Top Chef Seattle: Episode 10 – Battle Before the War

Before the Skirmish Before the Battle Before the War:

Josh is happy John’s gone. Stefan, on the other hand, is sadly smoking a cigarette on the balcony, wishing John were here. Josie’s yelling, “Asians represent!” for no apparent reason and then interviews that since they’re the final eight, “to underestimate anyone is stupid.” I don’t think anyone’s underestimating Josie.

The Skirmish Before The Battle Before The War, aka Quickfire:

Wolfgang Puck gives the challenge: make a dish that highlights ginger in 15 minutes. And there’s some product-placement stuff you don’t need to know about. No prize this time – the product placement isn’t that good, the product isn’t required – but the winner does get immunity.

Brooke is star-struck. They must have it rationed out so every time Wolfie comes on set, another chef is starstruck with a cute anecdote. Brooke’s anecdote: she spent her 17th birthday at Spago. Presumably as a customer, since there’s nothing in her bio about having worked there. She goes for clean Vietnamese flavor with Ginger-Caramel Squid with Fresh Lime and Chili Powder. All I can think of is butterscotch scallops, but Wolfie thinks it’s creative and the sweetness works. Brooke wins. She gets immunity.

Stefan goes for Ahi Tuna with Lemongrass and Ginger Vinaigrette and chats in German with Wolfie about growing up in Munich (“I can turn on the charm sometimes” – ok, though there are those who don’t associate the German language with charm, not to mention there was a time in recent history when Austrians weren’t particularly fond of Germans) and ends up in the Top Three because it’s delicate and not overpowering, simple California cuisine. And maybe because Stefan speaks German.

Lizzie is worried about the neon sign on her head that says “I was in the bottom last week.” She loves the combination of watermelon and ginger (that does sound cool) so comes up with Watermelon and Ginger Soup with Fresh Mint. I don’t understand things like “watermelon soup.” Isn’t it just squished watermelon? But it works: Wolfie finds it a well-balanced cold soup for a hot summer day. Top Three.

Sheldon hears “ginger” and “15 minutes” and thinks stir fry, so going on instinct he makes Wok-Fried Ginger Skirt Steak with Ginger and Oranges. At first Wolfie likes the flavor though he wishes for more sweetness, but once he thinks about it, he’s not impressed; it’s pedestrian Chinese food from a cheap restaurant. Sheldon’s appropriately chagrined at having made beef stir-fry for Wolfgang Puck. Bottom Two.

Josh goes for dessert: White Chocolate Ginger Soup with Peaches and Tarragon. Wolfie says he showed restraint with the ginger; too much restraint, maybe, because the underwhelmingness of it all lands him in the Bottom Two.

Micah decides: the single biggest enemy of a chef is time. He makes Ginger Shrimp Salad with Radish, Plum, Ponzu Vinaigrette and Fried Crispy Ginger. Padma likes the plum. No prize, though.

Kristen uses the pressure of a foam canister not to make foam but to pressure-infuse veggies with ginger for Fennel-Ginger Salad with Brie and Tomatoes. Wolfie appreciates the new use of the foam canister but not enough for a mention.

Josie runs across the kitchen and Josh tackles her. I think it was even an accident. “If you want a hug, just ask,” he says; “I was a professional football player, I can take a few hits.” If she weren’t a former professional football player, and if Josh weren’t a big guy, they’d both be on the floor, so I guess they’re even. She makes Seared Scallop with Ginger-Honey Yogurt and Miso-Ginger Sauce; Wolfie says the scallops are cooked perfectly. But no mention.

