Top Chef Seattle: Episode 13 – Chefs at Sea

Did anyone else think things felt lighter, happier, more companionable, in the kitchen this episode? Too bad it didn’t translate into the food.

Padma pays a surprise visit to the chefs while they’re still in the Stew Room picking the last shreds of flesh from Josie’s dead body. Metaphorically, that is. Brooke seems almost embarrassed to be caught. But it’s good news – maybe: Pack your bags for a cruise to Alaska.

Time for a look into the contestant’s personal lives. Stefan’s parents dumped him on the Army when he was a kid. Seriously, the way he tells it, it’s like the way parents used to take their kids in for tonsillectomies: “We’re going for a ride… oh, look at the green uniforms, here, try one on… bye!” Lizzie sailed on the QE2. And Brooke has a fear of boats.

Quickfire:

Padma and Curtis Stone meet the chefs in the ship’s kitchen. Curtis looks like he’s growing out a crew cut. Awkwardly. Their mission, should they decide to accept it (and they have little choice) is to cook a one-bite wonder for two hundred guests featuring… iceberg lettuce. Get it? Cruise? Iceberg? Oh, those Elves, they are so funny. Hey, Brooke, want some Xanax? In her talking heads, she’s got her hair in loose braids, and she looks completely adorable.

It doesn’t help that iceberg lettuce is the most boring lettuce, and that’s in the universe of lettuce which isn’t exactly high-excitement to begin with. Add the no-flame kitchen, and only 2 hours to compose 200 plates, and it’s your standard QF crazy.

Sheldon wants to treat all ingredients with respect, even boring iceberg lettuce. Sheldon, I love ya, man, but when you call something “boring,” that is not treating it with respect, ok? Even though it is boring. He goes for a Vietnamese Lettuce Wrap with Pork, Shrimp, and Pickled Iceberg Hearts, to give it different layers of crunch. Padma says it’s got lots of flavor; Curtis wonders if it’s too much for one bite. Apparently not, since Sheldon wins for elevating the ingredient, complex flavors, and beautiful texture. He’ll get an advantage in the next elimination challenge, because the cruise line wasn’t about to fork over more money for a prize, and there is no Iceberg Lettuce company.

Stefan loves iceberg lettuce. Remember what Padma said about him being a bullshitter? Because no one, NO ONE loves iceberg lettuce. He treats it like cabbage and turns out Braised Iceberg Lettuce, Pastrami, Fingerling Potato and Blue Cheese Sauce. Padma lets a “very nice” escape her lips; Curtis likes the intense flavor.

Brooke thinks BLT except with scallop instead of tomato. Her Iceberg Wrap with Bacon, Scallop, Caramelized Onion and Crispy Quinoa doesn’t look the way she wanted, but the taste is there. Delicate Padma doesn’t want to put it all in her mouth. “It’s a two-biter, I suppose,” says Brooke. Ok, girls, enough.

Lizzie shoos Stefan away from her space. He’s like weeds, I guess, if you don’t cut them back they just take over. She wants to serve something eaten with a fork, which I think is not the challenge, but who knows. And she wants to make the lettuce stand out. She ends up as Iceberg Salad with Crispy Bacon, Shallots, and Anchovy Vinaigrette, which sounds like… a pretty routine salad. I got a more interesting salad when I was in the hospital a few years ago, though it was served in a Styrofoam cup. Curtis asks if a little salad is something she’d serve in a restaurant; perhaps. Perhaps not.

Josh uses the oft-scorned wedge salad as an inspiration for his Iceberg Roll with Apple Cider Vinaigrette, Bacon Jam, and Blue Cheese. That’s a lettuce roll stuffed with… lettuce. Padma says he elevated a classic dish. Curtis thinks he played it safe, but it was good. And he walks like a chef. New Song: “Walk Like a Chef-test-ant.” I think he walks like John Wayne right after getting off a horse. But he is from Oklahoma.

More personal stuff. While resting up for dinner, Sheldon and Lizzie get manicures; Josh interviews, “Where I come from, men don’t get manicures.” He probably thinks the wink is cute. Stefan got laid for the first time on a cruise. Lizzie’s dad, a fisherman, died recently. And this is the due date for Josh’s baby, but he hasn’t talked to his wife. Producer! Get a producer over there with a phone for pete’s sake!

They have a lovely dinner onboard, served in strange containers. All I can think of is how pissy Gordon Ramsey got on the original British Kitchen Nightmares when someone served a shrimp cocktail in a martini glass and served flatbread on a hanger. It looks cool. Is the food good? Probably not to chefs, but to people who take cruises, it’s probably amazing. At the chef’s table there’s much teasing and comparing the number of wins. It’s all fun ’til somebody puts an eye out, and Josh puts Brooke’s eye out with a jab about fried chicken. But the banter stops when Padma comes over. They don’t know if they’ve got to make a late supper menu with the leftovers on their table, or what. But something’s coming.

