Top Chef Seattle: Episode 12 – Wolfgang Clucks

"Top Dog Chef" sketch from Saturday Night Live

“Top Dog Chef” sketch from Saturday Night Live

How many chefs does it take to make fried chicken? Six: one to make fried chicken, and five others to f*ck it up.

But first: If you haven’t seen the SNL spoof of Top Chef, go watch it now. They got everything pitch perfect – the talking heads, the inane excuses, the patterned way of naming dishes, Padma Leash-me, Tom Colllie-chio, guest judge Mario Bark-Talio with the orange clogs on his paws.

Back to the actual Top Chef, which starts with Josie crying because she gets the feeling everyone thinks she should’ve been the one to go. Lizzie, her roommate, manages not to scream at her. “It’s a little awkward.” Now, it’d be easy to take my potshots here, to just point out that everyone DOES feel she should’ve gone home and leave it at that, but let’s not forget this is a manipulated situation. It’s not Josie’s fault she wasn’t sent home last week; the judges made the only decision they could have. However, Josie was in Restaurant Wars only because the judges didn’t send her home for her dry, flavorless pork the week before or her heavy, non-raspberry-tasting, long-delayed Raspberry Roll or the rock-in-salty-broth she served at Pike’s Place (no, I’m not counting the raw turkey, she had immunity that week). She’s this season’s Robin. I’m not sure why the producers think it’s necessary to keep one contestant past his/her sell-by date, but they do it every season, though with Robin and Josie it seemed like a far bigger divide. Both of them got progressively more uncomfortable as the astonishment went on (“You mean she’s still here?”). It isn’t drama; it’s stupid. It’s not fair to the viewers, it’s not fair to the eliminated contestants, and it’s not even fair to Josie, who looks more incompetent every week, whether she accepts that or not. But she ends up crying for the camera at extreme close-up range, so it’s all good, right?

Quickfire:

Katsuya Uechi joins Padma (I can’t decide if I love her dress, or hate it, but it reminds me of Project Runway, which probably isn’t good) for a 30-minute sushi challenge. His advice: “Don’t touch too much, don’t mix up too many ingredients. Think how you make people who eat, happy.” No more immunity, but the winner gets $5,000.

Stefan is miffed that he hasn’t won anything yet. Now he has writer’s block. Chef’s block? He makes Yellowtail with Grilled Shiitake and Raw Lobster with Seaweed and Unagi. Katsuya likes the combination; Stefan finally wins something so he can shut up now. “It took me 27 challenges,” he says. He is funny sometimes, but he’s still a blowhard.

Brooke eats sushi three times a week, so she’s all set. Katsuya likes the clean “green” taste of her Octopus with Yuzu and Grated Wasabi, but her knife work wasn’t up to his standards. Second Place.

Lizzie had sushi ten years ago, after she got back from Japan. Wait… you had sushi in South Africa after you got back from Japan? She recognizes that it’s an art; it’s just not her art. She presents boiled lobster with microgreens, pickled ginger, and broth. Maybe she figures, they loved that she made charcuterie into soup, so now she’ll turn sushi into soup. Something is tempura’d on the side – maybe more lobster? Katsuya is so sweet: “Just a little suggestion: if you put a little rice underneath, that would be good, too.” She served sushi without rice? “Sushi” literally means “rice.” The tempura was chewy as well. And you can’t pour hot soup over cold fish, it makes it fishier. Bottom two.

Josh doesn’t crave sushi the way he craves bacon. So he makes bacon sushi. Stefan calls it a breakfast sandwich. It’s neither bacon sushi nor a breakfast sandwich, of course, it’s Tempura Bacon, Omelette, Salmon Belly, and Yuzu Kosho Aioli. It does look like sushi, more than you’d expect from the description. Katsuya likes the combination, but the bacon was too greasy. Bottom two.

