Top Chef Seattle: Episode 14 – Kings of Alaska

Cover art for Kathy Doogan's "Simply Sourdough"

Cover art for Kathy Doogan’s “Simply Sourdough”

Hey, Elves – here’s a tip: at this point, you’ve got only four chefs left. You need to have something else to fill in where there used to be 16 chefs.

Lots of detailed, interesting cooking would be great: maybe a cool artistic challenge like the Evil Queen or Fire/Ice, maybe some interesting ingredients or techniques like dumplings soups or desserts from obscure corners of the world, or even a treatise on the chili pepper and which to use when. If not, then some of that cool stuff about making knives by hand, or more Nathan Myhrvold, or, if you really can’t come up with anything, a great guest – Dita von Teese was surprisingly clever on TCM, those kids at the glass garden were fun for a celeb couple, and at least Pike’s Place had some interesting products, even if the food was awful.

It’s been a great season so far; it’s no time to drop the ball. Because this, this was just boring.

With lots of time to fill and nothing interesting to fill it with, we hear a lot about Josh’s pregnant wife (including, in the category of TMI, her dilation status) and have a second round of Lizzie’s tears for her father. I sympathize with both of them, I really do. I’m not heartless. It’s kind of interesting that Josh is on this show while his wife is giving birth to their first child. But a centimeter-by-centimeter countdown, well, no. And I lost my father years ago, I know how I was afterwards, I was teary and explained it to someone almost every day until my husband-at-the-time gently reminded me, after I again said “I just lost my father” that I’d lost my father two years prior. So I get it. Fresh grief is tough. But replaying it over and over isn’t good TV, it’s crass exploitation.

Then we come to Sheldon’s efforts to keep his package nice and warm. I wonder what the producers had to tell him to coax him to say that on camera. Do you have to make everyone on Bravo as tawdry as your disgusting clutch of Housewives?

I also don’t understand your import of a Southern chef into an Alaska challenge. Hugh calls him a “wunderkind of Appalachian food lore” and while I’m not sure what that means, I’m betting it’s an improvement over the state of Josh’s wife’s cervix. And why use a tacky Crab Shack which, right down to the alluringly-clad young lady on the sign, is a duplicate of every tacky Crab/Clam/Lobster Shack in every two-bit coastal city in America, just so the chefs can work in less-than-four-star-conditions with Alaskan King Crab (and I’m no snob, I can appreciate that a tacky place can serve terrific food, but really, how can you mess up king crab?). And the salmon bake, well, there was salmon, and there were people were wearing down jackets and hats. And bears waiting for leftovers. But it all just sat there on the screen, going nowhere.

The sourdough bread had more possibilities, and you kinda sorta went there with Padma giving her 4th-grade-level lecture and the chefs’ comments while they were working on it overnight. But couldn’t you have found a sourdough connoisseur somewhere in Alaska to talk about it, with more than one sentence, with love? Emeril got close, with his story about one of his chefs taking the “mother” home from the restaurant before Katrina and feeding it in a closet until they could re-open a couple of months later. That’s great stuff, right there. I still remember a story in Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential about “the mother.” But you just grazed the edge.

Come on, guys, I know, these are just filler episodes ’til we see who Kristen’s going up against in the finals, but put some effort into it.

But you know something? Now that I’m writing this all out – there was some cool stuff in this episode (I mean, come on, bears). Just not enough of it.

Quickfire:

Sean Brock, temporarily transplanted from Charleston and Nashville, joins Padma at the tacky Crab Shack as guest judge. Josh idolizes him for his modernization of Southern food. Maybe I’m a heathen, and we’re all supposed to know who he is on sight. But I thought Padma said “Husky” and there just happened to be a Charlestown in Alaska.

The assignment is to make, guess what, king crab.

Sheldon, of course, never worked with Alaskan King Crab in Hawaii. Hell, even Spam is expensive there. But he works it. He makes a miso soup with the brains and innards, and for the asparagus, uses smoking pine needles like they do at Noma (did CJ teach him that?) which Sean notices and applauds. Padma thinks the broth of his soup is nice and a little thick. Sheldon wins $5000 for using the whole crab. Guts pay off.

Brooke wants to highlight the buttery, briny delicateness of crab, but she has to dress it up a little so goes for King Crab, Sweet Corn, and Leek Salad on Toast with Dungeness Crab Butter. Sean still thinks it’s too simple, so he doesn’t want to like it, but dang, it was good. Top two.