Elimination Challenge:

Tomorrow night, they’ll be doing dinner service. They must turn a classic dish on its head, and what’s more of a classic cruise dish than … surf & turf. Curtis: “Surf & Turf has a bad rap. Be innovative. Let the food served tonight take you down a different path.” I’m learning so much from Top Chef. First, that Chicken Cordon Bleu is déclassé, and now I discover, so is Surf & Turf. But Mark Bittman just had a spread about Surf & Turf in The New York Times Magazine (interesting timing… he is a Friend of TC) so maybe it’s making a comeback. Curtis is the guest judge, and it’s Hugh’s turn to rotate in. And Padma displays impressive cleavage as she seats herself at the dining table. Impressive even for Padma.

Sheldon has the advantage of picking his protein first, and making it off-limits to the other chefs. He takes his time looking at all the possibilities, then picks lobster tail and beef tenderloin, which seems kind of a stupid choice. I’m hoping he has some kind of crazy spin to put on it, because that’s pretty standard S&T. I happen to love standard S&T, but it’s not gonna fly with the judges, who specifically asked for them to stand S&T on its head. This dawns on Sheldon later, as he realizes his dish of Korean BBQ Filet Mignon and Tempura Lobster with Sesame Cabbage, Kimchi, and Teriyake Sauce is pretty straightforward. He did want a redemption of his failed roller derby tempura, though. But here’s the problem: as Josh learned earlier, when you try to redeem a past failure, you’re supposed to correct the mistake. He himself calls it soggy and uninspired, and the judges agree. Hugh wonders why people think tempura is a good idea at all, and the sauce isn’t great either. Tom makes a feeble attempt to praise the kimchi and the presentation, but it’s a failed dish.

Josh is a little worried because he doesn’t do whimsical, fun, creative food. We know, Josh, we know: you do bacon, you do breakfast. He picks scallops and pork belly. And he gets a whimsical, creative idea: scallop noodles, made from ground scallops mixed with gelatin. He doesn’t know how to do it, but how hard can it be? Pretty hard, turns out. He can’t form noodles out of the goop. The resulting mess reminds him of scrambled egg whites, so hey, suddenly he’s serving Scrambled Scallops with Braised Pork Belly and Bacon. For some reason he feels a need to explain to the judges how the scallops ended up scrambled; I’m not sure that was a wise choice. Tom likes the sea flavor; it packs a good punch. Padma thinks the turf overpowers the surf. Hugh’s impressed that a traditionalist like Josh took such a leap of faith. I’m impressed the safety net worked out as well as it did. Curtis is also pleasantly surprised. Tom explains a couple of ways he could’ve made scallop noodles on his blog.

Lizzie impresses everyone by ripping a baby pig limb from limb. She’s also got scallops, and she, too, has a failure to redeem, from her less-than-fresh E9 scallops. Her scallops are fine, but somehow the steamer she’s using turns off so the cabbage of her Cabbage Stuffed with Suckling Pig and Scallops with Mustard Sour Cream and Pickled Apples and Shallots isn’t fully cooked. Tom finds it chewy and hard to eat, but loves the pickles and overall enjoys it; later he says it needed another element to bring it all together, and it was one-note. Curtis thinks the scallops are overpowered by the rest.

Brooke takes frog legs and mussels. This raises an interesting question: are amphibians surf, or turf? They’re usually treated like chicken. They breathe air. I call them turf. But she’s not sure. It’s different, at least. She’s stressed because her dish takes seven steps to plate. But she gets the Mussels and Frog Legs with Celery Root and Fennel Puree, Papadums, and Shallot Chutney done. Curtis is impressed with the inventiveness. Tom likes the flavors; frogs aren’t usually that earthy, but she made them earthy. The only problem is the greasy papadums.

Stefan thinks S&T seems old, but he’s super-creative. Really? Not that I’ve seen. He’s got a broad array of solid skills and knowledge, but I haven’t seen a surfeit of creativity. He picks eel and pork belly. Did everyone else also flash back on his E5 Quickfire when he nailed the head of the eel to the cutting board to peel it? Like I said, a broad array of solid skills. One of his skills, it seems, is crisping pork belly hard enough to crack your teeth on. He can’t help it if he likes his pork crunchy; that’s the way they do it in Germany. When the judges first taste his Braised Pork Belly with Beer Sauce and Parsnip and Eel Ravioli, they each in turn stop. “Oh,” says Tom. “Oh,” says Padma. Everyone goes “Oh.” That could mean anything. It could mean oversalting. Undersalting. Bitterness. Spice. Bland. But here, it means “Do you have a dentist on this ship?” Curtis loves the crunch; seems in Britain they do their pork German-style. Hugh takes the obligatory swipe at British dental health, but I didn’t quite follow. He also couldn’t taste anything but parsnip in the ravioli.

Judges’ Table:

Everyone’s invited. Top and Bottom have no meaning at this point.

Brooke gets a lot of credit for being out of the box.