Sheldon thinks everyone’s looking to him on this one since he does Asian food, but he doesn’t do sushi. He tries Hamachi Sashimi with Fresh Ponzu, Mitsuba (aka Japanese parsley) and lemon charcoal, a brilliant idea for using up your lemon rinds after you squeeze the juice out: burn them, grind them up, and call it a condiment; it lends lemon flavor and earthiness. Katsuya finds the burned lemon interesting; Sheldon’s honored he noticed the technique. But it doesn’t get him a mention.

Josie gives a mini-lecture about the dangers of touching fish while making sushi since it warms the temperature. I don’t know if that’s a real thing or not – maybe that’s what Katsuya was talking about when he warned them not to touch too much – but I don’t feel like being lectured by Josie about anything. That’s what happens, producers, when you keep someone on past their prime. You teed her up for us, so I’m gonna take the swing. She’s making New England clam chowder. Hey, that’s what she said, it’s inspired by clam chowder,with bacon and yuzu vinaigrette. Halibut, bacon, yuzu, what kind of clam chowder is this? “I love sushi, I’ve gone so far as to have sushi parties where we served sushi on naked women.” Talk about warming the fish. She seems to think this will amaze everyone with her daring, but it’s called Nyotaimori and it was in the 1993 film Rising Sun. I’m willing to bet a serious sushi chef wouldn’t be bothered; it’s strictly for those who need to obscure their inferior sushi. She makes Halibut with Yuzu and Bacon Aioli but it needs more punch. Maybe she should’ve served it off her naked body. How can anything made with yuzu and bacon need more punch?

Elimination Challenge:

Enter Tom with David Chang, a chef so hot he got a 16-episode PBS series exploring his mind. Momofuko is the word of the day. So what will the chefs be cooking? Pan-Asian? Noodles?

How about… fried chicken?

See, all these big deals are coming into town for dinner with Tom, and the contestants will be cooking for them. Big deals like Michelle Bernstein, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of Animal and Son of a Gun, plus standbys Wolfie and Emeril. And Tom wants fried chicken. The winner gets a year’s supply of product placement wine – 365 bottles, in case you’re wondering what might be considered a year’s supply of wine.

On the drive to the lakefront house, Josie won’t tell Stefan the secret blend of flours she uses for her fried chicken. “Do you think I’m going to steal your dish?” he says. So she asks him how to say “Kiss my ass” in German. “Ich gehe nach Hause,” he says. Now, I don’t know German, but from listening to and singing some German music, I recognized the word “Hause” so I was curious if that was similar to the word for “Kiss” or “Ass.” Turns out, neither; he ‘fesses he taught her to say, “I’m going home next.” For the record, “Kiss my Ass,” per the Google translator, would be “Leck mich am Arsch.”

The dining table featuring all those high-powered chefs is unusually cheerful, with lots of joking around and camaraderie. But for viewers like me, it was tense: will this be the one? And if it is, what will happen in Last Chance Kitchen? The producers themselves have made this The Josie Show. Spoiler alert: it’s a lot more fun to watch later on.

Cock-a-doodle-Do’s:

Josh is thrilled; fried chicken is more his thing, and he’s got his grandpa’s recipe. He injects it with brine since there’s not enough time to brine it the usual way, and smokes it as well, then, well, fries it. He makes fried chicken. This may seem obvious, but wait, you’ll see it wasn’t obvious to everyone. He presents it as Smoked Fried Chicken with Hot Sauce and Blue Cheese, but he had the judges at “Fried.” Michelle loves the smoke; Tom says it’s not that crispy, but it’s deliciously flavored.

Sheldon goes two ways: umami, and Momofuku, or, more accurately, Umami Drumsticks and Thighs, Wings with Usukuchi and Grape Seed Oil. Alas, his oil starts out too hot, so his first batch of wings burn, meaning someone isn’t getting any Momofuku wings. Emeril loves his leg; it’s delicious, but he didn’t get any wings because Tom ate them all (no, no, protests Tom, he shared his wing with Michelle). David points out that kindergarten adage, “You must bring enough for everyone.” But Wolfie holds up a leg bone eaten clean: “Look at this.” Go ahead, Wolfie, show off your bone. The point is, the legs were great fried chicken.