Lizzie makes a Crab Frittata with Cherry Tomato, Garlic Oil, and Fried Capers. Padma notices the capers weren’t soaked; Sean thinks there were just too many, too many flavors in general, losing the crab. Oh, and by the way, it was overcooked. Yikes. Bottom Two.

Josh wants to do Country Boy food for the Southern Boy chef, so he pulls out Butter Poached King Crab with Succotash and Bacon. He knows his butter sauce is breaking, but hey, there’s no time to do anything else, which is the challenge of the QF – you have to get it right first time. Unfortunately, Sean is a Succotash Snob (which is so cool I want to be one, too) and thinks the bacon was unnecessary and covered the taste of the crab. Yes! Finally, someone called him on using bacon – and it wasn’t even someone who knew he’d used it in every dish. Bottom Two.

Elimination Challenge:

Padma announces: “Two of Alaska’s oldest traditions are fish and bread.” Then she tells about the prospectors travelling with sourdough starter, which someone probably got off this website. The remaining four chefs have to make a dish including salmon, which they’ll get right off the boat, and sourdough, which they’ll begin overnight using a famous 30-year-old starter someone has provided. Ok, I admit: I’m a big fan of bread of any kind, but I don’t quite get the fuss over sourdough. It always seemed like far more trouble than it’s worth. And this mother stuff borders on fetishism.

The winner gets a trip to Costa Rica. Hugh and Emeril will join Sean at the salmon bake, along with 200 Alaskans and a couple of bears and cubs climbing trees. Tom will make a joke about his bear fan club. I’m wondering if these are stunt bears, because no one seems to mind them hanging around smelling the fish.

Brooke has baked a few times, but she isn’t sure about sourdough. When Tom walks through the kitchen, he asks her if she expected to come this far. Hey, Tom? That’s kind of, oh, I don’t know, condescending? Then he questions her decision to poach the fish to order. That gives her pause, but she likes it because it’s a delicate way to serve, and she doesn’t really have the time now to change her mind. Turns out, she knew what she was doing. Her Sockeye Salmon and Seafood Broth with Mustard Seed Caviar and Dill Sourdough is great. Tom likes the acid and the mustard seed, though Hugh thinks the seeds kind of broke down into a gooey mess. Emeril loves the bread, and Gail likes the use of dill.

Josh makes a loaf of black olive sourdough to use as croutons, and a loaf of traditional sourdough to thicken his Roasted Garlic Sourdough Soup with Sockeye Salmon and Black Olive Croutons. As Tom strolls by to see how things are going, he asks if there’s any news on the baby front, and that’s when we find out about dilation and contractions. Tom wonders if that’s inspiring or distracting: both, says Josh. I know I’m distracted. But you know, it’s a rule of TV: when you’re looking for ratings, do a wedding or a baby. They had the baby this season, so they left out Wedding Wars. His dish is another matter. The salmon is good, and the soup has tons of flavor, but it overpowered the salmon. Gail appreciates that he pushed himself.

Sheldon uses two kinds of salmon: sockeye and chum. When I hear “chum” I think Jaws. Shark bait. But maybe it’s not the same for salmon. Unfortunately for Sheldon, it is: Padma shows a bit too much delight when telling him it’s what the locals feed the dogs. I prefer Hugh’s blog comment: “It took someone who loves Spam to realize that we should be eating the primary ingredient of catfood.” And even though he’s never made pea soup before, he goes for it. Tom thinks that’s funny, because just the day before he’d been wishing for some pea soup and salmon. Apparently I’m the only one who never realized salmon and pea soup go together. Then again, I don’t think much about pea soup. When I hear pea soup, I think The Exorcist. And I’m a little nervous that I’m thinking in 70s movies, believe me. At any rate, the Green Tea and Chive Sourdough with Smoked Salmon and Pea Soup is a mixed bag. Padma isn’t crazy about the combo of green tea and chives, though she likes them individually; Gail’s fish is raw in the center, but has a smokey flavor. Sean didn’t like the way Sheldon was grinding down on the fish with his tongs; it was disrespectful. Hugh puts pea soup in the good-tasting-healthy-baby-food category.