The Actual Battle Before the War (finally): aka Elimination Challenge:

Enter Danny Meyer subject of the documentary The Restaurateur, author of Setting the Table, and early-on business partner of Tom Colicchio. It’s time for Restaurant Wars, but they’ve changed it up a little: everyone will prepare a dish that embodies the concept of the restaurant they’d like to create. Two winners will become the competing execs next week in the actual Restaurant Wars episode. They’ll be serving 200 guests at Bite of Seattle, the local food festival. Some of the eliminated chefs will serve as sous chefs. Danny advises them to create the concept and the dish from the heart, “because you can’t fake soul.” Wolfie’s advice: “If you don’t believe in your own concept, no one else will believe it.” And, as we’ll see, sometimes no one will believe it even if you do. Exit Wolfie; he isn’t part of the festivities the next day; it’s Padma, Gail, Tom and Danny. Maybe he found a booth he liked more?

In the Overnight, Sheldon gets a cake for his 30th birthday and a phone call with his daughter. A few seasons ago, that would’ve been the kiss of death, but the producers now understand that fans pick up on clues like those. They still throw them in for those who haven’t noticed that all the curses have been broken, that birthdays and phone calls home are no longer harbingers of doom. Not necessarily, anyway.

There’s something I found very interesting about the visuals. Above is the official poster for the 2012 Bite of Seattle; notice the prominent placement of the sponsor. However, the posters in all Top Chef shots (behind Kristen and Josie) are unencumbered by such crass commercialism, as they either are not at the official event, or they’ve scrubbed the images since no one’s paying for those seven letters (or Comcast doesn’t want to have anything to do with Top Chef).

Service:

Josh creates Bistro George, named after his father, a steak-and-potatoes sort of guy who died three years ago. He makes Seared Eye of Ribeye with Cauliflower Puree and Mushroom Red Wine Sauce and a Parsley Pistou. Gail likes it; Danny likes the seasoning on the mushrooms but wishes there were more on the steak. Is this where Tom picked up his underseasoning phobia?

Lizzie went to Northeastern Italy last year, where Italian food meets Austria and Hungary and Croatia, so that’s her focus at Mia Filino (which means “My Trickle/Spin/Trail” depending on which translator you use). Her dish is Mustard Green Canederli with Fonduta (Italian fondue) and Crispy Speck. I’ve never heard of canederli, which turn out to be knödel, Tyrolean dumplings made with stale bread dampened with milk and speck (a smoked ham-like product I have heard of before). I’m not sure this is the dish I’d make to impress the judges. And it doesn’t really work; it’s heavy and dense. Gail says the fonduta looks like a slice of American cheese was laid over it. That can’t be good.

Sheldon calls his modern Filipino restaurant Urbano as a tribute to his grandfather; he remembers tasting his sinigang when he was a kid. So he elevates that dish to Sour Tamarind Soup with Pork Belly, Shrimp, and Snapper. He picks Chrissy for his sous since she knows Filipino food. Danny says the flavor makes you sit up straight “in a good way,” and Padma loves the authenticity: “Traditionally, this isn’t a pretty dish to look at, but he managed to keep it authentic and make it elegant which is his concept.”

Stefan grabs Carla as sous because she’s super fast and her butt is cute. He’s being charming again, isn’t he. His restaurant concept started out Thai, but ended up Bangkok via Munich, which reminds me of Guy Fieri’s Tex Wasabi thing only less appealing. He goes into a nonsensical spiel about “You don’t want to call it a pizzeria, you call it a trattoria so you can make pasta and other things…” How’d Italy sneak in there? He turns on the charm yet again when Tom walks through during prep: “Every quickfire I’ve got sloppy seconds.” Which is true if by “every time” he means twice (E3, E6) out of eight times (two and a half (E7) if you squint). Face it, Stefan, you haven’t won anything yet. He brings in the nitro for the lollipops he’s been making for the past decade. Then he sprays innocent bystander (and chef) Brian Canlis with whatever’s in his blender. That’s the second blender accident this season; is there a gremlin in the equipment room? I can hear the Elves now: “Wouldn’t it be fun if…” He trots out his Thai Lobster Bisque with Shrimp Dumpings, Potatoes and Radishes AND (that’s how it’s typeset on the recipe entry, all caps) Bavarian Cream Mango Lollipop. Padma takes one look at the lollipop: “Is this the same thing as the S5 finale?” See, Stefan, you think girls are dumb, you think you can put one over on them, but you can’t. “Different sticks,” he explains. Gail likes the coconut milk and broth of the soup, but wishes there were some herbs; she just gets Thai, no Munich (the Bavarian cream, maybe?). Danny doesn’t think the lollipop holds up to the soup, so his last impression makes him forget how good the soup was. Tom’s ok with the fusion, but not the execution.

