered salmon bacon cubes on top. No one chokes on it- Anders likes the rillettes – but it wasn’t much of a showcase for the salmon candy. Tom wanted more; Hugh didn’t see any salmon candy celebration going on; Gail missed the texture of the salmon candy that makes it so special. There’s also something about throwing stunt fish. This actually makes sense if you check out their website.

Indigestif:

If you’re a regular reader, you may have noted I haven’t included the usual “top” and “bottom” notes for the Elimination Challenge. There’s a reason for that. The discussion at the table after the meal is grim. Gail didn’t see a lot of finesse. Padma apologizes to the artisans: “Really, they’re actual chefs, they’ve served really good food this season so far, they just really screwed up the ingredients you’ve invented and made with your own little hands. Or at least your own little outprocessors.” Tom has no favorite: they were all bad.

Consider this tweet that went out about this time:

Brian Fairbanks ‏@BrianFair
BREAKING: #topchef eliminates all these contestants, goes dark
Retweeted by hugh acheson

No, it’s not quite that dramatic, but Tom goes back to the chefs cowering in the back and tells them nobody’s winning, he’s sure as hell not giving $10,000 to anyone when they had to apologize to the diners, the food was bad, there was no imagination, a lack of technique, and what’s wrong with you guys, step up, take a risk, you can always get back in through Last Chance Kitchen. Oh, yeah, like that’s the way to win Top Chef.

The losing team will go home. Both people.

Since I don’t believe the producers are nimble enough to handle this kind of curve ball, I’m assuming this was the plan, unannounced, all along. So those who figured they’d let someone else screw up and be able to deny responsibility for the faulty component will have to find another plan.

Stefan: “It’s the birthday curse.”
CJ: “No one feels safe.”
John: “Josh has been on the bottom a couple of times and I don’t want to go home because of him.”
Brooke: “I’m doing this for my family.” Yes, because reality tv is the best way to care for your family.
John: “I’ve never been this uncomfortable before. Ever.” That’s because you were stoned.
Tyler: “I guess if it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go.” An attitude he may have picked up in AA. But Josh takes offense. Josh is weird, y’know? I didn’t think he was at first, but he is. He’s just looking for a fight. Tyler apologizes, which annoys me. I know all about fear of conflict and deference, but he has a right to his feelings. No wonder he drank.

Next for our entertainment, Stefan tries to teach Josh about Last Chance Kitchen, using pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one. “I saw it, I know how it works.” Josh muses: “We click. We’re both on the arrogant a—— side, but both pretty likeable.” Um, Josh? Not so much, no. Stefan at least is funny when viewed from a distance. Until someone gets an eye out.

Judges’ Table:

Tom tries to figure out what went wrong. And it is strange. They’ve worked in teams all along, this is the first total meltdown. The ingredients were unusual, but based on pretty standard flavors. Gail points out it was just a global disappointment: the food wasn’t well made, and it didn’t taste good.

Bring on the excuses, and warm up the bus:

Josh and John: Tom asks why he’d cook pork that way, and the best Josh can come up with is, “John told me to do it this way. Not to throw anyone under the bus or anything.” Uh-huh. And he knew the grits were bad, but he didn’t want to create friction, so he did what he was told and kept quiet. Tom scorns the complacency and advises them to fight to make the dish better (and provide drama). Gail notes there was no artistry or presentation. Tom says it looked like something served by someone who hates cooking. Ouch.

Stefan and Brooke: the tough duck doesn’t get much attention since everyone’s trying to convince Stefan the cabbage was too sweet, and he keeps insisting he kept adding vinegar to it. Hugh offers wisdom: if it’s too sweet and you add stuff and it’s still too sweet, you still have to fix it. And this immortal thought: “If you get too much rose petal, it feels like you’re eating someone’s grandmother.”

CJ and Tyler: CJ didn’t want to take away from the integrity of the pickle. Oh, so that’s where CJ’s integrity went! Tom wonders why they didn’t think of all the things to be made with a pickle, and CJ tells his “I heard your voice” story. He gets a laugh, but it was still a crappy burger. Gail tells them Top Chef wants them to be creative. Tyler says he was thinking lunch. “I like a creative lunch, too,” says Gail. Where’ve you been all season, Gail?

Then the moment you’ve been waiting for, whether you know it or not. As the chefs leave Judges’ Table, Padma calls out, “CJ, did you want to say something?” Yes, he did. The dessert was diabolical. It was a catastrophe. Horrible. Hugh: “Uh oh, ’cause youre burger was even worse.” WHAM! Five points, Hugh. I’ll never doubt you again.