Lizzie forgot about the slider disaster at Pike’s Place so she makes salmon sliders. Citrus and Beet Glazed Salmon Sliders with Poppy Seed Butter and Pickles served on the grilled sourdough rolls she made. They’re crazy about the bread; she got a terrific crust on the rolls. The glaze doesn’t come through, though; Tom doesn’t understand why she didn’t marinate it, and it’s, guess what, underseasoned.

Judges’ Table

Lizzie is surprised her salmon underseasoned; it tasted fine to her. Aha, she didn’t taste it put together with the roll and other stuff. You can’t win for losing on this show, at least when it comes to salt.

Sheldon finds out his dog food fish was pretty tasty, but Sean didn’t like the bitter flavor from the smoke.

Josh gets props from Emeril because Emeril’s made of garlic, but Hugh thinks the salmon got lost and Gail and Tom are worried about the balance.

Brooke needs to be in charge of her demeanor, says Hugh. What? This is like Tom and the arugula on Paul’s dish last time, isn’t it? Seems Brooke was a bit apprehensive as the judges walked up to her station because she wasn’t quite in the groove yet, and the fish was slightly overcooked.

To no one’s surprise, Brooke wins. Seems the locals all agreed, as well. “I’m dying to go to Costa Rica,” she says. I don’t know if that’s because a producer is poking her with a sharp stick to get her to be enthusiastic about this product-placement prize, or if she’s always wanted to learn more about Fair Trade coffee – or if she’s just cold.

And the Loser Is…

The judges debate. Tom doesn’t think any of them are thinking about the next step, really working through the dishes. Josh’s problem is balance; Sean wants Lizzie’s slider to scream, instead of whisper, salmon and sourdough, but Gail gives her props for technique; Padma points out Sheldon had issues with both the bread and the fish, though Hugh loves that he created a world of bitterness.

So of course Lizzie’s out. I say something’s fishy – Sheldon’s Food & Wine award is serving him a little too well. As Padma said, both his fish and his bread had problems, and Lizzie’s bread was the best of the bunch. But that’s what happens when you don’t give Tom enough salt.

Don’t get me wrong – I love Sheldon, and I have no doubt he’s a really good cook, with a very interesting focus. And I think Lizzie’s consistently been a little off, just not in step with the usual contestants – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, by the way, but it didn’t play well here. I just think someone’s been cooking the books for Sheldon for a few weeks now.

Next Week:

Helicopters. Huskies. Roy Choi. Feeding the Governor of Alaska, who, thank god, is not that governor. Or I’d have to skip an episode. There are some things I just will not do.
And the Continuing Saga of Josh’s wife. Question: How many episodes can you milk a baby for? Elves: How many you need?

Last Chance Kitchen:

Lizzie explains to camera her salmon wasn’t good because she was feeling sad about her father and it came out in the food. Apparently grief likes its food underseasoned. She’s not surprised to see Kristen.

The challenge is, of course, fish, since that’s where Lizzie had trouble. Twist: they’re cooking over campfires. Grates and pans are provided, and Kristen is glad so see the grates swivel so there’s some way to control temperature.

Lizzie is out to redeem her salmon with a simple but elegant fish stew. She cooks how she’s feeling, so that’s why her baked potato early on was so good. Or something. She goes for Poached Salmon Stew with Fennel, Leek, Hungarian Paprika, and Sweet Pepper Flakes, for a little hot and a little sweet. Wasn’t that the name of Padma’s cookbook?

Kristen screwed up butchering the salmon a few weeks ago so she’s going to prove she can butcher cod. She too is going for stew, and giving it Asian flavors, to prove she can do different types of cuisines “which is important if I’m going to be Top Chef.” I love that an Asian-American chef has to prove she can make Asian cuisine, not just French. Hung must be smiling somewhere. She makes Cod with Coconut Broth, Clam Juice, Lime, Chili-marinated Tomato, Corn, and Petite Herbs.

Kristen’s worried that Tom’s eating a lot more of Lizzie’s dish. Lizzie also served bread with her soup. I’m worried, too. I like Lizzie, but I like Kristen more.

Tom calls both dishes restaurant quality. Kristen kept the coconut milk from getting too sweet, the chili oil and lime added great flavors. Lizzie would’ve won with her salmon dish, not been eliminated; she’s demonstrated she can cook fish. But one dish had flavors more developed and more round, so Kristen wins.

Kristen has muted confidence perfected. Blowhards, pay attention: this is how it’s done.

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