Josie goes Home 305 to Miami, which for her is all about Cuban flavors, and she’s all about making people comfortable in her home. She puts on the Josie show again, and just like the Berry Festival in E7, there’s a long wait at her station while she makes inane comments. “You can’t get closer to my heart than this,” she calls out, and Tom prompts, “Hopefully we’ll get closer to the plate.” If her shtick was good, the distraction technique might work, but it’s repetitive and nonsensical; this isn’t Food Network Star, and frankly, this patter isn’t even good enough for them. There’s a bus driver here in Portland who’s the same way, he’s playing the Catskills as he drives past the stop. Her Puerco Asado, Black Bean Chorizo Croquette, Pickles and Mojo Sauce doesn’t improve things; the pork is dry and flavorless, and the croquette is soggy.

Micah lost 25 pounds on a Raw diet, so he’s going Raw. You know why you lose weight on a raw diet? Because nothing’s worth eating. He was all set for surf & turf, but the market didn’t have any tenderloin so he gets sashimi grade seafood instead. All kinds of seafood. What kind of market is this, with no tenderloin but lots of squid and hamachi? Is that typical of Asian markets, or did the producers run in and hide the tenderloin back with the good scallops from last week? Tom wonders if raw food is a good idea, but Micah assures him that the ladies in Beverly Hills watching their weight love it, which earns a wonderfully skeptical look. He slices up raw salmon, snapper, hamachi, squid, scallop, and mackerel, tops it with Yuzu Dressing and throws some mizuna and shiso down with some other veg, looks like radishes, maybe some cabbage. Tom complains there’s no presentation, it’s just layered on (I think it’s kind of pretty, actually, though I don’t particularly want to eat it – I don’t do raw except for cookie dough) and it should’ve been cut to order instead of the day before, which seems to me a no-brainer; doesn’t it dry out? Gail likes the egg yolk in the vinaigrette, but it isn’t enough. Danny: “We already have a construct for raw fish: really good sushi. This doesn’t add anything.” It does seem like a lightweight dish, in terms of skill as well as calories.

Kristen gives us a story: a year and a half ago her relationship ended, and she was forced to move out and she tried to start over. Wait… that’s your story? You need to do better than that, everyone’s got that sob story. Go back to the abandoned-Korean-orphan thing. On walkthrough Tom reminds her she’s made $35,000 so far, which is a helluva good way to start over, by the way. Her Atelier Kwan is contemporary French with a twist, not a bistro; she likes things a little more formal. Do you know what an Onsen Egg is? You probably do, but you don’t realize it – it’s that slow-poached egg, held at about 63 degrees for an hour and a half, that Wylie Dufresne and the other modernists have been doing with their immersion circulators, but the Japanese were doing it in hot springs a long time ago. I love Top Chef, I learn so much. There must be a difference or someone would’ve mentioned this before, I’m sure. In any case, everyone loves her Onsen Egg with Camembert Mustard Sauce and Buttered Radishes. Danny loves the poached radish, while Gail and Tom adore the perfect egg, and Gail appreciates that right now with everyone going “rustic” it’s cool that she’s interested in a little formality. See, that’s what slack buys you – with pretty much anyone else, they would’ve insisted that formality is out of fashion. With Kristen, they praise her for bucking the tide. I’m not complaining – I love me some Kristen, she’s my pick to win – but I’m just sayin’.