The judges deliberate, and that CJ would bring up another dish, a dish not even under consideration, isn’t lost on them. “That’s the mentality,” says Tom. I really don’t get it, was he thinking they’d say, “Oh yeah, that was terrible, CJ’s right, let’s send them home instead.”

And Hugh isn’t done hitting them out of the park. When it comes to the rose petal jelly: “If you get too much rose petal, it feels like you’re eating someone’s grandmother.” Another two points.

Trouble is, each judge had his or her own least favorite dish. For Hugh, it was the burger. Tom hated the pork and grits, Padma the duck dish. So it’s all up to Gail. Could it be any sweeter?

CJ and Tyler are out. I’m sorry for Tyler, though I don’t think this is his venue. But I’m relieved CJ is gone. If this cooking thing doesn’t work out, he could make a fortune selling used cars.

I loved this episode. I wish the food had been better, but there were interesting ingredients and ideas and lots of laughs. And no nastiness. I promise, it is possible to tell someone there’s a better way to cook pork, or grits, or cabbage, or bitters, without being a jerk; these chefs need to learn how. And they need to learn how to listen when someone has a better idea. But then again, it wouldn’t be Top Chef. The knife isn’t their logo for nothin’.

Next Week:

Bring on the actors I’ve never heard of. But Rick Moody (oops… make that Moonen… I didn’t realize I’d made this typo until I read David Rees’ Grub Street recap of the next week and he referenced Moody, at which point I thought, Oh, no, I think I did the same thing last week. I know who Rick Moonen is, I promise. He’s the Sustainable Fish guy. I read his book Without a Doubt but I still get farmed salmon because it’s half the price. And I feel bad about that. But not bad enough to pay $15/lb for salmon) shows up, and it seems John used to work for him. And Gail takes a hit of acid.

Last Chance Kitchen:

CJ and Tyler join Kuniko in LCK.

CJ and Tyler will be working as a team again, since that was one of the many ways they failed last time. “True chef means you have to be a leader, you have to work as a team. Welcome to your nightmare all over again.” Hysterical laughter from Tyler, who at this point is wondering if he’s ever going to get out from under CJ’s thumb. And since they were so critical of the dessert in the Elimination Challenge, they have to make a dessert.

Kuniko‘s all by herself. She calls her dish Frozen Banana with fruit compote, lemon curd and brown sugar syrup. “A lot going on in here,” says Tom: pink peppercorns, tea, olive oil. It’s good – he’s a fan of savory desserts – but he doesn’t like it plated in a bowl; it eats like a big soup. Kuniko thinks it’s a “personal choice” – (!) – and allows everything in one bite without missing something. Like maybe for sloppy eaters.

Tyler and CJ: Team or no team, CJ’s clearly in charge, and he decides it’s time to bring out the hay ice cream. They stock hay in the Last Chance Kitchen? It’s a dish from Noma, and it seems hay is catching on. If you’re wondering how to make Hay Ice Cream: 1) Toast hay in oven. 2) Steep hay in cream. 3) Strain. 4) Blend. 5) Liquid nitrogen. Voila, Hay ice cream. And where do you get hay? Geez, do I have to figure out everything? Tyler Oh-Are-You-Still-Here makes an oven-roasted-cherry fritter to go with it, but that’s just a formality. CJ makes a sauce with some cherries, and adds some arugula and chocolate to the plate. Tyler’s freaked by the arugula. Oh, ok, the hay ice cream, no problem, but the arugula is out there? “Anything you wouldn’t have done in here, Tyler?” asks Tom. “I never would’ve thought arugula.” Yeah, the hay, you would’ve thought of, but the arugula’s a stretch? Tom thinks there’s too much arugula. What’s with the arugula? It’s lettuce. Sure, it’s got some zing to it relative to iceberg or romaine, but put it with ice cream and cherries and it’s lettuce. In spite of the abundance of rocket, as Gordon Ramsey likes to call it, Tom likes it; everything on the plate has a purpose.

CJ and Tyler win. I’m very disappointed. But it was inevitable that Kuniko would be out, and it’ll be good to see CJ lose again at some point.

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2 responses to “Top Chef Seattle: Episode 5 – Pike Place Pickle

  1. Pingback: Top Chef Seattle: Episode 12 – Wolfgang Clucks | A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: Top Chef Seattle: Episode 14 – Kings of Alaska | A Just Recompense

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