Lizzie again is out of luck; she’s more of a grilled chicken sort of girl. She bones the breasts, marinates them in black pepper and coriander, and makes a slaw out of napa cabbage and pickled peaches. Vinnie thinks the “cutlet” as Padma calls it is moist and delicious, but Tom doesn’t think she understands fried chicken. When Vinnie finds out the chefs were given whole chickens, he changes his mind: “And she gave us the breast? That’s just wrong.” They love the slaw, though.

Cock-a-doodle-Don’ts:

Josie is all about Southern fried chicken, her grandmother was a white Georgia woman, it’s in her blood, this is how she did it down South. Josh points out that South Florida isn’t really the South (he’s right; I grew up in South Florida. There were some Southerners there back in the 60s and 70s, but the population has boomed since then and it’s not with Southerners. Once you get out of the Panhandle, it’s not really “The South” any more, it’s everyone from New York, New England, and Ohio who’s retired to South Florida. Plus, of course, the huge percent of the population that’s of Caribbean descent. Dade and Broward County are among the most reliably Democratic counties in the country, and there ain’t nothin’ Southern about a Democratic county). But reality isn’t something Josie worries about, she just says what sounds good at the moment, like “I could go home for not making traditional fried chicken, but I have to cook from the heart.” Wait… I thought Southern Fried Chicken was in your blood? Isn’t the blood getting to your heart? She plans fried chicken two ways, wings with daikon and southern fried with biscuits (she gets credit for thinking of biscuits, which no one else did), but, guess what! runs out of time; scratch the wings, scratch the biscuits. “Time management seems to be my Achille’s Heel,” she says, in a startling moment of actual insight, but then she’s back on track: she makes the best fried chicken ever. When her oil isn’t hot enough, she decides the fryer isn’t working and uses Lizzie’s fryer for the second batch. It doesn’t seem to matter; what she presents as Southern Fried Spiced Chicken with Black Garlic, Cayenne, Thyme, Hot Sauce, and Daikon Salad (to be fair, she does use buttermilk for the coating) is greasy, leaving a pool of oil on the banana leaf she puts under it. Wolfie picks up a leg and stares at it. Jon says, “She tries to sell southern style on a banana leaf, we’d run her out of there, send her up to New England.” Wolfie says it’s oily. Greasy. The skin is flabby. I feel disgusted just typing words like that. And there’s no spice, says Jon. How, again, did she make something with all those pungent and spicy ingredients that has no spice? Michelle (who, by the way, sent Josie home in S3): “I just put it down.” This is who you sent Kristen home for, Tom. You eat every bite of that goddam greasy mess, and then you eat the banana leaf she served it on. You deserve it.

Brooke has a bad day. She plans to put crispy fried skin in the breading itself (I guess it gets crushed to a powder?), and Josh teases her about her “weird bastardized version” of fried chicken. But as things develop, she doesn’t have time to fry the skin; without that element, she has no fried-skin flavor, it’s just boring breaded chicken breast. On top of that, her chicken is done too early, so she has to keep it warm in the oven and give it a quick re-fry at service time. It’s now a really bad day. A least she used dukkah, an Egyptian mix of nuts, seeds, and spices, to do something to it. But she knows her Dukkah-Crusted Chicken Breast with Wilted Escarole and Tomato Salad isn’t right. Wolfie is again shocked someone used boned chicken breast for fried chicken. “What is the name of this show – Top Chef? I wouldn’t even call it The Apprentice, and that’s taken already.” Then we have the karma-of-the-day: Padma sweetly asks, “Do you remember Jon and Vinny?” When she was exec at Zax, they interviewed with her for a job. Guess who she rejected. Given the dish she served, Jon is glad he didn’t get the job. Yep, in the dictionary under “Bad Day” it says, “See Brooke.”