Sheldon admits he was uninspired; the ingredients didn’t speak to him. So Tom asks the obvious question: why did you pick ingredients that didn’t speak to you? Because he thought those were the ingredients he could execute. Hmmm, not so much. Curtis says a couple of things on the plate were almost inedible, like the cold, soggy tempura and the sauce with no spice. Aww, Sheldon, you’re so sweet, why, man, why?

Josh impressed them all with his invention of scrambled scallops. Curtis found the flavor and texture fabulous. Hugh liked the pork belly, and thought the scallop was a little strange but made a nice creaminess around the pork. Tom thinks he may be the first person to ever scramble scallops, and given their ubiquity on TC, that’s saying a lot.

Stefan got Padma all excited – see, she remembers his “deft hand” from S5 – but nobody tasted eel. Tom saw a huge layer of grease floating on top of the sauce. He starts in on all the excuses, and Hugh reminds him: the objective is to conceptualize dishes that work. That’s the trick to TC in a nutshell: what will you be able to do with the ingredients and conditions foisted on you? Tom complains about the hard skin; Curtis chimes in with his acceptance of crispy skinned pork, but he could hear Tom chewing… ewww.

Lizzie had a great idea, but it fell apart. Hugh loved the ambition. Curtis liked the dish more than the others – maybe undercooked cabbage is traditional with the hard pork in Britain – and found the presentation beautiful.

Verdict:

Brooke wins for imagination. She gets a Caribbean vacation for two. TC is determined to beat the fear of boats out of her. For all the times it was mentioned, it didn’t seem to be an issue. She was looking out the window of the boat over the ocean, for pete’s sake, and she didn’t look that scared. Then again, being on a giant cruise ship is sort of like being in an office building. Unless it sinks.

Josh and Lizzie are sent to the Stew Room and safety. Which means it’s between Stefan and Sheldon.

Stefan’s out, much to my surprise. I think they relied on history for this one. Tom even pointed out, during the private conclave, that Sheldon had presented great S&T all season (including this very QF). It sure sounded like his dish was worse. On his blog, Tom presents some additional information. I like Sheldon, and I’m glad to see him stay, so I’m not going to argue. But I wouldn’t have argued if it’d gone the other way. I just would’ve been sadder.

Next Week:

Fish. Huskies. Bears. Josh’s wife is dilated and having contractions. TMI.

Last Chance Kitchen:

Stefan vs. Kristen

“Of course, it’s Wifey!” Stefan says. Kristen puts it in perspective: she and Stefan are competitive with each other, they have this flirtatious relationship, and it’d be entertaining to beat him. Stefan: “Kristen’s a fantastic chef. Kristen is like me ten years ago. She’s young, she has energy.” Tom: “Is this divorce time?”

Tom points out that Stefan’s been on the bottom four times, which is one-third of the challenges. Thank you for pointing that out, Tom, because you’d never get that impression from listening to Stefan. “You’ve been on the bottom, but these are bottom-of-the-barrel ingredients: Offal.” Kristen’s fine with that; she’s cooked offal before, and she knows to pick the ingredient she can successfully cook in a half hour. Stefan seems less sanguine, but later gets his bullshit back and says he’s worked with all the offered ingredients: tripe, tongue, liver, heart, no problem.

There’s some teasing, a riff about aprons (“You look so handsome now;” “You look beautiful as well”) to the point where they seem to be auditioning for their own foodie show, or maybe a guest shot on The Chew. They even kiss when they finish cooking. This is my favorite kind of competition: where both of them are confident in their own abilities, and comfortable enough with each other to do some jesting but don’t feel the need to trash-talk.

Kristen uses chicken livers, which to me are just barely offal. She works with flavors she likes, and she’s confident. But when she sees Stefan’s dish, she’s a little worried; her dish is cold, his is steaming, very warming, and it’s a chilly morning in Alaska. Maybe she miscalculated. Tom tastes her Chicken Livers with Garlic-Mustard Caramel, Pickled Fruit, Toasted Croutons and Herbed Salad; he likes the balance, the controlled sweetness of the caramel, the nice herbaceous notes, and the perfectly cooked chicken livers.

Stefan uses all the ingredients with dumplings in Beuscherl of innards with cream sauce, tripe, hearts, a bread gallette, chicken liver and parsley salad. Tom’s impressed that he was able to prepare these ingredients in such a short time; the dumplings were a perfect golden brown, the chicken liver was perfectly seared, and he got good offal flavor, which is a great culinary oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one.

Tom likes both dishes, but in the end, one was a little more balanced, and Kristen wins. Yes! “Who gets the house?” asks Tom. Nah, Stefan knows who has the money; maybe they’re not getting divorced.

His last words are really nice: “She got kicked off in an unfair way with Josie, so she deserves it.” Either he really is somewhere a nice guy… or he really does know who’s got the money. Or he knows, too, who’s still got the eight restaurants that just got thirteen weeks of free promotion.

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