Brooke goes Unkosher – modern Jewish without all the Kashrut fuss, sort of like a ham sandwich on challah. There’s a restaurant named Traif right on the outside edge of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, run by a Jewish chef, featuring a pig in its logo. It was supposed to be controversial because of the location, but it didn’t work out that way. The publicity got some people in the door, anyway (he doesn’t do “Jewish” food, it’s just your standard yummy-stuff restaurant), and it’s still there, so he’s doing something right. The idea of taking a Jewish dish and twisting it by ditching the kosher requirements seems unfair, somehow. “Jewish” food, if there is such a thing (probably referring to 20th century Ashkenazi in New York; there are other Jews in the world) evolved to bring flavor, texture, and variety within the dietary restrictions. Brooke’s version is playing tennis without a net. The laws of Kashrut, for the Orthodox and even some of those not so Orthodox, are like the Catholic sacraments, they aren’t just cute little customs; to a large degree, it was the dietary laws that separated the ancient Hebrews from their neighbors and helped prevent assimilation during 2000 years of diaspora. Still… I do love challah, and there’s nothing like a pile of Black Forest ham and a nice thick slice of Jarlsberg. That isn’t on Brooke’s menu, though. She serves Matzo Ball Soup with Duck Confit and Toasted Rye Black Bread. There’s nothing traif there (presumably the duck, as well as the cooking vessels, aren’t kosher-certified, and there’s milk in the bread, but pretty much any modern Jew would be fine with it; hell, most modern Jews would be fine with the Challah ham sandwich from what I’ve seen), but God gets her for it anyway: Gail proclaims the matzo ball “offensive to my people.” Tom wishes she’d made the matzo ball out of the rye bread. I was wondering why she didn’t end up in the bottom, then I realized – she has immunity.

Judges’ Table:

Top Three:

Sheldon – Danny loved the soup; the sourness set him up for the next bite. Tom likes that everything had a place and a purpose. I wish he’d explain that some day; I have a vague idea, but I’m never sure exactly what it means.

Kristen – Everyone loved it. Tom thinks there’s nothing better than cheese and a runny egg.

Josh – Gail has no trouble imagining the neighborhood restaurant he pitched. Tom liked the sear on the meat. I thought Danny had a problem with the seasoning, but nothing’s said, or at least, aired.

Winners: Kristen and Sheldon. Sheldon’s happy: “Padma gave me $10,000 for my birthday.”

Now they get to pick their RW sous chefs from the others – before they know who’s eliminated. So someone’s going to be down one chef. Ooh, that’s mean. But it’s really the only way to fairly determine who that will be – as long as the judges don’t know the picks and adjust their elimination strategy, heh heh. Danny advises them to pick someone they can teach to execute their food. The winner will get a car. Another car? Really earning their product placement, aren’t they.

Kristen picks Brooke, Lizzie, and, inexplicably, Josie (instead of Micah).

Sheldon picks Josh because they worked together well in the past, Stefan, and ends up with Micah.

What do they have against Micah? Per the Wiki Chart, his numbers are better than, or at least equal to, Josie’s, Stefan’s, or Josh’s. Is he making a pain in the ass of himself when the cameras are off? He had a bad week, asshole-wise, back a few, but it seemed like he turned it around. In any event, it ends up as guys against girls, which always plays well.

Bottom Three: “It’s a wide gap between top and bottom” – Tom Colicchio

Micah: Padma asks if he was happy with his dish; yes, he was. Gail (who looks great, by the way, I love the dress she’s wearing; Gail doesn’t get enough credit for her spiffiness, everyone’s always drooling over Padma, so shout-out, Gail) didn’t appreciate that the fish was all together in one piece, possibly a function of being cut the night before, though it was layered just before service. He pulls out the “they didn’t have tenderloin” card, which, well, you know how they react to that. Tom would’ve rather have had one fish perfectly sliced than a pu-pu platter of fish.

Lizzie: She explains her Northern Italian concept yet again. Tom points out execution flaws: the dumplings weren’t cooked enough. Danny breaks it to her: they were heavy and gummy.