Stefan makes the usual double entendres about breasts and thighs because no one’s ever heard those before. He ain’t doin’ no fried chicken, he’s doing Chicken Cordon Bleu with Garlic Aioli and Lemon, stuffed with cheese from France and ham from Germany and served with mashed potatoes, because that’s how Europeans eat chicken. “I have the Bleus,” says Emeril, “the Chicken Cordon Bleus.” Vinny wishes the chef would at least put his ass on the line, do something interesting.

Since the guests are having a good time, and the judges all want to get plastered, they send the chefs home for the night and postpone Judges’ Table for the next day. This leads to a touching scene between Stefan and his replacement wife, Brooke (you didn’t think he was going to let Kristen’s getting sent home leave him without female companionship, did you?) in which she frets about her poor performance. Sheldon plays the ukulele. He’s pretty good, too. Then we finally get a look at a hint of humanity under Stefan’s bluster: he gets teary after calling his mom, who’s had Parkinson’s for 18 years.

At the risk of promoting crass commercialization… I saw the ad for the frozen dinner they made out of Kristen’s Poached Chicken Breast and Carrot Puree with Garlic and Tofu Emulsion, Dumplings, and Pickled Peas from E9. No tofu. No miso. 300 calories and 23% of your daily sodium intake. Tom must be proud. Nah, probably just a little richer.

Judges’ Table:

Who Wins:

Josh: David credits him with a clever take on tradition. Josh credits his grandfather’s recipe and the paper bag he used for dredging.

Sheldon: Tom says it was great but there wasn’t enough; Wolfie thought maybe Top Chef didn’t allow them enough money to buy enough chicken. Emeril defends him; what was there was really good fried chicken.

Lizzie: Wolfie allows as how the crust was crispy, but it wasn’t what he thinks of as fried chicken. Tom liked the slaw.

Josh wins. Obviously – he was the only one who made a completely good dish.

Who Goes Home:

Brooke: Padma asks why she boned the chicken. Brooke says time was a factor; that’s interesting, because if she’d left it bone-in, she might’ve had time to fry the skin the way she wanted. Tom thinks the fatal mistake was cutting it up; Wolfie blames her overthinking, trying to impress them.

Josie: She blames the fryer; then she says she didn’t have enough time. David tells her about the pool of grease on the banana leaf. Tom points out that, since this happens a lot, she must be wasting time. Josie insists she had a piece, and Lizzie had a piece, and they both thought it was delicious. Tom lets her have it: “So we – David Chang, Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, Tom Shook, Vinny Dotolo, we have no idea what we’re talking about.” She seems to realize she’s out of excuses. “That’s not what I’m saying.” Then what are you saying? But we don’t see that part. I wish we did. Yes, they’re hard on her, but Josie is incredibly stubborn in believing in her own infallibility.

Stefan: He grew up in Germany so he didn’t have any fried chicken there. Wolfie lectures him about the fine tradition of fried chicken in Austria (except Stefan was raised in Germany, and he’s actually Finnish). Tom can’t get why he made cordon bleu when the idea was fried chicken; cordon bleu isn’t a twist, it’s what you get at bad banquets. Confession: and from home cooks who don’t realize it’s déclassé. Emeril points out the main problem is that it wasn’t even good cordon bleu. As they head back to the Stew Room, Padma mutters to Tom, “He’s such a bullshitter.” At least I think that’s what she said; it was bleeped.

The judges debate amongst themselves. David’s perplexed by Stefan’s choice of cordon bleu. Padma can’t believe anyone made cordon bleu: “When was the last time anyone here had cordon bleu?” “Two flights ago,” says Emeril. I have to admit, I had no idea chefs sneer like this at cordon bleu. I’m embarrassed. Padma wants to send Stefan home just for lying to them about not knowing anything about fried chicken. David thinks Brooke’s flavorless chicken was the losing dish. But everyone else is clearly overwhelmed by the grease Josie served: Emeril couldn’t eat it, Woflie had one bite and that was enough, and Tom calls it greasy and nasty. Padma says it was actual fried chicken, and flavorful.

Josie is out. The long national nightmare is over. Almost… there’s still LCK…

Next Week:

Cooking on a slow boat to Alaska.