Josie: Padma asks how she thinks she did, and what a surprise, she thinks she did fine, she got lots of good feedback. Danny: “I put my fork into the pork, and the pork fought back.” Ouch. Gail brings in the bland greasiness. Tom chews her out for putting on a show and forgetting about basics, like putting a crispy bean cake under the vinegar so it got all mushed out. Josie: “On the outside I’m hard as a rock, on the inside I’m a crying little baby. I think I’m going home this time.” All of America thinks so, too.

Micah is out. Wait… Micah?

Twitter lights up the night sky.

Now that I’ve had time to look at this more closely, I can see some rationale for this bizarre decision. He didn’t really make anything. He sliced some fish (Kuniko actually sliced the fish) and even that, he did ahead of time. He made some dressing. He shredded some veg. What did he do while the others were roasting meats and making sauces and veggies and lollipops and breads and soups and 90-minute eggs? I have no doubt it was a bad dish, and a low-effort one, but I wonder how much was annoyance with the Raw Food movement (something chefs can’t be that crazy about), how much was making sure it wasn’t Kristen’s RW team who was down a chef, and how much was wanting to keep Josie around for some RW drama. This is the first time I’ve wondered about such machinations this season.

Next Week:

The War. You know, the War this episode was a prequel to.

Last Chance Kitchen: Micah vs CJ

One of my favorite aspects of LCK is figuring out how Tom is going to rub the most recently eliminated chef’s nose in the failure. Tonight, you know it’s going to be Raw.

Beef. Lamb. Duck. Beef heart. No cooking. Go.

CJ knows duck skin doesn’t scream tartare but he can make it work: he freezes it in LN, grinds it up, and pickles it. In the Peanut Gallery, John worries the freezing and grinding will mess up the texture. Hey, when you’re contemplating eating raw duck skin, the texture is the least of your worries. He’s also doing beef heart, which is only slightly less gross but it was Chris Cosentino’s Love Letter to his Wife in the finale of TC4, and he won, so hey, why not. Maybe CJ is trying to out-gut the Guts Guy. He admits it’s conceptually weird: “But it’s gonna be sick.” That’s not the best description to use for food, y’know. Bart in the PG says Tom looks worried; nah, he’s fine with the beef heart, and he doesn’t think the duck skin will make it to the plate. It does, though, and Tom eats Beef Heart Tartare with Chili, Pickled Duck skin and Tomato Water drizzled with lemon and olive oil.

Micah starts with bison loin – wait, now where did the bison come from? I thought the tenderloin was beef, was that a misstatement, or was there bison somewhere else? He has trouble getting the bison to slice thinly since it’s warm. He wants land and sea so he makes tartare out of the duck breast and adds a shallot; he thinks it’s got sweet, salt, and zing. In the PG John thinks the shallot is going to overwhelm everything (hey, John, you know what? You had your shot, you couldn’t cut it, shut up). CJ thinks the plate looks like a huge mount of meat, which it does: “It might impress some people,” which continues to move CJ even further into the Dick Zone. But Micah’s happy; he can see all the flavor notes on the plate. Tom asks if he meant to leave the fat on the bison carpaccio (he did; because it’s such a lean meat, it needed the fat) and tastes his Bison Carpaccio and Duck Tartare with Quail Egg Yolk, Pickled Carrots and Chili, and Arugula. And raw bison fat. I’ll never be a gourmet.

Tom likes both dishes; they understood how to handle the lean meats, and he found the pickled duck fat interesting in a good way, but wishes CJ had used something else to bind it more. Still, it was nicely cut and the flavors worked well. Micah also gave a big punch of flavor, with the yuzu and soy, but at the end he was left with raw shallot. It was, however, inventive and bold.

CJ wins (note to myself: if Tom ever shares a table with me, feed him pickled raw duck fat). In fact, it’s one of the best dishes he’s done. And Micah takes his place in the Peanut Gallery for next week.

One response to “Top Chef Seattle: Episode 10 – Battle Before the War

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

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