Last Chance Kitchen:

Kristen vs. Josie

I was really tired last night – I’d had a bad day myself, including an unpleasant medical test, a carbon-monoxide alarm, and a busted phone – but I had to watch LCK.

Josie knows Kristen is pissed, so she has to bring her A-game. Since her issues were consistency and time management, their assignment is to make ten – count ’em, ten – identical servings of a salmon dish for Tom and the Peanut Gallery to enjoy.

They go to Pike Place for whole salmon, and play Catch-the-Fish (which would be more fun if we didn’t know that they use stunt fish, as revealed by Anders Millers during the Pike’s Place episode. I wonder how many takes it took before they could show them both catching their fish. It seems the ritual includes kissing the fish after you’ve caught it. Or maybe that was a Top Chef idea.

Neither of them have an easy time filleting the salmon, though Josie insists anyone can do it. “Watching you both butcher that fish is painful,” says Tom. Apparently, since salmon is a soft fish, you’re not supposed to lift it up as you cut, but just slip the knife in.

Kristen sees pineapple and decides to pickle it; she wants to crisp the skin but keep the top relatively rare, finished with crème fraiche, olive oil and microherbs. She plays along with the peanut gallery a little. Tom asks what she’s up to; when she mentions raisins, Tom’s eyebrows go up. I’m not sure what the problem is with raisins. I like raisins. Are they like cheese, verboten with fish? Then we find out: they didn’t have time to plump up so they’re in their usual shriveled state. Apparently this is unacceptable in high-end cuisine. Tom thinks it’s a beautiful dish, cooked consistently, uniformly plated, but the raisins weren’t properly plumped. “Bad…really bad… I won’t do that mistake again,” interviews Kristen.

Josie ain’t playing with no peanut gallery. CJ asks what she’s making: “Salmon,” she says. Now, I have to say, when I’m reading and someone comes along and asks, “What are you reading?” I shut them up with “A book,” but this abrupt turnaround from The Josie Show may be a sign something is getting through to her, and she’s focusing on the task at hand. She’s a little more forthcoming with Tom when he asks: fennel pollen seasoned butter-basted salmon served with tarragon vinaigrette. Micah asks if she’s cooking with soul. Yeah, baby. There’s the Josie show. The fennel wafts over to the peanut gallery, getting mouths watering. She’s shocked when she has a whole ten minutes to cook her fish; she might just pull this off. But, being Josie, she finds a way to pull defeat from the jaws of victory: she counts her final plates and she’s only got nine. Nine? She counts again. Wait, there were ten pieces of fish… one is on the floor. Now, I know things get hectic in a restaurant kitchen, and even more so in a TC kitchen, where time’s always ticking, but how can you not notice you dropped a piece of fish on the floor? She has to cut another piece of fish and cook it in the seconds remaining. She gets it done, but who knows how done. Tom likes the fennel pollen, especially how it perfumed the entire room, the flavors were great, and the fish was cooked consistently… overcooked consistently. “Not many people can do anything in 30 minutes. I don’t think the salmon was overcooked overcooked, but maybe I should’ve just seared one side” interviews Josie.

And the winner is… Kristen. You knew it all along, right? I mean, they couldn’t do that to us. Sure they could, but they didn’t. Tom even had the Peanut Gallery as witnesses (though John, playing diplomat, claimed they each had strengths and weaknesses).

Kristen’s surprised; it wasn’t really up to her standards. Tom tells her not to be so hard on herself over one little bit, which is kind of amusing, given that’s the standard TC interview: “One tiny mistake now and it’s all over.”

See the difference in their reactions? Kristen accepts what’s wrong about her dish and decides not to repeat the mistake; Josie reminds herself how awesome she is and denies anything’s wrong. That’s why Kristen works with people like Barbara Lynch and Guy Martin, and Josie is serving sushi off nude women.

But the long national nightmare is, I declare, over. Sure, someone could come along and knock Kristen out of LCK, but someone could do that if she’d stayed in the regular competition, so it’s all up to her from here on out. And that victory must’ve been pretty sweet.

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